Tag Archives: High Priest

Do we need a Priest?

If you follow that calendar, this is the fifth Sunday in Lent, and thoughts turn to Jesus death. But how are we to understand the Cross, the whole strange process of Jesus going willingly to death? The problem is that it is unique. It is much easier to explain things that repeat, especially when they are familiar. The New Testament uses various complementary descriptions, each important, but part of the whole truth.

So today, one of those descriptions of what is happening in and through Jesus death is from the letter to Hebrews. It centres around the idea of High Priest – familiar to Jewish first Century Christians, and not entirely foreign to us. We read Hebrews 5:1-10, which explains three things about a High Priest, and shows how they fit Jesus (and him better than others!)

The third thing Hebrews says (you’ll understand my order in a minute) from Hebrews 5:4-6: A High Priest is not self-appointed! (You can guess why!). Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (as a descendant of David), not the priestly tribe of Levi – so how can he be a priest? Because he is not only recognised as Son of God (Psalm 2:7 is quoted at his Baptism and Transfiguration), but also by Psalm 110:4 as a priest for ever (Hebrews 5:6) in the order of Melchizedek.

The second thing Hebrews says 5:2,3: any earthly High Priest was weak, sympathising with sinners and offering sacrifice for them and for himself. 5:8 notes that, while sinless Jesus needs no sacrifice for himself, his earthly life shows suffering and obedience. Once again, Jesus is qualified for this role in a way we can appreciate and be grateful for.

Our third point, Hebrews first (5:1): a High Priest is chosen as an intermediary between God and humans. The Jewish High Priest offered sacrifice, in a daily and annual cycle. (Hebrews will focus on the ritual from Leviticus 16, for the Day of Atonement, but the detail is not vital). Jesus offers a perfect sacrifice – himself – once for all time. 5:9,10 – the source of eternal salvation. He bridges the gap, and unlike the generations of Temple priests, permanently. This is why some Christians dislike “priest” as a title for minister – Jesus is the High Priest for ever, and we shouldn’t confuse the roles.

How are we to understand the Cross, the death of Jesus? Following the New Testament in its variety of pictures and explanations. One of those is Jesus as High Priest. He is appointed by God, familiar and sympathetic with our life and problems, and by a unique act effective for ever in bringing us to God. I hope you begin to understand why the death of an innocent man by torture came to be the centre of Good News.

Why Jesus?

You can tell a great deal about a Church from its attitude to Jesus. Is he talked about a lot, or only a little? Is he seen as a leader, or more remotely as some sort of “patron”? Are the gospels read often, or less than other writings?

Jesus remains at the centre of Christian faith. The name comes from a “Christ men” nickname, noted in the New Testament (Acts 11:26), and apt. One of the important reasons why is noted by the writer of the letter to Hebrews (we read Hebrews 2:10-18 today). Jesus, who by nature, and from before the start of time, shares the status of God with the Father and the Spirit, chooses to come to earth. He volunteers to be born, vulnerable and poor, as a truly human baby – Mary’s child.

So begins a human life, which will share all the normal experiences, and several others. He will play, learn, celebrate – and suffer. He does not deserve that suffering, but it makes him a most appropriate Saviour, as he is fully identified with those he brings from darkness and despair to the glory of heaven and hope.

The writer of this letter to Hebrews will compare Jesus with the Jewish High Priest. The High Priest was well aware of the failings of the people, as he shared their life (and indeed their sins). But he was appointed to make sacrifice for them to God. It was something well understood by the Jewish Christians who first received this letter.

In the twenty first century, we may find it more helpful to think (with some early Christians) of Jesus making a bridge between earth and heaven. Both ends of a bridge have to be secure, and in the right place! The Son of God belonged in heaven. He had the right. But in being born human, and sharing the ups and downs of human life before offering himself as a sacrifice for sin, he establishes the other end of the bridge. So, as Hebrews says:

“he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Hebrews 2:17-18

That he should choose to live a human life, suffer, and die, remains for many a puzzle. But it is God’s wisdom, establishing the offer of salvation, without any coercion. The bridge between earth and heaven is open, both ends secure and well placed. Those who doubt, and want to paddle themselves across the flood, are foolish indeed.