The faithful priest and our finished atonement.
The presence of God hangs upon a vicarious representative taking the place of the guilty.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
To understand the program with which the writer of Hebrews is engaged in his epistle, it might be helpful to imagine a large living filled with leather sectionals and recliners. At the center of this room, stands an imposing fireplace, around which everything in the room is centered. Like any other fireplace, a hefty mantlepiece is perched above it, brimming with trophies, trinkets, and heirlooms from generations past. These decorative items are positioned with the utmost care and precision, such that guests are bidden to take notice upon entering the room. What might your reaction be if, perchance, one of your dinner guests began critiquing the ornaments bedecking your mantelpiece? How would you feel if this guest started handling all your vigilantly placed items? And what if he not only touched them but also tried to convince you that your prized possession weren’t that precious after all?
With your blood already approaching a boil, your guest puts his hands on your championship trophy from your high school senior year. “Oh that’s nice,” he snidely says, “I have a few of these, and a few from college, too.” From family heirlooms to signed photos of public figures to pieces of art to antique artifacts, whatever your mantle seems to feature, your guest seems to have a similar item of his own that’s vastly superior to yours. More than likely, your hospitality would devolve into irritation, followed quickly by indignation, flippancy, and frustration. The point is: this is, effectively, what the writer of the Hebrews does throughout his book — as he proceeds to take every memento from off the mantlepiece of Jewish religion in order to put it through his christological sieve. In so doing, the writer demonstrates how each tenet of Judaism is inferior when compared to the person and work the Christ of God, Jesus of Nazareth.
As it happens, though, the next “trinket” up for examination is a doozy. In fact, his next discussion is so weighty that the writer ends up spending the better part of chapters 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 talking about it — that is, his insistence that Jesus Christ is the “great high priest” of the Christian faith. After passingly introducing this assertion in Hebrews 2:17, the writer clarifies and intensifies his premise in 4:14–16, verses which serve as the thesis which the writer will spend the next few chapters proving and explaining. But before proceeding with those cornerstone verses at the end of chapter 4, it would be advantageous to take a moment to understand what it meant for someone to be the high priest, specifically, along with what the role of the priesthood was, in general.
As chapter 5 begins, the writer condenses large swaths of Jewish religious history to a mere four verses:
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God just as Aaron was. (Heb. 5:1–4)
The religious life of the Israelites was one that was almost entirely conducted via the ministry of priests, with the prevailing image, of course, being folks filing into the tabernacle, where a priest would greet them and perform the needed sacrifices for that hour. These priests were men who were set apart for spiritual service “on behalf of men in relation to God” (Heb. 5:1). Their function was entirely revolved around representing the people before the Living God. Priests were originally “chosen” out of the tribe of Levi, with Aaron being the first of Israel’s priests (Exod. 28:1). The massive albeit responsibility of the high priest is evidenced nowhere better, perhaps, than in the prescribed breastplate (Exod. 28:15–21), the resonance of which was meant to signify the very names of the people whom he represented. “So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breast-piece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord” (Exod. 28:29).
The literality of the priest’s vestments further indicated that the high priest’s appointment was to “act on behalf of men in relation to God.” Standing in the tent of meeting, Aaron was not there of his own accord. He was there as a vicar of the men, women, and children of God’s covenant people. In particular, the high priest was the one “chosen” by the Lord to authenticate the ritualistic “gifts and sacrifices” of the people (Heb. 5:1).
You are not alone if you find it difficult to wrap your mind around the auspices of the Old Testament sacrificial system. The demand for regular, daily sacrifices feels very foreign, very ancient, and very violent. In truth, the tabernacle wasn’t a very kid-friendly place, what with its blood and smoke and viscera emanating from the continuous stream of animals ushered there to serve as the sacrificial offerings for the people’s sins. And why was all of that bloody liturgy necessary? Precisely because of the Edenic failure in which all of humanity exists. The sin of the Garden was a fracturing of the intimate communion and fellowship with the Creator our first parents once enjoyed. When the divine punishments were being laid down, Adam and Eve were shut out from the Garden that was once their province, but, more importantly, they were cut off from the presence of their Maker.
Such is what sin does. “Your iniquities,” says the prophet, “have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:2). Yahweh cannot commune with sin, let alone look upon it (Hab. 1:13), all of which informs our need for a righteous representative to interface with God on behalf of the guilty. This is, by and large, the role of the priests and, in particular, the responsibility the high priest.
It was the high priest alone who was sanctioned to enter the Most Holy Place behind the veil in the tabernacle on the Day of Atonement. This momentous occasion is described in Leviticus 16, an event which serves as the culmination of high priestly service. The gist of Leviticus 16 is a divinely-prescribed order for how unholy people can commune with he who is the epitome of holiness itself. Through these biblical scruples, the Lord lays the groundwork for how his people could not only approach him, but also find atonement with him (Lev. 16:29–34). In all, “atonement” occurs some fifteen times in the midst of these liturgical protocols, with each reference meaning “to purge,” “to reconcile,” or “to make peace.” And so it is that the peace and fellowship that was jettisoned because of sin would, then, be restored by means of an innocent offering taking the place of the guilty.
Through all of this, the people of Israel were made to see how Yahweh’s presence would persist with them and for them — namely, through the paradigm of a vicarious representative making peace with God on behalf of sinners. The high priest, with the blood of bulls and goats in hand, was “appointed” for that express purpose. Accordingly, such is what would’ve been in the minds of the Hebrew believers as soon as the writer made mention of the high priest’s ministry (Heb. 5:1–4). But in a turn none of them could’ve foreseen, he takes this discussion a step further by insisting that it is Christ the Priest for whom every sinner is desperate. “Just as Aaron was,” so is Christ, only better:
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” In the days of his flesh Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Heb. 5:5–10)
Just as the high priest was not a “self-appointed” or self-congratulatory office, so, too, did Christ “not exalt himself” upon taking the role of God’s foreordained “priest forever” (Heb. 5:6; cf. Ps. 2:7; 110:4). This, the writer indicates, has been in the divine cards from “before the foundation of the world” (Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8). When the Word of God came to this world of weal and woe, he did not flaunt his identity as God’s Son, as if to “take that honor for himself” (Heb. 5:3). Rather, he humbled himself to a place where he received the designations “Son” and “priest forever” from above. The obvious allusion, here, is to Jesus’s baptism, at which the Father gives his Son a public “stamp of approval,” we could say, to his forthcoming priestly life of service and sacrifice. Indeed, “This is my beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17) might well be rendered, “This is my great High Priest, your representative.”
Moreover, just as the high priest was “chosen from among men” so that he could “deal gently” with them (Heb. 5:1–2), so, too, was Christ “taken from among men,” that is, during “the days of his flesh” (Heb. 5:7). As the apostle Paul states, alluding to the Lord Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6–7). This is, perhaps, the most critical aspect of the high priest’s ministry. Since he was “chosen from among men,” he was able to “deal gently” with — have compassion on — his fellow sinners, that is, “the ignorant and wayward” (Heb. 5:2). In this way, the high priest would be reminded that he was not above his brethren, nor was he better than them. Rather, he was like them, in every way; even he was “beset with weakness.” And so, too, was Jesus.
“In the days of his flesh,” the Christ of God clothed himself in the weakness of a human body (Heb. 2:17). Accordingly, the lowliness of Jesus is, as R. C. H. Lenski notes, “shown to be his High-priestly qualification, the one that brings him so exceedingly near to us in our weakness” (154). And such is why he is able to “deal gently” with us and is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15). This, too, is why the writer spends so much time maintaining Jesus’s simultaneous deity and humanity. To believe that Christ is 100 percent God and 100 percent man at the same time is not just a tradition befitting the Yuletide season. It is, in fact, pivotal to the entire scheme of salvation itself. If not man, Christ is nothing more than another heavenly being bearing a word from above. If not God, then Christ would have been crushed under the weight of carrying “the iniquity of us all.” But, as it is, Jesus Christ is 100 percent God and 100 percent man, thereby making him a “great high priest” who is like us “in every respect . . . yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Unlike the high priests in the Old Testament who were ordered to make sacrifices for themselves before they could make any kind of atonement for the people (Lev. 16:6, 11, 24), the “great high priest” of our faith has no such sins of his own to pay for. The only baggage accompanying our priest as he enters the Holy of Holies is yours and mine. It’s your sin and the sins of the whole world that he brings with him into that Most Holy Place of the cross. Just as in days of Israel’s priests, where the Holy of Holies was the place where the holiness of God and the blood of atonement collided, so, too, is the cross the place where the holiness of God and the blood of atonement are poured out for all the world to see.
Golgotha is the site where God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; [where] righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10). Hanging on Roman gibbet, with nails puncturing his hands and feet, Jesus fulfills his calling as God’s “great high priest,” where he himself makes atonement for our sins by he himself being our atoning sacrifice. On the cross, we are made to behold the profoundest of mysteries, as the priest and the offering become one and the same. “At the cross,” Arthur Pink says, “He was both Offerer and Offering” (1:253). “In this we see the superiority of our great High Priest,” concurs H. A. Ironside, “who needed no offering for Himself, but gave Himself in love for others” (69).
In every way, Jesus is the true and better high priest of our faith. He is the One who represents us before the Holy Father, taking our sin and our weakness and our rebellion and our failure into the holiest of all places in order to render the highest and holiest of payments for it all: his own self. “Christ is the one connecting link between Heaven and earth,” continues Arthur Pink. “He alone bridges the chasm between God and His people, considered as fallen and ruined sinners” (1:250). Because of him, the vast cavern of sin that exists between the world and God is spanned. Because of him, sinners can “hold fast” and “with confidence draw near” to him (Heb. 4:14–16). Because of him, and because he was “obedient to the point of death even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8), the hope of redemption and reconciliation is complete (Heb. 5:8–9). It is finished forever.
H. A. Ironside, Hebrews, James, and Peter (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1985).
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Hebrews (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1961).
Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews, Vols. 1–2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1963).