Quick: what comes to mind when you hear the word “priest”? Do you picture someone who’s compassionate and caring, sympathetic to your struggles, and devoted to your wellbeing?
If you grew up in certain religions, you might even be triggered by the word. Tragic accounts of rampant pedophilia, homosexuality, and cover-up have jaded that demographic—and their institutions—forever.
Others, from different backgrounds, might picture the priests of Jesus’ day: proud, close-minded, self-protective enemies of God’s own Son. Those priests, along with their bullying cohorts, exemplified Isaiah’s words, echoed by Paul:
Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:15-18)
Such were the priests of Jesus’ time. Like so many other spiritual concepts tainted by man, this was not the way priests, and particularly high priests, were intended to be. Consider these words from today’s passage:
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin. (Heb.4:15)
Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins……He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray since he himself is subject to weakness. (Heb.5:1-2)
Aaron was the first high priest appointed by God (not counting Melchizedek), and he certainly fit the second part of the job description. A possibly reluctant leader, appointed as mouthpiece for Moses, as well as Israel’s inaugural high priest, he quickly fell astray by building an altar for the blasphemous golden calf and standing by while God’s people indulged in pagan revelry. But I imagine the trials he endured with his fellow Hebrews, along with his very public weaknesses, made him at least a sympathetic priest.
Still, there’s a fine line between being sympathetic and being soft on sin. The high priest was called to straddle that line, in true humility, and I think it’s safe to surmise that most priests failed abysmally. God’s harshest words, delivered through his prophets, were often directed at his priests. To often, they indulged their own sins and winked at the sins of their cronies, while displaying a callousness towards the people they were called to serve. And in every generation of priesthoods, the high priest was held most accountable.
Jesus is our ultimate high priest. He is “able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray”, not because he succumbed to sin, but because he understands temptation. (We discussed this in Article 12.) We can come to him in any state, and he’s there to listen, understand, and advocate on our behalf. Not without rebukes and discipline, if that’s what we need, but we can be know everything he does is done in love.
Jesus set aside his eternal “superpowers” when he emptied himself and became a man (Phil. 2:6-8). Every miracle he performed, every resistance to temptation, every perfect response to persecution and maltreatment, came by and through the Father, through Jesus’ absolute reliance. His life demonstrates complete obedience and trust in God the Father, modelled for us, his weaker brothers and sisters. But his astonishing achievement—a perfect, sinless life—-was not without great effort. The Hebrew writer tells us,
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. (Heb.5:7)
When we read these words, it’s natural to think of Jesus’ agonizing prayers in Gethsemane, so intense his sweat mixed with blood as he petitioned God to remove the cup of death he’d been sent to drink. We should never underestimate his pre-Cross agony, which overwhelmed him, in his own words, “to the point of death”.
Yet I believe ‘during the days of Jesus’ life on earth’ implies many other anguished prayers throughout his lifetime. Jesus struggled all his days to ‘learn obedience’ through his submission to God. He did so flawlessly, yet doing so remained a struggle to the bitter—and victorious—end.
This is our High Priest, able to sympathize, deal gently, and mediate between us and God. His priesthood is unique. He stands between us and God, yet he is God. He serves as both sacrificer and sacrifice. He offers one holy, perfect sacrifice that covers all of us, everywhere, for all time. He remains our high priest, yet he sits on the throne of heaven. He has no successors, no descendants, yet we are his children.
I don’t hear a lot of Christians referring to Jesus as their high priest. Savior, Redeemer, Master, Lord…we’re comfortable with those terms. Some of us are still squeamish over concepts like “blood sacrifice” and “priesthood”—the kind of priesthood that deals with bloody altars, or the kind of priesthood that blocks believers from truly knowing God. Yet the Hebrew writer refers to Jesus as our high priest thirteen times—for good reason.
After memorizing Hebrews, I think of Jesus as high priest more than ever, and in almost every prayer I acknowledge—and praise—his glorious high priesthood and his perfect gift on our behalf. He gave us everything, the only hope we had of finding grace.
If you have lingering bad associations with the word “priest”, I hope you can shake them off, replacing them with the thrilling image of our perfect, personal, powerful, eternal high priest. A priest who is humble and gentle, diligent and obedient, surrendered and triumphant. A priest who hears every prayer, and meets our confessions with wisdom, grace, and forgiveness.
A priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
And we’ll have more to say about that….later.