Christ’s Heavenly Priesthood (Hebrews 8:1-5)
We come in these verses to what our author calls “the sum” of “the things which we have spoken” (1). There are several meanings that this word “sum” can have, as in a sum of money or the main point or essence of an argument. However, there is another meaning which it can take, and that is the idea of the summit of an argument. I think that very well may be the idea here: what we have in these verses is not only the sum of the argument but the summit of the argument. And it is the summit in the sense that at this point in the epistle we are brought to the pinnacle of our Lord’s priesthood. We are not to find the capstone of our Lord’s work on the cross or in the tomb but in his position as the ascended Lord of lords and King of kings.
The main idea therefore that our author is asserting in the first five verses is that our Lord’s priesthood is a heavenly priesthood, in contrast with the earthly ministry of the Levitical priests. Thus we are told, “We have such an high priest” – this is a reference back to 7:26-28, where our Lord is described in terms of his purity (26) and in terms of the perfection of his offering (27-28) – “who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man” (8:1-2). The “sanctuary” and the “true tabernacle” is a reference to heaven, where our Lord now ministers as our high priest, where he continually is presenting the blood of his offering before his Father for our sakes and interceding for us (7:25). The tabernacle in which he now ministers is “true” in the sense that the tabernacle and temple on earth pointed to it.
In this heavenly tabernacle, Jesus ministers: the word in verse 2 (leitourgos) is a word that refers to the work of a priest. And priests offer sacrifices. This involves not only killing the sacrifice but also, as in the Day of Atonement, taking some of the blood and bringing it into the Holy of Holies and sprinkling it upon the Mercy Seat, the lid on top of the Ark of the covenant. This is what verse 3 picks up on: “For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.” What is our Lord doing in heaven? He is doing what the Levitical high priest merely prefigured: he is presenting the efficacy of his redemptive work upon the cross in heaven. He is not bringing into the true Holy Place the blood of goats and calves – he is bringing in his own blood (cf. 9:11- 14). This is the picture which we get in a very symbolic fashion in Rev. 5:6: “And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.” How does our Lord present himself in heaven? He does so as the “Lamb as it had been slain.”
This is all in contrast with the Mosaic institution of the priesthood in two very important ways. Their priesthood was merely an earthly priesthood: “Now if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law” (4). And their priesthood was merely a figurative priesthood: “Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount” (5). Jesus, on the other hand, ministers in heaven as the true priest offering the true sacrifice in the true sanctuary.
All this assumes that heaven is the ultimate destination of the people of God. As our author will go on to say, “For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (9:24). Our Lord appears in the presence of God – in the true, heavenly sanctuary – for us, not only as our advocate but as our forerunner (6:20). Jesus is the perfect high priest because he is actually able to bring us into the very presence of God reconciled. We can now appear before him as our heavenly Father. This is something the Aaronic priesthood was never able to actually accomplish.
In other words, the reason why our Lord’s heavenly priesthood is so important and meaningful is because heaven is our ultimate destination. If this were not so, if in this life only we have hope in Christ, then we are, as Paul put it, of all men most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). Of course we must not think of heaven merely in terms of golden streets and pearly gates. Heaven is heaven because heaven is the place where God most fully reveals his presence to bless. Heaven is heaven because it is there that we see God’s glory most fully revealed. It is the hope of the Christian that we will see him (Mt. 5:8; Jn. 17:24; 1 Jn. 3:2-3). But where this happens most perfectly and fully is in heaven. This is why we long for heaven and this is why our Lord’s priestly ministry being in heaven is the pinnacle of his saving work. He is in heaven to bring us to heaven and that is our hope: “In my Father’s house,” he told his disciples, “are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (Jn. 14:2-3).
So today I would like us to consider, in light of our Lord’s heavenly ministry, why our hope should be set on heaven. In particular, I would like to give you four reasons why you should set your hopes in heaven. These reasons are the price of heaven, the person of heaven, the perfection of heaven, and the perspective of heaven.
The Price of Heaven
First, you should set your hope on heaven because it took the blood of Christ to give us access to it. We see this in the text, because our Lord continues to function as a priest in heaven on our behalf, presenting not the blood of animals but his own blood (2-3). This shows that it is his blood that gives his people access into heaven and the presence of God.
One way to gauge the value of something is to ask how much money was spent to purchase it. Though this is not of course a universally valid way to determine the value of something, generally the more valuable something is, the more money it is worth. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that introduction into heaven and into the presence of God’s eternal favor and blessing is something which is infinitely valuable, for it took the blood of Christ to give us access to this grace. As the apostle Peter put it, the gift of God cannot be purchased with money (Acts 8:20). In fact, he will say this in one of his epistles: “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). The value of the blood of Christ is such that all the gold and silver in this world is a “corruptible thing” – a perishable thing – in comparison.
On the other hand, it is a serious thing to discount the value of the blood of Christ. To count his death and sacrifice as nothing, to tread him under foot and to count the blood of the covenant an unholy thing brings down the fiercest wrath and judgment of God (cf. Heb. 6:6; 10:29). God counts it as supremely valuable, and if he does, then of course so should we.
But why is the blood of Christ so valuable? The answer of the Bible is that it is the blood of the Son of God. In fact, Paul will put it this way to the Ephesian elders: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The Son of God, the God-man, is the one who hung on the cross. But he is not just another man. The blood shed was of course real, human blood. In that sense, it was no different from yours or mine. Jesus was fully human. But he was also fully God, and the two natures, human and divine, are perfectly united in the one person of Jesus Christ. So, in that sense it is right to say that God purchased the church with his own blood. And what or who can be more valuable than God? God is the basis of all reality – the Creator of the universe. He alone is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. He alone is self-existent. Everything else is a shadow in comparison with God. In fact, I would say that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that has intrinsic value, except for God. Whatever value anything has, it has in reference to and in connection with God. It follows that the blood of Christ is infinitely valuable, being as it is the blood of one who is himself infinitely and incomparably valuable.
But the blood of Christ is not only valuable because of its intrinsic worth, but also because of the way it was given. Jesus did not give his blood in a blood drive. He shed it on a cross. He was crucified and his body was tortured, and his soul weighed down with the weight of our sins. “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:28). He endured unutterable agony for the sake of sinners. We will sometimes speak of the cost of freedom, and when we do so everyone understands that we are talking about the men and women who have given their lives for this country. But what of the cost of redemption? It took the death of Christ. His blood was shed, drained out of his body, in the most humiliating and devastating way that the art of human malice and evil could devise. This is what it takes for sinners to enter heaven. My friend, heaven must therefore be a place of indescribable worth.
Let me put it one more way. A fool may spend a lot of money on frivolous things. As they say, a fool and his money are soon parted. But a wise man, because he is a wise man, spends his money on things that have real worth. God is infinitely wise. The fact that the Son of God spends his own precious blood so that redeemed men and women can spend eternity with him in heaven indicates that this is something which is truly priceless, and something in which we should therefore invest our deepest hopes.
The Person of Heaven
Second, you should set your hopes on heaven because it is there that our Lord Jesus is physically present. Christ did not ascend into an airy nothing, into an ethereal mist of ghosts and shadows. No, he physically ascended into heaven, which tells me that heaven is a place. It is not merely a state of mind. It is a place in which our Lord is present, and which will come down to earth when God creates new heavens and a new earth. It is the place where our spirits will dwell before the final resurrection and the place where we will dwell in renewed bodies and souls after the resurrection.
Again, we see this in our text. For Christ is in heaven as our high priest, to bring us into heaven. This is our hope: “which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20). He is in heaven, and he is in heaven to bring us to heaven.
But the point I want to primarily make here is that heaven is heaven because Christ is there. And those who have been redeemed love Jesus and want to be with him. As the apostle Paul put it, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” – why? Because “I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:21, 23). Those who live for Christ will find death to be gain because they will spend eternity with the one they love above all things. To be with Christ is far better than any other thing. It doesn’t matter what earth can give; it can give nothing like the enjoyment of the immediate presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is what our Lord himself prays for: “Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovest me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24). To see the glory of Christ must be something which will eternally satisfy us in ways that nothing else can. For consider this: everything else, like the moon, has a borrowed glory. But from what does everything else get its glory? From Christ. He is the creator of all things. The Grand Canyon is glorious because Christ is glorious. So with everything else. Jonathan Edwards once said that just as the flowers and the trees and the grass receive their glory from the sun, even so heaven receives its glory from the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Isn’t this what the apostle John himself saw? “And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof” (Rev. 21:22-23). Heaven is heaven because Christ is there. What Christ told the thief on the cross is the very best news: “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43). Heaven is paradise because we are with him.
Now I know that we have Christ’s presence now (cf. Mt. 28:20), and that is a glorious reality. The Holy Spirit mediates the presence of the risen Christ for the church. But we do not now have his presence most fully to bless. God in his wisdom and goodness has chosen for the present to give us a foretaste, “the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14). But we have to await the fullness for the future. Though we enjoy “the firstfruits of the Spirit” yet we now “groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). We are grateful for “joy unspeakable and full of glory” yet for now we await yet greater joy and glory (1 Pet. 1:8). And that happens when we are with Christ in heaven. Therefore, let us long for and look toward heaven where we will be with Christ.
The Perfection of Heaven
Third, we should put our hopes in heaven because it is in heaven where we shall be made perfect. What our Lord as our high priest purchased by his blood was not just the forgiveness of sins but also freedom from the power of sin and eventually freedom from the very presence of sin. We have freedom from the penalty and power of sin now. But we still wait for the time when we will be free from the presence of sin. That happens in heaven, for heaven is described as the place where “the spirits of just men made perfect” dwell (Heb. 12:23).
If sin is ultimately the cause of all our sorrows and pain and grief, then to be free from the very presence of sin must be a state characterized by unceasing joy and peace and love and contentment. When you are sick, you look forward to a time when you will be well. The more sick you are the more you long for freedom from whatever disease it is that plagues you. How much more should we then long for heaven and for the time when we will no longer have to fight with ourselves? When we will no longer be betrayed by our own hearts and desires? When we will no longer have to worry about the temptation to sin?
Not only so, but we also long for heaven as the place where we will spend eternity, not only in sin-free souls, but also in redeemed bodies. To be glorified in the Biblical sense of the word is to have a sinless soul inhabiting a resurrected body. Presently, our bodies are decaying. They are defined by corruption. And yet that is not the final word, is it? “Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must be on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:51-57). How could we not long for this?
The Perspective of Heaven
Fourth, we should put our hopes in heaven because it is by keeping this eternal perspective that we are enabled to grow in grace and holiness and fruitfulness. Do you want to be Biblically motivated to pursue holiness and more Christlikeness? Then look to heaven. We read earlier from 1 Cor. 15, ending in verse 57, about the resurrection. The next verse says this: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). The apostles do not motivate us primarily by earthly blessings. They motivate us primarily by an anticipation of the age to come. Thus Paul says in his next letter to the Corinthians: “For which cause we faint not” – well, how do you do that, Paul? He answers: “but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look, not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
In the same way the apostle John writes, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3). What kind of hope purifies a believer? It is the hope that we shall one day be like Christ and be with him in heaven.
This is the apostle Peter’s point as well in 1 Pet. 1:3, ff. He speaks of their heavenly inheritance (4), and then reminds them that it is as they rejoice in this reality that they are enabled to endure through these refining trials (6-7). Then notice what he says in verses 13-16: “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: but as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.” Again, it is important that we see the tight connection there is between the call to holiness and the call to hope to the end for grace which is to be brought to us at the coming of Christ.
Why this connection? I think it is for this reason: you become what you hope in. If your hopes are in earthly riches, you will become a greedy and covetous person. If your hopes are in human praise, then you will become a people-pleaser and a manipulator. If your hopes are in earthly comforts, then you are going to become the kind of person who makes decisions based on what you think will maximize your earthly comforts. But the problem is that you cannot be holy if you are that kind of person. On the other hand, if your hope is in being with Christ and seeing his glory, if your hope is in heaven where you will be made perfectly holy, then that perspective is going to have to affect the way we live now and the priorities we choose for ourselves. The reality is that it is the most heavenly minded that are the most earthly good.
One last thing: how can we know that heaven-focused hopes will not be in vain? They are not in vain because Christ rose from the dead so that all who trust in him will one day rise from the dead, not to be condemned but to enter into the joy of the Lord. We began this morning with John 14, where our Lord told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them in heaven and then come back for them so that where he was, they would be also. He then told them, “And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.” Thomas, however, wasn’t sure, and asked him: “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” To which our Lord answered: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:4-6). Jesus is the way to heaven, the surety that we will fully inherit the new covenant blessings in a new heaven and a new earth. It reminds me of what our Lord said to Martha after her brother Lazarus had died. “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (Jn. 11:25-26). Indeed, do you believe this? Believe it, for it is true, and in trusting in Christ you will find him to be the very door to Paradise.