What is all this to-do about priests and priesthoods in the book of Hebrews? It sounds so unmodern. Or perhaps it even sounds like a foreign religion. Maybe to some of our ears it sounds Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox. However, the reality is that the message of the New Testament and the message of the Christian church and the gospel is incomprehensible apart from the realities behind and around priests and their responsibilities and functions. And so if we really want to appreciate the message of our text we need to remind ourselves what a priest is and why we need them.
A priest is a fundamentally a person who stands as a mediator between men and God. If we think in terms of the Old Testament priesthood, a priest was someone who took an offering, a sacrifice, and offered it to God for you, so that God would accept it from your hands. There were many reasons an Israelite would offer a sacrifice: there were sacrifices of thanksgiving, sacrifices of consecration to God (burnt offering). And then there were offerings that were explicitly sin and trespass offerings. But the reality is that every offering, no matter what the reason for it, was an acknowledgement of sin. This is what our author says, for example, in Heb. 10:3. Every time you offered an animal sacrifice, you put your hand on the animal as the priest killed it and offered it to God (see Lev. 1:4; 3:2, 8,13; 4:4, etc.). Why would they do that? They did that because it was an acknowledgement that this animal was dying in their place, and that was an acknowledgement of their sinfulness, that this animal’s death was happening because sin has to be purged by death. The wages of sin, as the apostle Paul puts it in Romans, is death, and the debt of sin must be paid (Rom. 6:23).
Nevertheless, why would people think they needed a priest and needed to offer blood sacrifices? The reality is that blood sacrifices were part and parcel of the ancient world, whether inside or outside of Israel. Animals were slaughtered by the thousands for religious purposes in the ancient world. The meat in the meat markets were often left-overs from religious ceremonies in pagan temples – it was this in fact that led to some difficulties for early Christians who weren’t sure whether or not they should eat such meat. But why would people think they needed to do all that?
The main reason people offered sacrifices is that they believed that God (or the gods) needed to be appeased and the way they appeased God (or the gods) were through blood sacrifices. But ancient people didn’t generally offer these sacrifices themselves directly to God, they did so through priests. This is because people who lived in the ancient world understood something that modern man has somehow forgotten: that there is a gulf that separates man from God. This distance that separates us from God is not a distance created by God being unknowable but it is a distance created by God being holy and unapproachable.
In other words, especially in light of the Biblical teaching, the reason for priests is sin. And sin is a problem because God is holy. God is holy and God is just; he cannot fellowship with sin and he must and will punish sin and the sinner. As the prophet Isaiah put it, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2).
The fundamental property of sin is that it is against God. Sin is rebellion against the Creator. It is refusing to bow the knee and acknowledge his rights over us. It is a refusal to obey the One to whom we owe our obedience. It is trying to define reality on our own instead of conforming ourselves to the reality that God has created. Like saying that a man can be a woman or a woman can be a man. Or saying that we get to decide when a human being gets the right to live. Or saying that if something feels good to us, then for that reason it must be good. But all this is sin and rebellion against God’s rightful sovereignty over us. God will have none of it.
But such is the blindness and treachery of our willful rebellion against God that instead of owning up to and admitting our guilt and sin, we ignore it or cover it up. Worse still, we turn the tables and try to blame God. It is a fool’s errand.
Our culture sees no need for a priesthood and priests because we want the wrong person to be justified. What I mean is this: we are so consumed with the “problem” of evil and suffering, and the injustice of it all, that we have missed the greatest problem of all, our own sin. We spend our days either condemning or denying God on account of “injustices” that we no longer see our own condemnation and the infinitely heinous injustice we have perpetrated against God in our sin. We think God needs to be justified. We have forgotten that we are the ones who need to be justified.
Further, God does not need to justify his ways to us. Why does he allow so much suffering? Why did he allow sin to come into the world in the first place? Of course, many will say that God must be either unloving or not sovereign. God's own word tells a different story, of course, that leaves us with perplexing questions: how can such a good and holy and omnipotent God rule over so much chaos and criminality? God's word denies that he is unloving or unholy or unable. He could have kept the world in sinless perfection if he had wanted to. But he does not tell all us the whys or hows. And he does not have to. Because he is God, and you are not.
But whereas God does not have to answer to you or me, we have to answer to him. And the fact is, we are traitors. We owe God everything, and we have taken his good gifts and turned them into idols. We have not been thankful. We have not been good. Our minds and thoughts and affections have been very much anti-God. Why should he have to answer to us? We must answer to him. And we are sinners, naked before the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
God does not need to be justified. You do. How will you appear before God? With arguments and accusations? I dare say, all your accusations will appear criminal in themselves when you are finally confronted with the holiness of God. Until we drop our frivolous case against God and realize that we already stand justly condemned in the court of the Sovereign of the universe, we will never truly understand or appreciate the gospel. We need to stop trying to get God to justify himself, and face the reality that you need to be justified by God.
It is when we understand this that we will see the need for a mediator. Whether or not we put it in priestly language does not matter. We will see that we cannot justify ourselves, and therefore we cannot approach God on our own. We need someone to interpose for us. We need a priest.
And this is what the gospel is fundamentally about. It is the good news that we can approach God, that we can in hope draw near to God, that we can be at peace with God, because Jesus Christ came to be our high priest. The gospel says this: it is the good news that God has come into the world, not to be justified, but to justify. He has come to make sinners right with himself. And the way he has done that is through his own Son, Jesus Christ, who took our sin on himself and paid the debt in our place. He became simultaneously the priest and the offering. He was everything the OT priesthood pointed toward. And when a sinner places his or her faith in the Son, God's word says that they are justified. And that is what every single human being on earth needs right now.
The best news in the world is that Jesus Christ is a high priest. However, in light of the thousands of priests that have existed in the history of the world, why Jesus Christ? Why is he not only a superior priest, but also the only priest that we need? This is the issue our text addresses. In particular, it gives us three reasons why you should look to Jesus Christ and to Christ alone as your priest before God. These three reasons can be briefly summarized in the words promise, perpetuity, and purity. These three realities in turn are tied to three acts of God in history: revelation, resurrection, and incarnation.
Promise anchored in Revelation (20-22)
The first reason you should embrace Jesus Christ as your priest before God and no one else is because of the promise of God ordaining him as such. I am using the word “promise” but the actual word used in the text is “oath.” However, the two words are related: an oath, after all, is by definition simply a solemn promise. What raises Jesus Christ above all other priests is that he was made a priest by God the Father with a promise-oath, which distinguishes him not only from the Levitical priests but from every other kind of priest as well. This is the argument of verses 20-22: “And inasmuch as not without an oath he was made priest: (for those [Levitical] priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord swore [an oath] and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek:) by so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament.”
We noted in our message on the last part of chapter 6 that God really doesn’t need to give oaths. We give oaths in solemn venues, like a court-case, because men are basically liars. We can’t be trusted to tell the truth. So we are put under oath in order to put some kind of external pressure on us to tell the truth. But God always tells the truth. He doesn’t need any arm-twisting to speak the truth. Nor does he ever go back on his word or fail to keep his promises. Hence, the reason for the oath is not for his but for our sake. God gives these promise-oaths in order to help us understand just how committed he is to doing what he has said he will do.
Thus, by this oath our Lord becomes the “surety” or “guarantor” of a better covenant (the Greek word is diatheke which can mean both “testament” or “covenant”). Jesus is the personal guarantee that God will bring about the promises of the covenant through his priesthood because God has appointed him as priest by an oath.
We will look at this in more detail in the next chapter, but the reference here to the “better testament” is the new covenant foretold by the prophet Jeremiah in the 31st chapter of his prophesy. The fundamental promise of that covenant is, “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people” (Heb. 8:10). In other words, the covenant is all about God bringing sinners into a saving relationship with him. The fact that Jesus is the surety of the covenant means that he is the one whom God has appointed to satisfy the conditions upon which this amazing promise becomes a reality. And the way he satisfies those conditions is through his office as a priest – in other words, by his atoning death on the cross.
So why should we approach God through faith in Christ? And why should we eschew any other way of relating to God? We should do so because God made him alone to be our high priest and he did so with an oath. In doing so, he abrogated the Levitical priesthood by the priesthood of Christ. And any other priest is just a phony.
But how do we know that God did this? We know it because God has revealed it to us in Scripture. Remember, where is this “said”? It is said in the book of Psalms, in Psalm 110. It is said and written in the Bible. I’m not now making an argument for the authority of Scripture. I’m assuming it. Right now, I’m speaking to folks who agree that the Old and New Testaments are God’s inspired and inerrant word to men. We believe that what God speaks in the Bible is true. And what he has said there is that there is one and only high priest through whom we can approach God and relate to God, and that is Jesus Christ. God the Father put his own Son in that office and no one else. The Bible is not about what we do to make ourselves worthy of God. It is about what God has done in Jesus Christ to make us worthy before God by his own perfect and saving righteousness.
If someone claims to be someone who can represent me before a judge in a court of law, I want to know that that person is properly qualified. I might want to peek at his or her law degree, for example. I might want to know that they are a licensed attorney. It is infinitely more important to know that someone who claims to be able to represent me before God is qualified. There are so many charlatans out there, false Christs. But Jesus is the Christ and he is absolutely qualified – precisely because the Judge of all the earth, God the Father himself, made him so, and has made it known to us in Scripture. Look to Jesus and look no further!
Perpetuity revealed by Resurrection (23-25)
This is one the big points of this chapter: according to Psalm 110, our Lord is not only a high priest ordained by God with an oath, but he is so forever. “And they [that is, the Levitical priests] truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: but this man, because he continueth forever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (23-25).
Now it’s not that Jesus didn’t die! He did die, and in that way he is like these other priests. By the way, Islam, which claims to believe that Jesus was a prophet and even the Christ refuses to believe that he died. They reject this about him, and they do so because they don’t believe that he is the Son of God who came to earth to atone for the sins of his people. But he did die and was buried in a tomb. There is no way the Romans would have had him taken down from the cross if he had merely looked dead or had fainted. Remember that one of the soldiers put his spear through the side of Christ to make sure that he was dead. Make no mistake: Jesus died.
However, the difference between our Lord and the Aaronic priests (and every other priest as well) is that he rose from the dead, never the die again. Here we have another evidence that his atoning work, his sacrifice, was accepted by God. If he had not been successful in bearing and purging the sins of men, he would never have arisen and ascended to heaven to be seated at God’s right hand. But he did rise and he did ascend and he is seated at God’s right hand!
The great significance of this is underlined in verse 25. Because Christ is an everlasting priest with an unchanging priesthood, that means that “he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” I take this to mean that the perpetual priesthood of Christ is a guarantee that those who trust in him [“come unto God by him”] will never be lost. This is because he not only died for them and put away their sins forever in one sacrifice, but also continues to intercede for them and to present before the Father the eternal efficacy of his finished work.
To see how this works, consider what our Lord told the apostle Peter. Peter, our Lord knew, was about to deny him and Satan was behind it. The devil was going about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour this apostle. But he would not be successful. Why? Because Jesus was praying and interceding for him. “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Lk. 22:31-32). In other words, the fact that Peter didn’t finally fall away is due ultimately, not to Peter’s own resilience, but to the intercession of Christ for him. It follows that if the Savior who intercedes for his people never dies and ever lives to make intercession for them, they cannot fall finally away. (It also follows, by the way, that to deny the final perseverance of the saints is to derogate the work of Christ for them.)
There is a great illustration of this in The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. While in the Interpreter’s house, Christian is shown a fire in a fireplace, and in front of the fire was a man throwing water on it, trying to put it out. However, the funny thing was that the fire, instead of being quenched, burned “higher and hotter.” Then the Interpreter took Christian around to the back, and there was a man pouring oil on the fire. The interpretation was this: the fire represented the grace of God in the heart of man. The devil was the man trying to put the fire out. Why then did it burn higher and hotter? Because Christ is on the other side pouring oil on the fire, even though he did so behind the fireplace unseen – representing the fact that often we know not where the grace comes from that keeps our hearts in tune. But he is there, praying for us and working in us by his Spirit and word. He not only saves those who come unto God by him, he saves them to the uttermost. He saves us from every sin and he keeps us saved – to the uttermost!
This is the reason why Paul exults in the intercession of Christ for his elect as the crowning glory of his redemptive work: “What shall we say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? How shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us?” (Rom. 8:31-34). It is a reason we should exult too.
Why should you come to God by Jesus Christ and by Christ alone? It is because he is the only one who stands between men and God in an unchangeable priesthood. He ever lives to make intercession for them. And therefore he is able to save us with an eternal salvation.
Purity exercised through Incarnation (26-28)
Finally, the sinless purity of our Lord is highlighted in these verses. You know, the thing about the ancient gods is that so often they were just like the people who were supposed to worship them (if not worse!). But not so our Lord. He is very much unlike us in this way, and you see this partly in the reactions of people to Jesus in the gospels. Often their reaction is one of fear, because we fear that which is not like us. However, like the lion Aslan in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, our Lord is not tame by human standards, but he is good. And in that lies his supreme fitness to be our Savior.
This is the point of verses 26-28: “For such an high priest became us” – let’s stop here for a moment. The language here does not mean that Jesus became us in the sense of becoming human. He did so, of course, a point that is made at length in chapter 2. The meaning here is that it was fitting for Jesus to be our high priest. In other words, he is the perfect high priest for us. Now the question is, how does the author make the case that he is the best and most fitting priest of us sinners?
Let’s read the rest of the passage. Our Lord is the best and most fitting priest for us because he is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for their own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself. For the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated forevermore” (26-28).
The obvious emphasis in these verses is on the purity of our Lord. He is separate from sinners, not in the sense that he has nothing to do with them for he is the friend of sinners, but because he is “holy, harmless, undefiled.” He doesn’t need to make an offering for his sin because he never sinned. He was made sin for us who knew no sin that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21). It was because he knew no sin that he was able to be made sin for us – not by being made sinful but by becoming our substitute before God, our sin offering, and bearing the punishment due to our sin. This makes him very different from the Levitical priesthood – and every other type of priest in any religion – for they are characterized by “infirmity” (28), which, as we’ve noted before, is not just physical infirmity but also moral infirmity and weakness. Not so Jesus.
Of course he did this as a true man. “The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ who being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was and continues to be God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism). He broke the law but he was born under the law so that he could keep it in our place. And he did so perfectly. And having fulfilled the law in its demands for obedience he was then able to fulfill the law in its demands for justice. As such he is our perfect high priest.
So what should we do? How should we respond to this? In verse 19, we are told that Jesus Christ brings a better hope by which we draw near to God. In verse 25, we are told that he saves to the uttermost those who come unto God by him. How do we draw near to God? How do we come to God? We do so by Jesus Christ and by Christ alone. There is no other way, yes. But this is not bad news; this is the best news. God did not have to provide a way back to him. But he has. It is not the way that so many religions dictate – by becoming a better person – rather, we come to God through Jesus Christ who as our high priest is the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:4). And so we sing, as we do in the hymn,