Such A High Priest
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So this is where things get a little bit complicated. Do you remember last week when the preacher to the Hebrews said “I have some heavy stuff to lay on you, but I don’t know if you’re ready…” This is some of the stuff. All this talk about being a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. Who exactly are we talking about? What does all this talk of this shadow Old Testament figure and the work of priests have to do with Christ? What does it have to do with us? This is heavy talk for a long weekend my friends. Let us look at our text this morning and see what God may have to say to our hearts.
Going through the book of Hebrews these weeks we’ve talked of Christ. Of his divinity and his humanity. We’ve talked of the church, of who we’re called and enabled to be. We’ve talked of rest. We’ve talked of spiritual formation – of being formed in the image of Christ. We’re now at the portion of the sermon that talks of Christ as our Great High Priest. What does this mean? How might considering Christ as our high priest cause us to hold on more tightly to the hope that is ours?
There have already been a couple of allusions to Christ as high priest. Hebrews 2:17 and 4:14. There is an extended section in chapter 5 on Jesus as high priest. What did the high priest do exactly? Each year on the day of atonement the high priest would make a sacrificial offering for the sins of the people. The high priest had to be descended from Aaron and a member of the tribe of Levi (all priests were from the tribe of Levi). A new priest has come onto the scene though. Christ has been described as high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. Who is this guy?
In the early days of this whole story, Abraham’s nephew Lot was captured by some local kings. Abraham gathered some men together, defeated these kings in battle and got his nephew back along with a lot of the kings’ stuff. When he returned we read the following in Genesis 14:17-20. I called Melchizedek a shadowy figure not because he was sketchy, but because nothing else is known about him apart from this story. A whole story rose up around him. It’s kind of like how church tradition built up a story around the wise men – named them Balthazar, Gaspar, Melchior. Because there is nothing said of Melchizedek’s genealogy it was thought he had no mother or father. He became a figure that was expected to reappear one day and save the Jewish people. His name means “king of righteousness”. Along with being a priest he was also a king, who ruled a town whose name meant peace, which meant that he was also “king of peace”. I know you know where this is going!
The only other place Melchizedek is mentioned in the OT is Psalm 110:4 You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. I love the title of this song. Assurance of Victory for God’s Priest-King. So let’s see. We have this figure who’s known as the king of righteousness and the king of peace. Someone who came from seemingly nowhere, outside of the priestly genealogy. Someone who was not from the tribe of Levi or descended from Aaron, but actually predated Aaron. Does this make us think of a certain someone who was from the tribe of Judah?
This is a wonderful piece of exposition about how the OT points forward to the one who was to come. The one who has the job not because of his lineage (apart from who is father is!) or because of what tribe he’s from. The one in whom our righteousness is found. The one who remained faithful to his father even to death. The one who promises us peace. The one whose life and death and resurrection and ascension takes us into the presence of God. Someone wrote that this is how the writer to the Hebrews sees the goal of religion – to take us “without fear and without barriers, into the presence of God.”
This is what Christ has done my friends. This is what Christ does. This is what Christ will do. Perfection wasn’t attainable through the Levitical priesthood. It doesn’t mean that it was a bad thing. Paul wrote that the law wasn’t bad in and of itself – it makes us aware of our own inability to keep it. It makes us aware of our own need for something else. Following Christ involves realizing our own inadequacy, our own need for him. Our pride doesn’t like that, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I was at a funeral not long ago for a man who had been physically and mentally disabled all his life. Institutionalized from the age of 7. Needing to be cared for. Where is God in that kind of situation? I said that he reminded us all that we are not meant to go through this life alone. Not meant to live this life without help from God and without help from one another. The Levitical priesthood made us aware of our need for God, of our need for forgiveness. The way that forgiveness was portrayed was through sacrifice. This system could not bring about perfection – and you know when you see that word in the NT it’s usually the Greek word that means reaching the goal, reaching fullness. Reaching fullness of life. Being changed. Being made complete. I said not long ago that this is God’s big will for our lives – that we be made holy, complete, formed into the image of his son because that’s how God made us, in his image, and things went horribly, horribly wrong.
In our Great High Priest God was setting and is setting things right. He didn’t become a priest through a legal requirement, concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of him, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” I think this is important. This indestructible life. I said that after Easter I wanted to spend some good time considering what it means that Christ is risen. Those 50 days of Eastertide ended last week but our considerations shouldn’t of course. What does it mean that Christ died and is risen. Here we are talking about death again. It’s always around us though, however much we want to distance ourselves from it or avoid even talking about it. I said that’s there’s not suffering with which Christ is not familiar, not suffering in which he is not present – even to death. What words could we ever use to try and describe what that means for us? For those by whose beds we sit. What comfort. What peace. For those of us who are left too. Not even death can separate us from God’s love, from Christ’s presence. He’s torn that veil. He’s gone before us. He’s with us. He’s waiting for us through the power of an indestructible life.
Our hope is not just for the end of our lives, of course. It’s for right now. Salvation for the Israelites was not simply getting out of Egypt. It was travelling through, the wilderness, being transformed by this walk with God, coming to the place of rest. Being transformed. There is a better covenant, the preacher says, of which Jesus is the guarantee. The Lord has sworn, and will not change his mind, because when God makes a promise he keeps it. You are a priest forever. What is this better covenant? He’ll come back to this in chapter 8. Chapters 7 to halfway through 10 are all on this idea of Jesus as our Great High Priest. In chapter 8 the better covenant is described and it’s a quote from Jeremiah 34 – “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant I made with their ancestors, on the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord. This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach one another or so say each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
Who wants to be a part of this?
This is the high priest who is constantly making intercession for us. Praying for us. Pleading our case before God based not on any righteousness of our own, but because he his holy and blameless and undefiled and separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens. He’s doing this all the time. What would it mean for us to take this seriously. How might we be coming to him? How often might we coming to him? What peace might ours if we were to take this seriously?
He’s the king of peace. Someone has written of the peace to be found in Christ – “Jesus’ peace is not an exemption from turmoil, danger, and duress... Jesus, through the Spirit he would send, offers his followers poise and resolve in the midst of discomfiting circumstances… his peace is not the absence of conditions that intimidate, but rather is the composure to be faithful in the face of adversity.”
The extent to which God’s promises are realized in our lives is going to depend on the extent to which we claim them. Jesus’ command/invitation was “Come to me all you are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” How is our coming to Christ going? How are we seeing this promise borne out in our lives. We talked not long ago about being partners with Christ. Holy partners in a heavenly calling. His yoke is light. There’s this great biblical image of oxen being yoked together to do a job like ploughing a field. The practice was usually for a younger ox to be paired with an older ox who knew what he was doing. We’re yoked with Christ! He’s showing us what to do by the power of his Spirit. If we stumble or fall he’s good, he’s pulling us along and helping us get back up. The extent to which this promise will be borne out is going to depend on how we’re doing at coming to him. How do we come to him? We’ll talk more about this next week – holding fast to the confession that is ours, provoking one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, encouraging one another.
The law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. The one has been made perfect, the one in whom our perfection, our reaching the goal, is found. The one in whom salvation is found. This is our great high priest. The congregation to whom this sermon is addressed might have been thinking that salvation was still to be found in some way in the old priesthood and the sacrificial system. What do these final words have to say for us? Where are we tempted to see salvation coming from apart from Christ? To what kind of things do we look to save us? Where do we see salvation coming from ourselves? There’s a song by Leona Naess called “Charm Attack” about a guy she likes who is not such a good guy and seems charming but really isn’t and in the chorus she sings “I’m no savior but I’ll try and save you.” We sometimes think we can save people with our own care or compassion. I saw some footage recently of a RIDE program operating in York Region. One of the officers was surprised there were so many infractions and he said “I thought the message was getting out there.” We think sometimes that knowledge or education is where our salvation lies. Sometimes churches think “If we just had a younger pastor then that would save us.” There’s nothing wrong with care and compassion or education or younger pastors. Of course there’s not. I think that this passage reminds us to keep our eyes on where salvation lies. On this great high priest of ours who is stepping in for us all the time. Keep our eyes on him. Come to him. May this be true for all of us.