Christ our Priest
Exodus 19:1-8 “A royal priesthood”
Hebrews 9:11-22 “Christ appeared as a high priest...”
John 17:1-26 Jesus' High Priestly Prayer
So far we've seen Christ as our Prophet – fulfilling the Old Testament role of the one who speaks for God, and indeed who is the very Word of God. He is the prophet to whom all prophets testify.
But our Lord Jesus Christ also fulfills the office of priest in a most excellent way. Such that he is the everlasting High Priest of the highest order, a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. But to get a better grasp on his priesthood, and why it is such good news for us, we again take a step back into the Old Testament.
The priesthood of Moses' brother Aaron was established with the sacrificial system at Mt. Sinai. The anointing of Aaron as the first High Priest of Israel was a day of great joy for God's people.
They would sing of it in the Psalm (133):
Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
The priest, and especially the High Priest, we see, was especially beloved for he was a representative of the people before God. He stood in the place of the people and offered sacrifices and prayers to God on their behalf.
Sacrifices – yes, the priesthood was a bloody business. More akin to a butcher than a paper-pusher, the Old Testament priest was well acquainted with the blood of beasts. How many millions of animals were slain on the altars of Israel over the years by the hands of the priests. And why? Why did the high priest, once a year, place his hands onto the head of the scapegoat and then send it out to die in the wilderness? And then take another goat, kill it, and sprinkle its blood on in the Holy of Holies? Why were bulls and rams and pigeons slain and sacrificed? It was all for this: for the sins of the people. The wages of sin – death. Sin means blood.
I often wonder whether the ancients saw this more clearly – how sin leads to death. And seeing all these animals die... We've made death so clinical and sanitized it today, but it's only a thin veneer over the ugliness. We don't even like to think that our cheeseburger was once a cow. But the priests dealt with death. Day in, day out.
For his part, Jesus is the priest to end all priests. He came not only to make the greatest sacrifice, but to be it. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Your sin. Mine. Everyone's. Christ the victim, Christ the priest. He willingly sheds his own blood, offers his own life, gives up his own spirit – for you.
To save you from the bloodguilt of your sin. To rescue you from a well deserved temporal and eternal punishment. To satisfy the just wrath of God over your sin. And to create in you a clean heart and a right spirit.
Jesus your priest stands before God the Father and says, “I stand in their place. My blood for theirs, my life for theirs. I have paid the price, I drank the cup, I have done it all. It is finished.”
You see the high priest of old was anointed with oil, but Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit. The high priest of old would wear bejeweled robes. But Jesus was stripped of his garments. The high priest of old would make his sacrifices year after year. But Jesus died once for all.
Hebrews goes to great lengths to show us how Jesus' priesthood far exceeds all others, and how as the priest of the New Covenant, he sprinkles us with and purifies us with his blood, and so our sins are forgiven. All the Old Testament sacrifices, while they dealt with sin, did so in a way which found root and fulfillment in Christ. Thus, no more temple sacrifices continue, as the true temple is Christ, and the ultimate sacrifice has been fulfilled in him and by him.
But a priest is good for more than just making sacrifices. He stands as a representative of the people, before God, also in prayer. He sums up the concerns and petitions of the people and presents them on their behalf. He is a mediator in both word and deed. An intercessor, a go-between. A priest prays for the people.
Certainly Jesus prayed for us. John 17 records his longest prayer, what is even called his “High Priestly Prayer”.
There he prays for his disciples, and for the church that would be built through the Gospel they would preach. That they, we, would not be taken out of the world, but kept faithful while we remain here. That we would have joy. That we would be sanctified, made holy, but the truth of God's word. That standing in that truth, we would also be united. It is a beautiful prayer of spiritual blessings, notable for what he does NOT pray for as for what he does. He doesn't ask the Father to keep us from ever suffering, or having to bear persecution. He doesn't plead that we would all be healthy and wealthy. Instead he prays, “keep them from the evil one”. And finally, that we may be with Jesus where he is.
Jesus prayed often, not simply as an example for us, but he prayed for us. Throughout his earthly ministry, in times of apparent success and through all opposition, Jesus prayed. In his last hours before death, he took his disciples to a favorite spot for prayer – Gethesmane – Judas knew it well for they would often go there. Even in the midst of his dying, from the cross itself, Jesus prayed to his Father, prayed for us, for our forgiveness.
But make no mistake. Even now that he is ascended into heaven. Even now that he sits at the right hand of the Father and rules all things for the good of the church. Even now that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. Still, Jesus prays. He intercedes with the Father for us. He is still very much our good and great High Priest pleading with his Father on behalf of his people.
His people, by the way, who are also priests. Even the Old Testament people were declared to be a “royal priesthood, a holy nation”. But now we, too, New Testament believers – are called the priesthood of all believers.
So what sacrifices do we make? Not for sin, that's certain. Jesus has already done it all. But we are told to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. We lead holy lives in response to his holy word. We serve God by serving our neighbor. We offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, joyfully returning to God a portion of what he has given to us. In your support of the church and the work of the Gospel, you fulfill this priestly role.
And prayer, too, makes us priestly. We can go directly to God in prayer for he government and those in authority, for our neighbor, for the unbeliever, even for our enemies.
Even in the most frustrating moments of life, when you're at your wit's end, and you feel powerless to effect any positive change. When you're beating your head against the wall trying to help someone, or solve some crisis of the day, you are still a priest. You still have access to God through Jesus Christ, and that is no small thing. You can, you are graciously and lovingly invited to pray to the very God of heaven who sits on his throne. And we know our prayers will be heard for the sake of the one by whose name we pray, even Jesus Christ our Lord.
I remember with fondness old Helen, a dear 105 year old lady whom I would visit. Her hearing had gotten hard, her eyesight poor, and her legs were mostly useless. But her mind was sharp, even at her age. Helen would often wonder aloud, “Why am I here? What purpose do I serve? All my friends and family are gone on ahead of me. Why doesn't the Lord take me? I'm no good to anyone!” And I would gently remind her, “but you can pray”, and I know she did. Even when all else fails, every one of us still claims this vocation. The priests of God, the royal priests, pray to him through Jesus Christ. We pray, young and old, rich and poor, a ceaseless stream of prayer rising to God like a pleasing incense ever rising to him.
Thanks and praise to Christ our prophet, who brings us the word of God, even his very self. The prophet to whom all prophets testified.
And thanks and praise to Christ our priest, who offers the ultimate sacrifice of himself, and even still prays for us his people. He is the Great High Priest whom all prior priesthood anticipated, and who has now come.
As we continue to anticipate his coming in glory, and look forward to celebrating his coming in the flesh long ago, may we continue to fulfill our priestly calling in loving response to his many and ongoing gifts. In Jesus' name. Amen.