Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 18, 2018
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Jesus As Priest

Hebrews 7:23-28

 The idea of priesthood is a rather foreign concept to us anymore.  We don’t really have priests in our society.  Yes, we have Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests, but they are more pastors than priests.  By definition, a priest offers sacrifices, and about the only time we ever hear of actual sacrifices anymore are in connection with things that we find unsavory.  Not too long ago a guy running for political office in Florida said that he was a pagan and had participated in the sacrifice of a goat.  It didn’t help his campaign.

 So when we think of what it means to come to God through Jesus Christ, the idea of priesthood is not really at the forefront of our thinking.  But the Letter to the Hebrews was written to a people whose relationship with God had been defined in terms of priesthood, ritual, and sacrifice for over a millennium.  So while Paul could write to a Gentile audience and talk in terms of faith and adoption and justification, the author of Hebrews was compelled to speak in terms of priest and sacrifice.  

 It reminds us that there is more than one way to understand our Christian experience.  There is more than one way to understand who Jesus is and what he has done for us.  And thinking about Jesus in a different way, for example as a priest, can give us a fuller and richer understanding of who he is and what he has done.  So let’s examine the priesthood of Jesus.

 First, the author of Hebrews has a challenge on his hands.  How can he talk about Jesus’ priesthood in a way that sets it apart from the “old system?”  Because, to the Hebrew mind, Jesus was not a priest.  He was from the tribe of Judah, not the tribe of Levi.  He couldn’t be a priest.  He didn’t come from the line of Aaron, the first high priest.  And what could make Jesus’ priesthood better than that of Aaron, because, after all, those priests had been doing their work for about 1400 years.  And in the Hebrew mind, older is better.  They had great respect for antiquity.  Newer was usually not better, as it is in our minds.  

 So first the author of Hebrews explains that Jesus is, in fact, a priest from a line even older than that of Aaron.  He is a priest in the order of Melchizadek.  If you’re not familiar with Melchizadek, he is a mysterious figure who shows up in Genesis 16.  He blesses Abraham, and Abraham gives him the gift of a tithe.  

 The next time Melchizadek shows up in Scripture is in Psalm 110, a prophecy about the Messiah, which says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit in honor at my right hand, until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet…’  The Lord has taken an oath and will not break his vow:  ‘You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizadek.’”  The author of Hebrews explains that this is about Jesus.

 Second, Jesus is unique.  He is different from the priests of the old way.  In the old way, there were many priests.  There had to be.  They kept dying.  So it was good that more of them were born to replace those who died.  They were limited by their humanity.

 Jesus’ priesthood is different.  It is, in Greek, APARABATOS, a legal term that meant “non-transferable.”  It couldn’t be given to someone else.  And it would PARAMEIN forever.  The Greek word PARAMEIN, roughly equivalent to our work remain, was also a legal term.  It referred to the length of the term of service of a servant.  Sometimes a person was sold as an indentured servant for a certain period of time.  But Jesus’ length of servitude is forever.  He serves as a priest forever.  

 And Jesus is holy and blameless.  Blameless translates a Greek word that means “he has done no harm.”  He is, in Greek, AMIANTOS, “unstained or unblemished.”  This is the word used to describe an animal suitable for sacrifice.  Sacrificial animals had to be perfect.  They couldn’t be blemished or injured or sick in any way.  

 Why does it matter if Jesus was without sin?  Well, if he wasn’t, then he could not be a perfect high priest and he could not offer himself as a perfect sacrifice.  And he couldn’t be an eternal high priest, because the wages of sin are death.  And he couldn’t be our example.  We couldn’t look to him as our model for living.  

 But Jesus was without sin.  He was “set apart from sinners,” as the author of Hebrews says.  Now that doesn’t mean that Jesus distanced himself from sinners, but that he was different from sinners.  We know that Jesus did not distance himself from sinners.  He loved sinners and he ate with them and he died for them.  

 And so Jesus, the perfect high priest, was given the highest place in heaven, “at the right hand” of the Father.  His work is finished.  He doesn’t need to go on offering sacrifices day after day, year after year.  He has completed his work.

 That was the futility of the old system:  It was never finished.  A priest could never sit down because his work was never finished.  Sacrifices could only be offered while standing before God, so the priests of Aaron could not “sit down” at the end of their work.

 And in the old system, the high priest could only go into God’s presence once a year.  That’s what the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Temple represented:  God’s presence.  And it was forbidden to human beings.  Only once a year, only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, could anyone enter the Holy of Holies.  And even then, it was only the high priest who could do it.  And there was a complicated ritual for how he could do it.  He had to be secluded for a week, kept away from all contact with anyone who was not a priest.  The night before he went in, he was kept awake all night, lest he fall asleep and “sin in his dreams.”  In the morning, he had to wash himself in a prescribed way.  He had to dress in his special priestly garb.  And then he had to offer the sacrifice of a bull that he himself had purchased to cover his own sins.  He had to do all that just to go into God’s presence to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the rest of the nation.  And it had to be done over and over and over again.  There is a certain logic to saying that anything that has to be repeated is not perfect.  If it was perfect, then it wouldn’t have to be done again!  

 By contrast, Jesus sits in God’s presence forevermore.  He offered the perfect sacrifice of himself once and for all.  His work of sacrificing is over and done.  He has sat down as the perfect high priest forever.  And only the one who has been made perfect through sacrifice, through suffering, can make perfect those who seek to come to God.  

 All of that is foreign to our experience now.  But I think it can still teach us deep truths.  For starters, it teaches us that we need to take sin seriously.  

 Unfortunately, I’m afraid that we really don’t do that anymore.  We don’t view sin seriously.  We have greatly reduced the number of things that we even call sin.  We only think of sin as the “really bad stuff.”  Murder, yes, that’s a sin.  But lying, envy, gossip?  Eh.  And of course, only the really bad people deserve hell.  Hitler, bin Laden?  Sure, they’re in hell.  But my neighbor who died last year?  He was a decent guy.  Never killed anyone or anything.  

 If sin isn’t serious, then why did Jesus have to die?  If most people are “basically good,” then the death of Jesus was unnecessary.  

 At least in Judaism’s sacrificial system, there was a constant reminder of the seriousness of sin.  Every single day, at least two animals were sacrificed for the sins of the nation.  When a person became aware of their sin, they had to go to the Temple and buy a sacrificial animal.  Sin meant bloodshed and death.  It was a serious matter.  

 And I don’t think that we can really appreciate the immensity of Christ’s sacrifice without a serious understanding of sin.  If people are “basically good,” then the death of Jesus is robbed of its enormous meaning.  But if people are desperately wicked, sinful from the moment of their conception, then the death of Jesus takes on a whole new dimension.  As the Scriptures say, “For a good person, someone might be willing to die.  But God shows his great love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

 We heard earlier the story of Bartimaeus.  The crowd wanted to ignore him.  But spiritually speaking, each of us is him.  We are poor, blind, helpless, and we can only cry out to Jesus for mercy.  

 I think the priesthood of Jesus also helps us understand that he is still serving us today.  His work of sacrificing is over and done.  But his work as our priest is not yet finished.  Because another role of a priest is that of intercessor, one who stands between people and God and pleads with God on behalf of the people.  

 Jesus lives forever to plead with God on our behalf.  Jesus lived and died.  He rose again and ascended back into heaven.  And one day he will come again.  What’s he doing in the meantime?  He is at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for us.  It is not meaningless when we end our prayers with the words “in the name of Jesus.”  He is pleading our cause before the Father.  

 Without that understanding, Jesus’ work is either in the past, “he died and rose again,” or in the future, “he will come again.”  But Jesus never stops being for us.  Day after day, he pleads on our behalf.  He is still our high priest, even if we don’t think in those terms very often.  

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