Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Jesus, Our High Priest

Hebrews 7:23-28

The author of Hebrews has a challenge on his or her hands. He or she is writing to convince fellow Hebrews to receive Jesus as Messiah. But these are people who have relied on the Levitical priesthood, the descendants of Aaron, for more than a millennium to secure their relationship with God. Why turn to Jesus now? And this is written before the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. After it was destroyed, of course, it would be easier to convince them to go to Jesus since the Levitical priests no longer had a place to offer sacrifices. But for now, it’s still there. Why embrace Jesus? Why look for something new? If the Levitical priesthood was good enough for Moses and good enough for David, why look for anything more?

So the author is arguing that Jesus is the true and perfect high priest. What makes Jesus a better high priest? There are several arguments found all through chapter 7, not just in the verses we’ve read this morning.

The first argument is the argument of antiquity. Jesus is a superior type of priest because he comes from an older line of priests.

Jesus is a priest but not a descendant of Aaron. Now some Jews expected that there would actually be two messianic figures, based on the Old Testament prophecies. One would be a warrior king from the line of David. The other would be an anointed priest from the line of Aaron. They thought this because the Old Testament was clear the Messiah would come from the line of David, but there were also prophecies that made him sound like a priest, and of course, a priest had to come from the tribe of Levi, not Judah.

But both groups of prophecies refer to Jesus, because Jesus is a priest of a different line. He is a priest in the order of Melchizadek. Genesis 14 tells the story of Melchizadek, the King of Salem, which was the town that stood where Jerusalem now stands back in the time of Abraham. He is kind of mysterious figure. He just shows up in the story and then just as quickly disappears, never to be seen again. His name, Melchizadek, means king of righteousness, and he is the King of Salem, so he is also the king of peace. And because he was a mystery, he took on a rather mythical quality in later Hebrew thought.

In his one and only appearance, Melchizadek blesses Abraham, and in return, Abraham gives him a tithe of the treasure he has just recovered when he rescued his nephew Lot from a bunch of foreign raiders. He is from an older line of priests, and in the Hebrew mind, older means better. What’s more, Levi, father of the tribe of priests, paid him a tithe. How can Levi pay him a tithe when he hasn’t even been born yet? Well, because Levi is a child, a

descendant, of Abraham, and Abraham paid the tithe. The Hebrew people thought of themselves first of all in terms of a corporate identity, the “Children of Abraham.” Community was more important than the individual.

One of the challenges the American church faces is that we think of ourselves almost completely as individuals, and very seldom as part of a community. That can make it hard to build the kind of genuine community God desires the Church to be. But that’s an aside.

This is strange to our way of thinking: To think of Levi being part of Abraham; and also to think of something older being superior. Usually we figure newer is better. But these things made perfect sense to the Hebrew readers of this letter.

The second argument is that Jesus is a priest by an oath of God. The author quotes Psalm 110: “You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizadek. The Lord has taken an oath… You are a priest forever.”

Why would God need to take an oath? Isn’t he always reliable? Yes, so his oath was understood to show the importance of something. Jesus’ priesthood is more important than that of the descendants of Aaron. They became priests by virtue of birth. But God’s declaration, his vow, was more important than one’s birth.

Third, Jesus’ priesthood is eternal and unchanging. In Hebrew philosophy, if something changes, that shows that it is not yet perfected. It is incomplete. And the Levitical priesthood changed all the time. For one thing, the high priest would grow old and die and another would take his place. But by the first century, the high priesthood also changed with the winds of politics. One of the ways the Romans tried to manipulate local politics in Judea is that they would appoint the high priest. And if they weren’t happy with the job he was doing, they would can him and appoint someone else. We see that in the trial of Jesus. Caiaphas was the high priest at the time, but Caiaphas’ father-in-law, Annas, who had been the high priest, was also involved in the trial. Apparently, he had been deposed for some reason.

On the other hand, Jesus is an eternal high priest, and therefore, a perfected one. And “the one perfected through suffering can perfect those who look to God through him,” as one Bible scholar noted.

Fourth, unlike other high priests, Jesus is without sin.

The author uses four different words or phrases to describe him: Jesus is holy, that is set apart or different from others. Jesus is blameless. This means that he has done no harm to

others. Jesus is unstained or unblemished. The Greek word is AMIANTOS, the same word used to describe an animal suitable for sacrifice. And finally, he is “set apart from sinners,” which might better be translated as “triumphant over temptations.”

Jesus as high priest doesn’t need to offer sacrifices for his own sins. Every year, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the high priest would have to offer a sacrifice for his own sins before he could offer one for the sins of the nation. They would go through these extensive precautions to be sure the high priest didn’t accidentally sin before he could go into God’s presence, represented by the Holy of Holies in the Temple. But Jesus is without sin. So he can be the perfect high priest.

And finally, not only is Jesus the perfect high priest, he is also the perfect sacrifice.

The sacrificial system was a constant reminder of the seriousness of sin. Sin leads to death. Every morning and evening, sacrifices were offered. That’s how serious sin was. But that system was imperfect. As the author of Hebrews says, “The blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin.” The sacrificial system ultimately looked forward to the coming of a perfect priest who could offer a perfect sacrifice to save, once and forever.

What should we take away from this? I think this is a powerful way of looking at the work of Jesus. But we probably don’t need to be convinced that Jesus is a great high priest. So is there any value in it for us to consider the priesthood of Jesus?

Yes, there is. Priests had another job besides sacrificing. They were also intercessors; they represented people before God. And Jesus “lives forever to plead with God on our behalf.”

This is a picture of Jesus we probably don’t think about too much. Jesus, the Son of God, is always in the presence of the Father, pleading on our behalf, advocating for us. What does he have to say? I don’t know. But we know he is “on our side.” Without this picture of Jesus as intercessor, we are left in the desert between “He ascended into heaven” and “He will come again.” What’s he doing in the meantime? He is pleading for us. And so we know that we are never alone in our trials or our struggles. And that is good to remember.

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