Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, December 15, 2018
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The Priesthood of Jesus

John 12:20-36 and Hebrews 5:1-10

 What is a priest?  We probably think first of a priest as a clergyperson in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions, basically a “pastor” with a different title.  But there is a specific meaning to the word priest.  A priest is someone who stands between human beings and God and who reconciles humanity to God through the offering of sacrifices.  In Scripture, a priest does not aspire to this position but is chosen for it by God.  

 A priest is an intermediary.  He is not like other human beings in that he has been chosen for a holy task.  He is set apart for this holy work.  But he is human.  And as a human, he is sympathetic to human beings.  He knows and understands the struggles of temptation.  For this reason, an ordinary priest must offer sacrifices not only for the sins of others, but also for his own sins.  

 Hebrews tells us that Christ is a different kind of high priest.  First, he is of a different order than most of the other priests we find in the Scriptures.  The high priests of the Old Testament had to be direct descendants of Aaron, the first high priest, and members of the tribe of Levi.  

 But the Messiah, being a descendant of David, had to come from the tribe of Judah.  He couldn’t be a Levite or descendant of Aaron.  In many ancient Near East cultures, the king was also the “high priest.”  For example, that was true in Rome.  One of the titles of the emperor was “highest priest.”  But in Israel, those two offices, king and priest, were kept separate.  The kings who did step over that line and assume priestly, duties, like Saul and Uzziah, were punished by God for their arrogance.  

 So Christ became a different kind of high priest, not after the order of Aaron, but after the order of Melchizadek.  Melchizadek is a rather mysterious figure who only appears in person in Genesis 14.  He is the priest-king of the city of Salem, which would later become Jerusalem.  Abraham gives him an offering, and he blesses Abraham.  Because he was such a mysterious figure, many legends and stories arose about him.  Since he just appears in the story, some thought that he was not a human being, but an angel.  After all, only an angel could be greater than Abraham, the father of God’s people.  But in Psalm 110, we see Melchizadek in a prophecy about the Messiah:  “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizadek.”  

 So Jesus is not a high priest in the order of Aaron, but in the order of Melchizadek.  He is a priest-king.  And according to Hebrews 7, this makes him a higher and greater priest than the descendants of Aaron.  

 Verse 7 says, “While he was on the earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could deliver him from death.”  I think we might have a tendency to gloss over the agony of the cross, to forget that Jesus struggled greatly with the thought of death on the cross in obedience to God’s plan.  But if Jesus was truly human, then he had to feel pain just as we do.  He had to fear the uncertainty and difficulty of death, just as we do.  If there was no difficulty to the cross, then there was no sacrifice.  A sacrifice, by definition, must be costly.  And if the sacrifice is a sacrifice of oneself, then it must also be painful.  

 Jesus learned obedience through suffering, Hebrews tells us.  There is a level of knowledge that can only come through personal experience.  You can tell someone else about an experience till you’re blue in the face, but they are never going to know it fully until they experience it for themselves.  Sometimes we say, “I know how you feel” to other people when they’re going through painful circumstances.  We might mean well, but honestly, unless we have gone through the same experience, or at least something similar, then we really don’t know how they feel.  

 Now there is a certain mystery here, in my mind.  If God is omniscient, if God has all knowledge, then does he have to go through an experience to know it fully?  Does God have to become a human being to know what it means to be human?  Does God have to be tempted to sin to know what temptation is?  Does God have to suffer personally to know all about suffering?  Does God have to experience death to know fully about death?  

 My gut reaction is to say, “No, God doesn’t have to do these things to know them fully.”  But this much we know without a doubt:  God does understand these “human” experiences fully and completely because he has gone through them.  Christ did become flesh.  Christ did know temptation and pain and suffering.  Christ did experience death.  So we do not have a high priest who is without sympathy for us when we experience these things.  

 John 12 gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ experience of temptation.  In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see Jesus’ temptation most clearly in the Garden

of Gethsemane.  But John also tells us this story from Jesus’ life, earlier in that same week between Palm Sunday and Easter.  

 There were some Greeks in Jerusalem during that Passover week.  They were probably not Greek converts to Judaism, but rather what were often called “God-fearers,” Gentiles who found something good and desirable in the God of Scripture, but who did not undergo all the steps necessary to convert fully.  They want to meet Jesus.  They want to learn more about him.  So they approach one of the disciples, Philip, who along with Andrew, brings them to Jesus.  After that, they disappear from the text.  It might seem that Jesus doesn’t really have anything to say to them.  But I think he does.  We’ll see that in a minute. 

 Jesus says, “The time has come for the Son of Man to enter his glory.”  As we’ve talked about a couple times in the last month or so, Jesus preferred that title for himself, Son of Man.  Its origins go back to Daniel 7.  Daniel 7 tells us of four great empires, each more frightening and horrible than the one before.  They are described as wild savage beasts:  A lion, a bear, a leopard, and the final one so terrifying and horrible that even a wild animal could not fit its description.  These four beasts represent the four great empires that swept across the landscape of the ancient Near East world and oppressed God’s people:  Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.  

 But after these four great empires pass from the scene, they are followed by a new power, one like a Son of Man.   After the horrors of these empires, this is a welcome change.  This new power will be one of humanity, one of gentleness, one of love.  He will enter into his glory, not through cruelty or violence, as many supposed would be the way of the Messiah, but rather through his own death.  

 The illustration of this is the kernel of wheat.  By itself, it remains but a single kernel.  But if it goes into the ground, it becomes so much more.  One of the most profound changes in human history was the agricultural revolution.  There was a time when human beings hunted and gathered what they could.  But one day, someone figured out that if you took that perfectly good food, those seeds you had collected, and buried them in the dirt, they became much more.  That required an act of faith.  It took faith to bury perfectly good food.  It took faith to say, “Instead of eating this now, I’ll bury it and eat more later.”  Maybe there was someone standing nearby who said, “Don’t do that.  Eat it now.  A bird in hand is worth two in the bush!”  But that kernel of wheat can never reach its full potential unless it “dies.”  

 Jesus is initiating a “spiritual revolution.”  If you cling to your life, you will lose it.  But if you hate your life, you will keep it for all eternity.  The word hate in this context is used with the meaning of “to choose against.”  If you love your life in this world, if you cling to it and won’t let it go, you’ll still lose it.  But if you lay down your life in this world, you will keep it for all eternity.  If you “bury it in the ground,” you’ll reap a far greater harvest in the future.  

 The spiritual revolution of Jesus is that greatness comes from serving others, not striving for more.  Only by spending our lives do we keep them.  And we only become truly useful to God when our desires are buried so that his desires can come to life in us.  

 Jesus’ desire was for God’s glory; even it meant that he would not be “saved from what lies ahead.”  God spoke from heaven, declaring, “I have already glorified my name, and I will do it again.”  Maybe it is instructive to us that when God did speak, there were many there who did not understand it!  

 Jesus continues, “The time of judgment for the world has come, and the prince of the world will be cast out.”  The “prince of this world” is Satan, who is the embodiment of self-will, just as Jesus is the embodiment of submission to God’s will.  

 Many could not understand this way of thinking.  They were stuck in a worldly way of thinking:  Messiah must live forever.  How can the Son of Man die?  How can a man lifted up on a cross draw all the world (even those Greeks) to himself?  

 The answer is that a man on a cross can only draw others to himself if he goes there willingly; if he offers himself as the sacrifice freely.  There have been many, many empires in the history of this world built on selfish ambition, greed, the lust for power, and personal pride.  All those empires share one thing in common:  They have all fallen.  And none has lasted as long or reached as many as the Kingdom of God, built on love and self-sacrifice.   

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