We’re talking about Jesus as a Priest this week. When you hear priest, you may think of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican priests in modern times. But these are different from priests in the Jewish world of Jesus’ time. The fact we use the same English word does confuse this issue.
The Jewish priests stood in for the people of Israel, particularly the high priest who could represent the whole nation. He was the only one who could approach God’s direct presence in the temple, in a room called the holy of holies.
Once a year he could enter that room, and stand in God’s direct presence. He would push aside a heavy, magnificent curtain to do that. This was a tangible symbol of our separation from God, brought about by our pushing him out of our lives in sin. He could speak directly to God, ask him to give his nation a bit more time, and not destroy them but save them.
One of the reasons Jesus is called the great high priest is that he was in God’s presence like a high priest, but then did what no other human could. He stood in for not just Israel, but all of humanity, and by sacrificing himself and not just an animal, he bought us life not just for another year but all time.
When he did sacrifice himself in this way, dying on a cross, an incredible thing happened. The curtain tore in half.
No longer was the human race completely separated from God, with only one opportunity a year for one man to enter God’s presence. Now every human had the opportunity to know God personally, to have the guidance of his holy spirit, and to be saved from sin and death forever, because of this one man, Jesus.
Challenge: What is the curtain in your life separating you from God? Is it anger, pride, love of money, or something else? Write it on a sheet of paper, then rip it in half. This is what Jesus did on the cross, he made a way through that curtain for you to know God. Keep that ripped page somewhere as a reminder.
Yesterday we saw the author of the Book of Hebrews describing how the sacrificial system was temporary – all these animals killed, sacrifices offered year after year, with no lasting change. Still people would sin, sacrifice and repeat.
The priests were always trying to make things right with God, at least temporarily, as the people’s representatives.
But he says there is a better way. Stop transferring sins onto animals, and transfer them onto one perfect, spotless human being.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says that this sacrificial system was a foreshadowing of Jesus death—pointing us towards it. Only the death of Jesus, the one perfect life, can be our substitute.
…we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
(Hebrews 10:10b-14 ESV)
As a human, Jesus could take responsibility for sin. But as the perfect God, he was like the perfect spotless lamb sacrificed each year for the whole nation. As God, he had the power to do this, and to make it a one time act for all time and all people.
He took the sins of the entire world, and sacrificed himself as an offering. He destroyed the power of sin, and its ability to lead to inevitable death, by rising again. This was the true power of God at work in him. This is why he sits at God’s right hand, ruling over the universe, with sin and death squished under his feet. He’s done his work, he can sit down and rest.
There is all kinds of incredible imagery around this, particularly in the Book of Hebrews, explaining how Jesus is like a great high priest.
Question: In what ways have you been trying to make things right with God? Has it felt futile? How does this passage give you hope?
We asked yesterday about punishments matching crimes. It seems like a natural enough thing to pursue in a system of law, even if it’s challenging in practice. It makes sense and is fairly palatable with more minor infractions, but when we get to really serious crimes, it gets harder. Think of sex crimes and murder. If we consider something so reprehensible it should never be done, it’s hard to justify repeating the crime as punishment against the perpetrator. This is, of course, the whole reason people debate the death penalty. But let’s consider now the problem of sin.
One way to describe sin is that it’s when we take good things in world, and abuse them, using them in ways God never intended. This all goes back to our misuse of life itself, taking the life God had given us as a basis for a relationship with him, and using it for selfish ends.
What is the punishment for this? If the gift was life, and we misused it, it might make sense to take life away. This sounds quite harsh, but thankfully God had a plan, and part of that plan was a sacrificial system, to always hold before the Jews that sin led to death, until something could be done about it once and for all.
In the Old Testament, very careful laws were laid down as to how sins should be dealt with. There was a whole system of sacrifices to show how serious sin was – for example, the sinner would take an animal and the animal would be as near to perfect as possible and then inside the temple the sins were transferred to the animal and then the animal was killed. Sin led to death, quite visibly.
But was this enough? The author of Hebrews, in the New Testament part of the Bible, said this:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Why would they do this year after year, day after day? What effect was it having? Its effect was only a temporary fix, but they needed a permanent one.
Question: What kind of sacrifice do you think would deal with sin forever, not just for the moment?
When we do something wrong, we’re used the idea of punishment. Some parents might take away treats from children, or give them timeouts, or a stern talking-to.
When we get caught speeding, we expect a fine, or demerit points.
When someone commits a crime, they can expect punishment in terms of fines, jail time, community service, or in some places, death.
The ancient law systems of the OT gave us the famous “eye for an eye” concept. That the punishment should match the crime, and death was very much a part of that system. This was the context into which Jesus was born – a society with a system of law front and centre, which included these principles.
Let’s think about it from another angle – if you borrow money to buy a house and fail to keep up your payments, the bank takes the house, right? Or if you let it fall into disrepair, and it loses all the value the bank paid for, what then?
Now, what if you were given life itself, on condition that you use it properly? If you don’t, what should happen? You can imagine where I’m going – you would expect life to be taken away. Is that how God works?
We’ll see how God has managed that reality, in the past, in Jesus, and today.
We’ll learn about a system of sacrifices in the Old Testament part of the Bible, with a network of priests offering sacrifices of animals and other goods at a temple in the heart of Jerusalem. We’ll learn what this has to do with Jesus.
Question: When have you been punished for an infraction? Was the punishment fitting, or not?