December 11, 2005

Jesus Our Priest

Category: Bible :: Permalink

Scripture: Hebrews 4:14-5:14
(December 4, 2005, Advent Sermon)

[For much of this sermon, I’m indebted to James Jordan’s From Bread to Wine and to Peter Leithart‘s sermons in April and May 2004.]

In the Bible, three kinds of people are anointed to office: priests, kings, and prophets. As the Christ, the Anointed One, Jesus holds and fulfils these three offices. We often speak of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king in that order. But the Bible presents a different order.

At first, God formed Israel into a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6), represented by the Levites and priests and in particular by the High Priest. Later, the focus shifts from priests to kings with the rise of Saul and then of David. Now the king represents the people. As the kingdom splits and in particular as the threat of exile looms, the focus shifts again to the prophets.

The historical development is thus from priests to kings to prophets. Each of those transitions is a time of crisis, a time of death and resurrection. That development is important. In the Old Covenant, God was maturing Israel as a child (Gal. 4) until the coming of Jesus, when at last we have a full-grown man.

The pattern by which God matured Israel tells us something about Jesus as priest, king, and prophet. It also tells us something about our lives and about how God matures us as we grow in Christ’s image from one phase to another. In the weeks to come, we’ll be looking at kings and prophets. Now, however, we focus on priests.


All through Hebrews, Jesus is presented as the great High Priest, greater than the Old Covenant priests. To know what that means, we need to know what a priest is and to know that we need to ask what priests do.

We often think of priests as men who offer sacrifices. There’s some truth to that. Priests offered morning and evening sacrifices and offerings on special feast days. But ordinary Israelites also offer sacrifices; so do God-fearing Gentiles. What is unique to the priest is that the priest supervises the offering and tends the fire of the altar. Priests are chefs who cook the offerings and take care of the food presented to God.

Priests also take care of God’s house. They offer incense to make the house smell nice, keep the lamps shining so that the house is bright, make sure there is showbread on the table, guard the house and determine who can draw near to it, and sprinkle blood on the furnishings to cleanse them. Priests are housekeepers. Furthermore, taking care of God’s house includes taking care of God’s people. The priests are teachers in Israel and even act as judges (Deut. 17).

The Bible tells us that priests “stand to serve” in God’s presence. That language is also used for servants in a royal palace: they stand before the king (e.g., David, 1 Sam. 16:21-23; Solomon’s servants, 1 Kings 10:8; 12:6; Daniel and his friends, Daniel 1:4-5, 19-20; 2:2). The priest is to Yahweh what a servant is to a king. The priest is Yahweh’s household servant (cf. Ps. 134; Joel 1:9; 2:17).

As a servant, the priest lives by his Master’s word. The priests’ duties were spelled out in detail. The priest didn’t have to understand the rules. He had to hear and obey.


Israel’s priests weren’t always faithful. Because of Eli’s sins, judgment came on Israel, on the tabernacle, which was torn in two, and on Eli’s house. God told Eli that He would replace him with a faithful priest. That priest was Zadok, but Zadok also points forward to Jesus, the faithful High Priest.

Jesus, of course, wasn’t a priest in the line of Aaron. Rather, He was a priest in a greater order, the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110; Heb. 5, 7). Jesus is therefore greater than the Old Covenant priests. They offered repeated sacrifices and never sat down, but Jesus offered one final sacrifice and sat down because His work was finished. Jesus is unlike the Old Covenant priests.

But in other ways He is like them. Like them, He was appointed to office (Heb. 5:4). Like them, He suffered from the weakness brought about by man’s sin, though Himself without sin (Heb. 4:15). Like them, He learned obedience through suffering (Heb. 5:8). Like them, He was God’s palace servant, working in God’s house, declaring lepers clean, giving people access to God, teaching Israel, giving people access to God’s food, and finally presenting a sacrifice: Himself.

The Old Covenant period focused on the priests ended with the tearing apart of the tabernacle, which represented Israel. The loaf was broken. And so Jesus’ body was broken, first in the garden when Jesus’ disciples (the church, His body) fled, and then on the cross where Jesus died alone as the priest who gave His body for us.

And then God raised Him in glory. Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus primarily as a priest but it ends with Jesus as the king with all authority in heaven and earth, sending His disciples to conquer the world. Jesus’ priesthood leads to death but it leads beyond it to glory as the priest-king at God’s right hand as the “author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Heb. 5:9).


Jesus our priest gives us access to God (Heb. 10:19-22). In the Old Covenant, only the High Priest could enter the Holiest Place, but now all of us do in Christ. All of us draw near to God because we’ve been washed with pure water, like the Old Covenant priests. We have been ordained to be priests ourselves (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5).

But some people are priests in a special sense. Pastors are a special sort of priest, servants appointed by God to teach, to proclaim God’s Word, to help us carry out our calling as God’s priests.

Consider, too, the process by which God matures us. As God matured Israel through a process moving from priest to king to prophet, so He moves us through various phases of life. That process started with priesthood, in which Israel (and the priests in particular) had to learn to hear and obey. So, too, Hebrews 5 tells us that before we teach we have to learn. Before we eat solid food, we have to start with milk. Before we “discern good and evil” (which is associated with kingship in the Bible) we have to start with the basics, by which Hebrews appears to have in mind the Law.

That’s how our lives are. Childhood is a priestly phase of life. It’s a time for learning to obey, a time when the rules need to be spelled out, a time when parents want submission and not back-talk. In another sense, early adult life is a priestly phase. When you first start out in a job, for instance, you have to learn the basic skills. Often you learn obedience by suffering.

There are temptations we face in the priestly phase of life. We are tempted to resist authority because we don’t like living under rules. Young men may be tempted to think they can get along without oversight.

We’re also tempted to try to stay in childhood in order to avoid increasing responsibility. When you’re at home, someone else pays the bills, takes charge of the house, makes the important decisions. When you’re on your own, everything rests on your own shoulders. It’s tempting to stick with irresponsibility, especially when becoming mature involves learning obedience through suffering.

Maturity comes through suffering and death. But if you are faithful, trusting in God and serving Him, you can trust that beyond that “death” will be a glorious resurrection in greater maturity. Why? Because Jesus is the faithful High Priest who died and rose so that we can be faithful priests who draw near to God to serve Him, who hear His Word and obey it, and who grow through suffering into the image of God’s Son, God’s servant, Jesus our priest.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:25 am | Discuss (0)

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