23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (NRSV)
A High Priest
Hebrews is a bit of an enigma to a lot of people. The main argument of the book is comparing and contrasting two religious systems of belief. One of those belief systems is first century Judaism. The problem is that most of us, I would wager, don’t know a whole lot about first century Judaism. It’s like comparing apples to the mystery fruit in the cabinet that you can’t see. So the beliefs and practices the author assumes the reader knows about and understands leave us a little bewildered.
Besides that, the author of Hebrews is kind of using the classic my fish is bigger than your fish argument. But he presents it in such a way that he’s not negating the comparison. He’s not saying, “Your fish doesn’t matter because mine’s bigger.” He’s actually presenting something new and different. It’s a new interpretation of time-honored truth. A kind of alternative or an outgrowth of what has always been held dear. A new revelation that is actually older than the former revelation.
At the very beginning of Hebrews, the author writes, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” There is no negation of the relationship between early Christianity and the Jewish faith. Rather, there’s a close kinship. It’s one of the reasons why the Old Testament and the New Testament belong together. The Old Testament contains everything in the New, and the New testament reveals what is contained in the Old.
Every time a New Testament author uses the phrase The Scriptures, they’re talking about the Old Testament. The reason I preach so much from the Old Testament—nine of the previous fourteen sermons I’ve preached here have been from the Old Testament—why I love to preach from the Old Testament is because there’s a richness to be found there. Without understanding the Old Testament writings, the New Testament makes no sense.
Two of the matters being compared in this text are the priesthood and sacrifice. And yet, this is only a piece—a snippet—of a much longer argument the author of Hebrews is presenting.
First, let’s look at sacrifice.
Our English word sacrifice or even offering suggests giving something up. The idea of sacrifice was widespread throughout the ancient world. Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Persians, Canaanites, and Jews all offered sacrifices as a part of their religions.
Among the Hebrew people, sacrifices existed long before the Law of Moses. Cain and Abel, Noah and his sons, Abraham, they all offered sacrifices to God long before Moses and the Torah. In fact, the great medieval Jewish scholar, Maimonides, suggested the system of sacrifices in Judaism was ordained by God as an accommodation for humanity’s primitive desires. As if God were saying, “Alright, fine. If you think you need to kill something to feel forgiven, fine. Do that. Make your sacrifice. But let’s do this in an orderly fashion. Here’s what’s acceptable.” And then God lined it out. The Torah actually limited the use of sacrifice. Human sacrifice was not supposed to happen. The Law was supposed to make idiots like Jephthah the Gileadite a thing of the past.
Yeah, read Judges 11 to learn about that son of a prostitute. I’m not being mean, that’s how he’s introduced to us in the Bible, “Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior” (NRSV). He sacrificed his own daughter as a burnt offering because he made a stupid vow. Under the Law of Moses, this was absolutely wrong. Sacrifice could only be done in certain places, at certain times, for certain reasons, in specific ways, by specific people. In other words, women like Jephthah’s daughter weren’t supposed to be murdered because their father was… Well, I have no words to adequately describe what I think of Jephthah. So we’ll leave it at that.
Maimonides even suggested that the limitation of sacrifice in the Torah was designed as a way to move their more primitive ancestors away from the religious rites of their idolatrous neighbors. It didn’t need to be permanent.
The thing is, in Judaism, sacrifice has never been the only way to receive forgiveness. And not all sacrifices were for forgiveness. Repentance, prayer, and doing good deeds—deeds of charity—were ways to seek and find forgiveness. In the book of Jonah, the city of Nineveh was forgiven when the people repented and fasted. They didn’t offer any sacrifices to be forgiven. Sacrifice has never been the exclusive means of being forgiven in Judaism. And no sacrifice was acceptable to God without genuine repentance and contrition.
So what is sacrifice for? There is a definite element of giving to God. A sacrifice was to be a domestic animal, meaning the expense for the sacrifice is coming out of their pockets. They couldn’t sacrifice wild animals because they didn’t belong to anyone. It had to come from them, which is why there were provisions for the poor. The reason Mary offered two turtledoves or two pigeons after she gave birth to Jesus is because she and Joseph were too poor to pay for a lamb. The lamb was to be for a burnt offering, and the pigeon or turtledove was for a sin offering. But if a person couldn’t afford a lamb, then they could offer two pigeons or two turtledoves.
Now, note that a sin offering was for unintentional sins through carelessness. I think part of the reason a woman had to give a sin offering is because, when a woman has just given birth and is then kept awake almost constantly for a few months with a newborn, sometimes she’s just too tired to care. A sin offering did nothing for sins that were intentional or malicious. It was only for unintentional things through carelessness.
A burnt offering represented submission to God’s will. No part of the burnt offering was eaten, because the whole thing was offered to God. There were also peace offerings, which were offerings to express thanks and gratitude to God. There were guilt offerings, in case you weren’t sure if you had sinned or not. It was kind of the better-safe-than-sorry sacrifice. And there were food and drink offerings, which were ways of offering the fruits of our labor to God. It takes work to harvest something, and then prepare it, whether it’s bread or wine.
Beyond giving something to God, for some of these kinds of sacrifices there’s also an idea of substituting the sacrifice for their self. What was done to the sacrifice should have been done to them, but they conveniently got to trade places. They punished the sacrifice in their stead.
All sacrifices are a kind of offering. The primary purpose of offerings in Judaism is to draw near to God. In fact, the word for offering in Hebrew means to draw near.
So when we talk about Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice, we need to keep in mind all of these pieces of what it means to offer a sacrifice to God. Sacrifice was made by Jesus on our behalf so that we might draw near to God. Jesus stated that clearly when he said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” (John 12:32, CEB).
Now let’s look at priesthood.
The author of Hebrews compares and contrasts two orders of priesthood. The priests in ancient Judaism were the descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. The priests were the ones who stood as intermediaries between God and the people. They took turns serving in the Temple. They handled the procedures for all of the offerings I mentioned above.
None of the priests or high priests could hold their office forever because of this thing called death. Another problem is that the priests, too, were capable of sinning. So they had to offer sacrifice for their own sin first, and then offer the sacrifices the people brought to the Temple.
What the author of Hebrews does is to remind us of another order of priesthood, an order that predates Aaron’s priesthood by hundreds of years. The priesthood of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is only mentioned in a few places in the Scriptures. The first is Genesis 14. After Abram rescued Lot, he was met by Melchizedek, the king of Salem and priest of El Elyon, which means in English, The king of peace and priest of God Most-High. This priest-king brought bread and wine, and he blessed Abram. It was then that Abram tithed. He gave ten-percent of everything he had to Melchizedek.
What’s interesting is that the offices of priest and king were sometimes held by the same person. But in Israel they had been separated. The order of Melchizedek is priest and king, which is why he’s seen as a forerunner to Jesus. It’s why the author of Hebrews uses Melchizedek as his archetype for Jesus Christ who is also priest and king. In these two individuals, the offices are brought together again in the same person.
Melchizedek is also mentioned in Psalm 110:4, which is quoted in Hebrews 7:21, “The LORD has sworn a solemn pledge and won’t change his mind: You are a priest forever in line with Melchizedek.” (CEB).
What the author of Hebrews is arguing is that Jesus’ priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek is better than the Levitical priesthood of Aaron. First, the priesthood of Jesus rests on God’s promise—God’s oath that came after the Law and is, therefore, a new thing God is doing—with God’s own Son now the guarantor of a new and better covenant that can make people perfect. One weakness of the Law is that it couldn’t do that.
Also, Jesus priesthood is permanent. We don’t have to worry about a change in management because Jesus is God. He can save anyone who comes to him for all time because he’s always there making intercession for us. As our high priest, Jesus reconciles us to God.
The priesthood of Jesus is superior because of his own character. He’s “holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from sinners, and raised high above the heavens.” (Heb. 7:26, CEB).
His priesthood is better because of what Jesus did. There’s no need for him to offer sacrifices day in and day out because he already offered himself, once and for all, as the perfect sacrifice. Jesus’ sacrifice essentially puts an end to the need for further sacrifice.
Finally, the priesthood of Jesus is better because of his status. Jesus is God’s Son who’s been made perfect forever. It’s a new thing. A new covenant.
The Good News, here, is that we have a high priest who’s able to save us from the crippling power of sin. We no longer have to be stuck in our past failures. We no longer have to live in guilt and resentment for what we’ve done. Sometimes it can feel like our sin is ever before us, hemming us in, and we’re trapped. People remember it and continue to hold it against us. But Jesus offers us permanent release through this astounding idea of forgiveness. We can repent, we can pray, and we can be forgiven. More than that, we can be transformed so that our sin no longer defines us.
That’s what Jesus Christ, our high priest, does for us. And through his offering of himself, we can draw near to God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the Common English Bible (CEB).