Uniform 01.18.2015: Our High Priest

Hebrews 4:14–5:10

During my fourteen years of working as an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys, I’ve had the privilege of editing many of our books and Bible commentaries. It’s been fascinating to read interpretations of Old and New Testament texts—both Scriptures that are familiar to me and ones I’ve never explored. I have truly come to view the Bible as the grand, sweeping story of God. But no part is more striking to me than the idea of Jesus as our priest.

Before Jesus, God’s people went to a temple in order to perform rituals and offer sacrifices to the Lord. The temple was a large building divided into sections—the outer area for women, the next for Israelite males, the next for priests. Each section got closer to the center, which was called the “holy of holies.” A curtain concealed this special, sacred area that held the ark of the covenant, the beautiful box containing the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. No one could enter the holy of holies except for the high priest, and he could enter it only one day per year (on the Day of Atonement). There was distance between the people and God.

Jesus changed that. For me, Matthew 27:50-51a is one of the most moving passages in the entire Bible: “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom….” For centuries, that curtain was a symbol of God’s separation from the people. They could approach the Lord, but they could never get too close to a holy and righteous God.

Then Jesus came.

The writer of Hebrews put to words what Jesus did, and it was absolutely transforming for the people of that time. Jesus the high priest “passed through the heavens” even before he walked the earth. As the very “Son of God,” he is “without sin,” and yet he understands us and even “sympathizes” with us. Instead of looking fearfully at a curtain or, as a woman, standing on the outer edges of the vicinity of God, we can all go up to that “throne of grace with boldness.” (Heb 4:14-16)

It is certainly true that many familiar biblical characters felt that they could be bold with God: Abraham, Moses, David, and others. But Jesus gave the rest of us a chance to be honest and confident when we communicate with God. As our high priest, he loves us, prays for us, and longs for us to accept his gift of salvation through our obedience (5:9-10). Jesus doesn’t go into the holy of holies once a year; he sits at God’s right hand all the time. And he constantly draws us into that sacred space too.

What Jesus did is absolutely transforming for the people of our time, just as it was when this Scripture was written. Let us be thankful for his willingness to take on the role of our high priest, who gives us “mercy and…grace to help in time of need” (4:16).

Discussion

1. Imagine that you live in Old Testament times and are able to make a pilgrimage to the temple. Where do you stand? How close are you able to get to the sacred space of God?
2. Why do you think the people constructed the temple in this way? How might it have helped them to have more respect and awe of the Lord?
3. How might the arrangement of the temple have affected people’s relationship with God in a negative way?
4. What does it mean to you that Jesus was willing to be our high priest?
5. How can we appreciate the closeness with God that Jesus offers and still respect God’s holiness?

Reference Shelf

Two exhortations are made in this unit on the basis of the high priesthood of Jesus. The first exhortation is to “hold fast to our confession” and the second is to “approach the throne of grace with boldness.” These exhortations and their supporting details conclude themes developed thus far in Hebrews and also introduce topics that will be developed in following sections. The exhortation to hold fast recalls the comparison between Moses and Christ (3:1-6) and the specific declaration that “we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and pride that belongs to hope” (v. 6). The exhortation to move ahead (to “approach the throne of grace”) recalls 2:17-18 where Jesus is described as being “tested by what he suffered” so that “he is able to help those who are being tested.”

The basis for the challenge to “hold fast to our confession” is the fact that our high priest “has passed through the heavens” (v. 14). The passage of Jesus through the heavens (4:14) recalls the declaration of Hebrews 1:3b: “When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” It also evokes the image of the passage of the high priest through the veil on the Day of Atonement and his entry into the holy of holies, the place of God’s presence (see later discussion of Jesus’ passage beyond the veil in 6:19-20; 8:1-2; 9:11; 10:20). Jesus’ credentials as the “great high priest” are established. But this great high priest, at the right hand of the Majesty on high, is one who has been tested, is capable of sympathy, and is ready to dispense mercy and grace. An essential characteristic of Jesus as high priest is his capacity “to sympathize with our weaknesses.” Christians may approach the throne of grace with boldness, not with timidity. Readers needed to have the sympathy of Jesus emphasized because Jesus’ exalted status as high priest in heaven could imply his aloofness from weary and discouraged Christians in a hostile world. In later sections, the writer is careful to relate the designation of Jesus as high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” to the experiences of Jesus involving suffering. The exaltation of Jesus will be stressed, but readers will know that discussions of exaltation always imply the suffering and death of Jesus. Just as the writer held different christological conceptions or traditions in tension, he held different high-priestly traditions in tension. The divine and the human, the eternal and the temporal, support each other in their tension. The death of the Son is the action of an eternal and exalted high priest. It has “heavenly” effects that are produced precisely through concrete human actions. As an act on the spiritual plane, the action of Christ opens a new possibility of existence for those who enter the new covenant. As an act of flesh and blood, the act of the Son leads many others to glory and can be imitated by followers of Christ.

Reference

Edgar McKnight & Christopher Church, Hebrews-James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 114-115.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters (ages 10 and 8), and watching television shows on Netflix. Her goal for 2015 is to tackle the bass clef on the piano.

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