(It’s been a while since we’ve posted anything, but perhaps this will be ‘worth the wait,’ so to speak. Thanks to those who have encouraged us and asked [demanded?] that we write more and post more often.)
It wasn’t until studying for this lesson that I discovered an interesting fact. The phrase “high priest” appears in 21 verses of the Old Testament. Just four times in the Pentateuch (the “books of Moses,” Genesis through Deuteronomy). Yet the phrase appears in 56 verses of the New Testament—16 times in the book of Hebrews alone. That should give us a clue: the New Testament has just as much to say—if not more—about the true meaning of the High Priest than the Old Testament does.
The writer of Hebrews addressed an audience of Israelites—those who were raised to hear, believe, and obey the Law of Moses. It’s important that before we look into the idea of Jesus as the “Great High Priest,” we try to get some grasp of the background that the original readers would have had, and the ideas that would have sprung to mind when discussing this issue. As we look at these Old Testament passages, try to picture in your head how these things pointed forward to Jesus Christ, and how He fulfills these things even today. We will discuss the connections later in the lesson, but try to make those connections as we go through these verses.
The High Priest in the Old Testament
Though it isn’t the first time we read about the high priest, the words “high priest” first appear in Leviticus 21:10-14.
He who is the high priest among his brethren, on whose head the anointing oil was poured and who is consecrated to wear the garments, shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes; nor shall he go near any dead body, nor defile himself for his father or his mother; nor shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God; for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the Lord. And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow or a divorced woman or a defiled woman or a harlot—these he shall not marry; but he shall take a virgin of his own people as wife.
First, note that the high priest (“priest who is chief” – ESV) is a brother, a relative, to those he serves. It would have been unthinkable for the Israelites—God’s chosen people—to have to rely on a foreigner to lead them in the spiritual matters which included the removal of their sins as a nation. God chose the tribe of Levi, specifically Aaron and his lineage, to serve as priests. But the fact remains, they were all Israelites.
Second, note the high priest’s anointing (see Exodus 29:5-7). This was something done in order to set him apart for a specific task to which he was called. God used the same method to set apart kings (1 Samuel 15:1; 1 Kings 1:34; etc.) and prophets (1 Kings 19:16). The high priest was chosen by God to serve His people in their need for sin removal.
Third, note that even in the event of the death of close relatives, the high priest was not to cease performing his work. Though some might view this to be harsh, the work of serving God and serving the nation of God’s people had to come first.
Fourth, note that he was only permitted to marry a virgin—a pure bride—of his own people. The high priest was not permitted to marry someone who was not a follower of God, one of God’s chosen people.
Now, look at Exodus 30:7-10:
And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations. You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD.
The altar of incense, which stood before the veil to the Most Holy Place, is under consideration in these verses. Every morning and evening, the high priest burns incense to the LORD. But the only incense allowed is what God has commanded/authorized. Then at the end of this section, God reveals that the blood of the atonement sacrifice makes the incense acceptable.
Now, Leviticus 16:32-34:
“And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Aaron did as the LORD commanded Moses.
Here we have the Day of Atonement sacrifice described. It cleanses the tabernacle, and it removes the sins of the people of God—and this setup was given by the command of God.
We could appeal to several more passages to get even more in depth about the high priest, but these will have to suffice. The question we want to ask before we go any further is: How did the Jews view the high priest?
- They viewed the high priest as absolutely essential to having their sins forgiven.
- One could pray to God, but it was understood that only the high priest could approach the presence of God on behalf of the people.
- The high priest was the visual representation of the entire Mosaic worship system. When the people thought about the Law of Moses, one of the first images that would come into their heads is the high priest in his robe and crown, offering sacrifices for the people on a constant basis.
- Though they understood (intellectually) that the high priest was still a human and susceptible to sin, he was viewed as “HOLY BEFORE GOD” (that message written across the crown he wore). Thus, he was seen as more holy than everyone else—or at least they knew he was supposed to be.
Of course, by the time of Jesus, the purity and holiness of the office of high priest had faded badly. Instead of following the God-given directive to have a high priest for life, the Jews had multiple high priests, alternating their years of filling that role (see Luke 3:2; John 18:13). In the few centuries leading up to the birth of Christ, the office of high priest was filled by whoever paid the ruling nation (be it the Seleucids, Ptolemies, or Romans) the most money—it became a political office instead of a religious one.
So the time was ripe for a new high priest to emerge.
Jesus as the Great High Priest
When Jewish Christians, torn by doubt, persecution, tradition, and family pressure, began to go back into Judaism, God inspired a man to bring them a powerful message about what they had in Christ—and how vastly superior Jesus Christ is than the fading relics of the Law of Moses. One of the main areas of emphasis in this book is how Jesus’ priesthood is better than the priesthood of Aaron. In other words, Jesus is the High Priest above every high priest who had ever existed before Him.
Speaking of Jesus, this inspired penman states:
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:17-18).
The first thing we noted earlier was that the high priest had to be related to the people he served. Here, Jesus is the merciful and faithful high priest for “his brothers.” But unlike the Jewish high priests (especially in the centuries prior to the birth of Jesus), He served as a merciful High Priest, and a faithful High Priest.
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
The Old Testament high priest came into the presence of God only by means of coming into the Most Holy Place, and approaching the mercy seat. But Jesus didn’t have to bother with that. Instead of going into the tabernacle and standing before the Ark of the Covenant, Jesus “passed through the heavens” and went to the Father in person for us. The blood of the sacrifice—His own blood—was taken into heaven.
More than that, because He has cleared the path for us, we can approach God with confidence, praying to the Father through His Son Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:20; Colossians 3:17; Philippians 4:6-7). He is there, and He lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25-26). Our High Priest doesn’t have to go to an appointed place on an appointed day and wait for God to come and accept the offering. Our High Priest is right next to the Father in heaven, and delivers our requests personally!
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power… (Acts 10:38).
The Old Testament priests had to be anointed by a man in order to serve (Aaron was anointed by Moses). If they weren’t anointed, then their offerings wouldn’t be accepted. But instead of being anointed by man, our Great High Priest was anointed directly by God Himself! He was anointed with the Holy Spirit and power after His baptism (see John 1, Matthew 4). If this hadn’t happened, He couldn’t have offered the sacrifice acceptably—Jesus had to be a priest to make that sacrifice acceptable.
He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens (Hebrews 7:24-26).
We saw before that the Old Testament high priest was not permitted to cease his duties, even in the event of the death of a loved one. Our Great High Priest “lives to make intercession” for His people. He never stops His role as our High Priest. When one of His near relatives (faithful Christians) dies, He rejoices, for “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15). And if one of His brethren should die spiritually, that is incredibly sad, but Jesus does not stop His work on behalf of the remaining saints—His role is of the utmost importance for us. He loves us so much that He keeps working for us, even through heartache for those who fall away.
You may also recall the responsibility of the Old Testament high priest to offer up incense to God, every day, morning and evening. Revelation 8:3-4 pictures this burning incense as delivering the prayers of the saints to God. As our Great High Priest, Jesus delivers those prayers—not just once or twice, not weekly, not monthly, but continually. Every day. Morning and evening He presents our petitions to the Father and intercedes on our behalf.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Just as the Old Testament high priest was only permitted to marry a virgin, a pure woman, so our Great High Priest is married only to a pure, unspotted bride. And to make sure His church is this unspotted bride, our High Priest purified her, cleansed her by the washing of water (baptism) through the word (from which we can have faith). We are made new creatures in Christ (Romans 6:3-4), and only through that can we be part of the bride of the Greatest High Priest.
Hebrews 9:7 spells out that the Day of Atonement sacrifice was done for the “errors” (KJV) or “sins done in ignorance” (NIV) or “unintentional sins” (ESV) of the people. Then God inspired the writer to say this:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. (Hebrews 9:11-17)
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:24-28).
The sacrifice of our Great High Priest is so powerful, so effective, that He only had to offer it one time. That sacrifice purges us of our old sins (2 Peter 1:9). But more than that, it continually cleanses us of our sins—every day, morning and evening, when we “walk in the light as He is in the light” (1 John 1:7).
One of the greatest worries of many Christians is that they have sinned, but they didn’t realize it, and therefore didn’t ask for forgiveness. But if the Old Testament high priest could offer a sacrifice that removed the punishment for the “unintentional sins” or the “sins done in ignorance” (that is, sins they didn’t realize they committed), then even more so will the blood of Christ completely take care of that for us as well! “If we confess our sins [we can only confess that which we know we have done], He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, lives to make atonement and intercession for us, and His blood continually covers all our sins—the ones we know about and repent of, and the ones we don’t know about. In other words, our Great High Priest takes the worry out of being a follower of God. And He does it every day.
One final thought, and then we will close. The Old Testament high priest served until he died, and then a new high priest took over. There might be times when that happened that there was a bit of learning on the job, of nervousness or worry from the new guy. After all, can you imagine having the sins of millions of people resting on what you were doing at that very minute? But with Jesus, there is no worry, no nervousness, no learning on the job. He is the Great High Priest who will never die, never be replaced, and who never—not even once—fails to fulfill His role perfectly.
And He does it all for us.
Praise God for our Great High Priest!
-Bradley S. Cobb