Our Great High Priest (Hebrews 5:1–10:18)
The central section of Hebrews is dominated by the theme of Jesus as our great high priest. Taking Psalm 110 as his guide, the author of Hebrews argues that the Messiah was destined to be “a priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6), and that this priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood that supervised the religious life of Israel. According to Hebrews, the old priesthood, under the old covenant, could not genuinely take away sins but could only remind the people of their sins by the endless sacrifices offered by imperfect and mortal priests. Jesus’ priesthood offers one definitive sacrifice for all time and offers us a mediator who always lives to intercede for us. We will highlight here the implications of these two themes of sacrifice and intercession on how we go about our work.
Jesus, through his self-sacrifice, succeeded in taking away human sin forever. “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God.’ . . . For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10:12, 14). “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” (Heb. 7:27). This complete atonement for sin is often referred to as “the work of Christ.”
It may seem that the forgiveness of sins is a purely church or spiritual matter with no implications for our work, but this is far from true. On the contrary, the definitive sacrifice of Jesus promises to liberate Christians to live lives of passionate service to God in every sphere of life. The text highlights the ethical—that is, practical—consequences of forgiveness in Hebrews 10:16, “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” In other words, we who are forgiven will desire to do God’s will (in our hearts) and will receive the wisdom, vision, and ability to do so (in our minds).
How is this so? Many people regard church activities in roughly the same way as some Israelites regarded the rituals of the old covenant. If we are to get on God’s good side, such people reckon, we need to do some religious things, since that seems to be the sort of thing God is interested in. Going to church is a nice, easy way to meet the requirement, although the downside is that we have to keep doing it every week so that the “magic” doesn’t wear off. The supposed good news is that once we meet our religious obligations, we are then free to go about our business without too much concern about God. We won’t do anything heinous, of course, but we are basically on our own until we refill our buckets with God’s favor by attending church again next week.
The book of Hebrews lays waste to such a view of God. While the Levitical system was a part of God’s good purposes for his people, it was always meant to point beyond itself to the future, definitive sacrifice of Christ. It was not a magical favor dispensary but a canteen for the journey. Now that Christ has come and offered himself on our behalf, we can experience the genuine forgiveness of sins through God’s grace directly. There is no further point in making perpetual ritual cleansings. We have no buckets that need to be—or can be—filled with God’s favor by doing religious activities. Trusting in Christ and his sacrifice, we are in the right with God. Hebrews 10:5 puts it as clearly as can be: “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me’” (Heb. 10:5).
None of this, of course, means that Christians shouldn’t go to church or that rituals have no place in Christian worship. What is crucial, though, is that the consummate sacrifice of Christ means that our worship is not a self-contained religious exercise sealed off from the rest of our lives. Instead, it is a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15) that refreshes our connection with our Lord, cleanses our conscience, sanctifies our will, and thus frees us to serve God each day, wherever we are.
We are sanctified for service. “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God,” says Christ (Heb. 10:7). Service is the inevitable outcome of forgiveness by God. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Heb. 9:14, NIV).
Ironically, then, a focus on Christ’s priestly, heavenly work should lead us to be of tremendous practical, earthly service. The sacrifice Christ offered, which leads ultimately to a renewal of heaven as well as earth (Heb. 12:26; see also Rev. 21:1), was enacted here on earth. Likewise, our own service is performed here in the rough and tumble of everyday life. But we walk and work in this world in the confidence that Jesus has gone before us and completed the same journey we are on. This gives us confidence that our labor for him in every area of life will not be in vain.
We have used the NIV here because of a quirk in the NRSV translation, which reads “worship” instead of “serve.” “Worship” is indeed a possible translation of the Greek latreuein, which like the Hebrew abad can mean either “worship” or “serve.” But in this context, the NRSV is alone among the major translations in translating it as “worship.” The NIV, TNIV, NASB, KJV, and others render it here as “serve.”
Lech Walesa’s path to becoming the president of Poland reached its pivotal moment on August 14, 1980 when he jumped a fence to get into the sufferings of workers in the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk. He had previously been fired from his job there as an electrician for his role in protesting against Poland’s communist government in 1976. But Walesa jumped into the fray once more and was elected head of the shipyard’s strike committee. The workers’ demands were met, but workers in other Gdansk enterprises asked Walesa to continue striking in solidarity with their struggles. He agreed and quickly emerged as the national leader of the Solidarity Movement for political reform.
Solidarity was recognized by the Polish communist party, but pressure from the Soviet Union quickly led to a government crackdown. Walesa was arrested but returned to leading the movement underground upon his release. Eventually Solidarity succeeded in lifting martial law, forcing a contested parliamentary election, establishing a non-communist government, and breaking Soviet control over Poland. Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1983 and became the first democratically elected president of Poland after the fall of communism.
The Catholic Church supported the Solidarity movement and may have headed off further repression party when Pope John Paul II invited Walesa to a high-profile visit to the Vatican in 1981. Walesa credited his faith with the inspiration and strength needed to lead the movement. "No one throughout the world gave us the least of a chance to break Communism down," he said. "It happened quite simply. We knelt down and prayed.”
Priests in ancient Israel not only offered sacrifices for the people, but they also offered prayers of intercession. Thus Jesus prays for us before the throne of God (Heb. 7:25). “[Jesus] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). “He entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24). We need Jesus to be “always” interceding in the presence of God on our behalf because we continue to sin, fall short, and stray away. Our actions speak ill of us before God, but Jesus’ words about us are words of love before the throne of God.
To put it in workplace terms, imagine the fear a young engineer might feel when he is called to meet the chief of the state highway department. What will he possibly say to the chief? Recognizing that the project he is working on is running late and over budget makes him more afraid. But then he learns that his supervisor, a beloved mentor, will also be at the meeting. And it turns out his supervisor is great friends with the chief of the highway department from their days back at university. “Don’t worry,” the mentor assures the engineer, “I’ll take care of things.” Won’t the young engineer have much greater confidence to approach the chief in the presence of the chief’s friend?
Hebrews emphasizes that Jesus not only is a high priest but also a high priest in solidarity with us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). To return to a verse we discussed earlier, Jesus speaks to God of the “body you have prepared for me” (Heb. 10:5). Christ came in a genuine human body, and he really did embrace life as one of us.
In order to be a faithful high priest, the author reasons, Jesus has to be able to sympathize with the people. He cannot do this if he has not experienced the same things they have experienced. And so he states quite carefully that Jesus learned obedience. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). This does not mean, of course, that Jesus had to learn to obey in the way we do—by ceasing to disobey God. It means that he needed to experience suffering and temptation firsthand to qualify as a high priest. Other verses make the same point in equally expressive language, that Jesus’ sufferings “perfected” him (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28). The full meaning of “perfect” is not only “flawless” but also “complete.” Jesus was already flawless—but to be qualified as our high priest, he needed those sufferings to complete him for the job. How else could he genuinely relate to us as we struggle in this world day by day?
What is most encouraging here is that this suffering and learning took place in the setting of Jesus’ work. He does not come as a kind of a theological anthropologist who “learns” about the world in a detached, clinical way, or as a tourist popping by for a visit. Instead he weaves himself into the fabric of real human life, including real human labor. When we face struggles at work, we can then turn to our sympathetic high priest with the full assurance that he knows firsthand what we are going through.
The Nobel Foundation, "The Nobel Peace Prize 1983," http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1983/walesa-bio.html "Lech Walesa,"Encyclopedia Britannica Online, https://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/634519/Lech-Walesa and Sarah K. Clarke, "Lech Walesa Tells His Story of Faith at Seton Hall," Newark (NJ) Star Ledger, December 5, 2005.