Jesus Christ: Our Great High Priest

Jesus Christ: Our Great High Priest

Throughout the book of Hebrews we see Jesus referred to as the “Great High Priest.”

In fact, if you read through this New Testament text you will quickly see that presenting Jesus as our High Priest is the central theme of the entire letter. It is apparent that this is a very important title, and we know just from its repeated use that it must be relevant for the Christian life.

But if we are honest most of us do not know what a High Priest is, and if we don’t know what a High Priest is we cannot know what it means for Jesus to be a great one.

High Priest of King Solomon's Temple

“High Priest of King Solomon’s Temple” by an unknown artist. Oil on Canvas. More info.

The concept of having a High Priest is certainly foreign to us as Christians, and even the Jewish faith has not had a High Priest since the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

If you ignore the context of the Old Testament you will miss out on the richness of the New.

This is one of many areas which reveals that if you ignore the context of the Old Testament you will miss out on the richness of the New.

The book of Hebrews is an excellent example of this reality, as it assumes the reader is familiar with Jewish spiritual life. Here we have Jesus repeatedly referred to as our Great High Priest.

Without a proper understanding of what this means, the impact of this title is lost on us and we are left with only a dim view of what the writer is telling us.

It is from an Old Testament context that we discover the purpose of the High Priest, and we will see that it is in the New Testament that the office of High Priest has its purpose fulfilled.

Understanding the significance of Jesus Christ’s role as High Priest will allow you to better understand Scripture, salvation, and your Savior.

The Office of High Priest

The 1689 London Baptist Catechism and many other doctrinal statements and confessions show how Jesus Christ performs three different ‘offices,’ those of Prophet, Priest, and King.

In Question 29 the catechism asks “How does Christ perform the office of a priest?”

It answers this question by stating:

“Christ performs the office of a priest by once offering himself as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and to reconcile us to God; and by making continual intercession for us before God.”

Although it may not occur to us to think of Jesus as a priest, revealing Christ as the perfect High Priest is the central theme of the book of Hebrews.

Just take a look at Hebrews 4:14-5:10:

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.

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.  And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him,

“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

So what was the significance of the High Priest?

While there were many priests in Judaism, there was always just one High Priest. Their role was “to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:10).

By the time of the New Testament and since the days of Herod and his line, the office of High Priest had devolved into a political more than a religious title and they were appointed by the rulers.

However, as alluded to in Hebrews 5:4 above, the office of High Priest was meant to be a sacred calling reserved for those of the line of Aaron (which is to say the tribe of Levi).

This is why the author of Hebrews makes a point in 5:10 to say that Jesus was a “High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.” Don’t let this Melchizedek reference slow you down at this point; for now it is enough to know that he was a High Priest and a king, and like Jesus he was unique in that he was not a Levite. For more on that you can spend some time in Hebrews chapter 7.

The Day of Atonement

The typical High Priests, though, was a Levite who was consecrated and sanctified in an elaborate ceremony. He oversaw the entire priesthood and had many duties, but the most important was conducting the service on the annual Day of Atonement.

Simply put, atonement means payment for sin which restores our relationship with God.

Obviously we first need to start with the meaning of “atonement.” Simply put, atonement means payment for sin which restores our relationship with God.

Also known as Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement was a day in which sacrifices were made to pay for Israel’s sins and to reconcile them to God.

You see, the Jews had the same problem as we do: Sin. Scripture tells us in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We all fall short, for we all have sin.

R.C. Sproul defined sin this way:

“Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself. Have you ever considered the deeper implications of the slightest sin…? What are we saying to our Creator when we disobey Him at the slightest point? We are saying no to the righteousness of God. We are saying, “God, Your law is not good. My judgment is better than Yours. Your authority does not apply to me. I am above and beyond Your jurisdiction. I have the right to do what I want to do, not what You command me to do.” [1]

From the sinfulness of man we have at the opposite end God, who is perfectly holy. We get a glimpse of this from the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

God is holy, holy, holy. Far too holy to have sin in His presence; this is why sin leads to separation from Him.

The Day of Atonement was necessary because of these two opposing realities: the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man.

The Day of Atonement was necessary because of these two opposing realities: the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man.

Though He is merciful, God is also perfectly just, so this debt of sin cannot be forgiven without atonement being made.

The substitionary sacrifice made during this ceremony is how God extended divine mercy without negating His divine justice.

The Sacrifices

In addition to the information we find in Hebrews, much of the High Priest’s activity on the Day of Atonement is detailed in Leviticus 16.

For now allow me to give you a summary. I want us to see how these things are but a shadow of what was to come, and we will then look to see how Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of what was being done.

On this day the High Priest would change from his priestly garments to white linen robes like the rest of Jewish people as a sign of repentance for sin.

Inside the Tabernacle and later the Temple, the High Priest would enter into the Holy Place. Here he made a sacrifice of a bullock for his own sin and for the sins of his fellow priests.

The Tabernacle

Image depicting the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies inside the Tabernacle. Note the veil separating the two areas. Image couresty of Glo Bible Software

After this, he entered into the Holy of Holies, which was separated from the rest of the Holy Place by a thick curtain, a veil which served as a barrier between a holy God and sinful men. The High Priest could only cross this barrier after having first been cleansed from his own sinfulness, and only on the annual Day of Atonement – or else he would die.

He would die because the Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant. It was here, in this room, and upon this Ark, that the divine presence of God dwelt among His people. Once inside, he sprinkled the blood of the bullock he sacrificed for his sins onto the floor before the Ark and on to the Mercy Seat, which was positioned on top.

The Ark of the Covenant

An illustration of the Ark of the Covenant

After entering, the High Priest would then cast lots over two live goats which were brought by the people. One would be slain as a sin offering for the nation. Its blood was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat of the Ark, which symbolized that the people’s sin was covered.

The sins of the people were then confessed over the second goat, called the scapegoat, symbolically transferring their sins to it. This goat was released into the wilderness to symbolize the complete removal of the people’s sins.

Once these tasks were completed, the High Priest put his priestly garments back on and made a burnt offering of both the bullock and the goat outside.

The sacrifices made on the Day of Atonement had to be repeated year after year in order to remove the guilt of sin and to satisfy the divine justice of God. These were in addition to the normal sacrifices performed in the Temple day, after day, after day.

Lessons Learned

This was the reality for Jews from the time of Aaron until after the time of Christ’s earthly ministry.

Keep in mind that these were not arbitrary traditions. These were divine instructions that God provided so that His people could obtain forgiveness for their sins.

Borrowing somewhat from Alistair Begg, I want us to note three things that we learn by observing what took place on the Day of Atonement:

1. Sin is serious. Just as one could not enter into the Holy of Holies in a sinful state without dying, we face spiritual death as a result of our sin – forever separated from a holy God. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages for sin is death;” that is what our cosmic treason has earned, and that is what justice demands.

Sin is serious for the believer as well. Even though we are forgiven, we must not regard sin lightly.

If we do, it will rob us of our joy in Christ and destroy our spiritual growth. Instead, we must fight it and flee from it. As the Puritan John Owen stated, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

2. Forgiveness is costly. God does not merely ignore sin. All sin is a serious transgression of God’s law, and God’s justice demands that it be accounted for. Enter the sacrificial system, which would one day yield to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

3. Shed blood was necessary. We read in Hebrews 9:22 that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Atonement for Israel’s sin required a blood sacrifice.

As foreign a concept as this all might seem, the Day of Atonement and other aspects of the sacrificial system were absolutely central to Jewish life.

Without these sacrifices, the Jews had no access to God.

Without these sacrifices, the Jews had no access to God. They were utterly incapable of achieving righteousness on their own, and they were totally separated from God in their sins.

The High Priest and the sacrificial system is central to the book of Hebrews and many other passages of the New Testament.

This system is the context for the joyful declaration of John the Baptist, who upon seeing Jesus shouted “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

And it is to this spotless Lamb of God where we turn our attention to now.

Jesus – Our Great High Priest

Our spiritual condition is no different than that of Old Testament Jews. The sinfulness of men and the holiness of God remain diametrically opposed.

The difference is not that God changed the rules requiring payment be made for the debt of sin. Instead, as was foretold by the prophets and promised by God, He provided a greater sacrifice and a greater High Priest.

Jesus Christ is, as Hebrews tells us, our Great High Priest. Let us remind ourselves of the context from which we started.

Again, the London Baptist Catechism summarized this spiritual reality by stating:

“Christ performs the office of a priest by once offering himself as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and to reconcile us to God; and by making continual intercession for us before God.”

We want to spend the remainder of our time together this morning looking at how Jesus is the fulfillment of what was seen in the priesthood and sacrificial system, and what it means for us today.

A Primary Passage

Hebrews 10:11-18 states:

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Where the priests had to continually make sacrifices in order to atone for their own sins and for the sins of the people, Jesus “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.” This perfect sacrifice has permanently satisfied divine justice and has reconciled our relationship with a holy God.

Just as the sacrificial system was set up to atone for sin in ages past, God in His infinite mercy and love for His creation, has provided both a perfect High Priest and perfect sacrifice that was able to once and for all atone for the consequences of sin.

We were dead in our sins and trespasses, unable to restore our relationship with God. The sacrificial system was a never-ending process which was but a shadow of the ultimate atonement that took place on the cross.

It was here that “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” (Hebrews 9:12-14).

Don’t let your mind simply pass over this amazing truth:

Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, God the Son, sacrificed himself in order to satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to God.

Only Jesus, who lived a sinless life, could serve as both the sacrifice. Only God the Son, fully man yet fully God, could perform the role of our High Priest.

How Then Should We Live?

What does this reality mean for us in 21st century America? Incredibly, it means the same thing for us as it did in 1st century Jerusalem.

The grace and forgiveness that transformed the wicked Saul of Tarsus into the apostle Paul is the same grace and forgiveness that is available to us today.

The grace and forgiveness that transformed the wicked Saul of Tarsus into the apostle Paul is the same grace and forgiveness that is available to us today.

For the Unbeliever

If you’re reading this and you do not know the Lord, the application is clear: Turn to Christ. Put your faith in Him as the only means of finding forgiveness. Sin separates us from a holy God who is too Just to ignore it. Romans 6:23 teaches us that “the wages of sin is death.”

But as we have seen, justice is not God’s only attribute. He is merciful. That same verse in Romans continues, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Our human effort cannot remove our sinfulness and restore our relationship with God any more than the blood of bulls and goats could.

Our human effort cannot remove our sinfulness and restore our relationship with God any more than the blood of bulls and goats could (Hebrew 10:1-4). Only the blood of Jesus is able accomplish this. Salvation is a free gift which came at great cost to our Lord.

Scripture is clear that we are incapable of earning this ourselves. We have only to receive it by placing our faith in Jesus as our sole means of being forgiven our sins and reconciled to God.       

For the Believer

For those who have placed their faith in Christ as our sole means of reconciliation with God, there is great application here as well.

Recall that veil which we learned of, which separated the Holy of Holies and the rest of the Temple. This barrier necessarily prevented people from being able to enter freely into the presence of God.

The Temple

A recreated view of the Herodian Temple, focusing on the veil which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Image courtesy of Glo Bible Software

It is this same veil which we read about it in Matthew chapter 27, at the very end of our Lord’s crucifixion:

“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.”

The veil is no longer there, and having obtained the righteousness of Christ we can now boldly approach the throne of God.

It is because of this that the author of Hebrews writes in 10:19-25:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God,  let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Because of the work of our High Priest, we have assurance of faith and can enter into God’s presence in confidence, knowing that our sins are forgiven.

Because of the work of our High Priest, we have assurance of faith and can enter into God’s presence in confidence, knowing that our sins are forgiven.

Though we may fall, we know that we have an advocate with the Father. This is how Jesus continues to perform the role of High Priest in heaven on our behalf.

1 John 1:9 tells us that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

This is a glorious promise upheld by our Great High Priest.

Because of Jesus we have forgiveness for sin and reconciliation God. We can sing with joy, “Because my sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free. For God the just is satisfied, to look on Him and pardon me.” [2]

We have been pardoned. And since we are fully forgiven through Christ’s perfect sacrifice, we need not be ashamed when we fail.

When we stumble, we must resist the temptation to hide from God until we can try to make ourselves worthy of His forgiveness.

His forgiveness is there; we have only to confess and receive it.

Conclusion

Jesus Christ is at once both our great High Priest and the perfect sacrifice which was made on our behalf.

Though these references speak to a time and a place far removed from our own, they are tremendously relevant and glorious truths for each of us today.

Jesus Christ continues to be our High Priest. We’ll finish right where we began:

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).


[1] R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God.

[2] Lyrics from the hymn, “Before the throne of God above.” Listen to it here.

Clayton Kraby
Written by Clayton Kraby
I'm a Pastor in North Dakota and created ReasonableTheology.org to help make theology accessible for the everyday Christian. You can find me on Twitter @ClayKraby.