March 22, 2015
The Certainty of Our High Priest
Don’t you sometimes just want to fit in? It is sad to say that so much of my life up to this point has been directed by this statement. From the shoes I wear, to the TV shows that I watch, I just want to fit in. Even when people view of themselves as unique, it’s just that person trying to fit into that certain niche group of society.
Trying to fit in. That is what humans do! But this task, this attempt at trying to fit in can be exhausting. When the process of fitting in requires us to succumb to peer pressure, to do something that goes against what we know as right, our heart leans one way, but our mind wants to do what everybody else is doing. As Christians, don’t you ever feel completely out there, as if nobody understands you? People seem to throw us at the center of jokes. Sure, Christianity is a perfectly legitimate religion in our country, but people treat us as if we are the freaks of society. Alone, out of place, sometimes we just want to fit in. Or, maybe we see how Christians are being killed in the Middle East. We may be scared of death and persecution! We just want security and certainty. Our lives are a constant struggle when we try and balance what is right and what everybody else is doing. But, what am I promoting when I try to be nice and nod in agreement to people who say, “Every religion is the same, just different ways of getting to heaven?” Compromise can be an easy thing when we are searching for your identity and certainty. Sadly, mixing beliefs and compromise is a subtle and dangerous thing that takes us away from that wonderful certainty of Jesus Christ.
Wanting to fit in isn’t a new feeling! Christians for a couple thousand years have thought this same way! The early Christians, in particular those from the Jewish background, were looking for certainty in their identity and their future. Throughout their history, the Jewish people had never fit in. The Israel nation had been attacked by nations all around them. The false religions around seemed to almost choke the nation like a noose. And now, these Christians, who were of Jewish heritage, found themselves surrounded by people that hated them. To the Jews, Christianity was nothing but a disgrace. Christianity was not even on the radar as an official religion in the eyes of the Roman empire. If anything, to the Roman empire, this Christianity was just a fad that would eventually evaporate into thin air. How could these new Christians ever feel a sense of belonging when an empire that prided itself on many gods didn’t even see the Christian faith as legitimate? How could they ever be happy when the very family and culture from which they came essentially turned their backs on them? What joy can come when their Christian friends, family, and even teachers are imprisoned? These Christians felt alone, out of place, and they just wanted to fit in.
You probably understand the feeling first hand as you have gone through your own difficulties, problems, and losses in life. Some days you feel alone. Some days you don’t want to get out of bed because your heart hurts from the problems caused by sin. That’s why the writer to the Hebrews brings our attention and focuses us towards Jesus in Gethsemane. As your imagination sets the scene, we picture Jesus among the olive trees with his disciples right after their Passover meal. Jesus left his disciples and went about a stone’s throw away in order to pray alone. Now, the Gospel accounts are brief in their description, but this letter to the Hebrews tells us it was more than a simple quiet prayer. Here we see the depth of Christ’s humiliation. These were no mere “prayers," such as we read at other times, but they were beggings as well as pitiful pleadings, practically shouting to God, pleading with agonized crying and unrestrained tears. We see the man with utter dependence in God as he bore the humble human nature, the weak lowly flesh. Because of his divine nature, Jesus knew precisely what was coming. He could see the torture, the mocking, the suffering, and the dying quite vividly. The events of Good Friday would be no surprise to him. But Jesus was human! He flinched in terror at the thought of what was coming. The stress which Jesus suffered was even worse because he knew that he would suffer for all the sins of the world.
It is little wonder that he prayed that the cup of suffering might be taken from him. Jesus went to the right person in prayer. God could have spared his Son from death. In fact, Jesus had 12 legions of angels at his disposal. You might think that God didn’t answer Jesus’ prayer because he did actually suffer and die. But remember the prayer was, not what I will, but your will be done. God answered his prayer, not by taking away the suffering and death, but by giving him the strength to overcome the inclinations of his human nature. No longer sorrowful to the point of death, Jesus got up and said, let’s go! Jesus was bringing to completion our salvation! Unfortunately, the English expression “make perfect” isn't the greatest here because it almost always implies correcting or improving. Really the word means “the goal or result.” In other words, The Son of God was following and completing the plan God the Father laid out for him. In Gethsemane the ultimate obedience was learned; after Gethsemane and on the cross the obedience was fully carried out.
The feeling we have of being alone, being misplaced, and of death, all of that is put to rest in the words from the writer to the Hebrews. Jesus is described as our High Priest. I think it’s good to understand what the High priest did before Jesus’ time. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the high priest of the nation of Israel would enter the Most Holy Place of the temple. The temple in Jerusalem was meant to be a symbol of God’s presence. The high priest would sacrifice a goat and would sprinkle the blood on that golden chest, the ark of the covenant, which had the 10 commandments in it. There was an unspoken sermon in this annual ceremony. The blood of that sacrificial animal was shed in place of the people, whose sins deserved death. The animal died instead, and the animal’s blood covered the ark that housed the Ten Commandments. So when God peered down from heaven and looked at the ark, he didn’t see the failure to keep the Ten Commandments. God saw the blood of the sacrificial animal covering up the law and the guilt of the people’s sin.
Melchizedek, as we heard that name in our lesson, was an Old Testament priest. Melchizedek is sort of an enigma, one of those mysteries of the Bible. In Genesis (14:18-20) we see him briefly as he meets and blesses Abraham, who was returning from rescuing Lot. Melchizedek, interestingly, was both a king and a priest, whom Abraham viewed as legitimate and even gave him an offering. He sort of shows up without a beginning and has no end. In the psalms, David refers to him even more briefly and by inspiration sees in him a type of Christ.
But as our great High Priest, Jesus didn’t go into the temple like I had described. Jesus isn’t standing before a gold covered ark, in a smokey building, with the stench of animal sacrifice everywhere. He didn’t use the blood of goats. No, he appears on our behalf before the face of God. Like the high priest represented the people of Israel before the LORD, so Jesus represents you and me as our Substitute. There he pleads for us successfully because his sacrifice paid the penalty. But you see, his sacrifice was different from any sacrifice that would need to be done year after year. When the time was right, Jesus appeared once. And through his sacrifice on the cross, he removed our sin and all the times we caved in, the times we denied Christ and compromised with other worldly beliefs. Only through his blood, the very blood of God, could our sins be removed once and completely! Christ’s priesthood would be an eternal one. Our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, understands us, even the fears we have of life and death. Here was one, who was completely alone, who went through more than you could ever imagine. Jesus knew something about the human frailties of those he represented because he had taken on their human nature and he understood the fear of death.
Death is the one thing all people share. It is the common denominator which no one can avoid. Even small children, who cannot always grasp the idea, still know that people and things die. Death is a strenuous and serious thing here on earth. We have to worry about living wills, funeral homes, caskets, a gravesite, and family left behind. As serious as death is to us with all the material things, we also know that we will face judgment. Doesn’t that make death all the more serious? After death, God’s verdict will be pronounced, with the soul either going to heaven or to hell, to be followed on the Last day by the body. After life is done, there is no living it over again. There are no second chances. That can be a scary message. The world around us doesn’t like hearing about judgment. We might even feel uncertain because death is scary. It’s easy for us to lose trust in God because of our fears. But, remember that Jesus struggled with death too! His human nature was scared of death! Death is the enemy! Death and judgment are real. However, we don’t need to be uncertain, we don’t need to worry. Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ we have been made perfect in God’s eyes. As Paul said in Romans 5, “For just as through the disobedience of the one the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Our salvation is certain, and so Christ removes that fear of death and of judgment forever.
What Christ did for us as our sacrifice is beautiful but it is not the end of the story. No, Christ will bring ultimate certainty when he returns for his people who are eagerly waiting. We can be certain that death and judgment won’t be a terrifying event because Christ came for us in the first place. I love the words that come from Malachi. We will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. The way you feel in the spring after having cabin fever all winter long, that feeling pales in comparison to knowing Christ and knowing that He certainly will return.
He suffered as our substitute and put himself in our place to serve as or great High Priest. He stands before God as our advocate, pleading our cause. Therefore he has become the source of eternal salvation. He is our only hope and our only certainty in this life. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.