Jesus - The Great High Priest
Fr. Thomas Hopko · July 29, 2009
Fr. Tom takes us to the Letter to the Hebrews which tells us why Jesus is the perfect sacrifice or offering.
In considering the names and the titles of Jesus, we want to see today that Jesus is not only the Prophet, the Teacher, the King, the Son of God, the Lord, the Christ, but he is also the Priest, the Great High Priest, the one and only High Priest. We are going to see also that Jesus is the High Priest, not like any of the other priests, in an absolutely unique way, being the Son of God.
The same way that he is a teacher, not like other teachers; a prophet not like other prophets. Although the teachers and the prophets and the kings and the priests, particularly of the Old Covenant, and indeed over all the world, we might dare say, and all the religions, and somehow prefigure and typify him, they lead to him, and he is the one who perfects and fulfills and accomplishes everything himself.
So he is the Priest, the Great High Priest, and he is the High Priest who offers the very perfect sacrifice, the perfect offering, and that offering is himself; it’s his own body, his own blood, his own flesh and blood, which he offers and gives as it says in St. John’s Gospel “for the life of the world.”
In the four Gospels, Jesus is never explicitly called “priest” or “high priest.” Nevertheless, in the New Testament, it is very clear, throughout the entire New Testament, all of the writings, that Jesus’ sacrifice of himself, his self-offering on the Cross, is a sacrificial offering. It’s a high-priestly offering. It’s the offering and the sacrifice of all sacrifices, of all offerings, and it’s the ultimate one that effects the ultimate reconciliation with God, which ransoms all creation, and certainly all human beings, from disease and sickness and sin and from the power of the devil and from the power of death itself. It is the great redemption, the great buying back of creation by God himself in the Person of his Son, in order to reconcile all things with God, and so that God could fill all things with himself, and that there could be absolute peace and harmony and unity between God and his creatures.
In the New Testament, this teaching is given very explicitly in the Letter to the Hebrews. We could even say that that’s the reason that the Letter of the Hebrews is written, that that letter is written to show how Jesus is the High Priest; and what it means that he is the High Priest; and how he fulfills all the priestly sacrifices of the Old Testament; how he fulfills everything that was done in the desert, in the Tabernacle, in the Temple in Jerusalem; how he is not only the High Priest, but he’s the perfect offering, he’s the Lamb of God, he’s the one who was slain for the life of the world.
In this letter to the Hebrews, the word “priest” or “priesthood” is used certainly over twenty times. In the first ten chapters, it’s used again and again. That’s the very meaning of this book. It’s to show that Jesus is truly God’s Son, and that as God’s Son, God has made him “the high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1) as it says, “who offers the sacrifice once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27), the single offering, the eternal offering, to God that effects an eternal, unending salvation. And this is what we are going to meditate upon now.
To get into this meditation of Jesus as the High Priest, the one and only High Priest, we have to begin by looking at the Old Testament again. First of all, we have to see in Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, we see how there are two events there in Genesis that are very, very relevant, very pertinent, to the understanding of Jesus as the Great High Priest.
First of all, we see that offerings were sacrificed; offerings were offered to God. And that was generally ancient religion, that was Canaanite religion, that the gods were somehow assuaged and appeased and the wrath of God was removed and communion with God was reestablished with sacrifice, that there were sacrifices that were offered.
We see that, for example, Noah—well, even before Noah, Cain and Abel, the very sons of Adam, are offering sacrifices to God, offerings to God. And we see that even Cain kills Abel because it is written that [Cain]‘s sacrifice was not acceptable to God for whatever reasons, but Abel’s offering was acceptable. And God says to Cain, “If you would offer acceptable sacrifice, you would be acceptable as well.” Some people think that the very reason behind that was not so much what Cain offered or what Abel offered, but the spirit of the offering. Because the offering, to be really an offering acceptable, has to be an offering of love; it has to be an offering of a contrite and humble heart. It has to be an offering where the person is thanking God and showing gratitude to God for the sacrifices that God makes on behalf of the people, for what God does for the people.
So we know that in the Scriptures, you had these offerings that were made, you had the offering of Cain and Abel; you had the offerings of Noah, who was saved in the Ark, that he offered [as] sacrifice to God. Very specifically what we want to see, though, is the offering that was made that was predicted, so to speak, in the Genesis story about Abraham and his offering of Isaac. But before that we want to see how it is written in Genesis that when Abraham returned from his victory over the kings in the King’s Valley—and this is going to be referred to in the Letter to the Hebrews—and that he came with the 318 men and he defeated the enemies of Yahweh or God, and he came back.
It says that he was visited by Melchizedek, the king of Salem, or the king of “peace,” who brought out an offering of bread and wine. And it says that this Melchizedek, the king of Salem, was a priest of God most high. And it says that Melchizedek blessed Abraham and he said, “Blessed be Abram”—his name was not Abraham yet; it hadn’t been changed yet by God; he was still Abram and not yet Abraham—“Blessed be Abram of God most high, maker of heaven and earth, and blessed be God most high, who has delivered your enemies into your hands.” And then it says Abraham gave a tithe, or a ten percent, of everything that he had to Melchizedek, and that is also going to be mentioned in the New Testament in the Letter to the Hebrews.
Because we’re going to see that in the New Testament, Jesus is called a “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” not the Levitical priesthood, but the new priesthood of Melchizedek. And here it says explicitly that the offering of Melchizedek was bread and wine, which will be the offering of Jesus, certainly at the Mystical Supper when he says [when he] takes the bread, “This is my Body, broken,” takes the cup of wine, “This is my Blood, shed.” And so, for Christians in the New Covenant, their offering to God, together with Jesus Christ, is of Jesus Christ’s own life, his own flesh, his own blood, which is offered in the form of the bread and the wine. And in the consecration of that bread and wine, when it’s offered to God, it becomes for the believers the very Body and Blood of Christ himself.
In Genesis also there is the sacrifice that Abraham, now being named Abraham after his name was changed by God to be “the father of many nations” [which] is what “Abraham” means, you have this incredibly terrifying story of Abraham being commanded by God to sacrifice his son, to sacrifice his only son, the son of the promise, to sacrifice Isaac himself, the one born in old age, the one through whom all the families of the earth were supposed to be blessed. God tests Abraham with the most fantastic, remarkable—in fact, some people think it’s outrageous—test that he could ever possibly ask of a human being. God tested Abraham and said to him—I’m reading now from Genesis:
And he said, “Here I am, Lord.”
He said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.”
So God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Now, there was human sacrifice in Canaan in those days. It was awful, and forbidden, actually. Yahweh the Lord forbade any kind of child sacrifice or human sacrifice to God when he was going against the gods of the Canaanites, the Baalim, the Ashtaroth, and so on.
However, this testing is considered to be probably the quintessential test in the entire Scripture. Does God’s servant really trust him? Does he really believe in him? Is he ready to do anything that God asks? This is just fear and trembling to think about it. Kierkegaard, the Christian writer, the Dane, he wrote about this terrible story, probably in the most terrifying way, how God tests Abraham and the faith of Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son.
In the Genesis account (Genesis 22)—and this of course is read in the Orthodox Church at the vigil of Pascha, the great Paschal Vigil on the day between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ, the Great and Holy Saturday, we read about how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son—and so it says that Abraham obeyed God. He believed God. He trusted God.
He rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, took his young men with him, his son Isaac, cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.
Then it says, “On the third day”—that’s interesting: the third day, because Christ rises from the dead on the third day—
Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place far off. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, laid it on Isaac, his son, and took in his hand the fire and the knife; so they went both of them together.
And then Isaac asks his father Abraham; he says, “My father.”
And the father says, “Here I am, son.”
And the son, Isaac, says to Abraham his father, “Behold the fire and the wood. But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
“Moriah” even means “God provides.” And Abraham says, “God will provide the lamb,” but there is no lamb. The lamb is Isaac, the first-born son, the blessed son, rather, and the only son from Sarah, of Abraham, the son of the promise. So then it says:
Abraham built an altar there, laid the wood on it, bound Isaac his son, laid him on the altar upon the wood. Then Abraham put forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son, but the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”
He said, “Here am I.”
He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, and don’t do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold: there was a ram, caught in a thicket by his [horns]. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of the place “the Lord will provide” as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
So this terrifying story shows that God tests Abraham, sees his faith, and does not allow him to sacrifice his only son, but he provides a ram to be put in his place. And virtually all the classical ancient Christian traditions of this story say that ram typifies Jesus. It’s Jesus Christ himself who becomes the offering. It’s Jesus himself who becomes the Lamb of God who is slain. Jesus becomes not only the Paschal Lamb, he becomes the Lamb of all the sacrifices that are offered in the Old Covenant.
But what we see here also is: when Jesus, God’s Son, God’s only Son, is led to the Mount of Calvary, the place of the skull, and is nailed and hung upon the tree of the Cross, and a sword pierces his side and he’s nailed there, hanging to die, as God’s Son, God allows him to die. God offers his Son to die. God gives us his Son to die for our sins, that by his blood, by his life, we would be saved, and the whole world would be saved.
So the most amazing thing is: Abraham, who stands forever as the paradigmatic believer, who stands as the quintessential, very image of the faithful person, the one who is justified by faith, who trusts God even to the point of sacrificing his own son—God does what he does not insist what Abraham do. He tests Abraham, but he does not let Abraham sacrifice his son, but God himself does sacrifice his Son.
When Christ is hanging on the Cross, no angel comes. In Luke’s Gospel, the angel comes to comfort Jesus in the Gethsemane garden when he’s weeping and sweating blood before his Passion, but when Jesus is offered up by God and offers himself up to God, no angel comes. He dies, and that’s why the ram is considered to stand for Jesus. He’s put in the place of Isaac. He’s put in the place of all of us. In that sense, he is a substitution. He is put in our place.
Instead of we having to offer ourselves and our own children to God, God offers his Child to us. He offers his Son for us. And this is, of course, the very heart of the Christian Gospel, that God’s Son is born into the world in order to offer himself to the Father on our behalf, to become the living sacrifice, the logikēn latreian, as St. Paul says in Romans (Romans 12:1), the human sacrifice, the human worshiper of God, for the sake of the life of the whole world, to redeem the whole world. As Gregory the Theologian will say, “One drop of his blood recreates the whole creation,” the incarnate Son of God, the Lamb of God.
Just one more comment on this story of Abraham and Isaac. Some people find this story absolutely outrageous. The new atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, Christopher Hitchens, he definitely raises up this story to show how horrible religion is, how awful, how cruel, how ridiculous religion is, that God would ask a human being to sacrifice his son.
However, our point, and the point of Holy Scripture is: God has that right. He is our God. All things belong to him. We belong to him; nothing is our own. Our children are not our own. Certainly our own life is not our own. And we should be ready to offer him anything that he asks.
Now the story of Abraham and Isaac shows clearly: God will never ask that. That’s the whole point. That’s one of the points, at least, of the story. God does not ask that; he forbids that. He does not want that. And the whole Christian story is: God offers his Son; God sacrifices his Son. That’s the point. And doesn’t ask us to sacrifice our own sons.
Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus Christ does ask us to love God to the point where we wouldn’t love anything else beside, that nothing else, nothing else would be loved more than God himself. And that’s why in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke, you have Jesus saying, about himself, that “anyone who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me. Anyone who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Anyone who loves lands, properties, ethnicity, one’s own people, one’s own life in this world, one’s own self, one’s own soul more than me is not worthy of me.”
And in St. Luke’s Gospel, 14th chapter, Jesus says it even more powerfully (Luke 14:26). It’s probably the most hyperbolic sentence that you can find in the New Testament. Because there Jesus says, “Unless you hate your father, your mother, your brothers, your sisters, your lands, your possessions, yes, even your own life, your own soul in this world, you cannot be my disciples.” And that word in Greek is “hate”; “misei” means “hate.” There’s no doubt about it.
And so the hyperbolic teaching of Jesus—over the top, we might say—is when he puts it so strongly when he says not only, “You [should] love nothing more than me: fathers, mothers, children, lands, self—but you should even hate them. Unless you hate them, you can’t be my disciple.”
Now, like I said, that’s over the top, it’s hyperbole, it’s absolutely outrageous. But Jesus says it that way to make a point: God is God. We are not God. God can ask us anything that he wants, and we should give it to him. But what he wants really is our life. He wants our life; he wants our love; he wants our devotion. In a sense, he doesn’t even want our praise or thanksgiving or blessing. We give that to God because it is his due, but even if we offer praise and thanksgiving and blessing and sacrifices, without the love of God, without mercy, without loving the neighbor, without [fulfilling] the commandments, without realizing that we have to love because this is the way he loves us—we have to sacrifice because he sacrificed for us—[it is not what he wants].
And he sacrificed what is most dear to him: his very own Son; and that Son will come on earth and he will sacrifice himself. He will give himself up on the Cross. Yes, in obedience to his Father. He even prays to God, “Abba, Father, let this cup pass. Nevertheless, your will be done, not mine.” And it’s God’s will that he offer himself to death. He comes in order to die. And we will say that as the King, when we meditate on Jesus as the King, he is born to be King, but he is born as King to die for his subjects. He is the Good Shepherd; we’ll meditate upon Jesus as the Pastor, the Shepherd, but the Shepherd lays down his own life for his sheep, and that’s certainly what Jesus does as the Great High Priest.
In the Old Testament you have these sacrifices of Cain and Abel and Noah and Abraham and then Moses after, but then you have the whole sacrificial system that comes out of the Passover Exodus. The whole sacrificial system of the Tabernacles in the wilderness, the Tabernacle and then the Temple in Jerusalem.
First we might mention simply the Paschal lamb, because at the time of the Passover, the Paschal lamb was sacrificed. The blood was given to God. The lamb was eaten as a sign of communion with God, and the people were led out by God. And in the New Testament we’re going to see—and we’ll meditate on this—that Jesus is the Paschal Lamb. He is the Lamb slain; slain as it says in Revelation, from before the foundation of the world. But he is also the one who offers himself as the slain Lamb.
In the Old Testament, after the Passover Exodus, you have this Levitical code, together with the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, where you have an elaborate system of sacrifices for all kinds of things and for all kinds of purposes, with all kinds of sacrifices. You have grain sacrifices, cereal sacrifices; you have animal sacrifices, lamb sacrifices, goat sacrifices, bulls. You have whole-burnt offerings, holocausts. You have all kinds of sacrifices and offerings according to the Levitical code, the code of the Levitical priesthood, because the tribe of Levi is given no portion of the land in Canaan, because God is their portion. They are the klēronomia of God, the clergy of God, so to speak. And they are the ones who form the priesthood, and they offer these sacrifices to God.
If you read the Law—Deuteronomy, Numbers, especially Leviticus—you will see all the different kinds of offerings for all the different kinds of purposes. You have praise offerings. You have thank offerings. You have guilt offerings. You have peace offerings. You have sin offerings. You have offerings for cleansing, when there is purification needed. You have offerings when touching blood, touching death, giving birth, emitting semen. You have all kinds of offerings and libations that are made: offerings for childbirth. We see in the New Testament how Joseph and Mary came to the Temple and made the offering according to the Law after Jesus was born.
And these offerings are to make reconciliation with God, to make atonement with God. And generally speaking, the specific offerings are offerings that are made under two different, very different, [types] of conditions. One is the offering when a person has sinned, when a person has broken the commandments, when they are guilty, and then they offer a bull or a goat or a lamb or whatever is prescribed, in order to be delivered from their guilt, in order to be forgiven, to be made one with God again. That’s one kind of offering.
The other kind of offering was when a person was in touch with the holiness of God, like in touch with blood or in touch with childbirth or in touch with death, because in childbirth and death and blood, it was thought that God himself was present there, and when a creature and a sinner was in contact with those actions of God, they were rendered, according to the Law, unclean, and they had to make a sacrificial offering.
That was even the case when the priests were in the Temple offering the incense and the sacrifices, or when they were touching the holy books or the oracles of God, when their hands touched the Holy Scriptures, for example, they had to offer an offering to be made clean. Now, they were being cleansed from holiness, so to speak. That’s a very interesting thing.
There was no guilt involved; there was no sin involved. Certainly it was no sin for the high priest to go into the holy place and offer the sacrifices. Certainly it was no sin for them to touch the holy books. It was certainly not a sin to give birth to a baby. And in fact it was not even a sin to menstruate or to emit semen, if a person hadn’t done it in some kind of sinful way. But these were considered acts that required sacrifice and offering because they were acts in which the holiness of God was involved; the life and the presence of God was involved. So there was a whole system of the Temple priesthood.
When we look at the priesthood of the Old Testament, we discover, alas—we have to say, alas—the same thing that we discover about the prophets and the kings and the shepherds and the teachers, namely that very, very often, the priests were corrupted; that they had polluted the sacrifice; that they had polluted the sanctuary; that they had sinned against God. And Malachi even says that they offered lambs that were deformed and lambs that were blind or lame or sick when they were supposed to offer the best lambs and the perfect lambs. They offered unfit sacrifices. And then they would take money from the orphans and the widows, and they made a kind of a business out of the whole thing. And then they themselves were definitely corrupted and ungodly.
In Jeremiah, for example, you find them saying about, “ ‘The Temple, the Temple, the Temple,’ you priests, all you do is say, ‘The Temple,’ but in fact you’re far from me. You’re very far from me. Your hearts are far from me. How do you dare take on yourselves the word of the Law itself when you yourselves are so sinful and are breaking the commandments?” And then you have those terrible texts. For example, we read them from Jeremiah when we meditated on Jesus as the Prophet, where it says that “the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction, and the people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes? what will you do when Christ comes?”
You have also the sayings that say that both the prophet and the priest ply their trade through the land, and they have no knowledge and they treat the people badly and they do not really care for them. The very first chapter of the Prophet Isaiah is God saying, “I hate your sacrifices. I hate your offerings. Though you make many prayers, I won’t listen. Though you burn the finest incense, it will stink in my nose.” That’s what it says literally. “I won’t accept it; it smells like rot. I don’t want it. Why are you offering me these sacrifices when your hearts are far from me, when you’re not keeping the commandments, when you’re doing this just in a ritualistic manner?” This was already a problem in the Old Testament.
Jeremiah, again, for example, says:
Their course is evil; their might is not right. Both prophet and priest are ungodly. Even in my own house, my own Temple, I have found their wickedness, says the Lord. Therefore their ways shall be to them like a slippery path unto darkness in which they shall be driven and fall, and I will bring evil upon them in the year of their punishment, says the Lord. The land is full of adultery and infidelity and curses. [Their] course is evil; their might is not right.
So you have this prophesying of the true prophets against the corrupted priests, just as against the corrupted prophets and against the corrupted kings. And we’ll see, when we speak about Jesus as the King, how the great majority of the kings did not obey God. They did not follow his way. Even Solomon ended up a horrible guy at the end, horrible. Of course, there’s David, the quintessential king, [whom] we’ll talk about. Then there’s Josiah; there’s Hezekiah; there’s Asa; there’s Jehosaphat. There’s some who were faithful, but by and large the great majority were unfaithful.
And the priests themselves fell under the condemnation of God himself. Zephaniah, for example, in the third chapter, it simply says (Zephanaiah 3:3) that the priests have polluted the sanctuary; that the officials within the people are roaring lions; the judges are evening wolves, they leave nothing till morning; the prophets are wanton, faithless men; and the priests profane what is sacred, and they do violence to the Law. The Lord within her is righteousness. The Lord does no wrong. Yet the officials, the prophets, the priests are all sinning spectacularly against God.
Fr. James Bernstein wrote a book called Surprised by Christ and Fr. James Aaron Bernstein, he was an Orthodox Jew in his youth, and he became a Christian at the end of his life, he said that he was so surprised as he read the Scriptures of the Old Testament, particularly the Scriptures where, he said, most of the time the people of God were unfaithful; most of the time they were sinning; most of the time they were following their own mind. Sure, they’re God’s chosen people. Their calling is irrevocable. From them according to the flesh comes the Christ himself. To them is given the Law. From them the prophets rose up. But by and large the prophets were prophesying falsehood and lying, and the priests were corrupting the sanctuary, and the pastors were tooling the sheep and not paying attention to them and neglecting them, and it was really bad news.
Now, the good news of the Gospel is that God so loves the world that he sends his only-begotten Son to be the King, to be the Teacher, to be the Prophet, to be the Judge, and, for our purposes today, to be the Great High Priest. And this is what we find in the Letter to the Hebrews. As I mentioned, the Gospels nowhere use the expression “priest” for Jesus, but it’s certainly used in the Letter to the Hebrews. I think I counted 20, more than 20 times, in the first ten chapters that you have “priest” or “priesthood” being used in this letter to the Hebrews.
The letter begins by the author insisting that Jesus is the Son of God. He’s not an angel; he’s not a servant in the way Moses was; not a slave; but he’s a Son. “Thou art my Son; today have I begotten thee.” Of the Son, he says, “Thy throne, O God, is forever ... God, thy God, has anointed thee. He has made thee the Christ. The oil of gladness be on [thee above] thy comrades.” God speaks to us through his Son. Of old he spoke through the prophets in various ways, and in these latter days he speaks through his Son who is the Heir of all things, by whom also he created the ages, the Son who is the very radiance of the God’s glory, the exact Image of God’s Person; that this is Jesus Christ.” Then it says he is made for a little while lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death so that, by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone.
So the Son comes on earth as a real human being to taste death for everyone, and that the pioneer of our salvation should be made perfect through his suffering. So it’s written already in the second chapter in the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 2:14-15):
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself (God’s own Son) likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to life-long bondage.
Then it says he had to be made like his brethren in every respect—and his brethren, that’s us, that’s human beings, brothers and sisters—so that he might become a merciful and faithful—and here you have it—merciful and faithful High Priest—Archēireus, High Priest—in the service of God, “to make expiation for the sins of the people, for because he himself has suffered and been tried and tested and tempted, he is able to help all those who are tried and tested and tempted.”
“Therefore,” the third chapter begins, “holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the Apostle”—we’ll talk about Jesus as the Apostle later, because he’s not only the Prophet, the Teacher, the High Priest, the King, the Judge, but he’s also the Apostle; we will speak later about what that means, but here he says:
Brethren who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession. He was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses was, but Moses was a servant in God’s house, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a Son, and we are his house, his household if we hold fast our conscience and pride in our hope.
Then the author goes on to say, in the fourth chapter (Hebrews 4:14-16),
Since 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 have not a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted (or tested or tried; that word means all three things: test, try, and tempt) 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.
Then he continues in the fifth chapter:
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.
And then it says every high priest can deal gently with the ignorant, because he himself is beset by weakness. But then he goes on to say that Christ was not appointed a high priest like the Levitical priesthood or like the sons of Aaron who are the Levites, by the Law or by men: no! And Christ does not offer the sacrifice for himself and for the errors and the ignorances of the people. He offers himself in sacrifice only for us, not for himself.
So it’s written in Hebrews:
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed to him who said to him, “You are my Son. Today I have begotten you.” And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Now we heard about Melchizedek when we read about Abram, and about Melchizedek coming to him after Abraham—or Abram, when he was still Abram—returned from the victory over the kings, the slaughter of the kings. But we should also remember that in the psalms you have this expression, that God has sworn and will not change his mind: “Thou”—meaning the Messianic king—”[art] a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek,” according to the order of Melchizedek. So Christ’s priesthood is a Melchizedek priesthood, not that of the Levitical or Aaronic priesthood.
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 for his godly fear. 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…
And then we have it again:
...being designated by God a high priest after (or according to) the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:7-10).
Now, the Letter to the Hebrews continues on and says that once Jesus offers himself in sacrifice to God, as a great high priest, and he does so according to Melchizedek, the king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him—this is in the seventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews—it says that when Jesus does this, and his priesthood in the likeness of Melchizedek, who became a priest not according to legal requirement concerning bodily descent, like Aaron, but by the power of an indestructible life by the choice of God himself: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind. You are a priest forever.” And it says, “The former priests were many in number. This priesthood is only one. The sacrifice is only one. It’s made once and for all. It is absolutely holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”
And it says that Jesus as this kind of high priest, this High Priest who offers himself, has no need, like those high priests of the Old Covenant, to offer sacrifices daily: first for his own sins and then for those of the people, because he offers himself once for all when he offered up himself.
Indeed, it says the Law appoints men in their weaknesses as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the Law, appoints a Son who had been made perfect forever. And that oath is the promise of God that that one high priest would come, whose sacrifice would be all-embracing, all-inclusive, absolutely ultimate, and never to be repeated.
Now once that’s made on the Cross, when Jesus offers himself, then it says in the Letter to the Hebrews that he enters into the heavens. He goes into the sanctuary not made by human hands. He doesn’t go into an earthly tabernacle, an earthly altar area, like in the Temple of Jerusalem. According to the author of Hebrews, the Tabernacle holy place and the Temple holy place, where the priests of the Old Testament went, the Levitical priests, offering up gifts and sacrifices for themselves and for the sins of the people, that was just a copy.
It was a shadow, a skia of the heavenly sanctuary. The Jerusalem Tabernacle, the Jerusalem Temple, was a shadow, a prefiguration. And then it’s prophesied—and here it’s quoting Jeremiah—that the days will come when there will be a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant of old. And this covenant will not be made in the blood of goats and bulls, but it will be made in the blood of the Messiah himself.
Then it is quoted; the Old Testament is quoted. Actually, it’s the quotation of the psalm where it is written that God does not want sacrifices and offerings, but “a body prepared for me,” he says (Hebrews 10:8, Psalm 40:6). “In burnt offerings and sin offerings I have no pleasure.” But he gives this body to his Messiah, the body of Jesus Christ that has been offered once and for all upon the Cross, and it is this risen Body of Christ with his flesh that enters into the Holy of Holies into the very Presence of God, there to intercede on our behalf. Thus, as it says in this letter, securing an eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12).
So I’ll read to you now from the ninth chapter (Hebrews 9:11-12):
When Christ appeared as High Priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent, not made with hands, that is not made of this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary (the holy place, the holies), taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
Then it’s written (Hebrews 9:13-14):
For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit, the very holy Spirit of God, offers himself without blemish to God, how much more shall this purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
So then it claims that Jesus is the Mediator and the High Priest of the New Covenant, dies on the Cross and enters into heaven and to the holy place of God, bringing his blood and his life to God with him, and bringing us also with him into heaven. So I’ll read again (Hebrews 9:24-28):
For Christ has entered not into a sanctuary made with hands (a copy of the real one, the true one), 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 place yearly with blood not of his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, Christ Jesus, the Great High Priest, has entered once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
And just as it is appointed for a 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.
So it says that he is in the presence of God now, having sacrificed his body, having given himself to God, and he will appear again from heaven. He will appear to us in order to take us to be where he is himself, to rise from the dead. So it’s written again (Hebrews 10:12-17, 19-23):
When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemy should be made a stool for his feet, for by a single offering, once for all, he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us, for after saying, “This is the covenant I will make with them; I will put the Law in their hearts and put them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.”
So we have confidence (it’s written) to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, the new and living way, which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his own flesh, and since we have a Great High 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, and let us hold fast this confession.
And then the Apostle goes on to say that if we defile this, if we deliberately sin, if we reject this after receiving it, there no longer remains a sacrifice for us; there’s just pure judgment, because we “have profaned the Blood of the Covenant and have spurned the Son of God and have outraged the Holy Spirit of grace,” for “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:29, 31).
So Jesus is our High Priest. And we know, and we have to add again, that in him we become priests to God. In him we become prophets; in him we become priests. And we find this written very clearly in the New Testament. We already, when we were referring to our being prophets with God, we quoted from the Book of Revelation how it says in the beginning of the Book of Revelation, “To him who loves us and has freed us from this our sins by his Blood, by his offering, he has made us a kingship (a kingdom), priests to God his Father,” a kingdom of prophets and priests, as it’s written in the Scripture.
At the end of the Book of Revelation, it ends in the 20th chapter, you have also this expression (Revelation 20”:). It says, “Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection”—the resurrection of the baptism, and the resurrection with Christ from the dead—“over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years on the earth.”
So we become priests of God and Christ when we’re baptized. When we become baptized, we are anointed with the Spirit, to be prophets and priests, to be kings, even, we’ll see. We become kings with him. We become priests with him. We become prophets with him. And probably the most-quoted sentence about that in the New Testament comes from the first letter of Peter, where this is what it says (I Peter 2:1-5):
So put away all malice, all guile and insincerity and envy, and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation, for you have tasted the goodness of the Lord.
That’s a reference to the psalm “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” We sing that at the Liturgy in our Orthodox Church, particularly at the Liturgy, the Presanctified. It’s Psalm 34. Then it continues:
Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men, but in God’s sight chosen and precious, and like living stones, be yourselves built into a spiritual house…
And here it comes:
...to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
So we become a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. St. Paul says exactly the same thing in the Letter to the Romans (Romans 12), where he says, “I appeal to you, brethren (brothers and sisters), don’t be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” And then he says, “To offer unto God your bodies as a living sacrifice which is your living, spiritual, rational worship.” We offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, and this becomes our logikē latreia.
And those words are used in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy [of] St. John Chrysostom, three times. That at the holy Liturgy we, as priests, offer [ourselves], together with Christ our High Priest, to God; we offer him our bodies to be broken, our blood to be shed. The Holy Spirit comes upon us and our bodies become the very Body of Christ. The Church becomes the very Body of Christ, and our blood is our life; the life of God lives in us. And that’s what happens when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
Also in the [first] letter of Peter, you have this sentence (I Peter 2:9-10):
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood (a kingly ieratevma, a royal priesthood), a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were no people; now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Let’s hear it again: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood (a kingly priesthood), a holy nation, God’s own people,” a people that he has chosen for himself. So as Jesus is the one Great High Priest, who offers the one perfect sacrifice, his own body and blood to God his Father, thereby redeeming the world through his blood, by offering his life to God in perfect righteousness—and that’s what effects the redemption; it’s not his being punished. No, no. We’ve got to get rid of that notion forever.
Jesus is not punished in our place on the Cross. Jesus is offering himself to God, in our place and with us on the Cross. He’s offering himself, even in the most horrible conditions, when being rejected, spit upon, mocked, beaten, and he never sins, he never does evil; he’s a perfect, innocent sacrifice, and his life totally belongs to God. He’s God’s only Son. God sends him. God sacrifices him, to himself on the Cross.
And this is how even the priests pray at the Divine Liturgy in our Church, at the [Liturgies] of St. John Chrysostom and Basil, the priest prays, “For thou, O Lord, Christ, art the one who offers, the one who is offered, the one who receives the offering, and the very offering itself, that is distributed to the faithful people, for holy communion.”
So that’s what Jesus is: the perfect High Priest who offers the perfect Sacrifice, who makes the perfect redemption, who redeems and ransoms everything totally perfectly, and once and for all takes us into the holy sanctuary of the Presence of God himself to receive the grace and glory at the altar of God in heaven. And we also participate in that priesthood. We become priests with him, provided that we suffer with him, provided that we offer [ourselves] to God with him, provided that our bodies [be] broken, our blood is spilled with him, out of love for God and love for neighbor, as the perfect offering in perfect innocence.
We can’t do that ourselves; we’re sinners. And no amount of blood of goats and bulls and calves and anything, birds, are going to effect that redemption. Only the perfect offering of the perfect High Priest. And we have that High Priest: Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, becomes human [to] become the Great High Priest of our salvation. And through his self-offering, his priestly offering, he offers himself to God and we are to offer [ourselves] to God together with him in order to reign with him in the presence of the Holy of Holies above the heavens.
Jesus Christ is not only the Teacher, the Prophet, the Judge, the King, the Son of God, the Lord, the Pastor, the Good Shepherd, but Jesus, we must remember today, is also the one and only Great High Priest.