Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Great High Priest (Hebrews 2:14-18)

The letter to the Hebrews may puzzle us some -- we're not a part of pre-Exile Jewish life and so our experience with the role of a high priest might be limited. Especially if we're Protestant and we hold the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. We see Jesus as the only intermediary between ourselves and God, and we recognize no human agency other than Jesus in that role. So when the letter emphasizes Jesus' role as the great high priest, it might confuse us, or sound like something we can set aside.

But Christianity's Jewish roots mean it is important for us to understand what kinds of things the writer wanted to say about Jesus when he gave him that title. What did the high priest do, and how do Jesus' actions follow that role?

Apart from administrative duties, the major role of the high priest was to preside over several very important sacrifices as part of the temple worship. One of them was the sacrifice of atonement, offered once a year as a sign of the people seeking God's forgiveness for the sins of the previous year. Although modern Jewish worship focuses on the life of the synagogue and involves neither temple nor animal sacrifice, the Day of Atonement is still important today. Fasting, prayer and acts of repentance are a part of the day, generally held just before the new year of the Jewish calendar.

During the days of the Temple, the high priest would offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people. Now, they didn't believe that in order for God to forgive them, some animal had to die. After all, the animal hadn't done anything wrong. The sacrifice was a symbol for them that God's forgiveness had a cost, and although God did not require them to pay it, that didn't mean the cost went away. It just meant that God assumed the cost himself, the way that a person does if they forgive a monetary debt owed to them.

Before the high priest offered the sacrifice of atonement, he had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins in order to be ritually clean for the ceremony. In so doing, he was shown to be one of the people himself and not above them in any way. He needed to atone for his sins just like they did. One of the effects of this practice was to reinforce for the people the seriousness of his actions. Sin was real, and even the man who offered a sacrifice for their sins was affected by it.

What does this mean for us and how Jesus has a priestly role for us? For one, we note that no one had to offer a sacrifice for Jesus. He was already without sin and required nothing in the way of atonement himself. Hebrews makes this characteristic of Jesus clear several times. He was like us and went through life like we do, even to the point of being tempted to sin. But unlike us, he never sinned.

Another major meaning for us is how Jesus is like us. He went through everything we go through. He knew what it was like to have to hold your temper when your friends disappointed you, or what it was like to be deserted by someone he depended on. He knew what it was like to be hungry, thirsty and tired -- any human condition you can think of execpt maybe jet lag.

That matters because sometimes when I think about God and how immense God's power and knowledge are, I wonder how he can know what it's like to be a limited human being. Sure, I accept it intellectually, but we all know how we can sometimes proclaim something as true but wonder at how it could really be true.

And so God sent Jesus, who went through life like we do and in him, the divine Logos and second person of the holy Trinity, I can be reassured that God knows what this limited life is like and really means it when he offers me a relationship healed and made whole. An ancient Christian writer named Gregory of Nazianzus said, "For that which he has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved."

Hebrews tells us that in Jesus, we not only have a high priest without sin who can offer the perfect sacrifice of atonement, but we have one who has lived a life like ours and knows it intimately.

And that sounds like very good news to me.

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