On Christ our Eternal Priest

Hebrews 7:23-28 belongs to a section of the letter that begins at 6:19 and continues through 10:25. In this part of the epistle, the author extols the virtue of Jesus as a new kind of priest, one who offers a new kind of sacrifice in a new kind of temple.

Jesus is the perfect, holy and unstained priest whose life and work continue forever. Death cannot defeat him. In fact, in offering himself up to death, Jesus made a unique, unrepeatable and fully sufficient sacrifice for the sins of God’s people. God exalted him above the heavens where he lives to make intercession for all those who draw near to him.

For years, I was oblivious to how the Letter to the Hebrews describes a liturgical reality. True, Jesus fulfills and obviates the need for the first covenant’s earthly temple, priesthood and sacrifices. Jesus’s death and resurrection, however, don’t simply internalize and spiritualize the realities symbolized in Israel’s worship. In a very real sense, they move the locus of that worship from a hill in Jerusalem to the temple in heaven. The earthly tabernacle is merely a shadow or a copy of the heavenly one.

The first covenant (i.e., the Law of Moses) gave God’s people a tabernacle, a priesthood and the sacrifices that defined their relationship with God. Similarly, the new covenant established in Jesus’s death and resurrection also provides his people with a new temple, a new priesthood and a new type of sacrifice. Jesus, our great high priest, sanctified the heavenly temple with his own blood and eternally serves there as a priest in the “order of Melchizedek.” And as every priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices (and thus needs something to offer), Jesus offers himself not repeatedly, but once-for-all.

Jesus’ priestly acts accomplish what the previous sacrifices never could: true cleansing and transformation of those who draw near to God through him, bringing salvation to the uttermost. The epistle’s description of Christ’s priestly activity comports well with the Wesleyan understanding of salvation

One of the striking contrasts in this section, however, is between the singular action of Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross and the continuous work of Jesus’ priestly vocation. Three times (7:27, 9:12, 10:10), the author repeats that Jesus died “once in finality” or “once for all time”. Yet, his priesthood “continues forever” and he “lives to make intercession” (notably, not repeated sacrifices). Offered in eternity, in the tabernacle-not-made-with hands, Jesus’ one sacrifice transcends time. It is not a contradiction to say that Jesus continually offers his once-for-all sacrifice.

Just as the baby born in Bethlehem is the eternally begotten Son of the Father, so the Jewish prophet nailed to a Roman cross is the eternally sacrificed Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (to put a Johannine spin on things). Eternity intersected with our world on a hill outside Jerusalem, circa 30 CE.

Eternity also intersects with our world wherever God’s people assemble to draw near to him through Christ, their great high priest. The author concludes this section of the letter with an appeal to his readers.

In his death and resurrection, Jesus has opened the holy-of-holies of the heavenly temple to all who belong to him. The holy-of-holies (or most holy place) was the most sacred part of the temple, an inner-room separated from the outside by a curtain beyond which no one could pass, certainly no ordinary son or daughter of Abraham. There, God sat enthroned above the cherubim and the ark of the covenant. In the earthly temple, only the high priest could enter the most holy place, and then only once a year to offer sacrifices for all Israel. Now, the author proclaims, all who believe can approach the throne of God at the center of the temple.

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. Hebrews 10:19-25

The author’s appeal is filled with allusions to the early church’s own liturgical life: baptism, the confession of faith in Jesus, and messages which by which the members of the assembly “stir each other up to good works.” If I could talk to the author today, I would ask him why he didn’t explicitly include the supper of the Lord which commemorates the very reality on which he bases his appeal. In any case, we know that the supper is part of what took place when the believers assembled.

It is no accident, then, that the author concludes this portion of the letter with an appeal for the people to keep meeting together. The letter’s movement from the courts of the heavenly temple to the courtyard of an ordinary Roman house where believers gathered for worship is intentional. When the people assembled to worship the Lord, they were really entering the most holy place where Jesus eternally serves as our great high priest. They were joining in the liturgy of the great assembly of heaven, and offering their prayer and praise in union with Christ’s eternal offering of himself.

Finally, for the author of the epistle, this vision of Christ’s eternal priesthood had a larger point.  If those to whom God gave the privilege of worshiping in the earthly temple were accountable for how they lived in the light of God’s gracious and sacred gift, how much more so are those who have the privilege of entering God’s heavenly temple through their union with Christ.

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