“Jesus Is Our Great High Priest–Now What?” (Sermon on Hebrews 10:11-25, by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
“Jesus Is Our Great High Priest–Now What?” (Hebrews 10:11-25)
Today is the seventh straight Sunday when the assigned Epistle for the day comes from the Letter of Hebrews. We lost a couple of those readings due to observing Reformation and All Saints, but even so, we’ve been hearing a lot of Hebrews. I used Hebrews as a sermon text a couple of times back in October, once on the verse, “Today, if you hear his voice,” and the once on Jesus as our Sabbath rest. But there is a major aspect of this epistle I haven’t touched on yet, and that is, Jesus as our great high priest. I’ve been saving up that for today.
That Jesus is our high priest is indeed a major theme in the Epistle of Hebrews. The word “priest” occurs over thirty times in Hebrews, whereas it occurs maybe three times, total, in all the other epistles of the New Testament combined.
Now since we 21st century Gentiles are not as familiar with the office of the high priest as Jews in the first century would have been, and since we didn’t touch on this topic earlier, let’s now get up to speed by looking at how Hebrews has been describing Jesus as our great high priest. Please turn to your insert, where you’ll see a few excerpts from the previous weeks’ readings, concluding with our reading for today.
Hebrews 2:17-18: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
4:14-16: “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.”
7:26-27: “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”
9:11-13: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 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.”
9:24-28: “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, 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 places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for 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.”
And now today’s Epistle, Hebrews 10:11-25: “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.
“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.
“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.”
So far the readings from Hebrews. Now let me sum this up. The priest in ancient Israel did two things. On the one hand, he represented the people before God. On the other hand, he spoke and acted for God to the people. The office of priest was established by God to do his will and for the benefit of God’s people. The priest would bring the prayers of the people before the Lord, interceding for them in God’s presence at the tabernacle and, later, at the temple. The priest would offer up sacrifices for and from the people to God, many sacrifices all year round, sacrifices for sins, sacrifices for guilt, thank offerings, fellowship offerings, grain offerings, sacrifices of bulls and goats and lambs.
And out of all the priests, there was one high priest at any given time. His was the highest office in the priesthood, and he had a special responsibility that only he could do. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the high priest–and only the high priest–would enter into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, and there he would offer up the one comprehensive sin offering for all the people of Israel for that year, by sprinkling blood on the mercy seat, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. This atoning sacrifice–in fact, all the sin offerings of ancient Israel–had power to forgive because God had graciously attached his promise to these appointed sacrifices. But even so, built into these sacrifices was the obvious fact that they could never quite do the full job, since they had to be repeated, endlessly, day after day, week after week, year after year. The blood of bulls and goats could never really do the job. And so the ministry of Israel’s high priest would have to await a greater high priest who would be able to offer up the once-and-for-all perfect sacrifice.
Anything that you and I would offer up to try to atone for our sins cannot do the job. The problem is too deep. It goes to our sinful nature, our lost condition. No, if we are to be forgiven, the atoning sacrifice must come from outside ourselves, and it must be offered up by a better sort of priest, with a better sort of sacrifice.
And the good news is, that high priest, our great high priest, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He offered up the perfect sacrifice when he offered up himself. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That is the unique thing about Jesus’ priesthood: He is both the priest and the sacrifice. As we sing in the Communion hymn: “Himself the victim and Himself the priest.” And he gets the job done.
Jesus is our great high priest. When he died on the cross, Christ entered into God’s presence with the blood that atones for all of your sins and for the sins of the whole world, his own holy precious blood as the Son of God. Jesus our high priest entered the Holy of Holies in heaven and made atonement for us, once and for all. He ever lives to make intercession for you. He pleads your case before the throne of heaven. Jesus is your sympathetic high priest. He is your brother, he knows your weaknesses, and he knows the forgiveness and the kind of help you need. We have a great high priest indeed.
But now here is where I want to go with this. “Jesus is Our Great High Priest–Now What?” In other words, what difference does this make in our lives, in how we live and think and act? Our reading for today, from Hebrews 10, suggests three things: 1) Let us draw near to God. 2) Let us hold fast our confession. And 3) Let us encourage one another.
First, let us draw near to 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.” Dear friends, fellow baptized, all your sins have been washed away. Your robes have been made white in the blood of the Lamb. You are welcome, you are invited, to draw near now to God. We do that every Sunday when we come here and gather in the name of the Lord, which means, in his presence. This is a great privilege that we should not take for granted. We draw near with a true heart to confess our sins to God and to receive his forgiveness. We draw near to hear God speaking to us in his Word. We draw near to receive Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament.
And we draw near to God to bring him our prayers and praises. This is one of the benefits that come with having Christ as our high priest. God hears our prayers favorably. He invites us to pray to him, and he promises to hear us. So let’s do that, both here in church on Sunday, and throughout the week, wherever we happen to be. Jesus is our high priest. We have access into God’s presence. “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.”
Second, let us hold fast our confession. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” There are many things in life and in our world that would cause us to let loose of our confession and our hope: Disappointment. Failure. Adversity. The pressure and the persecution and the mockery of the world. Temptation to just give up on it all. We can grow weary and discouraged. But, beloved, Jesus is our high priest. His offering secures us an eternal future that is firm and unshakable. God has promised us this, and his word is sure and trustworthy. Has Christ risen from the dead? Yes, he has. Are you baptized, and are you trusting in him? Yes, you are, and you do. Therefore you have a hope to hold onto. And therefore you will confess that hope freely, gladly, before God, man, and world. No intimidation or fear can stop you. Let us hold fast our confession.
And third, let us encourage one another. “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.” “Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” Ooh, ouch! Does that apply? Is your church attendance somewhat spotty and irregular? Then, yes, this does apply. The Bible here is speaking to you. Break the habit of erratic church attendance, and get in the habit of faithful every-Sunday attendance–as often as you are physically well enough to come, of course. Why? Among other reasons, because church is not just a matter of “me and Jesus,” as though you were here in an individual isolation chamber. No, to be a Christian means you are part of a church family, and families need to spend time together, to interact with one another. If one family member is missing, the rest of us feel it, and we’re the worse off for it.
Did you know your presence or absence in the pew makes a difference to the rest of us? It does. Your physical presence is an encouragement. The sound of your voice added to the voices of all the rest of us–in the singing of the hymns, in the confessing of the creed–this is an encouragement. It lifts our spirits. It is a joy to be here with our brothers and sisters. And as we get to know one another better, we get to know our needs and our joys, how we might be able to help one another in the body of Christ. We may be able to point a brother or sister in the direction of how they might be able to help and serve someone else. This is what it means to be the body of Christ, all the parts working together. God’s Spirit will move you in this direction.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a good letter to us Gentiles, too. For it points us to the one who is serving as our own high priest. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is our great high priest. He has offered up the perfect sacrifice for all our sin, so that now we are forgiven, we have the sure hope of eternal life, and we have confidence to come into God’s presence through Christ. Since that is the case, now what? What difference does this make in our lives? Here’s what: Since Jesus is our great high priest, therefore let us draw near to God. Let us hold fast our confession. And let us encourage one another. Draw near to God, hold fast our confession, encourage one another. Let’s do this thing, shall we?