Hebrews 5:1–10 (NRSV)
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”;
6 as he says also in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
The book of Hebrews brings up many theological concepts that are unique to this one book. It dives deeper into the concepts of angels than any other book of scripture, and it also speaks fully about the office of priest. I bring up this uniqueness because most of the New Testament is silent about priest. Even the gospels speak very little about them, but when the writers do mention the priests they hold a very important role. For instance when Jesus healed those with leprosy they were told to present themselves to the priests, and it was the high priest that was the final say in the verdict against Jesus before they presented him to governor.
Clearly the priest has an important role. But I do not think we fully understand the role of the priest in our contemporary era. It is not surprising that we have ignorance over the office of the priest because for the most part we do not have an equivalent to this role. Most would say that a pastor is an equivalent but if we were to look deeper into the actual role of the various offices we would see that there is a difference.
When we look back to the very beginning of the nation of Israel we begin to see the emergence of the office of the priest after the children of Abraham are lead out of Egypt. Prior to this time there was not an office of priest because God spoke to and through the patriarchs, and for the most part during the years of captivity we do not know how the people worshiped. This time of exodus out of captivity is key to understanding the role of the priest and the role of the people. Let’s look at this story for a moment.
Jacob or Israel had twelve sons and one of them was the favored one, this favorite son made the others jealous and they plotted against him and eventually sold him into slavery and told their father that he was killed by wild beasts. Joseph, the favored son, was sold to Ishmaelites, who then sold him to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph worked hard and the household was blessed through Joseph, but then plots were again set up against Joseph and he was thrown into prison. Even in prison Joseph was a blessing to those around him. Eventually word made it to Pharaoh that Joseph was extremely wise, and the leader of the Egyptian empire requested his services. While this was going on the rest of Joseph’s family was struggling because the land of Canaan was experiencing an extreme famine, eventually they migrated to Egypt to try to obtain food. While in Egypt God brought the family back together and they moved to Egypt and settled there. This story is one that shows us the grace of God even though the trials, at times the hardest part of our life is putting us into a position to become the greatest blessing sometime in the future. I could preach more of that but that is not for today.
After a time the Egyptians were tired of the aliens that had moved into their land and seemed they failed to remember the history that brought these people into their nation and they became very jealous of them and began to persecute them and eventually enslaved them. For over four hundred years the children of Israel were enslaved, held in bondage, unable to live the life in the freedom they were promised by God though their Fathers. This is where Moses and Aaron come in and the beginning of the priesthood of Israel. Moses was sent by God to lead the people back to freedom, but Pharaoh was not willing to release them. This lead to sever plagues in the land. Water was made undrinkable, crops were ruined, flocks died, and eventually the first born of every family who was not covered by the blood of a lamb was killed by the spirit of God. After the plagues pharaoh allowed the people to leave his land, and the nation of Israel was formed.
But it was from the bondage, the plagues, and redemption that define the office of the priest. Everything within the religious life of Israel revolves around these events, because prior to this there was not a priest. Prior to this there was no need for a priest because God spoke directly to the fathers. But Israel was brought to bondage by their jealous and greed, and sin held them in captivity. It was God that brought them out and God who bought them. Yes I said bought them, because that is what happened. The price of Israel’s freedom was the first born of every living creature. Every creature of Egypt and every creature of Israel belonged to God. That was the price of redemption. What does this have to do with the office of the priest? When the blood of the lamb was place over the doors of the people of Israel it allowed the people to live, but it did not remove the price.
When Israel emerged out of bondage and journeyed to the land of promise, God demanded the first born of every creature including their children. This was a steep price to pay but God in His grace provided a way, to offset the demand of the first born he set aside one tribe out of the twelve to be his. All the other tribes would have redemption though this one a constant reminder of the steep price they had to pay for their redemption. The law required that every first born male child be brought to God and for the family to be able to take that child home they would have to bring a sacrifice to purchase the child back from God, but the exchange was that another child would take the place of the one redeemed. That child would come from one tribe the tribe of Levi, the tribe from which Moses and Aaron came. This tribe was God’s tribe, the tribe set aside to remind the nation of the great price required to live free.
One tribe, took on the wages of sin of a nation. And though this one tribe since they bore the sins of the nation they became the only ones that could offer to the people the grace of God. From that moment on God spoke predominately to the people through this one tribe and the people spoke to God through them. It was an entire cultural identity revolving around this recognition that our sinfulness carries a great price. For my children to live free, to inherit the blessing of God someone else must take their place. The tribe of Levi was taken care of but they were the one tribe that remained slaves even in the land of promise. They did not have an inheritance, they were bound, their only hope was in the people of Israel staying true to God and when the people turned from God they would see this one tribe suffer because of it.
Have we ever looked at the tribe of Levi, and the office of the priesthood in this light? This one tribe represented the entire nation. The good and the bad was seen through this one tribe. This one tribe represented the entire nation before God and God to the entire nation. But only one of this tribe could actually make direct appeals to God and that was the High Priest. This one high priest would wear the special garments representing all of Israel into the most holy area of the temple. This one priest carried it all. Imagine if you will that position. Imagine if you would have to stand before the judge speaking on behalf of everyone in our nation, having to provide an answer for every grievance that occurred, and knowing that those grievances could negate the very covenant that God made. How would you approach? How would you enter this most holy place? How would you stand before God knowing that the sins of your neighbor could cost not only them but you your life?
There is a reason that this most holy place is called the mercy seat, because that is the only thing that we could possibly ask for standing there before pure holiness. None of us can stand in confidence representing an entire nation. Because we are fully aware of our own short comings. There is not a single person holy enough to stand because all of us has sinned. But we do not stand in that place, because Jesus stands there for us.
I will briefly speak on Melchizedek. Melchizedek was the king of Salem and a priest of the most high God during the days of Abraham. I mention this only because he was outside the promise, he was not part of Abraham’s company, so by definition he was a gentile. And yet he was a representative of God. Jesus is said to be a priest in the order of Melchizedek and not of Aaron. Aaron was Israel’s priest, Melchizedek was not. Melchizedek is an image of the redemption of all people through Christ. The writer of Hebrews includes this because Jesus was not a priest according to Jewish Law. He was not a Levite, but of the tribe of Judah, and yet he became the voice of the people and the voice of God.
Jesus stands as our priest. There is no other priest required. Jesus came and lived among humankind, offering prayers, worship, and service to others. He stood before the accusers and took on the wages of sin. He hung on a cross and cried out to God the Father, “Forgive them, for the do not know what they are doing.” That statement still rings in the halls of the heavenly temple. Forgive them.
Jesus stood in our place. He took on our punishment. He became our advocate. And what He said is forgive them. The price to redeem those in bondage is life. It was the lives of the one tribe for the lives of the other eleven. It was potentially the life of the one priest for the life of the others. But there is still only one statement that can be made, “Forgive them!”
Can you say those words? Can you say those words knowing that those around you could care less? Can you say those words even when you feel those that have sin against you have no desire or even knowledge that an offense has occurred? Forgive them! Those are the words that a priest must say. And that is why I say that there is not an office in the contemporary era that really represents the office of the priest. Because it is impossible to say those words without the strength of Christ. Forgive them!
Forgive them, those are the words that Jesus spoke and the words that he is calling each of us to speak. The writer of Hebrews says that through Jesus’ priestly office he has become the source of eternal salvation for those that obey him. Forgive them, is the command that Jesus gave to Peter when peter asked about the sins of a brother. Forgive them. This is forgiveness is the beginning of our journey with Christ and through this forgiveness we have hope, and we become the hope for the nations. As we enter this time of holy expectancy and communion with God in sacred silence, I ask again, “Can you say those words: Forgive them?”