“After He was perfected, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him,” Hebrews 5:9.
Starting in Hebrews 5, the author spends a lot of time explaining how Christ is our high priest. Though the concept of a high priest is somewhat foreign today, it was the most sacred and holy position within the Hebrew religious system. This one person, the high priest, acted as the mediator–the go-between–between God and the people. This seems worlds away from us today, and in many ways it is, and it is easy to wonder why this is important; it is easy to wonder why we need a high priest in the first place. But, if we take the time to understand why we need a high priest, we better understand the work that Christ did for us, and we develop a better understanding of the Gospel.
We need a high priest because of sin. Due to the fall in the garden, we are not good, we are not just, we are not righteous. We are all fallen. Our fundamental nature is to seek sin instead of seeking God, and because of this, we are separated from God. Due to sin and this separation, we are deserving of God’s wrath, and we are awaiting the penalty of death. As if this wasn’t bad enough already–not only are we separated from God, but we are also unable to approach God because of our sins. This means that, even if we were somehow to desire to begin pursuing God, we would not be able to come near Him because He is holy and we are not. Even simply entering into His holy presence in our sinful state would destroy us. Furthermore, we are incapable of cleansing ourselves of our sins.
So we need someone righteous, we need someone who is just to speak on our behalf to God. We need a mediator who can bridge the divide between God and us, and we need someone who can cleanse our sins for us because there is no way that we can do this on our own.
Here’s the beautiful thing, here’s the thing that defies all the logic of this world: even though we have chosen to turn away from God, even though we actively rebel against Him and we chose sin at every opportunity, God still gave us that mediator. He gave us a way to have our sins cleansed and forgiven and removed from us.
God first did this when He called Israel to be His people. He called for them to be a nation of priests that would show other people how to live. God then gave Israel the Law. The Law was the standard that clearly defined what He says is right and wrong. God gave Israel the Law so that humankind would know what is good and what is evil. No more would humanity be choosing for ourselves what is good and what isn’t. No more would we be doing what we began doing in the garden. With the Law, we would know once and for all what is right and what is wrong.
Along with the Law, God gave Israel the sacrificial system. He did so because He knew that regardless of how hard we might try, we humans can’t stop sinning. This is important, because we can’t stop sinning, and the penalty for sin remains death.
As foreign and old-fashioned as it sounds, as barbaric as it seems, the sacrificial system is a sign of God’s mercy. It is a show of God’s compassion. He allows us to keep our lives despite our sins. God allowed our sins to be transferred to another creature, to a tiny lamb without blemish, and the lamb’s blood would cover the price of our sins. We have to remember that sin requires death, and though our sins require our lives to be taken, God allowed the life of the slain lamb to satisfy our debt. Within this system, who was it that was in charge of making these sacrifices? Who was it who did the dirty work of killing the lamb? Whose hands would be the ones to get blood? Who would be the one to go into God’s presence on our behalf to offer atonement for us? It was the high priest.
The high priest’s sole duty was to be righteous so that he could offer sacrifices to atone for our lack of righteousness.
But here’s the catch–the high priest was from among the people. He was one of the people, which meant that he, too, was not able to always be righteous. He, too, would struggle and succumb to sin. Because of the priest’s flawed human nature, the atonement he offered wasn’t final–it wasn’t perfect, it had to be continually reapplied.
The atonement that the earthly high priest offered was the same as suffering from a terminal disease and being treated only with band-aids. It did nothing to get to the root of the problem; it was only a most temporary fix.
When we start to understand it that way, we realize that the earthly high priest and the sacrificial system were never intended to be the solution. Instead, they were designed to point us to the solution. These things were to lead us to the Messiah, to the Priestly King, who was the son of God. The high priest pointed us to the one who could make perfect the work of salvation. It led us to the one who could offer eternal and everlasting atonement, to the one who could cure us of our sinful nature.
The high priest and the sacrificial system pointed us to one who could be the truly righteous mediator between God and us. The high priest’s purpose was to point us to the greater high priest who was to come, to the one who could offer eternal atonement and salvation.
Christ did just this. He accomplished this very thing: He is the superior high priest, the eternally righteous priest who could make atonement for us. He made this ultimate atonement. He paid the price that our sins required, not by offering sacrifices of unblemished lambs, but by living an unblemished life. He did so by never straying from God’s standard of good and evil, by being completely and totally obedient to God, by never sinning, and by dying in our place. Our sins required our lives, but Christ gave His life in our place. By giving his life for us, Christ bridged the divide between God and us. He became the perfect mediator that we needed.
When He rose from the grave, He proved that death and sin had finally been defeated and He showed that all who listen and submit to Him can have eternal forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
So, the answer to our question is this: we need a high priest because we could never have done any of this for ourselves. We could never have accomplished this for ourselves. Because of this fact, we must trust in the high priest who accomplished salvation and atonement for us.
Artwork: “Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus, Marc Chagall, 1966.