A perfect priest - Hebrews 4:14 - 5:10

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 8th October 2006.

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I recently heard the story of three Christian ministers who were traveling together on a train. They were from the Christian tradition which regarded themselves as priests and as the journey progressed they started to speak about their experiences of being a priest in the contemporary church. Much to their amazement they soon discovered that although for many years they had heard numerous confessions from their parishioners, no one had heard their own. So, rather nervously, they began to confess their sins to one another. The first priest was initially reluctant to tell his traveling companions what he had done wrong. But, eventually, they managed to persuade him to confess and so with great embarrassment he admitted to stealing money from the collection plate. There were gasps of horror from his fellow ministers but having confessed they granted him absolution.  The second priest was also very nervous. But, again, his traveling companions managed to persuade him to confess his fault. And so with great shame he admitted a liking for the communion wine. “It’s just so tasty,” he said. “I never seem to be happy with a little swig.” Again, there were gasps of horror from his fellow ministers but having confessed his addiction they granted him absolution. All eyes were now on priest number 3. What would he say? Well, he looked even more reluctant to speak than his two friends but, finally, they persuaded him to confess his sins. “Unfortunately,” he said, “my great sin is that I can’t keep a secret.”

Now I tell you this story for two reasons. First of all, because I think it’s funny and, secondly, because today we are asking the important question: Do we need a priest to represent us before God?

Now I suspect most of us in this room would instantly say no. “Of course we don’t need a priest. What are you talking about Lee? Have you gone absolutely mad? Surely those days are long gone? We now live in the 21st Century.  Now, of course, if we had lived in the days before Jesus then yes we would have needed a priest to represent us before God but now we have free access to heaven without the need for any human go-between. I don’t need someone to absolve my sins and I certainly don’t need someone with a special hotline to heaven. I can approach God whenever and wherever I want.”

But have a look at what we are told in verses 14-15. “Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.”

So, according to these verses, we do need a priest to represent us before God. We cannot just stroll into heaven and put our feet up on the divine sofa. But here’s the crucial thing to know. 

Only Jesus can be our priest today. You may like to know that in the New Testament the leaders of churches are never called priests. It is a remarkable change of language from the Old Testament. So if you decide to read through the Old Testament you will find many references to the leaders of God’s people and in a large number of examples they will be called priests. But when we turn over into the New Testament we discover that church leaders are never called priests. They are called deacons and elders and bishops but never priests. And the reason is because the early Christians regarded Jesus as their great high priest.

Now it seems to me that most Christians today are fairly clear about why we call Jesus a Prophet and a King.

§         Prophet. If we are to stop the intellectual and emotional guessing games about who God is then God himself must tell us what he is like. Most of us understand that throughout the bible God sent various messengers who don’t wake up one morning, make some extra strong coffee and have a profound idea about God that they then decided to share with other people. But who were spokesmen for the living God. And so this is a category we are reasonably familiar with.

o       We have even seen this in the book of Hebrews.

o       Remember how it starts. Heb 1:1-2

§         King. Start of the Bible the kingdom of God. God does not simply reveal through his word but also rules through his word. Lots of examples of kings in the Old Testament. And it’s a familiar enough concept in the modern world.

o       So when we are told that Jesus is the King of the kingdom we tend to understand what this means.

But it’s very different when we read in the book of Hebrews that Jesus is a great high priest. Only book in the NT where this happens. A very alien concept to us in the modern world. And also we are not very familiar with the books of the Old Testament where the priesthood is described. And this is unfortunate because we miss something of Jesus’ ministry when we miss out on his priesthood. So what I would like to do this morning is explain ultimately why it is such good news that Jesus is our great high priest. And I want to do this by answering three questions:

1)      What did a high priest do?

2)      Who could become a high priest?

3)      Why does all this matter?

What did a high priest do? We find out in verse 1 of chapter 5. And this is what we are told: “Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”

I love the Bible for many reasons. The way it fits together. Many people. Over time. The bible is a very honest book. It faces up to reality. It doesn’t pretend we are all sweet little angels. Which is what we do so often don’t we? I notice this particularly at funerals. When was the last one you went to when the person was described honesty?

I remember my Grandmother’s funeral. Not easy to preach at. Pharisee and tax collector. But I had promised her that no one would leave the church building thinking she had gone to heaven because she was a good woman. She wasn’t. She was a sinner who had trusted in Christ and asked him for mercy.

The Bible is the same. It doesn’t duck the issues. Straight away in verse 1 we are told why a high priest was required in the first place. Did you see the reason? It was because of sins. Been polluted. So could not just stroll into God’s presence.

1966 world cup with Bobby Moore. He knows something about the majesty.

We have lost some of that. But the Bible didn’t.  And so God set up a system where this would be emphasized more and more. First of all, he gave his people the tabernacle and then the temple. Huge visual aid to teach the people about his holiness and their wickedness and defilement. Each building had various zones.

Tabernacle. Outer court they could go in. And then holy place where only priests could go and then the holy of holies where God was said to dwell in a special way – only the High Priest could go once a year. They used to tie a rope to his leg just in case he had a heart attack so they could pull him out.

Visual lesson every day for the people. They could not just stroll in. They were unclean and God was pure. And yet it was not all bad news because of the high priest. He could go in once a year. And when he went in he did not go in as a random individual but as a representative of the people.

Which is such a crucial thing to remember. Sometimes people think the Old Testament is all about God’s people trying to earn there way into heaven and the NT is when God changes his mind. But the very presence of the high priest meant that wasn’t the reality. The people did not come individually. They were always represented by a high priest who would enter into the most holy place and make sacrifices to deal with the people’s sin.

Important teaching lesson for us today. So dangerous and so easy to misunderstand the Christian faith. People who keep on coming who think it is about earning it. It is not, repeat not, about appearing before God with our good deeds.

Saving Private Ryan. Released in 1998. It’s set in WWII and tells the story of a group of men who are given orders to rescue one single man from behind enemy lines in Normandy. We are told that his three brothers have all recently been killed in action, leaving him the only child of a single mother. When the US Army Chief of Staff hears about the situation, he gives orders to protect this precious remaining son, Private James Ryan, and he sends a team of soldiers to bring him back alive. The rescue mission is extremely dangerous, and one by one it claims the soldiers lives. Indeed, at one point the captain says, “This Ryan better be worth it. He’d better go home, cure some disease or invent the longer-lasting light bulb.” But the orders to rescue Ryan are obeyed, and in the final battle scene, set on a heavily-shelled bridge, as the Captain himself dies, he whispers his last words to a dumbstruck Private Ryan: “James – earn this – earn it.”

50 years later, in the closing shots of the movie, we see an elderly James Ryan, surrounded by his family returning to Normandy (wife, children and grandchildren). He knees before the grave of the captain and with tears in his eyes says, “My family is with me today. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope at least in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” Then he turns to his wife and asks with some anxiety, “Tell me I’ve lived a good life. Tell me I’m, a good man.”

The earn it words have crippled Ryan. Too many people still think like this. Not the way. 

Salvation by works is like being a salesman who knows he must meet a quota but never being told what it is.

We can remember this when we think of the high priest. The people were not to come to God on their own but were represented by another. And as we will see this was a fantastic preparation for understanding Christ.

We all need categories to understand him. This was one reason why God delayed the sending of his Son for so long.

Who could become a high priest? Not just anyone. There were 2 discrimination laws in place. And we read about them in verses 1-4.

§         Had to be a human being. Good reason for this. Understood the human situation. We long for that, don’t we? Someone to understand us.

o       All the high priests before Jesus were not just subject to weakness but were also sinners. As verse 3 states. They had to make sacrifices for there own sins.

§         Had to be called by God. Didn’t just wake up in the morning, go to the priestly training school, get a diploma and then start working a few years later. Must be selected by God.

Then notice what is said about Jesus. Verse 5. So Christ as. We are being told that Jesus fitted the criteria. Reverse order.

§         Jesus was called to this office by God the Father.

o       Psalm 2. Appointed to the office of King.

o       Psalm 110. Where Jesus is called to the office of priest.

§         Who is this Melchizedek? And why does he mention him here?

§         Strange character. We meet him in Genesis 14. Abe meets him after a battle.

§         He is the priest/King of Jerusalem.

§         Name means: King of righteousness.

§         Why mention this? Not such a big issue to us but to a Jew who knew something about priests this was a major stumbling block. High Priest must come from the tribe of Levi and yet Jesus was from the tribe of Judah.

§         Then God says there is another line of priests that goes before Aaron. And so this is okay.

o       So it’s legitimate for Jesus to be called to this office by God the Father.

§         Jesus was a human being.

o       And we see this in verses 7-10.

o       Jesus’ life in earth. Implies he had a life before and a life after. But certainly had a life on earth.

o       Verse 7. Not an easy life. Gethsemane.

o       Not without purpose.  Verse 8.

o       He had always obeyed his Father as the divine Son.

o       But as a human being he had to be prepared for his responsibilities.

o       He learned obedience through his suffering.

o       And so was made perfect. Verse 9. Become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

o       He brought himself as the sacrifice. Not sacrifice for his own sins. But he was the perfect sacrifice who made forgiveness possible.

o       That’s why no priests today apart from him. All sacrifices have stopped. That’s also why we don’t have altars in the church but tables. We look back because it has all been done. And when we continue to talk about sacrifices it’s a sign that we doubt the final work of Jesus on the cross.

Why does all this matter?

Two reasons. Effects what we say and what we do.

1)      What we say. 4:14. If this is true then we must hold on to this faith.

o       Temptation to drift away from what we believe.

o       Jesus is a great high priest.

o       Notice where he has gone.

o       His scars are still there.

o       He is the only one who can represent sinful humanity before his Father. And that’s his mission. Although he is fully divine he longs for us to be acceptable in his Father’s presence.

o       We will keep insisting on the uniquness of Jesus if we remember how crucial is was to have a high priest.

2)      What we do. 4:16.

o       How do you feel about approaching God?

o       Blasé. Terrified. Opposite extremes.

o       With confidence.

o       Why? Reason in verse 15. Not a harsh finger pointer.

o       Jesus was human. He was without sin.

§         Temptation is not sin.

o       So not part of the problem. So could be our perfect sacrifice but also means he really does know what temptation is like.

o       We want people who understand. So often teenagers say you just don’t get it.

We will not get told off by some manager who doesn’t know what it’s like. But we will find Jesus who does know.

Fifty years ago C.S. Lewis imagined someone objecting here: “If Jesus never sinned, then he doesn’t know what temptation is like. He lived a sheltered life and is out of touch with how strong temptation can be.” Here is what Lewis wrote in response to that objection:

“A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is…A man who gives in to temptation does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in…Christ, because he was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means – the only complete realist.”

He does know. That’s who awaits us. And because of him we read about the throne of grace.

We can approach. Remarkable. In the OT only priests could do this. But because of Jesus we can go in. Sometimes we find it difficult to believe we can go back.

There was once a village girl from Brazil named Christina who travelled to the big city and fell into prostitution. Her distraught mother followed her and began a search, leaving small photos of herself taped to mirrors and attached to notice-boards throughout the red-light district. In time, the hurt and disillusioned daughter saw one of the photos and read the message on the back. It said “Whatever you’ve done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.” And she did.

God says that to us. Let’s return and let’s be sure of what we will find there. Two things.

§         Mercy. Mercy is the remission of divine judgement.

§         Grace. Grace is the supply of underserved blessing.

o       Saved by grace.

·      The diver Greg Louganis was once asked how he performed so well under pressure. he replied: “I get up on the board, remind myself my mother loves me and dive!” Or in other words he reminds himself of the one relationship which will remain the same whatever his performance or his identity. She loves him anyway. Her love for him is not conditional on his performance. It is unconditional. it won’t change, however, he performs.

·      We are constantly told, “If you get the right grades, we’ll affirm you and make you feel loved.: Young enough, successful enough, beautiful enough, talented enough. The Christian life isn’t like that. Not duty or proving yourself. Living a life of thanks.

·      This will help us in our time of need.

·      Philip Yancey says in his book ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’: “Nothing I can do can make him love me more and nothing I can do can make him love me less.”

o       Sustained by grace. We need his undeserved power to help us in our weakness.

·      We must come to God and ask.

·      Word used in verse 16 suggests regular visits.

·      Times of sin and suffering.

·      Moving to see it. Anne Kneller. Anything to see the gospel advance. “Isn’t God good Richard?”

“Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest we confess.” (Hebrews 3:1)

Clear about what we say and what we do.

Let’s pray.

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