Jesus Christ Foretold as Priest
Dear Friends in Christ, Fellow Redeemed!
Have you ever wondered why we, in the Lutheran church, have pastors instead of priests? While I was going to school, I had a number of friends and co-workers who always thought of me as the guy going to school to be a priest. But there is a difference between a pastor and a priest in the meaning of the two words.
See the word pastor is not really even a biblical word. It only appears once in the New Testament in Ephesians 4:11 where we read, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” However, the word there is actually the Greek word poimh,n, which means “shepherd.”
This title was with Jesus’ instructions to Peter to “shepherd his sheep” (John 21:16) and Peter’s later reiteration to, “shepherd the flock of God which is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). So, the title “pastor” derives from the Latin word for shepherd. It has the same root as the word pasture, where a shepherd takes his flock.
However, the title “priest” is used very frequently in the Bible. This will be the focus of our study this evening in our second look at Jesus’ foretold threefold office. How Jesus was prophesied as "The High Priest" in the Old Testament and how He fulfilled this role in His life and continues to fill this role in heaven. May God grant us the blessings of trust and understanding as we reflect on this important topic.
JESUS CHRIST: FORETOLD AS PRIEST
Last week we considered how Jesus was foretold as God’s prophet. A prophet is a mouthpiece for God. Someone who hears what God has to say to them and then reports it to the people. As our prophet, Jesus reported and continues to report the good news of the Gospel, the good news of Him to us from God. And while there were some who served as both prophet and priest, for example Samuel, there is a distinct contrast between the function of a prophet and the function of a priest in the Old Testament. We read in Hebrews 5:1, “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
We learned last week about how a prophet is a representative of God before the people. However this verse tells us that a priest was a representative of the people before God. A prophet stood with God toward man; the priest stood with man toward God.
When we define a priest in confirmation class we classify his activity in two main ways. A priest is one who sacrifices and a priest is one who intercedes. The Old Testament priests would offer up daily sacrifices to the Lord in the Temple. We read, “Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs of the first year, day by day continually. 39 One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight” (Exodus 29:38-39). And that was just the daily offerings.
God set up five different types of offerings for the people. There were burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and trespass offerings. They would sacrifice bulls, rams, male goats, female goats, lambs, doves, and pigeons. There is no doubt that this was a very gory and grisly job.
Yet it was all a part of God’s purpose. All of these sacrifices were to atone for the sins of the people. But did they atone for the sins of the people? No! The blood of animals does not wash away sin. As Isaac Watts put it, “Not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain could give the guilty conscience peace or wash away the stain” (TLH #156 v. 1).
So why did God have them go through these gruesome actions again and again? He did it as a reminder! He did it to make a point! And that point is that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The price that needs to be paid for the terrible curse of sin is blood and death. Through these Old Testament sacrifices God reminded His people of the seriousness of their situation.
This is a reminder that we need to keep in mind as well. In a world that tries to downplay the seriousness of sin as a personal choice on which you get to make your own decision, or an alternative (yet equally legitimate) lifestyle. In this immoral world that is trying to remove all moral absolutes, we need to keep in mind that our sin separates us from God. And it is in this concept that we find the second function of the priest.
In addition to making sacrifices for the people, the priest also served by interceding with God for the people. Because of his sin, and because of his lost condition, man is unable to approach the holy, sinless God. That is why God had a veil built into the Temple between the holy place and the holy of holies. Not just to keep people out, but to protect them. Anyone who went into the holy of holies would die. Only the high priest could enter that place once a year on the Day of Atonement to sprinkle the blood of a lamb on the altar.
So, the children of Israel needed their priests to approach God for them. The priests would offer up prayers for the people and beg forgiveness for the people. They would teach the people and serve as judges. They burned incense and blessed the people. They kept the tabernacle and later the Temple by caring for the altar, the lamps, and the showbread. Being a priest was a pretty important job and it had pretty strict restrictions.
God told Moses, “They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and the bread of their God; therefore they shall be holy” (Leviticus 21:6). Of course, were these men holy? No. So they had to go through many washings and purification rituals in order to perform their work. They had to wear holy garments and refrain from wine and strong drinks. They had to avoid all types of uncleanness and defilement. Anyone with a physical blemish was not permitted to function in the priestly office.
All of this, and these men still were and remained sinful beings, who had to offer up sacrifices for their own sins as well as for the people.
Again, we can ask the obvious question, why? Why did God bother with these rituals and ceremonies if they didn’t actually accomplish any forgiveness? The answer is that although they did not serve to deliver anyone from sin, they did serve as a picture, a symbol, a type of Him who was to come: Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest.
A priest has two functions, to sacrifice and to intercede. We read of our Great High Priest's sacrifice in the book of Hebrews, “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; 27 who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people's, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Hebrews 7:26-27).
Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross. All of those Old Testament sacrifices we talked about before were all a symbol of the perfect sacrifice of Christ. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
We have the perfect High Priest who offered up the perfect sacrifice. Being true man, He could take man’s place. Being sinless, He could take upon Himself another’s sin. Being the eternal, omnipotent God, He could become the Substitute for all mankind. We read, “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). And again, “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).
In Christ’s work of sacrificing Himself, we usually distinguish between His passive and His active obedience. By His passive obedience we mean His substitutionary work of freeing men from the penalties that would come on them from the Law of God. He did this by taking our sins upon Himself and suffering our punishment for us on the cross. We read of this in Isaiah 53, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
The active obedience of our High Priest is His substitutionary work of freeing us from the demands of the Law and obtaining for us a perfect righteousness by perfectly fulfilling, as our Substitute, the entire Law in all its demands, so that His Righteousness may be made our righteousness by faith. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). And Paul tells us, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4).
So by fulfilling the Law as our Substitute and suffering in our place all the punishment that we had deserved, Christ, our High Priest, rendered full satisfaction to the justice and holiness of God. God is just and holy and sin needed to be punished, but thanks be to God who gave us redemption through His Son.
The sacrifice of Christ was once for all. He has washed away sin and now God sees us as righteous. So does Christ still function as a High Priest. Our text says, “You are a priest forever.” Well, remember the other function of a Priest, to sacrifice and to intercede. We read in I John, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (I John 2:1-2). As your Advocate, Jesus pleads before God on your behalf.
When the Devil, the world, and your sinful flesh come before the judgment seat of God and accuse you of the sins that you have committed, Christ stands before God’s throne and announces forgiveness for those sins. No matter how terrible those sins, no matter how often those sins, no matter how public those sins. “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21).
And when Christ offered up that sacrifice on the cross, when the earth quaked and darkness fell, when the dead were raised, the Temple veil tore in two. This was more than just a result of the shaking earth. This was a symbol of the truth that the barrier between God and man, sin, was removed.
What this means for you and me is that our once unapproachable God is now available to us. We read in I Peter, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Remember everything the old Testament priests had to do to prepare for service to the Lord because of their sinfulness. Now we are all a royal priesthood. We have direct access to God without the need for a human mediator. We have Jesus as our mediator in heaven.
And that is why we don’t refer to our church leaders as priests. Priests sacrifice and intercede. Pastors don’t need to offer up any more sacrifices for sin, because Jesus made the perfect sacrifice for all sin. Pastors don’t need to intercede for the people, because you have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ and you can confidently approach that Father as a child approaches his father.
Christ’s priestly office is really at the heart of the entire message of the Gospel. It is the message of the great exchange. His perfect life for our sinful lives, His innocent death instead of our eternal death.
But there is one thing we still haven’t talked about. What does it mean that Jesus is a priest “in the order of Melchizedek?” Well, all we know about Melchizedek is from three short verses in Genesis. Abraham had just returned from rescuing his nephew Lot who was taken captive by four kings. We read, “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. 19 And he blessed him and said: "Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand." And he gave him a tithe of all” (Genesis 14:18-20).
And that is the only account of Melchizedek in Scripture. We would not know what the psalm before us means if not for the writer to the Hebrews explaining, “For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, 2 to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated "king of righteousness," and then also king of Salem, meaning "king of peace," 3 without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually” (Hebrews 7:1-3).
That is what it means to be in the order of Melchizedek. A continual priest, interceding for us before God until time ends and we no longer need someone to intercede for us because we will be able to behold God as He is in perfect righteousness and peace.
And that is the other part of being in the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek means “king of righteousness” and he was king of Salem, which means peace. In the person of Jesus Christ, righteousness and peace meet. We are now right before our righteous God and we have peace with Him forever.
As we continue through this Advent season let us give thanks for that little Baby who came to be our Great High Priest. Amen.
Pastor Joe Naumann