Tag Archives: High Priest

Prophecy and Reality

Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.’
Zechariah 6:12-13 (NIV)

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership of late. With the dawn of 2018 I find myself stepping into not one, but two different leadership opportunities. Yesterday one of my colleagues asked me over the phone how I felt. I answered honestly. There’s a certain level of sobriety and humility that comes with any kind of leadership in which others are depending on you.

In today’s chapter Zechariah shares the last of a series of visions he recorded. Prophetic dreams and visions are an admittedly strange lot. Yesterday over morning coffee Wendy compared them to descriptions of what an acid trip is like. They certainly allow for wide-ranging conjecture, and my experience is that they only gain clarity in retrospect.

One of the things about ancient prophecy is that they often have layers of meaning. On one layer they reference current or recent events, but on another layer they reference future events on a broader scale. Jewish scholars long understood Zac’s vision in today’s chapter to be Messianic in nature. The political-religious system of the Ancient Hebrews was dualistic. The monarchy and civil government was the role for a king from David’s line. The high-priest responsible for spiritual leadership was from the line of Aaron. There were always two leaders.

In Zac’s vision there is a blending of the two leaders into one. A crown is fashioned and placed on the head one called “Branch,” who rebuilds the temple and is a “priest on his throne.” Monarchy and priesthood are made One.

Fast forward to Jesus, whom we just learned in our annual telling of the Christmas story is from the royal line of David. Magi come looking for a royal ” King of the Jews.” Jesus indeed spends His ministry proclaiming the “Kingdom of God” and tells the Jewish leaders “I will destroy this temple and rebuild it in three days.” The author of the book of Hebrews identifies Jesus as “high priest in the order of Melchizedek.” Royal line of David. Kingdom of God. High priest proclaiming that with His death and resurrection old things pass away and new things come. The old Temple system is destroyed and a new Temple has come; A Temple not made with bricks and mortar but with flesh and Spirit.

It’s Zechariah’s vision. Harmony of monarchy and priesthood. Two joined in One.

When you read Jesus’ story there is one thing that becomes abundantly clear. Jesus was not the Messiah most people were looking for. That’s the tricky thing with prophecy. You can think and believe it means one thing all you want…until it doesn’t.

Along this life journey I’ve learned that every leader has a target on his or her back. You don’t step into any leadership position with everyone thinking “Oh yeah, he/she is the perfect person; He/She is destined for the job.” There’s always at least some who are thinking, “He/She is not what I expected. I’m not sure about this.”  This morning I’m taking encouragement in the fact that even the King of Kings had to face that human reality.

Ancient Vengeance Cloaked in Modern Technology

“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone may flee.”
Numbers 35:6 (NIV)

Last night as Wendy and I sat on the couch she expressed grief and frustration over a pattern of behavior we’ve been observing on social media. It is quite common for the discourse on Facebook and Twitter and online forums to sink into petty jabs, unnecessary name calling, and a general spirit of anger, hatred, and conflict. And this, we routinely notice, from many whom we love and who eagerly claim to be followers of Jesus.

For the past month or two my chapter-a-day journey through the book of Numbers has taken me back to an ancient times. I’ve been mulling over the lives and times of Moses and the Hebrew tribes. It was, without a doubt, a very bloody and ugly period of human society. Ancient tribal societies lived in a time without laws, law enforcement agents, and a system of justice. It was a time of blood feuds, vengeance and “an eye-for-an-eye” free-for-all of individual retribution.

I can’t help but think of the stories we know like The Godfather in which warring families get embroiled in ever escalating acts of violence and murder against one another. The Tataglia family attempts to kill but only wounds Vito Corleone. Vito’s son, Sonny, actually kills Bruno Tataglia in retribution. But, that’s not enough. Michael Corleone also kills the man who orchestrated the plot and the Police Captain who protects him. But that’s not enough. Everyone goes to the mattresses. But that’s not enough. Michael eventually kills the heads of all the other mafia families to protect himself from retribution. The violence and vengeance never ends.

As Sean Connery famously quips in The Untouchables, “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!”

What Wendy was observing last night is an example of the old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We’re still embroiling ourselves in petty, ever escalating feuds between political, religious, and social clans. Now, however, we do it from a safe distance and use words as our weapons. Somehow, we believe that this is better on the grading curve of human society. Name calling on Facebook isn’t as barbaric as literally sticking a knife in someone’s back. Or is it?

I’m reminded in the quiet this morning of Jesus words:

“For the mouth speaks [and the hand types] what the heart is full of.  A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

In today’s chapter, God through Moses is leading a radical step forward in human history. It is a formalized system of justice. The priestly clan of the Levites are scattered to live among all the other tribes. Within those tribes the priestly Levites create “cities of refuge” to which murderers and those who commit manslaughter may flee. The priests gave sanctuary so that a trial, complete with witnesses, could be conducted and a just verdict could be rendered. The accused was required to stay under the protection of priest in the city of refuge. But get this: If the High Priest died, a period of amnesty was unleashed. The accused were free. Any blood feud or vendetta of vengeance was to end.

What great foreshadowing God gives in today’s chapter for what He is going to do on a cosmic spiritual scale in the Great Story. Jesus, High Priest (Heb 6:20) in the mysterious order of Melchizedek, comes to live among us like the priests sent to live among the tribes. [cue: Silent Night] To Jesus we may flee for refuge with all the accusation, guilt, condemnation and social vengeance nipping at our heels. When Jesus, the High Priest, dies then amnesty reigns. Forgiveness and grace (literally, favor we don’t deserve and didn’t earn) are poured out to the accused and condemned. Prisoners are freed. Vengeance ends.

Wait, there’s more. Those of us who follow Jesus are called “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). Spiritually, I become a Levite of our time. I’m a priest in the order of Jesus. I am to be a person and place where “others” (even those of other tribes I don’t particularly like) may flee to find protection, understanding, kindness, mercy, grace, compassion, and justice.

So, I have to ask myself: When I allow myself to get stirred up  and let that f*ing, clueless, ignorant, MORON on Facebook know just what a #*&%-eating, #@)#-faced, #)@(#* they are… am I extending the royal, priestly rites handed down to me by Jesus? Am I being marked by the Spirit of protection, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and compassion that I claim to have received from Jesus, my High Priest? Am I fulfilling my calling to be part of that royal priesthood? Or, am I perpetuating a deep, very entrenched human part of me that is given to bloody, feudal vengeance cloaked in 21st century technology?

Ugh.

Lord, have mercy on me. Help me lay down my weaponized words; My vengeance which I try to costume as “justice” and “righteousness.” Make me a refuge for “others” – all “others.”

It Was Never About the Rules

The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
Hebrews 7:18-19 (NIV)

When our daughters, Taylor and Madison, were young girls they were subjected to a fairly substantial system of rules. There were moral rules (don’t lie, don’t take what’s not yours, don’t hurt another person, et al). There were rules of health and hygiene (wash your hands before meals, no snacks before meals, cover your mouth when you cough, take a bath regularly, et al). There were rules of the family system (do what mommy or daddy says, put away your toys before bed, say your prayers, et al).

Taylor and Madison were both good kids, though they were certainly not perfect. Let me make two very important points:

First, I love Taylor and Madison dearly, but not because of the perfection with which they obeyed my rules! I love them because they are my daughters. They are God’s uniquely beautiful creations. They are inherently lovable, valuable and capable beings.

Second, the rules that I as a father subjected them to as young children had nothing to do with earning my love. Certainly there was a measure of pride and joy when they were obedient (which they did most of the time), and there was disappointment and even anger if they willfully disobeyed (trust me, I have stories). However, neither their obedience nor disobedience had any effect on my underlying love for them. The rules were about teaching them how to live healthy, productive lives, how to successfully live in relationship with others, and how to contribute meaningfully to the lives of others and the world as a whole.

In today’s chapter, a very similar distinction is being made that is critical to our understanding of both God the Father (God for us) and Jesus, God the Son (God with us). The law of Moses (that would include the Big Ten commandments and the more than 600 other rules) was the guiding force of Hebrew religion. The Hebrew priests, descendants of Aaron, along with the descendants of the tribe of Levi were in charge of these rules and the rule keeping. Rule keeping became the focus of the Jewish people as if being perfectly obedient to the rules put you in right standing with the Father. But no one became a perfect person by religiously adhering to a set of rules.

A priest is a “go-between.” Some one who represents others, intercedes for others, mediates for others, sacrifices for others before God. Jesus perfectly fits the definition of High Priest, but the author of Hebrews continues to make a very important distinction, that Jesus was not a High Priest  in the traditional, Law of Moses prescribed genetic line of Aaron. Jesus was a High Priest in the line of the cosmic, eternal, mysterious figure of Melchizedek.

Why is this important? It tells us that perfection of religious rule keeping was never the point to earning God the Father’s love any more than my love for Taylor and Madison being hinged on the perfection of their keeping the rules of my house. We are loved by God inherently because we are His uniquely beautiful, lovable, valuable, and capable creation. So loved, in fact, that Father God (God for us) made the ultimate sacrifice of sending Jesus (God with us) to free us from our silly religious rule keeping and to show us the deep, abiding, full, limitless, abounding, abundant LOVE that defines God. When conversing with God the Father, Jesus used the word “Abba” which is defined more commonly as we would use “Daddy,” “Papa,” or “Pops.” Jesus came as Priest, Mediator, and Sacrifice so we could understand that kind of loving relationship with Father God.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways that the rule-keeping paradigm keeps sucking me back into its false economy. I’m mindfully pondering how I actively continue my process of understanding “Abba” and digging into my relationship with Him. I’m reminding myself this morning of the reality that I know deeply as a father of Taylor and Madison: It was never about the rules, or the rule keeping. I am loved inherently for who I am as God’s child.

Mysteries Within Mysteries

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 5:8-10 (NIV)

The further I have progressed on this life journey the more I have come to understand that I must embrace mystery if I am going to progress spiritually in certain places. This flies in the face of a system of reason in which I was raised and educated. Our culture is one that places what I have come to understand as an undue premium on knowing. Theories are stated as certainties quite frequently whether they come from the institutions of religion, education, politics, or science. I find that our culture has lost sight of the value of embracing the knowledge of knowing that we do not know or cannot know.

I have found that the desire to try to replace mystery with false certainty is a fool’s errand. I see this repeated over and over again in history. It leads down all sorts of silly and hurtful paths. Minor issues become major battlegrounds, honest exploration is sacrificed on the altar of exclusionary social litmus tests, and institutions make all sorts of embarrassing mistakes (sometimes with deadly consequences). Embracing mystery, on the other hand, has pushed my heart and mind to new avenues of possibility, exploration, discovery and faith. I love how Catholic mystic Richard Rohr puts it: “Mystery is not something we can not understand. Mystery is something we can endlessly understand.”

The letter to Hebrew believers has always been shrouded in mystery, not the least of which is the identity of the author. Two centuries after it was penned we are still not certain who wrote the letter. My fundamentalist Bible professors taught me that I must believe it was Paul who wrote it. Textual critics in education laugh at such a claim, telling me it certainly couldn’t be Paul. Arguments have been made for a host of first century figures (i.e. Luke, Apollos, Barnabas). More recently, some scholars have argued that it was most certainly a woman, Priscilla, who was among Jesus larger circle of 70 disciples and travelled with Paul. I find this possibility fascinating and stimulating. It has led me to discover more about this amazing woman through whom God did amazing things. I know, however, at least one of my fundamentalist professors would have said it most certainly wasn’t Priscilla and would certainly have marginalized and subtly punished me educationally had I steadfastly held to the possibility in his class.

I do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrew believers, and that’s perfectly fine for me. It is a mystery that has much for me to discover in its exploration of possibility.

In today’s chapter we encounter yet another mystery in the revelation of Christ as eternal High Priest. The Hebrew believers who first received this letter would have intimate knowledge about how the Hebrew priestly system worked as prescribed by the Law of Moses. Only descendants of Aaron (Moses’ right-hand man) were to be priests, and the High Priest could only come from those genetic ranks. According to the prophets, however, the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah and the house of David as Jesus did. Remember Christmas? Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the “City of David.” Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem for the census because they were both descendants of David in the tribe of Judah.

But now the mysterious author of Hebrews lays out a claim that Christ is our eternal “High Priest,” the cosmic conduit between God and man. But the Hebrew readers would know that Jesus was not from the line of Aaron, so how could He be High Priest? The author reveals Jesus as High Priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” In Genesis 14:18 Abram (who would soon be known as Abraham) meets a mysterious King of Salem named Melchizedek who was “priest of God Most High.” He serves Abram bread and wine (remind you of anything?) and blesses Abram. Abram in return presents the priest Melchizedek an offering of a tenth of everything.

That’s all we know about Melchizedek. This mysterious person was “priest of God Most High” before Abram was Abraham, before Israel was a people, before the Law of Moses was given, before the Hebrew priesthood was defined as descendants of Aaron. It’s a mystery, and the author of Hebrews attaches the mystery of Christ the cosmic High Priest to the lineage to the mysterious Melchizedek who appears within the Hebrew tradition but outside the system of Moses.

This morning I’m once again perplexed, stimulated, and inspired by the mystery of Melchizedek, of Jesus, and of Hebrews. As I humbly embrace the mystery I push deeper into that which can be endlessly understood and so take another step forward on the path of faith and Spirit.

Spiritual Misperceptions from Growing Up in Church

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Hebrews 4:15-16 (NIV)

I grew up in a relatively small neighborhood church. It was a Methodist church that maintained a fairly traditional, liturgical approach to faith and worship. There was an altar at the front of the sanctuary that was respected as a special, holy place. There was a huge, loud pipe organ. The minister always wore long black robes on Sundays. The choirs also wore long robes and marched down the aisle behind the minister to their hallowed place in the choir loft. As a child watching and participating in this pageantry each week, there were some things that I quickly came to assume about spiritual matters:

First, our minister was different. He (and growing up it was always a he) dressed differently both in the church service and during the week. I was expected to behave differently (as in, better than normal) whenever I was around him. I even noticed that adults behaved differently when they were around him. I came to the conclusion that he was spiritually better than me. He was certainly closer to God than me and had a particular spiritual authority no one else seemed to have. He certainly had a pipeline to God the rest of us didn’t have. You don’t mess up or behave badly around him.

Having observed this social and behavioral distinction between the Rev and the rest of us, I came to believe that there is a certain spiritual caste system in life. There was religious nobility (ministers) and everyday commoners (like me and my family). The social system within our church fed this notion fairly rigidly. Even when I joined the youth choir I had to dress myself up in fine robes each week to approach the altar (always behind the minister, our proper place), sit in the choir loft, and participate in singing of the anthem. If I was to participate in the divine then I needed to dress differently (better and more religious) and be on my best behavior (goofing off on the choir loft during the service was a damnable offense). To participate in the ritual of communion I had to be 13, take a year’s worth of classes, and pass the confirmation class test which got me to a higher spiritual level in the system.

Over time, this distinction between the spiritual pageantry of Sunday and the every day life in my neighborhood with my family led me to believe that there was a certain compartmentalization in life between the sacred and the secular. Sure my family said our rote prayers before meals and before bed, but every day life was where you gave a passing nod to the divine and prayed for the Vikings to win the Super Bowl. [The Vikings always lost the big game, of course, teaching me that our minister had, indeed, a better standing with God…he was a Steelers and Cowboys fan.] The real spiritual stuff was always on Sunday morning, for which we cleaned ourselves up and made ourselves presentable.

In today’s chapter the author of this letter to Hebrew believers begins a discussion of Jesus as “High Priest.” Having been raised in the Protestant tradition, I find myself a few steps removed from an experiential concept of “priest.” The priesthood became a theological line of separation between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Reformation. Nevertheless, as I’ve progressed in my faith journey I’ve found it an important concept to contemplate and unpack because it goes right to the heart of some of the gross, spiritual misconceptions that even the Protestant church gave me growing up.

Even in the opening of the discussion in which we are introduced to Jesus as High Priest, He is not introduced to us on a higher spiritual plane confined to the holy altar of some Tabernacle on Sunday morning. Jesus is introduced as one who empathizes and has experienced our every day struggles and temptations. Jesus the High Priest is God with us, in our working and playing and eating and drinking. Instead of cleaning ourselves up and approaching God with fearful respect and awkward religiosity, Jesus calls us to approach with confidence, just as we are. Rather than approaching to earn some kind of merit badge in the religious pecking order, we are approaching to receive a generous gift of unmerited  mercy and grace.

This morning as I enjoy my coffee looking out over the lake, I am reflecting on the core misperceptions the church gave me about God as a child. It strikes me that these natural surroundings at the lake are a holier and more spiritual place than the altar of my old neighborhood church. In this “thin place” this morning I’m confidently approaching Jesus and asking for some increased clarity regarding my childhood misperceptions and how they might still be affecting me in unhealthy ways. I am asking God to reveal to me in the days ahead, in the following chapters, the important distinctions between the very human concepts of Jesus as High Priest that I am tied to by my human experience and religious traditions, and the true High Priest revealed in these chapters.

Historical Context, and the Growth of Understanding

For surely it is not angels [Jesus] helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
Hebrews 2:16-17 (NIV)

One of the most important things to remember when journeying through a 2,000 year-old letter is historical context. The author of Hebrews is writing to fellow Hebrews around the years 67-70 A.D. The temple in Jerusalem where Jesus taught and threw out the money changers is still in existence and the sacrificial system is operating full steam. Jews of that day would be well acquainted with the sacrificial practices, the importance of priesthood, and the political and religious power of the High Priest. Most Jews would have made pilgrimage to the temple at least once in their lives.

The author of Hebrews began their letter by saying they were going to address the question of “Who is Jesus?” Now they begin to fill in the answer. Jesus was Creator made fully human in order to become High Priest and make atonement for the people. The readers of the original letter were well aware that in the sacrificial system established in the Law of Moses. There was one High Priest, the only one permitted to enter the intimate “Holy of Holies” in the temple once a year to stand before God and make atonement for the sins of the nation. The high priest was the representative, the conduit who made sacrifice for the people, one for all.

The language of God is metaphor, and for first century Hebrews the word picture the author of the letter is making is powerful and clear. The system defined by the Law of Moses was a precursor, a waypoint, and a word picture pointing to what would be fulfilled in the sacrificial death of Jesus and His resurrection. This was a huge paradigm shift in thought for the Hebrews of that day (Jesus’ followers included). The popular opinion was that Messiah would be a triumphant geo-political powerhead that lifted the Hebrew people to the top of the temporal, earthly food-chain. The author of Hebrews is beginning to unpack Messiah as cosmic high priest and sacrificial lamb who would lift any who believed to a right-relationship with God in God’s eternal Kingdom.

By the way, within a generation the writing of the Book of Hebrews the word pictures the author is making would forever lose some of the power they had with the original readers. Shortly after the writing of the letter the Roman Empire, in 70 A.D., destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and burned the genealogical  records essential to establishing who among them were Levites qualified to care for the temple and who among them were sons of Aaron qualified to be priests and make sacrifices. Despite a few abandoned attempts to reestablish the sacrificial system in other locations, the fullness of the sacrificial system established by Moses was essentially dead, and has remained so for 2000 years.

Old things pass away, new things come.”

This morning I’m thinking about perceptions and paradigms of thought about God. The Hebrews who read today’s words for the first time had their own experiences, beliefs, and preconceived notions. The truth is that I have my own. God’s Message describes the followers of Jesus ever growing and maturing in their relationship with Jesus and their understanding of God. I’ve found the same to be true on my own life journey following Jesus. Who I perceived Jesus to be when I began this journey as a young teenager is different than perception today. My own understanding of, and my relationship with, Christ continues ever to grow, expand, and deepen.

That’s what living things do.

 

Chapter-a-Day John 18

Pendulum clock conceived by Galileo Galilei ar...
Pendulum clock conceived by Galileo Galilei around 1637. The earliest known pendulum clock design, it was never completed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the soldiers, their commanding officer, and the Temple guards arrested Jesus and tied him up. First they took him to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest at that time. John 18:12-13 (NLT)

Along the journey I’ve become increasingly aware of how systems work in families, in businesses, in communities, organizations and even churches. Within each system there is  a power source that may, or may not, be clearly identified. Most systems have a labeled decision maker or decision makers, but those decision makers may often be influenced in one way or another by individuals who are power brokers within the system.

In today’s chapter I found it interesting to get a peek at the religious system of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. The high priest, Caiaphas, was obviously the designated leader. So why was Jesus first taken to the house of Annas for questioning and roughing up?  There are a couple of answers to this question.

Annas had been the high priest before Caiaphas and he was Caiaphas’ father-in-law. I can only imagine the political and familial machinations in that family system. The mantel had been passed, but that doesn’t mean that Annas had given up the power behind it. In The Godfather: Part II, Frank Pentangeli may have run his own family and may have been living in the Corleone’s old house, but he still took orders from and answered to Michael. I think Jesus was taken to Annas first because Annas was the power broker and puppet master in the system.

The other reason was that Caiaphas was on a crucial errand while Annas conducted his own personal trial and dished out his own personal punishment with the young upstart Rabbi who had caused the system so much trouble and threatened their lucrative corner of the religious marketplace. Caiaphas was quickly trying to assemble a quorum of the system’s ruling body, the Sanhedrin. He wanted and needed their rubber stamp on the decision to send Jesus to Pilate for execution, and doing so in the middle of the night ensured that the quorum could be handpicked to avoid anyone sympathetic to Jesus’ teaching like Joseph of Arimathea. Of course, holding a trial in the middle of the night was itself against their own law, but power brokers within a system often believe that they are justified in breaking the system rules if they are sure they are protecting the system’s interests. Caiaphas himself said that it would be better to kill Jesus to protect the nation. Of course, killing Jesus and protecting the nation also meant protecting his money, power, and prestige. But, protecting the nation sounds much more altruistic.

As an actor, I often read a story or watch a film and wonder what part I would play. Alternatively, I look at the archetype and ask myself who am I in this scene? Am I the suffering servant or the self-protecting power broker? Am I the betrayer? The denier? The slave? The soldier just doing his job? Today, I’m doing a little soul searching and meditating on the part I play in the various systems in which I am a cog.