Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, 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 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 4:14-16 (NIV)
Priest (prēst) n. : Someone who is authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion, especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God.
I’m wading into some deeper weeds today, but it’s something that has been important for me to understand in my spiritual journey, and it’s understanding the concept of a priest. A priest is a human mediator, go-between, or intermediary between another human being and God. A human goes to a priest to receive sacraments, confess sins, and be absolved of sin. The priest is a spiritual gatekeeper between the average joe member and almighty God. “Priests” have been a traditional part of religion forever. Growing up, the only “priests” I knew about were Roman Catholic.
The first time I remember stepping into a Roman Catholic church I was about 24 years old. I was there for the funeral of a young person who had taken his own life. In the years of my childhood, there were still small remnants of centuries-old antagonism between Catholics and Protestants. I remember that most towns had separate graveyards for Catholics and Protestants. I remember lectures from fundamentalist professors damning all Catholics to hell, which I found to be silly.
I was actually fascinated by the Catholic funeral that day and the rituals I witnessed for the first time. I was moved by the imagery. My study of the history, traditions, and theology of the Roman Catholic church has led me to a wide range of emotions from great appreciation to rage to honor and to sorrow. To be honest, I can say the same of Protestant denominations, as well. Human institutions are all human systems and are therefore given to the tragic failings of human beings and our nature. My observation has been that Roman Catholics make priests an official part of their system, while Protestants say they don’t have priests before treating their pastors as if they are exactly that.
For the Hebrew people who were first-century followers of Jesus, the priestly paradigm was a cornerstone of their religion for over a thousand years. The system God set up through Moses had a high priest who was the only human who could enter the “most holy place” of God’s presence in the temple. Only descendants of Aaron (Moses’ right-hand man) could be priests. It was an exclusive class of individuals who stood between the average human and God.
In today’s chapter, the author of the letter to early Jewish followers of Jesus is starting to address a huge paradigm shift in this priestly tradition. It’s going to continue to come up in upcoming chapters, and it has tremendous spiritual implications, so it’s important for a 21st reader to understand. Four times so far, the author has referred to Jesus as “high priest” and what the author is saying in today’s chapter is that Jesus was God come to earth, who was tempted but didn’t sin. Any believer can go directly to Jesus in our time of need, He understands our human struggles and will extend mercy (He won’t hold our sin against us) and grace (favor we don’t deserve).
In the quiet this morning, I find this simple truth so powerful. No more human mediators are required. Any believer can seek Jesus directly, access Jesus directly, confess our sins directly, and receive forgiveness, mercy, and grace directly. Why? Because my body is God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in me. Because this is true of every believer, Peter says that every one of Jesus’ followers belongs to a “royal priesthood” (In Jewish history the monarchy and priesthood were separated, but Jesus unites the two as both king & priest). Paul wrote to Timothy: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”
So, according to the author of Hebrews, according to Peter, and according to Paul, no other human priest is required as a go-between a human being and Christ Jesus Himself. Yet, some institutions and denominations continue the practice based on tradition.
I’ve observed along my life journey that human traditions die hard.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.