Let’s first begin by reading Hebrews 4,
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.
Tonight I have three major points. We’ll first look at the Old Testament priests, and then we will look at Christ, and then we will look at us. Those are the major points.
So, before we examine what it means to have Christ as our great high priest, it would serve us to first answer a more basic question: “What is a priest?”
To answer that, we need to go back to the Old Testament. We could go all the way back to the garden, but I think we can start in Exodus. Following the Passover plague in Egypt, where God killed the firstborn of all the Egyptians, but spared the firstborn of Israel because of the blood on the lentils of their doorways, God then claimed for himself the entire tribe of Levi. He chose the Levites for life-long service to him, and he made them to be the priests of Israel. Thus, God chose for himself who would be his priests, who would serve both Him and the people in the tabernacle and later the temple, and who would regulate the worship of God’s people.
But what else does the Old Testament teach us about the priestly office. First, we see in scripture that a priest is anointed. A priest is anointed. Turn with me to Exodus 40.
Exodus 40 tell us of the process where they set up the tabernacle and got everything ready for operation, including getting the priests ready. The priests, along with all the other parts of the tabernacle, were to be properly anointed with oil, which means they would take some special oil and pour it over the head of the priest being set apart for service. Let’s look at Exodus 40, starting in verse 9:
“9Then you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it may become holy.10 You shall also anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and consecrate the altar, so that the altar may become most holy. 11 You shall also anoint the basin and its stand, and consecrate it. 12 Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall wash them with water 13 and put on Aaron the holy garments. And you shall anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest. 14 You shall bring his sons also and put coats on them, 15 and anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests. And their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations.”
This anointing was a special blessing, and is associated with all sorts of positive imagery in the Old Testament. Psalm 133, for example, talks about the unity of God’s people being as pleasant as the oil dripping down on Aaron’s head and beard onto his robe.
This anointing symbolized the giving of God’s spirit to set someone apart for a particular task or function. Prophets and kings were similarly anointed when they were consecrated for their particular roles.
Furthermore, Aaron being anointed with oil symbolized the pouring out of God’s spirit, which parallels the filling of the tabernacle with the glorious spirit of God. Just like the tabernacle is permeated with God’s presence and spirit, so too does Aaron carry around God’s spirit with him, as symbolized with the oil of anointing. Understood in this way, Aaron is himself acting like a mini-tabernacle, a little picture of God’s dwelling place among his people.
This is significant because a priest’s function flows out of his identity. That is, he isn’t merely a priest because that’s his job; he is a priest by calling and by divine consecration, and therefore he functions as a priest who serves God through his divinely appointed vocation.
Second, we’ve seen a priest is anointed, but Secondly, a priest is properly attired. A priest is to be properly attired. Significant emphasis is given to the proper dress to be worn by a priest of God. Just like every other detail of the tabernacle, the priest’s clothing is spelled out in painstaking detail in Exodus 39. I won’t read it all to you, but I’ll just point out a few significant elements.
The garments themselves are described as “holy garments.” This wasn’t an ordinary set of overalls that he’d throw on. The priest was wearing ornate, beautiful, expensive, and intentionally symbolic pieces of clothing that highlighted his identity and his role.
The priestly turban was made of fine linen, and was stamped in Gold on the front with the phrase: “Holy to YHWH,” reminding everyone that that the entire priestly system was a gift of God.
The Ephod, or the linen torso garment, had two shoulder pieces each holding an expensive ONYX stone. These two stones were engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel, a significant fact to which we will return later.
But before any of this could even be put on, the man would have to first bathe himself according to God’s prescribed methods, and he would have to make a sacrifice to purify himself. He could not represent a pure God to a sinful people, if he himself was defiled. Everything about him, both inside and out, had to be properly adorned if he was to be an acceptable priest.
Third and related to the previous point, a priest represents God to man. A priest represents God to man. As God’s ordained mediators, or go-betweens, the priests would serve as God’s representative to Israel. That’s emphasized by the stamped gold plate on his forehead which read, “Holy to YHWH.”
Further, the priest would accept the sacrifices that the people of God would bring for themselves. Whenever an Israelite sinned, he would have to bring a particular sacrifice and offer it to God as atonement. If they stole, or lied, or broke a vow, or got sinfully angry, whatever, they would have to bring the proper sacrifice. Maybe it was a bird, or some flour, or a bull, or a goat, or a lamb. The law laid it all out in painstaking detail.
And when they brought the sacrifice, the priest would help them slaughter it, catch some of the blood, and sprinkle the blood on the altar. Thus, the priest would be serving as God’s representative who accepted the sacrifice made by the penitent Israelite.
Also, it is worth mentioning that the priest also represented God in his instructional capacity. Priests were called upon and authorized to give authoritative interpretations of the law. If you were a Jew, and you had a question or were confused about exactly how you should act, or what sacrifice you needed to make, or if your skin disease was leprous or not, you went to the priest, where he would explain to you exactly what God’s word commanded you to do. Thus, in that instructional capacity, the priest represented God to men.
But the priest didn’t just represent God to man, he also represented man to God. That’s my fourth point. A priest also represents man to God.
You probably noticed this earlier when I mentioned the name of the twelve tribes on the priestly garments. The priest literally carried the names of the people of God, of all the tribes, whenever he went about his priestly work.
And on the most important day of the year, the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, which was when the priest would enter into the most holy part of the tabernacle, he would enter into the most special place of God’s revealed presence bearing the names of God’s people upon his shoulders. He was representing God’s people and the access they had to him, but only through the work of a mediator, only through a priest. This representation is significant, for reasons you can likely see now, but I will make explicit shortly.
Fifth and lastly about the old testament priests, we’ve seen that a priest is anointed, he’s properly dressed, he represents God to man, and he represents man to God. Lastly, a priest guards God’s temple. A priest guards God’s temple. I won’t go there now, but you can turn to Genesis and see Adam’s vocation in the beginning as encompassing a guarding and keeping of the garden.
That same guarding and keeping language is used in several other places to describe the role of a priest. Significantly, the priest is set apart as someone specifically tasked with guarding the tabernacle, and later the temple, even through the use of force if necessary. Anyone who transgressed God’s holy barriers or ignored God’s holy law was supposed to be slain.
Remember when Moses came down from the mountain and found Israel worshipping a Golden Calf? It was the Levites, the priests, who followed Moses’ orders and killed about three thousand men by the sword, in Exodus 32:28. And what Moses says right after that verse is significant: “And Moses said, ‘Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.’” Their service included priestly guarding of God’s holy law and his holy space. (You can see the same language in Numbers 1:53, or in Numbers 25 where Phineas took a spear to the Israelite man and his false Baal worship through a Midianite wife).
We could go further, but let’s move on to the second, and much more important major point, and that is that Christ is a priest. Christ is a priest. We can see that by simply examining the same categories that we saw from our survey of the old testament priesthood.
First, like priests were anointed, Christ himself was also anointed. In fact, that is exactly Christ means. Christ, which comes from the Latinized word Christus, means messiah, which is the Hebrew word for anointed one. So, when we say the name Jesus Christ, we aren’t being polite and saying his first and last name, as if he was properly to be called Mr. Christ. Rather, when we say the name Jesus Christ, it ought to be recognized within us as a theological statement of fact.
By calling upon the name Jesus Christ, we are confessing that Jesus of Nazareth IS IN FACT the Messiah, the anointed one. Which means that he is the one that God has chosen and set apart for the particular priestly role. He didn’t just fumble into the role. He was sent and fitted for the task at hand.
And we can see that fitting, very ceremonially, at his Baptism. We see at the Baptism of Jesus God the father speaking from heaven, setting him apart as the true son who brings delight to the father, and we see the anointing ministry of the Holy Spirit. However, unlike the Old testament priests that just got a little oil to symbolize the Spirit’s consecration, Jesus’s human nature is fully anointed with all the gifts and graces of the spirit to enable him to complete his priestly mission.
In fact, if you think about what is happening in Jesus’s baptism, it is quite remarkable. The Eternal Son of God, from whom the Holy Spirit processes along with from the Father, forever takes upon himself the fullness of human nature, which is then anointed with the same spirit that proceeded from the Divine Son. It’s remarkable and amazing, and too deep for us to plumb the depths of this evening.
In summary, Christ is himself anointed, but not merely with oil, with the fullness of the Holy Spirit himself, consecrating him and empowering him to fulfill the priestly mission given to him by the father.
Second, like the Old Testament priests, Christ is properly attired. Christ is properly attired. However, unlike the old testament priests, our priest was not adorned with opulent clothing and amazing attire. That’s what the Jews were expecting; a priest-king that would come in a blaze of Glory and lead a military insurrection to free God’s people.
But that’s not what God sent, and that’s not the kind of priest we need. God sent to us a priest that was nothing special to look at. A lowly priest. An externally unremarkable priest. Isaiah describes him as having:
“no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
Christ had nothing on the outside to make him special. But what he did have, what makes him our perfect and lovely High priest, is what was on the inside.
- He was dressed not with robes of fine linen, but with robes of righteousness, scripture says
- He didn’t have a turban stamped with a gold nameplate signifying his divinity, instead he had a crown made of thorns, the very image of the curse of creation from Genesis 3.
- He didn’t have a tunic with ONYX stones, each carrying the names of God’s people on his shoulders, he instead had the weight of a wooden cross upon his shoulders, bearing the full weight of all of his people’s sinfulness.
- He didn’t have an impressive temple laden with gold and fine wood, but rather he Himself was the temple, one not built with human hands.
- He wasn’t consumed with ceremonial purity laws and gold wash basins in the temple, but rather he picked up the hand towel and wash basin to wash the feet of his disciples.
- And He didn’t have animals brought from the outside to Him to be sacrificed; he brought himself to be the sacrificial lamb of atonement.
Christ’s attire was the glorious adornment of humility and love. The adornment of His kingdom, where the first will be last and the last will be first; and because he was willing to become the last, God has elevated him to the position of first in the kingdom.
Our Christ is adorned with glory, because he was first willing to be adorned with nothing. He’s been robed with regal garments and seated at the right hand of the father, because he was first willing to be stripped of everything on the cross. This is our Priest.
Third, like the old testament priests, Christ represents God to man. Christ represents God to man.
We could take this in a bunch of different directions. For example, we could take it in the direction of Christ’s prophetic office. Just like the Old Testament priests were charged with giving authoritative interpretations of the Old Testament law, so too does Christ, as our great high priest, give us authoritative interpretations of God’s law.
How many times in the gospels does Jesus say things like, “you have heard it said, BUT I SAY TO YOU.” Christ is highlighted multiple times in the gospels as “ONE WHO SPEAKS WITH AUTHORITY, not like the scribes and the Pharisees.” That’s because our great high priest doesn’t interpret the law as an outsider, or as a sinner, or as even a mere creature coming to the text. Christ interprets the law of God as the VERY AUTHOR of the law of God. The divine son along with the Father breathes out the very HOLY SPIRIT that inspired the law of God, and therefore he doesn’t have to guess about the intention behind the text or the proper application of the text. That’s why Jesus can say things like John 14:10, “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”
Christ represents the fullness of God, and thus the very wisdom of God, and therefore we don’t have to doubt the veracity or the profitability of Christ’s teaching. When Christ speaks to us, it is God speaking to us.
But it doesn’t stop there. Christ also represents God to us in a more personal way. He’s not merely able to give us a more accurate representation of God’s word, he’s able to give us a full representation of God himself. The Old Testament priests were pictures, or types, of what God is like. They represented God in accurate, but not fully intelligible ways. They were shadowy, cloudy.
But with the coming of Christ, we get the fullness of God represented to us in full color and light. No more shadows. That’s why Jesus can say in John 14:9, “if you’ve seen me you have seen the father.” And why Paul can say of Jesus in Colossians 1, “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Nothing of God was lacking from Jesus. There’s no part of God that was not revealed to us in the person of Christ. We don’t have to wonder if the God we seek to know is similar to this Jesus: he is the exact imprint of his nature, scripture says, and therefore we can trust that this Jesus TRULY and ACCURATELY represents God to us. That’s good news. We’re not going to get to heaven and be surprised that God is different than the Christ portrayed in scripture. Christ represents God to us.
But Fourth, just like the Old Testament priests, Christ also represents man to God. Christ represents man to God. As our divinely anointed mediator, Christ acts in our stead before God. Even though we were born in sin and we sin every day, and even though we could never gain access to God because of our corruption, and even though we’ve earned for ourselves the sentence of Death, Praise be to God that Christ acts as our representative to God.
This representation is perhaps what we most often think about when we consider Christ as the great high priest. Let’s think about some of the different ways Christ represents us, and these are really sweet, so I hope you’re paying attention:
- Most simply, He acts as our substitute, dying in our place, and bearing the curse of sin for his people. Jesus died so you don’t have to.
- He also takes away the wrath of God against sin, which the bible describes as propitiation. That means he assuages the holy anger of God for our sin. That means that believers who are suffering in this life, it’s not because God is still wrathful toward you. The wrath has been appeased by another. Any suffering we face in this life comes to us from the loving, tender, caring hands of our savior and is working for our good. He is our propitiation.
- He also represents us to God in our cleansing. That is, he bears our defilement, our filthiness, and gives us instead his purity. It is as if we went to the temple, covered in filthy, muddy, bloody, unclean clothes. And the priest, who should have told us to go away and wash ourselves, instead says come here, let me wash you, and let me put upon you my own sparkling white linen robes that have been especially made for you. That’s the cleansing that Christ gives us as our high priest. It’s really wonderful news, especially if you have ever really felt dirty because of your sin. Christ is our purification.
- But He also represents us as our advocate, our intercessor. Hebrews 9 tells us that Christ has entered once and for all into the heavenly holy of Holies, and he is appealing to God on our behalf. That means, that he is pleading the merit of his own priestly sacrifice on the cross, so that we might remain forgiven and saved to the uttermost. We persevere in the faith today because Christ perseveres in his intercession. We remain holy and justified because Christ remains our faithful high priest. And unlike the earthly priests who would tire, and wear out, and eventually die, this high priest will never die, because he has already conquered death. There’s no possibility that his priestly work will ever fail.
Praise be to God that this Jesus has done on a cosmic scale what was acted out on the day of atonement, namely, he has torn down the curtain that separated us from God, and he has entered into the holy place by means of his own perfect blood, and he pleads that perfect blood on our account, so that we might be forever cleansed of the guilt of our sins, and that we might be perfectly represented as a sinless people before God.
Fifth, and final point about Christ, just like the Old Testament priests guarded the temple, so too does Christ guard God’s temple. Christ guards God’s temple.
I won’t spend long here, because we could go way down this rabbit hole, but it is worth mentioning that Christ bears a sword, just like the Old Testament Priests bore swords. But unlike the physical swords of the OT priests, Christ’s sword is His word in the hands of the Holy Spirit. That is, he guards the purity of his New Covenant temple (which we call the church), he guards it not with physical swords, but the sword of the Spirit.
He uses the means of grace to purify people by faith. He grants them entrance into the church through baptism. And he sustains them by faith and the ongoing means of grace in the Lord’s Supper. And he removes the weeds of unbelief by the loving act of church discipline, all of which is regulated by His word. We don’t take unbelievers out back and stone them like they did in the Old Covenant. Rather, we understand that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, it is a spiritual kingdom, and that Christ regulates the purity of his visible church according to a spiritual sword, not an earthly sword. Christ guards the purity of his temple, just like a faithful priest should.
There, we have seen that priests are properly anointed and attired, they represent God to man, represent man to God, and they guard the temple. And we’ve seen that Christ does all those things perfectly.
My last major point is to try and apply some of these principles to us, specifically noting what happens to us when we come to faith. Scripture uses theologically significant language in the New Testament to describe believers. And hopefully, the language will be a little weightier for us in light of what we’ve studied so far.
The Apostles speak of new covenant believers as a “nation of priests” or a kingdom of priests, a royal priesthood, and hopefully that language is triggering some thoughts in your mind. Peter, for example, says in 1 Peter 2, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Paul will say that we ourselves should offer our bodies as “living sacrifices” in his letter to the Romans.
The main point is this: When Christ saves us, he becomes our great high priest, and he then calls US into priestly service in his spiritual temple. Let’s break down that spiritual priestly service in the same categories we have used so far.
First, like OT priests, Believers are anointed. Believers are anointed. We are consecrated, set apart for our new calling. We our outwardly anointed in the waters of baptism, and we are inwardly anointed by the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” to quote Titus 3. The Spirit is given to us as a seal of our salvation, and indwells every believer. He illumines the pages of scripture for us, helps us to grow in holiness, guide us in the path of righteousness, and seals us for the day of redemption. This is our divine consecration, our anointing into our new priestly work.
Second, like OT priests, Believers are properly attired. Believers are properly attired. This adornment is not in gaudy gold and precious stones. In fact, the New Testament warns explicitly against being led astray by such things. Instead, we’re called to be dressed like Christ. To be adorned with an inner beauty, and imperishable beauty, of pure and holy lives. Our robes are not of linen, but of righteousness and holiness.
Significantly for us, the New Testament speaks of us and our holiness in 2 different ways. We have first been made holy when we come to faith. It’s definitive. It’s final. We are united to Jesus & have been robed in his righteousness. We have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. Once was blind, but now I see. Once was dead in sin, now I have been born again.
But the New Testament also speaks of our holiness in terms of an ongoing process. We are made holy in Christ, AND we are called to grow in holiness. We’ve been born again, AND we’re called to mature in our new life.
Both of these things are crucial if we are going to keep our heads on straight in the Christian life. If I forget that I AM holy in Christ, then I will be tempted to look at my own holiness, my own progress in the Christian life, and I will either get prideful if I think I’m doing well, or I’ll be depressed because I see that I’m not.
But, if I forget the second aspect of holiness, that I am called to continue to grow in holiness, then I can be tempted to coast. To think that I have come to Christ and done everything I need to do.
Instead, We need to remember that Christ has adorned us with righteous priestly robes, AND I need to strive for holiness, and to live in a manner consistent with my new priestly calling, adorning myself with more good works, which God has planned ahead of time for me to do.
Third, just like priests, Believers represent God to man. Believers represent God to man. This is a helpful reality for us to remember. We’ve been saved, not merely to be content with our new relationship with God, but we’ve also been commissioned to speak to others about Christ. That’s what the great commission is about in Matthew 28. The Apostles and the church were commissioned to go into all the world and tell people about Jesus.
Every unbeliever you meet is a potential future priest, who just needs the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and then they too could serve alongside you in the spiritual temple of God. It doesn’t matter where they are from, or how sinful they are, every man or woman is a potential priest of God, and we ought to endeavor to speak warmly of God whenever and wherever God’s providence allows for us to represent God to man. And related to this evangelistic effort, we can see also that
Believers should represent man to God. Believers represent man to God. Because we know that God has to work in the hearts of any man or woman that would come to God, we ought to be humbly pleading with God on behalf of the lost people around us. Like our great high priest who intercedes for us, we too should be interceding for others in a priestly way. Praying that God would open their eyes to see the truth. Praying that we’d have opportunities to speak of spiritual things with others. Praying that we’d have the awareness and the boldness to take advantage of those opportunities when they arise. Praying for more workers in this evangelistic priesthood, because there are so many that need to hear the truth of God. Believers can represent man before God in a priestly way when we pray on behalf of others.
Lastly, like OT priests and like Christ, Believers Guard God’s temple. Believers serve in a priestly way by Guarding God’s temple. As priests serving in God’s new covenant temple, that is the church, we’re called to guard the temple and its purity. We can do this in several ways.
First, we can guard the purity of our temple by praying for the purity of our church. We should regularly and fervently pray for the purity of our church. Pray for our pastors and leaders, who are on the front lines and face special temptations that come along with that. Pray for our Sunday School teachers, and our deacons. Pray for our friends, our children, our youth, and for our senior adults. Satan loves nothing more than to tear down God’s church, and often his most effective way to do that is to squelch the prayer life of a church.
Second, not only pray, but work to protect the purity of the church. We can do this by soberly maintaining our own purity. We need to be on guard against any sin that can bubble up within us, and to cut if off early. But we also help others guard their purity by encouraging them with the truth of God’s word, loving them well, reminding them of the Gospel, and obeying all the “one another” commands of the New Testament. Such is a wonderfully priestly role of new covenant fellowship, that we can help purify others by pointing them back to the work of our great high priest.
Thirdly, and lastly, we engage in priestly guarding of our temple when we obey the bible’s commands to maintain the purity of the congregation. As we’ve seen in our study of 1 Corinthians, a little leaven leavens the whole lump, and Paul’s encouraging the Corinthians to cast out the unrepentant sinner before he infects the rest of the congregation. Churches are called to the priestly work of guarding the temple by casting out anyone who remains in unrepentant sin, thereby protecting the purity of Christs bride.
Thus, we see that just like the OT priests, and like Christ, we are called to priestly service.
I’ve said a lot to night, but I want to close with this.
We all need help and forgiveness, because each of us falls short of God’s standard every day. None of us are perfectly faithful in our priestly service. We’re impure in our motives, lazy in our duties, and selfish in our desires. But we’re not left without hope, because we serve God under the perfect ministry of another priest, our perfect and great high priest, and because of HIS priestly work, all our feeble works are acceptable, and even delightful, to our heavenly Father.
I hope that if you have not yet come to Christ by faith, that you will consider the priestly work of Christ explained tonight. That you will see that his work is sufficient to save, and especially see his heart of love that compels him to serve in such an office. He stands ready and willing to receive you, if you would but believe. Trust in Christ tonight, and have for yourself a perfect high priest.
For if you do not, he will return, and he will guard his cosmic temple, he will cast out the unbelievers by the power of the sword, and he will purify the new heaven and the new earth by casting all unbelievers into hell forever. Don’t let that be your fate. Trust in him, and you too can have His forgiveness and His robes of righteousness wrapped around you forever.
 Leland Ryken et al., eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), s.v. priest; cf: Vern S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995).
 T. Desmond Alexander, ed., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester, England : Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), s.v. Priest (page 698).
 Alexander, s.v. priest (pg 700).