Greater: A Series on the Letter of Hebrews
Week 4: “Jesus Greater than Other Priests
HEBREWS 4:14-5:10 NLT
Who can tell me what book we’re studying? Hebrews, right. Last week we learned that when we hear and we heed God’s Word, then we can have (enjoy) God’s rest. God’s rest enters us! No matter our circumstances, because we live by the very word of God, we can hold on through it and even have peace in the midst of it. By contrast, when we drift away from the truth of God’s Word, we can find ourselves in fear, doubt, worry, anxiety.
Today we’re going to cover a chunk of this letter, that’s really known more as a big sermon written to 1st and 2nd generation house church Jewish Christians, most likely living in Rome. These Christians were not only experiencing persecution, but disappointment because it’s been between 20-30 years since Jesus ascended to heaven and He has not returned like he promised. Some were doubting the truth claims of Christ; so this sermonic letter is written both as warning and exhortation.
These new Christians were considering slipping back into their old Jewish customs and beliefs, or maybe even adopting other new religious and philosophical worldviews that were surfacing… like Gnosticism.
It’s tempting, then and now, to slip back into the familiar when things don’t go as planned. Maybe it’s an old habit you broke months or years ago…like smoking. Or, if you’re a new Christian, you may become disheartened because you see other Christians acting contrary to God’s Word, so you decide this church thing isn’t for you. Maybe you’ve been a Christian most of your life and have been a part of a certain church most of that time. Gradually, the church of which you are a part drifts from the truth of God’s Word. It’s easier to “go with the flow” than to make waves. “Besides,” you may reason, “What can it hurt to ignore a passage or two from the Bible. We follow most of it. That should count, right?”
I think we know the answer to that question, even if we’re unwilling to admit it. The writer of Hebrews is making it clear that Jesus Christ, the exact expression of God’s character and the reflection of God’s glory, is the One through whom God speaks to us. Jesus is greater than the angels (which were, in many cases, the messengers of God). And even though Jesus was human as we were, his humanity did not diminish his ability to save us. In fact, it was because Jesus could identify with our weaknesses, yet he did not sin, that Jesus was able to fulfill his role as Priest for our sakes. Jesus is also greater than Moses, the great leader of the Jews and servant of the household of Israel, because Jesus was the Builder of the house.
In the passage that Katie read, the writer demonstrates that Jesus is greater than Aaron, the chosen priest of Israel. He then begins a long explanation of Jesus being a Priest in the order of Melchizedeck. There’s a lot here, friends, and not near enough time to unpack it all. So, for the next few minutes, I want to paint with a broad brush what all this means.
As we set out, I want to remind us that, while this series may not be sexy or entertaining, it is vital for us understand who Christ is (Christology) more fully if we are going to grow up into mature believers and followers of Jesus.
It’s not lost on me that right here…in the latter part of chapter 5 and into 20 verses of chapter 6 that the writer is arguing the same point! Remember that downward regression that comes from NOT holding on in faith to the truth of God’s word? We can go from DRIFTING away, to DOUBTING the Word, to becoming DULL to the Word, to DESPISING the Word, to outright DEFIANCE of God’s Word. In this section we hear the warning of become dull to God’s word because we don’t want to grow. We are satisfied by covering the same ground. Let me read a couple of texts from Hebrews to show you what I mean:
11There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. 12You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. 5:11-12 NLT
1So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. 6:1a NLT
The writer goes on to give examples of the fundamentals to which we followers should adopt and move beyond in our understanding: turning from evil deeds, faith in God, baptism, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. Now, if any of those subjects still have you scratching your heads, let me give you the good news that we continue to teach these truths—sometimes in worship and other times in Life Groups.
[By the way, counting weekday mornings and Wednesday nights, there are twelve different groups offered at BUMC through which one can continue your spiritual progress. And I pray that’s just the beginning!]
What we see in Hebrews, to me, is a deeper understanding of Christ and of His higher position than all the old systems of religion that the Jews practiced. He is better, greater, supreme over all things.
Listen to how, through the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul describes Jesus in the opening verses of his letter to the Colossae:
15Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, 16for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. 17He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. 18Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. 19For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, 20and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross. Colossians 1:15-20 NLT
One of the most significant parts of life for Israel was the sacrificial system. Remember it was the blood of lambs smeared on the door posts of their houses that caused the Angel of Death to pass over the Hebrews and kill only the first born male animals and humans in Egypt, causing Pharaoh to let them go.
After the Exodus from Egypt, God established the sacrificial system in which the life blood of sheep, goats, or cattle were to pay the penalty for Israel’s sins. In Exodus, just after the 10 Commandments were given, the Lord instructed, through Moses, the people of Israel to build an altar with stones NOT shaped by human tools upon which they would sacrifice burnt offerings. Later in Leviticus, we can read very detailed stipulations that the Israelites were to follow about animal sacrifice. The shedding of blood, according to Yahweh, was necessary for the cleansing of sins.
The priests were a vital part of this sacrificial order. In this morning’s reading, we learn several things about the role of the priest:
He represents the people to God
He presents sacrifices to God for the people’s sins
He identifies with his people because he, too, suffers from the same weaknesses. That’s why even the high priest must offer sacrifices for his own sins.
He is called by God. He can NOT just be a High Priest because he wants the honor. Rather, God chooses him to be High Priest.
That’s why Christ did NOT honor “himself” by assuming the role as High Priest, but was chosen by God. It is obedience to the Father, that qualified Jesus to be High Priest
I love the first part of the text we heard today! Our High Priest understands our weakness because he faced all the same temptations we do, YET HE DID NOT SIN. It’s been some time since I mentioned the openly lesbian bishop of the Western Conference of The United Methodist Church. She was elected in July of 2016, an even that sparked a huge backlash from many Methodists who hold a very high view of scripture in an orthodox traditional evangelical way.
On the Facebook page of the Yellowstone Conference, Bishop Karen Oliveto makes the claim that Jesus changed in his understanding of who he was and overcame some of his bigotry and prejudices as he grew in his ministry. Essentially, he got better as he went along, so if he can, we can. [By the way, the page has since been taken down.]
That’s NOT what my Bible says! It says he was tempted in every way, yet he did not sin. Why do I bring this up? Glad you asked. You see, if we’re not careful we can allow heresy into our churches with ideas like Jesus had to “get better”. It’s tempting bring Jesus down to our level so that we can justify our own sin. We can just say we can learn and get better if we just do enough good things. But it we don’t see our sin for what it is, then we don’t need to be cleansed from it. See the slippery slope?
Jesus “understands” our weakness, but he “overcomes” it for us through his sacrifice SO THAT we may be free from the penalty we deserve because of sin. Which takes us back to the priestly role of Jesus.
The writer says that God designated Jesus to be a High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. Who the heck is that! Well, Melchizedek was a very unique priest. There is no record of his father or mother or any ancestors. In other words, there was no beginning or end to his life. He existed before the time of Aaron, the first Israelite priest. In fact, it was Melchizedek (who’s name means “king of justice” and was known as the king of Salem and priest of God Most High) who Abraham gave a 10th of all he captured in battle.
Jesus, like Melchizedek, has no beginning or end. The priesthood of Levi, of which Aaron and his descendants were part, offered a sacrificial system that ultimately could not accomplish for us what the eternal priesthood of Jesus can. Jesus is an eternal priest who cannot be destroyed!
The old requirements about the priesthood was set aside because it was weak and useless. We have a better hope, the writer says, through which we draw near to God. A better covenant. Jesus is holy and blameless. Once for all, he offered himself as the sacrifice for the people’s sins.
The place where sacrifices were offered was first known as the tabernacle when they were wandering in the wilderness. There were two rooms in the Tabernacle. The Holy Place was where the bread of presence was kept. Behind a curtain was the Most Holy Place.
In that room were a gold incense altar and the Ark of the Covenant which contained the jar of manna, Aaron’s staff, and the stone tablets.
The priest regularly entered the Holy Place, but only the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place (Holy of holies) and then only once a year. And he always offered blood for his own sins and for the sins the people had committed. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. But this system was limited and was only in effect until a better system could be established, says the writer of Hebrews. That system, of course, is the atoning work of Jesus Christ, our great High Priest.
Why? Because Jesus has entered a greater, even more perfect Tabernacle in heaven. With his own blood he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. The old system required repeating the act of shedding blood for the cleansing of the people. Jesus, under the new covenant, deals with the penalty of sin once and for all.
He mediates between God and his people. I like the way Paul puts it in Romans 8:34à “Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus dies for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.”
There’s a key verse in Hebrews 9:22 that says this: “Without there shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” This may seem cruel to you. It may even seem inhumane and unloving. It’s called justice and our legal system is built upon it. If someone were to drive drunk and kill one of your children or grandchildren, wouldn’t you want there to be justice? Would you not want them to pay for their crime?
In the same way, we are guilty of sinning against God. The bible tells us that the wages of sin is death. You and I deserve the penalty of eternal separation from God because of sin. But ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden because of sin, God has been on a rescue mission to redeem that which was lost and broken. It was a long plan which included rescuing a man named Noah and his family, a family from Abraham, a nation called Israel, and finally a people called the Church, the bride of Christ. The rescue plan is complete through the intercession of Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest—the Lamb of God—who shed his own precious blood on the Altar of the Cross at Calvary.
Upon his death, the curtain of the temple separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom, signifying that access to the Most High God is now possible to ALL to call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. His blood makes it possible for you to be cleansed from sin’s effect forever! Wow! This is the Good News!
SO WHAT? I want to close with this exhortation toward the end of chapter ten [10:19-25 NLT]
19And so, dear brothers and sisters,we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. 20By his death,Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. 21And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, 22let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.
23Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise.24Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. 25And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
Because of our Great High Priest (greater than Aaron and eternal like Melchizedek) we should:
Come close to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith
Cling to the hope we have without wavering in our faith
Urge one another on toward love and good deeds
Keep meeting together so that we can encourage one another
BECAUSE Jesus is coming back!
In other words, the writer says, DON’T SHRINK BACK! We can’t let culture dictate truth or lifestyle for the follower of Jesus. If you claim Christ and him crucified, then to willingly engage in sinful acts is to trample on the Son of God and treat as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant. This is serious stuff, Church! believe God is preparing His church for a great awakening, but to do so there will be a great reckoning, so that there may be a great repentance, in order to see a great REVIVAL!
So, strengthen your faith through prayer and devotion to God. Turn from any sin that easily entangles you. Engage in growth through Life Groups. Get with a few others and read the Bible together. Draw closer to Christ by sharing with others in need.
Saying, “I’m a Christian,” is easy. Most folks do it. But living the Christian life is a different story. And which do you think matters? Which is true Christianity? I think you know. Let’s pray.