Among New Testament writings the priestly work of Christ is most fully developed in Hebrews.1 In this book Jesus is exclusively referred to as a high priest. This is explicitly said nine times (2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15; 5:5, 10; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:11); is implicit two times (7:28; 8:31); and for the six times he is called a priest (5:6; 7:16, 17, 20, 21), contextual associations show clearly that the term refers to his high priestly ministry. This means that his heavenly ministry is related to the Day of Atonement, for it was on this day that high priestly activity was concentrated.
The high priestly ministry of Jesus comes to the fore at the very beginning of Hebrews. After describing the Son as the ultimate revelation of God and the Creator and Sustainer of all things (1:1-2), it declares that when the Son “had provided purification for sins,” he sat down at God’s right hand (1:3). This purification or cleansing for sins, later interpreted as the removal of sins (9:26), reminds one of the effects of the Day of Atonement ritual in Israel, where the same word for cleansing in the Greek version—the only version cited by Hebrews—is used: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord.” That Christ sits after making the purification (also 10:12 and 12:2) indicates that his self-offering has already effected the eternal salvation (5:9; 9:12) which his continuing ministry in heaven applies to believers as they come to the throne of grace to receive God’s mercy (4:16).
Hebrews 4:14-16, 6:19-20 and chapters 7-10 continue the picture of Christ’s high priestly activity for which 1:3 is the first snapshot. These passages make abundantly clear that the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus takes away sins, sanctifies and perfects the consciences of believers, brings them to the very throne of God, and grants them complete assurance of salvation.
The question that arises is why these themes of Christ’s high priestly ministry and the glorious realities it effects find such a prominent place in this particular book of the Bible. The answer lies close by and is very practical. According to 10:32-34, the original addressees of the book are asked to recall the time when they became Christians and had a hard struggle with suffering as a result. They were publicly exposed to abuse and persecution. Some had their possessions plundered; others were thrown into prison.
Now, at the time when Hebrews was written, they were facing difficult straights and possible death again. This can be inferred from the emphasis in Hebrews 11 on all those Hebrew worthies, starting with Moses, who suffered persecution, torture, and death, and in Hebrews 12 on Jesus who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2). The readers are asked to “consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” 12:3). In their struggle they had not yet come to the point of martyrdom (12:4), but it seems clear that this was an imminent likelihood.
So the situation of the readers was severe. The way of Jesus was arduous and fearsome. In such circumstances it would be easy for disappointment to set in, attendance at church services to wane (10:25), questions about Christian teaching to arise (5:11-14), and a root of bitterness to spring up and endanger their discipleship to Christ (12:15). Abandoning their confidence and shrinking back (10:35, 39), i.e., apostasy, was a distinct possibility.
The picture of Christ as high priest serves a two-fold pastoral function in Hebrews. It speaks both to the issue of the readers’ suffering and to that of the apostasy which that suffering might engender.
As to the issue of suffering, Hebrews teaches that what qualified Christ to be our high priest is that he shared in our humanity. He who identifies with us as his brothers and sisters (2:12) had to be made like us and be tested in every way as we are so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest, able to help those who are being tested (2:17-18; 4:15). Because we know this, we can approach God’s throne boldly to find grace to help us in our difficulties (4:16). As the readers of Hebrews and we ourselves face discouragement, suffering, and death, they and we should remember that Jesus himself offered supplication to God with loud cries and tears and was heard because of his reverent submission to God. Even as God’s Son he learned obedience and was perfected from what he suffered (5:7-9). Sufferers are exhorted to identify with his death and be willing to endure the abuse he endured (13:13). “Hang in with your suffering but victorious high priest” is the message.
As to apostasy, Hebrews draws the picture of Christ’s high priestly achievements so as to dissuade its readers, in a situation of extremity, from leaving their Christian identity and community and shrinking back from their confidence in the sacrifice and heavenly ministry of Christ. By rejecting him, they forfeit the cleansing of their sins, access to the grace and presence of God, the reality of spiritual rest, and the promise of a heavenly homeland. In other words, Hebrews presents the greatness of salvation through Christ in order to reveal the enormity, and unnecessary tragedy, of its loss, mentioned strikingly in 2:1-3; 6:3-6; and 10:26-31.
Hebrews contains a momentous take-home message for Adventists about fear. Let us not fear the coming time of trouble, for our high priest, Jesus, has been through it all and will take us through it all. And let us not fear for our salvation in the judgment, but only fear rejecting a salvation and cleansing long ago available in Christ and being left, therefore, with only a “fearful prospect of judgment” (10:27). Surely, we cannot go wrong by believing Hebrews when it affirms that in his death and high priestly ministry Christ has fully and finally opened the door to God’s saving presence “within the veil” where Christ, our forerunner, has entered on our behalf (6:19-20)2 and where “he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, for he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25).
1 The New Revised Standard Version is used for quotations throughout this lesson.
2 The expression “within the veil” occurs a number of times in Leviticus 16 for the entrance of the high priest into the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s presence, on the Day of Atonement (16:2, 12, 15).
Ivan Blazen is professor of biblical interpretation and theology at Loma Linda University.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/697