One of the problems with being Protestant is that most of us don’t understand priests. We don’t really know who they are, or what they do, or even what the whole priesthood thing is about—the whole idea is unfamiliar to us. One reason for this, of course, is that we aren’t Catholic (though a few of us used to be), and so we don’t have priests. We know the Catholic church down the street has a priest, but for most of us, that’s just external knowledge, not a matter of experience; while we know that the pastor there has the title “priest” and is addressed as “Father,” most of us don’t really know what that means, because it’s never been a meaningful part of our lives. Never having had priests, we don’t understand priests.
That being the case, though, it also needs to be said that even that would only get you so far, because Catholics don’t understand priests the same way the Old Testament did. There are some clear similarities, I will grant, but also some very real and significant differences. The biggest difference, of course, is the whole sacrificial system—to my knowledge, no Catholic priest has ever sacrificed so much as a pigeon, let alone a cow. This is no criticism of the Catholic Church, but it does mean that even understanding the Catholic priesthood is of limited value in understanding the Old Testament priesthood.
Which is unfortunate, because if we don’t understand what the Old Testament is on about, we’re going to have a hard time understanding a fair bit of the New Testament, and most especially the book of Hebrews. There’s some pretty important stuff going on here, but so much of it has to do with the priesthood and Christ’s priestly role that if you don’t understand priests, you’re not going to understand Hebrews—and that would be a real loss, for Hebrews has a lot to tell us about what Christ has done for us that we don’t find in the rest of the New Testament. Among other things, and of particular importance for the purpose of this sermon series, Hebrews is quite important in helping us to understand the meaning and significance of Jesus’ ascension.
Now, it isn’t possible to find one text that says, “This is why we have priests, this is what they’re for, and this is what they do”; to really lay things out, we’d be here a long time reading chunk after chunk of the Old Testament, and while I’m sure you all (and particularly Dr. Kavanaugh) would be patient with me, I don’t want to push it. But this little bit from Deuteronomy, from Moses’ blessing on the priestly tribe of Levi, captures the essence of the priestly role, if you look at it closely. In verse 10, you can see the two parts of the priest’s work, and the two directions in which that work moved. First, “They teach Jacob your ordinances, and Israel your law.” This is the work of representing God to Israel, of teaching them the will and the ways of God and proclaiming God’s word to them, and this part of the job we know; it’s the same thing, in essence, as I’m doing right now. So that, we’re familiar with.
But then take a look at the second half of that verse: “they place incense before you, and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” This is the work of representing Israel before God. The biblical term that gets used of the priestly role is “mediator.” We see that going one way in the task of preaching, as the priest (or the pastor, for that matter) mediates the word of God to the people of God—God speaks through the one who preaches rather than speaking directly. In the act of sacrifice, however, we see that mediation going the other direction. The people of Israel couldn’t go directly to God to ask forgiveness, because their sin got in the way; they had to go through the priests, and so they would bring their offerings of animals and grain to the priests and the priests would then offer them to God on behalf of the people. Every sacrifice was a prayer, and it was a prayer you couldn’t pray yourself; the priest had to pray it for you, because they were the only ones who were allowed to do so. They were sort of professional holy people—you might even call them professional pray-ers.
Now, obviously, our relationship with God works very differently. You all can pray for yourselves and for each other, by yourselves or together. When you sin against God, you don’t have to come to me and have me pray for you in order for you to be forgiven—you can do that yourself. When you have a need, I’m certainly glad to pray for you, but God will take care of you whether you ask me to pray or not—his action isn’t dependent on me one way or the other. I’m not a priest, I’m just a pastor. Or rather, I am a priest, but only in the same sense as each of you is a priest, that all of us who belong to Jesus are called to be priests to each other in the name of Christ.
This is a huge change from the way things were back in the Old Testament, and the reason for that change is much of what the book of Hebrews is talking about. Again, we could have read a lot more from Hebrews than we did this morning—it’s a book that rewards deep study—but for the moment, I just grabbed a couple key passages to highlight the key ideas here. The book of Hebrews presents Jesus as the great high priest, the one who fulfills and completes the whole priestly system and thus brings the need for earthly sacrifices to an end, replacing them with something better. How did he do that? Well, first, he lived a perfect, sinless life—a life completely and unfailingly in accordance with God’s will. As such, he had no need to offer sacrifices for himself, for he had committed no sin for which he needed to atone; being perfect, he was therefore able to offer a perfect sacrifice. Second, that’s exactly what he did—he offered himself, his own blood, on our behalf as the sacrifice for our sin; he offered for us a sacrifice of infinite value, one sufficient to cover all our sin. In this way, in his death on the cross, Jesus made all the other sacrifices—the daily offerings, the sin offerings, the guilt offerings, and so on—unnecessary; he died once for all, and that was enough for everything.
And then third—and here’s where it gets a little foreign to our normal way of thinking, even as Christians—he took that sacrifice into the Holy of Holies, into the very presence of God. You see, under the Old Testament system, the most important day was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That was the day, once a year, when the high priest offered the prescribed sacrifices for the sin of the nation—all of it—and then brought the blood into the Holy of Holies, the place of the presence of God on earth, and sprinkled it there, presenting it to God. In the same way, Christ offered himself on the cross as the sacrifice, rose from the dead, and then ascended into the very presence of God to present his sacrifice to the Father. You can see this in Hebrews 9:11-12: “When Christ came as a high priest . . . he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” It wasn’t enough just to offer the sacrifice, you had to present the sacrifice to God—and this, Hebrews tells us, Jesus did in his ascension, returning to the throne of God as our high priest who offered the sacrifice which has redeemed and purified us forever and always.
Now, I’m sure that sounds strange and foreign to many of you—we just don’t think that way in this day and age—but it’s important. It’s important because it helps us better understand what Jesus did for us, but no less because it helps us understand what he’s doing for us right now. I think many of us tend to have this idea that Jesus came down to earth, did his thing, then left and turned the work over to the Spirit, and that he’s just resting right now until it’s time for him to come again. But Hebrews gives us a very different picture: Jesus is our great high priest, and he is at work now in that role on our behalf. What were the priests? They were the ones who presented the prayers of the people to God. And Jesus? Jesus is doing the same. We pray, and the Spirit of God carries our prayers to him, and he presents them to the Father, interceding on our behalf, pleading our case for us. When we pray, then, we do not pray alone, or relying on our own merits—Jesus prays with us and for us, and we rely on his merits. This is why we pray in Jesus’ name; indeed, this is what it means to pray in Jesus’ name.
And this is why, as Hebrews 10 says, we have confidence to enter the heavenly sanctuary—the holy place, the presence of the living God—by the blood of Jesus. In the great temple in Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies was separated off by a thick curtain, a curtain that divided the small part of the world that contained the presence of God from the rest of the planet; at the time of Jesus’ death, that curtain tore in two, from top to bottom, because that separation was over. In his death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus opened a way for us through the curtain, into the presence of God. Because Jesus ascended to the Father’s side, we are free through the Spirit to approach the holy and almighty God of all creation and present our prayers to him through his Son, our high priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, in full assurance of faith.
Now, we’ve grown used to that fact, but in truth, it’s an amazing gift; though familiarity has dulled our eyes and ears to just how incredible this is, prayer is no small, safe, domesticated thing. Those of you who were here for my installation last Sunday afternoon will recall my friend Wayne quoting the writer Annie Dillard; it’s one of my favorite passages anywhere outside the Bible, one I think he first heard from me. For those who weren’t here, listen to what she has to say:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Prayer is nothing less than that. It is having the sheer nerve to stand before the one who created everything that is just by speaking, and whose will keeps everything going, and say, “Daddy, I want to talk”—and to do so in the complete certainty that he does, too, and that in fact he will not take offense, because he loves us that much. When you really think about it, this is an incredible gift—who and what are we, to be given such a privilege?—and so Hebrews urges us not to take it lightly, but instead to take advantage of it! Draw near to God in prayer, in the certain faith that your prayers are heard—no prayer ever bounces off the ceiling, or gets lost in the background noise, because Jesus takes every one and presents it to the Father on our behalf. God may not always give you the answer you want, but none of your prayers are ever ignored, and none go without any answer at all—and even though he doesn’t always say yes, God takes our prayers into account in everything he does. Stand firm in your faith, hold fast to this hope; Christ died and rose again for you and now intercedes for you before the throne of God, and therefore your salvation and ultimate victory is sure, regardless of what that may come along the way. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.