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The offices of Christ

March 2003 | by Roger Fellows

2. Priest

W

e are looking at the offices of Christ. Christ means anointed, and in the Old Testament, prophets, priests and kings were anointed. As the Shorter Catechism reminds us, Christ occupies the offices of a prophet, a priest and a king.

Last month we looked at the prophetic office of Christ. As prophet he brings us a message from God for which we are accountable. This time we will examine his priestly office.

What is a priest?

We may have certain ideas from those called priests in the Church of Rome or even in the Church of England. However, it is to the Bible that we must turn to see what a priest is and what functions he performs.

In Hebrews 5:1-3 we find what could be described as a ‘job description’ for a priest.

First, he was selected from among men. In Israel only one tribe could function in the service of the temple — the Levites. Within the Levites, only one family could serve as priests — Aaron’s descendents.

Second, a priest represented men — the Israelites — before God.

Third, he offered gifts and sacrifices of various kinds.

Fourth, he exercised a ministry of compassion among the people. With these guidelines, let us see how Christ executes the office of a priest.

A sacrifice for sins

Firstly, he was ‘selected’ from among men. The humanity of Jesus is of great importance here. To represent human beings, he had to be a man (see Hebrews 2:14). But to which man could God entrust the work of reconciling sinners to himself? There was only one — Jesus the Christ.

Secondly, he represents us before God. No one else would take up our cause. By nature we are lost sinners, deserving only condemnation not assistance. But Jesus took us on, and undertook to represent us before God.

Thirdly, he offered a sacrifice for sins. The Jewish priests offered many kinds of sacrifices, but there was one sacrifice that only the high priest could offer. That occurred on the Day of Atonement.

That special day is frequently in view in the book of Hebrews. It was the only day in the Jewish calendar when the high priest could enter the innermost room of the temple — the most holy place.

He would first offer a sacrifice for himself, taking its blood into the most holy place. Then he would offer a sacrifice for the nation and take its blood also into the inner room. He would sprinkle the blood on the ‘atonement cover’ (mercy seat) and then return to the crowd waiting outside in the courtyard.

Picture of the cross

All this is a wonderful picture (or type) of the work of our Saviour. No type is perfect, and to illustrate the work of Christ it needed both a sacrifice and a priest. Christ, of course, fulfils both.

He was a sacrifice for sins (see Hebrews 9:23-26; 10:11-12). He is often referred to as the Lamb of God (e.g. John 1:29). Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3).

The very existence of a priesthood presupposes sin. If man had never sinned there would be no need of a priest to represent us or reconcile us to God.

Before the Fall Adam had no need of a priest, but after sin entered the world sacrifices had to be offered to appease God.

God is angry with sinners. His justice demands punishment for sin, and only God’s mercy provides a sacrifice as a substitute. In the case of animal sacrifices, the animal took the sinner’s place and died as a substitute.

All this is a picture of the cross, for no animal can really take away sin. There Jesus bore our sins. He died, taking our punishment. That is why the cross is at the very heart of Christianity.

If Christ had not died, there would be no Christianity and no Christians.

The holiest of all

The high priest, having offered his sacrifice, entered the most holy place. And Jesus, having offered himself as a sacrifice, entered the presence of God.

This involved his resurrection and ascension (Hebrews 4:14; 7:26; 9:24). The earthly priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice in the most holy place as proof that the sacrifice had been killed.

Christ did not take literal blood into God’s presence, but his very presence at God’s right hand — and the wounds in his hands, feet and side — are living proof that his work was finished and accepted. God is satisfied: his wrath is appeased; justice has been done.

In the Old Testament, the priest returned to the people after sprinkling the blood before God. Jesus, too, will return to his people (Hebrews 9:28).

It is said that the people in the temple waited with bated breath for the high priest to reappear after entering the most holy place. Similarly, we wait eagerly for the appearance of our Saviour.

Not that we need to wait till then for evidence that his offering has been accepted. The Bible is clear that it was, and the resurrection is proof enough (Romans 4:25).

Nevertheless, we do (or ought to) wait with keen anticipation for Christ’s return, for we long to behold his glory and be with him for ever.

Compassion

Fourthly, Christ exercises a ministry of compassion and encouragement. Although it may not be explicit in the Old Testament, a godly priest would show sympathy and understanding towards those who came with sacrifices for their sins.

What is Jesus doing now? He is interceding for his people (Hebrews 7:25). In one sense his work is complete, yet he has an ongoing priestly ministry of intercession. He prays for us. He is there at God’s right hand on our behalf.

What a comfort when we are attacked or accused by the devil! We should not think lightly of the sins we commit every day. But when we confess them, it is comforting to be reminded that Christ has already died for those sins. His wounds are the evidence of that.

We also have a high priest who sympathises with us in our trials (Hebrews 4:15). When we try to empathise with the sufferings of others, we are limited because we may not have experienced what they are going through.

For example, if a friend of mine were to lose a child, I would seek to draw alongside and pray for him. But I could never fully know what he was feeling, because I have never lost a child.

But Jesus understands every situation and is able to sympathise with us. Someone may ask how Jesus can sympathise with one who has lost a child when he never had a child to lose.

The answer is that he is God. He has perfect understanding, having experienced the whole range of human emotions. So he does understand every situation and share every grief. He strengthens us, encourages us, and prays for us.

Carried on his shoulders

It is interesting that in Hebrews 4:16 after speaking of Christ’s high priestly ministry, the author exhorts us to pray. The fact that Christ prays for us should never make us neglect prayer. His praying should motivate us to pray.

What a marvellous high priest is ours! What a ministry he exercised for us! He died for us, offering his blood to the Father to atone for our sins. And now, having brought us to faith, he exercises an ongoing ministry towards us.

We have a final, beautiful picture of Christ’s priestly ministry in the garments of the Jewish high priest. On his shoulders were two onyx stones, each engraved with the names of six Israelite tribes.

He bore them on his shoulders, the place of strength, into the presence of the Lord (Exodus 28:9-12). Also on the breastplate were twelve precious stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes.

The high priest bore them on his heart, as it were, when he went before the Lord (Exodus 28:15-29). What more could we ask of our high priest? He bears our burdens and carries us on his heart.

Is Jesus Christ your priest? He offered himself as a sacrifice for all who trust in him. Is he not trustworthy? Does he not deserve our faith and devotion? If God is satisfied with his work, should not we also be satisfied? May God open our eyes to see his glory!