With Jesus as your High Priest, you are anchored behind the veil into the presence of God himself: anchored to his forgiveness, and anchored to his blessing, favor, and love. You are anchored there because Jesus is standing right there, representing you. He brings the blood of a sacrifice—his blood—evidence that your sins have been punished and dealt with. With Jesus as your High Priest you have absolute assurance that you are free from condemnation. And he brings to you, from God, abundant mercy, forgiveness, and life.
Unlike our beloved Anglican cousins, Presbyterians don’t believe that it is right to ordain priests into the church. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t think that we need a priest. On the contrary, we most desperately need a priest! Not a mere human priest, however, but the one great High Priest, Jesus Christ.
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. (Heb. 5:1-4)
First, what is a priest? A priest is a go-between, someone who represents God before humanity, and humanity before God. A go-between is needed because God is holy, and we are not.
The Holy God hates sin with a passion and breaks out against it with fierce anger (remember the Flood, the Ten Plagues, the Exile…). But we are sin-full. In the West Australian town of Greenough, constant strong winds have bent the trees to grow right-angled to the ground. Humans are bent by sin to do what God has forbidden, and to fail to do what God has commanded.
Sinners cannot stand in God’s holy presence without being destroyed.
This is why Isaiah said “Woe to me! I am ruined!” when he found himself in the presence of the “Holy! Holy! Holy! LORD Almighty!” (Isa. 6:1-5). This is why the Beloved Disciple, confronted by the Holy Son of God, fell at his feet “as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).
Sinful humanity must come to God to plead for his mercy and blessing. But how can we? It isn’t safe to be around him, since we would be destroyed in his presence like a tissue in a bonfire, like a comet straying near the sun, disintegrated to ashes by the nuclear heat.
God on his side longs to bring us grace, forgiveness, and blessing. But how can he? His holy presence would destroy us, we who are fouled black by sin to our very core.
Two nations are at war, trying with might and main to obliterate one another. If there is to be any dialogue, any hope of reconciliation, a go-between is needed: traditionally, someone from neutral Switzerland. We need a Switzerland: a go-between to approach God on our behalf, to plead for his mercy and blessing; and someone who can come from God to us, to bring mercy and blessing. That is what a priest is. He represents sinful humanity before Holy God, and Holy God before sinful humanity.
A priest must have two qualifications.
First, in order to represent humanity, a priest must be one of us. He must know what we know, he must have felt and experienced what we have felt, to plead for us from a place of personal knowledge and encounter. Yet, though human, he must be sinless, so that he can enter Holy God’s presence without annihilation.
Second, in order to represent God, the priest must himself be divine. A true mediator between God and man must himself be—a God-man.
A priest has duties to perform.
In order to reconcile Holy God and sinful humanity, the priest must satisfy God’s demand for the execution of just punishment upon human sin. God can no more overlook and disregard sin than a human justice can overlook premeditated murder. If God and humanity is to be reconciled, human sin must be dealt with.
How can God bless sinful humanity, when he must punish us? God in his wisdom and grace has provided a sacrifice: a means by which our sin can be punished in another, in a substitute.
Just punishment for our sin can be executed upon the substitute, so that we may instead be blessed. The priest can make this sacrifice, and then bring evidence to God that the sacrifice has been made, and that sin has been justly punished. The priest brings the blood of the slain victim: “Look, here is the evidence that this person’s sin has been punished, that justice has been administered.”
God sees the blood of the substitute, and his holy justice is satisfied. The person for whom the sacrifice was made is no longer the object of his wrath: for his wrath has already fallen upon the sacrificial victim.
Then God sends the priest back to the people he represents: to pronounce God’s forgiveness and favor, God’s promises and reassurance.
The high priest was Israel’s only priest.
This was the awesome office and duty of the Old Testament priest: he was a mutual representative of Holy God and sinful humanity; he brought bloody evidence to God that Israel’s sin had been justly punished; he took God’s blessing to Israel, whose sin had been lifted.
The singular magnificence of the dress of the high priest showed that he was actually Israel’s only priest—the other “ordinary priests” merely served as his assistants.