Our heavenly high priest
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Friday, March 19th: Exodus 30:1-10; Psalm 51:1-12; and Hebrews 4:14—5:4. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is our fifth Lenten Friday. Today we hear a concise and incisive biblical explanation of the cross. The sanctity of God’s presence within the Exodus tabernacle is symbolized by everything within the holy precincts being covered in pure gold. Within the tabernacle was the ark of the covenant and within the ark was the covenant itself – the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. What we do not hear of as often is the “mercy-seat.” The mercy-seat rested atop the ark of the covenant. It served as the symbolic throne of God on earth. This is where God maintained His presence among the people of Israel: “In front of the curtain that is above the ark of the covenant, in front of the mercy-seat that is over the covenant, where I will meet you.”
In order for the holiness of God to remain present among His people, God and their profaneness needed to be separated. Additionally, once a year Aaron the priest would perform “the rite of atonement on [the altar’s] horns.” This rite was fulfilled “with the blood of the atoning sin-offering. It is most holy to the Lord.” In the Jewish tradition, blood was equated with life, and all life belonged to God. Blood could only be shared with God. It was “most holy.”
The blood, the life, of the sacrificed animal was offered as a substitute for the lives of God’s people. Their sins further separated them from God. Those sins needed to be atoned for if God were to remain upon the mercy-seat. And since sin was prevalent and recurring, the atonement sacrifice needed to be offered every year.
The Epistle to the Hebrews plays a unique variation on this theme. Only here is Jesus presented as the Christian “high priest.” As a matter of fact, Jesus is the only Christian priest in the New Testament. The only other Christian priests are Jewish priests who accept Jesus, but they no longer serve their priestly function. (cf. Acts 6:7) Adding a bit of strangeness to this unique variation, Jesus, our heavenly high priest, makes an offering of Himself. Jesus is both the priest and the sacrifice.
Now Jesus is unique in this role, but His incarnation, the human nature we all share with Jesus, imbues Him with empathy: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Jesus need not offer annual sacrifices of atonement. His is the uniquely perfect sacrifice offered but once and it is from this one-time sacrifice that Jesus atones for us in heaven as our sympathetic high priest, sympathetic because Jesus brings into the very nature of God the personal experience of our weaknesses. Trusting in such sympathy, we approach the new mercy-seat with boldness knowing that Christ remembers our weaknesses.
On this fifth Lenten Friday, let be bold and approach our Saviour, especially when it is necessary to “find grace to help in [our times] of need’ because Jesus lived, suffered and died so that we could approach Him boldly. The holiness of God no longer calls for separation. It calls us closer, to boldly go where no one dared go before.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Massachusetts Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary .
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