Jesus the Priest

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lent 5
March 21, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: According to Israel's tradition, Jesus, from the tribe of Judah, couldn't have been a priest. But our text is about his preparation to be a high priest "according to the order of Melchizedek," as the preceding verses make clear. Through the trials and challenges of his ministry, he was able to make the perfect and final sacrifice, giving up his own life and rising again to reconcile sinners to God.

Our text from Hebrews is about Jesus' preparation for his work as a priest and, in particular, for the offering of sacrifice. That statement would have seemed very strange to Jesus' contemporaries because he simply couldn't be a priest. The priests who served in the temple in Jerusalem had to be descendants of Aaron from the tribe of Levi; that's what it says in the law of Moses. But Jesus was from the tribe of Judah. Jesus was sometimes addressed as "rabbi," which simply meant a religious teacher. But no one expected him to become a priest.

But the verses immediately preceding the text are quite clear that he was to be not only a priest but a high priest.

As the writer of Hebrews explained it, "So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, 'You are my Son, today I have begotten you'; as he says also in another place, 'You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.'"1

The two Psalm verses the Hebrews writer quoted there are from the coronation ritual for kings of Judah, the descendants of David. Melchizedek is a rather mysterious figure, a king of Jerusalem and "priest of God Most High" whose meeting with Abraham is described in Genesis.2 Long after Abraham's time, King David captured Jerusalem and made it his capital. Somehow - scholars aren't sure just how - the Jerusalem priesthood associated with Melchizedek got grafted into Israel's traditions.

The writer of Hebrews took that verse from Psalm 110, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek," to mean that Jesus, though not a descendant of Aaron, could be a high priest. He could do what was needed to reconcile sinners to God.

The work of the high priest

There were various sacrifices that Jewish priests were to perform, but the most important for the high priest were the sacrifices of Yom Kippur , the Day of Atonement. That could also be called "the Day of Reconciliation,"3 because that's what "atonement" means here. Those sacrifices would be made to cover all the sins of the Israelites and reconcile them to God.

Only on that one day of the year would Israel's high priest enter the Most Holy Place of the temple with blood of sacrificed animals to atone both for his own sins and for the sins of all the people. He was surrounded by clouds of incense smoke "lest he die"4 in the presence of the holy God. When the ritual was completed, the sins of all Israel would be covered. A popular idea was that if every Israelite could then avoid sinning for just one day, the kingdom of God would come. But of course, that never happened, and sacrifice would have to be offered again the next year.

And people had to wonder if offering "the blood of goats and calves"5 could really get rid of the problem of our sins and reconcile us to God? Can that be more than a temporary measure, a symbol of what needs to be done in a definitive way to put us in a right relationship with God?

The message of Hebrews is that Jesus, the Son of God who shares our humanity, is the great high priest "after the order of Melchizedek." He is the one who offers the perfect and final sacrifice for all our sins, the sacrifice of his own life, to reconcile us to God.

Training for the priesthood

In talking about Jesus' preparation for priestly work, our text doesn't deal with things like the study of the scriptures and other tools for ministry that we might think of today. Instead, it focuses on the trials and temptations that he faced. "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered," the Hebrews writer said. That seems puzzling. " Although he was a Son"? We might think that precisely because he was the Son of God (as the very first verse of Hebrews says), he would automatically be obedient!

But Jesus the Son of God "had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect."6 He was not simply God disguised as a human but was really and truly human, and needed to learn things as the rest of us do. He had to learn to cope with hard realities of life in the world, like the fact that some people weren't going to like what he said and did.

When our text says that Jesus "offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears," we think first of his prayer in Gethsemane in the night of his betrayal. But in the desert right after his baptism he was tempted to use his power to serve himself with words that would be echoed by mocking calls to prove his divine sonship as he hung dying on the cross. He got run out of his hometown and nearly killed when he reminded the townspeople that the God of Israel didn't care only about Israelites.7

But hear the full verse from the Hebrews writer: "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." Offering himself to reconcile sinful humankind to God, on the cross he was the perfect and final sacrifice.

Death and resurrection

So what did Jesus' death accomplish? For thousands of years people all over the world have made sacrifices to the deities in whom they believed. Often that was done to win something from a god or goddess - victory in war, a good harvest or some other special favor. Sacrifice can be seen as a payment so that sins would be forgiven, rather like paying a fine for a traffic infraction or for not paying your taxes. Some Christians think of Christ's suffering and death as payment for our sins.

But we use the word "sacrifice" in other ways. Soldiers who throw themselves on live grenades to save comrades, or someone who pushes a toddler out of the way of a speeding truck but gets killed by it, sacrifice themselves. There's no payment made to anyone or anything; there's just the saving of a life by giving up one's own life.

Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God and calling for repentance. He claimed to speak for God, and he said that we should love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. He forgave sins freely, and he healed and fed people.

He also said that the first would be last and the last first, language that makes people like us nervous. He challenged religious and political and economic systems that exploit and oppress and mislead people. In the end, his own friends deserted and denied him. Jesus threw himself in front of the truck carrying all our idols, all those things we trust in instead of the true God. And we - through our representatives, Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate - ran him down, nailing him on a cross to die.

But that isn't the end of the story. The message is that he is risen. And if that's true, then he really did speak for God - perhaps somehow, he really is God. That means that all those things that we put our trust in, those things that brought Jesus to the cross, are idols, false gods.

But when Jesus appears to his disciples, those people who had deserted and denied him, he says, "Peace be with you."8 In spite of our false faith, in spite of our sins, in spite of the fact that we tried to get rid of him, the one who speaks for God says to us, "Peace be with you." Even though we have strayed away from God, we are forgiven and reconciled to God by the once-for-all sacrifice of our great high priest.

A few lines of one hymn summarize this work of Christ very well.

Jesus sought me as a stranger,
wand'ring from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.9


  1. 1 Hebrews 5:5-6. The verses quoted there are from Psalms 2:7 and 110:4.
  2. 2 Genesis 14:18-20.
  3. 3 In his 1525 English translation of the New Testament, William Tyndale used the word "attonement" in 2 Corinthians 5:19 where NRSV has "reconciliation." The former word (from which one "t" has since been dropped) was apparently coined by Tyndale to express the idea of two once-separated parties being brought together as at-one-ment.
  4. 4 Leviticus 16:13 RSV.
  5. 5 Hebrews 9:12
  6. 6 Hebrews 2:17.
  7. 7 For this material see Matthew 26:36-46 and 4:1-11, Mark 15:32, Luke 4:16-30, and parallels.
  8. 8 John 20:19-21.
  9. 9 Verse 2 of the hymn "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing."