Wherefore also [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near unto God through him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25).
What is a priest?
It seems like a very easy question, but it might take us a minute. It is a lot easier to describe what a priest does, particularly in the Old Testament, than it is to actually define him. He is the one who offers the sacrifices, maintains the Tabernacle/Temple, and instructs the people (Leviticus). How can all of these be brought together?
We can settle on a fairly basic definition: a priest is a designated man who stands between God and the people. The people bring their sacrifices for God to the Temple; the priests offer them. The priests enter the places the “regular people” cannot go.
In that sense, Jesus, by definition, is the ultimate priest– He is the Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). He stands between God and us in a most powerful way.
The Hebrew author describes Jesus as the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:10) based on the prophecy found in Psalm 110:4. Jesus, like Melchizedek before Him, is both King and Priest (cf. Genesis 14:18, Hebrews 7:1-3), itself an extraordinary matter and responsibility.
Yet Jesus fulfills this task to an extent not seen before. Priests, by virtue of their work, sacrifice animals. They themselves cannot be the sacrifice– in fact, the high priest must first sacrifice for his own sins before he can enter in and make sacrifice on behalf of the people (Leviticus 6:6, 11; Hebrews 7:27). Jesus, on the other hand, offers up Himself, the perfect, unblemished Lamb who can take away the sin of the whole world (John 1:29, Hebrews 7:27-28).
He is able to do this because He was sinless, holy, undefiled, and separate from sinners, but is not really distant– He can sympathize with our weaknesses, having been tempted Himself in all points, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15) and having learned obedience through the things He suffered (Hebrews 5:8).
This ought to leave us breathless, really. A perfect mixture of holiness and humility, righteousness and love, separation and sympathy. Jesus is never sanctimonious, for He upholds the right while being willing to suffer with people, sympathizing with their plight. His ministry is all the more excellent because He was willing to suffer death so that we might be reconciled to God and live (Romans 5:6-11, Hebrews 5:6-9)! Thus Jesus is able to save us to the uttermost, inaugurating a new and superior covenant!
It is immediately apparent that no matter how righteously we might live we will never be anywhere near reaching the perfect ministry of Christ. That high priesthood in the order of Melchizedek is properly suited for One and only One, and we are not Him! We ought to thank God continually for such a perfect and wonderful High Priest!
Nevertheless, in establishing the new covenant and being the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus changes the nature of priesthood entirely (cf. Hebrews 7-9). Much is often made of the description of all Christians as priests in 1 Peter 2:5, 9, but consider what is being said in those passages. In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter uses many descriptions of physical Israel to describe the spiritual Israel– Christians are as much an “elect race” and “holy nation” as a “royal priesthood.” Furthermore, what do we find in 1 Peter 2:5? Christians are being built up into a holy (spiritual) Temple, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices. And what is that spiritual sacrifice but ourselves (Romans 12:1)? A strange priesthood this is– we are as much the sacrifice as the priest!
This is all because of Jesus’ example. Jesus did not offer up some other person or animal; He offered up Himself, and thus established Himself as the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. The New Testament does not emphasize “priesthood” at all– servants, disciples, brothers and sisters are more appropriate images– but when it does, it focuses on that idea of the priest offering up himself as the sacrifice like Jesus did.
Therefore, as we are able, we do well to follow Jesus’ example. Today He is the only One who stands between God and the people (1 Timothy 2:5); we point to Him to show people the face of God and how to live as redeemed believers made in His image (Genesis 1:27, John 1:18). Our ministry is to offer up ourselves, spiritual sacrifices well-pleasing to God. Let us praise God for and serve our Risen Lord and High Priest!
Ethan R. Longhenry