The Most Holy Tomb

But Mary was standing without at the tomb weeping: so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she beholdeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain (John 20:11-12).

Sometimes God illustrates profound truths with momentary events. If you pass by too quickly you will miss it!

We are not informed of precisely how Mary Magdalene processed the events transpiring before her on that momentous Sunday morning. She is distraught, weeping, no doubt attempting to make sense of what she was seeing: His body was gone, and therefore, where had it been taken (John 20:1-13)? She had first gone to the tomb, ran back to inform Peter and John of its emptiness, and had come back again (John 20:1-11). As she looks in again, she sees two angels; John indicates one was seated where Jesus’ head had lain, and the other where His feet had been placed (John 20:12). In John’s account, they simply ask her why she was crying; she answered but we hear nothing more of the angels, for Mary then turns and encounters Jesus as the Risen Lord (John 20:13-16). She saw the angels, no doubt, but did she believe that their existence and placement there had any significance?

Every Gospel account has some angelic presence at the tomb. Matthew speaks of one angel rolling the stone away and proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28:2-7). Mark speaks of him as a young man in a white robe sitting on the right side; he also proclaims the resurrection of Jesus (Mark 16:5-7). Luke describes two men in dazzling apparel standing by the women also proclaiming Jesus as Risen (Luke 24:4-10). Therefore, it is only from John’s account that we see two angels sitting where Jesus’ head and feet had lain, simply asking Mary Magdalene a question, knowing that soon enough she will find her soul’s delight.

At this moment many rush to harmonize in an attempt to defend the historical integrity of the Gospel narratives. Yet we do well to contemplate why John highlights these particular details. The narrative could have continued without significant violence had Mary just run into the “gardener” after Peter and John left. Why, therefore, does John point out that Mary saw the two angels? And why is he so specific about where they sat?

The Evangelists, particularly John, only provide the details they want you to know. And John very much wants us to understand the significance of those angels and why they sat as they did. It is written in Exodus 25:18-22:

And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. And make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end: of one piece with the mercy-seat shall ye make the cherubim on the two ends thereof. And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, covering the mercy-seat with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the mercy-seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And thou shalt put the mercy-seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.

As all good Israelites would know, God commanded Moses and Israel to build Him first a Tabernacle, and in the Most Holy Place in that Tabernacle would rest the Ark of the Covenant containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, a powerful sign of the covenant between God and Israel. On top of that Ark was the “mercy-seat,” and the mercy-seat was flanked on either side by cherubim. The mercy-seat is where God placed His presence and spoke to Moses; the mercy-seat is also where Aaron would bring the blood of the sacrifice to make atonement for himself and Israel (Leviticus 16:11-16). When Solomon built the Temple he built cherubim on both sides of the Most Holy Place for the same purpose (1 Kings 6:23-28).

John had already pointed out how Jesus spoke of His Body as a Temple (John 2:18-22). And here in the resurrection John hints at imagery fleshed out fully by the Hebrew author in Hebrews 9:1-28: in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, He embodies the Tabernacle/Temple service and thus provides the ultimate atonement. Just as the cherubim were placed on the two ends of the mercy-seat on the Ark of the Covenant, so the two angels sit on the slab on which the body of Jesus was laid. The empty tomb is now the Most Holy Place; where His body had lain represents a new mercy-seat, the place where God Incarnate would soon again speak with Mary (John 20:12-16). The angels declare the rock slab where the body of Jesus was placed as the new place of atonement where the holy sacrifice of God rested.

The spiritual implications of this association are staggering. If the tomb is as the Most Holy Place, and the slab upon which Jesus was lain as the mercy-seat, we have further associations between Jesus and the most holy sin-offering described in Leviticus 6:26-29. Far from being unclean or defiled because of bearing sin, and far from being separated from God, Jesus’ body, as the perfect sacrifice for sins, is most holy, bringing cleansing and sanctifying its location (Hebrews 10:5-10). The timing remains significant: the Most Holy Place is not reckoned as the cross or even the upper room but the empty tomb. John is not denying the need nor the efficacy of the cross as is evident in John 1:29, 3:14-15; nevertheless, John is demonstrating that Jesus’ atonement cannot be disassociated from His resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection allow for our atonement; He gave His life for sin but received it again in power from God (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, Hebrews 9:11-28). Both of these come together in the empty tomb: the angels sitting where His body, sacrificed for our sin, had lain, and yet the tomb is empty because He is risen. Thus it was the Most Holy Place; the Most Holy Place is now embodied in Christ (John 2:20-22, Hebrews 9:1-14).

And there remains the typology of the Ark of the Covenant and the mercy-seat. The Ark of the Covenant was the sign of the covenant, the repository of the Law by which Israel would be governed; the mercy-seat is where God would meet Moses and Israel, maintain His presence, and upon which the blood of the sin offering would be presented on the Day of Atonement (Exodus 25:18-22, Leviticus 16:11-16). And so it is with Jesus: He is God in the flesh, the image of the invisible God, Mediator between God and man (Colossians 1:15, 2:9, 1 Timothy 2:5). He gave His life as a ransom for sin (Matthew 20:28). God was present in Him and spoke through Him to us (Matthew 1:18-25, Hebrews 1:1-3). That empty tomb is our Ark of the Covenant, both a reminder of where Jesus’ dead body lay, killed for our sin, yet was raised in power, gaining the victory over the forces of evil, sin, and death, the ground of our hope for both forgiveness of sin and ultimate victory over sin and death (Romans 8:1-3, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

The reference is quick and fleeting and might be easily missed, yet it provides a glorious key of understanding, wonderfully illustrating how Jesus embodies the story and thus the hope of Israel. The empty tomb was, for a moment, the Most Holy Place; the slab of rock where Jesus lay the mercy-seat. Yet He is Risen, and is the embodiment of the covenant, its atonement, and its holiness. Let us serve the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and find atonement and redemption in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus the High Priest

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

The Messiah: King and Priest

The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent: “Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4).

It is important for us to remember that while “Jesus Christ” is used as a name today, it was not always so. His name was Jesus. His title, or His office, is that of Christ– the Messiah. Both words (“Christ” is Greek; “Messiah” from the Hebrew) mean “Anointed One.” David was anointed by Samuel as God’s choice for King of Israel (1 Samuel 16:12-13); his promised Descendant would thus also be anointed (Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:17-21). But Aaron, the High Priest, was also anointed by Moses to reach his office (Exodus 30:30, etc.). The image of the two “anointed ones,” one king, one priest, seems to be behind Zechariah 4:11-14. It also seems to have impacted the author of the Damascus Document, writing within the hundred years before Jesus, who seems to speak of two Messiahs– one of Aaron, one for Israel (CD 9b:10, 29, 15:4, 18:7).

It seems that most Israelites in the first century looked forward to the Messiah who would come as king to defeat the Romans and re-establish the glory and power of Israel. Not a few Israelites also sought some kind of divine reformation and restoration of the priesthood and the Temple, imagined by some as a “Messiah from Aaron.” But there does not seem to be the expectation that the Messiah in the line of David would have the concern for ministry or the priesthood that belonged to the Aaronic line. Furthermore, the Jews had recently experienced the reign of priest-kings with the Hasmoneans– but they certainly were not the fulfillment of the predictions of the prophets, since they were not of David and Judah, but from Aaron and Levi!

Then we come to Jesus of Nazareth. He is without a doubt a descendant of David and Judah according to the flesh (Matthew 1:1-17). The throne of His father David is promised to Him (Luke 1:31-33). But in His life He never raises so much as a finger against Rome and its authority. Instead, He preaches a message of the imminent Kingdom of God and dies on a Roman cross– an event His followers understood as the sacrificial offering for the atonement of sin (Matthew 4:17, 23, Romans 5:6-11, Hebrews 9:1-15). He certainly does not fulfill the expectations of the Jews in terms of the rule of the son of David, but He certainly is engaged in functions of ministry, sacrifice, and atonement, the realm generally reserved for Aaron and his descendants.

This challenge was understood by the author of the letter to the Hebrews. He understood that Jesus was of Judah, a tribe concerning which Moses spoke nothing about the priesthood (Hebrews 7:13-14). But he also understood that the Aaronic/Levitical priesthood was imperfect, offering up animals that could not really atone for sin (Hebrews 7:11, 10:4). Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself, however, was perfect, able to atone for any and all sin, and thus speaks of a better ministry, a better mediation, and thus a better priesthood (Hebrews 7:15-28, 1 Timothy 2:5). But how could Jesus be a priest when He was not from Aaron but from David through Judah?

God’s great plan for salvation was predicted before the events took place, and the Hebrew author highlights a psalm of David to demonstrate how Jesus is a priest– Psalm 110.

That this is a “Messianic” psalm, written by David and inspired by the Spirit is without a doubt; Jesus asks the religious leaders about Psalm 110:1 and how David can say that “YHWH said to my lord…” if the Messiah is David’s son (Matthew 22:41-46/Mark 12:35-37/Luke 20:41-44). And then we have the promise in verse 4: God has sworn, and it will not be revoked– David’s Lord would be a priest forever according to the priesthood of Melchizedek?

Who is Melchizedek? We read of him in Genesis 14:18-20, and the Hebrew author describes him in Hebrews 7:1-10. His name means “King of Righteousness,” and he was king of Salem (“peace”; the city is later named Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High. Abraham gives him a tithe of everything carried back from the victory over the foreign kings, and the Hebrew author points out that thus Levi and the Levites, still in the “loins of Abraham,” gave tithes to Melchizedek. He did not receive his position as priest by genealogy or nepotism, and in him the roles of king and priest were truly intertwined.

Even if the Jews believed that there would have to either be two Messiahs or that the Messiah would focus entirely on his role as King of Israel, David in the Spirit knew better– the Messiah would mean the end of the old system (cf. Hebrews 7:12). The Messiah would be King, yes, but also a priest in the order of Melchizedek. The Messiah would be the King of Righteousness over the City of Peace (cf. Isaiah 61:1-4, Hebrews 12:22-24, Revelation 21:1-22:6). He would accomplish this through His priesthood– the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, providing Himself as the perfect offering, a ministry in every way superior to what came before (cf. Hebrews 7:11-28).

There would be only one Messiah, and He would provide the satisfaction for everything. Yes, He would reign as King, but only after He accomplished His ministry and His priesthood on the cross. In the resurrection He receives the authority and the throne promised Him, and the message of the prophets is satisfied. Let us praise God for Jesus the Christ, King of Righteousness over the City of Peace, High Priest, our Advocate!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s People

But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: who in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).

The wall had come tumbling down.

For two thousand years God worked with a specific group of people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants. The Israelites were uniquely the people of God (cf. Hebrews 11:25). They were given the ability to stand before the One True God, the Creator God, YHWH (Isaiah 43:15). They were very proud of this distinction– probably too proud (cf. John 8:31-58)!

Everyone else, however, was excluded. If you were not an Israelite, you were without Christ, without the state of the people of God, without the covenant with God, without hope, and without God (cf. Ephesians 2:12). It was a distressing place to be.

And then, in Jesus the Christ, everything changed.

When Jesus died on the cross, He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by abolishing the law that separated them, thus allowing Him to bring both together in one body (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18). Jesus’ death was not effective only for the sins of the Jews, but for all people (cf. Acts 10:34-35, 11:17-18). The Kingdom of God was not limited to any particular nation or ethnicity (Galatians 3:28)!

Peter eloquently describes exactly what this means for believers today in 1 Peter 2:9-10. He cites many passages from the Old Testament that refer to physical Israel– Israel the “chosen race” (Isaiah 43:20 LXX), Israel the “royal priesthood” and “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6, 23:22 LXX), Israel the “people of God’s own possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6). Peter also cites the passages in Hosea where the prophet had spoken of how God would cast off the Israelites and receive them back again in Hosea 1:9-10, 2:23.

But, as Peter indicated before, these prophets and messages were designed to benefit us (1 Peter 1:12). Whereas physical Israel had been God’s chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, and a people for His own possession, now these benefits are bestowed upon Christians. Whereas God once placed His Presence in the Temple in Jerusalem with priests and sacrifices, now God places His presence with Christian believers who represent the Temple, the priests, and the sacrifices of the new covenant (1 Peter 2:4-5; cf. Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, Ephesians 2:19-21, Hebrews 13:15).

We are the people who were once not a people (Ephesians 2:11-12). We are the people who were once without mercy (cf. Titus 3:3). But now, through Jesus Christ, we are adopted into the family of God and have become His people (cf. Romans 8:15-17). In Jesus Christ we have found mercy (Ephesians 2:4-9). We are now God’s “chosen race,” His “royal priesthood,” His “holy nation,” and His “people for a possession.”

Despite what many may say, this definitively indicates that Israel according to the flesh has no more standing before God than anyone else. The Israel that will be saved is the spiritual Israel, not Israel according to the flesh (Romans 11:1-32). The destruction of Jerusalem and the obliteration of any hope of ever truly observing the Law of Moses that came as a result was God’s definitive judgment on Israel and the end of that covenant (Daniel 9:24-27, Matthew 24:1-36). Those of physical Israel have as much opportunity to become believers in Jesus Christ and His obedient servants as the Gentiles (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18, Galatians 3:28). Therefore, we ought not make distinctions based on nationality, as it is written (2 Corinthians 5:16).

Did we deserve the opportunity to become God’s people? By no means! If physical Israel found itself cast off because of disobedience, we in the spiritual Israel should not expect preferential treatment (Romans 2:5-11, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). Instead, we should be thankful for the opportunity to become God’s people, and to never take that privilege for granted. We ought to serve God with all of our hearts because of what He has done for us (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:10). Let us represent God’s people and do His will on the earth, representing Him and His values in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry