Sunday, August 2, 2020 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost
The Marks of Service
Text: Hebrews 4:14-5:10
The Epistle to the Hebrews has always been a difficult book to understand. It was written by a scholar to a small group of Jewish-Christian theologians. The author is arguing for the New Covenant brought by Jesus Christ, and against those who are holding on to the Jewish Old Testament beliefs. It is without a doubt the longest sustained argument in the Scriptures.
This Epistle is set apart from all other books in the New Testament by its reference to the priesthood of Christ. The importance and necessity of this aspect of Christ’s life can never be exaggerated, and how much poorer the New Testament would have been without any reference to Christ’s priesthood. Indeed, Christ’s priesthood gives rise to our full understanding of Peter’s reference to the priesthood of all believers.
What does this mean for us? The text guides our understanding. In the first part we are introduced to the idea of Jesus as the perfect high priest. This perfection not only implies without sin, but also that he perfectly completes the function of the high priest. To perfectly fulfill his office a high priest must be fully in touch with humanity and fully in touch with God. His task is to bring the voice of God to His people, to bring the very presence of God to humanity, and to usher humankind into the very presence of God.
This passage begins by stressing the sheer greatness, the absolute deity of Jesus. He is not great by honors conferred by men and women. He is great in His own right, in His own essential being. He has passed through the heavens into the holy presence of God, and He abides there as the only Son of God. The author is encouraging the Jews not to revoke their Christian confession that Jesus is divine, but to hold onto it with determination because it is their salvation. No one ever stressed the sheer greatness of Jesus like the writer to the Hebrews.
Then the author turns to the other side. No one was ever surer of Jesus’ complete identity with humankind. He went through everything that a person has to go through. He went through our human experience. He is like us in all things – except that He emerged from it all completely sinless. The fact that Jesus was without sin necessarily means that He knew depths and tensions and assaults of temptation which we never can know. We fall to temptation long before the tempter has put out the whole of his power. We are easily vanquished. We never know temptation at its fiercest and its most terrible because we fall long before that stage is reached. But Jesus was tempted as we are – and far beyond what we are. For in His case the tempter put everything he possessed into the assault and Jesus withstood it. Think of it in terms of pain. There is a degree of pain which the human frame can stand – and then when that degree is reached a person faints and loses consciousness, having reached the limit. There are agonies of pain that he or she does not know, because there came collapse. It is true to say that He was tempted in all things, as we are, but it is also true to say that never was a person so tempted as Jesus was. It was this human experience that gave Jesus the gifts of sympathy, mercy, understanding, and the ability to help us in our need.
Now the writer of Hebrews comes to work out the doctrine which is his special contribution to Christian thought – the doctrine of the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. He has put into this passage three great basic thoughts about the office of a priest. These three are fundamental qualifications, essential for the priest in any age and in any generation.
First, a priest is appointed on men and women’s behalf to deal with the things concerning God. The Reverend A. J. Gossip, minister and later a professor of theology at the University of Glasgow, used to tell his students how he felt when he was ordained to the ministry: “We are forever involved in the dust and heat of the day; we have to serve at the counter, to toil at the desk, to make the wheels of industry go round. We want you to be set apart so that you can go into the secret place of God and come back every Sunday with a word from God to us.” What a challenge! The real priest is the link between God and humanity. Now in Israel the priest had one special function. The priest was the person whose function it was to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people. Sin disturbs the relationship which should exist between humanity and God. It puts up a barrier and estranges God and humanity. And the sacrifice is meant to restore the right relationship which should exist, and to remove the barrier and the estrangement. But here we must notice one thing. The Jew was always quite clear that the sins for which the sacrifice could atone for were sins of ignorance. The deliberate, callous sin did not find its atonement in sacrifice. The sin of ignorance is pardonable; the sin of presumption is not. What did the Jewish theology mean by the sin of ignorance? They meant more than simply lack of knowledge. They included the sins committed when a person was swept away in a moment of impulse, or anger, or passion – when a person was mastered by some overpowering temptation, when a person repented in sorrow for something that they had done. By the sin of presumption, they meant the cold, deliberate, calculating sin for which a person was not in the least sorry, the open-eyed disobedience of God. The times when a person, not in a moment of passion or impulse, but in cool detachment took his or her own way and disobeyed God. So, then, the priest existed to open the way for the sinner back to God – so long as the sinner wanted to come back.
This informs our doctrine of the priesthood of all believer’s. United in the atoning power of Jesus Christ, the believer is called to be the “missing link” between God and humanity. Ezekiel reports that God is “looking for a man to rebuild the wall and to stand in the breach”. Standing in the gap – between sin and righteousness, life and death, this world and the next. But also, between hunger and satisfaction, between sickness and health, and between the prisoner and freedom. In Ezekiel’s time the God says, “but I found none.” So, God sent His Son, our savior, Jesus Christ to be our perfect High Priest – and in His atonement for the world’s sins, we are enabled to stand in the breach for God.
Secondly, the priest must be one with men and women. He or she must have gone through human experience and all of their sympathy must be with the people. Priests must allow themselves to be human; to be completely involved in the human situation; to be bound up with people in the bundle of human life; to live with the people and to feel with them and to know their heights and their depths. To describe this the author used a beautiful Greek word that means to bear gently, or to have patience. It means the ability to bear with people without getting irritated and annoyed; it means the ability not to lose one’s temper with people when they are foolish; and when they will not learn; and when they do the same thing over and over again; and when they seem to be senselessly blind. It describes the attitude towards others which does not issue in anger at the fault, while not condoning the fault, but which to the end of the day spends itself in a gentle, yet powerful sympathy, which by its very patience molds a man or woman back on to the right path, the narrow way. It is the attitude which never regards a person as a lost fool, but often sees in the other person a contrary child of God, who somehow must be gently led back to the right way. No man or woman can ever deal with his or her fellow human beings unless he or she is strong and patient, and has this God given gentleness. In short, our calling as priests includes empathizing with others so we can show them the winsomeness of Christ in our life, word, and deed.
The third essential of a priest is this – no one appoints themselves to the priesthood. His or her appointment is of God. The priesthood is not an office a person takes; it is a privilege and a glory to which they are called. The ministry of God among people is neither a job nor a career; rather, it is a vocation and a calling. A believer ought to be able to look back and say, not “I chose this work,” but rather, “God chose me and gave me this work to do.” Can you believe this? That God called you. That God ordained you. Meaning, of course, that God in His order, has some very specific plans for your service to His Kingdom.
It is for certain that only in Jesus Christ are all three conditions of the priesthood perfectly fulfilled. And only as we serve and obey do we enter into the priesthood of all believers. So now what? What does this mean for us here today? Why does our salvation depend upon a heavenly high priest? The prophet Jeremiah gives us a clue when he speaks of the New Covenant God will make with Israel. In this New Covenant God’s law will dwell within His people, and instruction in the ways of the Lord will no longer be needed, and there will be forgiveness for the sins of the people. This New Covenant has been ushered in by the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. We no longer need earthly priests because the office has been perfectly fulfilled by Jesus. Through the Sacrament – our perpetual memory of our Lord’s sacrifice for the sins of the whole world – Jesus Christ comes to indwell in the heart of the believer. We are linked up to Jesus, and as the community of the faithful we have each entered into the divine priesthood. Each one of you is a priest for all of humanity. As the Church we have been given a special charge to minister throughout the whole world, bringing the Body of Christ to those who would believe.
“This is the gospel of labor,
Ring it, ye bells of the Kirk;
The Lord of love came down from above
To live with the men who work.” -- Henry van Dyke