Jesus: Our Great High Priest
1st Sunday in Lent
Jesus: Our Great High Priest
Text: Hebrews 4:14-16
Every day was a bloodbath. This particular day, though, looked like a massacre had taken place. It happened once a year on the tenth day of the seventh month. It was called the Day of Atonement. You might know it today as Yom Kippur. This was the one day of the entire year that only one person, the high priest, was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle where the ark of the covenant was located with God’s presence.
First the high priest would put on his special clothing—sacred linen tunic, linen undergarments, sash around his waist, and turban on his head. Only sacred garments could be worn in the presence of the Lord. Then he would light incense in the tabernacle so that the smoke would cover the top of the ark of the covenant. No man could stand to see the presence of the Lord without dying.
After lighting the incense the high priest would slaughter a bull ram for himself. Without his sins paid for, he could not enter the presence of the Lord. He would take some of the ram blood and sprinkle it on the ark, then sprinkle it seven times in front of the ark. Then the high priest would slaughter a goat. This goat was for the sins of the people. Again he would sprinkle some on the ark and some seven times in front of the ark.
Following the work inside the high priest would go outside of the tent of the tabernacle and sprinkle blood on the horns on the corners of the altar and on the altar itself seven times. This would cleanse the altar and the people from sin.
One goat was left. The high priest would put his hands on its head. As he laid his hands on the head the high priest would confess all the sins of the people of Israel and put them onto that goat’s head. Then a man would lead this live goat out of the encampment, far off into the desert to a remote and solitary place, and release that goat with all of Israel’s sins on it. This live goat was called the azazel, or the scapegoat.
Back in the camp, all the entrails, the carcasses, and the leftovers from the ram and goat sacrifices needed to be removed from the camp. Finally then the high priest would remove his blood-soaked garments, leave them in the tabernacle, and bathe to cleanse himself one more time of all blood and all impurity.
Would you have gotten the message from God on the Day of Atonement? As you fasted and rested from all your work, one person, the high priest, would be doing most important work for you. Screeching animals about to be slaughtered echoed through the air. Then smell of burning flesh wafted through the community. The ground was soaked with blood. The altar before the tabernacle was covered in blood. The high priest would emerge from the tabernacle covered in blood.
Would you have understood the message? No one—absolutely no one—was worthy enough to be in the presence of the holy God. Your sins and the sins of all others were great and gross. Only one person, the high priest, was able to fully help you with your sin on one day a year. And the only way to pay for sin was with death and bloodshed. There must be a high priest. There must be sacrifice to pay for sin. There must be a scapegoat to take away sin.
As you came to this modern sanctuary this morning, what would you have thought if you saw the same thing? In front of you all I slaughter a ram for me and then a goat for you. I sprinkle blood on and in front of the altar. I lay my hands on a goat and confess all our many sins on its head. Then we drive down to the everglades and release the goat with all our sins. What would you think if you saw that slaughter? What would you think if the smell of sacrifice filled your nostrils? What would you think if this beautiful sanctuary, this ornate altar, and my clean white-linen robe were covered in fresh blood? What would you think about yourself? What would you think about your sins?
That is exactly what we should be doing still today. That is exactly what we would be doing still today. Except . . . There was a different high priest. There was a different sacrifice and bloodbath. There was a different scapegoat. Jesus Christ on the cross.
One of the main points of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus Is Our Great High Priest. Today we hear the many reasons why.
The Old Testament high priest had to go in and out of the tabernacle, and he could only go into the Most Holy Place into the presence of God once a year on that Day of Atonement. Listen to how Jesus is greater: “We have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God.” Jesus is greater because he isn’t only human, Jesus is also God. Jesus is greater because he isn’t confined to earthly buildings and spaces. He came from heaven and has ascended back to heaven. Jesus is greater because he is able to be in the presence of God at all times.
The Old Testament high priest had to light incense to hide the ark of the covenant from his sinful self. He needed to sacrifice a ram for his own sins. He needed to confess his sins also on the scapegoat sent out into the desert. Listen to how Jesus is greater: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” Jesus is greater because he was sinless and perfect.
The Old Testament high priest was in the same category as all the people of Israel. He was a sinner. But Jesus is different and greater. You heard today how Jesus was tempted in person by Satan with the toughest of temptations, yet Jesus never succumbed to sin. Not then. Not ever. Jesus is greater because he can sympathize with our weaknesses. He understands what it’s like for us to be tempted. He knows the power of Satan that we are up against. But, Jesus is our perfect substitute and perfect high priest because he never sinned.
The Old Testament high priest had the same hope as the Israelites—perhaps God would be merciful. Perhaps they could find mercy and grace from the Lord. Perhaps the sacrifice and the scapegoat would be pleasing to God. Listen to how Jesus is greater: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Jesus is greater because he isn’t the one looking for mercy and grace. Jesus is the one offering it!
Listen to these beautiful words the writer to the Hebrews writes later on in the book: “Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”
Or how about these equally beautiful words: “[Jesus] did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who . . . offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death.”
Jesus is greater than anyone or any high priest because Jesus Is Our Great High Priest, Jesus is our great sacrifice, and Jesus is our great scapegoat all at the same time!
Satan comes to us and he tempts us with the full forces of evil, just as we saw Jesus tempted in the gospel today. Like the first temptation, he tempts us to crave the things of this world, even the things we need like bread, more than the Word of God. We regularly fail as our busy lives, our needs, our wants are placed ahead of the Lord.
Then, like the second temptation, he tempts us to put the Lord God to the test. And we do. We test his providing for us as we squander countless dollars and blessings he gives us. We test his protecting us as we put ourselves in the way of danger. We test his patience as we continually disobey him.
Then, like the third temptation, Satan tempts us to bow down to him and seek worldly wealth and glory above the Lord. Some days we take a moment to pick our heads up from the grind of our lives, from chasing after more money and more entertainment and more relaxation and more happiness. And when we lift our heads from that daily grind and daily pursuit, we suddenly realize that our heads the whole time have been bowed low before the false gods of worldly “things” and not to our true God.
What sinners we are!
But we need not bring a whole burnt offering sacrifice to the high priest serving at the tabernacle. We need not wait for the great Day of Atonement once a year. We need not lay our sins on a scapegoat and send it out into the wilderness. We just sang this:
I lay my sins on Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God;
He bears them all and frees us from the accursed load.
I bring my guilt to Jesus to wash my crimson stains
White in his blood most precious ‘till not a spot remains.
We are about to sing this:
Your only Son, no sin to hide,
But you have sent him from your side
To walk upon this guilty sod and to become the Lamb of God.
Your gift of love they crucified.
They laughed and scorned him as he died:
The humble King they named a fraud and sacrificed the Lamb of God.
O, Lamb of God, sweet Lamb of God, I love the holy Lamb of God!
Oh, wash me in his precious blood, my Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.
Jesus Is Our Great High Priest who became our scapegoat and sacrificed himself as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Good Friday was the greatest Day of Atonement—the final Day of Atonement. By his work, by his blood, by his sacrifice our sins have been forgiven once and for all.
So we hear this encouragement today: “Since we have a great high priest . . . let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” Since Jesus Is Our Great High Priest and our great Savior, firmly hold on to what you believe. Firmly hold on to him!
And also, since Jesus Is Our Great High Priest, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Each and every week we enter this holy sanctuary and approach the throne of our God to once again lay our many sins on Jesus. But each and every week we come here with boldness and confidence knowing that we receive mercy and find grace every single time because Jesus, the Lamb of God, Is Our Great High Priest.
It was a bloody, gory, death-filled mess on the Day of Atonement in Old Testament days. It was more bloody, more gory, and more deadly on Good Friday because Jesus is greater. The Lamb of God, the Son of God, was sacrificed for all sins of all people of all time. Jesus Is The Great High Priest—for you and for me.
Posted on February 18, 2013, in Church, Sermons and tagged Azazel, Church, Day of Atonement, Hebrews, Hebrews 4, High Priest, Jesus, Lent, Priest, Sacrifice, Sacrifices, Scapegoat, Sermons, Sin, Yom Kippur. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.