We are in the third week of our celebration of Advent. It is that time of year in which we celebrate that Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one of God, changed the world forever. In our first two weeks, we saw that Jesus, the Son of God came to earth as the Son of Man, fully human and yet fully God. Jesus lived the human experience, including the experience of death that we would have life abundant now and forever. Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, also came to give the prophetic word of God as God’s final prophet. Jesus’ words called people, including us to action in the present, so that we could be assured of a future. This week we will look at how Jesus changed the world by filling the role as the final high priest.
Now, Baptist struggle a bit with the idea of priests and the priesthood because, well, we don’t have any person who serves in the Baptist tradition as a priest. I am not a priest. I serve as a pastor. We Baptists hold to Scripture that Jesus came to fulfill the role, once and for all time, as of our priest.
So according to Scripture, what was the role of the priest. Under the Old Testament, God had set forth the Law, the commands of what the people of Israel must and must not do. We saw that law structure in Genesis when God said to the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:16a). The man and woman were free to not sin by refraining from eating that fruit or were free to sin by eating the fruit. This was the original law. We, of course, learn later that the couple ate that fruit, choosing to sin, and thus break the law. As evil behaviors from that point spread further, more elements, more commands, were added to the law, to constrain evil. We can think most famously of the Ten Commandments as part of the structure of the law. But the choice for the people was the same. People were free to choose to sin or to not sin. To atone, to address, those occasions when people sinned, a system of ritual animal sacrifices emerged. The sacrifice was intended to serve as an atonement from choosing to sin. Those sacrifices were a religious rite performed on behalf of the sinner by someone designated as a priest.
In this sense, the priest represented the people to God and interceded with God for the people and even the nation of Israel. Over and over, for hundreds of years, the priests of Israel sacrificed animals and burned them as an offering to God for the forgiveness of the sins by the priests themselves, the congregation, and nation of Israel. This was the system when the people had the choice to sin or not to sin.
The apostle Paul would later say that the choice to follow the law or not, the choice to sin or not sin, had left him a slave to sin. The law, Paul would say, was holy, righteous, and good and showed that with the choice to sin or not sin, we were helpless against sinning and had become slaves to sinning. And so, with this slavery to inevitable sin, there was a near endless repetition of priestly sacrifice for the sin.
But then something happened. Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man came into the world as human and divine came as a priest. Now, Jesus was to be a different sort of priest to be sure because Jesus never performed the priestly sacrificial function of the Jewish religion. And yet Jesus was considered a priest because Jesus represented, was the intercessor, for the people to God. Let’s look at today’s Scripture readings to understand Jesus’ role as priest and why it matters today.
We read from the Book of Hebrews last week, and again this week, these words from Chapter 2 of the Book of Hebrews, 14 Since the children have flesh and blood (you and I), he (Jesus) too shared in their (our) humanity so that by his (Jesus’) death he (Jesus) might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). The writer of Hebrews is saying here that Jesus came to break the power that was leading people to be slaves to sin. The babe that we celebrate this Advent came to change the world and grant us a new kind of freedom.
The writer of Hebrews continued, “17 For this reason (to break the power of the devil and sin), he (Jesus) had to be made like them (us), fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2:17a). To change the choices of humans, Jesus, the Son of God, needed to come as a human himself, the Son of Man. This is why we Jesus was born. Having been born as a human, Jesus, the Son of God, “might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” (Hebrews 2:17b). A role Jesus would take on to change the world for humanity would be as a high priest. Jesus would represent people to God and Jesus would do so faithfully, that is without sin, and Jesus would represent the people to God. How would Jesus accomplish this role differently from the priests of the past? What would be world changing in Jesus’ way of addressing sin? The writer of Hebrews says, “He (Jesus) might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17c). Jesus, the Son of God, would be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people. The atoning redemption of humanity from all its sins would be made by Jesus, the high priest himself, the sinless Son of God and the Son of Man. Because Jesus was the Son of God, nothing greater could ever be offered to address the sins of humanity and because Jesus was the Son of Man, the sacrifice could only be offered one time. When Jesus completed his work of changing the world, Jesus would ascend into heaven and once again take up his seat of honor and glory.
Jesus changed the world through his sacrifice but how then does what Jesus did directly change us? It does so in the most important way. As we discussed, under the law, we were free to sin or to not sin. That was our choice. And we know that under the law, we became slaves to sin. But under the grace of Jesus, through his one-time perfect atonement for our sins, there was a new freedom because Jesus we were made free from sin. Under Christ, we are free from sin by believing in Jesus and by following Him, making Jesus our choice, we become free from sin. The Apostle Paul says in following Jesus we are, “Set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:22).
We need to breathe for a moment and take in how Jesus, the priest changed the world. Jesus came to deal with the problem, the human condition of sinful choices. This is why Jesus said so famously to his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7). Jesus is the way to freedom from sin and to God. And in the course of their time together, Jesus, the Son of Man, had shown God to his disciples, because Jesus was also the Son of God, “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus had changed the world giving us the freedom from sin by following Him into the very presence of God.
We then read in Hebrews, Chapter 4, “14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess [faith in Jesus Christ]. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16). The call from Scripture then is to remain in the freedom from sin that we have by following Jesus, the perfect, sinless high priest, who offered as a sacrifice for sin, himself, perfect and without blemish.
The writer of Hebrews then went a little further and said, “23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. 26 Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 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” (Hebrews 7:23-27). From this passage, we come to understand that Jesus who lives intercedes for us. Jesus represents us to God and therefore, we no longer need an earthly priest to represent us to God. Hence, in Baptist traditions, we do not have priests because our intercessor, our priest, is Jesus, who offered himself once for all time.
What then are we to do with the spiritual understandings we have gathered from these Scriptures. I think there are two things for us to consider.
First, for the unbeliever, they still only have the freedom of choice in life to sin or not to sin. For the unbeliever, they are not allowing their world to be changed by Jesus. As such, the unbeliever will predictably choose sin. The truth of that statement is found throughout the Bible. Unbelievers are slaves to sin and have freely chosen to reject God. What is the “So What?” for the unbeliever? Jesus, the prophet and priest, shared with the believer and nonbeliever their respective destinies in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus said, “19 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. (We learn later the rich man lived the life of an unbeliever.) 20 At his [the rich man’s] gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his [Lazarus’] sores. (The name Lazarus means “God has helped,” a name given by Jesus to show Lazarus lived as a believer.) 22 The time came when the beggar [Lazarus] died and the angels carried him [Lazarus] to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he [rich man] looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his [Abraham’s] side. 24 So he [the rich man] called to him [Abraham], ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he [Lazarus] is comforted here and you are in agony” (Luke 16:19-25). The parable goes on from there, but this part of the parable shows the destinies of the believer and the unbeliever. Here, Jesus showed to all that in mortal life, a believer may, and often will, experience difficulties but in eternal life the believer will only experience good things. In a similar way, Jesus shows that whatever joy the unbeliever has will happen in this life for in the next, the eternal life, the unbeliever will only be agony. Why is agony the fate of the unbeliever? Because the unbeliever has rejected God, has rejected the completed work of Christ, has rejected the pathway of grace God offered, and has simply sinned without redemption. If you have not accepted Jesus as your savior, your high priest, as the atonement for your sins, please, I beg you, do not wait. Celebrate the joy of Advent by accepting what Jesus has done for you now and for all time.
The second thing we learn today is that the believer in Jesus has made a life choice to chose between freedom from sin by following Christ. Freedom from sin is not the same as choosing not to sin. To choose not to sin is to fight temptation on your own which is a plan destined to fail. To choose freedom from sin in Christ is to let Christ be your intercessor, the last and highest priest. In choosing freedom from sin, it is Jesus who gives you strength and power through his Holy Spirit to follow Jesus thus living a life free from sin. And, yes, when, we in our humanness and frailness do sin, believers receive grace from Jesus to redeem them from that sin because of that perfect sacrifice from sin given by Jesus upon the cross, once and for all.
Let’s celebrate our freedom from sin in the birth of your Savior, High Priest, and Redeemer, Jesus. For Jesus is truly the way, the truth, and the life. Amen and Amen.