“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Hebrews 4:14—skim Leviticus 16).
A priest is a mediator between God and his people. A priest speaks to God on behalf of the people and offers sacrifices for them. A priest also teaches the people God’s Word. In the Christian Church, every believer is a priest. We pray for one another, and we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to the Lord. We also share with one another God’s warnings and God’s promises.
Aaron, Moses’ older brother, was chosen by God as the first high priest of Israel. When Aaron died, his oldest living son replaced him as high priest, and the Law of Moses required the same thing to happen whenever a high priest died. During the lifetime of Jesus, the Roman government interfered with that process, and the Sadducees—including the priests in the Temple—permitted that interference. Therefore, Caiaphas acted as high priest while the rightful high priest—Annas, his father-in-law—was still alive. Whenever the Gospels mention “the high priests,” that plural is a reminder that things were not happening in the Temple according to God’s commands.
One of the special jobs of the high priest was to offer the annual sacrifice for the nation Israel on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Leviticus 16 describes the high priest’s tasks for that day. He was to enter the Holy of Holies, the most holy place in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) unaccompanied to present that sacrifice to God. No one else was allowed in that space. No one but a priest—from the tribe of Levi—was ever to offer an animal sacrifice to the Lord. Both King Saul and King Uzziah were disciplined by the Lord for daring to do what the Law said only a priest could do.
Other cultures and other religions combined the offices of king and high priest. Melchizedek was both king and priest in Jerusalem at the time of Abraham. In Israel, only one person was ever allowed to hold both offices. That one person was Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus, as our great High Priest, offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice, paying for our sins to make us acceptable in the sight of God. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, we are welcome in the kingdom of God and are even called children of God.
There is no need for animal sacrifices because Jesus has accomplished the work of which they were only a picture. There is no need for a Temple, because the body of Jesus Christ is his Temple. We need no new high priest, because Jesus the great High Priest is risen and will never die again. We no longer need to send a goat into the wilderness bearing our sins, because through his sacrifice Jesus has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).
In the Law of Moses, if one person killed another person by accident, the killer could flee to a city of refuge and be safe from punishment. So long as the killer was not guilty of premeditated murder, he (or she) was safe in that city. But the killer could not leave the city, not until the high priest died (Joshua 20:6). After the death of the high priest, the killer could return home. So also, because of the death of Jesus our High Priest, we are able to return home to our Father in heaven, because our sins have been removed and we are counted as guilty no more. Thanks be to God! J.