Serving Christ and sharing the Gospel

The perfect priest (Heb 4:14-5:10)

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It seems that this year has been more political than any for a long time. We’ve had the London mayoral election, and then the EU referendum, ending of course with this week’s vote.

And when you talk about politics, you inevitably start talking about politicians - about whether we respect them or distrust them, about whether they are a valuable public servant or not. Following the awful recent murder of MP Jo Cox, we have heard praise from her colleagues and her constituents about her dedication and hard work, about her community spirit. But more widely, we have heard one criticism levelled at MPs time and again - that they are out of touch with the electorate, with ordinary members.

And this is a serious criticism, because it gets to the heart of an MP’s job. I would suggest that the most important function of an individual MP is not to vote on new laws, or to make speeches. Of course, those things are important, but there is one role that only the local constituency MP can do. There is one thing that only Andrew Rosindell can do for the people of Romford, and that is to be our representative in Parliament.

Suppose we have an issue that the Government needs to deal with, or we know of a problem that needs to be brought to Parliament’s attention. It’s very unlikely that you have the phone number for 10 Downing Street saved in your mobile, and even less likely that David Cameron would be willing to take your call. You cannot simply turn up at the House of Commons one day, and join in with the debate to make sure that your point is heard. In order that they can get on with their important work, there has to be some degree of separation from public interference. But, thankfully, our parliamentary system provides us with a representative, currently in the form of Andrew Rosindell. You can write to Mr Rosindell, or send him a message on Facebook, or go along to one of his constituency surgeries, and ask him for help. You can request that he speak on your behalf to the relevant Government minister, or place a question to the Prime Minister in Parliament. He is able to intercede on our behalf.

As great as that gap is between us and our Government, it is nothing compared to the gap that exists between us and our creator God. There is, of course, a geographic gap. We live on Earth, but our God lives in heaven - you cannot telephone or write a letter to God! 🙂 Much more than that, though, there is a moral gap between ourselves and God.

I don’t know if you noticed the very first word of our Bible passage this morning? Have a look - it was Hebrews chapter 4, verse 14, on page 1203 of the pew Bibles. Do you see? It’s “therefore”. Someone wise once told me that when you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, you should ask yourself “what’s that there for?” It’s a linking word, isn’t it, pointing us back to the words immediately before it.

And so, if we read back a few verses, we see that “[the word of God] judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” God sees everything that we do. He even sees the things that we don’t do, but just think about doing. He sees our lack of compassion for our fellow human beings, our frustration with our spouse, our impatience with our children. He sees our selfishness, and our greed for more money, a bigger house or a nicer holiday. Our lustful thoughts about a person that we pass on the street or see on the TV screen. Most of all, he sees our slowness to praise him for his gifts to us. He sees our unwillingness to submit to him.

God sees all of these things. The Bible describes him as a holy God, and so he cannot simply ignore them or pretend that they do not exist. If he did, he would be denying a key part of his own character! But neither can a holy, perfect God associate with people who are so impure and unholy. There is a moral gap between ourselves and God.

Thankfully, our passage this morning looks back to this moral gap, and reminds us that we have a mediator who is able to represent us before God, to intercede on our behalf. This mediator is of course, Jesus, the Son of God. Our passage gives us three wonderful reasons why Jesus is exactly the mediator that we need.

  1. Jesus is the perfect human

Jesus is the Son of God, but he is also fully human. He was born as a baby, he grew up into a man, he walked, he talked, he ate and slept. Jesus knows exactly what it is to feel discomfort. In the gospels, we read of instances where Jesus was hungry, or was tired from walking a long way.

Jesus knows what it is to feel physical pain. In the lead-up to his death, Jesus was whipped and beaten. He was then killed by crucifixion, one of the most brutal forms of execution ever devised

Jesus knows what it is to feel emotional pain. He knows how it feels to be rejected by his community, the people that he has grown up alongside. He knows the pain of seeing his followers desert him, even to the point of plotting to kill him. He knows the heartbreak of seeing dear friends grieving over the death of a brother.

And Jesus knows what it is to be tempted to sin. He knows what it is to hear the devil saying “God doesn’t really mind if you do this. Go on, you deserve it. It’s time to look out for yourself.”

So, when we feel discomfort, or hardship, or pain, or we are tempted, it is great to be able to turn to Jesus, because he understands how that feels. Our pew Bibles say that he is able sympathise, but I think the more recent version of the NIV Bible expresses it better as empathise. Jesus doesn’t *just* have compassion for us (although he certainly does do that) - he identifies with us in our weakness.

Maybe you are someone that feels that God is very distant. Perhaps you are acutely aware of your own sinfulness, or you are struggling with sickness, pain or loneliness, and it doesn’t feel like God wants to know? I hope you can see that none of those things are a barrier to Jesus. He is able and ready to shower mercy and grace on us when we ask him.

But Jesus isn’t like any other human counsellor - he is the *perfect* human. Although he was tempted in every way, he never sinned. Ever since the Exodus, God had organised a way to bridge that moral gap between his people and himself. He gave Moses a system for priests to serve in the Tabernacle, offering sacrifices on behalf of the people and praying to God for them. But this system was never designed to solve the problem. The priests would have to offer sacrifices for their own sins before they could offer them on behalf of the people. Rather, the priesthood was intended to provide temporary access to God, and to point the need for a better priest whose sacrifice would deal with sin forever.

Maybe you are someone who finds it hard to trust others. Perhaps you have been let down in the past, or hurt or abused by someone who should have helped. Perhaps this was someone in the church. If so, I am saddened, but I am not surprised. Each of us is a sinner, even those in the church. None of us perfectly loves other people in the way that God has commanded, and tragically, each of us is capable of great harm to another.

But Jesus is not like that.   He has never disobeyed God, and he will never let us down. He does not promise that life will be easy if we follow him, but he does promise that he will never leave or forsake us. Because he is sinless, he had no need to offer sacrifices for his own sin. Instead, we can be confident that his sacrifice of himself on the cross is entirely for our sake. And Jesus’ resurrection shows that his sacrifice has fully paid the cost.

And so Jesus is the perfect human, ideally suited to acting as our mediator before God. His sacrifice is eternally effective. His pleadings for us are always heard. It is always worth turning to Jesus.

  1. Jesus is appointed by God

The writer of the letter makes this point in verses 4 to 6. Jesus did not decide for himself to be the mediator between humanity and his father. Rather God the father appointed him to the role and Jesus reverently submitted.

This point matters, because it shows us exactly what the nature of Jesus’ role is. Is he one high priest with many competitors for the role, or is he *the* high priest - the only possible mediator?

Our car is due for a service soon, and we are free to take it to any garage that we like to get it done. We can choose a large dealership, a local one-man shop, or anything in between. And if the garage owner wants, he is free to advertise the garage as being a specialist for Toyota cars. I would only find out if that was true after I had some difficult work carried out! When we first bought the car, though, we always made sure to have services carried out at a Toyota dealership, to preserve the warranty. We couldn’t go to just any old garage - it had to be one approved by Toyota. It didn’t matter how experienced the mechanic thought he was with Toyota cars - the only sure and certain way to keep the warranty intact was to go to an official Toyota garage.

In the same way, we can take confidence that Jesus’ work as a priest will be correct, because God has appointed him to that role. And we shouldn’t think that we can gain access to God in any other way. God has decided that men and women who want to come to him must do so through Jesus.

We’ve already talked about people who feel that Jesus is far off, but perhaps you are the opposite. Perhaps you are quite comfortable with the idea that God is close at hand, and that we can call on him whenever we wish. Maybe you remember that we can call God “Abba” - literally, “Daddy” - and all this talk of a priest seems a bit strange and formal. Or maybe you are someone who likes to define their own spirituality - you like to choose the best bits from the many different religious traditions that we see around us.

Well, it is true that we can know God intimately as Christians - but this is only because of the work of Jesus as our great high priest. It is God who has appointed Jesus to do this, so we shouldn’t think that he is an optional extra that we can forget about when it no longer suits. It is God’s will that we should all look to Jesus for eternal salvation, and that it is only through Jesus that we can approach God’s throne with confidence.

  1. Jesus is priest for ever

Finally, our passage states twice that Jesus is appointed to be a priest in the order of Melchizedek. This is a rather strange title, even if you do know who Melchizedek is! There is a bit more explanation in chapter 7 of the letter, and you can read about Melchizedek in Genesis chapter 14. Essentially though, Melchizedek is a rather mysterious figure whom Abraham meets on his journey to the land that God is giving him, and who is described as King of Salem and priest of God Most High. Abraham pays him a tenth of everything he has, presumably by way of an offering to God, and Melchizedek blesses Abraham in God’s name.

As chapter 7 of Hebrews makes clear, though, the most interesting thing about Melchizedek is what he is *not*. He’s not a descendant of Abraham, much less one of the family of Levites who were chosen to provide the priests in God’s Temple in later times. The Levite high priests traced their genealogy back through the generations to Aaron, Moses’ brother - each high priest in turn having died and been replaced by a successor. In the case of Melchizedek, though, we have no idea what his genealogy is. He stands alone in a class of his own, as a timeless High Priest of God.

And in verse 6 of our passage this morning, the writer quotes Psalm 110 to make the point that Jesus is not a Levite, but is a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Specifically, he is a priest for ever. Unlike the priesthood of the Levites, we are not expecting Jesus high-priesthood to end, and for him to be replaced by a successor. Jesus’ priesthood is for ever.

That means that we don’t need to look for a replacement. Even though the letter to the Hebrews was written nearly two thousand years ago, it is still just as true today as it was then. Jesus is still the high priest that we need.

Last night, our new curate Ken was ordained in Chelmsford Cathedral as a clergy member of the Church of England. In the terminology of the Church of England, he was ordained as a deacon. I haven’t asked Ken what his plans are, but the usual practice, God willing, would be for him to have a second ordination in a year’s time where he is ordained as a priest. Unfortunately, neither of those terms (deacon and priest) is particularly helpful, because they are words that the Bible uses to describe rather different roles - the New Testament word for the role of a clergyman is presbyter rather than priest. Regardless of the terminology, though, neither Phil nor Ken, nor any of the rest of us, will be a “priest” in the sense of our passage from Hebrews. That position has already been filled, by Jesus. It’s a position he will occupy until the end of history.

Jesus is the perfect human, appointed by God to be a high priest for ever. He has offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and he intercedes for us to his Father. As Hebrews chapter 4, verse 16 puts it: “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.” Amen.