Sometimes—especially in the United States—people will unintentionally invade our private space just a little by asking, “Do you have a life verse?” We understand what they mean: “Is there a text in Scripture that has been a guide to you throughout the whole of your Christian life?”
Some people seem so bold in asking us this question that in whimsical moments we imagine them breaking through the crowds going straight up to the apostle Paul and asking, “So, Paul, do you have a life verse?”
Would he say, do you think, “Haven’t you read my letters?”
Perhaps the verse that comes nearest to Paul’s “life verse” is Philippians 3:8:
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
In simple terms he says, “I want to know Christ.”
That was not merely a personal testimony, for Paul assumes this should be the life testimony of every Christian. He goes on to say:
Every one of you who thinks about himself as a mature Christian should think this way. And if you think otherwise, then God will lead you back to this by his grace.1
This is the conviction that drives each of these chapters. So, having seen what is involved in Christ being prophet, we now turn to reflect on what it means to have him as our priest.
“Priest” is the only title given to Jesus that has virtually an entire book of the New Testament devoted to explaining it—the letter to the Hebrews.
Hebrews is an anonymous letter. Its author describes it as a brief word of encouragement or exhortation.2 Central to this encouragement is his exhortation to “Consider Jesus,”3 to be “looking to Jesus”4—and especially to see him as our high priest.
Why was that important to these Hebrews?
They had experienced the same trials as Paul did when he became a Christian.
First, they would have been disinherited. They “suffered the loss of all things.”5 That must have been the fate of many Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Still today when a member of a strict orthodox Jewish family becomes a Christian, he or she may be literally disinherited.
So, clearly, many of these young Christians had suffered great material privation as the result of their faith in Christ.6 Not only were they personally disinherited, but they were both socially and spiritually excommunicated.
Put yourself in their shoes. You are a solid, law-abiding citizen of Memphis, or Columbia, or Cleveland, or Edinburgh, or London—or wherever. But because of your commitment to Jesus Christ, you are disinherited. What automatically follows? You become persona non grata in all the societies, clubs, networks, and social friendships (and children’s schools!) that have made up the fabric of your life. All that is now closed to you. You are excommunicated from family and society.
In addition there is the place of worship you attended from childhood. Its people, services, ceremonies, songs, liturgy, and all its activities were deeply ingrained in your life. Only now, when you are no longer there, do you realize the extent to which these things defined your identity. But now you are no longer welcome there. That church—still standing there as a reminder of the community that reared you and the identity you once had as part of it—is one you are no longer a part of. Instead you now meet with a number of others in the sitting room of a friend. All the things you used to enjoy—once so “meaningful” to you—rituals, officiating ministers, liturgies, music, worship ensembles, large crowds, special days of celebration—they are all gone. Now you meet in someone’s house, and they don’t even have a piano!
That was the situation of the first readers of Hebrews. No longer was their worship marked by the grandeur of the temple, the mass choir, the special moments. No longer did they catch sight of the high priest—the only man who, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, was allowed to enter the sacred room to seek God’s forgiveness for the people. No longer do they wait for him to reappear and raise his hands in the historic words of the Aaronic blessing, assuring them of the Lord’s benediction and his peace because “there is forgiveness with him.” That visible sense that their sins had once again been covered and that the face of God was smiling upon them as his covenant people—it is all gone, never to return unless . . .
Tempted to Go Back
Unless they go back.
Some of them were tempted to go back.
Perhaps you are in a church that the whole congregation loves deeply, where the worship is God-centered, the preaching biblical, the fellowship caring, the vision for world missions strong, and the spiritual needs of the flock met. You have had dear friends whose company moved them to another location. They look for a new church home. But whenever you speak on the phone with them and ask how they are doing, they say, “Fine, except . . . oh, if only we could be back again in our old church; we just can’t find anything like it here!”
That was the situation for the first readers of Hebrews. In former days they could see and touch and even smell the worship services—the great company of people, the music, all of the glorious aspects of Old Testament worship that God had given. Now it was all gone.
Was it all gone—for nothing?
What was the answer? How could the author of Hebrews write anything to encourage them in this situation? His response is to say:
Don’t turn back. If you are tempted to it, then you have been looking in the wrong direction. You have been seeing things from the wrong perspective! You are not looking far enough! You’re not seeing clearly enough! Don’t you see what is really important? Get your eyes off buildings and liturgies and crowds and music. Fix your eyes on Jesus!
Listen to some of the things he says about Jesus to encourage them:
1) They have a great high priest:
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. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.7
2)They have a real salvation:
The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.8
3)They have a perfect high priest:
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.9
4)They have a better high priest:
They [the high priests of Israel] serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.... But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.10
5)They have a final sacrifice:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.11
6) They have a better sanctuary:
For you have not come to what may be touched.... But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.12
The author is really saying to them:
What will keep you going in the way of the gospel of Jesus Christ is catching a glimpse of his greatness, and why it is he is such a great high priest. You have not lost—you have gained. You do not have less—you have more. Christ has done everything generations of high priests could not do. They were only shadows—he is the reality!
1 See Philippians 3:15.
3 Hebrews 3:1.
4 Hebrews 12:2.
10 Hebrews 8:5-6.
11 Hebrews 9:11-12.
Jesus Christ has been given the name above all names, the highest seat of honor, the right to reign and rule. Yet the busyness of our lives and the diversions of this world often distract us from knowing the most important person we could ever know. Perhaps we need some help to see Jesus afresh. In this thoughtful study and worshipful reflection, two influential pastors draw on decades of pastoral experience in order to guide us through the whole sweep of Scripture and examine seven key aspects of Jesus’s identity and ministry: