Our man in heaven
This article is excerpted from the Dawn to Dusk book "Hebrews: a fresh look at an old book ". Please click here if you would like more information about this book.
JESUS NEVER WAS AND NEVER WILL BE A LEVITICAL PRIEST. Yet the New Testament contains a number of hints, even outside the Epistle to the Hebrews, that he was a priest nevertheless. John 10:36 and 17:19 speak of Jesus as being "consecrated" (RSV), "the verb employed by Exodus 28:41 for Moses' consecration of priests" (Brown 1997, p. 701). That he was not only a priest but a high priest finds hints in the description of the garment he wore just prior to his crucifixion. John 19:23 says:
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece.
The description matches the details of the high priest's robe's design as amplified by Josephus:
Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back (Antiquities, 3.7.4).
That Jesus should wear such a robe at that time appears most appropriate since he was about to offer himself as our atoning goat, our Passover lamb (Hebrews 9:14)—a major theme of Hebrews is Christ's role as the high priest who offers, as well as his role as the offering itself. Yet this priestly act in the days of his flesh only served as a prelude to the major priestly role he has played ever since his resurrection and enthronement. Hebrews testifies that he is a high priest forever, showing plainly his role as high priest did not cease with his once-and-for-all offering.
The task assigned to Jesus as a Melchizedek-order high priest is none other than to perfect his people, making them fit for God's indwelling presence now and face to face contact in the future. But the big question boils down to this: What does Jesus Christ actually do as our sanctifying high priest? Is he really doing it now?
A helpful point to understand is that Jesus as our high priest doesn't actually do the perfecting directly, but arranges it by acting as our mediator.
Jesus, master mediator
When Israel of old rebelled against God immediately after leaving Egypt, God decided to restore His relationship with them by entering into covenant with them. The making of that covenant was mediated by Moses (Gal. 3:19). Throughout Israel's history, prophets and priests mediated between Israel and God; the former would represent God to man, the latter man to God. The high priest offered on behalf of the people so that God would accept them and forgive them:
And Moses said to Aaron, "Go to the altar, offer your sin offering and your burnt offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people. Offer the offering of the people, and make atonement for them, as the Lord commanded" (Lev. 9:7).
But what does a mediator do? He acts as a go-between between two parties which are often, but not always, estranged from one another. J. Murray put it like this:
The function of a mediator is to intervene between two parties in order to promote relations between them which the parties themselves are not able to effect. The situation requiring the offices of a mediator is often one of estrangement and alienation, and the mediator effects reconciliation (ed., Douglas 1980, Part Two, p. 970).
Such an ombudsman stands in the middle and brings people together. To accomplish this effectively he must faithfully represent the interests of both parties without partiality, whether the relationship between the two involves estrangement or not.
Like Israel of old before Sinai, we were estranged from God before conversion because we were pathologically sinful. God cannot look upon wickedness, as Habakkuk declares: "You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness" (1:13). Our sinfulness cut us off from holy God (Is. 59:2), and even made Him angry. No progress could be made in sanctifying us until the yawning chasm was bridged by an expert bridge builder. Enter Jesus the mediator, who acts as a faithful interface between God and men. As a result of his earthly labors and climactic self-sacrifice, the barrier between God and men was dismantled more thoroughly than the Berlin wall. Those who go to God through Christ can be assured of His beneficent, peaceful intentions towards them.
Moses and Jesus — mediators of the covenants
Moses mediated the old covenant on the mount at Sinai. Jesus mediated the new covenant, a major theme of Hebrews, on the hill at Golgotha. In both cases, people were awe-struck at the sight as they lifted their eyes upwards to see the work of God. Once Moses had acted as the celebrant tying God and Israel together, God's presence with Israel, jeopardized by their rebellion upon leaving Egypt, was reasserted. God immediately gave instructions for the construction of a tabernacle to act as the focus of His presence within Israel:
And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8).
Jesus negotiated with God to bring about God's presence within the church. First, Jesus himself indwells the church; only then is it fit for the indwelling presence of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Paul describes Christ's indwelling presence:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20).
Without it, we have no hope. With it, the glory of eternity can be ours:
To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).
As a result of Christ's paving the way, or consecrating us, we are fit for the Father Himself to dwell in us:
Jesus answered and said to him, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him" (John 14:23).
This verse doesn't explicitly link the Father's dwelling in us with Jesus' prior dwelling, but the dependence of the one upon the other follows logically from the whole concept of Christ as mediator. In the same manner, Jesus mediates the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit:
And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever (John 14:16).
How does God's indwelling contribute to perfection?
We are all familiar with one of the favorite themes of science fiction — aliens taking over human beings and turning them into clones of themselves, though their victims retain their human appearance. Perhaps we would not be guilty of losing our marbles to suggest that this theme is a counterfeit of God's whole purpose for man — to turn humans into "clones" of Himself. The analogy breaks down, of course, since we will never become God in the full sense of the term. But we will become like Him in thought, and like the resurrected, glorified Jesus Christ in "body" (1 John 3:2). John reports what must surely be one of the most amazing concepts enunciated even by Jesus (all of which are amazing):
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life (John 6:63).
Real life consists of a way of thinking, not of fleshly thrills and spills. Satan is dead, though he is conscious. His way of thinking brings him misery unceasing. He would be better off dead in the sense of unconscious.
Since the ultimate goal of sanctification is nothing less than a "takeover" of the human mind by God's mind, thus imparting God's thoughts to us, the sanctifying role of His indwelling presence becomes almost obvious. In ways we don't even begin to understand, His residence in our minds slowly, imperceptibly results in His taking over our thoughts; yet without ever taking away our own personality, character and, above all, free will.
In this instance, as distinct from the kind of help that comes from laying our requests at the feet of His mercy seat, the transformation that takes place does not depend upon our conscious petitions, but takes place entirely as a result of God's initiative.
Aaron and Jesus — priestly mediators of access to mercy seat
God's indwelling presence within the church surpasses in excellence his dwelling within Israel. So too, the people of God today have greater access to God's heavenly dwelling than Israel had of old. Theirs was through the high priest of Aaron's line; ours is through Jesus of the society of Melchizedek. Theirs was an annual event, ours is continual.
As mentioned earlier, Jesus doesn't do the transforming personally, but mediates it. It is God Himself who actually does it. In typical New Testament fashion, the roles played by God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in the process of sanctification are rarely distinguished from one another. What one does they all do. (In Hebrews the Holy Spirit is not assigned a role in the process, but it is in other New Testament passages, such as 1 Corinthians 6:11, and probably in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and 1 Peter 1:2.) Though Hebrews 2:11 speaks of Jesus doing the sanctifying, 13:20-21 adds something vital:
Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Here God is pictured as responsible for the task of sanctification, done through Jesus Christ. Similarly, Jude 1:1 declares:
Jude, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, To those who are called, sanctified by God the Father , and preserved in Jesus Christ.
We should not push the distinction between Jesus as agent and doer of sanctification too far for the simple reason that Scripture doesn't elaborate on the distinction at all. Nevertheless, in the context here of our discussion of Jesus as mediator rather than doer, the distinction, puzzlingly veiled in Scripture, aids understanding.
How does access to the Holy of Holies perfect us?
With the onset of the new covenant, Christians now have constant access to the Holy of Holies. As high priest, Jesus has torn through the veil separating us from the Holy of Holies, and we can now follow him. For instance, 4:16 says (and much the same thing is found in 9:8 and 10:19):
Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
But what does such access do for us with respect to our sanctification? That this access is vital to sanctification is implied in 9:8-9, where our sanctification is linked with the access now available through Jesus' entrance into the Holy of Holies. The sanctifying effect of God's indwelling presence, just discussed, seems obvious; not so here. Obviously, our going to God's throne has a totally different function in our sanctification than His coming to us has.
The astute reader will, by now, be trying to butt in with, "Hey, why don't you read the verse you just quoted; it gives the answer." It reveals that at God's royal seat we find mercy and timely help, that is, constant help that is perfectly matched to our current situation. But the help is not automatic, but seems to be predicated upon our "bold coming", our petitions. So, in contrast with the transformation coming from God's indwelling presence, Jesus mediates between us and God when we initiate access with God through supplicatory prayer ensuring that we receive tailor-made, mind-changing help.
These insights are vital. They show that our transformation depends on our intelligent involvement in the process. If we think our sanctification is a one-way affair, we need to think again. The point is critical, and sobering. Our sanctification involves our conscious, directed effort. Jesus showed the same thing in couching the famous "Be ye perfect." statement in the middle of instructions in godly living.
Say you have a particular spirit-squelching habitual sin, such as lying. Jesus is more than capable of knocking it in the head; but will he? If he doesn't, why not? Could it be that you aren't taking the problem to his heavenly God-side seat, specifically beseeching his mediation in asking God for the strength you lack?
If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13)!
But in what way can we now approach God's heavenly throne? Does our spirit somehow ascend to heaven? No; our mediator does it on our behalf ; he is there in our stead:
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us , even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 6:19-20).
For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us (9:24).
Jesus said the same thing, but in different words when he instructed his disciples to take their petitions to God in his name:
And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full (John 16:23-24).
Jesus was telling them beforehand of his imminent glorification and enthronement, following which he would act as a Melchizedek high priest forever, continuing the mediatory work begun while in the flesh. Their petitions to God, made through Jesus, would carry incredible weight. Through Jesus, his followers can tap the power that created the universe, and put us here for a reason.
Whether we like it or not, we do not yet enjoy face to face contact with God, even in invisible form. We have to wait till the arrival of the new heaven and new earth before we get to see Him "in the flesh" (Rev. 22:4). The verses above plainly promise that he is now at God's right hand for us. But what does it mean to say that Jesus sits at the Father's right hand in our behalf? What does it mean to pray in his name?
Imagine you are the poorest wretch who ever lived, barely eking out an existence in Bombay's poorest slum by begging for scraps of bread from the better-off along the city's main streets. One day, a shiny, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce pulls up, and a splendid dignitary opens the rear window and stops and chats with you. For some reason, he takes a real liking to you, and is deeply touched by your need. You quickly discover that the dignitary is none other than Prince Charles. He tells you that the Queen had commissioned him to scour Bombay for a worthy beggar to whom she could give a new start in life. He would return to the Queen and present your case to her. A couple of weeks later, a government car pulls up next to your main begging plot on the footpath, and whisks you away to a palatial mansion outside town. There you are told, to your utter shock, that the Queen has bought the mansion for you, and it is now yours.
Prince Charles had gone into the Queen's presence in your behalf, and secured a wonderful and gracious gift.
On the main hall table is a hand-written letter, signed by the Prince, saying that he could not get back there for a long time, but that if you wanted anything else, just ring Buckingham Palace, and use a secret nickname of his that would grant you immediate access to the Queen. She would listen with great sympathy to your requests.
Your contact and request were made in the Prince's name. But Jesus' name cannot be used as a kind of magical incantation to open the doors of heaven's tabernacle whenever muttered flippantly or with levity. To use it effectively requires that the life we live and the requests we are making in that name are perfectly in accord with Jesus' own life and thought.
And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (14:13).
The entire thrust of Jesus' ministry was to give glory to his heavenly counterpart — the Father who sent him. See John 8:49-50. (The fascinating, knotty questions raised in seeking to define the relationship between Jesus on earth and God in heaven are simply beyond the scope of this work.) The disciples' prayers would reach the Father if they were living in Jesus' name, not just asking in it. If they were seeking to glorify God, as Jesus did, then their requests were in his name whether they recited the formula or not. Carson (1991, p. 497) explains:
During his ministry on earth, the Son's consistent aim, and his achievement, was to bring glory to his Father. Now in the splendor of his exaltation, the Son's purpose does not change: he enables his own to do 'greater things' in order that he may bring glory to the Father.
When we go to God through Jesus, and in his name, remarkable things happen. Before his death and resurrection, Jesus' disciples had always made their requests known to Jesus himself, knowing that he had come from God, and had God's authority and backing. Jesus tells them that when the new age begins with his death and resurrection, they will need to make their requests direct to the Father.
Mediator, not funnel
However, this mediatory role played by Jesus must not be seen as a blocking role. Jesus does not act as a funnel, channeling our prayers to the Father, without which funnel we would have no direct access to the Father. In fact, Jesus' words make it plain that we are to direct our prayers to the Father. Rather than distancing us from God, Jesus brings us near to God. That Jesus' role as high priest is not to act as a mechanical conveyor of our requests to God is clarified in John 16:26-27:
In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.
Is Jesus here denying his role as a Melchizedek-order high priest? Did the Author of Hebrews have it wrong? Those who are searching for loose bricks in the Bible may point to this verse as being out of kilter with all the other testimony concerning Jesus' mediatory role. Those with long exposure to the Bible know that God's word stands up to the test of human criticism. Where we are puzzled, the problem lies with our lack of understanding, not with the word itself.
One simple, neat solution is provided by the NKJV study notes (Nelson 1979, p. 1696), which suggest, "Jesus is not saying that He will cease to pray for them; it means that the disciples will have reached a certain maturity in prayer, so that He will not need to pray in their stead." The view expounded here seems to go like this: the purpose of our heavenly high priest is to bring us to spiritual perfection or maturity, at which point our Father is willing to deal directly with us; thus, once that level has been attained by an individual, he or she no longer needs a mediator.
However, this verse doesn't even begin to hint that the reason the Father would hear their prayers without recourse to a mediator is because they have finally reached maturity. Rather, He does so because He loves them. The verse gives no evidence of a change in God's dealings with the disciples over the course of their spiritual pilgrimage. "That day" refers to the new phase of history that begins with Christ's resurrection, not to some moment of maturity in a disciple's life. Jesus was explaining that in the new, church age, the Father himself would pay personal, direct heed to His children's requests.
Again we ask, how does this tally with the concept of Jesus the mediator? In a nutshell, this verse helps us understand what Jesus does as high priestly mediator inasmuch as it explains that he does not act as a filter, or funnel, for our petitions to God. God sent Jesus to seek some lame, blind beggars whom Jesus would invite to participate in the Kingdom of God. Those who respond to Jesus' invitation have his authority to submit their requests direct to God in his name.
The reality of access to His throne
These comments sound plausible, but still leave us a little cold. They all sound too theoretical. We need to inculcate the truths involved right down into our innermost being. As we just discussed, Jesus is in God's heavenly presence for us, or on our behalf. Yet the very same passages reproduced and discussed (6:19-20, 9:24) contain a real paradox inasmuch as they clearly teach that our access to God's heavenly throne is not a figment of our imagination but a solid reality. For instance, the word forerunner was used in military contexts of an advance reconnoitering party; its use here shows that Jesus has gone ahead of us, and we will follow, just as the main body of an army inevitably follows the advance party (Guthrie, p. 154).
Perhaps the hardest task facing Christians today lies in visualizing the reality of these amazing gifts Jesus has made possible for us. God's indwelling presence has no outward manifestation. When we pray in the privacy of an enclosed room, we don't see Jesus our mediator or our heavenly Father. Ours is a superior gift compared with that of Israel's. Yet theirs was far more visible, more tangible. Even though the Israelites could not enter the earthly Holy Place, they could see it.
Part of the message to the recipients of the Epistle to the Hebrews lay in assuring them of the reality and superiority of God's presence and our access to Him under the new covenant compared with that of Israel under the old. (But let it be stated that the new deal does not overthrow the validity or value of the tabernacle gifts God had ordained from of old-gifts that Israel would have enjoyed even if they had not rebelled. And gifts that future generations will also enjoy when Jesus establishes his earthly kingdom, even though the new covenant will sweep the entire earth, bringing all mankind, into its embrace.)
What Jesus does in our behalf is so real that it's as if, using the analogy above, Prince Charles didn't just go to London to visit the Queen to present your story, but actually took you with him and ushered you right into the presence of the Queen. His representation of your situation is so accurate, and its outcome so fully effective, that the only difference between his acting in your stead and your doing it yourself is that you didn't do it yourself. When we present genuine supplications and spiritual sacrifices to God, Jesus escorts us every step of the way, ushering us, so to speak, into the very presence of the fullness of God. The results are just as effective as if we literally made the journey ourselves.
Jesus, intercessor and advocate
We earlier showed that as our mediator, Jesus does not hamper our access to God, but actually enhances it. Rather than acting as a resistor, slowing the current of our prayers to God, he facilitates it, speeding the flow. Exactly how this happens is beyond us to understand, and simply becomes a tenet of faith. But as high priest, Jesus does more than enter into heaven on our behalf, enhancing our relationship with God. As we see in the first Scripture in the opening epigraph, Jesus is alive and well "making intercession" for us. We find the same idea expressed in 1 John 2:1:
My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich (p. 624) translate the Greek for advocate (parakletos) as intercessor (in verbal form). The question is, what does this mean? The word is defined in Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich (p. 269) as, "meet, turn to, approach, appeal, petition" and, when directed towards God, often with the meaning of "pray" for someone. The word appears only five times in the New Testament, and in one instance (Rom. 11:2) it is used in a negative way, describing how Elijah the prophet interceded against Israel; that is, he prayed for God to smite them. But when used in a positive way, it carries the same connotation as parakletos in 1 John 2:1, which there conveys the idea of advocate (Osborne 1991, p. 68) or, if you prefer, defense attorney.
Why Jesus can go to bat for us is simple — he has been there. The following selection of passages from Hebrews conveys the point well:
For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness (5:1-2).
Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people (2:17)
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin (4:15).
These verses from Hebrews, especially 2:17, which speaks of propitiating God, fit well with the passage from 1 John reproduced above. In essence, Jesus not only wiped our sin-filthy slates clean at baptism, as our ever-living high priest he continues to cleanse us of the sins we continue to commit even after conversion.
As our ever-living high priest, Jesus continues to deal with those sins, making it possible for us to maintain our access to our holy God. In addition, his intercession not only assuages God's potential wrath but it actually purges our consciences yet again, continuing the mysterious process of purging our consciences, making them soft and tender instead of leathery hard.
One vital truth needs mentioning. We must not assume from all these insights that Jesus is kind and understanding while our Father is cold-hearted and condemning. That would be to totally misconstrue the point of Jesus' high priesthood. Remember, God sent Jesus to die for us, and God has appointed Jesus as our high priest. God himself came in the flesh, in the form of Jesus Christ, to make it all possible. Remember:
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17).
The propitiation and perfecting the resurrected, glorified Jesus performs are entirely in fulfillment of the Father's will. The God of the Old Testament has exactly the same mind as Jesus Christ.
Bauer, W., Arndt, W. F., and Gingrich, F. W., (trans.) 1957, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University of Chicago Press
Brown, R. E. 1997, An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, New York
Carson, D. A. 1991, The Gospel According to John, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester
Douglas, J. D. (ed.) 1980, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester
Guthrie, D. 1983, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester
Nelson, Thomas 1979, New Geneva Study Bible: New King James Verion, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville
Osborne, G. R. 1991, The Hermeneutical Spiral, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove
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