The Perfect High Priest – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22B (Hebrews 7)

Hebrews
7:23-28 New Revised Standard Version

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

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                When we arrive at chapter seven of Hebrews, we again encounter a conversation about the priesthood of Jesus. As in chapter 5, so in chapter 7 we are told that Jesus, the Son of God, holds a priesthood different from that of the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood. Instead, he is a priest like Melchizedek, the mysterious priest/king of Salem who receives tithes from Abraham after Abraham’s military victory (Heb. 7:15-17). Now, Jesus takes that same priesthood, and unlike the Levitical priests, death is not an impediment to his continuation in office. Instead, he will hold this office forever, making intercession for those who approach God through him. That is, Jesus serves as the mediator between humanity and God. Thus, he mediates for us, as our high priest, salvation.

            The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary have left out the preceding verses that contrast the new and the old covenants. Unfortunately, this contrast between the two covenants has led to the assumption that Christianity supersedes and replaces Judaism as God’s covenant people. The old priesthood, the Levitical priesthood is set aside because it cannot do what Jesus as a priest according to the priesthood of Melchizedek can do. That is because Jesus has been declared a priest forever. It’s understandable that the lectionary creators skipped over the verses that give rise to supersessionism, but they provide the foundation for our reading. Therefore, we must wrestle with them, even if we reject the implications.

            The reading for the day is rooted in the author’s reinterpretation/midrash of Psalm 110:4: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The assumption is that Melchizedek is superior to Abraham, from whom he receives tithes, as well as Moses and Aaron, through whom God makes a covenant with Israel at Sinai. The difference between Jesus and his predecessors is that his appointment is everlasting. It is not affected by death, so he does not have a successor.

            These verses chosen for this reading by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary focus more specifically on the longevity of a priest. Because the Levitical priests are human, and as a result, they sin they must offer sacrifices on their own behalf. Additionally, due to their human state and thus affected by sin, they also die. That’s just the way things work in the world. But Jesus is different and his priesthood is unique. That is why he has taken up the priesthood of Melchizedek, which doesn’t appear to have any successor. Melchizedek appears and then disappears (Genesis 14). With this priesthood open, Jesus receives his appointment to this priesthood, which is an expression of a divine oath as revealed in Psalm 110:4.

            Hebrews raises an interesting question about the priesthood. Formerly, there were many priests because death took them away from their posts. Now, we have this perfect, sinless, high priest, who lives forever and who can mediate our salvation before God forever. The Jewish answer to this assertion would likely be that they understand that the priests were many and would be taken in death, but priests are mediators, not saviors. Their authority is not inherent in their person but in the office itself. Hebrews suggests that it is not just the office but the person who mediates salvation. Is one really superior to the other, or just different? What distinguishes the two is that Jesus’ priesthood is undertaken not in an earthly Temple, but a heavenly one. For a first-century reader, who viewed reality in terms of a three-storied universe, this made perfect sense. But we no longer live with that worldview. We may continue to use that language in worship, but I’m assuming most of us, at least those reading this post don’t view the world in that way. So, whether we like it or not, we have engaged in a bit of demythologization. But, if we work with the passage theologically, then we can envision Jesus’ heavenly ministry of mediation.

            Although it is spelled out more clearly in 1 John (1 Jn. 2:21), Hebrews also embraces the idea that Jesus is the advocate with the Father is the promise that we have an advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Therefore, unlike other priests, Jesus doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for himself. That is because he is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). For the author of this homily, this should give us confidence in Jesus’ ability to intercede on our behalf. In fact, Jesus’ priestly offering comes once and for all, as he offered himself up to God. That is because he is the Son who has become the priest forever. In this, there is good news!

            As I pondered the message of this passage, I began thinking about how we speak of priesthood within the Christian community. Some parts of the community have clergy who are called priests. They are called upon to officiate at the altar. They are priests because they mediate the relationship between God and humanity through the sacraments. The question that has arisen through time is whether the efficacy of the sacraments is dependent on the holiness of the priest. Hebrews would suggest that this is true. The offerings of the Levitical priesthood are deemed insufficient because they, like us, are sinners. But Jesus’ offering is effective because of his holiness.

            In the early centuries, when persecution was rampant, questions emerged about the efficacy of sacraments administered by priests and bishops who had saved themselves by offering sacrifices to the emperor or turning over scriptures to the authorities, or simply signing affidavits that acknowledged the divinity of the emperor. There were those in the church who concluded that any sacraments, including baptisms, performed by such priests were, invalid. In fact, ordinations of priests by bishops who had saved themselves in this way were invalid. Thus, any sacraments administered by these priests were invalid. The reasoning was similar to what we see here. The validity of Jesus’ offering is rooted in his holiness. Augustine answered those who argued in this way (the primary group he addressed are known as the Donatists), by suggesting that the validity of the sacraments was due to the holiness of God present in the church, not in the holiness of the individual priest. For those of us who are members of traditions that do not speak of their clergy as priests, but instead speak of the priesthood of all believers, how might understand this word about the priesthood of Jesus speak to our priestly calling? We might even ask what this passage says to us about leadership in the church.

            When it comes to leadership, none of us are “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” In other words, we’re not divine beings. Perhaps we ought to leave the priestly duties to Jesus, who is properly equipped to intercede on our behalf. As Roger Ferlo notes: “In effect, the passage declares, priests and ministers come and go, but Christ holds his priesthood permanently.” Therefore, “Christ holds title to the word ‘priest.’ He holds the true priestly authority—and authority characterized not by power but by humility—offering a sacrifice to God on our behalf ‘once and for all’ (v. 27) when he offered himself.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 208]. Perhaps if we clergy understand this word, then we will better understand our own calling. Christ is the only true head of the church.   

            Christ’s calling to the priesthood is rooted in his status as the Son (that is, the Son of God) who has been made perfect forever through his sufferings. As the Son of God, who lives forever, there is continuity in his priestly ministry. Because of this continuity, we don’t have to worry about whether we have a priest to mediate the relationship between us and God, because as the author will later add, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  

            So, while recognizing the possibility of supersessionism in the passage, might we contemplate the promise that Christ has been, is, and always will be with us. Yes, Priests and pastors come and go, but Jesus is always there for us. 

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