Who needs priests? For many in our society, there is a real cynicism around the word ‘priest’ and the idea of a religious establishment. Yet there are some who have an earnest desire for priests. Perhaps we want people who are holy because we know deep down that we are not very holy, and we like to outsource. So we want people who have dedicated their lives to knowing God, who are trained in handling the Scriptures, paid to look after our spiritual wellbeing… and that way we don’t have to think too much about it. But both the writer of the book of Hebrews and our Anglican tradition expose the folly of these attitudes.
Hebrews on priests
This book shows us Jesus as the priest we have been given (4:14-16). The original Hebrews who received this letter were Christians who were drifting back into their old Jewish customs that came with a hierarchical priesthood. And so, the writer pulls them back to the reality of the great high priest who they, and we, already have. The high priest we have is Jesus the Son of God: the one through whom the world was made, the very radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of God’s being, who sustains all things by his powerful word. That’s no ordinary priest! Jesus is not just a holy man who studied theology, but a man who has gone into the very presence of God in heaven itself, above earthly reality.
But while this is a glorious picture of Jesus, I think it is easy to see the problem the original recipients of this letter had, and that we can feel today. You see, if Jesus is as great as the writer says he is, does he really have time for our lowly, even seemingly pathetic, human problems? I want a religion that helps me with the now, not something remote and theoretical. I want a religion that helps me with the nitty-gritty mess of life; a religion that is relevant. Those original Jewish Christians were tempted to return to the comfort of their priests and temples. They wanted to fall back on their sacrificing priests and sacrificial cycles of salvation. Why? Because it helped them to feel like they were contributing to their standing before God. And it is possible, even today, to be tempted into thinking that religious rituals are necessary to bring about salvation. We may want someone or something in church to make us right before God.
This is why we need to see the beauty of Jesus in the book of Hebrews. Jesus is great, but part of what makes him great is that he is a high priest who is sympathetic to our weaknesses, who knows what we go through, because he went through it himself – and came out the other end sinless (4:15). We have a priest who knows weariness, weakness, failure and temptation – even the temptation to drift from trusting God. Jesus has known this pressure, and so he cares for us at our weakest. Is this Jesus really able to understand us in our weakness? Yes! He learned obedience through suffering. He learned, in his experience, the struggle that obedience to God can really be. The writer points to those dark days when Jesus prayed so earnestly in the garden of Gethsemane that his sweat was drops of blood (5:7-10). Whatever darkness we face, Jesus has been there and understands how difficult it can be. And yet, unlike other priests, he is the perfect priest who knows us and God perfectly, and he lives forever (5:9-10).
So knowing this, we are to take firm hold of the priest we have (4:14b). And more, we can approach the throne of grace with confidence (4:16). This is because, unlike other priests, Jesus goes into the presence of God to open up the way for all of us to equally go into God’s presence. This priest means we can approach God with confidence and certainty. Friends, this is the high priest we have. And it is the high priest that we really do need: in front of God we are guilty and we need someone to do the work of dealing with our sins. Therefore we approach God’s throne knowing he is the ruler, but we also know God’s throne is a throne of grace where we receive mercy and help in our times of need.
So, who needs priests? Actually, we do. Yes we need Jesus, our great high priest. And yes we need other priests too. But often the thing that stops us from acknowledging this is our contemporary vernacular. When we think ‘priest’, we can be confused into thinking about those who sacrifice on our behalf. But the reason the English Reformers retained the English word ‘priest’ was that it was actually a contraction of the word ‘presbyter’ which means ‘elder’. The Ordinal within the Book of Common Prayer sets forth the biblical idea of the New Covenant priest. Hear what the bishop says when candidates are ordained to the priesthood:
‘…And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye have in remembrance, into how high a Dignity, and to how weighty an Office and Charge ye are called: that is to say, to be Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards of the Lord; to teach, and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever…’
Here is what our priests are to be: our under-Shepherds, not for outsourcing our spiritual lives, but for continually pointing us back to our Great Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, as we persevere and suffer for the gospel until the Lord returns. If that is what priests are, then we need Priest and priest.