Priestly Profiles: Our Great High Priest

Of the things which we have spoken, this is the pith” (Heb 8:1).[1] The writer to the Hebrews was too good a preacher to allow his readers’ lack of progress to stop his message at the end of chapter 5. He was also sufficiently realistic to appreciate that not all of his audience would have followed the detailed argument that he unfolded in chapter 7 and so he pauses here, to recapitulate, stressing the key point that he wants his readers to take hold of before he moves forward: “We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man” (8:1-2).[2]

“Such an high priest” condenses all that the previous chapter has taught about Christ’s superior Melchisedekian priesthood; this is the type of high priest we have. The balance of the sentence moves beyond summary to introduce with an almost brutal brevity the subjects that will occupy the remainder of the writer’s discussion of Christ’s priesthood.[3] This discussion will involve the superiority of the covenant, the sanctuary and the sacrifice associated with Christ’s priesthood. These themes are intertwined in this section; the superiority of each aspect reinforces and is reinforced by the superiority of the other. The way in which the writer builds this section has been compared to the writing of a symphony, and “when the author as conductor has finished his symphony, he would leave his hearers overwhelmed with the magnitude and wonder of this High Priest and ready at all cost to persevere through the benefits he affords.”[4]

As the writer embarks on this symphony, Melchisedec falls out of the picture, to be replaced by concepts that are familiar to us, although in a different form, from the ministry of the Aaronic priesthood. Christ’s priesthood is after the order of Melchisedec as to its character, but it is after the pattern of Aaron as to its conduct. This, of course, is no coincidence. Just as Melchisedec was made like unto the Son of God (7:3), and not vice versa, so the Aaronic priesthood was modelled on the priesthood of Christ, to help us to understand the superior – and the true – nature of Christ’s ministry for us.

It is this relationship that the author emphasises in Hebrews 8:5, where earthly Aaronic priests are described as serving “unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.” The tabernacle was a remarkable structure in many ways. But it was only the “example and shadow” of a greater, heavenly reality. This movement, from illustration to reality, is appropriate, because in this superior sanctuary, our great High Priest carries out “a more excellent ministry” (8:6). Its excellency is multi-faceted, but the aspect immediately emphasised by the writer is this: it is based upon “a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.” In contrast to the old covenant, which decayed and waxed old, and was about to vanish away (v13), Christ’s ministry is based on the enduring and faultless new covenant.

The structure of this part of the epistle emphasises the importance of the new covenant for Christ’s priesthood. The quotation from Jeremiah 31:31-34 in Hebrews 8:8-12 is striking, even in an epistle so liberally marked by Old Testament quotations. Not only is this the longest quotation from the Old Testament in Hebrews, but it is partially repeated in 10:16-17. Thus, the writer’s discussion of Christ’s priesthood is bookended by references to the covenant on which it is based – covenant and priesthood are inextricably linked. Christ’s “divine appointment as priest ensures that the covenant will achieve its purpose.”[5]

Equally intertwined with the concepts of priesthood and covenant is the concept of sacrifice. As the writer indicates, sacrifice played a crucial role in relation to the old covenant, both in the ongoing and annual sacrifices and the inaugural sacrifice when Moses “took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and the people” (9:19). His initial focus is on the day of atonement, that vital annual event when into the holiest of all went “the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people” (v7). That sacrifice was designed primarily to stress God’s inaccessibility, “the Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest” (v8). That ritual only provided an external and a temporary purification (v13), but the offering by Christ of “his own blood” (v12) obtained an “eternal redemption for us” and reached beyond the purifying of the flesh to the purging of the conscience (vv13,14). Blood is essential for priesthood.

Blood is also essential to the covenant, and the writer moves from the annual day of atonement to the unique day when the old covenant was inaugurated. The writer elaborates upon the detail provided in the account of Exodus 24:4-8. The blood sprinkled not just the book and the people but also “the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry” (Heb 9:21). The whole apparatus of the old covenant was unified and prepared by the sprinkling of the blood. And what was true of “the patterns of things in the heavens” was also true of “the heavenly things themselves” (v23), which were sprinkled with the superior blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In chapter 10, the writer turns from the unique events that marked the inauguration of the covenant back to the annual and the quotidian. The language stresses repetition – “year by year continually” (v1), “every year” (v3), and “daily ministering … offering oftentimes” (v11). Those repetitions trumpeted aloud the inadequacy of the sacrifice – it was, simply, “not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (v4). By contrast, the sacrifice of Christ has been eternally and finally efficacious – it is “once for all” (v10), “one sacrifice for sin” (v12), and one perfecting offering (v14). It has accomplished what the Levitical sacrifices never could, for it has inaugurated the blessings of the new covenant that touches the heart and the mind (v16), that not only covers sin but effects its eternal non-remembrance (v18), and that leaves “no more offering for sin” (v18). We can enter “into the holiest” with a boldness unthinkable to the earthly priest approaching the earthly sanctuary. Christ, in His flesh, has consecrated, or inaugurated, a new (literally, a freshly slain) way through the veil, and we can “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (v22). No longer need we “stand without, in fear, the blood of Christ invites us near.”[6]

To have such a High Priest, in such a sanctuary, on the merits of such a sacrifice, and with such eternal sufficiency is a blessing beyond our computation. But it is a blessing that matches our need and, as the writer is careful to stress, that not only enables but demands our faithful perseverance: “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised)” (v23). There was – and there is – much in the Christian experience to discourage, to dismay and to daunt. But the ministry of our great High Priest is sufficient, not just to enable us to persevere individually, but to help one another on our journey towards our unshakeable kingdom.

[1] Tyndale’s translation, quoted here in the modernized spelling of David Daniell (ed.), Tyndale’s New Testament (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 353. Most modern translations render the expression “the main [less commonly, chief] point.”

[2] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

[3] Indeed, some commentators argue that the expression that Tyndale translated “pith” and the AV as “sum” would better be rendered “crown of the argument” and that the whole verse looks forward to the argument that is about to unfold. See, Ronald Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews (Leiden: Brill, 1970), 126-9, and W. Manson, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951), 123.

[4] Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 347.

[5] T. Desmond Alexander, Face to Face with God: A Biblical Theology of Christ as Priest and Mediator (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 115.

[6] Horatius Bonar, “Done is the work that saves.”