The high priests of ancient Israel played a unique role in the community and in worship. Every year, on the Day of Atonement, he would offer incense that created a cloud filling the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle, and in the swirling mist he would sprinkle the blood of a bull on the Mercy Seat. This holiest of places, shrouded by golden cherubim, covered the Ark of the Covenant and was the very place in which God promised to reside .
This was but one part of a ritual that was the culmination of year’s worth of sacrifices offered on a daily basis for sin – both the sins of the high priest, and the sins of the nation (Leviticus 4). He alone was authorized to offer many of the sacrifices, since God had ordained him as high priest. And, there were many laws which pertained only to him. For instance, he was never to go near a dead body, and he was only to marry a virgin. His role was unlike any other in the community, because he was set apart to be the one person to intercede before God on behalf of the people.
But, these are just some of the peculiarities of the role he played. Just as important, perhaps more so, were the qualities he was to possess. He had to be “one of them,” a member of the Jewish nation, from the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. He also had to be called by God to fulfill this role. As intercessor, it was necessary for him to be compassionate and caring. We see examples of this in men like Eli and Samuel, and later in Israel’s history Ezra showed such a calling and compassion as he served as high priest after the return from Babylonian captivity. Such compassion would be needed for him to welcome into the tabernacle (and later on, in the temple precincts) those who had sinned as they confessed their sins and had offerings made on their behalf.
In Hebrews 5:1-4 we read about the qualities that were needed:
For every high priest is taken from among the people and appointed to represent them before God, to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal compassionately with those who are ignorant and erring, since he also is subject to weakness, and for this reason he is obligated to make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people. And no one assumes this honor on his own initiative, but only when called to it by God, as in fact Aaron was.”
Clearly, the high priest had to be “one of them,” or “taken from among the people.” Also, he had to be appointed, or chosen and called by God. Furthermore, he had to be willing to offer the gifts and sacrifices necessary for the people to have their sins forgiven. This was a blood-drenched, messy job. It wasn’t easy, and certainly wasn’t an enjoyable task. But it was needed in order for the people to be able to approach God in prayer and be heard. Therefore, above all he had to be compassionate!
What’s amazing is that we have a high priest that meets all of these qualifications and far more. Hebrews 4:14-16 reads:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.
Jesus is the only high priest we will ever need. He is sympathetic, because he has endured every temptation we will ever face. Yet, unlike the high priest of Israel, Jesus is without sin. Because of that, once resurrected he was carried into heaven, in the very presence of the Father where he intercedes continually on our behalf. Rather than offering the blood of bulls, he offered his own blood on our behalf – the only perfect sacrifice possible. We will have more to learn about that in the passages ahead in Hebrews.
So, here’s the great question these facts raise: If you have Jesus to serve as your compassionate, sympathetic, and faithful high priest, why would you want or need anyone else? How can a dead saint possibly be a better intercessor before God? Or why would you possibly need to pray to Mary, when you have the Son of God standing in the presence of God willing to approach him on your behalf?Such a realization should embolden us and comfort us. Jesus, the Son of God, is waiting for you to approach God through him!