In the movie, The Painted Veil, Naomi Watts plays a spoiled daughter of wealth who marries a scientist committed to doing good for others. She finds her husband a bore. One night in a remote Chinese village, she and her husband are at the home of an Englishman whose Chinese wife, unable to speak any English, clearly adores her husband. Why, Kitty Fane, Watts’ character, asks the English man, does his wife love him so? He translates Kitty’s question for his wife and the answer comes back, “She says because I am a good man.” Kitty nearly spits out her reaction: “As if a woman ever fell in love with a man for his virtues.”
We all know men and women like that who think that the only kind of person worth falling in love with is one who is self-centered, physically imposing, rude, or inclined to ignore or disrespect those less “gifted” than themselves.
But good women or men who fall for bad members of the opposite sex aren’t the only ones who throw in with people who sin with little sense of dishonor or shame.
Whole nations--like Nazi Germany--have been known to give their allegiance and even worship to people they knew to be evil but who “kept the trains running on time.”
Less dramatically, we ourselves have a tendency in our own culture to wink at evil-doers while labeling those who try to do the right things in life as “wimps.”
“Marketing” Jesus in a world like this, a world that loves sinful heroes who impose their wills on others, has always been a tough sell for Christians.
Our second lesson for today, Hebrews 5:5-10, says that Jesus is our “high priest.” The question, I suppose, is why would anyone want a high priest when what we really want is to wink at us as we “get away with murder,” to experience what we imagine being God, the master of the universe, must be like?
And what exactly is a high priest, anyway?
Please look at the verses just before our lesson, Hebrews 5:1-4 for an answer to that question.
Hebrews is describing the faithful descendants of Levi, one of Jacob’s sons, back in Old Testament times. Levi’s descendants were the priests of ancient Israel.
In verse one, we’re told that the high priests offered “both gifts and sacrifices for sins.” The priests made offerings to God as the people repented for their sins and trusted God to forgive them.
In verse 2, we’re told that a high priest “can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.” The high priest had what we call empathy. He knew what it was like to be human and understood how human beings can fall into sin.
Verse 3 says that the high priest so identified with the weaknesses of the people that he offered sacrifices for his own sins as well as those of the people. Faithful priests never held themselves up as being superior to others. They were servants. Jesus exhibited this very attitude when He went to the Jordan to baptized by John. John's baptism was a sign of the baptized person's repentance. Jesus was sinless and had no need to repent. That's why John objected to baptizing Jesus. Matthew's gospel says:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." (Matthew 3:14-15)Like the high priests of the Old Testament period, Jesus identified with you and me and our needs for reconciliation and rightness with God.
Hebrews 5:4 then says that no one dared to take the honor of the priesthood for himself--something that was going on in the first century world in which Hebrews was written--but was called to it by God.
The high priest wasn’t a dictator who kept the trains running on time! He:
- prayed for those who fell into sin,
- bore compassion for those subject to temptation,
- identified with the people he served, and
- didn’t do the job because he thought he was qualified or because he loved the honor or felt himself to be better than others. He served as high priest just because God had called him.
Fine, we might think, the high priests were “nice” guys. But when we’re up against the calamities of life--job loss, relational discord, divorce, disobedience in children, irresponsibility in parents, violence, terrorism, fatal disease, death, grief--what good is a high priest?
What good is a virtuous servant of God when what we want is a “fixer” who can get us out of the fixes we’re in?
God evidently thinks that in the face of all our life’s enemies, including sin and death, a high priest is precisely what we need.
Look now at what Hebrews tells us about Jesus in our lesson, Hebrews 5:5-10.
Verse 5: “Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest...”
Don't be mistaken about what this means. Jesus was clear about proclaiming Who He was: God in human flesh. “I and My Father are one,” He says in John 10:30, for example.
And yet, Jesus never forced anyone to acknowledge Him as God and Savior. Jesus never sought honors from the world. He only sought to do the will of the Father. Like the high priests of old, Jesus never glorified Himself or pushed Himself ahead of others. Jesus didn’t take the job of the great high priest of creation; it was conferred on Him by God the Father Who said, “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well. Hear him!” (Matthew 17:5)
In Hebrews 5:6, the preacher says too, that the Father spoke the words of Psalm 110:4 to Jesus: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
What on earth is that about?
Melchizedek is mentioned in just two places in the Old Testament: in the Psalm quoted here in Hebrews and in Genesis 14:18-20.
There, we’re told that Abraham has just returned from a battle in which he saved his nephew Lot and Lot’s family and possessions from a coalition of five kingdoms that had kidnapped them. After the battle, Melchizedek comes from Salem, Shalom in Hebrew, a word that means Peace, among other things. Salem existed at the very site on which Jerusalem and the temple would be built hundreds of years later.
Now, think of this: Long before Abraham’s grandson Jacob had a son named Levi, who would become the ancestor of Israel’s high priests...long before there was a temple or a Jerusalem, God had a high priest bringing God's shalom, God's peace, and the availability of reconciliation with God to the human race.
Already, 2000 years before Jesus was born, crucified, or resurrected, God was laying the foundation for our salvation from sin and death through Jesus.
Priests, you see, are the conduits between heaven and earth of God’s law and promise.
They offer up prayers for sinful humanity and they convey the call of God to humanity to repent and believe in God. (The New Testament book of 1 Peter says, by the way, that every baptized believer in Jesus is a priest of God. That includes you and me. That though, is a topic for another sermon some day.)
Genesis says that Melchizedek was “the priest of God Most High” long before the ancestors of Israel’s high priests were even conceived. And unlike the descendants of Levi who inherited their priesthood, Melchizedek received his call, not by inheritance, but directly from God.
And Melchizedek wasn’t just a high priest. He was also the king of Salem.
That may not seem earth-shaking to us. But in those days, kings were kings and priests were priests and the twain rarely, if ever, met...usually with terrible results.
Even today, it would seem strange if a pastor were elected president, wouldn’t it? The two functions--priest and ruler--don’t seem to go together.
But Jesus, our second lesson tells us, is a priest in the order of Melchizedek. That means that like the Levitical priests, He never sought His priesthood. But unlike them, He didn’t inherit the priesthood from an earthly father. God the Father made Jesus a priest in the same way He had made a priest of Melchizedek. Hebrews 7:3 says of Melchizedek: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, [Melchizedek] remains a priest continually.”
Like Melchizedek, Jesus is a king. But unlike Melchizedek, He is the King of all kings, Who brings shalom, peace with God, to all who will turn from sin and believe in Him!
In the rest of our lesson from Hebrews, we see how Jesus the King of all kings, accepted human limitations in order to bring salvation to us. We’re told, starting with verse 7, that while on earth, Jesus offered up prayers and requests to God “with vehement cries and tears to Him Who was able to save Him from death...” And verse 8 says that Jesus learned obedience through what He suffered, meaning, above all, through His cross.
Jesus doesn’t sound much like those rogue heroes we love so much, does He? He sounds like He willingly accepted human weakness as He prayed to God, “not my will, but Your will be done.” (Matthew 26:39)
In the garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest, He told Peter to put away his sword when Peter tried to protect Jesus from the soldiers and the temple police who had come to arrest Him. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).
Even at the point of His death, Jesus renounced the sword and all the other signs and symbols of human power. He accepted the weakness under which the old high priests had also lived and so, went to the cross.
“So, Jesus is our high priest?” you may be asking. “Can a high priest who accepts the same limitations and weaknesses we have, even our subjection to death, do us any good?”
Writer Louis Cassels wrote a story called, The Man Who Stayed Home.
A man believed that the idea of God becoming a human being was silly. One Christmas Eve, because He couldn’t accept Jesus being both God and human, he refused to attend the candlelight worship service.
Shortly after his family left for the service, the snow began to fall and he was startled by a thud. Then another thud. Then another. He thought someone was throwing snowballs at his house.
But on looking outside, he found a flock of birds, some of them occasionally flying toward the light coming from his house, looking for shelter.
The man thought he should try to help them. So, he put on his coat and took a loaf of bread outdoors. He then created a trail of bread crumbs that would lead the freezing birds to a barn where his kids kept a pony.
But the birds weren’t interested in the bread. They wanted to get warm.
He tried catching the birds, shooing them, corralling them, walking around them, waving his arms. But nothing he did would get the birds to go into the warm barn.
He realized that they were afraid of him.
“If I were a bird,” he thought, “I guess that I could speak their language. I could tell them not to be afraid. I could promise to help them and lead them to safety. But I’d have to be one of them so that they could see and understand.”
At that moment, church bells rang in the distance and the man’s eyes filled with tears. He fell to his knees in the snow.
What good is a high priest...
- Who has become one of us?
- Who has offered up desperate prayers when His throat was choked by fear and his face was streaked by tears?
- Whose anxiety was so great that blood was secreted through the pores of His skin, along with His sweat?
- What good is a Savior Who went to a cross and tells us that the way to life leads through Him?
All the good we need, that’s what good Jesus is!
Only the high priest Jesus, Who understands us and has compassion for us, gives us forgiveness and life forever.
Only the high priest Jesus has the love to stick by us for eternity, no matter what.
Only the high priest Jesus is worth surrendering our whole lives to, because only Jesus can give us what nobody and nothing in this world has in their power to give: life with God.
You know, we can look for life and fulfillment and happiness in many places. (It's like the old country song, Lookin' for Love in All the Wrong Places. We do that.)
But only our great high priest can give us--can give you--all that God wants for you to have and enjoy for all eternity. Only the high priest Jesus can give you God and lead you to God.
Jesus is reaching out to you again this morning.
Don’t turn away.
Fall in love with Him.
Take hold of Jesus and never let go and know that, for His part, our great high priest and king, will never, never let go of you!