Twentieth century theologian John Murray maintained that one cannot fully understand Jesus’ work as a priest without understanding how his priesthood fulfills the Old Testament sacrificial system. Ignoring the whole-Bible categories of what a priest is and does fails to think God’s thoughts after Him. As a result, we will not fully understand the work of Jesus as our priest in all His glory when we come to the New Testament, and thus will not fully promote His glory in our lives, both individually and in our churches.

Priests in Redemptive History

God ordained the priestly office because of these twin truths: He is holy and His chosen people are not. God’s presence fills the tabernacle in Exodus 40, signifying God’s intention to perpetually dwell with his old covenant people, Israel (Ex 40:34). Turn one page in your Bible and you’re in the book of Leviticus. What do you find in the opening chapter? The provision of sacrifices (Lev 1). Remember the Pentateuch is to be read as one book. Exodus ends with God dwelling with His people; Leviticus begins with how that can happen without God’s judgment falling on them because of their sinfulness.

What did the old covenant priests do? Geerhardus Vos, picking up on the author of Hebrew’s argumentation in Hebrews 5 gives three functions of the Levitical priest. First, priests represent men before God. Their role was mediatorial. Second, priests were chosen from among the people. The people’s representative had to be one of them. Third, and finally, priests offer gifts and sacrifices for sin. The priest’s work was to offer sacrifices before God to turn back His wrath and atone for the sins of the people.

We can build off Vos’ understanding of the old covenant priest’s work by looking at Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement. In this text, Moses presents a clear picture of the people for whom the old covenant priests worked. Aaron, Israel’s high priest, offered a bull to make atone for “himself and his house” (Lev 16:6). Leviticus 16:17 includes “all the assembly of Israel” in the people for whom Aaron makes atonement before God. The precedent for this exclusivity had already been set. Moses did not intercede for the Ammorites but for Israel on Mount Sinai (Ex 32:30-35). God’s chosen mediators mediate and intercede for God’s people and God’s people alone.

How then does the priesthood come over into the New Testament? We know the Old Testament office of priest no longer exists because they were never meant to last forever. These sacrifices only pointed to a great sacrifice to come. The Levitical priests could never finally take care of God’s people’s sin problem because they themselves were sinners (Heb 5:3) and the blood of bulls and goats could never deal with sin before God (Heb 10:4). Even after Israel returns from exile, the problem of their sin remained. But God promised a new covenant that would bring with it the full and final forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit for all those with God’s covenant people (Jer 31:30-34). Those blessings will only be accomplished in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest.

Jesus Christ, Our High Priest

The priests of the old covenant were types that pointed beyond themselves to the priestly work of Christ. Jesus, the anti-type, is both similar and dissimilar to His old covenant forerunners.The priests of the old covenant were types that pointed beyond themselves to the priestly work of Christ. Jesus, the anti-type, is both similar and dissimilar to His old covenant forerunners. Click To Tweet Jesus is the greater High Priest. He has no sins of His own. He made one perfect sacrifice that deals with sin once and for all. He rose from the dead and will never die like Aaron and every priest that came after him. He alone is our confidence before the Father. But like the high priest of old, Jesus was consecrated by God for service as one who is “from among” his people. Jesus took on a human nature in order to be a qualified mediator on our behalf (Heb 2:10). Like the high priest of old, Jesus’ primary priestly duty given to Him by the Father was to make atonement for sin. And, like the high priest of old, Jesus’ sacrifice and continued intercession is for a particular group.

In that last point, we find both continuity and discontinuity between Jesus and the priests in the Old Testament. It is true that Jesus’ priestly work does not benefit all; His salvific work had a definite objective. Jesus is a priest of a people.

What is different about the priesthood of Jesus is the group for which He serves as Mediator before the Father. Israel, as a geo-political, ethnic people, should no longer be considered the people of God. Jesus is the High Priest of the new covenant. Having laid out the wonders of Jesus Christ, the priest after the order of Melchizedek, the author of Hebrews reasons that since He is a better priest then it necessarily follows that He brings about a better covenant.

Hebrews 8:1 confirms that “we have such a high priest.” Jesus both dies and intercedes for His new covenant people. He secures what was prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34 – the full forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for all of God’s people (Heb 8:8-12). Therefore, Jesus serves as High Priest for all of those chosen by God and born again by the Spirit.

Two Theological Implications of Jesus’ Priesthood

Two implications flow directly from this consideration of Jesus as our High Priest and effector of the new covenant.

First, the Bible teaches what is commonly referred to as “limited atonement.” Any view of the atonement holding that Jesus died in the place of every person without exception denigrates the priestly work of Jesus Christ. Logically, holding a general atonement view should either lead either to universalism (because you affirm the effective nature of Christ’s sacrifice) or to understanding Jesus to not have accomplished everything He was sent to accomplish as our High Priest.

There are two sides of the priestly coin, so to speak: mediation and intercession. Hebrews 7:25 says that, based on the finality of Christ’s work as a priest who lives forever, Jesus always lives to make intercession for His people. Our Lord’s intercessory prayer for His people is seen in John 17. One finds the same notes of particularity here as are found in Hebrews. Jesus says, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9). Again, as priest, Jesus offered Himself up in the place of His people and lives forever to intercede for His people. Jesus prays for and represents only those people for whom He has died. Jesus’ priestly work may not be torn in half!

Second, affirming this understanding of Jesus’ work as the high priest of the new covenant should control our ecclesiology. Jesus’ death accomplished that for which it was purposed – the full forgiveness of sins and the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Jer 31:34; Heb 8:11). The whole Law covenant with Israel has been replaced because Jesus brings with him a better, effective covenant.

All that to say, with all due respect for Presbyterian, Reformed and Anglican brothers and sisters, there is no way to conceive of the church being a mixed entity precisely because of Christ’s identity as the high priest who secures the new covenant by virtue of His person and work.  Membership in the covenant community comes only through vital union with the covenant Mediator. Jesus’ perfect priesthood necessitates regenerate church membership. We put the priestly work of Jesus on display by having churches, purchased by the blood of the new covenant, full of people who are the partakers thereof. Jesus’ priestly work, unlike Aaron’s or Levi’s, provides salvation for every member in the household of God. Jesus’ perfect priesthood necessitates regenerate church membership. Click To Tweet

We Have Such a High Priest

The Bible gives us a stunning picture of the glory of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Paul can call the gospel “the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4). Part and parcel to seeing and savoring the glory of God in Christ is to understand Jesus’ priesthood. God’s holiness will now never crush us, though we are still sinners, because “we have such a high priest” – one who has reconciled us to the Father and given us His Holy Spirit.