In many religions, it is the role of the priest to intercede between the people and their god. The people don’t go to the god directly; the priest speaks for them. That was true in the Bible, as well. During the Exodus from Egypt, God established the procedures by which the priests approached Him on behalf of the people.
Moses’ brother Aaron was the first priest appointed (Exodus 28:1, Numbers 3:1-4). The other men of their tribe (Levites, descended from Jacob’s son Levi) were set aside to assist with the maintenance of the tabernacle. But only Aaron and his sons could offer the sacrifices (Numbers 3:5-10, Numbers 18:6-7).
Each individual desiring to give an offering or make a sacrifice was to bring the animal (or grain, in some cases) to the tabernacle. He would lay his hand on the animal’s head, then kill it and turn it over to the priest. The priest would then offer the sacrifice on his behalf (Leviticus 1:3-5, 2:2, 2:8, 3:2, 3:7-8, 3:12-13, 4:4-5, 4:13-16, 4:22-25, 4:27-30, 4:33-34, 5:6, 5:16, 6:6-7).
Priests were also arbiters of who was to be considered clean or un-clean. For instance, Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 describe how the community was to deal with leprosy (a very contagious infection). At the first sign of a suspected case, the priest was to note the symptoms. For some symptoms, the priest would immediately pronounce the victim to be unclean. For others, the victim would be isolated for seven days and then re-checked by the priest. If the symptoms were unchanged or fading, isolation would continue for seven more days before the priest made the final determination. Similarly, if a victim was able to recover and heal from the leprosy, it was the priest who could declare him to be clean again. The same kind of procedure was used for a house that was suspected of contamination: The priest would make the decision as to whether the house needed to be destroyed, or whether it had been cleansed sufficiently.
Among the priests, only one (beginning with Aaron) was the High Priest. When Aaron died, his son Eleazar was installed after him (Numbers 20:23-28). After Eleazar, Aaron’s grandson Phinehas took up the mantle (Numbers 25:10-13). This lineage continued: Several hundred years later, Ezra is introduced as a fifteenth-generation descendant of Aaron, Eleazar, and Phinehas (Ezra 7:1-5).
The High Priest was the only one allowed to enter the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle to intercede to God for the people. Even he could only go into that area, separated from the rest of the tabernacle, once a year. That Day of Atonement was surrounded by very specific rituals, emphasizing God’s holiness and the reverence with which He was to be approached. (Leviticus 16).
Among those rituals, he was to:
- Bathe himself;
- Put on sacred garments;
- Bring a bull as offering for his own sin, and that of his household;
- Bring a ram as a burnt offering for the people;
- Bring two goats, one as a sin offering for the people and the other as the scapegoat;
- Use incense burned on the coals of the altar to make enough smoke to hide the atonement cover (the top of the Ark of the Covenant) from his sight;
- Put some of the blood from both the bull and one of the goats onto the atonement cover;
- Come out of the Most Holy Place to the normal altar, and put some of the bull and goat blood there also;
- Lay his hands on the remaining live scapegoat, confessing the sins of the people and transferring them to the goat;
- Send the goat out into the wilderness;
- Take off the sacred clothing, bathe again, and put on his normal clothes;
- Sacrifice a burnt offering (the earlier was the “sin offering”) on the altar;
- Burn the carcasses of the animals used in the sin offering outside, away from the camp.
The burnt offerings were a symbol of dedication to God: All of the animal was burned on the altar, with none eaten. But, on this day, that could not be done until the sin offerings had first cleansed the sins of the people, even from the tabernacle and altar itself…even from the Most Holy Place! (Leviticus 16:16) The burnt offering/dedication could not be acceptable until after the sin had been atoned for.
There was one outlier, a very special and mysterious priest who had nothing to do with Aaron. In fact, Melchizedek is seen only once, in an encounter with Abraham at least 500 years before Aaron was born. Abraham had just won an important battle.
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”Genesis 14:18-20
He gave him a tenth of all.
Who was this priest who blessed Abram (Abraham)? Why did Abram give him a tithe of the spoils of the battle? Scripture doesn’t say. No place named Salem is mentioned in this passage, either. But the name “Melchizedek” is a combination of the Hebrew for “king” and “righteous” 1, and the word “Salem” (“šâlêm“) means “peace”. So, etymologically speaking, the priest who gave blessing and received a tithe was the King of Righteousness and Peace. Hmmm…..
The LORD has sworn and will not change His mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”Psalm 110:4
Remember that. It will be important in a minute.
Now we come to Jesus. What does He have to do with priests, much less the High Priest?
He interceded with God on behalf of His followers.
John 17 records His beautiful “high-priestly prayer” for His disciples. It was just before His arrest and crucifixion. But the prayer is full of triumph:
I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.John 17:4-5
The prayer goes on to request that the Father include the disciples, and all who would follow in their footsteps, in the same glory and communion as Jesus had.
Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.John 17:11, 24
Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.
He offered a sacrifice for sin.
In fact, He WAS the sacrifice for sin! We remember this sacrifice every time we observe the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-21, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). He provided both the atoning sin offering, and the total-dedication burnt offering. He did not have to atone for any sin of His own. Rather, He was the innocent sacrifice atoning for others, and giving all of Himself to do so.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.Mark 10:45
He went into the Most Holy Place.
He entered the most holy of all Most Holy Places, Heaven, to make atonement for everyone who would believe in Him.
For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us;Hebrews 9:24
In fact, at the moment He did so, the veil separating the Most Holy Place from the rest of the temple was torn in two — from top to bottom! (Matthew 27:50-51, Mark 15:37-38, Luke 23:44-46)
The Highest Priest
Jesus did away with the separation between man and God. In doing so, He also did away with the need for any other priest besides Him (1 Timothy 2:5). The writer of Hebrews gives a detailed exposition showing that Jesus is the great High Priest (Hebrews 5:1-10, Hebrews 7). He is “on the order of Melchizedek” because He derives His position not due to any lineage from Aaron … but due to His own inherent power and righteousness.
For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.Hebrews 7:26-27, Hebrews 10:19-22
Since Jesus offered the highest of sacrifices in the Most Holy Place of Heaven, all obstacles are cleared. Any who come to Him are declared clean and acceptable to God. What a High Priest we have!