How would you describe to a non-Christian friend the purpose of the life of Jesus Christ and what it has achieved for the world and for you personally?
This is the question the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, from which today’s second reading is taken, tried to answer for the Hebrew Christian community living in Italy towards the end of the first century. However,to understand the answer, we need to delve into the language and imagery the Letter used to ‘explain’ what Jesus did.
Although Jesus was a layman and not a priest, he is given the title ‘priest’ in this Letter to the Hebrews. It’s a title given to him only in this Letter. However, he is called not simply ‘priest’ but High Priest. Why? The author did so to contrast the role of the Jewish High Priest in the Temple with the ministry of Jesus as a way of explaining what Jesus achieved for us in our relationship with God.
Priests in Judaism had the official role of offering animal sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. Every year one of these priests was appointed High Priest for carrying out a function in a part of the Temple known as the Holy of Holies. This was a curtained-off area which only the High Priest could enter. This reserved area represented the realm of heaven and the rest of the sanctuary represented earth.
When he entered the Holy of Holies, stepping from one realm into another, the High Priest would burn incense and sprinkle sacrificial animal’s blood to expiate – make amends or reparation for – his own sins and those of the people of Israel. It was believed that this ritual temporarily atoned for the sins of God’s people. The ceremony, primitive by our standards today, was carried out every year by a different High Priest on what became known as Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement.
(Although Jewish people still observe Yom Kippur today, the High Priest’s ritual is no longer carried out in Judaism. The priesthood in Judaism ceased with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD)
Contrasting the life of Jesus with the ministry of the High Priest in the Temple, the Letter to the Hebrews teaches that
- Jesus is the perfect go-between or mediator between us and God.
- Jesus made the perfect offering to God for the forgiveness of sins by offering not just the blood of an animal but His own blood
- Jesus’ offering, accepted by God, was a once-for-all time sacrifice that never had to be repeated, unlike the High Priest’s in the Temple made every year.
So what does this mean for us today?
We believe that by offering his life in reparation for our sins, our worst mistakes and sins – of all time – are forgiven. By dying on the cross, Jesus has atoned for our sins and reconciled us to God. This is the foundational truth of Christianity and one that changes our lives. So there is nothing we can do in our personal lives to undo this. We are forgiven not because we deserve it, or because we might have done something to earn it, but because of what Jesus has done and achieved on our behalf. He, our Mediator with God, has atoned for our sins i.e. he has made us at-one with God for all time.
In the Second Reading today, the author insists that Jesus shared fully in our humanity – he shared all our temptations and was capable of feeling all our weaknesses. He knew what it was to suffer anxiety and fear, frustration and anger; he knew what it was to be tired and even exhausted; he experienced grief and loss at the death of his friend, Lazarus, and wept when he saw his dead body. In brief, Jesus of Nazareth shared fully in our humanity.
Thus, the Letter to the Hebrews argues, Jesus was qualified to be the perfect Mediator acting on our behalf with God. And, therefore, we should have absolute confidence in Him for He is the Way to God, having permanently sealed our relationship with the One whom He called ‘Father’.
Holy Name, Jesmond
21 October 2018