Nov 19, 2009

Our Great High Priest

11 Min Read

The Son Greater Than the Prophets

How is it that the saints persevere in the faith? The author of Hebrews says that our perseverance against the temptations to sin amidst our present sufferings is traceable, in part, to the depth of our appreciation for the surpassing greatness of Christ our high priest. In other words, receiving and resting upon Christ our great high priest alone, as He is presented in the Word, is a means by which the grace of perseverance comes to us His people. In this three-part series, we hope to grow in our knowledge of the glory of Christ our high priest from the letter to Hebrews and, in turn, to enlarge our hearts in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience.

In Hebrews 1:1-3, Christ our great high priest is introduced to us as one who is first and most basically the Son. Though, overall, the writer emphasizes the Son’s priestly office, our esteem for the Son comes first by seeing Him in His relationships with God and others who are part of the history of creation, revelation, and redemption. Remarkably, in those relationships, we see that the Son has not always been a high priest in the same state in which He is now a high priest: yes, God the Son has always been a priest to His people but He has not always been such in His present incarnate state. Each of the descriptions in 1.1-3 carries implications that we must consider all too briefly.

Hebrews 1:1-2a. The Son in whom God now speaks appears “in these last days,” that is, at the culminating point in the history of special revelation. Positioned as He is in this final, eschatological position, we see the Son in relation to those who preceded Him historically, namely, the prophets - presumably Moses and the prophets who follow him. Through them God spoke during a long and varied history of special revelation. Yet the Son, we are told, supersedes them all. The Son is that prophet for whose appearance they had waited since Deut 18.15: He is the one who would lead God’s people to spiritual liberty and who would mediate a better covenant (Deut 30.6-10; Jer 31.31-34; Heb 8.10; 10.16). In other words, the Son is superior to the prophets because He has spoken the final revelatory words and has accomplished the final liberating (i.e., redemptive) work!

Hebrews 1:2b-3a. Moving beyond the Son’s present place in the history of revelation, our writer draws our imaginations to the eternal covenantal purpose of God (see also 10.7; 13.20; Eph 1.9-10; 3.11; Acts 2.23). According to that eternal purpose, the Son, anointed by the Spirit, was to obey His Father’s will and thereby become the firstborn heir of all creation. In other words, we behold the Son not only as He has come to be in history, but also as He was in the pre-creation situation in relation to God and all things. As the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, we see that the Son has been a distinct person from the Father but of same essence as the Father. As the One through whom the Father made the worlds of time and space, we see that the Son was the builder of the visible temple of heaven and earth (1.10 with 3.4): He was before all things, and all things are from Him. As He governs all things by His powerful word to their proper goal, we see that all things are to Him. So before we properly consider the Son as priest, we consider Him as someone not only greater than the prophets in the history of revelation, but also as a “before creation, above history” Person equal to God in essence and distinct from the Father, the Alpha and Omega of creation and history.

Hebrews 1:3b. With the extraordinary portrait of the Son in relation to all things as prelude in 1.1-3a, our preacher sets our high priest before us in 1.3b, referring both to His sacrifice and to His post-sacrifice session. The two clauses in 1.3b carry deep and broad theological implications. Suffice it to say that in 1.3b we are already being told that this priest is greater than Levi (Aaron). Particularly by using the wording of Ps 110.1, our teacher brings the joyful news that the Son is a priest at rest. No longer standing but rather seated (Heb 10.11-14), the posture of our great high priest signals that Zion’s priest has succeeded where Sinai’s priests could only fail. The ramifications of the Son’s work and rest are staggering. He has done the work of offering the sacrifice that cleanses sinners: sacrifice is finished; forgiveness is granted! Now the sons of Levi are purified; now the worshipers they represented are reconstituted as a holy nation of priests (cf. Mal 3:1-4)! Now the cleansing of the cosmic temple is begun, for earth was the site of His sacrifice and heaven is the site of His session!

How is it that the saints persevere in the faith? The grace of perseverance becomes ours as we receive and rest upon Christ alone as He is presented to us in the Word: He is the Son who is greater than the prophets of old.

The Son Greater Than the Angels

There is a second answer to our question in Heb 1.4-2.18: our great high priest is the Son who is greater than the angels. The angels come before us in Hebrews in two capacities: 1) as heavenly messengers who delivered the old covenant revelation at Sinai (2.2); and 2) as post-fall guardians of access to God’s presence, initially in Eden’s holy garden-sanctuary (2.7 with Gen 3.24) and later in the most holy place of the old covenant sanctuary (9.5 with Exod 25.18-22). Let us look in this study at the teaching of Hebrews 1:4-14.

In 1:4, our teacher contrasts the Son and the angels, encapsulating in that contrast the reason for the Son’s rest at the Father’s right hand. The Son’s exaltation is based, he tells us, especially though not exclusively on what the Son “has become” and the name the Son “has inherited.” In 1:5-14 our teacher accents the fact that the Son is in a new state of exaltation. This is not to say that the Son, born as man, has now become God. Rather the Son, who has always been the exalted God, has now been exalted as man. In fact, the seven OT texts in 1.5-14 with which our teacher expands on his statements in 1.4 contain some of the most sublime declarations of the Son’s eternality and deity in all of Scripture. In this context, however, the Son’s supremacy to the angels does not rest so much on His eternality and deity. Rather, the Son’s supremacy rests especially on the new state He has entered and on the new honor He has received. Keeping these things in mind, let us see how our teacher’s citations describe the exaltation of the Son.

Hebrews 1:5-6. First, in 1:5-6 the writer teaches us that the Son who has taken His seat on high is the One whom the Father had begotten, that is, in this context, begotten as the firstborn from the dead (cf. Col 1:18; Rev 1:5). Though other texts will teach the Son’s eternal generation and identity as the firstborn of all creation (e.g., Heb 1:2; see also Col 1:15-17), the preceding and following contexts of 1:5-6 imply that it is most probably His re-emergence into the world at His resurrection from the dead that is in view in 1.5-6. It is thus in the new, post-resurrection phase of the Son’s messianic role in history that He and the Father are said now to enjoy their unique father-son relationship.

The grace of perseverance becomes ours as we receive and rest upon Christ alone as He is presented to us in the Word.

Hebrews 1:9. Second, in 1.9 our teacher tells us that the Son who has received the Spirit-oil of gladness from His God and Father is the One who had rendered to God the perfect obedience that satisfied His law (cf. Acts 2.33-36; Eph 4.7-11). To be sure, the writer mentions the Son’s eternality, deity, and royalty in 1.8. Our teacher’s focus in 1.9, however, is the Son’s new status: He is the servant who in life and in death subjected Himself to God’s law and is now rewarded for His obedience.

Hebrews 1:13. Finally, in 1.13 our instructor both echoes and elaborates his claim in 1.3. The Son who gave Himself as the final sacrifice for sins (1.3b) is not only seated in heaven: He now awaits the reward of final victory for His obedience. The Son, who is the immutable Lord and builder of the cosmic holy house in 1.10-12, is also in 1.13 the Son who, after humbling Himself, has already been exalted at His first coming and will again be exalted at His second coming (Heb 9.28). Thus, our teacher places the Son before us once more, both in His immutability as the eternal God and in His mutability as the once humiliated, now glorified man - who will be glorified yet again!

All told, then, according to our teacher, the exaltation of the Son our high priest is undeniably connected with His eternality and immutability, but it is not completely or exclusively explained by those attributes. According to Heb 1.4-14, the esteem we are to have for the Son, particularly in contrast to the angels, will come as we appreciate not only His role in the history of creation, but especially His role in the history of redemption. In other words, we understand His priesthood better if we first see Him as the resurrected and ascended God-man.

How, then, is it that the saints persevere in the faith? The grace of perseverance comes to us as we receive and rest upon Christ alone as He is presented in the Word: He is the Son who is greater than the angels. Our high priest is now and forever, in His one Person, God ever-glorious and man at long last glorified.

The Son Greater Than the Prophets

Lastly, we come to Hebrews 2:1-18, where the author of Hebrews finishes what he started in 1:5-14. As we contemplate the Son in the new state He has entered and with the new honor He has received, the author of Hebrews warns us: how can we ever turn a deaf ear to God’s speech in one as glorious as the Son (2.1-4)? Punishment was inescapable for neglecting God’s previous communication through inferior angels at Sinai (1.1; 2.2): it will be even more so if we neglect God’s final communication through the superior of those angels, the Lord who is the Son (2.3). To impress upon us further the seriousness of this warning, our teacher continues to contrast the Son with the angels.

Hebrews 2:5-18. Remarkably, our teacher puts the accent on the Son’s historical glorification with His eternal deity in 1.5-14, but in 2.5-18 he shifts the accent to the Son’s humanity and humiliation. Surprisingly, our preacher argues for the Son’s superiority to the angels by saying that the Son, both as man and as God, is much better than the angels. In 1.4-14, he introduced the general theme of the Son’s supremacy, citing Ps 110.1 in 1.3 as well as in 1.13. In 2.5-18 our author resumes his theme of the Son’s superiority, only now he focuses on His supremacy by conquest as promised in Ps 110. Strikingly, in both the world that now is and the world to come, the Son effects a change for the better in the relationship between man and angels.

Quoting Ps 8:4-6 to focus our reflections, our teacher makes it clear in 2.8b-18 that the glory of the conquest promised in Ps 110.1 will belong not to the angels, but to man. More than that, the man qualified to receive this victory will not be just any man. No, Ps 8.2 tells us that God’s design is for the weak to conquer the strong. In truth, God ordained the ironic character of the conquest before the fall, and He then reasserted it after the fall.

The character of conquest before and after the fall.

Before the fall, man was blessed to rule the created order (Gen 1.28) and was commissioned to keep Eden’s garden sanctuary secure and pure according to God’s commandments (Gen 2.15-17): conquest would thus belong to man even in his creaturely weakness and humility as long as he remained upright. According to Genesis 3, however, man was overcome by God’s enemy - a former cherub angel, no less - and was delivered with his seed over to death and defeat. When He announced His coming victory over the serpent and his seed in Gen 3.15, God reasserted His design to conquer the strong through the weak. Even in death, the weak would conquer the strong, for God had appointed the death of one upright Man as the way to new life for many among the fallen seed of the one fallen man.

Fallen man made subject to the angels.

Still awaiting the victory to come, God rose up to reveal His holy wrath against sin by cleansing Eden’s sanctuary. He effectively took away from man the priestly task of keeping the garden secure and pure and transferred it to the cherubim angels (Gen 3.24). Man was thus subjected to the angels (Heb 2.7a) until the arrival of that one Seed who would qualify to return to God’s presence by passing through the flaming sword of judgment with which those angels were armed.

The Man of Gen 3.15 and Psalm 8.

The arrival of that qualified Man moves our teacher to recall Psalm 8: the Son, the Creator God, has condescended and become the Man of Gen 3.15 and Psalm 8! In His state of incarnation (2.14), the Son overcame the temptations to sin in that which He suffered (2.18). While contending with the indignities of this world, the temptations of the devil, and the infirmities in His flesh, He put His trust in God (2.13a), even unto death, and was thereby perfected as the champion of salvation for the children whom the Father had given Him (2.13b). For the children’s sake He defeated the one who had the power of death, inflicting mortal suffering on the devil as He Himself endured mortal suffering (2.9, 14). For the children’s sake He faced down the terrors of death, releasing them from the fear of death into the hope of resurrection (12.2; 6.18-19; 11.35). Though feeling the weight of God’s wrath, He laid down His life as a propitiation for the sins of the people (2.17). All this He did, bearing the reproach of man’s exile from Eden in being made lower than the angels for a time, so that by grace (2.9) and mercy (2.17) He might qualify man again for the glory (2.10) of life with God.

At the beginning of the ages, the Lord drove man from the earthly sanctuary (Gen 3:23), and the cherubim resisted his return (Gen 3:24). Now, at the end of the ages (Heb 1.1), the Lord has restored man, through the incarnate Son, to the heavenly sanctuary, and the angelic hosts now assist Him to maintain its security and purity for those who will inherit salvation.

How, then, is it that the saints persevere in the faith? As we have seen in this three-part series, the grace of perseverance becomes ours as we receive and rest upon Christ alone as He is presented to us in the Word. Let us be careful, therefore, never to deemphasize or conceal, much less reject and deny so great a high priest as Jesus, for He is the Son, incarnate God, greater than the prophets and the angels.