This Great High Priest

Having recently started a study on Hebrews, we have of course been concentrating on the Supremacy of Christ, greater than the angels, greater than the Law, greater than our efforts to keep the law (Hebrews was written primarily to an audience of Jewish converts), and because of His supremacy, Christ, the spotless Lamb of God was the only one worthy enough to offer a perfect sacrifice of our sins.

We looked briefly at the duties of the high priest in Leviticus 16: he entered the sanctuary in a prescribed manner with animals for sin offerings and burnt offerings, dressed in pure linen, ritually washed in order to make atonement. And what does atonement mean? In verse 21 of this chapter we see that on the head of a live goat is to be placed all the sin and wickedness of Israel. Once this has happened, it is to be sent away into the desert in care of a man appointed for the task.

I’ve also been reading the book A Reason for God by Timothy Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. This scapegoat theme hit me hard when I read the following excerpt from page 29 of Keller’s book, under the chapter title “How could a Good God Allow Suffering?”. In it, Keller talks about the suffering of God himself.

Because here’s the thing: we’re no longer talking about a goat or a lamb or a bird or whatever, we’re talking about a person. And we’re not just talking about any person, we’re talking about the Son of God, who was there from the beginning. There’s no way for us to fully comprehend the pain of the separation that Jesus had to experience in his last hours, but Keller puts it in these terms:

“To understand Jesus’s suffering at the end of the gospels, we must remember how he is introduced at their beginning…The Son of God was not created but took part in creation and has lived throughout all eternity “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18)—that is, in a relationship of absolute intimacy and love. But at the end of his life he was cut off from the Father.

There may be no greater inner agony that the loss of a relationship we desperately want. If a mild acquaintance turns on you, condemns and criticizes you, and says she never wants to see you again, it is painful. If someone you’re dating does the same thing, it is qualitatively more painful. But if your spouse does this to you, or if one of your parents does this to you when you’re still a child, the psychological damage is infinitely worse.

We cannot fathom, however what it would be like to lose not just spousal love or parental love that has lasted several years, but the infinite love of the Father that Jesus had from all eternity. Jesus’s suffering would have been eternally unbearable. Christian theology has always recognized that Jesus bore, as the substitute in our place the endless exclusion from God that the human race has merited. In the Garden of Gethsemane, even the beginning and foretaste of this experience began to put Jesus into a state of shock. New Testament scholar Bill Lane writes: “Jesus came to be with the Father for an interlude before his betrayal, but found hell rather than heaven opened before him, and he staggered.” On the cross, Jesus’s cry of dereliction—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—is a deeply relational statement. Lane writes: “The cry has a ruthless authenticity…Jesus did not die renouncing God. Even in the inferno of abandonment he did not surrender his faith in God, but expressed his anguished prayer in a cry of affirmation, “My God, my God.” Jesus still uses the language of intimacy—“my God”—even as he experiences infinite separation from the Father.”

So here we have this great high priest and sacrificial scapegoat rolled into One. The ritual cleansing, sacrificing, and scapegoat procedure was take place once a year for all the sins of Israel. Not only did Aaron need to make atonement for the people but for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar–and only then could he bring forward the live goat, place his hand’s on it’s head and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites. But, here’s the amazing thing: Christ did it once, for all time, splitting in two the curtain that separated the Holiest of Holies so we now have direct access to the Father.

And so, in this, we receive our confirmation that Christ is the fulfillment of this law (in his own words) in Matthew 5: 17-18 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

picture licensed under Creative Commons by John H Wright Photo

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