The Great High Priest
Today’s second reading in the Daily Office Lectionary is our last from Hebrews this Lent until Holy Saturday, the final day of the season. Starting next week we begin reading our way through most of Paul’s Letter to the Romans until Holy Week, when we read passages from Philippians 3 & 4. Tomorrow, being the Second Sunday in Lent, is not counted among the forty days, and so I will not post a blog tomorrow.
The theme now is Jesus as a great high priest. This is a spiritual metaphor. In his earthly life Jesus was not of the tribe of Levi, and he was not a descendant of Zadok the Priest, and so was in no way qualified to be selected to be a priest or a high priest in Jerusalem at the Temple.
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you’;
as he says also in another place,
‘You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.’
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Jesus is described here as having been chosen as a priest by God, and having been appointed a priest in his being begotten of the Father. The reference to Melchizedek is interesting, because he was not an Israelite priest, but a Caananite priest of El-Elyon ‘the most high God”. Some scholars speculate that various cults of Yahweh, El, and El-Elyon merged sometime before or after the time of David (1000 BC) and that this story is a remnant from a time when El-Elyon was recognised as identical with Yahweh.
One needs to separate out two separate meanings of priest in English which in Hebrew and Greek are two separate words. The Hebrew זָקֵן (zaqen) means elder. It was translated into Greek as πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros), and it means elder as well.In the centuries before Jesus the synagogues were usually ruled by a council of the senior men of the community, and they were also called elders. This kind of council was taken over into early Christianity, and so its ordained leadership was also called presbuteroi. This word came down, through Latin and Germanic to Old English and got somewhat mangled, but is now pronounced “priest”, although it is sometimes transliterated as “presbyter”. These leaders were concerned with preaching and leading the individual communities. Very different are the כֹּהֵן (cohen) or ἱερεύς (hierus) who offer sacrifices in Temples. Zadok and Caiaphas were cohens and hieruses, not zakenim or presbuteroi.English conflated these two sets of terms into one word, priest, and began to look at the Holy Eucharist as a sacrifice of a sacrifical priest, rather than the presidency of an elder priest. As Catholics and Reformers tried to deal with the clericalization of the church they changed the names for the ordained, so that now we have a plethora of them: priest, presbyter, elder, pastor, minister, parson, and so on.
Christianity, influenced by Hebrews and other portrayals of Jesus, see him as the only cohen/hierus; alternately, there is also the sense that all believers are priests, as we are the body of Christ. Jesus is outside the Levitical or Aaronite succession – he is like Melchizedek, chose by God to be a priest. His offering – himself – will be discussed later in the letter as an offering than makes any further offerings superfluous. Chjrist’s offering becomes once and for all.
If we are the body of Christ, then we are part of the sacrifice, part of the offering, as well as part of the redemption. Our sins are propitiated by our incorporation in the offering of Jesus. As Christ is then raised from the dead, so we participate in the power which lifted him up from the grave.