|The Names of Jesus #9
Great High Priest
May 24, 1998 / Hebrews 4:14 — 5:10
In 1928, Betty Martin was a 19-year-old debutante in New Orleans. She was engaged to a medical student and getting ready to celebrate Christmas with her family. Then she discovered some pale rose spots on her thighs. The doctor who examined her diagnosed Hansen’s Disease, better known as leprosy. The physician shouted to her mother, "Get her out of here before she infects the entire city!"
The terror and social shame of the young woman’s disease led to a clandestine departure from New Orleans in January of 1929. Only a few members of her family and her fiancé knew she had leprosy and was being sent to a government hospital. The Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center at Carville, Louisiana, was destined to be Betty’s home for the next several years.1
When she first arrived at Carville, Betty so feared bringing shame to her family that she gave an assumed name upon admission. Betty Martin, you see, is not her real name. Even though she is 90 years old now and has written two best-selling books about her experiences, she still will not reveal her true identity. Her fiancé remained faithful to her at first, but he broke their engagement on Betty’s twenty-first birthday.
Strict public-health laws that were in effect until the 1960s dictated the fate of those who had leprosy. They were forbidden to use public restrooms, ride on public transportation, or to fly over certain states. Husbands and wives were separated. Children born to mothers with Hansen’s Disease at the Carville facility were given up for adoption. Detention at Carville was mandatory until a patient tested negative for active leprosy in twelve consecutive tests, spaced at least one month apart.
For those diagnosed with leprosy in the 1920s, basic freedoms the rest of us take for granted were denied. Whereas about half a million cases of leprosy are still diagnosed every year, dermatologists treat it successfully and no longer colonize and stigmatize persons with it. How would you like to have been a leper at the start of this century? Or in even more ancient times?
Here is what the Bible required ancient Israel to do when infectious leprosy was discovered in the community. Advanced as these instructions were for their time in applying the principle of quarantine to stop the spread of the infection, they are nevertheless cruel in terms of the life of exile and stigma they anticipated. Read the words for yourself: "The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp" (Lev. 13:45-46).
If you had such a disease, what would you want more than anything else? What would you be willing to give the person who could provide you with a cure — and thereby give your life back? No price would be too great to pay!
All of this may sound like background to "The Great Physician" as a name for Jesus. But, no, I choose to begin from this unlikely-sounding background to explore the fact that he is the Great High Priest for those of us who believe in him. Don’t forget Betty. We’ll come back to her story.
The Function of Priests
One way to think of a high priest’s role is in terms of its contrast with the function of a prophet. Whereas the prophet represented the authoritative voice of God to the people, a priest was the supplicant representative of men before the Lord. Indeed, the high priest "is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Heb. 5:1b). The duties of the high priest were focused especially on the sacrificial service of one particular day of the year, the Day of Atonement.
Described in its greatest biblical detail at Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement was the single annual time of required fasting for Israel. All the other festivals of Judaism were feasts that heard great mirth and laughter. Not so the Day of Atonement. It was a time of recollection and weeping. The nation was called to remember its sinful history. Each Israelite was expected to review his or her own personal frailties. The high priest led this day of public fasting, mourning, and sacrifice.
Aaron and his successors in the office of high priest had two principal duties on the Day of Atonement. After preparing his own heart and offering a sacrifice for himself, it was his duty (1) to slaughter the sacrifice and (2) to take the sacrificial blood into the Most Holy Place. The outcome of his service was the opening of a path of access to God by blotting out the guilt of sin by means of the blood taken to the inner sanctuary before the Lord.
It was a beautiful and impressive ceremony. It was a day of mourning for human sin that culminated in the celebration of divine grace. It is by no means surprising that the unnamed writer of Hebrews should see a picture of Jesus in the office and function of the high priest.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Heb. 4:14-16).
By the gift of his own blood at Calvary, Jesus has provided access into God’s grace through our faith in him (cf. Rom. 5:2). Our sin has been blotted out by the sacrificial blood he carried into the heavenly sanctuary. He intercedes on our behalf at the right hand of God the Father at every moment.
The Problems With Priests
As powerful as it was in its own right and as symbolic as it was of the coming work of Jesus, however, the levitical priestly function begun with Aaron was not without some glaring problems. Those deficiencies make Christ’s high priesthood even more impressive. Specifically, those priests were personally sinful, had no better sacrifice than the blood of animals to offer, and could not maintain their office or perform their duties indefinitely because of their mortality.
1. Sinfulness. "Every high priest is selected from among men . . . He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people" (Heb. 5:1-3).
The positive thing about the Aaronic high priest’s sinfulness was that it not only proved he was "from among men" and "subject to weakness" but also enabled him to "deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray." The negative feature about the same fact is that it compromised him as a spiritual leader. Say whatever people may about private life and public life being "totally irrelevant to one another," all of us know better. Professional athlete, musical superstar, television celebrity, President of the United States — whatever titillation or sense of personal superiority we get from their sordid escapades, we know their behaviors weaken the moral fabric necessary to hold a culture together.
Jesus identified with us in our frailty and experienced everything you and I do. The single exception to that claim is sin. Oh, he was tempted. But he did not lose either the ethical high ground for the sake of his example to the rest of us or — and this is incredibly more important! — for the sake of his substitutionary death on our behalf.
Having introduced the topic of leprosy earlier and with the promise of returning to Betty Martin’s before ending, let me remind you of a tiny piece of related history you may know about already. Joseph Damien was a Belgian priest sent to minister to lepers in Hawaii in 1873. He tried to befriend the lonely, frail, and dying people on Molokai. But he preached each Sunday to a mere handful of hearers. After a dozen years of pouring himself into that work, he decided to abandon it and return home. While standing on the pier to board the ship that would take him back to Belgium, he noticed some white spots on his hands. Those spots could mean only one thing. He had contracted leprosy himself. Instead of going home, he returned to the leper colony.
The next Sunday morning he got into his pulpit. Instead of referring in that sermon to "you lepers," he spoke of "we lepers" and "our disease." The news of the missionary’s disease flashed around the island like electricity. Hundreds gathered outside his hut. They understood his pain and despair. When Father Damien arrived at his chapel the next Sunday, the small building was filled to overflowing — and was filled every Sunday after that fateful day.
Now the lepers of Molokai knew that Joseph Damien cared about them. There was no longer a question of his detachment or involvement, for he had taken on their flesh. He had taken on their leprous flesh and had become one with them. In the same way, we have a God who has identified with us. "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Heb. 2:14-15; cf. 5:7). Jesus took our leprous flesh to wear in order to show us how real heaven’s love is for us.
2. Animal sacrifices. Another problem with the Aaronic priesthood was the quality of sacrifices. Those priests could offer only animals, but "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Heb. 10:4). Animals do not have equivalent worth to human souls. Men and women of species homo sapiens are made in the image and likeness of God. Animals may be burden-bearers, skin providers, or even food for the part of creation that is closest in likeness to God. The most radical animal rights activist to the contrary notwithstanding, Flipper and Coco are not our peers.
The blood of animals offered in sacrifice before the Lord could bring about only an external or ceremonial purification. They could not purge sin’s guilt from someone’s conscience. "The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean" (Heb. 9:13). This is not said to depreciate the value of those sacrifices and ceremonies. It is to contrast it with the actual cleansing effected by the blood of Jesus who offered himself for our sins. "How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" (Heb. 9:14).
Jesus Christ has the power to set a guilty conscience free. "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful" (Heb.10:19-23).
3. Mortality. The final weakness of the levitical priesthood was its time-bound, space-bound, infected-with-death priests. They had to function in an earthly sanctuary that was never better than a shadowy resemblance of the true heavenly sanctuary. They were forced to labor at altars their enemies could tear down and to function there with tools that broke, that had to be replaced, or that altar-breaking enemies could melt down and use to make images of their idol gods. Even if a given priest should be fortunate enough to serve long in the work of God and could be spared the ravages of an enemy at his altar, he would someday be unable to go to the sanctuary. He would be too feeble to present the gifts and offering to the Lord. He would die. All those who had depended on him would be heartbroken at his disappearance from the holy service. Not so with our Great High Priest!
Jesus is the High Priest forever over his people. He was raised from the dead after his Calvary-gift of himself. He is alive never to die again. The sanctuary where he functions is the authentic and true heavenly sanctuary. And the tools of his ongoing work of intercession before the Father are imperishable and indestructible. "The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. . . . But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises" (Heb. 8:1-2, 6).
I began with the story of a woman diagnosed with leprosy at the tender age of 19 and sent to an isolated leper’s hospital in 1929. The man to whom she was engaged broke their engagement on her twenty-first birthday. A healthy man could not waste his life waiting on the unlikely cure of a woman with leprosy. There is more to that story you need to know. Indeed, Betty Martin’s story is far more detailed and complex than the few facts I can relate here. But this much you need to know.
Betty did not live the rest of her life alone and unloved because of being jilted by her fiancé. She fell in love with and was loved in return by — have you already guessed? — another patient with leprosy. She and Henry Martin eventually married. Their disease complicated their life together. But they eventually left Carville, fully 20 years after being sent there. They occasionally had to return for treatment, and Betty’s disease eventually became active again. They returned to Carville permanently in 1989, and Henry died there in September 1996. Betty is still living as a frail victim of a horrible disease.
My story ends better than Betty Martin’s story. Infected with sin, hopeless against the future, and separated from a Holy God, Jesus took my leprous flesh onto himself. He came into the human experience to love me as a "fellow patient" in vulnerability and temptation. And he has given me not just a few years of freedom before dying but eternal life with him.
Because he is my Great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek who has overcome the imperfections of the Aaronic priesthood, my sins are forgiven and my future is secure. How wonderful to be loved by someone who would take my disease into himself to save me, who would die from my disease in order to spare me that fate.
And he loves you as fully as he loves me. Therefore we may together approach the divine throne with boldness to receive the mercy and grace we need in our lives. No one will be turned away who comes there in the holy and compassionate name of Jesus.
1 Sally Quires, "We Have Suffered Too Long in Loneliness and in Fear," Los Angeles Times, 14 December 1997, p. A2.
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