In 1941 Winston Churchill stood before an eager audience at an all-boys school in war-torn England and spoke these famous words, “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in.” Churchill’s words echo the message of the writer to the Hebrews. While Churchill rested his comments on the “honor and good sense” of his audience, the writer to the Hebrews urges confidence in the high priestly work of Jesus Christ.
The recipients of Hebrews were in danger of abandoning Christ through unbelief. Pressured by persecution, assaulted by sin, and challenged by everyday life, these believers were on the brink of quitting in the heat of battle. With such dangers clearly in view, the author chooses one primary theme on which to focus: the priesthood of Christ. The word priest occurs more than seventy times in the New Testament. More than one-third of these occurrences are in Hebrews.
Christ’s priesthood demands a believer’s attention on a continual basis. When we fear that God is still angry toward us, we need to remember that Christ has propitiated the wrath of God. When we doubt that God could ever look on us with favor, we need to recall that Christ stood as our replacement. The love the Father shows to him he now shows to us. When we take for granted that Christ suffered for us, we need to reflect on his innocence. He always does the will of God for us with precise obedience.
The priesthood of Christ is eminently practical, but if we can’t remember what his priesthood means we will not use it as we must. In Remember Jesus Christ, Charles Erdman writes that “the association of ideas is the controlling law of memory.” If we could associate six key ideas of Christ’s priesthood with the letters P-R-I-E-S-T, perhaps we would more readily recall his work and be better steeled to “never give in.”
A Propitiating High Priest
In very simple terms, propitiation means to regain favor. The word, which is used in several key New Testament verses (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), is related to an Old Testament word that describes the cover of the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, which was sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifice on the annual day of atonement. This rite signified that the life of the people, the loss of which they had merited by their sins, was offered to God in the blood as the life of the victim, and that God by this ceremony was appeased and their sins covered” (Strong’s Concordance).
The Belgic Confession of Faith says that “Christ presented himself . . . before the Father, to appease His wrath” (art. 21). By experiencing the terrible punishment our sins had merited, Christ saved his people from the otherwise certain judgment of God’s wrath (Rom. 5:8–9; 1 Thess. 1:10). The reason that Christ staggered in the garden of Gethsemane as he considered the cup that the Father had called him to drink was because he knew that the judgment for all the sins of all God’s children swirled in that cup. And he drank it all! Christ was forsaken of God (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46) that we might be accepted of God and never more be forsaken.
The concept of propitiation is closely related to that of substitution.
A Replacing High Priest
The Bible says that Christ “presented himself in our behalf before the Father, to appease His wrath by His full satisfaction, offering Himself on the tree of the cross, and pouring out His precious blood to purge away oursins” (Belgic Confession, art. 21).
Isaiah 53 (cf. 1 Peter 2:24) is a remarkable testimony to Christ’s work as substitute. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (v. 4). He was wounded for our transgressions, and he was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed (v. 5). The Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all (v. 6). For the transgressions of God’s people he was stricken (v. 8). He shall bear their iniquities (v. 11). He bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors (v. 12).
Reflecting on Christ’s death, Philip Bliss wrote:
Bearing sin and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood,
Sealed my pardon with His blood.
Hallelujah! what a Savior!
The impact of the principle of substitution, or replacing, is amplified when we consider Jesus’ innocence.
An Innocent High Priest
The Gospels deliberately highlight Jesus’ innocence, particularly in the hours preceding his death. The Sanhedrin struggled to find enough false witnesses to agree on a charge (Matt. 26:60). When the crowd demanded Jesus’ crucifixion, Pilate asked, “Why, what evil has He done?” (Matt. 27:23). In the span of nine verses, John three times records Pilate saying, “I find no fault in him” (John 18:38–19:6). “While [Pilate] was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Have nothing to do with that just Man” (Matt. 27:19). The centurion who helped put Jesus to death confirmed Christ’s innocence when he said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). The earth itself testified to Jesus’ innocence when it split open in revolt at his unjust death (Matt. 27:51).
The propitiatory and substitutionary nature of the atonement would mean nothing if Christ wasn’t perfectly innocent.“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).
David illustrates Christ’s innocent substitution when he said, “Though I have stolen nothing, I still must restore it” (Ps. 69:4). The punishment Christ received felt heavier since there was no guilt in him.
An Exceptional High Priest
One of the main arguments in the book of Hebrews, especially in chapters 5–7, is that Jesus is superior to the ordinary priests who served in the tabernacle and later in the temple. The Bible says that there are two orders, or kinds, of priests. By far the most common were the Levitical and Aaronic. But there is another order of priest. Christ is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4; cf. Gen. 14:18–24). Descended as he is from the tribe of Judah, from the kingly line of David, Christ is the exception to the priestly rule.
The Melchizedekian priesthood is superior to the priesthood of Levi (Heb. 7:10). Christ alone is our eternal, sinless, oath-bound priest who actually sat down at God’s right hand, having “by Himself purged our sins” (Heb. 1:3). The futility of the labors of the Aaronic priesthood does not apply to Christ. Since it is impossible for God to lie, by his oath we are assured that the foundations of salvation are eternal and immovable.
A Suffering High Priest
Christ’s entire life, in body and soul, was a life of suffering. As he approached the cross, the weight of his suffering increased. In the garden, “being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). The descriptions of Christ’s physical suffering on the cross are palpable. “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death” (Ps. 22:15).
Christ’s spiritual suffering is intangible and defies comprehension. On the cross he humbled himself unto the very deepest reproach and anguish of hell. Because of his suffering, no matter what befalls us we can never say, “Christ cannot understand” (Heb. 2:17–18). Christ became our sympathetic high priest through suffering (Heb. 5:8).
A Total High Priest
Christ’s priestly work completely answers our problem of sin. For this reason Paul would know nothing save Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). It is not necessary to seek any other means of being reconciled to God than his only sacrifice. Knowledge of Christ crucified far surpasses everything else (Phil. 3:8). In Christ’s wounds we find all manner of consolation for the present and the future. Christ’s death has perfected forever those who are sanctified.
Use this acronym to remember Christ’s work as priest. As a propitiating priest, Christ has done away with God’s wrath toward believing sinners. As a replacing priest, Christ has stood condemned in our place, sealing our pardon with his blood. As an innocent priest, Christ has answered for us God’s demand for perfection. As an exceptional priest, there is no other like him; there is no one else to whom we must look for healing. As a suffering priest, Christ suffered the pain and anguish of hell so that we don’t have to. As a total priest, when Christ said, “It is finished,” he meant it (John 19:30). He secured total salvation for us.
Christ’s priesthood teaches us that we have no other way of dealing with our moral failure and the penalty thereby incurred than to come to God and say, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA).