Jesus Interceding on Our Behalf
by Tim Denne
Sunday 25th October, 2015
My talk today is based on the passage from Hebrews 7. It comes after the author had warned the readers against slipping away from their faith, and to hold on to Jesus and the certainty of God’s promises.
Heb 7:23-28 (New Testament for Everyone)
There needed to be a large number of Levitical priests, since they stop holding office at death. But since he [Jesus] continues as a priest for ever, his priesthood is permanent. That’s why he is able to save those who come to God through him, completely and for ever – since he always lives to make intercession for them.
It was appropriate that we should have a high priest like this. He is holy, without blame or stain, separated from sinners, and elevated high above the heavens. He doesn’t need (like the ordinary priests do) to offer sacrifices every day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people. He did this once for all, you see, when he offered himself. For the law appoints ordinary, weak, mortal men as high priests; but the word of the oath, which comes after the law, appoints the son, who has been made perfect for ever.
I want to address the issue of Jesus as priest, which is unique to Hebrews and what it means that Jesus lives to make intercession for those who have come to God through him? There seems to be an implication that Jesus is standing in the middle between us and a God who may not want to save us.
So: a bit about the letter to the Hebrews, a bit about priesthood and their role in ancient Israel and a bit about Jesus and what it all means for us.
The Letter to the Hebrews
Hebrews is very different from other books in our library we call the Bible. We don’t know who the author is or who it is written to. As a result of the subject matter it has been assumed that it has been written to a group of Jewish Christians or Hebrew Christians, hence the name which was added later.
Commentators have suggested that the group appears to have come from a particular form of Judaism, possibly the Essenes, one of the Jewish sects alongside the more numerous Pharisees and Sadducees. But the point here is really that their Jewish background to some degree explains the use of priest language with respect to Jesus.
Priests and their Role in Ancient Israel
In ancient Israel priests were officials set apart from the rest of the community to carry out certain duties related to worship and sacrifice. The priest has two roles:
- as a bridge between the people and God, handling the twice-daily, monthly and annual sacrifices and festivals; and
- pastoral – making the bridge a reality by getting alongside people, sympathising with them and helping them.
They were chosen for this job but the priests then kept a level of ritual purity so that they could then have close contact with the sanctuary and the altar (Lev 21:1-23). This covered things like their language (not profaning God), not making bald patches on their heads or shaving the edges of their beards.
The reasons for the sacrifices include a mixture of thanksgiving to God and atonement; the means by which the people are made right with God again and through which sins are forgiven.
But it was never sustainable.
Back in Hebrews, in 7:11 the author asks “if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood …, what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek”. Melchizedek appears out of the blue in Genesis as a priest of God Most High but is referenced in Hebrews as the basis for a legitimate and greater priesthood than that of the tribe of Levi, and one that ushers in a new covenant.
So the author is using the form of a question to assert that the Levitical priest-sacrifice system fell short of what was required, presumably to a group of people who either now, or at some stage in the past, thought that it was a legitimate system.
And we know that from God’s perspective, despite instituting it, the sacrificial system was never of particular interest.
1Sam 15:22 “And Samuel said, “… to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.”
Hos 6:6 “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Ps 40:6-8 “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.”
The Psalms verse is cited in Hebrews 10:5. And earlier in chapter 10 (vv1-4), the author notes that the sacrifices don’t work permanently (there is a need to keep doing it) and that they “serve as a regular annual reminder of sin”.
So we have this sense in which the sacrificial system is ineffective (it does not deal with sin, in fact it keeps reminding people of their sin) and not of interest to God – he wants love not sacrifice.
So what’s going on?
Well one of the things that goes on when a sacrifice is given is that something is being communicated to the person who is doing the sacrifice, or the person on whose behalf the sacrifice is given. And they get the message that it’s OK now. Everything is right between you and God, so don’t worry and get on with your (hopefully God-pleasing) life. It’s a message that people seem to continually need and the sacrificial system provided that.
For a God who wanted love not sacrifice, the sacrificial system provided the means to get people back to a state where they could love rather than continually seeking forgiveness. We can make some use of analogies with human relationships where it never really functions when someone is in a state of continual grovelling apology. And for those for whom relationship language with God doesn’t quite work, then there is still this sense that you can’t get on with living rightly before him and doing what you are meant to do (love and good works) when in a state of non-acceptance. Because the actions become guilt-driven, or as favour-earning, rather than pure acts of love in a state of acceptance.
So hold this thought: the sacrificial system is best understood, not as placating an angry God, but as providing Israel with the confidence of being in right standing with the God who called them his beloved son.
Israel as Kingdom of Priests
Before we leave ancient Israel, and to further complicate things, in Exodus we also read that God tells Israel that they will be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
Israel itself is meant to be fulfilling the role of priests, maintaining a level of purity and difference from other nations that allows it to stand before God on behalf of all the people of the world and to bring other people to God. It is the continuation of the prophecy given to Abraham, that through him and his descendants, all the people of the world would be blessed (Gen 22:18).
Israel failed in its role because it failed to be a holy nation.
Jesus then comes as faithful Israel, to fulfil the role that she was meant to. And we see symbols throughout his ministry of him saying – look I am being Israel.
So the priesthood language is suitable for Jesus because he fulfils Israel’s role as priest to the world, both as representative of the people and as the one who undertakes, and is, the sacrifice. The one who is righteous on behalf of all. But just as Israel had priests when the whole nation were expected to act as priests, so Jesus is a priest while all of us are expected to be priests also.
Hence Peter writes:
you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1Pet 2:5)
We are priests, not in the sacrificial sense but in the sense of representing God to the world.
So just as the sacrificial system provided assurance of right standing to those who participate, so Jesus as priest provides assurance to those who place their trust in him.
One of the things that Jesus is said to be doing in our Hebrews passage is intercession on our behalf.
That’s why he is able to save those who come to God through him, completely and for ever – since he always lives to make intercession for them.
A simple reading of this might be that Jesus is interceding on our behalf before a God who is not so favourably disposed. But as we’ve discussed so far, it’s not like that. Jesus shows us what God is like and God is favourably disposed towards us also. A similar passage in Romans makes this clearer:
What then shall we say to all this? If God is for us, who is against us? God, after all, did not spare his own son; he gave him up for us all! How then will he not, with him, freely give all things to us? Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who declares them in the right. Who is going to condemn? It is the Messiah, Jesus, who has died, or rather has been raised; who is at God’s right hand, and who also prays [or intercedes] on our behalf. (Rom 8:31-34)
If you look at the rest of the book of Hebrews, along with many other New Testament texts, the concern is over apostasy, people stopping believing or stopping trusting in God. Not carrying on with being Christians. One of the problems that the writer to the Hebrews had identified was that sin (acts that are contrary to what pleases God and ultimately acts that are contrary to what is best for us) can result in people turning from God.
I remember the results of research in the Netherlands related to vehicle emissions in which the government, in order to encourage people out of their cars used guilt messages about the environmental impact. It had the opposite effect; people used their cars more and they cared less about the environment. They did follow-up research that showed that people needed to be able to reconcile their lives with their beliefs and that when they could see no option but using their car, the only way they could reconcile that with their beliefs was by caring less about the environment.
Similarly, if we as a result of our actions feel that we are always separated from God, the only way to reconcile our lives with our beliefs may be to stop believing in God.
The writer to the Hebrews is not in some grand psychological experiment (or applying nudge theory), he is telling a people who is tempted by the decadent lifestyles of those around them (and we’re not being prudish here – we know a lot about the lives of ancient Rome and it wasn’t pretty), that they can pick themselves up from sin because God is on their side. As the writer had noted earlier, speaking of Jesus, “we don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
He’s been there, not done that, and is on our side. More than that, he’s praying for us. He’s taking on the pastoral role of the priest also.
To provide this message of assurance, the writer to the Hebrews is using language of priesthood because it works for a people from a Jewish background. They understood the notion of priesthood. And they can see clearly the role that Jesus is fulfilling.
I went to the movies on Friday night and it struck me thinking about it afterwards how different examples might work better for us. The movie was a cold war spy movie, Bridge of Spies, and without giving too much of the movie away, Tom Hanks is a lawyer who ends up defending a Russian spy because the legal system required that he had a defender. The spy asks him at one stage “don’t you want to know if I am a spy?” and he replies along the lines of “No – that’s not how it works. Their job is to prove that you are.”
In contrast to the movie where the judge clearly wanted to convict, the story we have is one in which judge doesn’t want to convict those who have put their trust in Jesus either. We have an advocate who has no interest in our sin (he’s dealt with it), but is an advocate on our behalf before a judge who does not want to convict and is thus telling us that we are in right standing with God. And just as in the movie, the spy had to want and ask the lawyer to represent him, we need to asks Jesus to represent us; he asks that we place our trust in him.
The writer to the Hebrews goes on to encourage the readers to love and to good works. But this can only be achieved when the hearers know the assurance that comes from knowing that Jesus is their advocate and God is on their side.
So this is the message. We are called to love and good works. This is what it means to be in God’s kingdom. Don’t think that you cannot fully participate in this kingdom because of what you have or haven’t done. Rather know that Jesus is on your side. He’s like a defence lawyer before a sympathetic judge. Not only that; he’s already paid the penalty.
So like the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews, we too should be assured of God’s favour and to respond with love to him and with love and good works to all.