While drawing his final breaths on the cross, Jesus arduously yet triumphantly declared, "It is finished" (Jn 19:30). He had been dedicated to finishing the work that the Father had given him to do on earth (Jn 4:34; 17:4), work that culminated in his death. By dying as the ultimate Passover lamb, he defeated the devil and liberated his people from slavery to the fear of death, inaugurating a new covenant (Heb 2:14-15; 9:15-20).
Jesus' death is not the end of the story, however. As the epistle to the Hebrews explains, Jesus accomplished even more after completing his work on earth. The author of Hebrews, addressing Jewish Christians around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, bases his reasoning on the details of Israel's priesthood and sacrificial system.
The tabernacle and temple sacrifices described in the book of Leviticus entailed much more than the death of an animal.
A sacrifice was a process including several steps, of which slaughtering an animal was only the first. After the animal was killed, priests carried out the key task of bringing material from the sacrifice into God's presence. They would burn parts of the animal on the outer altar and apply its blood to either that altar or the incense altar inside the sanctuary (see Lev 1-7). Each step had to be carried out properly for the sacrifice to be acceptable.(1)
The priests had an enormous responsibility, especially the high priest. Each year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest carried out a cleansing of both the sanctuary and the people of Israel (Lev 16). On this holiest day of the year, he entered the most holy place and made atonement for himself and the people in the presence of God. As a result, Israel's covenant relationship was maintained and the LORD continued to dwell in their midst.
The earthly tabernacle and temple were patterned after a heavenly temple, based on plans that God had revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex 25:9,40; Num 8:4; Heb 8:5). By way of analogy, the inspired author of Hebrews concludes that the services of the heavenly sanctuary must be similar to those of the earthly one, with a high priest doing sacrificial and intercessory work.
Hebrews gives a detailed explanation of the qualifications of Jesus to be the high priest in the heavenly temple. First, since Jesus is fully human, he can represent human beings effectively (Heb 2:17-18). He is also without sin and can come into God's presence perpetually, not just on the Day of Atonement (Heb 4:15; 7:25-28).
Jesus is from the tribe of Judah, so he is not eligible for the priesthood of the earthly temple, which is reserved for descendants of Levi. Instead, the Messiah had been prophesied to be "a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (Ps 110:4). The Bible gives no record of Melchizedek's birth or death, making that mysterious priest of Abram's day a fitting type for the Messiah, who has existed eternally and lives forever (Heb 7).
Jesus' resurrection allowed him to complete the sacrifice that began with his death. After forty days with his disciples, he ascended to heaven (Ac 1:9) to the right hand of the Father (Heb 1:3; 8:1; 10:12-13). Entering the heavenly sanctuary, he then offered himself there as a sacrifice (Heb 7:27; 9:11-14).
On the Day of Atonement, the Aaronic high priest interceded for the people of Israel, praying for them during his annual visit to the Holy of Holies in the temple. In the heavenly sanctuary, access to God is not restricted to one day a year or limited by the imperfections or mortality of the high priest. Instead, Jesus is continually present in the heavenly temple, interceding for his New Covenant people (Heb 7:23-28) and maintaining their standing with the Father.
In addition to explaining Jesus' high priestly role, the book of Hebrews describes the new exodus in which Christians participate.
Through the death of Jesus, we are freed from spiritual slavery and come into a covenantal relationship with God (Heb 2:14-15; 9:15). We are now on a kind of wilderness journey, coming "to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (12:22). In the process of being sanctified (2:11), we await the return of Jesus, who "will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (9:28).
The author of Hebrews admonishes Christians to learn from the wilderness experience of our faith forebearers. The newly liberated Israelites rebelled at the borders of the Promised Land, calling for a change in leadership and a return to Egypt. As a result, their time of sojourning was extended to forty years, with the older generation dying in the wilderness and never seeing the Promised Land (Nu 14). God determined that this unbelieving generation "shall not enter my rest" (Ps 95:11).
Hebrews places Christians, spiritually speaking, at the border of the Promised Land with crucial choices to make. Quoting Psalm 95, the author urges readers to avoid "an evil, unbelieving heart" (3:12). Instead, we are to "exhort one another every day" so that "none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (v 13). Taking every opportunity to meet together, we should "consider how to stir up one another to love and good works" (10:24).
Knowing Jesus is continually on duty as our high priest provides extra incentive and encouragement to persevere. Through him, we know that we can "with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (4:16). With him interceding on our behalf, nothing can separate us from God's love (Rom 8:32-39) or hinder the good works for which we were created (Eph 2:10).
(1) See David M. Moffitt, "It Is Not Finished: Jesus' Perpetual Atoning Work as the Heavenly High Priest in Hebrews," pp. 157-174 in So Great A Salvation: A Dialogue on the Atonement in Hebrews, John C. Laansma, George H. Guthrie, Cynthia Long Westfall, Editors, T&T Clark, 2019.
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