1The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD. 2The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover. 3This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. 5From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.”
1The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5Therefore, when Christ came into the world, He said, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. 7Then I said, ‘Here I am - it is written about me in the scroll - I have come to do your will, O God.’’
8First He said, "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made). 9Then He said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God. 13Since that time He waits for His enemies to be made His footstool, 14because by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
It is in the book of Leviticus where God begins to lay out a very detailed list of requirements as to how the sacrificial system is to be used – which sacrifices are required for which sins, exactly what is to be sacrificed, and even the act of sacrifice itself is given clear instructions by God.
The priest was always involved in the act of sacrifices. It was one of his main tasks. The Old Testament priest was very different to the modern understanding of the roles of ministers and pastors in the Church today. Nevertheless, it is important for us to see what their purpose was. We have the benefit of knowing the end of the story. We know the Old Testament sacrifices and priestly duties all point us to Christ.
I always admire new Christians who read the Bible from cover to cover, especially when they read books like Leviticus which can be heavy going and even quite upsetting as they read about all the bloodshed, which is why we need to read the Old Testament through the lense of the New Testament.
We’ve all made the mistake of taking a peek at the last few pages of a novel at least once, only to immediately regret doing so because it spoils the rest of the book, but this principle doesn’t apply to reading Scripture. In fact, we have to know the end of the story, because when we know how it ends, it helps us to understand many of the details which can be so confusing and so puzzling.
So just what is a priest? What is the Biblical definition of an Old Testament priest, and how do we apply that knowledge to who Jesus is and what He has done for us?
Hebrews 5:1 says, “Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
A priest is a person who by means of intercession and sacrifice, aims to represent and reconcile man to God.
Where the prophet’s role was to represent God to man, the priest’s task was to represent man to God.
One of the earliest examples of this practice was Moses, and was later formalised through the Levite tribe with Aaron. Because of their sin, the Israelites were not allowed in God’s presence. Only the high priest was allowed to do that. The people would quite literally ask him, “Go and ask God if we can do this or that.”
The priest would then approach God, go back to the people, who would then ask, “So, what did God say? Are we allowed to do what we asked?” They had to go through this process because they were not allowed into God’s presence. Ever since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, they were banished from God’s presence.
This, of course, is very different to our understanding of how we relate to God. The difference of course, is Jesus.
If we want to know something from God, all we have to do is ask Him. His revealed will is in His Word, the Bible. Even a child can pray and have a personal relationship with God.
So what brought about this change?
How can we now go into the presence of God?
Is it because we are sinless? No. It is because of Jesus. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:34, “Christ Jesus, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
The answer is Jesus. Jesus is given many titles in the Bible, and one of them is the High Priest.
There are many prophesies of the coming Messiah in the Old Testament, and a number of them talk also of the priestly role of the Messiah. The prophet Zechariah prophesied the role of the promised Messiah by drawing the previously separate roles of king and priest together. “Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and He will branch out from His place and build the temple of the LORD. It is He who will build the temple of the LORD, and He will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on His throne. And He will be a priest on His throne. And there will be harmony between the two.” (Zechariah 6:12-13)
We have a need for a great kingly priest. We need Jesus.
Because of our sin we need Him to represent us to God – and He still does that today – remember what Paul said in Romans 8. “Jesus is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
We still sin. Even though the penalty of our sin has been dealt with, we still need our High Priest to intercede constantly for us and on our behalf.
But the most important point is that there is only one man who can fulfill that task – Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said that He is the only way to God. The role of mediator and priest cannot be fulfilled by dead prophets, the angels, the ancestors or the saints that have gone before us. Only Jesus fulfills the requirements to represent us to the Father.
This is what is meant in the last three verses of Hebrews 7. “Such a high priest meets our need - one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, He does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when He offered Himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.” (Hebrews 7:26-28)
This text clearly points out the difference between Christ and all the other priests. Before the priests were allowed to sacrifice on behalf of the people, they first had to sacrifice for themselves. They had to undergo a strict ritual cleansing first. Our reading from Leviticus 16 this morning describes just a part of this ritual – if you read the book of Leviticus you’ll see that it was crucial for the priest to be cleansed and sanctified first.
But Jesus had no need to do this, because He was sinless.
Jesus, who was completely without sin, is the only true High Priest.
But He was far more than just our priest. He was also the sacrifice.
Throughout the Old Testament, sacrificial animals had to be without blemish. You weren’t allowed to sacrifice a crippled or sick animal, not because God only deserves the best, but because only a perfect sacrifice would atone for sin, which is exactly what Jesus was – perfect and holy.
So what we have here is this contrast – unholy, sinful priests sacrificing animals, and Jesus – the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice.
So why did we have all these poor innocent animals slaughtered? What was the point of all these sacrifices? Hebrews 10:4 says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” So why go through this seemingly pointless exercise at all?
Part of the answer lies in the previous verse: “those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins.”
The sacrificial system was not useless and of no benefit. It did a number of things. It made our unworthiness clear to us, and it also pointed forward to Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary.
The prophet Micah asks these same questions. He says, “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7)
The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic no. It is only God who can reconcile the world to Himself.
This reconciliation had to be a ransom which God would be satisfied with.
The apostle Peter wrote, “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)
We have nothing with which to redeem ourselves.
Deep, heartfelt sorrow is not enough to redeem you.
Not even human sacrifice will do. Remember Micah’s rhetorical questions: “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
There is a question we often hear from people, even within the Church, who don’t really understand the depth of sin. They ask, “Is it really necessary for such a dramatic sacrifice though? Surely if we say sorry, and truly mean it, God can forgive us?
The problem is that we tend to regard our own sin as really that not much of an issue. Our personal sin seems to be rather small to us, but we need to try and grasp how God sees sin. We need to measure our sin against the greatness and holiness of the person against whom we sin.
It is only then, when take a step back and see just how guilty we are, that we will ever begin to understand just how much needs to be done in order to make things right.
It’s not what we say or do that reconciles us to God. It’s what He says and has done that matters.
So the value of the sacrifice has to measure up to the greatness of God as well.
That is why all the silver and gold in the world, every remorseful tear that has ever been shed is not enough.
Only God Himself can atone for our sin. Only God Himself can pay the price of redemption.
If Jesus had been only a human being, as some heretical religions teach, His death would not have been enough. Even if as just a human being He had lived a sinless life, it still would not be enough. Jesus Christ had to be fully human, but He also had to be fully God.
2 Corinthians 5:19 says, “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.”
There are many gems in the Bible, and this is one of them. God was in Christ – echoing the words of Jesus when He said, “I and the Father are one.” And it was God who reconciles the world to Himself.
If it was us reconciling ourselves to God, then we could quite conceivably make things right with God ourselves. We could give money. We could try as hard as possible to keep the Ten Commandments. We could cry out with truly repentant hearts, and God would probably forgive us.
But He will not, and He cannot, because there is absolutely nothing that we can do to reconcile ourselves to Him. Only God can do it, through the High Priest that is Jesus Christ.
It was 15 years ago that the movie ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was released, and people were quite rightly horrified at the extent of the suffering that Jesus went through before and during the Crucifixion. But that’s only a fraction of what the sacrifice of Jesus was all about.
We could have tortured countless animals or even human beings if it was just about physical pain and blood being spilt.
But it’s not about the volume of His suffering.
It’s about the value of His sacrifice.
The value of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is not determined by the duration and intensity of His suffering, but by the fact that Jesus Christ was, and is God.
Martin Luther wrote, “We Christians must know that if God is not in the balance, and gives weight, then we sink to the bottom with our scale.”
In other words, if God Himself had not been actively and passively involved in the supreme sacrifice; if He had not been the sacrifice itself, then mankind would be doomed forever.
It is only God, in the person of Jesus Christ, who can make atonement for our sin.
God says in Leviticus 19:2, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”
Sadly, we are not holy, because we cannot keep the law of God, and without complete and perfect obedience to God, we will never be holy. Our relationship with our Holy Lord is broken.
And it is only holiness which will restore that relationship.
God, in His holiness, cannot condone sin. He never has, and never will say, “I know that you tried so hard to be good, and because you were so sincere, I’m prepared to forgive and forget. I will let bygones be bygones.”
No sin is forgiven, unless it is paid for. Without a full atonement for sin, reconciliation with God is impossible. Not difficult or highly unlikely, but impossible. And since we cannot pay the price, Jesus steps in, and as Isaiah wrote, “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
This is the Gospel message we are to take into the world. In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul not only reminds his readers of how we are saved, but that we are to take this message of hope into the world as ambassadors of God Himself.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)
It is only God who can reconcile us with Himself, and Jesus Christ is the only means of reconciliation available to us. Jesus is not just one of many ways to God. He is the only way to God. This is the message of hope that we have, and it is our only message.
“When this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time He waits for His enemies to be made His footstool, because by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
Homegroup Study Notes
In order to prepare for your meeting, read Leviticus chapter 16.
Why do you think God’s instructions to Moses were so detailed and meticulous?
In which ways have the roles of modern ministers or pastors changed in comparison to Old Testament times?
How have they remained the same?
Read Genesis 22:1-18
This account is a clear prophecy of the sacrifice of Jesus, yet most non-believers and many Christians see God’s command to Abraham as extremely cruel and are deeply offended by what they read in Genesis 22.
Why do you think there is this misunderstanding?
How would you answer the accusation that a God of love would never ask such a thing?
Read Hebrews 7:23-8:2
What do we mean when we call Jesus our ‘Great High Priest?’
Discuss the differences between high priests like Aaron and Caiaphas, and the role which Jesus now fulfills as the high priest.