Jesus Christ, Our High Priest

“For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the
true one, but He entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24)

To gain some understanding of the significance of our blessed Lord’s crucifixion from the point of view of His contemporary Jews, we require the knowledge of the Old Testament together with our own creative imagination. We need to have in our mind’s eye the temple of Jerusalem. We must walk as it were through the separate sections and find ourselves in front of the very sanctuary itself, the “holy of holies,” where just one priest could enter, and that only once a year on the day of atonement. He had bells and a rope attached, because the experience could be so overwhelming that those outside listened to the bells ringing, meaning that the priest was moving about; but if the bells stopped ringing, they would pull him out, not daring to enter themselves.

The priest is in linen vestments. He takes two goats a sin offering, a ram as a burnt offering on behalf of the community, and a bullock as a sin offering for himself. One goat is for YHWH, the other for Azazel, a demon of the desert. That goat is the “scapegoat.” He spreads the blood of the sin-offerings on the furniture of the sanctuary and the altar. Next he drives the scapegoat into the wilderness after reciting prayers over it to commit the communal sins onto it, thus freeing the people from past sins. He then changes vestments, sacrifices the whole burnt offering, and with its blood applies it to the inner Holy of Holies. For the Hebrews blood is life, the most precious element of all living things. It should help explain why blood, Christ’s blood, is so prominent a feature in the film, The Passion of Christ.

The writer of the book of Hebrews knows all this and is addressing those like him who will grasp its meaning and application to Jesus Christ. He expects them to understand the difference:

The Old Testament sacrifice was to purify a person’s body. Christ cleanses his soul. The ceremonial sacrifice made a person ritually clean. Jesus frees his conscience.

The temple ritual was an annual event. Christ’s crucifixion was done once for all time.

The High Priest was an instrument of the Atonement ritual. Jesus Christ is both High Priest and victim offered as a sacrifice. What He did calls for a transformation of each human heart.

Men selected the animals; they didn’t go to death willingly. Jesus gave His life for the salvation of mankind, as He said laying it down for His friends.

He did so not because it was the Law, but because it was an act of love.

The poor animals had no awareness of what was being done to them or for what purpose. Christ was aware, perhaps alone in His knowledge of what it was that He was achieving by His death.

His death on the cross was not some mechanical formula devised to placate an angry God, but a test of His wills—the conquest of the old Adam’s willfulness by the voluntary surrender of that will to the will of the Father in heaven, making it possible for all humans to do likewise after their own inner battles between the primeval self will and the capitulation of one’s will to God’s.

This is why for us Orthodox Christians there is only one High Priest, Jesus Christ Himself. Those who are blessed with the grace and privilege of standing at the Holy Altar, be he patriarch or parish priest, is but a stand-in for the Unique One who is both “Offerer and Offered, Receiver and Received,” as is put so poignantly in the priest’s prayer of the Divine Liturgy.