A True and Better Priest

I need you to imagine something.

Let’s imagine that you need to go in for surgery. We’ll imagine that it’s an appendectomy—a fairly standard procedure, but in the absence of treatment can become something much more dangerous.

If you’ve ever had surgery, you know there’s a whole pre-flight checklist that everyone goes through. It’s more than just dotting “i’s” and crossing “t’s.” It’s a whole protocol that ensures the absolute safety and integrity of each participant from patient to surgeon. The final step is to wheel you into the operating room where you are put under for the procedure. Now imagine, right as your eyes are about to shut from the anesthesia, that you look over to see the surgeon walk in the room. Instead of wearing the sterile scrubs, mask, and gloves you expect, your surgeon is covered in mud, or wearing those ugly rubber orange gloves she found in the janitor’s closet.

If you caught such a vision, your last thoughts before shutting your eyes would be paralyzing fear. This was the one person you were counting on for what would ultimately be a life-saving procedure. Yet your health had now been compromised by her lack of purity.

A DEFILED PRIEST

In the book of Joshua, we catch a vision of the high priest on what seems to be the great Day of Atonement, the day when the high priest would offer a sacrifice for the provision of the nation:

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2 And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” 3 Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. (Zechariah 3:1-3)

at in the Hebrew, we would notice that it doesn’t just say “Satan,” but “the satan,” which might simply mean “the accuser.” Again, this is a vision, not reality, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see such supernatural elements here, but it’s not necessarily clear that Zechariah is referring to the devil himself or merely an enemy of Israel hurling accusations.

What we are meant to see is the defilement of Joshua, the high priest. Customarily, priests like Joshua were sequestered for a week to prevent them from coming into contact with anything unclean so that they could perform the ceremony undefiled.  There was even a set of ritual bathings, after which Joshua would emerge wearing pure white robes.

But in Zechariah 3:3, Joshua is wearing “filthy robes.”  The original Hebrew seems to suggest that he is actually covered in excrement.  He is expected to be clean, to bring purity to the nation.  But in God’s eyes, all the rituals and duties do not truly cleanse the stain.

We find a similar theme in the letter of Hebrews—though here the author focuses not on the priests or the Day of Atonement, but the entire sacrificial system:

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” (Hebrews 10:1-7)

There’s no doubt about it: sacrifices ultimately meant nothing.

A TRUE AND BETTER SACRIFICE

Not to keep using such visceral imagery, but we need to truly wrap our minds around the culture of sacrifice in the ancient world. To do this, we can actually look at the history books from the ancient people and catch a glimpse of what their religious system looked like.

The writer Josephus, for example, tells us that major Jewish holidays attracted so many worshippers to the temple that there were over 200,000 sacrifices made for 2.7 million people. [1] Even if you think this is an exaggeration, we might point out that Jewish commentaries describe the need to install drainage systems in their temple system:

 “At the south-western corner [of the Altar] there were two holes like two narrow nostrils by which the blood that was poured over the western base and the southern base used to run down and mingle in the water-channel and flow out into the brook Kidron.”[2]

The Kidron would have looked like the Chicago river on St. Patrick’s Day—only instead of green it would have gradually become a deep red.

In short: the system was bloody.  So when Jesus made a once-for-all sacrifice, it would have stood in sharp contrast to this older style of worship.  Imagine living in a city where once a year, the local river turned red from all the killing.  Where the sounds of thousands upon thousands of animals being slaughtered could be heard above the traffic.

Inadequate, the Bible says. Only a shadow of what’s to come.

See, we need a better high priest—a true and better Joshua. We find this in Jesus. He’s the true and better high priest who offers a true and better sacrifice, so that his once-for-all sacrifice could atone for the sins of God’s people, past, present, and future.

 

 

 

 

[1] Josephus, Bellum Iudaicum, 6:423-427.

[2] Mishnah, 3:2.

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