Once a year it would happen. Once a year he would bathe himself, put on special clean linen garments, and prepare himself for a day of blood. He would take one young bull for himself and his family, slaughter it, and offer it to God as a sin offering. He would then take a goat – one of two picked for this special day – and slaughter it. This goat would serve as a sin offering for the people. It was bloody work – much of which happened behind a curtain where only he could go and only on this special day.
After the sacrifices were made and the blood was shed, this man spoke over the second goat confessing the people’s sins upon it, in essence placing their sins on the goat, and then he sent it off into the wilderness. This goat was called the Azazel or “scapegoat” and would serve as a sign of absolution, whereby the people were declared to be free from sin.
What a strange and unique custom, yet this was the Day of Atonement, the day of at-oneness that God had the High Priest of Israel carry out once a year. This was the “Good Friday” of the Old Testament. Definitely a different worship service than the one we are having today. And why is that? Why have we stopped following these rites and customs of the Old Testament believers? Is it because PETA would have a field day if we were slaughtering animals on an altar? Or is it because your present-day pastors no longer have the stomach for such work? No, it is because we have a new high priest, a great high priest. A great high priest whose person and whose work brought about a change that literally shook the world.
The writer to the Hebrews tells us about this great high priest. First, he tells us a simple truth: “We have a great high priest.” We have, you have, all of us have this great high priest. He was given to us, he was sent to us, to serve us. And he “has gone through the heavens” This High Priest doesn’t walk around on this earth offering sacrifices behind a curtain. He stands in heaven – in the very presence of God – and there he daily intercedes on our behalf, a reminder of his sacrifice that took our sins away. This is our great high priest. This is your great high priest, he is yours! And he is “Jesus the Son of God.”
And that name or that title “Jesus the Son of God” is extremely important, because it tells us why our high priest is so great. He is great because he is both human and divine. He is human; He is Jesus. He is that baby who was born of a virgin woman; born under law. He is that boy who grew in wisdom and stature. He is that man who walked on dusty trails, felt the pangs of hunger, and wept over the loss of a friend. This is our great high priest. A man, a human being, just like you and me. And what does that mean for us? It means that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are”
Have you ever talked with someone who had something terrible happen in their life, something life changing? If you have, maybe you’ve heard these words before, “You don’t understand what it’s like” or “easy for you to say, you’re not the one going through this.” That’s not true of our great high priest. That’s not true of Jesus. He knows what it’s like. He knows what it is like to lose a loved one. He knows what it’s like to be rejected by friends and strangers. He understands the temptations that we wrestle with on a daily basis. He experienced them; he endured them and yet we are told he “was without sin.” And we know why he was without sin, our great high priest is also divine; he is the Son of God.
He is the Son of God, born of a miracle – angels announced his birth. He is the Son of God who changed water into wine, healed the sick, and raised the dead. He is the Son of God, about whom the Father declared “this is my Son!” He is the Son of God who endured temptations, temptations which we can’t even imagine, yet, he withstood the depth, as well as the force, of these temptations. He overcame them as the sinless one. He is the Son of God who humbled himself, who set aside his fully glory and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. This is what makes him our Great High Priest.
But now you might be asking yourself, “If I have such a great high priest, where is he?” “Where is God?” as I lie here depressed and feeling helpless. “Where is God?” as I struggle in a cold and dead marriage. “Where is God” as I feel betrayed by a close friend. “Where is God?” when my parents fight and yell at each other daily. “Where is God?” when my loved one’s life was snuffed out by death. If he is so great, if he sympathizes with my weaknesses why hasn’t he helped? Why hasn’t he interceded on my behalf while he is up there in the heavens? Where is he when I need him?
The answer is off to your left. Where was our great high priest when we needed him? He was offering up a sacrifice. He was being led like a sheep to be slaughtered. He was being beaten and mocked by men. He was being stricken and smitten by God. He was carrying our cross. He was dying for our sins. “He was being cut off from the land of the living; he was being assigned a grave with the wicked.” See him on that cross, nailed to a tree, crying, bleeding, suffering, and dying. Not asking for mercy, not begging for release, but crying out “It is finished.”
God saw your need, your real need. And it wasn’t a pain free easy life on this earth, it was a need for a Savior from sin. He provided that Savior. He gave up his one and only Son. He forsook him on the cross, he left him to die. And as our great high priest gave up his spirit, as he died, the curtain in the temple tore in two and the earth shook. And it was then that we hear the truth from a witness of our Saviors death, from a soldier nearby, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Surely, he was, and surely, he still is. So, we are encouraged today, on this Good Friday, “to hold firmly to the faith we profess.” To trust in the sacrifice of our great high priest, to believe and hold firmly to what it means for us. No longer does sin rule over us. No longer does death fill us with fear and dread, Our great high priest has “become a source of eternal salvation” for all who believe in him. Our greatest need has been conquered; we stand reconciled to God through Jesus’ sacrifice.
Does that mean our life on this earth will be easy and carefree? No. Does it mean that we will never endure hardship, sickness, and pain? No. But it does mean that we can close our eyes every night trusting that our great high priest knows our daily struggles, our daily temptations, and our every weakness. And if he was able to satisfy our greatest need, if he was able to make us at peace with God, then surely the Son of God can and will sympathize with us and can and will help us.
Therefore the writer to the Hebrews tells us to seek comfort, strength, and encouragement by approaching God in prayer. He writes, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence.” Before our great high priest that throne that we are told to approach was a throne of judgment, a place where we would have stood to be condemned to hell for all eternity, but now by Jesus’ sacrifice we find it is a place of grace; underserved love! We are welcome to go before God!
And we don’t come to his throne only when we’ve got everything all together and figured out in our lives, but more often we approach when we don’t have things together, when our lives are broken and our needs are great. When we approach that throne, God doesn’t belittle us for our weaknesses, but he sympathizes, he listens, and he acts upon our requests. That is the confidence we can have as we approach this throne of grace, that we will “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” That we will find a caring God, a Father who loves his children.
All this is true. All this is real. All this is yours because of your great high priest, Jesus the Son of God. His perfect life and his innocent death broke down that barrier of sin that separated us from our eternal Father. His person and work shook the world opening the heavens to all who call upon His name. As you gaze upon the cross today, and as you mourn the death he died, reflect on what it means.
No more blood is needed. No more sacrifices must be made. There is no curtain that separates you from God. There is no sin that remains in your life. You are clean. You are holy. Your Savior paid it all. By his death, you have life. By his sacrifice, you will go home. Truly, in Jesus the Son of God we have a great high priest. Amen.