“This man doesn’t need a doctor. He needs a priest!” I’m sure you have heard this line before. It is sometimes used to describe a hopeless situation. Bereft of any earthly hope, a person simply aims to make peace with God through means of a priest before it is too late. It draws on the Roman Catholic sacraments of confession and extreme unction. Admittedly, I think I have only ever heard this sentiment expressed as a joke–a melodramatic response to an unfortunate situation. But it does raise an interesting question. Do we ever need a priest? Is there any truth to this witty one-liner? I hope to show that, indeed, we do need a priest to secure fellowship between God and us. This is one more reason for the incarnation. The Son of God became man so that he could truly be our great high priest before God, and restore communion with him.
The Old Testament describes the role of a priest in the context of the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood. A priest was someone who was chosen by God to represent the people before God (cf. Heb. 5:1-4). Within the Old Testament narrative it was Aaron and his descendants whom God had appointed to come into his presence representing Israel. They prayed on behalf of Israel. They presented offerings to God on behalf of Israel. They offered atoning sacrifices before God to atone for Israel’s sins. The logic is strongly representative. One person, selected by God, approaching God on behalf of a group of people.
The idea of priesthood, itself, points to the arresting fact that it is actually unsafe for us to approach God directly. This is due to the problem of sin. God is holy, and we are not. God’s eyes are too pure to behold sin, and we could not survive a direct, unmediated encounter with him. Think of Isaiah coming unglued before the awesome presence of God in Isaiah 6. He saw God’s blinding holiness, and became immediately aware of his own sinful corruption. “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (verse 5). An angel grabbed a hot coal from the altar and touched it to the lips of Isaiah (ouch!) in order to atone for his sins, and make this encounter with God one that Isaiah could come away from still breathing. “[M]an shall not see me and live,” God said in response to Moses’ request to see his effulgent glory (Exod. 33:20). That stark reality may apply to us simply as finite creatures before the glory of an infinite Creator, but it especially applies to us as sinners before a holy God.
In so much of the ‘relationship with God’ talk today, it seems that this awareness of God’s fierce holiness has been lost. You really don’t want a direct encounter with the true and living God. You need a priest–a ‘go between’ who can make it safe for you to be near such an awesome God.
As Protestants, we reject the idea of a continuing office of priest in the church. This is because the Bible teaches that the Old Testament office of priest has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. There is no office of priest in the New Testament church because Jesus Christ is the church’s great high priest, and he doesn’t need our help to fulfill the office. He perfectly intercedes in heaven for the church (Heb. 7:25). He stands in the holy presence of God presenting the perfect sacrifice that takes away all our sin (Heb. 10:14). In fact, he is such an “excellent” priest (Heb. 8:6) on our behalf that he makes it possible for us to enter confidently into the presence of God (Heb. 4:14-16; 10:19-25), and call him our Father. From fatal encounter to blessed communion! What a difference a good priest makes!
The book of Hebrews helps us to see that even the Old Testament priesthood couldn’t truly serve as a proper ‘go between’ for man and God (cf. Heb. 7:11; 8:1-6; 10:1-4). Like so much of the Old Testament world, it was ultimately a blue-print for Christ’s saving work. One element of that Old Testament, priestly blueprint is that God raised up priests from among their own brethren. The Israel’s priests were formed from within the people of Israel. A priest is chosen “from among men” to “act on behalf of men in relationship to God” (Heb. 5:1). This established the pattern: a priest is raised up from among his brothers. If Christ, the Son of God, was to be our priest he had to become human like us. He had to become man in order to act on behalf of men in relationship to God.
Larger Catechism 39 identifies three reasons for Christ’s incarnation that are all linked to his priestly ministry. He became man, first, to “suffer and make intercession for us in our nature,” second, to “have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities,” third, so that we would “have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace.” All of these are priestly activities.
A priest comes into God’s presence with a sacrifice to atone for sins. The sacrifice which Christ presents to God is his bodily sacrifice and sufferings on the cross which satisfies God’s just wrath towards his people’s sins forever (cf. Rom. 3:20-26). A priest intercedes on behalf of the people. Christ could not intercede in our behalf unless he was a human being (cf. Heb. 7:25). Further, Christ could not intercede sympathetically for us without becoming a human being like us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Because of his priestly sacrifice at the cross, and because he is able to intercede truly and sympathetically in our behalf, we can boldly go to God with our needs and concerns knowing that he is favorable to us in Christ.
Jesus Christ is our perfect priest who restores our fellowship with God. Yes, we do need a priest. That is why the Son of God became man.