This morning I read about Jesus as our high priest:
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 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. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Hebrews always surprises me, because I tend to go out of my way to emphasize Jesus’ deity. The author of Hebrews, on the other hand, often emphasizes Jesus’ humanity (the most startling statements to this effect are in chapter 2, where it even says that Jesus was “made like his brothers in every respect”). In Hebrews 4 and 5, Jesus is compared to Israel’s high priests. We are told that Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because he was human—he was tempted “in every respect” (the same phrase as in chapter 2) as we are. He didn’t sin, but his real humanity makes him sympathetic, merciful, gracious.
This is how a high priest ought to be: sympathetic. Hebrews follows this statement about Jesus’ compassion as a high priest with a description of Israel’s high priests:
“For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.” (Hebrews 5:1-3)
The passage is making a point about Jesus by comparing him to earthly priests. The same logic is in place in 5:1-3 as in 4:14-16. The high priest experiences all of the weaknesses that come from being human, so he can “deal gently” with “the ignorant and wayward.”
Here is the question that came to my mind: If Jesus is sympathetic with sinners because he was tempted, how much more so should sinful high priests be sympathetic and gentle with the sinful and weak?
As Christians, we are all priests before God on behalf of the people around us (1 Pet. 2:9, Rev. 1:6). In this role as priests, we should be more gentle, more sympathetic than even Jesus is—he was tempted, but we have sins of our own that need to be covered.
I don’t see us being more gentle and sympathetic, however. I usually see the opposite. We get frustrated with people because they are sinful. We are harsh with them when they can’t get it right. They claim to repent, then they run back to their sin—and we get frustrated and angry!
But if Jesus is sympathetic as a high priest, shouldn’t we “deal gently” in our intercessory role as priests?
Dostoevsky captures this attitude beautifully in The Brothers Karamazov. He has his beloved monk, Zosima, explain:
“There can be no judge of a criminal on earth until the judge knows that he, too, is a criminal, exactly the same as the one who stands before him, and that he is perhaps most guilty of all for the crime of the one standing before him. When he understands this, then he will be able to be a judge. However mad that may seem, it is true. For if I myself were righteous, perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me know. If you are able to take upon yourself the crime of the criminal who stands before you and whom you are judging in your heart, do so at once, and suffer for him yourself, and let him go without reproach.”
Isn’t this the approach of Jesus, who though he is the judge of all things, looked upon the worst criminals on earth, took our crimes upon himself, suffered for us himself, and let us go without reproach? The reality is that God has appointed us to be priests on this earth, so we would do well to “deal gently,” acting with all compassion for the broken people on whose behalf we are called to intercede before God.