Jesus, High Priest of the New Covenant
This past Tuesday I got to speak to the kids at Awana. And what I said to them there has been on my heart throughout the week, and so I’m actually going to share a short version of it with you before we get to the sermon this morning.
I told the kids a story—a really sad story, which I think surprised some people—which I read about a few years ago about some new parents who were having a birthday party for their baby. It was winter time, and as their house filled up with friends, their closet got full and so they put all of their guest’s coats on the bed in the bedroom. And then it came time for the party, and they couldn’t find where their baby was. And that’s because the baby had been sleeping on that very bed, and it had suffocated under that pile of coats.
It’s a terribly sad story, and it illustrates what I fear often happens this time of year. Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Christ. And so we do all this stuff to celebrate Jesus. And yet doesn’t it often feel like Jesus Himself gets too easily lost lost under all of our stuff? And we end up suffocating the whole reason we’re supposed to be celebrating in the first place.
I learned a lot about this dynamic when our son was born on Christmas Day a few years ago. We had to miss our church’s Christmas Eve service to get to the hospital, where we walked around empty halls all evening timing contractions. And then we were up all night and spent Christmas morning in the delivery room, and the next few days were full of the haze of exhaustion and sleeplessness and vulnerability that come with a newborn.
And as we got to the end of December, I remember feeling like we had missed Christmas. It just felt like it never even happened, because we had missed out on most of our traditions and normal Christmas stuff.
But then it clicked in how ironic this is, because our experience that year was actually a lot closer to the first Christmas than any other Christmas of my life had ever been. Because the first Christmas would have felt nothing like what we think of when we think of “Christmas.”
We often think about Christmas as something that’s cozy and homey with plates of baking within arms reach, but the first Christmas would have felt uncomfortable and painful and exhausting and messy.
We often think about Christmas as a family time, where we need to be surrounded by those we love, but the first Christmas was all about Jesus leaving His Father’s side in heaven to come and serve people who were so different than Him.
And then of course there’s all the presents and all the stuff, whereas the first Christmas was all about Jesus losing everything and becoming poor for us.
Those are just some ways that Asher’s birth helped me see how much, in my own experience, the real story of Jesus had slowly been getting buried under a pile of feels and cultural trappings.
And so I’ve just come to realize that while these trappings and traditions can be good and helpful, they can also be dangerous and can easily begin to obscure and replace and smother the real thing. And a way to discern that is just to ask, “Could I celebrate Christmas without this?”
Because if I need a Christmas tree to celebrate the birth of Jesus, then it’s not about Jesus anymore. If I need presents to celebrate the birth of Jesus, then it’s not about Jesus anymore. If I need certain music, a certain mood, to celebrate the birth of Jesus, then it’s not about Jesus anymore. If I need a certain cultural experience or a certain set of feels to celebrate the birth of Jesus, then it’s not about Jesus anymore. If my Christmas traditions or activities or expectations cause me to feel anxious or stressed or angry or sad, then they’re not about Jesus anymore.
So all that to say, I want to encourage us to be really intentional about keeping Jesus the main thing. We need to work hard to not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2), with all of it’s consumerism and materialism and sentimentalism. And let’s not be afraid to really examine the way we celebrate the birth of Jesus, and be willing to let certain things go if we suspect they might be obscuring the truth about Jesus.
Because if it’s about Jesus, then it’s about Jesus.
So, that’s more or less the gift of what I shared with the kids on Tuesday and what’s been bouncing around in my heart ever since, and I hope you find that helpful this morning.
And now, on to the real message this morning!
The Mosaic Covenant
Back in October, as we journeyed through the story of Scripture, we came to the story of Moses and the Exodus. And we saw there the way that God fulfilled His promises to Abraham by rescuing His people from Egypt and bringing them to Himself in the wilderness and making them His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.
And there at Mount Sinai, God entered into covenant with His people, and He gave them His Torah, his covenant instruction.
And we saw how a major part of this convent and this instruction had to do with God’s presence with His people. In the tabernacle, God was coming to dwell with His people, to walk among them. It was a step closer to what He did with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.
But it wasn’t all the way back to Eden. God’s presence was restricted to the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle. And the people couldn’t just come and be in His presence whenever they wanted, because they would die. God is holy and they were not.
And so the way this worked, the way that God could dwell among this sinful people, was the priests and the sacrifices. The priests were the mediators, the go-betweens, and they would represent God to the people, and they would represent the people to God. They were the only ones allowed into the tabernacle. And once a year the High Priest was allowed to enter God’s direct presence in the Most Holy Place.
And what the priests did was make atonement for the sins of the people. They came bearing the blood of animals to pay for the people’s sins.
The point was that sin deserved death. And if God was going to come and be close to them, that would mean judgement and death for their sins, unless, something else died in their place. And that’s what happened at the tabernacle. The priests were butchers making continual animal sacrifices to pay for the sins of the people, every single day.
But the atonement never lasted very long. There was always more sin. And so there was always another sacrifice to make. Always another animal that needed to die. The priests never finished their work.
And according to the author of the book of Hebrews, this is proof that the sacrifices never really took away anybody’s sin. Hebrews 10:1-4 says, “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” (Hebrews 10:1-4).
Verse 10 of that chapter says that “Every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11).
The animal sacrifices could never take away sin, because they needed to keep happening. And so the writer of Hebrews says that this is because this covenant, with it’s sacrificial system and temple worship, was actually never meant to be the real thing. It was never meant to be the real solution to our sin. It was just a shadow, stretching out from and pointing to the real solution to our sin.
Promised New Covenant
And we don’t have to wait until the New Testament to find this out. Because right before the exile into Babylon, God promised through the prophet Jeremiah that there was a New Covenant coming that was going to finally deal with our sins.
We read, in Jeremiah 31:31, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31–34).
This new covenant was going to be different than the covenant He made with the people at Sinai. God’s instruction is going to be written on people’s hearts instead of just on tablets of stone. His truth will be inside of His people. They’ll be transformed from the inside out. And so, these transformed people won’t break the covenant like they did in the Old Covenant again and again and again.
And it won’t be just a few people who get in on this inner transformation. Everyone will get it. Unlike the Mosaic covenant, where people just got born into it, everybody in this New Covenant will have this inner transformation and truly know the Lord.
But the capstone of all of this is the final phrase of verse 34: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34b).
The New Covenant will finally deal with the real problem, the real problem that we’ve seen all along, the problem that a global flood and all the promises and threats in the world couldn’t fix: the problem of our sin. In the New Covenant, the people will be transformed from the inside, and their sin will finally be forgiven.
In other words, something better than the blood of bulls and goats is coming. The real thing, which the blood of bulls and goats was only pointing to, is finally coming.
We know that it didn’t come right away. After this promise, almost 600 years went by. And the people waited. Waited to be forgiven, waited to be saved from their sins.
And then it happened. A young woman named Mary, engaged to a man named Joseph, was found to be with child. “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:19–21).
Do you hear what the angel is saying? “This baby in your fiancée’s womb? He is the one who is going to save His people from their sins. He is the one who is going to bring real forgiveness. He is the one who is going to bring the New Covenant.”
And that’s what we get to focus our attention on in the rest of our message this morning. How Jesus fulfilled the words of the angel. How Jesus saved us from our sins. How Jesus was the real thing that the Mosaic Covenant was only a shadow of.
He Is the Real Sacrifice
And so first thing we’re going to see is that Jesus is the real sacrifice for sin. The Old Covenant with it’s hundreds of thousands of animal sacrifices, offered over and over again, day in and day out, never really taking away sin, was just a shadow cast by the real thing, Jesus Christ, who offered up Himself as the true and real and permanent sacrifice for our sin.
We’re introduced to this idea in the gospel of John, when John the Baptist sees Jesus for the very first time, and he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
The Jewish people understood what this meant. Lambs took away your sin, at least temporarily, by dying in your place as a sacrifice. And so Jesus is the lamb of God. He is the true and the real sacrifice for sins.
Sacrificial lambs needed to be perfect. And so is Jesus (1 Peter 1:19). He has no sins of His own that need to be paid for. He was the first man who actually could give His life to atone for another. And because He is God, He could die for not just one person, but for the world. He could lay down His life for all of His people. And that’s what He did when He went to the cross.
And on the cross, He was sacrificed for our sins, once and for all.
1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
Hebrews 7:27 says, “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”
The passage in your bulletin puts it this way in verse 12: “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). And then, in verse 26: “he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
In many ways, it’s easy for us to miss out on what a revolutionary idea this is. We’ve never seen the temple in operation, with animal carcasses everywhere, the smell of blood and burnt flesh in the air, a never-ending cycle of death. And then comes Christ, who dies once. And the sin of His people completely paid for—past, present, and future.
As Hebrews 1:3 says, “After making purification for sins, he sat down” (Hebrews 1:3). The priests in the old covenant never sat down, because there was always another sacrifice to make. But Jesus can sit down because His work is complete. One sacrifice, done. Jesus paid it all.
And this is how He saves His people from their sins. This is how our sins are finally and fully forgiven in the New Covenant. Because they’ve been paid for in full.
This helps us really understand the words of Jesus in the upper room the night before He died, which we read every time we celebrate communion: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). The New Covenant, with it’s perfect and full forgiveness of sins, comes through the blood of Christ, which pays for our sins completely.
There’s this idea that in the Old Covenant, they had sacrifices, and in the New Covenant, we don’t have sacrifices. That’s not really true. In the New Covenant, we had one sacrifice, and that sacrifice was enough for everybody, forever. Jesus paid it all.
He Is the True High Priest
Now there’s a second idea tied up in here, which we’ve heard hints of already, which is that in addition to being the true sacrifice, Jesus is the truer and the better high priest. That’s actually the title of our message this morning: that Jesus is the high priest of the New Covenant.
That might sound strange to some people. I suspect that some Christians think that the Old Covenant had priests, but in the New Covenant we just don’t have any.
But again, that would be a mistake. In the Old Covenant, they had many High Priests, whereas in the New Covenant, we have one. And He is enough for us all forever.
Listen to these words from Hebrews chapter 7: “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:23–25).
If you are a member of the New Covenant, then you have a high priest. He sacrificed Himself for you, and now he always lives to make sure that you receive the benefits of that sacrifice.
In the Old Covenant, on the annual Day of Atonement, the High Priest would take that blood of the sacrifice into the presence of God on behalf of the people. And Jesus did the same, entering into the presence of God in heaven, where He remains even today, right now, where He is representing us before God. Like verse 24 in your bulletin says, “Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24).
Right now, as you and I speak, there is a Man in heaven who is representing you before the presence of God. He is, right now, interceding for you, praying for you, asking the Father to give you what He paid for.
And when we get this, and when we believe this, it can’t help but have a powerful effect on our souls. It can’t help but bring an experience of peace and rest and comfort and safety and confidence.
Listen to these incredible words from Charles Wesley, celebrating the sacrifice and priesthood of Christ, and what it means for us today:
Arise, my soul, arise;
shake off thy guilty fears;
the bleeding Sacrifice
in my behalf appears:
before the throne my Surety stands,
my name is written on His hands.
He ever lives above,
for me to intercede,
His all-redeeming love,
His precious blood to plead;
His blood atoned for all our race,
and sprinkles now the throne of grace.
Five bleeding wounds He bears,
received on Calvary;
they pour effectual pray'rs,
they strongly plead for me:
"Forgive him, O forgive," they cry,
"Nor let that ransomed sinner die!"
The Father hears Him pray,
His dear anointed One;
He cannot turn away
the presence of his Son;
His Spirit answers to the blood,
and tells me I am born of God.
My God is reconciled;
His pard'ning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child;
I can no longer fear;
with confidence I now draw nigh,
and, "Father, Abba, Father," cry.
Do you see it? Do you feel it? Forgiveness and confidence before God not because you’ve done the right things, not because you’re nailing it, but because Jesus was nailed to a cross for you, and God forgives your sins for His sake.
In my experience, many Christians struggle to really live in this experience. Many Christians feel like it’s a sign of spiritual maturity to walk around with a sense of low-grade guilt. Always feeling just slightly guilty for not doing enough, slightly guilty for the things we feel ashamed of. And we carry this low-grade guilt around like ankle weights into every part of our Christian lives.
But please hear this morning: Jesus did not die once for all of your sins so that you could walk around feeling guilty all the time. Your sins are paid for. And if you have confessed your sins to the Lord and asked for His forgiveness, then you genuinely have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.
That sounds radical, doesn’t it? But that’s just the gospel.
And yet it’s right here that people say, “But I thought that I’m supposed to care about my sin, and try to sin less, and become more like Jesus.” Yes, of course. We need to put our sin to death. But we can only do that effectively when we start by recognizing that our sin has been paid for and we are forgiven. We start with a clean conscience. We start guilt-free. We start with unrestricted access to our Father in Heaven. And from that position we work to kill of that paid-for sin.
Listen to how Hebrews 10 explains it:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:19–25).
We start with the clean conscience. And then we move into walking with God and stirring up one another to love and good works and fighting our sin together.
So if you’re here this morning, and you know Jesus, the most practical thing you can do in terms of living out this next week of your life, and—beyond that—the rest of your Christian life, is to really believe that Jesus paid it all. To really believe that if you have confessed your sins to God, He is faithful and just (1 John 1:9), and He has accepted the sacrifice of Christ for you, and you have nothing to feel guilty about.
And to really believe that Jesus is your High Priest before the Father, and so none of this will ever be forgotten. None of God’s promises to you will ever be forgotten. You must and will receive everything He died to give you.
I know that I need to regularly ask God for the faith to believe this. I know that I need to regularly read God’s word to be reminded of this. So let’s draw near to God today and ask God for the full assurance of faith, to go out from here walking in the freedom that Christ purchased for us.
If you’re here and you don’t know Christ, please know that this forgiveness could be yours. Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Please don’t leave without calling out to Jesus and asking Him to forgive you. You can leave here today with a clear conscience through the blood of Christ.