“Therefore He had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because He Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17,18).
Jesus Is a Merciful High Priest
In Jesus’ earthly ministry many appealed to Him for mercy (Matthew 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; Mark 5:19; 10:47; Luke 17:13; 18:38). In addition, mercy was a frequent theme of His teaching (Matthew 5:7; 18:33; Luke 16:24).
The merciful aspect of Jesus’ ministry as a priest is applied later in this letter: “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 4:15,16).
Because He became as we are and was subjected to temptation, He is capable of sympathizing with our weakness. This does not mean He has a casual attitude toward sin, for He is still the Holy One Who detests lawlessness. John 6:69; Acts 2:27; 13:35; Revelation 3:7. In this letter He is said to hate lawlessness (1:9) and to be separate from sinners (7:26). It does, however, mean that that He gives help and forgiveness to those who come to Him in humble repentance (Luke 18:9-14).
Jesus Is a Faithful High Priest
The Old Testament describes several priests who were unfaithful in their ministry. Sadly, this includes the very first High Priest, Aaron (Exodus 32:1-5). See also Leviticus 10:1,2; 1 Samuel 2:12-16,22; Jeremiah 2:8; 5:31; 32:32; Lamentations 4:13; Ezekiel 22:26; Hosea 5:1; 6:9; 10:5; Micah 3:11; Zephaniah 3:4; Malachi 1:6-10. The New Testament shows us High Priests who were instrumental in leading the people to reject Christ and in having Him condemned to death (Matthew 26:3,4,57-66; John 11:49-51).
In great contrast to this, Christ is appointed our High Priest. He is utterly faithful in His ministry. The idea of a faithful priest of God’s appointment is rooted in the Old Testament story of Samuel, whom God raised up to replace Eli’s sons, who were unfaithful: “And I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. And I will build Him a sure house, and He shall go in and out before My anointed forever” (1 Samuel 2:35).
The Work of the High Priest
The old covenant priesthood, and particularly the office of High Priest, was decreed by God to show us the ministry of Christ. The high priest’s ministry under the old covenant was to offer atonement not for the sins of the whole world, but exclusively for the covenant people of God (Leviticus 4:20,21; 9:7; 10:17; 16:24,34; Numbers 8:19; 15:25; 16:46,47; 25:13).
Jesus is absolutely unique as priest, for He is both the One Who offers the sacrifice for the atonement of the sins of the covenant people and the Sacrifice itself.
Propitiation on Behalf of His Brethren
The Greek word for “propitiation” and “mercy seat” are closely related – because the biblical ideas behind these words are closely related.
The Ark of the Covenant, which was kept in the Holy of holies, had three elements that teach us about the work of Christ on our behalf:
God manifested His presence between the wings of the cherubim (a picture of heaven). God is absolutely holy, and cannot abide any sin in His presence; yet, He is graciously present in the midst of His covenant people, despite their sinfulness. There is no contradiction between His wrath against sin and His covenant-love for His people (even though they are sinful).
Inside the box were the tablets of the Law of Moses. They testified to the lawlessness in the heart of all humanity, and especially in the hearts of the covenant people of God.
The mercy seat (we could call it a propitiation lid) sits between the violated Law and a holy God offended by lawlessness among His people. The blood of the sacrifice appeased His wrath against His people on the Day of Atonement.
This is what Jesus did for us in His death and intercession for us: He propitiated, or satisfied God’s wrath against us. This is the perfect expression of God’s love: “...God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8,9).
Faith in Atonement Not Seen
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted’” (Luke 18:9-14).
This is what the penitent man literally says to God in Luke 18:13, “please satisfy Your wrath against me” (the Greek verb is not “be merciful,” but “propitiate”).
Here’s the thing that makes this a powerful lesson to you and me. The penitent man invokes the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, covered with blood on the once-a-year Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).
But he was praying for something that couldn’t be seen. Since the Ark of the Covenant was not in the Holy of holies in Herod’s
Temple (it disappeared
was destroyed 600 years earlier), propitiation could not be made over the mercy
seat on the Day of Atonement. The room was empty, and everyone knew it. This man’s plea is one of incredible faith, knowing
that God would have to accomplish this work, since neither himself nor a merely
human priest could satisfy God’s wrath. Temple
This is where we are, too. We cannot propitiate God’s wrath against us, and neither can any other human being. Every man-made Holy of holies is empty and powerless at its heart. Christ is made visible to us by faith in the preaching of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism. See and believe in Him Who has gone into the true Holy of holies in heaven on our behalf:
- “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf...” (Hebrews 6:19,20).
- “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” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Have you heard of Him and seen Him through the eyes of faith as your only propitiation? Do you see Him as the only propitiation for your sins?
“Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8,9).