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The role of the priesthood
Every sin, even committed unwittingly, carries a penalty, or consequence. The individual who commits the sin remains guilty until the penalty is paid. Individuals in Old Testament times could not approach God directly. If they sinned, or became unclean, they were guilty, and atonement was required. When an individual became aware of his or her sin they brought a bull or a goat or a lamb to the Tent, laid hands on its head, and killed it there, and the priest made atonement for the sin by placing the blood on the horns of the altar. The animal bore the penalty in the place of the repentant sinner, and in this way, the sinner could be forgiven. (Hebrews 9:22). These rituals for atonement for sin and uncleanness are described in Leviticus chapters 4 and 5. The priest was the mediator between God and the sinner, who could only receive forgiveness through the atoning sacrifice of the animal.
The High Priest was the mediator between the whole nation and God. Once every year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest made atonement for any sins that the people may have unknowing committed during the previous year (Leviticus 16). He went into the Holy of Holies twice, once to sprinkle the blood of a bull to make atonement for his own sins, and the second time to make atonement for the sins of the people. He represented the people before God, making atonement for them, confessing the sins of the people, and their sins of were forgiven. Through this system of sacrificial offerings and the priesthood, the nation was kept holy before God. The High Priest was identifying with the nation, making intercession on its behalf.
However, this system had many drawbacks:
This system, with all its imperfections, was just a temporary arrangement until the time was right for Jesus to fulfill His role as our Great High Priest.
Jesus' Identification with Humanity
To become our Great High Priest, and to represent us before God, Jesus had to become one of us. He had to be one of us as much as Moses and Aaron were members of the people of Israel. Jesus identified with us - He became truly human in every respect.
Hebrews 5:8 says, "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered". The NIV note on this verse reads: "Though He was the eternal Son of God, it was necessary for Him to become the incarnate Son to learn obedience" -- not that He was ever disobedient, but that He was called upon the obey to an extent he had never before experienced.
The temptations He faced were real and the battle for victory was difficult, but where Adam failed and fell, Jesus resisted and prevailed. His humanity was therefore completed, "made perfect", and on the basis of this perfection he could become the source of eternal salvation.
So complete was Jesus' identification with human beings that He referred to Himself as the "Son of Man", and His true identity was not recognized by almost all of His contemporaries, who condemned Him for blasphemy when He claimed that God was His Father (John 10:33). An understanding of Jesus' real identity required revelation from God (Matt. 16:17). Hebrews chapter 2 emphasizes Jesus' identification with humanity:
Heb 2:11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Heb 2:17-18 For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
When He died upon the cross, Jesus offered His own blood as a sacrifice for sins. He was both the High Priest, making the sacrificial offering, and the Offering Himself. He had three qualifications to make this offering:
Because He was without sin, He did not have to make sacrifices for His own sins first, like the Aaronic high priests. His sacrifice was perfect, in that, in representing humanity, He was able to completely absorb in His own being the penalty for our sin. The penalty for all sin, past, present and future, was utterly and finally paid. "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Is 53:6).
On the basis of His shed Blood, Jesus has become our permanent High Priest. The old order of the priesthood was done away with. He is our Mediator, or Advocate, continually representing us before the Father:
1 Tim 2:5
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
... if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
Now, if anyone sins, we have High Priest who has already paid the penalty for our sin with His Blood. We no longer need, like the people of Old Testament times, any human being to mediate between us and God. There is still a need for confession of sin and repentance (1 John 1:9), and as we come to the Father, confessing our sin, the Blood of Christ set us free from the guilt and penalty of the sin. (1 John 1:7). Our confession and repentance releases the power of the shed Blood of Jesus on our behalf. We can come boldly before the throne of grace, in full assurance that Jesus is there as our mediator, and receive mercy and forgiveness on the basis of His sacrifice (Heb. 4:16). Without confession of sin, we are unable to appropriate the Blood, and the sin remains unforgiven ... but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need -- one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (Heb: 7:24-28).