Five hundred years ago Martin Luther was nearly struck by lightning while traveling through the German countryside. Sensing a threat of God’s judgment in the near miss, he swore (to St. Anne) that if spared he would become a monk. He immediately took monastic vows and devoted his life to reading and teaching God’s word in an Augustinian monastery. However, it wasn’t until ten years later, in 1516 that he considered himself to be converted in the true sense of the word.
He had become a scholar and a devoutly pious man, often keeping a priest in the confessional booth for hours as he racked his brain in search of any and every sin he might have committed. He would physically discipline his body as a penance to God, as a way of making up for his sins. Knowing that he was sinful and God was perfect, his conscience remained riddled with guilt. His guilty conscience was brought to a breaking point while studying Paul’s letter to the Romans. He found himself fixated on one verse: Romans 1:17 “For in it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…” He found himself hating a gospel that revealed God’s righteousness, His perfection and perfect hatred of injustice and evil (which Martin knew he was full of). He hated it because in it he felt doubly condemned. Born in original sin (and therefore evil by nature) and unable to satisfy a perfectly righteous God no matter how much he disciplined his body and confessed his sins.
Reflecting on this verse, he said “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.” But he would not let up on “beating” upon these verses to know their full meaning. “I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience,” he said, until by the mercy of God he began to understand God’s righteousness as a gift, a gift taken hold of by faith. He saw the rest of the verse “…from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Describing what happened to him at this point he said he felt “altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
He found confirmation reading Augustine: “but that [righteousness] with which He endows man when He justifies the ungodly,” and “the law, indeed, by issuing its commands and threats, and by justifying no man, sufficiently shows that it is by God’s gift, through the help of the Spirit, that a man is justified.” Augustine was teaching this all along! Martin was overjoyed to realize that scripture and Augustine taught righteousness as a gift of God to the ungodly who receive it by faith and through the help of the Spirit.
So why does this matter…apart from being the tipping point to the start of the Protestant Reformation? What does this have to do with Jesus being our great high priest?
Augustine mentioned the law; threatening and commanding without justifying any man. This same law applies to all people at all times as an interpreter of guilt. Guilt is a universal experience (one way to tell if you are a psychopath is if you don’t agree with this statement!). We all feel guilty and we all feel it often. As we’ve seen, Luther was no stranger to guilt even though his religious dedication and outward holiness was so radical that it would no doubt be out of place in your church today.
The law (God’s revelation to His people explaining how his covenant people ought to willingly and lovingly live consistently with His righteousness) simply exposes the problem. It gives a framework for understanding what our guilt is shouting at us. It is a road map to a God-pleasing life, a road map that helps us understand just how lost and hopeless we are. The Bible tells us that the Law is a prison guard holding us captive in our sin (Gal 3:23).
The book of Hebrews describes the law, as well as the Tabernacle and Levitical priesthood as a shadow of things to come. This picture of an Old Testament “shadow” is a great key to help us understand Jesus as our great high priest (as well as our great prophet and king). The author of Hebrews is pointing back to these Old Testament themes and offices through the lens of the Gospel. This reminds me of an eye exam I recently underwent. The doctor strapped me in and pressed that giant contraption against my forehead, setting the initial view so I couldn’t see the letters on his card. “How’s that?,” he asks. At this point I’m thinking “you know I can’t see, why are you even asking!…can’t you start me out a little closer to clarity?!,” but what I say is “blurry.” Then he starts the flipping. “Is this better…or this?” And after five minutes of anxiety (am I the only one that stresses about getting it wrong and ending up with a terrible prescription?!) suddenly everything became crystal clear. The doctor found the right lens for me to see clearly what was there all along. The Gospel is the lens that brings the Law, and the entire Old Testament, into clarity. It was there all along, but we needed a Doctor to give us the means to see it.
The more you understand and dwell in the Gospel (see Col 3:16), the more the Old Testament themes become clear. The priest, the set apart anointed one who makes a sacrifice for the sins of the people, suddenly looks very clear through the lens of the set apart anointed One who made a sacrifice on the cross for his people. This is what Hebrews means when it says that the Levitical priesthood was a shadow: Jesus is the substance.
This theme of shadow and substance helps us understand Jesus’ priesthood. God chose Aaron (Moses’ brother) and the tribe of Levi to be his priest. They would offer sacrifices for the people to cover over their sins. They would stand in the gap between a holy God and a sinful people. Once each year at the day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the high priest would consecrate himself, make an offering for himself and his own sin, and then bring an offering of the blood of a spotless (no apparent imperfections) goat into the inner chamber of the Tabernacle and sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat (the area directly over the Ark of the covenant (if you’ve ever seen “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark” you get the picture)).
Now, Leviticus 16 would probably not be the first chapter you would give a new Christian to read, would it? It’s disturbing to our modern sensibilities. But Hebrews tells us that it was a shadow. It would be hard to describe a person just by looking at their shadow. My shadow looks very similar (most likely…I can’t actually back this up) to Brad Pitt’s shadow. But, though dimly, a shadow does alert us that there is something attached to it. It draws our eyes up from the shadow to the substance, at which point it becomes clear which one of us is Brad Pitt (I have darker hair).
The shadow of the Old Testament priests draws our eyes up to Jesus. He is the high priest of a greater order than the high priest of the Law. The Law is so good and perfect that it reveals our sin (our bent and twisted nature). The Law imprisons us behind the unbreakable bars of guilt. The Law ultimately condemns us to death for our personal rebellion against God. The Law demands our life as a penalty, the only payment for that penalty is a life lived in perfect fulfillment of the Law.
Jesus fulfilled the Law perfectly in his sinless life. His active obedience while on earth triumphed over the Law’s penalty. He then makes a blood sacrifice on our behalf, only instead of a spotless goat He sprinkles His own blood on the mercy seat. He is the spotless Lamb of God and his substantial sacrifice does away with condemnation and guilt once and for all for all those who believe. According to Hebrews it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to actually take away our sins, but “he [Jesus] entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of bulls and calves but by the means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Heb 9:12)
By his priestly sacrifice he has secured for all who believe and confess to faith in His finished work an eternal redemption (Rom 10:9). He has bought us with a price and he has brought us out from the bondage of law-induced guilt and confidently into the presence of our holy Father (Heb 4:16). He has given us, through our faith, his own righteousness so that we may live as beloved, adopted children of God.
He is worthy of our praise, of our very lives, as we gaze upon our great high priest; the Substance to the shadow.