High Priest in Heaven

37 Christ Our Heavenly High Priest

by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, December 2013

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15, 16

The priesthood in ancient Israel provided stability, instruction, and help in their worship services. Through the sacrifice, the sinner received pardon and atonement. The sacrifice and application of blood were part of a single unit by which the sinner obtained pardon and atonement. In the same way, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and His heavenly priesthood are a unit to give pardon and atonement to sinners today. To believe otherwise is to raise confusing questions about the judgment.

A priest mediates between God and humanity, providing pardon for sin through the sacrifice, an illustration of the covenant of God. A pastor proclaims the gospel, which is the good news about the covenant of God, and cares for his congregation. Each member of his congregation now has direct access to the throne of God for help and pardon for sins (Heb. 4:16). The duties of the priest and pastor often overlap.

The human priesthood was temporary, ending with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. It was a symbol of Jesus’ true priesthood, which He now continues in the heavenly sanctuary. Jesus Christ is now our heavenly High Priest, and by mediating His blood in the heavenly sanctuary, He provides pardon for sin and atonement for all believers.

Jewish Identity in Jesus, Not the Temple

The Christian church in Jerusalem began as a Jewish church. Their worship-even their teaching- centered largely on the Temple. The first five chapters of Acts make frequent references to the Temple. Surprisingly for some, the Christian church was, at this time, still a part of Judaism! After Pentecost, opposition from Jewish leaders began to grow. After Acts 5, the Bible does not mention the Temple until Paul attempted to fulfill certain vows (Acts 21), causing a riot. The Jews arrested Paul and put him in jail, before sending him to Rome.

Many Jewish Christians continued to keep the feasts and faithfully observed the Jewish ceremonies until the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. When Gentiles began to enter the church, the question arose about circumcision, the law of Moses, and how much of the law Gentiles were expected to fulfill. The church held a council in Jerusalem. After members of the council had adequately discussed the matter, James, presiding at the council, summed up their conclusion:

Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:19, 20)

A group of men returned with this message to Antioch, where a largely Gentile church gladly accepted the council’s decision.

It would be excellent if we could say that this solved the problem. However, it is difficult to stop a centuries-old tradition. Jewish identity was tied to their forms of worship. Many Jewish believers in Jesus could not or would not make the change. They believed that to become a follower of the true God one had to become a Jew (Exod. 12:48, 49; John 4:22). Certain of them began visiting the churches that Paul had raised up, urging a return to the ceremonial law.

The everlasting gospel, that Jesus gave His life a sacrifice to pay for the sins of every human being, was to many a “new truth.” They did not yet understand that “sacrifice and oblation,” which served only to point to Jesus Christ, had fulfilled their purpose and were no longer needed or in force (Dan. 9:27). Paul, in his epistles and in Hebrews, responded to Jewish Christians who held onto these ceremonies that to continue these services would be to deny the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice. “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7).

It was because of these “Judaizers” that Paul made such a strong emphasis on faith and grace in his epistles.1 He dealt with the subject extensively in Hebrews. Paul was sympathetic and persuasive. His first priority was to win Jewish Christians to a full and complete commitment to Jesus Christ.

The opening salutation in Hebrews comes in chapter three, “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession Christ Jesus” (Heb. 3:1). Who were these “holy brethren”? Who were the partakers of the heavenly calling? They were the Jews, for whom Paul always had a kind regard.

Paul begins immediately to describe the work of Jesus Christ, while the Jews looked back to the words of the prophets. God had now “spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2). He is the Creator, above all the angels; yet He became a man, “a little lower than the angels.” He even tasted “death for every man... that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:9, 14).

Christ “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). His sinless life He offered at Calvary. He ascended to heaven and sat down in the Father’s throne (Heb. 1:3) as a “priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 5:6). The sacrifice and oblation had met its purpose. The Aaronic priesthood had ended, and Jesus began His heavenly priesthood.

These are the basic principles of Christianity. It was time for these Christians to grow in grace, and deepen their experience in Christ (Heb. 5:12-6:2).

Jesus Christ, Heavenly High Priest

Priests were from the tribe of Levi and specifically from the family of Aaron. The Jews were diligent about maintaining genealogies to qualify any man before he served as a priest (Ezra 7:1-5; 8:18-21). Jesus’ qualification, like those of Melchizedek, was of a different type (Heb. 7:11-17). He was a priest-king without ancestry or descendants (Heb. 7:3) and was directly appointed by God (Ps. 110:4).

A priest mediates between God and humanity. Jesus was a kind and cordial priest. He recognized needs when even the people themselves did not. He was always ready to help. This was the beginning of His priestly ministry. His life demonstrated that God is love. Continuing as our High Priest in heaven, He remains the same (Heb. 13:8).

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:15, 16)

After His ascension, Jesus began His ministry in the first apartment, forgiving the confessed sins of His people (1 John 1:9, 10). Animal sacrifices in the Old Testament could not of themselves forgive sins or change the life. They were effective in anticipation of Jesus’ true sacrifice on the cross.

The sanctuary and the ministries on earth were a copy and a symbol of the reality of the sanctuary and ministries in heaven.2 The “daily,” first-apartment ministry had to do with the forgiveness of sin by the blood of the sacrifice and the transfer of sins into the sanctuary. In Jesus’ heavenly first-apartment ministry, He mediated His blood, shed at Calvary. Until His sacrifice on Calvary, He could not open His ministry in the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 10:12).

When Jesus ascended to heaven, the Bible describes Him as being on the “right hand” of the Father.3 To be on the throne with the Father in the Most Holy Place is the role of a King. To perform His ministry in the Holy Place is the responsibility of a priest. Jesus is our “Priest-King,” “after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 5:6; Gen. 14:18).

Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens. Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. (Heb. 8:1, 5)

Once a year, in ancient Israel, the high priest cleansed the forgiven sins of the past year from the Most Holy Place. The record of forgiven sins was symbolically blotted from the book of record. In the true, heavenly service, as sins were blotted from the record, they were also blotted from memory (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 8:12). It was critical that the people confess and repent of all sins before that day. In preparation for the Day of Atonement, God told the people to afflict their souls as they sought to discover and confess all the sins in their lives (Lev. 23:27, 29).

The Superior Ministry of Jesus

But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them [with the people, not with the covenant], he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. (Heb. 8:6-8) 4

The superior ministry of Jesus provides grace and pardon for sins (Exod. 19:4-6; Jer. 31:31-34). The “first” covenant, which was based on human promises, could not provide pardon for sin (Exod. 23:21). God gave the Ten Commandments so the people would know what their promises entailed. Under the old covenant, people promised to do “all that the Lord hath spoken”; under the new covenant, God writes the law on their hearts and by grace gives them the ability to obey the law.5

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10)

In making their own self-confident promises (Exod. 19:8), the people failed to understand the majesty and holiness of God, denied the grace He offered (Exod. 19:4), and attempted to covenant with God as equals! It was an impossible situation and doomed to failure from the start. Within forty-six days, they broke their covenant by a heathen festival at the base of Mt. Sinai. Moses interceded for the people until God renewed the everlasting covenant and promised to go with Israel into the Promised Land.

After Sinai, the people understood that they were to keep the Ten Commandments. Yet, they failed to understand the preamble, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2), which indicated that God would fulfill the promises of the Ten Commandments in their lives by His grace. Instead, they endeavored to keep the law in their own power. In so doing, they listed an additional 603 regulations/mitzvoth (as enumerated by Maimonides) as being on par with the Ten.6

As time passed, the people focused on the performance of sacrifices and ceremonies rather than looking by faith to Jesus Christ, the Messiah. They made these rituals the sum and substance of their religion and ignored the Redeemer who was to come.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, it was hard to give up all their sacrifices, ceremonies, and rituals. Did Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary bring to an end the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple? How could people worship God if they did not perform ceremonies? It was hard for many Jewish Christians to comprehend God’s writing the law on their hearts, or to believe that they did not need to perform sacrifices and ceremonies.

Not all Christians understood that they must be born again and become a new creature in Christ. Life should never be “business as usual” for Christians. Those who hold that the sum and substance of religion is to go to church once a week and put some money into the offering plate are living by the old covenant! Not that these things are bad, for they are not. Yet, God has so much more in mind for His people.7


1. Paul writes on the issue of continuing Jewish ceremonies, which have become obsolete, since Jesus’ true sacrifice on the cross (Rom. 2:21-29; 9:1-11:36; 2 Cor. 2:14-3:18; Gal. 1-4; Eph. 2, 3; and Heb. 1-3 and 7-10).

2. The term “patterns” (Greek hupodeigma), used in Hebrews 9:23 to describe the earthly sanctuary, has also been translated in several versions as “copies.” Interestingly, the word means both “patterns” and “copies.” Both fit the earthly sanctuary quite well. The earthly sanctuary was a copy of the “holy places” in heaven as well as a pattern for “heavenly things” that would take place through Jesus.

3. When Jesus ascended to heaven, He sat in the throne at the right hand of the Father (Acts 7:56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Heb. 1:3; 8:1).

4. The weakness in the former covenant was “them.” What was their “fault”? God says: “because they continued not in my covenant” (Heb. 8:9).

5. For more on the old covenant, see chapter 15, “The Historical Old Covenant.”

6. In the second century, Jewish synagogues ceased to quote the Ten Commandments together with the Shema because it appeared to support the contention of the Christians of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds (called minim by the non-believing Jews) regarding the uniqueness and continuity of the Ten Commandments. “Removing the Ten Commandments from the public reading of the Shema prayer was intended to get away from the claim of the minim that they were indeed essential, unlike the other mitzvot in the Torah, especially those between humankind and God. According to the minim, the Destruction of the Temple, which was clearly caused by God as the ruler of history, is in fact evidence that God no longer wants the mitzvot in the Torah to be observed, for many of them-for example, the sacrifices-could not be carried out with the Temple” (Aharon Oppenheimer, “Removing the Decalogue from the Shema and Phylacteries: The Historical Implications,” The Decalogue in Jewish and Christian Tradition [New York and London: T & T Clark International, 2011], edited by Yair Hoffman and Henning Graf Reventlow, p. 99). “By the minim they meant at this time the Jewish-Christian sects, or even Christians themselves” (Oppenheimer, p. 98).

7. The covenant promise is to all God’s people (Gen. 17:8; Exod. 6:7; 33:14-17; Lev. 26:12; Deut. 29:13; Jer. 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 32:38; Ezek. 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:23; Zech. 8:8; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:10; Rev. 21:3).