Priest and king (Hebrews 1:3)

Cape Disappointment

Having set Jesus among the company of prophets (1:1-2), our writer now uses the offices of priest and king to tell us more about his Lord.

When we read that Jesus provided purification for sins, we’re meeting language drawn from the OT, and its intricate system for handling ‘unrighteousness’ (cf. 1 John 1:7, 9). Jesus steps into this and with a single stroke (the Greek verb implies a past action, with on-going effect), deals with a long-standing problem. The act is Jesus’ crucifixion; the problem is sin.

The reason for and impact of Jesus’ crucifixion are matters of keen interest these days. Efforts to deal with ‘the atonement’ lead some to insist that we understand that event under a particular heading–to read it through the lens of Christus Victor, or penal substitution, for instance. Interesting, then, that while this line in Hebrews’ opening clearly refers to Jesus’ move towards and death on the cross, it doesn’t really fit with either of those ‘atonement theories’. The simple explanation for this is that any single attempt to cover the atonement succinctly is likely to fail: what Jesus did and how His activity influences humanity is too big for one basket to hold. When NT writers reflect on the cross-work, they do so via a variety of expressions, which indicates that what happened at and because of Calvary occupies a great deal of bandwidth.

Hebrews will find much in the OT descriptions of priests and their duties that illuminates the person and work of Jesus; this opening remark sets the stage. But note how the sentence ends: He sat down. With a stroke, our writer moves out of the temple and into the palace, because for all its depth and complexity, the priesthood does not tell us enough of what we need to know about Jesus. He may, like a priest, approach an altar, but He also reigns, like a king.

To sit at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven is to be accorded status as regent; that Jesus rules on high cannot be missed even in the moving descriptions of His loving service. Magnificently, humility and authority are balanced in Him. Experience makes us suspicious of rulers, but in Jesus, we have a king worthy of faith, obedience, and love.

The tightly coiled phrases of this book’s opening lines will unspool in the pages to follow. Theology will mingle with ‘practical application’ to engage minds and stir hearts, and Jesus will all the while be the center–caller, keeper, friend, and Lord.

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