Priesthood and atonement: reading Hebrews (and beyond) with John Howard Yoder

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May 17, 2013 by jmar198013

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, [Christ] also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death—the devil—by dying.  He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death . . . Therefore, he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way. This was so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, in order to wipe away the sins of the people. He’s able to help those who are being tempted, since he himself experienced suffering when he was tempted . . .  Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. After he had been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for everyone who obeys him . . .  Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We have this kind of high priest. He sat down at the right side of the throne of the majesty in the heavens. He’s serving as a priest in the holy place, which is the true meeting tent that God, not any human being, set up. Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices. So it’s necessary for this high priest also to have something to offer. If he was located on earth, he wouldn’t be a priest because there are already others who offer gifts based on the Law. They serve in a place that is a copy and shadow of the heavenly meeting tent. This is indicated when Moses was warned by God when he was about to set up the meeting tent: See that you follow the pattern that I showed you on the mountain in every detail. But now, Jesus has received a superior priestly service just as he arranged a better covenant that is enacted with better promises . . . Christ has appeared as the high priest of the good things that have happened. He passed through the greater and more perfect meeting tent, which isn’t made by human hands (that is, it’s not a part of this world). He entered the holy of holies once for all by his own blood, not by the blood of goats or calves, securing our deliverance for all time. If the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkled ashes of cows made spiritually contaminated people holy and clean,how much more will the blood of Jesus wash our consciences clean from dead works in order to serve the living God? He offered himself to God through the eternal Spirit as a sacrifice without any flaw. (Hebrews 2.14-15, 17-18; 5.8-9; 8.1-6; 9.11-14 CEB)

[B]y your blood you purchased for God
            persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation.
You made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
        and they will rule on earth. (Revelation 5.9-10 CEB, emphasis mine)

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. (1 Peter 2.9 CEB, emphasis mine)

One of the more hard-to-pin-down aspects of the person and work of Christ for us as modern, Western Christians is his function as a high priest. Temples and sacrifices–indeed, the entire cultic apparatus–seem strange and distant, if not simply primitive and backwards, to us. We do not fully grasp the priestly function in Scripture. As a consequence, we are unsure of what it might mean for us to be “a kingdom of priests,” as some New Testament authors have it. Our fuzziness about Christ’s priestly function leads to a similar lack of clarity about the church’s priestly function. With keen insight and elegance as always, John Howard Yoder gifted us with words to help orient our thinking about what it means for Jesus to be a high priest and what it means for the church to be a kingdom of priests.

The function of a priest in Israelite society was not only to work for forgiveness or reconciliation. He was also the leader or spokesman of the congregation in praise and intercession. Not all of the the reconciliation the priest brings about is through any particular sacrificial process . . . To be a priest was to be a representative human . . . Becoming a representative human involves abandoning certain divine prerogatives on God’s part. This is the analogy in Hebrews to kenosis [self-emptying] in Philippians 2. Christ’s sacrifice in Hebrews 9–and herein he differs from other priests–is himself. The element in Christ that corresponds to the ritual purity of the priest is his sinlessness.

. . .

The work of Christ is, at its center, obedience (see Philippians 2). Christ was exactly what God meant humans to be: in free communion with God, obeying God and loving others–even his enemies–with God’s love . . . But this perfect love in obedience had to be lived in the world of sinners, respecting the liberty of sinners to be unloving. Thus agape comes to mean nonresistance, bearing the other’s sinfulness, bearing, literally, his or her sins. If Christ had done anything in the face of humanity’s sinfulness other than to be nonresistant, respecting the freedom to sin against him, his work would have been less than perfect agape. His temptations center precisely on this point [Mark 1.12-13; Matt. 4.1-11; Luke 4.1-13]. Laying before him the possibility of shortcuts that would violate human freedom to reject him, the tempter hoped to lead Jesus to take back the freedom God had given humanity in the first place, rather than go the whole way to save us within our freedom . . . “The whole way” meant the cross. For, since murder . . . takes away freedom most utterly . . . so the utmost in agape is the utmost in non-self-defense, namely, to undergo murder, respecting the other’s freedom to commit the worst sin out of love for the sinner-murderer (1 Jn. 3:11-12; 3:16). This is what Jesus did.

The image of sacrifice is particularly relevant here. For the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of self, is precisely giving oneself utterly to communion-obedience with God. This is what Jesus did in letting God express agape through his, “obedience unto death, the death of the cross.” Thus sacrifice, communion, and obedience are identical. Blood as the symbol of life given [Rom. 3.25; Col. 1.19-20] is the most striking way of saying this. The sinlessness of Christ is thus not . . . a purely legal formality, or as some understand the Old Testament sacrifices, a matter merely of ritual cleanness. Christ’s sinlessness is rather the whole point of his life and his obedience-offering. His sinlessness, his obedience, is what he offered to God, and that sinlessness, utter faithfulness to love, cost his life in a world of sinners.

(One more note on Old Testament sacrifice. It may be legitimately argued that the point of sacrifice was not to identify one’s sins with the lamb by laying one’s hands on it and killing it to get rid of the sin–that was done with the scapegoat but then it was not killed. The point is rather that of identifying oneself with the lamb’s purity and then offering that pure self to God as a “sweet fragrance,” which makes much better sense.)

The place of the resurrection in the work of Christ . . . is a simple necessity. “Death could not hold him down” (see Acts 2:24). Psychologically, the resurrection is fundamental for discipleship in that it vindicates the rightness, the possibility, and the effectiveness of the way of the cross. (In Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002], 282-83, 310-11)

As high priest, Christ stood as a representative and spokesman for his congregation, which happened to embrace the entire human tribe. He became a bridge of reconciliation between the people and God. And he did this by giving his life on the cross. But the cross was, in fact, the consequence of a life lived emptied of self and devoted to God. He had given his life to God long before he walked resolutely into Jerusalem. That he is a representative person also means that he is what God intended us to be–his form of life is to be a pattern for our own. To be his disciples, to be the church, means that we appropriate his form of life–his self-giving even unto death–as our own, with the promise of resurrection. He has established a template for faithful living, and that template is cross and resurrection. Being the church–a royal priesthood, a kingdom of priests–means appropriating the priestly character of Christ’s life in our life together. To the extent that the church is the body of Christ–the living, vital embodiment of Jesus in the world (1 Cor. 12; Romans 12.4-8; Eph. 4.4-16; Col. 1.18)–we are acting as priests in the world whether we recognize it or not. Yoder develops that concept as follows:

[T]he office of priesthood has a meaning for believers in solidarity with Christ. The Reformation was especially loud in its anti-Catholic polemics at this point. The “priesthood of all believers” was a polemic against the idea of the mediatorial office of the Catholic priest, against the idea that we need a priest between God and us . . . Now the priesthood of all believers can foster individualism. The high priest has access to God. Every priest is authorized to do his sacrificial, sacramental duties to have access to God. If we are all priests then we all have access to God and we do not need each other . . . [But] priesthood is, in biblical thought, collective. Moses spoke about a “kingdom of priests” and Revelation 5 picks up the phrase again. That is, Israel and the church are to have–as peoples–a priestly function, rather than a group of individuals each with his or her own priestly status. The function of a priest is not to have access to God. That is a presupposition of his function, an aspect of his work. The function of a priest is to mediate for others. So to be priests is to be bridges between others and God, not to be persons who can get along on their own . . . It is a privilege to be elected as a priest. It is a privilege for an entire people to be a people of priests. The purpose of the priestly people in the language of 1 Peter 2 is “to proclaim the virtues of him who called you,” to be the tool of reconciliation between others and God. (Preface to Theology, 283-84)

For my thoughts–guided mostly by Dietrich Bonhoeffer–on how we appropriate Christ’s self-emptying love in baptism and discipleship, see my post Christ is our death: reading Romans 6 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

For my thoughts on the church’s call “to be the tool of reconciliation between others and God,” see my A Vocation of Reconciliation (2 Cor. 5.14-21): A Table Talk from 4.7.13.

 

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One thought on “Priesthood and atonement: reading Hebrews (and beyond) with John Howard Yoder

  1. […] Priesthood and atonement: reading Hebrews (and beyond) with John Howard Yoder (May 17, 2013) […]

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