The Priests on Earth
From Gospel Translations
“They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5a).
- Hebrews 8:4–5
The Old Testament looked forward to a priest who would arise in the last days in the order of Melchizedek. This order of Melchizedek would be greater than the priesthood of Aaron because it would provide a priest who would never leave the priestly office. After explaining the greatness of the priesthood of Melchizedek in chapter 7, the author of Hebrews begins chapter 8 by telling us that Christ is, in actuality, this promised priest (vv. 1–2).
In 8:3, we are reminded that if Christ were to be a true priest, then He must also have a sacrifice. But Christ’s sacrifice was different than those sacrifices offered by the Levitical priesthood. If Christ were on earth, He would not be a priest because there were priests on earth who offered sacrifices according to the Law (8:4). This means that Christ must be a heavenly priest because the sacrifice that He brings is not one of the earthly, animal sacrifices prescribed by the Law.
But what shall we say about the sacrifice of Christ’s body? Was it not offered while He was on the earth? Would that not make it an earthly sacrifice? John Calvin is helpful in his discussion of the nature of Christ’s sacrifice. He reminds us that “whatever of an earthly kind appears at first sight to be in Christ, it is to be viewed spiritually by the eye of faith.” Christ did suffer in an earthly, physical manner for our sin. But the most intense suffering He felt was the suffering of an invisible and spiritual nature that He endured when He was forsaken by the Father. It was in this abandonment that Christ atoned for our sins in the fullest and ultimate sense. Remember that Christ’s most intense agony came not from physical pain, but in the anguish He felt when abandoned by the Father (Mark 15:34). Though Christ was certainly forsaken in an earthly, bodily sense, the abandonment of His soul and His suffering in the unseen places was much worse.
This unseen suffering is one aspect of the atonement that makes Christ’s sacrifice superior to the sacrifices of old. Indeed, Christ’s work is superior because it occurs both on earth and in the heavenly tabernacle. The high priests of old did their work only in the shadows, the copy of the heavenly place that Moses was commanded to build (v. 5). However, Christ does His priestly work not in the shadowy copy, but in the heavenly reality (v. 2).
Many of us have gone through times in our lives when depression has made us feel like we are abandoned. But none of us has ever been abandoned like Christ was on the cross. When you endure times of depression, ask the Lord to return your joy and remember that because of Christ, the Father will never abandon you.
Passages for Further Study
1 Chron. 22