March 7, 1993

THE PERFECT PRIEST

“Such a high priest meets our need–one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26).

Pastors and priests have been in the news fairly often the last few years, and much of the news hasn’t been good.  Some preachers have been exposed as money-grubbing charlatans.  They plead for donations to build God’s kingdom but then use the money to build mansions for themselves;  they ask for money to help starving children, but the only thing they feed is their own bank account;  they promise gullible followers that if only they make a big donation God will make them rich, but the only ones getting rich are the ministers themselves.

And then there are the sex scandals.  Preachers tell their congregations to be faithful in marriage, but then get involved in adultery and divorce themselves.  Worse yet, some have been guilty of sexual abuse.  Spiritual leaders have been convicted of molesting the very children they’re supposed to be helping.

These scandals are devastating.  They do the most harm, of course, to the victims.  People often place a special trust in ministers–they expect ministers to be shepherds who pray for the flock, not wolves who prey on the flock–and so it’s an awful blow when that trust is betrayed.  If you sent money for a ministry and you find out later that your check helped pay for a chandelier in the preacher’s mansion if as a child you were molested by a member of the clergy, if as a teenager you were seduced by your youth leader–if you’ve been victimized personally by a spiritual leader you trusted, you feel betrayed and violated.  This not only ruins your relationship to the person who hurt you, but it can also make you distrustful of ministers and of people in general, it can shatter your tie to the church, and, yes, it can even make it hard for you to keep trusting God.

But even if you’re not one of those who was directly victimized, even if your own minister has been above reproach, scandals like this can be damaging.  You hear about these things in the news, and you find yourself becoming a little more wary, just a bit less trusting, of your own minister, even if he’s a man of integrity.  Your view of the office of the minister has been tainted, and you find it hard to look at any minister in quite the same way.

These scandals have an impact even on many who aren’t Christians and who don’t have a pastor or priest at all.  With each new scandal, those who don’t go to church have one more excuse to stay away, and those who like to make fun of Christianity have one more weapon in their arsenal.  If you’re far from God in the first place, if you’re already steering clear of the church, the vile behavior of certain church leaders can drive your farther away than ever.

The publicity surrounding these scandals isn’t pleasant; it can have a negative effect, but sometimes it’s necessary.  In some cases, the clergy involved tried to silence their victims through intimidation or character assassination.  And sometimes, even after the church hierarchy became aware of the problems, it dragged its feet and tried to keep things hushed up rather than dealing promptly with allegations of wrongdoing.  Sometimes it took negative publicity to force the issue, and the church owes a real debt to victims who had the courage to speak out, and to honest reporters who exposed evil and brought it out into the open.

Negative publicity can hurt the church, of course, but it hurts, even more, to cover things up and allow the evil to continue.  Ignorance is not bliss, not when it comes to corrupt leaders.  They’re in a position to do too much damage if their activities are hushed up and ignored.  The secrecy gives the violators opportunities to do even more harm later on.  When there is clear evidence of wrongdoing, the church needs to deal with the offender firmly and openly, and if that means negative publicity, so be it.

Still, though negative publicity is sometimes necessary, you can get a warped view of the church and its leaders if the media is your only source of information.  The problem isn’t that the scandals get reported.  The problem is that, all too often, they are the only things that get reported.  If a community has a hundred pastors who are faithful and one who’s involved in a scandal, guess which one makes the news?  The bad one.  The hundred good ones aren’t in the picture.

It would be nice if the media were to report on more than just the scandals and the controversies if they gave as much coverage to good pastors and priests as to bad ones.  But that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

Why not?  Well, for one thing, most reporters aren’t all that fond of religion–less than 20% attend worship regularly.  In fairness to reporters, though, that’s probably not the main factor.  It’s probably not so much a matter of bias as the need to make money.  Imagine:  One TV channel carries a story about a typical week in the life of an ordinary pastor.  The camera follows him as he prays and studies and teaches and offers the sacraments and visits with his people in his neighborhood.  Meanwhile, another channel carries an investigative report about a clergyman who’s charged with molesting children.  Now, which channel are more people going to watch?  Which is going to get better ratings?  The answer is obvious.  Reporting is ultimately a matter of revenue, of selling papers and boosting TV ratings, and as long as that’s true, corrupt ministers will make the news and good ones won’t.  Scandal sells;  devotion doesn’t.

Now, if the only preachers you ever hear about are the scoundrels, you’re not likely to have a very high view of the clergy.  Many of the scandals are very real and very serious–I don’t deny that.  But keep things in perspective.  There are a lot of faithful pastors and priests out there who never make the headlines.  Don’t despise all ministers because of the well-publicized scandals of a few.  That’s a mistake.

It’s not the most serious mistake you can make, however.  The most tragic mistake would be if you turn against God himself because of what certain people have done.  Maybe someone who claims to follow Christ has done things which offended you or hurt you deeply.  Maybe it’s a minister, or maybe it’s someone else:  a parent or a neighbor or your boss or someone you work with… whoever it is, you feel disillusioned and disgusted.  You figure that if that’s what religion is all about, you want no part of it.

Now, if that’s your situation, if someone wearing the label “Christian” has betrayed your trust, it’s understandable if you feel angry and hurt.  It’s tempting to forget about Jesus altogether.  Before you do that, however, here’s a story that might help put the matter in perspective.

A certain pastor was out visiting various homes, inviting people to come and visit his church.  At one house he invited a man and mentioned that the man’s neighbor was already a member of his church.  Well, as soon as the man heard that, he said there was no way he’d go near that church.  He said that the guy next door was the worst neighbor he’d ever had, and he wanted nothing to do with a religion that would include a person like that.

The pastor was quiet for a moment.  Then he gestured toward a nearby piano, and he asked the man’s little daughter to play a piece by Beethoven that was lying on the piano.  The man protested:  Beethoven’s music was much too advanced for his daughter.  But the pastor insisted, and the little girl gave it a try.  It sounded dreadful.  It was awful.  When the little girl finally finished butchering that glorious piece of music, the pastor looked at the man and said, “Boy, that Beethoven sure wasn’t much of a composer, was he?”

The man got the point.  He had been judging Christianity by the performance of one player rather than focussing on the composer himself.

Don’t turn away from Jesus just because some religious people turned out to be corrupt.  If you’re going to base your attitude toward God on the actions of a man, make sure that man is the Lord Jesus Christ.  Christianity is Christ.  It’s not wise to dismiss Christianity because of the wrongs committed by some who wear the label Christian.  Some of these people aren’t followers of Jesus at all, and even those who really are Christians will have their sins and shortcomings.

You may be angry at corrupt religious leaders, but don’t let that turn you against God.  Remember:  the Lord is even more furious about these things than you are.  In Ezekiel 34, the Bible talks about false prophets and priests who were supposed to be shepherds to God’s people, but who betrayed them instead.  Listen to these scorching words from Ezekiel 34:

This is what the Sovereign Lord says:  Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves!  Should not shepherds take care of the flock?  You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.  You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.  You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost.  You have ruled them harshly and brutally.

The Lord denounces the behavior of these people a while longer, and then he declares his verdict:

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:  As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:  This is what the Sovereign Lord says:  I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock.  I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves.  I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.

As Ezekiel 34 continues, the Lord not only declares his judgment on the false shepherds, but he makes a tremendous promise:  he promises to become a shepherd himself, to personally take care of his people.

For this is what the Sovereign Lord says:  I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.  As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep…  I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the sovereign Lord.  I will search for the lost and bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and strong I will destroy.  I will shepherd the flock with justice.

God kept this promise;  he personally became our shepherd in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the good shepherd.  He not only cares for his sheep, but he even died for us in order to save us.  His willingness to give up his own life is the final proof that he is the one we can depend on.  It’s one thing to turn away from a religious leader who hurts and almost destroys you;  it’s quite another to turn from the good shepherd who was willing to die for you.  In John 10:10,11 Jesus says:  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;  I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.  I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Jesus was willing to lay down his life for his people.  Even when certain pastors and priests act more like wolves than shepherds, there is still one shepherd who is perfectly good, someone who will never let his people down.  Jesus Christ is the perfect priest, the only perfect priest.  He’s not going to mislead you or exploit you.  How could he?  He’s completely sinless.  Not only that, but he was willing to die for his people.  He certainly not going to betray your trust.   “As the Scripture says, ‘Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (Romans 10:11).  In a world where nobody’s perfect, where people often disappoint you, where there’s nobody you can trust completely, there is nevertheless one person you can trust without any reservations.

Jesus’ perfection means that you can trust in him as a person, and it also means that you can trust in what he has accomplished.  Jesus’ perfection has made it possible for him to do something that no one else can:  he can make you right with God.  That’s because as the perfect man and the perfect priest, he’s the only one capable of making the necessary sacrifice to pay for our sins.

What do I mean when I talk about a sacrifice?  Well, the Bible shows us that built into the very structure of the universe is this law:  When somebody sins, somebody pays.  There is no such thing as a sin which is simply overlooked and forgotten.  All sin has to be dealt with.  That’s the way God has decreed it.  When somebody sins, somebody has to pay, and the penalty to be paid is death.  Nothing can alter that fundamental law of the universe.  It is more certain than the law of gravity.

Every sin must be paid for, either with the life of the sinner himself, or else with the life of a substitute who dies in place of the sinner.  And if there is to be a substitute, he must be perfect.  One sinner can’t substitute for another, since he’s already got his own sin to pay for.  Only someone who is perfectly innocent and sinless, who doesn’t deserve any punishment himself, is able to be a substitute and take upon himself what the sinner deserves.

In the centuries before Jesus, God commanded a system of animal sacrifices.  Every time the priest slaughtered another animal, the people got a vivid reminder that the price of their sin was blood.  Every time they heard the calf bellowing, every time they saw the blood spurting, every time they smelled the flesh burning, they were reminded that their lives had been spared only because the life of another had been taken.  “In fact,” says Hebrews 9:22, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (9:22).  When somebody sins, somebody pays.  No blood, no forgiveness.

Now, that old system of animal sacrifices had deep meaning.  It served as a reminder of the seriousness of sin (Hebrews 10:3) and it pointed to the ultimate sacrifice that was still to come.  However, those sacrifices were not in themselves adequate.  There were at least two problems.

First, it’s not possible for an animal to take the place of a human.  No animal can pay for the sin of a human or make that person right with God once and for all.  As the Bible says in Hebrews 10:4, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”  Only a human can take the place of another human and pay the price of his sin;  an animal isn’t an adequate substitute.

The second problem with the old system of rituals was this:  the priests who offered the sacrifices were themselves sinners.  They needed to be forgiven just as much as the people for whom they were conducting the ritual.  In the period before Jesus came, God used that old system of imperfect priests offering inadequate sacrifices, but only as a foreshadowing of what he ultimately had in mind:  a perfect priest offering a perfect human sacrifice.

And that’s where Jesus comes in.  And that’s why his perfect and sinless humanity is ultimately so important.  When somebody sins, somebody pays, and if we are to avoid spending eternity in hell, we need someone who can pay on our behalf:  a perfect priest who offers a perfect sacrifice that can really pay the price of human sin.  Jesus is the only one who fills the bill.  In Hebrews 7:26-27, the Bible says,

Such a high priest meets our need–one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.  Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people.  He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.

Jesus offered himself.  He allowed himself to be nailed to a wooden cross at Golgotha, the place of the skull.  There he poured out his own blood and gave up his own life.  When Jesus was crucified, he wasn’t just a helpless man trapped by cruel enemies and unfortunate circumstances.  He was fulfilling the plan of God.  No one took his life from him;  he laid it down of his own accord (John 10:18).  It wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus on the cross;  it was love.  Jesus deliberately chose the cross in order to fulfill God’s plan of salvation.  In the eyes of God, the cross was really an altar.  The death of Jesus wasn’t just an execution but a sacrifice. The blood streaming from Jesus’ wounds wasn’t just the draining of his physical life;  it was the offering of a spiritual payment to cover the sins of the world (1 John 2:2).  At Golgotha, then, Jesus was much more than a victim.  He was the perfect priest offering the perfect sacrifice for sin:  the sacrifice of himself.

The Son of God became a man and died on the cross because human sin requires a human sacrifice.  As a perfect man, he was qualified to take the place of other humans, and as the Son of God, he had the power to bear the weight of all the sins of the world.

Jesus’ death is of infinite value and worth.  It’s more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.  Jesus paid the price of sin once and for all, and there never needs to be another sacrifice to pay for sin.  The suffering and death of this one man erased the guilt and eternal punishment of all who trust in him.  Because of this one man’s sacrifice, millions can be saved through faith in him.  You can be saved through faith in him as your substitute.

Jesus is indeed the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice.  We talked earlier about the problem of corrupt religious leaders, and how Jesus is far different from them.  We’ve seen how his perfection means that he has the absolute purity and integrity to be trusted, and we’ve seen that his perfection qualified him to be our sinless substitute.

Ironically, and in God’s sovereignty, it was an evil and corrupt priest who put into words what the death of Jesus is all about.  The high priest Caiphas was greedy, he was manipulative, he was murderous.  He used his position to gain wealth and power for himself, and to crush his enemies.  Leading people closer to God was the last thing on his mind.  If there was ever an unworthy priest, Caiaphas was it.

In John 11, the Bible tells how Caiphas was the chairman of an emergency meeting.  The only item on the agenda was “the Jesus problem.”  Jesus had been teaching and doing miracles, and he was becoming so prominent that the religious leaders began to panic.  They thought that if too many people followed Jesus, it could lead to the destruction of the nation.  That’s when Caiaphas spoke up:  “‘You know nothing at all.  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.'”

Caiaphas figured that one man was expendable, and he had no qualms about arranging Jesus’ death for political gain.  And yet, in spite of himself, this corrupt conniver was speaking a great spiritual truth.  His words unintentionally expressed the plan of God.  “‘It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’  [Caiaphas] did not say this on his own,” says the Bible, “but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.”

The words of the wicked priest Caiaphas describe very well the mission of the perfect priest, Jesus Christ.  Jesus died to save the children of God scattered throughout the world, to be their substitute.  Today this same Jesus lives in heaven as our perfect priest, interceding on behalf of his people and guaranteeing their salvation.

Have you trusted Jesus to be your perfect priest and Savior?  Maybe you’ve been staying away from God because of the wrongs committed by religious people and because of the hypocrites who’ve hurt you.  Isn’t it time to stop focussing on the wretchedness of Caiaphas and start trusting in the righteousness of Christ?  “Such a high priest meets our need–one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.