Jesus is the True Priest Who Offers a Better Sacrifice

goodfriday04In his modern classic, The Cross of Christ, John Stott begins his consideration of Christ’s crucifixion by outlining all the times Jesus speaks of his impending death. For Christ, his earthly mission focused not on his teaching, his healing, nor his ruling; his singular focus was on his sacrifice and his atonement for sin. He knew this and as we remember Christ’s death and resurrection this week, it is good for us to know the same.

In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) we find at least nine places where Jesus speaks about his death. In John’s Gospel, we find seven more statements that describe the hour of his death. In all, these passages tell us a great deal about what Jesus’s death accomplished and how our Savior understand the purposes of his crucifixion. Following Stott’s outline (see pp. 25–32), let’s consider what Christ says about his death in the Synoptic Gospels. Perhaps, if time permits, we will return to John’s Gospel.

Jesus Offers Himself

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection three times before his final week on earth. In Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus’s first prediction coming on the heels of Peter’s announcement that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8:31)

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Next, Jesus points to his impending death as he passes through Galilee (Mark 9:31)

for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”

And last, on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus makes his final prediction (Mark 10:32–34).

And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

Reflecting on these three predictions, John Stott wisely observes the self-determination of Jesus. Jesus did not die as a passive victim. Rather, he volunteered himself in perfect obedience to the Father and fulfillment of the Scriptures.

Putting the three predictions together, the most impressive emphasis is neither that Jesus would be betrayed, rejected and condemned by his own people and their leaders, nor that they would hand him over to the Gentiles who would first mock and then kill him, nor that after three days he would rise from death. It is not even that each time Jesus designates himself ‘Son of Man’ (the heavenly figure whom Daniel saw in his vision, coming in the clouds of heaven, being given authority, glory and sovereign power, and receiving the worship of the nations) and yet paradoxically states that as Son of Man he will suffer and die, thus with daring originality combining the two Old Testament Messianic figures, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and the reigning Son of Man of Daniel 7. More impressive still is the determination he both expressed and exemplified. He must suffer and be rejected and die, he said. Everything written of him in Scripture must be fulfilled. (27–28, emphasis mine)

Stott is exactly right. Jesus is active in his dying. While we often speak of his death as his passive obedience, there is nothing passive about it. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus knew where his life was headed—he, the bridegroom, was going to be taken from his bride (see Mark. 2:19–20). In Luke 9:51, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem, to go to the place where God’s people killed their prophets. And in his final week on the earth, Jesus entered the temple to teach his people what was going to happen to him on the cross and why.

Though he would be betrayed, arrested, and crucified, Jesus like the priests of old was bringing his sacrifice to the altar. Jesus was the Lamb of God who was slain, but he was also the priest who taught his people about the true sacrifice. This was true as he spoke from the cross and this was true in the things he said during holy week.

Jesus Teaches Us What to Believe About His Death

In his final week on earth, every day took Jesus closer to the cross. Importantly, Jesus stood in the temple teaching his disciples (see Matthew 20–22). At the same time, he debated with the priests about who had authority to speak in the temple. Finally pointing to Psalm 110 (Matt. 22:41–46), he confounded the priests and asserted his authority to speak in the temple—Jesus is the son of David, David’s Lord, and the royal priest of Psalm 110.

In this way, we see that Jesus had an authority to reach God’s people that exceeded the priests. In the Old Testament, the priests taught the people about the law and the sacrifices (see Lev. 10:11; Deut. 33:9; Mal. 2:1–9). But now a greater priest had arrived and in his final week, Jesus taught with unmistakable clarity about the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. In these days, Stott notes six times that Jesus alludes to his death. Reformatting Stott’s list, he writes,

[1] He saw his death as the culmination of centuries of Jewish rejection of God’s message, and foretold that God’s judgment would bring Jewish national privilege to an end. [Matt. 21:33–46; Mark 12:1–12; Luke 20:9–19]

[2] Then on the Tuesday, mentioning the Passover, he said he was going to be handed over to be crucified’ [Matt. 26:1–2];

[3] in the Bethany home he described the pouring of perfume over his head as preparing him for burial [Matt. 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9];

[4] in the upper room he insisted that the Son of Man would [be betrayed and] go just as it was written about him [Matt. 26:14–16; Mark 14:10–11; Luke 22:22];

[5] and gave them bread and wine as emblems of his body and blood, thus foreshadowing his death and requesting its commemoration [Matt 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:14–20].

[6] Finally, in the Garden of Gethsemane he refused to be defended by men or angels, since ‘how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?’ [Matt. 26:47–56; Mark 14:43–50; Luke 22:47–53; John 18:1–11]

Stott concludes from these testimonies that “the Synoptic evangelists bear a common witness to the fact that Jesus both clearly foresaw and repeatedly foretold his coming death” (28). This is a significant point: Jesus’s death was not done to him; Jesus laid his life down. Though killed by others, Jesus had authority to lay his life down and take it up again (John 10:17–18).

In this way, Jesus is the not just a passive sacrifice for sin, he is the priest who offers himself to the Father. As Stott puts it, “Although he knew he must die, it was not because he was the helpless victim either of evil forces arrayed against him, or of any inflexible fate decreed for him, but because he freely embraced the purpose of his Father for the salvation of sinners, as it had been revealed in Scripture” (The Cross of Christ, 32). 

Jesus is the True Priest

Stott does not identify Jesus as a priest, but if we put all of Jesus teaching together with the sacrifice he was teaching about, we come to the conclusion that Jesus is a priest. And he is a priest that will offer the final sacrifice for our sins.

The fact that Jesus is active in his own death, even citing Scripture on the cross (Ps. 22:1; 31:5; 69:21), testifies to the fact that he is more than the Lamb of God who dies silently on the altar. Rather, in his seven statements from the cross, he is declaring the truth of who he is and what he is doing.

Jesus is, like the priests of old, taught his disciples what to believe about him and his death. And as his testimony declares throughout the Synoptic Gospels, he is the Suffering Servant and the Son of Man who is dying on behalf of his people, so that their sins can be forgiven by his blood.

For this reason, when we read the passion narratives in the Gospels, or take the Lord’s Supper, or hear the gospel preached, we must remember what Jesus said about what he was going to do. Jesus knew why he was going to the cross, and we must know the same. Jesus tells us that he did not come first and foremost to defeat powers and principalities, or to teach us how live, or even how to give our lives or our wealth to others (see Mark 14:3–9). Jesus came to suffer and die on the cross, in order to take away the sins of his people (Matt. 20:28; 26:28). This is why he came—to be the true and trustworthy priest of God.

When we consider Christ in the Gospels, we often forget Jesus’s priestly role. But with eyes trained by the rest of the Scripture and with careful attention to Jesus’s words and actions, we can see the wonderful service of Christ, our trustworthy and loving high priest. Such a glorious vision of Christ not only strengthens our confidence in his death and resurrection, it also fills our hearts with love.

To that end, may we continue to seek the Lord, who is our faithful and sympathetic high priest.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds