Reformation Day: October 31
TEXT: Hebrews 4:12-16
“Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession” (Hebrews 4:14).
For me, that passage from the fourth chapter of Hebrews sums up the very heart of the Protestant Reformation.
My purpose here is two-fold— first, to present Jesus Christ as our great high priest, as described in the book of Hebrews; and second, to answer a question: “If we’re Protestant, why would we ever need a priest?”
Let’s begin with some history. On the Eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517, a rather obscure Augustinian priest and university professor named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses—95 questions for discussion—to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany.
Now, that, in itself, was not a particularly unusual thing. In those days, church doors were often used as bulletin boards. All Luther wanted to do was start an academic discussion. He did not realize he was kicking off a movement that was going to tear the apart the Church—and Europe along with it. But that’s what happened. That day in Wittenburg, Martin Luther sparked a religious revolution.
One thing Martin Luther insisted upon—and which millions of Protestants since have insisted upon—is “the priesthood of all believers.” That’s the idea that every one of us who claims Jesus as Saviour and Lord already is a priest. To quote First Peter, chapter two, verse nine, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”
Each one of us is already somebody important in the eyes of God. Each one of us has a special calling—like a priest—whether we know it, or not! You don’t need a guy with his shirt on backwards to speak to God on your behalf. You can speak to God directly—so, there’s no need for a priest.
Or is there?
Sure, we can speak directly to God. And, yes, God is always eager to listen to us. But … What if you’re stumped for words? Have any of you ever had an experience like that? Like you don’t really know what to pray about? Or what to ask for? It’s like you’re stuck in the snow, just spinning your wheels.
At such times, wouldn’t it be good to have a priest? An intermediary? Someone to bring your needs before God? Someone who is always available?
When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we proclaim that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. From there, he intercedes for us (see Romans 8:34). Or as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “[Jesus] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25).
Alfred, Lord Tennyson observed that “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”* And he knew what he was talking about. I, myself, have seen mighty miracles of prayer wrought in my life, and in the lives of others.
So, isn’t it good to know we have a great high priest seated right next to God? Someone who pleads our case, and intercedes for us—always?
What a friend we have in Jesus! He’s praying for us right now—praying that we will do the right thing, find the right words to say, find the right direction. He’s praying for our health and wholeness—and for the well-being of our souls.
Someone once said that our God is a “24-7” God. He is always available. So maybe we Protestants do need a good priest sometimes—a great high priest who is always at prayer for us. Think about that. Think about Jesus praying for you—pleading for you—this very moment, and always. Jesus can help us find strength even when we feel the weakest.
And wouldn’t it be nice to have not only a good priest who is always available, but also a good priest who is always effective? In Bible times, the Temple priests had to continually make sacrifices for sin.
Picture it: all those innocent animals lined up to be slaughtered—all that innocent blood shed—day after day, year after year, century after century … and still, there was no lasting salvation from sin! Isn’t that depressing?
Then Jesus, the spotless, unblemished Lamb of God—at once the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice—laid down his life for our sake on the altar of the cross. As it says in our epistle lesson, Jesus offered himself for us “once for all.” Once and for all, Jesus made us right with God. And to gain salvation, all you have to do is believe that. All you have to do is accept that sacrifice, and claim it for yourself. That’s another of the great proclamations of the Protestant church: we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
As the apostle Paul says in the Book of Romans (3:28), we are “justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Rediscovering that principle kept Martin Luther from driving himself crazy.
As a Roman Catholic priest of the Augustinian order, Luther fasted longer, and prayed harder, and confessed more often than any of his fellow monks. He sacrificed more and more—more than anyone else. But still he found no peace for his troubled heart—until he turned to Scripture.
Then, finally, he realized that his sacrifices were unnecessary, because it is Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross that saves—“once for all.” The power of that revelation whipped up a mighty storm. We call it the “Protestant Reformation”—and it changed the world. Some would say it even changed the Catholic Church for the better! And, if that is true, I think it would make Martin Luther very happy.
“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
We have a Great High Priest who made the right sacrifice—once, and for all. Believing in Jesus Christ—crucified and risen—is the work that makes us right with God.
So, maybe we Protestants do need a good priest who is always effective.
I know I could use a good priest who always understands me. It gives me great comfort when I read: “… we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin”(Heb. 4:15). It helps me to know that—in the presence of Jesus Christ—my weaknesses, my trials, my struggles, my failures … all of these are understood. God knows what you and I go through, because Jesus has walked that path before us.
Jesus, our great high priest is always available, always effective, and always understanding.
- Have you lost a loved one? Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35).
- Are you tempted? Jesus was tempted, too (Mark 1:12-13).
- Has someone betrayed you? Jesus himself was betrayed and abandoned (Mark 14:43-50).
- Have you been falsely accused? So was he.
- Have you suffered pain? Jesus was whipped and crucified.
- Have you had to confront death? Jesus faced death, too.
He was tested in every way that we are, yet without sinning (Heb. 4:15).
Do Protestants need a priest? I think there is one we all need, all the time: one who is praying for us, one who made the ultimate sacrifice for us, one who understands our weaknesses.
Once again, listen to these words: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God … Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace …” (4:14a, 16).
Yes, my friends, we have a Good Priest—one who prays for us, always. Thanks be to God. Amen.
* “… Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day …”
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Morte D’Arthur” from Poems, 4th edition (London: Moxon, 1845).