Priests don’t have a place in a secularized American culture. We don’t really care about this as a society because a) we don’t believe in a God that needs us to offer him stuff and b) in a capitalist nation, there is no monetary or societal advantage to being a priest.
So, to the casual American Bible reader (even many Christians!), the opening of Hebrews 8 (along with several other portions of the book of Hebrews) is nonsense, because the writer says we have a “High Priest” and we don’t know/care what that is. Clearly we can connect this with Jesus Christ using context, but the object of a priest is lost on us.
Circular logic would permit us to use the argument that “it’s in the Bible, therefore it must be important.” While this is true to the Christian believer, we still have to examine why we should care about a “High Priest” that doesn’t even exist today to avoid assuming anything.
A Jewish priest, back in the day, was appointed to make the appropriate sacrifices on behalf of their nation — sometimes it was animals, sometimes it was grains. The high priest, pretty much the captain of the varsity priest squad, held the office for life. He was literally set apart from everyone else, forever, to do the work of God.
The high priest’s workplace was the tabernacle. The tabernacle (a fancy word for a portable temple) had three primary sections: the courtyard, where everyone could hang out; the holy place, designated for the priests; and the most holy place, which could only be entered once a year by the high priest. Even then, before the high priest could go in there, he had to prepare himself in a number of ways.
Hopefully you’re still here, because this is where it all matters. The high priest was a human, which is why he had to do all that prep — in his own capacity, he is not worthy to enter that third tier of God-awesomeness. Of course, the sacrifices still counted. But it was pretty much a copy of authentic version. This is what the first two verses of this chapter are talking about. We identify with the Ultimate Super High Priest.
Call Jesus the Holyfield of the Bible, because He is the real deal. He’s the upgrade. Too many puns going on there.
We’re no longer called to duplicate this activity. Once we say yes to Jesus, it’s all over — you don’t have to make up for your sins. And if you don’t think you’re a sinful person, you’re lying. And that’s a sin.
The next handful of verses discuss how Jesus’ death, resurrection, and reigning that this chapter allude to are all an upgrade:
1) The Lord made it up. (v. 2) His work is perfect. We can’t really contend with that.
2) We’re copying it. (v. 5) The verse is referring to the endeavors of the priesthood, specifically, but we still do this today. Our sacrifices of time, money, and service in church are all just duplicates of the perfect church in heaven. And we don’t even need a PowerPoint person there.
3) His ministry is better. (v. 6) The priests could demonstrate the same degree of love and justice in their service, but they were still human. Jesus was fully God and fully human while on earth — his example of ministry is perfect.
4) His promises are better. (v. 6) Ever been lied to? It happens everywhere. Fortunately, the promises of Jesus are exceedingly more trustworthy. And in a world that severely lacks integrity, this is refreshing knowledge. We also don’t have to “remake” a sacrifice every year, because Jesus took care of that for eternity.
We have really great ideas — at least, we’d like to think so — and often times they seem very conventional. But God’s ideas are not bound to our limited idea of “normal”. God talked from a burning bush, a donkey, used an alleged illegitimate relationship for His Son’s birth, and had Jesus, a carpenter, pick a bunch of low-lifes to follow Him around and eventually start His church. His plans are better than ours. (Proverbs 14:12)
Remember that there is a better way today.