[The following sermon is taken from volume VII:163--168
of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids,
MI). It was originally published in 1909 in English by Lutherans in All
Lands Press (Minneapolis, MN), as The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin
Luther, vol. 2. This e-text was scanned and edited by Richard Bucher,
it is in the public domain and it may be copied and distributed without
CHRIST OUR GREAT HIGH PRIEST
1. An understanding of practically all of the Epistle to the Hebrews
is necessary before we can hope to make this text clear to ourselves. Briefly,
the epistle treats of a twofold priesthood. The former priesthood was a
material one, with material adornment, tabernacle, sacrifices and with
pardon couched in ritual; material were all its appointments. The new order
is a spiritual priesthood, with spiritual adornments, spiritual tabernacle
and sacrifices--spiritual in all that pertains to it. Christ, in the exercise
of his priestly office, in the sacrifice on the cross, was not adorned
with silk and gold and precious stones, but with divine love, wisdom, patience,
obedience and all virtues. His adornment was apparent to none but God and
possessors of the Spirit, for it was spiritual.
2. Christ sacrificed not goats nor calves nor birds; not bread; not
blood nor flesh, as did Aaron and his posterity: he offered his own body
and blood, and the manner of the sacrifice was spiritual; for it took place
through the Holy Spirit, as here stated. Though the body and blood of Christ
were visible the same as any other material object, the fact that he offered
them as a sacrifice was not apparent. It was not a visible sacrifice, as
in the case of offerings at the hands of Aaron. Then the goat or calf,
the flesh and blood, were material sacrifices visibly offered, and recognized
as sacrifices. But Christ offered himself in the heart before God. His
sacrifice was perceptible to no mortal. Therefore, his bodily flesh and
blood becomes a spiritual sacrifice. Similarly, we Christians, the posterity
of Christ our Aaron, offer up our own bodies. Rom 12, 1. And our offering
is likewise a spiritual sacrifice, or, as Paul has it, a "reasonable service";
for we make it in spirit, and it is beheld of God alone.
3. Again, in the new order, the tabernacle or house is spiritual; for
it is heaven, or the presence of God. Christ hung upon a cross; he was
not offered in a temple. He was offered before the eyes of God, and there
he still abides. The cross is an altar in a spiritual sense. The material
cross was indeed visible, but none knew it as Christ's altar. Again, his
prayer, his sprinkled blood, his burnt incense, were all spiritual, for
it was all wrought through his spirit.
4. Accordingly, the fruit and blessing of his office and sacrifice,
the forgiveness of our sins and our justification, are likewise spiritual.
In the Old Covenant, the priest with his sacrifices and sprinklings of
blood effected merely as it were an external absolution, or pardon, corresponding
to the childhood stage of the people. The recipient was permitted to move
publicly among the people; he was externally holy and as one restored from
excommunication. He who failed to obtain absolution from the priest was
unholy, being denied membership in the congregation and enjoyment of its
privileges; in all respects he was separated like those in the ban today.
5. But such absolution rendered no one inwardly holy and just before
God. Something beyond that was necessary to secure true forgiveness. It
was the same principle which governs church discipline today. He who has
received no more than the remission, or absolution, of the ecclesiastical
judge will surely remain forever out of heaven. On the other hand, he who
is in the ban of the Church is hellward bound only when the sentence is
confirmed at a higher tribunal. I can make no better comparison than to
say that it was the same in the old Jewish priesthood as now in the Papal
priesthood, which, with its loosing and binding, can prohibit or permit
only external communion among Christians. It is true, God required such
measures in the time of the Jewish dispensation, that he might restrain
by fear; just as now he sanctions church discipline when rightly employed,
in order to punish and restrain the evil-doer, though it has no power in
itself to raise people to holiness or to push them into wickedness.
6. But with the priesthood of Christ is true spiritual remission, sanctification
and absolution. These avail before God--God grant that it be true of us--whether
we be outwardly excommunicated, or holy, or not. Christ's blood has obtained
for us pardon forever acceptable with God. God will forgive our sins for
the sake of that blood so long as its power shall last and its intercession
for grace in our behalf, which is forever. Therefore, we are forever holy
and blessed before God. This is the substance of the text. Now that we
shall find it easy to understand, we will briefly consider it.
"But Christ having come a high priest of the good things to come."
7. The adornment of Aaron and his descendants, the high priests, was
of a material nature, and they obtained for the people a merely formal
remission of sins, performing their office in a perishable temple, or tabernacle.
It was evident to men that their absolution and sanctification before the
congregation was a temporal blessing confined to the present. But when
Christ came upon the cross no one beheld him as he went before God in the
Holy Spirit, adorned with every grace and virtue, a true High Priest. The
blessings wrought by him are not temporal--a merely formal pardon--but
the "blessings to come"; namely, blessings which are spiritual and eternal.
Paul speaks of them as blessings to come, not that we are to await the
life to come before we can have forgiveness and all the blessings of divine
grace, but because now we posses them only in faith.
They are as yet hidden, to be revealed in the future life. Again, the
blessings we have in Christ were, from the standpoint of the Old Testament
priesthood, blessings to come.
"Through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands,
that is to say, not of this creation."
8. The apostle does not name the tabernacle he mentions; nor can he,
so strange its nature! It exists only in the sight of God, and is ours
in faith, to be revealed hereafter. It is not made with hands, like the
Jewish tabernacle; in other words, not of "this building." The old tabernacle,
like all buildings of its nature, necessarily was made of wood and other
temporal materials created by God. God says in Isaiah 66, 1-2: "What manner
of house will ye build unto me? . . . For all these things hath my hand
made, and so all these things came to be." But that greater tabernacle
has not yet form; it is not yet finished. God is building it and he shall
reveal it. Christ's words are (Jn 14, 3), "And if I go and prepare a place
"Nor yet through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own
blood, entered in once for all into the holy place, having obtained eternal
9. According to Leviticus 16, the high priest must once a year enter
into the holy place with the blood of rams and other offerings, and with
these make formal reconciliation for the people. This ceremony typified
that Christ, the true Priest, should once die for us, to obtain for us
the true atonement. But the former sacrifice, having to be repeated every
year, was but a temporary and imperfect atonement; it did not eternally
suffice, as does the atonement of Christ. For though we fall and sin repeatedly,
we have confidence that the blood of Christ does not fall, or sin; it remains
steadfast before God, and the expiation is perpetual and eternal. Under
its sway grace is perpetually renewed, without work or merit on our part,
provided we do not stand aloof in unbelief.
"For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes a heifer," etc.
10. Concerning the water of separation and the ashes of the red heifer,
read Numbers 19; and concerning the blood of bulls and goats, Leviticus
16, 14-15. According to Paul, these were formal and temporal purifications,
as I stated above. But Christ, in God's sight, purifies the conscience
of dead works; that is, of sins meriting death, and of works performed
in sin and therefore dead. Christ purifies from these, that we may serve
the living God by living works.
"And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant [testament],"
11. Under the old law, which provided only for formal, or ritualistic,
pardon, and restored to human fellowship, and transgressions remained,
burdening the conscience. It--the old law-- did not benefit the soul at
all, inasmuch as God did not institute it to purify and safeguard the conscience,
nor to bestow the Spirit. It existed merely for the purpose of outward
discipline, restraint and correction. So Paul teaches that under the Old
Testament dispensation man's transgressions remained, but now Christ is
our Mediator through his blood; by it our conscience is freed from sin
the sight of God, inasmuch as God promises the Spirit through the blood
of Christ. All, however, do not receive him. Only those called to be heirs
eternal, the elect, receive the Spirit.
12. We find, then, in this excellent lesson, the comforting doctrine
taught that Christ is he whom we should know as the Priest and Bishop of
our souls; that no sin is forgiven, nor the Holy Spirit given, by reason
of works or merit on our part, but alone through the blood of Christ, and
that to those for whom God has ordained it. This matter has been sufficiently
set forth in the various postils.