“The Great High Priest”
St. John 18.1-19.42
19 April 2019
Reverend Jacob Sutton, Pastor
+ In the Name of Jesus +
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says,
“They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (John 19.23–24)
Just before the evangelist describes this incident at the foot of the cross, the scene had shifted back to Pilate’s palace – the Chief Priests of the Jews protest to Pilate that they do not like the inscription above Jesus on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” – they want it to say, “This man said, ‘I am King of the Jews’” – even though Jesus never said one such thing. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus told Pilate.
Pilate dismisses them. “What I have written, I have written.” It was the Chief Priests of the Jews who falsely accused Jesus of rebelling against Caesar. Complicit in murder, full of hatred, the Chief Priests are no Priests. They do not love and serve God. They love and serve themselves.
The scene in John’s Gospel shifts back to the foot of the cross. The execution squad consisted of four soldiers. They divide Jesus clothing into four parts. The Roman custom was that the clothing of the executed fell to the executioners. “They divided my garments among them…” says the Psalmist (Ps. 22.18a)
But the evangelist highlights more than a casual detail when it comes to Jesus’ tunic. It’s seamless, woven from top to bottom on one thread. It cannot be divided without destroying the garment. “…and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Ps. 22.18b)
The contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in his massive Antiquities of the Jews, writes that the Jewish High Priest also was vested with a similar tunic to wear, also woven from a single thread, just like the tunic that fell to the soldiers at the foot of the cross from Jesus.
Now perhaps we have a hint from the evangelist John about what a real priest of the Most High God really is. He is the one willing to give of Himself, even in naked shame, to the very death, for the life of His people. He is the one who loves His people, even to the very end, to the finish. He is the one who prays for them, even as His arms are stretched upon the cross. The Chief Priests of the Jews are no Priests, they come around to be served, not to serve. Jesus, the dying man on the cross, is not only Israel’s true King, He is also the High Priest who accomplishes His High Priestly ministry in this hour of His most extreme dishonor – He came in great love for you and me to serve His Father and us by giving His life as the ransom for many.
The inspired writer to the Hebrews points out to us the High Priestly office of Jesus, who he writes is the “priest forever” of the one hundred and tenth Psalm (110.4):
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebr. 9.11–14)
Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins – everything is purified with blood according to God’s holy Law in the old Sinai covenant. But Jesus is a true priest, deserving of the finest garments, for He is priest of the good things that have come in the new covenant. On our behalf He offers to His Father in the heavenly sanctuary, without blemish, His own blood, which will serve you and me to all the more purify our conscience and make us fit to serve the living God with Jesus.
That blood sacrificed for you on the cross, on Good Friday some two thousand years ago, gives you access here and now to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to the Father who hears your prayers and answers them. That blood gives you to Jesus, the priest of all priests and mediator of His new covenant, who sprinkles you with that blood He shed, right here from this altar, right into your heart, making you clean body and soul, with the blood that speaks not a word of vengeance, but a word of forgiveness, a word of reconciliation and union with God, and a word that gives the unshakable comfort of the eternal home Jesus has prepared for you.
Let us pray:
O Lord Jesus, You stood on the altar of Your cross and stretched Your hands out to Your Father to make reconciliation for us poor sinners. Your first word on Your cross was a priestly prayer wherein You prayed for those who crucified You and for all who deserve Your cross, among whom we poor sinners belong. There, You chanted a powerful Collect for Peace, there, You brought us peace, that is, the forgiveness of our sins and eternal salvation. There, the great bell of the sun tolled for peace and bore witness that Your priestly intercession in our behalf had been accepted… O Lord Jesus, I acknowledge the uncleanness of my sins, and so I come to You. Oh, reconcile me to Your heavenly Father by Your most holy sacrifice! As we are Your royal priesthood, clothe me as a priest with the righteousness that is pleasing to you, helping me to put off the old clothes of sin by true repentance, and to put on You and the new man by true faith, the garments of salvation, the robes of Your righteousness, the bridegroom’s priestly ornaments… Finally, help me to live in a priestly and holy manner in the world as in the Church, and to bring You the sacrifices that are acceptable to you, to praise and confess Your holy name and to do Your good and gracious will.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +
 Prayer adapted from Valerius Herberger, The Great Works of God, The Mysteries of Christ in the Book of Exodus, p.469-471 (CPH, 2018)