“Consequently, [Jesus our High Priest in Heaven] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25)
The “towering theme” of Hebrews is the Eternal Priesthood of Jesus Christ which is mighty and active for us sojourners on earth. That this priesthood of Jesus in Heaven operates through sacramental grace here on earth can be seen from the sacramental imagery utilized in Hebrews. Jesus’ priesthood is thus intrinsically linked to the power of the sacraments.
Right at the beginning of Hebrews we are confronted with a powerful sacramental image – that of Jesus in Heaven being anointed for his “royal-priestly” ministry. The verse at Hebrews 1:9 states: “God has anointed you [Jesus] with the oil of gladness beyond your comrades.” This sacramental-like anointing of Jesus as Eternal-Priest King is at the root and foundation of the anointing of priests for service in Jesus’ Church, and for the sacrament of anointing the sick. The only time in scripture Jesus is referred to as an “apostle” is at Hebrews 3:1. And what did the apostles do when Jesus sent them out on their first missionary journey: they anointed the sick (see Mark 6:12-13).
In Hebrews the Sacrament of Baptism is referred to as an “enlightenment” (6:4), baptism specifically mentioned at 6:2, and the author of Hebrews uses clear baptismal imagery at 10:22 where he talks about “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.”
The Sacrament of Confirmation is specifically alluded to at 6:2 with reference to the “laying on of hands,”which not only “confers the Spirit” but is also indicative of priestly ordination.
At 6:4 there is reference to those who have “tasted the heavenly gift,” which is most likely a reference to the Eucharist. Moreover, in Hebrews the priestly “Order of Melchizedek” is mentioned five times in reference to Christ’s Eternal Priesthood. And what did the priest-king Melchizedek offer to God in sacrifice:bread and wine (see Genesis 14:18). The Eucharist is greatly prefigured by the sacrificial offering of Melchizedek.
There are further references to the Eucharist in Hebrews, such as the one found at 13:10 where it states, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” Moreover, the Eternal Priesthood of Jesus demands attendance at the Sunday liturgical celebration which is not to be “neglected” (10:25), otherwise, Jesus’ sacrifice (made present in the Eucharistic liturgy) is rendered fruitless, “and there no longer remains a sacrifice for sin” (10:26). Indeed, through sacramental worship we on earth come into the “celestial liturgy of Heaven” (see Hebrews 12:22-24; “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God….”).
The Sacrament of Marriage is also alluded to in Hebrews at 13:4 where it says: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled….”
Although there is no specific reference to the Sacrament of Confession in Hebrews, the congregation is admonished to “obey” and “submit” to its pastors who “keep watch” over “their souls” (13:17). The great High Priest Jesus, in a powerful Resurrection appearance, gave these same pastors the priestly function of forgiving sins (see John 20:22-23).
In short, while the Epistle to the Hebrews demonstrates the powerlessness of the Old Testament Levitical and Temple priesthood, it concurrently demonstrates the sacramental power of Jesus’ Eternal priesthood in Heaven.
Tom Mulcahy, M.A.
References: I am relying primarily on the footnotes in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible on Hebrews. As I was reading over those notes – along with the text itself – it became abundantly clear to me that the author of Hebrews had a high regard for the New Testament Sacraments, contrary to the opinion of some. Quotations above are from these footnotes. Dr. Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch wrote the commentary and footnotes I am referring to, so I am constructing this note out of their scholarship. Dr. Taylor Marshall refers to Hebrews 3:1 as a “key verse,” saying: “Here the apostleship is paired with high priesthood. Christ is THE Apostle and High Priest. His New Testament ministers participate in this office. Hence, an apostle is a high priest. Apostolic succession transmits the apostolic priesthood.”
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Beautiful. That more exegetes don’t proceed this way is as puzzling as it is annoying. They seem to take a naked page approach where sacramental allusions are always judged according to the highest bar of proof, given an indisputable anti-sacramental, anti-ministerial priesthood bias affecting not only Hebrews’ exegesis, but that of the entire NT.
Until recently few of them recognized how novel and original Hebrews was in terms of explaining and justifying the priesthood of Jesus alone, not to mention that of his ministers.
Just what throne of Grace are they exhorted to approach? The one in Heaven only? Why then Grace?
It is to be observed that Hebrews functions almost as if the ministers were already part of the pastoral problem plaguing the community. They then naturally were the object of some delicacy on the part of the author, who waits until the close of the homily, only after making the most robust part of his case, that he turns to an explicit mention of the ministers and their clear-cut role (13:7, 13:17). The ministers in all likelihood not only existed but had become a thorny, “neuralgic”, pastorally sensitive issue.