Our Welcome to Heaven
Meeting the Great High Priest in Hebrews
ABSTRACT: The book of Hebrews presents Christ’s offering and intercession as two central features of his priestly work. Although some interpreters locate the offering of Christ solely at the cross, Hebrews suggests that Christ, like the high priest on the Day of Atonement, presents his offering after entering the Holy of Holies — in this case, the true Holy of Holies in heaven. After offering his finished work, once for all, in the presence of God, Christ sat down at the right hand of the Father, where he now intercedes on the basis of his offering. Together, Christ’s offering and intercession assure God’s people of welcome in heaven, both now and forever.
So much of life is lived in tense times in between. You have applied and interviewed for the job, and now you await their decision. You signed a contract on the house, but you have not yet moved in. The Lego set you purchased for your son is due to arrive today, and he will not peel his eyes from the front window.
The whole Christian life is lived between times. Christ has come, died, risen, ascended, and poured out his Spirit. He hasn’t returned yet, but he has promised to, and he will. As individual Christians, we have been born again, justified, forgiven, and filled with the Spirit, but we have not yet been perfected, resurrected, and glorified.
What is already yours in Christ? What promises of God remain outstanding? And what help do you need to persevere in the tense time in between?
What We Need, What We Have
The epistle to the Hebrews was written to Christians living in a tense time. They had already suffered for their faith (10:32–34), and more suffering seemed likely. The recipients of this letter were likely wondering, “Is it worth it to be a Christian?”1 They needed reminding of what was already theirs in Christ, what God promises to those who persevere, and how Christ helps us persevere to the end.
Hebrews’ answer to the questions of what we need and what we have is a single word: Christ. Over and over again, Hebrews emphatically announces that we have Christ, and in him we have all we need (4:14–16; 6:19–20; 8:1–2; 10:19, 22; 13:10). More specifically, as we will see, Hebrews underscores the sufficiency of Christ’s high-priestly service. He is the only mediator we need in order to gain unhindered access to God.
“Hebrews’ answer to the questions of what we need and what we have is a single word: Christ.”
Two central features of Christ’s priestly work are his offering and his intercession (e.g., 7:25; 9:11–10:18). Christ’s offering is finished, complete, once-for-all (7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10); his intercession, by contrast, is ongoing (7:25). Christ’s offering and intercession are complementary aspects of his saving ministry as our High Priest. But how do they relate to each other? And how do they together guarantee our free acceptance with God?
This essay will explore these questions in three steps. First, I will argue for an often-overlooked feature of Christ’s self-offering in Hebrews — namely, that Jesus offered himself to God the Father, in person, in heaven, after his resurrection and ascension. Second, I will examine Hebrews’ presentation of Christ’s ongoing intercession and ask how this relates to his singular, completed offering. Third, I will show how Jesus’s offering and intercession should embolden every believer to draw near to God with a true heart and full assurance of faith (10:22).
Where and When Did Jesus Offer Himself?
Many evangelical interpreters of Hebrews, whether scholars, pastors, or laypeople, understand Hebrews to teach that Jesus’s offering of himself began and ended with his death on the cross.2 In contrast, I will argue, in four brief steps, that Jesus offered himself to God upon his bodily, post-resurrection entrance to God’s dwelling in heaven.3
1. Resurrected High Priest
First, Hebrews asserts that Jesus was appointed High Priest after his resurrection.4 The most crucial verse here is 7:16: “. . . who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life.”5 Throughout Hebrews 7, the author contrasts the mortality of the Levitical priests with Jesus’s immortality. The Levitical priests were many, since the death of each required continual succession in office (7:23). But Christ “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (7:24). This continuing forever is not a feature of Jesus’s divine nature, but of the glorified human existence he obtained at his resurrection. In other words, the key difference between Jesus and the Levitical priests, the difference that enables his perpetual priesthood, is his resurrection life. Which means, as 7:16 says, that Jesus’s resurrection is what enabled him to be appointed High Priest in the order of Melchizedek.
In addition, Hebrews describes Jesus’s qualification for and appointment to high priesthood in terms of his perfection, which took place after his entire earthly life of weakness and suffering:
Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (5:8–10)
For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (7:28; cf. 2:10)
Jesus’s perfection is the outcome of his suffering and coincides with his resurrection. And this perfection is prerequisite to his being appointed High Priest. When Hebrews says that Jesus was “perfected,” it does not mean that he was previously morally flawed and only later attained to sinlessness (see 4:15). Instead, Hebrews uses the language of perfecting to say that Jesus completed the course of prerequisites for appointment to priesthood. He became completely qualified to be our all-sufficient Savior.
“All that Christ did in his incarnate mission, he did to save us.”
Further, Hebrews twice asserts that every high priest is appointed in order to offer sacrifice (5:1; 8:3). Appointment is prerequisite to, and therefore logically prior to, offering sacrifice. Since offering sacrifice is a central purpose for which priests are appointed to office, the author of Hebrews clearly presupposes that priests, including Jesus, are appointed to office before they offer sacrifice.
2. Final Day of Atonement
Second, Hebrews plots the Day of Atonement sin offering in the sequence “enter in order to offer.” The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1–34) is the old covenant rite that Hebrews draws on most extensively as a model for the saving work of Christ. And the most distinctive act of the Day of Atonement was the high priest’s entry with blood into the Holy of Holies in order to sprinkle blood in that innermost sanctum (Leviticus 16:14–16). In casting Christ’s saving work as an eschatological fulfillment of the Day of Atonement, the author zeroes in on the high priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies, and Christ’s corresponding act of entering the inner sanctum of God’s dwelling in heaven (Hebrews 6:19–20; 9:11–12, 24).
Specifically, in 9:7, the author goes out of his way to narrate the high priest’s inner-sanctum sin offering in the sequence “enter in order to offer.” Consider: “These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (9:6–7). Note the sequence, both implied and explicit. The Levitical high priest first slaughters the animal and gathers its blood. Then he enters with that blood into the Holy of Holies. Then, inside the Holy of Holies, he “offers” the blood. Apart from Hebrews, no ancient Jewish or early Christian source labels the high priest’s inner-sanctum blood manipulation an “offering.” Hebrews’ description of this act as an offering is both unusual and deliberate.
3. First Enter, Then Offer
Third, Hebrews’ portrayal of Jesus’s self-offering presupposes this “enter in order to offer” sequence. Here 9:24–25 is decisive: “Christ has entered, not into a Holy of Holies made with hands, which is a copy of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor did he enter in order to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy of Holies every year with blood not his own.”6
Where did Christ enter? The Holy of Holies of the tabernacle in heaven. What did he do when he got there? Offered himself.
What this passage denies is that Christ offered himself repeatedly. That is a key difference between Christ’s self-offering and the Levitical high priests’ sin offering. But both sacrifices share a single sequential script: first enter, then offer.
4. Minister in the Holy Places
Fourth, in Hebrews 8:1–5, the author locates Jesus’s entire high-priestly ministry, including his self-offering, in the heavenly tabernacle, in contrast to the earthly tabernacle in which the Levitical priests ministered.
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”
Where did, and does, Jesus serve as high priest? In the true tent that the Lord set up, not man — that is, the one in heaven, not the one on earth (8:2). If Jesus were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since he is not qualified to be a priest according to the law that governs the earthly tabernacle (8:4). And this service as high priest includes his offering (8:3).
Putting this all together, we can conclude that Jesus offered himself to God, in person, in the inner sanctum of God’s dwelling in heaven, after he died, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven.7
What About the Cross?
This immediately raises two questions. First, what about Jesus’s death? Hebrews repeatedly ascribes decisive soteriological efficacy to Jesus’s death. By his death he tasted death for all (2:9). By his death he destroyed the devil’s power and delivered us from lifelong bondage through fear of death (2:14–15). By his death he obtained redemption for transgressions against the old covenant and inaugurated the new (9:15–17). By his death he bore the sins of many (9:28). So, Jesus’s death is not merely preparation for his heavenly offering; it is a decisive atoning event in its own right.
But we can go further. Jesus’s death is also the substance of what he offers to God in heaven. Jesus’s death is not when and where he offers himself, but it is what he offers. This is evident in Hebrews’ references to blood. Consider Hebrews 9:22: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” In this paraphrase of Leviticus 17:11, Hebrews asserts the need of a life-for-life exchange in order for forgiveness to obtain. This life-for-life exchange is precisely what Christ’s death accomplished. As such, when Hebrews implies that Jesus’s blood is, in some sense, that which he offers to God in heaven (9:12, 14, 25; 12:24), we should take this to mean that what Christ’s death achieved is what he subsequently presented to God. In his death, Christ suffered as the sacrificial victim (9:28); upon his ascension, he offered himself as both priest and sacrifice.
“Jesus offered himself to God the Father, in person, in heaven, after his resurrection and ascension.”
Second, does this interpretation undermine the finality of the cross? That is, does it stand in tension with Jesus’s triumphant cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30)? In brief, I would suggest that this reading of Hebrews does not threaten the finality of the cross any more than Paul’s assertion in Romans 4:25 that Jesus was raised for our justification, or his claim in 1 Corinthians 15:17 that if Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. In other words, all that Christ did in his incarnate mission, he did to save us. Each stage of Christ’s saving mission has saving significance. Christ’s work from incarnation to ascension and session is an unbroken chain; Hebrews simply zooms in on later links in that chain.
What Is Christ’s Intercession, and How Does It Relate to His Offering?
One passage in Hebrews explicitly asserts that Christ intercedes for his people, and two more prepare a thematic context for it.
He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (2:17–18)
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (4:14–16)
He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (7:24–25)
We can identify two aspects to Christ’s intercession: pleading for our help, and pleading for our forgiveness.8
First, Christ intercedes for our help. Hebrews 2:18 asserts that Christ is able to help those who are being tempted, since he himself has faithfully endured temptation. Hebrews 4:16 exhorts us to ask God for that help when we need it, confident that we will receive it because Christ is our sympathetic High Priest. Hebrews 7:25, then, answers a how question implied in both these verses. How does Christ provide the help we need in trials and temptations? By interceding for us.9 As he prayed for Peter before his trial, Jesus intercedes before the Father for all believers now, that our faith may not fail (Luke 22:32).
“Christ’s offering and intercession assure us of welcome in heaven, now and forever.”
Second, Christ intercedes for our forgiveness. The assertion that Christ intercedes for us in 7:25 grounds the exultant claim that “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.” In other words, Christ’s intercession is a key ingredient in his mediation of salvation. His intercession is an element in what enables us to draw near to God through him; it is part of how he applies to us the fullness of salvation that he has achieved for us (cf. Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1).
Hence, though Hebrews does not say so explicitly, it seems warranted to infer that Christ’s intercession is an application of his once-for-all offering.10 Once he finished his atoning work by presenting himself before the Father in the heavenly throne room, Christ sat down (Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12–13; 12:2). He no longer stands, as priests do when they perform their sacrificial service (10:11). Instead, he sits. That seated posture proclaims both his royal repose as the enthroned Messiah, heir of all things (cf. 1:2), and his continuing appeals for our help and forgiveness.11
What Does This Mean for Us?
How do Christ’s completed offering and ongoing intercession encourage us to draw near to God? How do they together provide the help we need in our tense time in between? Consider four practical encouragements.
First, Christ’s offering and intercession assure us of welcome in heaven, now and forever. That is the conclusion the author of Hebrews himself draws:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (10:19–22)
And consider Calvin’s beautiful meditation on the assurance Christ’s intercession offers us:
As faith recognizes, it is to our great benefit that Christ resides with the Father. For, having entered a sanctuary not made with hands, he appears before the Father’s face as our constant advocate and intercessor. Thus he turns the Father’s eyes to his own righteousness to avert his gaze from our sins. He so reconciles the Father’s heart to us that by his intercession he prepares a way and access for us to the Father’s throne. He fills with grace and kindness the throne that for miserable sinners would otherwise have been filled with dread.12
If you are in Christ, then Christ has offered himself for you and continually intercedes for you. And that means you are always welcome in God’s presence. God will never turn you away with a frown or a curt “not now.” No failure you bring with you into God’s presence can bar the doors against you. God’s arms will always be open to you. However great a sinner you are, Christ is a greater savior.
Second, Christ’s offering and intercession show us that his saving work addresses every dimension of our need before God. Christ’s self-offering has obtained for us purification (1:3), redemption (9:12), a purified conscience (9:14), forgiveness (9:22; 10:18), sanctification (10:10), and perfection (10:14) — that is, unhindered access to God. And Christ’s intercession applies those benefits to us and obtains for us the timely help we need in order to persevere. We live between times, between receiving salvation’s spiritual benefits and having our entire existence — body, soul, and created environment — transformed. Christ is sufficient for every time. He has provided an atonement sufficient for all our past, present, and future sins. And his intercession can sustain us through every trial that stands between us and glory.
Third, Christ’s intercession is based on this: he has been where you are. Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15 ground Christ’s present ability to help in his past endurance of the whole miserable human condition. Christ has faithfully persevered through the severest temptation and most intense suffering (cf. 12:1–2). No matter how sorely you are tempted or how severely you are tried, Christ has been there. He knows by experience what you are enduring. Which means he knows just how to help.
“Christ has gone to heaven as your pioneer and forerunner. His present is your future.”
Fourth, Christ’s heavenly offering and ongoing intercession make this promise: where he is, you will be. It might seem strange to conceive of Christ’s offering as his bodily self-presentation to God in heaven. One reason for that strangeness might be that your doctrine of the incarnation unwittingly stops with Christ’s death. But of course, Scripture’s does not. Christ’s resurrection demonstrates that he remains, and always will remain, human — but a new kind of human, fit for the endless glory of the age to come.
And that same Christ has gone to heaven as your pioneer and forerunner (2:10; 6:19). His present is your future. That Christ is immersed in God the Father’s radiant presence now guarantees that one day, you too will be. As Michael Horton has said, “With the ascension, Immanuel is not only God With Us, and God For Us, but Us With God.”13
So Adolf Schlatter, Die Briefe des Petrus, Judas, Jakobus, der Brief an die Hebräer (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1950), 221. ↩
For two particularly influential examples, see F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 31–33, 213–14; William L. Lane, Hebrews, WBC 47A–B (Dallas: Word, 1991), 2:223, 2:234, 2:247, 2:249. For a taxonomy of recent scholarship on the question, see R.B. Jamieson, “When and Where Did Jesus Offer Himself? A Taxonomy of Recent Scholarship on Hebrews,” CBR 15 (2017): 338–68, as well as chapter 1 of R.B. Jamieson, Jesus’ Death and Heavenly Offering in Hebrews, SNTSMS 172 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). ↩
This section very briefly summarizes the main arguments of chapters 2 and 3 of Jamieson, Jesus’ Death and Heavenly Offering. Occasionally, the wording of individual sentences and phrases closely echoes portions of that work. ↩
See also David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, NovTSup 141 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 194–208. ↩
See also David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, NovTSup 141 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 194–208. ↩
Translation mine, lightly adapted from the ESV. The most important change from the ESV is representing in English that the subordinate clause “in order to offer himself” (Gk. ἵνα . . . προσφέρῃ ἑαυτόν, v. 25) depends on the finite verb “enter” in verse 24, which I have resupplied in my translation of verse 25. The NIV, for instance, repeats the verb, offering a much clearer rendition of the grammar and logic of the two verses. ↩
While he would not endorse every detail of my account, George Guthrie makes the same essential point when he names the location of Christ’s offering — namely, heaven — as an aspect of what renders it superior to the Levitical sacrifices. Thus, in a summary comment on 9:11–10:18, he writes, “These three regulations of the old system are compared to the new-covenant sacrifice of Christ, which is shown to be superior at every point: (1) the place of Christ’s offering was in heaven rather than on earth (9:11, 23–25; 10:12–13); (2) the blood of the offering was Christ’s blood rather than the blood of animals (9:12–28); (3) Christ’s sacrifice was made once for all time rather than continually (9:25–26; 10:1–18).” George H. Guthrie, “Hebrews,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 973. ↩
See Craig R. Koester, Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 36 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 366. Koester offers a concise argument for seeing both elements, with many illuminating parallels from other New Testament and early Jewish texts. ↩
My reading of the link between these passages has been informed especially by Nicholas J. Moore, “Sacrifice, Session, and Intercession: The End of Christ’s Offering in Hebrews,” JSNT 42 (2020): 536–37. ↩
So, e.g., Koester, Hebrews, 371–72, esp. n. 349; Thomas R. Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews, BTCP (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 234. ↩
For biblical and early Jewish examples of being seated (including being seated at the right hand) as the posture of an intercessor, see Moore, “Sacrifice, Session, and Intercession,” 536. ↩
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.16, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 524–25. ↩
Michael Horton, “Atonement and Ascension,” in Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, ed. Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 250. ↩