17. The Great High Priest

R.J. Rushdoony • Mar, 18 2024

Know someone who would find this encouraging?

  • Series: Aspects of Systematic Theology
  • Topics:

Our Scripture this morning is from Exodus 20:24-26, and our subject: ‘the great High Priest.’

“An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.” 1

When we deal with the doctrine of the priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is important to realize that it is a priesthood he discharges as representative man, as one of us. It is a priesthood which we all partake of, for we have been called to be kings, priests and prophets unto God in Jesus Christ.

Moreover, our text deals with a commandment to all Israel, to covenant man. The requirement is that when they worship God the altar which symbolized the sacrifice of atonement was to show nothing of man upon it. That altar had to be of simple stones, never carved by man. Similarly, when the head of the household or the priest, because this applies to all without exception, came to the altar, he had to be covered with britches, lest his nakedness show. Because both the altar and the priest had to stand for what God required, and never themselves.

Now, again and again this doctrine is set forth in the Old Testament, that Israel, the covenant people, are called to be a royal priesthood. Peter makes this clear in 1 Peter 2:9. John in Revelation tells us in Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 that Jesus Christ “hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father.” And as priests we represent not ourselves, but all those who are in the covenant, and God and His calling.


“Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.”

Now again and again the scripture speaks of the required clothing of the priests. In Exodus 28:42, Exodus 1:1-39, of course, and 29:29 following, 39:1-31, Leviticus 8:7-12, and other passages. We also know that besides the prescribed garments, very quickly, to make sure that they were covered, Israel added to all priestly garments a cassock, so that they would be given an extra covering from their shoulders to their feet.

Now, let us repeat, every covenant man is called to be a priest, to be mindful of the meaning of the clothing of a priest. Every man under the sun, because he is created in the image of God and given the creation mandate, is called also to be a priest, so that all men are either faithful or renegade priests. The clothing that it prescribed for the priests, thus, had an important meaning for all men.

Let’s set that aside for a moment and develop the meaning of the priesthood a little further. All the priests in the temple were priests by birth, this tends to rub modern man somewhat the wrong way. But it symbolizes something again, because every man born as I said, is called to be a priest, and he is either a covenant-keeper - a faithful priest, or he is a covenant-breaker - a renegade priest. So that all men have a priesthood by birth, even as did the sons of Aaron. On the other hand, although all men have this inescapable priesthood, the only faithful priests are those who are priests, not only by birth, but by grace. Apart from that they are ruined priests, renegade priests; but it is only the grace of God that can make of fallen man, of this fallen priest the son of Adam, a true priest.

A priest is a representative of men before God. He represents himself and his household, and all those who are under him. He also represents God’s great high priest, Jesus Christ. He is thus doubly a representative; of his people and of God’s priest. As a result, his own person must remain invisible. Now this is the meaning of the priestly garb. It tells the priest when he goes forward to officiate, that he does not do so in his own person, in his own righteousness, or in his own knowledge; he does this of the Lord, and his own person must remain virtually invisible, reduced to the minimum.

Hence, the use of the cassock which was worn by the priests of the Old Testament was very early taken over by the Christian church. We have the same concept in the judges' robes, which are disappearing except on the Supreme Court level, by and large. The whole point again was that the judge has a ministry, he cannot judge in terms of his own ideas, but in terms of God’s Word, and therefore he must clothe himself, cover himself, and be in effect, invisible. Now, many Protestants have abandoned clerical garb, partly because of their antipathy towards Catholicism. However, in most cases, this has been replaced with the tacit requirement of conservative dress. Protestants, however, especially Evangelical Protestants, have added one further aspect which has been very important and true to Scripture, so while they have been somewhat unwilling to face up to part of what Scripture says here, they caught the Spirit in requiring that the pastor speak from behind the Bible, the open book, so that it is not His Word but the Word of God that speaks, the Word of God that is expounded, the Word of God that has authority.

Moreover, it has been a requirement, and used to be taught in virtually every seminary, although now it has disappeared from virtually every seminary, that the pastor had to be hidden, as it were; that it was the word that was to be proclaimed, not himself. And hence, personal reminiscences were to be kept to a minimum, only if a man were an older man and had a fatherly role in the congregation could he at times speak in personal tones.

It is difficult for us today to realize what things were once like in that regard. I know that when I was at the university, I had the rare privilege once of having in our home, visiting my father, a very remarkable older man. He was a pastor who had been a Russian count, been converted as a college youth, and sentenced to Siberia for his faith; he had been born a little before 1850. Because of the prominence of his birth, he had known in his lifetime many of the great names in Russia as well as Europe. And it was an amazing experience for me as I began to realize these things, to ask him questions about a number of these prominent figures, and I sat entranced at the dinner table, an hour or two after dinner, I asked him question after question. The next day I heard him preach. Few men had lived a more dramatic life than he, and yet it was a simple, straightforward exposition of Scripture. There was one passing reference to something in Siberia in which he was not the center, and he prefaced that little illustration with the words: “If I may be pardoned a personal reference.”

Now, that man felt that as a priest of the most high God, as a speaker of the Word, he had to be covered. It was the office and the word of that office and calling which were to appear. Certainly, this is the kind of great High Priest Jesus Christ was. As we read through the Scriptures we find no personal reminiscences.. He who alone could say, being very God of very God, “I say unto you” used that ‘I’ to set forth the Word of God, not Himself. If we go to the words of our Lord, we know very little about Him, much about the Father.

Another of the duties of the priest was to encourage the people, as Deuteronomy 24:2-4 makes clear. To encourage the people in terms of God’s covenant-word. He was to be a judge in terms of that word according to Deuteronomy 21:5, and also 17:8-13, and our Lord so encourages His people, and He is the great judge and High Priest of all things. As the great High Priest, the work of our Lord Jesus Christ is unique, because He was both priest and sacrifice, making atonement for us.

Another great work of a High Priest is intercession, to intercede with God for man, and our Lord together with the Holy Spirit is called our advocate and intercessor with the Father again and again in Scripture. Louis Berkhof said with regard to Hebrews 9:24:

“Just as the high priest on the great Day of Atonement entered the Holy of Holies with the completed sacrifice, to present it to God, so Christ entered the heavenly Holy Place with His completed, perfect, and all-sufficient sacrifice, and offered it to the Father. And just as the high priest, on entering the Holy Place, came into the presence of God, symbolically bearing the tribes of Israel on His breast, so Christ appeared before God as the representative of His people, and thus reinstated humanity in the presence of God.” 2

We have been, by Jesus Christ, reinstated in the presence of the Father, and we are priests in Him, reinstated priests, with a duty to intercede one for another. Intercession is our calling, therefore, in Christ, and we are required to pray one for another, to pray for our nation, to pray for the needy, to pray for the problems that confront Christ’s kingdom. Scripture again and again speaks of intercession as the privilege and the duty of covenant man. We find this from Genesis into John’s first epistle, such as in 1 John 5:16. Christ is the great intercessor, and we are all intercessors in Him.

Our Lord came to fulfill that which was our calling in Adam, to be a priest, prophet and king under God and to His glory. Our Lord is God-centered in this His calling, as indeed we must be. The true priest, as we have seen, is a covered person; Jesus Christ is our covering, we put on Christ, it is His glory and not ours we set forth, We are not on our own. Hebrews says concerning Jesus Christ who was very man of very man, as well as very God of very God, that:

“…in all points He was tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” 3

In all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.

Our Lord never made a tour of Judea and Galilee, giving an exciting account of “How I met temptations and triumphed,” or “My Struggle with Satan” or “Battle in the Wilderness.” Rather, He said simply that He had come: “...to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.” 4 This is the calling of every priest: “...to finish his work.”

There is a world out there to be conquered, a nation to be reclaimed for Jesus Christ; people all around us who are in sin and are lost, and we are called to be priests, to be intercessors in Jesus Christ; to fulfill the work of the Father, this is our calling.

Let us pray.

* * *

O Lord our God who has called us to be priests in Jesus Christ and intercessors before thy throne, we thank thee that by birth thou hast made us priests, and by rebirth made us faithful and true in Jesus Christ, the calling into which we were created. Now by thy continuing grace, keep us ever in the pathway of righteousness and truth, of priestly intercession, that in season and out of season we may ever be in prayer, beseeching thee for this, our country, that thou wouldst again make of the United States a place of righteousness where thy Word is honored; make us mindful of those around us who walk in darkness, give us, O Lord, a Spirit of intercession and of obedience. In Jesus' name, amen.

* * *

Are there any questions now, first of all on our lesson? Yes?

[Audience Member] In the Protestant version of the clergy there is no element of a priesthood right? There is no element of a priesthood. Then why do we use customs developed as you say, like the cassock and then later conservative clothes?

[Rushdoony] Yes, a great deal of it happened between about 1835 and 1870. The massive migration of Catholics to this country stimulated the Know-Nothing Movement, and a number of other anti-Catholic movements which lead, in fact, to nothing. It was those who did not join those movements who were instrumental in the winning of millions of those immigrants for the Reformed Faith, which was one of the great stories of that era.

Now, in the process of this hostility, these people went through the churches and began to create no end of disturbance over everything that they said was a “relic of Rome.” One of the interesting things is that in the Catholic church at that time a priest was called ‘Mister,’ he still is in many parts of Europe. Whereas the Puritan tradition was that members called one another brother and sister, and the Pastor was called the Father in Christ. Now this was dropped when Catholics in the United States picked it up from the Puritan element. At the same time also, some of the clerical garb was dropped which the Puritans had used in faithfulness to Exodus 20:26. So it was that Know Nothing Movement and its impact on the church that led to a great deal of this. Yes?

[Audience Member] What is the essential role of a pastor in a Protestant church?

[Rushdoony] The essential role of a pastor in a Protestant church is set forth in the word ‘pastor;’ to be a shepherd of Christ’s flock, an ‘under-shepherd’ to use the older term. And you find that word shepherd very extensively in the Colonial literature. As such, he had a responsibility to be mindful of their need to grow in the faith, to school the families in responsibility of the families, and hence there were visitations of the family by the elders and the pastor to train the men to become all of them elders in Christ, rulers, and by and large it was also generally held that unless special circumstances intervened, when he was called he had to stay with the people for life. Like marriage, it could, under special circumstances, be terminated, but it was normally a lifetime relationship.

This seems hard for us to believe, but some of the older churches in this country had very few pastors, up until a few years ago. I know that shortly after World War I there was a church in Maryland which called its fourth pastor in its history. It called each pastor as a very young man, he stayed there long past what we now call ‘retirement age,’ and died full of years, and then another young man was called. Now this was once very customary, and very very much the rule. It was a notable thing when a relationship was broken.

There are some very delightful accounts of some of these pastors and their ministries. The one I like especially is the book published, oh, a decade or two ago on the life of Jonathan Fisher, 5 one of the Puritan clergy, who went to this small country church in New England as soon as he finished school. And it was a new church so he helped even with the construction of the manse. He worked overtime because he was anxious to get the house finished so that he could get married. And on one day when everyone else was taking the day off he was on the roof pounding away, and one of the men passed by and asked him what he was doing - he was engaged to a girl named Dolly Battle - and he said: “Preparing for Battle.”

Well, Jonathan Fisher spent his life in that one parish, this was commonplace, because they then shared a life with the flock, and sometimes performed marriages into the third generation in the same family. That was once the concept of the pastorate. Now it tends to be that of a church manager, managing an institution. Yes?

[Audience Member] Can you comment on the biblical treatment of bitterness?

[Rushdoony] The Scriptures have not a single word to say that is kindly about bitterness, and “the root of bitterness” is spoken of as a great evil. Because while we can feel sadness over events, to have bitterness is to deny that God has an overriding purpose in all things that makes all things work together for good. In bitterness we want to revise the past, and rebel because we cannot. Yes?

[Audience Member] Are these younger pastors who dress casually looking for common ground with men, without any concern for the implications of the passage you preached on?

[Rushdoony] I think you are right, a great deal is being done in the church today to establish a common ground in terms of current trends. In the late sixties and early seventies there were many clergymen, Catholic and Protestant, who were acting as though they were half-hippie, as though this established a relationship, and that type of following humanistic trends has been commonplace, always, as though the common ground were to come from man rather than from God’s creative act. Yes?

[Audience Member] I heard someone comment that Madelyn Murray O’Hair was a secular humanist, and that that was a religion, making her a religious person, something which she very vehemently denied. She maintained that an atheist has no religion. Can you comment on this?

[Rushdoony] No, Madelyn Murray O’Hair is an intensely religious person. She is a humanist to the core, that is her religion. But she lacks epistemological self-consciousness, because she identifies her position with pure reason, and ours with religion. But every position that anyone holds has behind it a pre-theoretical religious presupposition, and it is those who do not realize that their position is governed by a religious presupposition who are the naïve ones and who lack epistemological self-consciousness. So this is one reason why Madelyn Murray O’Hair is such a difficult person to get along with. Again and again, because of what she has done in the way of the media, people have tried to start a movement around her; but no preacher or Pope has ever spoken more authoritatively and as the infallible and final word than Madelyn Murray O’Hair; her sense of: “This is it, it’s the truth, because I am reason.” Is so great that she has driven everyone away. She has a bare handful of maybe two hundred people who are on her mailing list and support her, because of her inability to have the humility to realize that she has a religious presupposition, and is not the voice of reason.


[Audience Member] Are some humanists trying to deceive us by denying that theirs is a religious faith?

[Rushdoony] I believe some definitely are trying to deceive us, many humanists are, by denying that theirs is a religious faith; because that gives them the appearance of neutrality. But many of them genuinely believe that they are neutral, as though the truth were born with them. So they are self-deceived. Yes?

[Audience Member] Is the relation of clerical dress to casual dress analogous to the King James Version and the language therein as opposed to common, everyday ‘casual’ speech? Are they, by means of these new translations seeking common ground with the world?

[Rushdoony] Yes, I believe many people want to use modern translation as this sort of common ground thing; I recall some years ago a discussion with someone who was using one of the worst of the modern versions, and I said: “Well, here are two books which go into the fact that the so-called translation you are using is a paraphrase, and it is a very poor one at that.” And this person said: “That doesn’t make any difference to me, it is very usable.” In other words, truth is no consideration; “does it appeal to the young people? And this person felt that it did. Yes?

[Audience Member] Well, I’m not a scholar, but I don’t see how anyone who read it and compared it to the contemporary Bible versions would concede that the King James is the more beautiful translation.

[Rushdoony] There is no question that the King James Version is more beautiful, but our position of course is that it is not only a lovelier translation as far as the language is concerned, but that it is based on the received text; and all the modern ones are based on what we believe are defective texts. Yes?

[Audience Member] Should we feel sorry for the lost?

[Rushdoony] Well, true, we need to feel sorry for the lost, but we also need to know that it is their own choice, their own sin that takes them there. I don’t feel that the whole thing is relevant; we are too involved in how we feel about people, we feel sorry for them or we don’t feel sorry for them, what difference does it make? Our feelings are not important, our duties are, and we have a duty. What are we doing in terms of our duty towards those who are a part of our household, and in discharging our duties?

I am afraid that humanism has too often identified virtue with feeling. You love all mankind, you love the poor, (but you don’t get next to them, not if you are a good Liberal; you send a bureaucrat and a welfare worker to do it for you) and so on. I am not impressed by feelings. I think that our world has been too much involved in: “How do we feel about things.” What difference does it make?

[Audience Member] Could you comment on the Geneva Bible?

[Rushdoony] The Geneva Bible, which preceded the King James version, is very close to the King James Version, and it was a very powerful and influential version. However, while it did not have many, it did have some marginal notes. In a sense you might say it was the great great grandfather of the Scofield Bible. The notes, by and large, were a reflection of Calvinism. In other words the Puritans were making sure that anyone who read the Geneva Bible got the point, that this applied to England, or that this applied to kings and so on. Now their notes were by and large rather good, but all the same they were, just as all notes in a Bible tend to be, taken by many readers as though this were a part of the word, and the true meaning of the word. As a result, the established church felt, and I believe they were right, even though their motives were to a considerable degree hostile to the Puritans, that what was needed was a version without notes. The differences are very slight between the two versions, the difference essentially is that the King James has no notes; and I think that is a great gain. You let the Word of God do the speaking.

Now let’s bow our heads now for the benediction.

* * *

And now go in peace, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, bless you and keep you, guide and protect you, this day and always, amen.

1 Ex 20:24–26.

2 Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic theology (p. 402). Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co.

3 Hebrews 4:15.

4 Jn 4:34–35.

5 Mary Ellen Chase. Jonathan Fisher, Maine Parson, 1768-1847. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948.

More Series