In These Last Days–Jesus the Messiah–the High Priest we Confess (Part Two)

Thus far, we have considered Jesus’ ministry as our great priest as it relates to the priestly order to which He belongs. The writer’s concern in the first eleven verses of Hebrews seven was to expound the words of the Messianic prophecy (Psalm 110:4) “After the order of Melchizedek.” He showed that the priestly order of Melchizedek is inherently superior to the Levitical order. In verses 12-19, he comments on this teaching’s implications in relation to the Mosaic covenant (the Law). Then, in verses 20-28, he expounds the other two components of that prophecy, namely, “The LORD has sworn and will not repent,” and “You are a priest forever.” We will now consider that exposition.

Jesus, a Better Priest

Not Without An Oath

In verses Heb 20-22, our author contrasts the solemnity with which God made Jesus a priest with the way in which Levitical priests took office. He writes,

20And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, 21but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever.”” 22Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.

In the preceding chapter, (6:13ff) he has explained the significance of God’s oath when He made covenant promises to Abraham. Though God’s oath does not serve to make His promises any more certain, it does confirm for us, even more forcefully, the absolute certainty of its fulfillment. It establishes, beyond any doubt, the “unchangeable character of His purpose” (6:17).

Besides this, the confirmation by oath that characterizes the Messiah’s appointment as priest is forceful testimony concerning the superior dignity of Jesus’ priesthood.

It is at this point that the solemnity with which God appointed Jesus priest and the perpetuity of His priesthood merge as evidence of the superiority of the New Covenant. “Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant”(7:22). Philip Hughes comments,

As, under Moses, the old and inferior covenant and inferior priesthood belonged together, so now, in Christ, the new and better covenant and the new and better priesthood are closely bound up with each other. Of the latter, and by virtue of the oath from above and on the basis of the perfectrion of his priestly offering, Jesus, the incarnate Redeemer of our humanity, is the surety: he is the guarantor, he who is for ever, that the better covenant, of which he is the substance, will not fail or be set aside. That is why it is described, in 13:20, as “the eternal covenant (Hughes, Hebrews, pp. 267-8).

A Priest Forever

An important part of the writer’s argument in this section rests on the prophetic pronouncement that Messiah, unlike the Levitical priests, would be a priest forever. The perpetuity of His priesthood is directly related to His participation in Melchizedek’s priestly order. Priests of that order continue to officiate as long as they live. Our author directly links Jesus’ effectiveness as our Great Priest to the indestructibility of His life (7:16).

The commandment by which God through Moses appointed Levitical priests to office was “a carnal commandment.” It was a commandment that concerned the earthly, the temporal and the external. The NEB calls it “a system of earth-bound rules. “The reason God did not swear that the sons of Aaron would be priests forever is that He did not intend them to be perpetual priests. From the outset, He intended to replace the Levitical priesthood with the permanent Messianic priesthood. There is no need for rules of succession regarding Jesus’ priesthood since He ever lives to make intercession for His people (7:25). In verses 23-25, the writer draws a contrast between ever dying priests and an ever living priest. Since the priests of the Levitical order were mortal, their ministries had to be passed on to their successors. They could not continue in office because they were dying priests. By contrast, Jesus, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, has a nontransferable office. Since He everlives, His is a perpetual priesthood. Our author writes, “Because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. “Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them”(Heb 7:24-25).

Planned Obsolescence

One of the clear advantages of the Melchizedekian order is that God intended for it, unlike the Levitical order, to continue perpetually. From the outset, God destined the Levitical order, like the covenant to which He attached it, to become obsolete. The author concludes his description of Melchizedek’s priestly order in Hebrews 7:10. Yet, in the verses that follow, he continues to argue for the superiority of that order. He pursues this point based on the prophecy of Psalm 110:4. He reasons, “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it [in association with it] the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come–one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron” (7:11). His argument is represented in the following syllogism:

Major premise: If perfection were attainable through the Levitical priesthood, there would be no need for a different kind of priest.

Minor premise: Since God, in Psalm 110:4, predicted that He would establish the Messiah as a Melchizedekian priest, there must have been a need for another (a different kind of) priest to come.

Conclusion: Therefore, perfection was not attainable through the Levitical priestly system.

Since this is true, there are only two conclusions (one of which is totally unacceptable) that we could draw about the inadequacy of the Levitical priesthood. The first is that God intended for it to meet the spiritual needs of the Israelites, but was thwarted in this purpose. The second is that God intended from the beginning to render this priestly order obsolete when that one whom it prefigured finally came. It should be obvious that the latter conclusion is the correct one. It was never God’s purpose for the Israelites to become satisfied this temporary and inferior sacrificial system. He intended the inferiority of the Levitical system to quicken Israel’s desire for a better priest who could do what Aaron and his sons could never do. If the Levitical priesthood could have satisfied the spiritual needs of God’s people, there would have been no need for Christ to come as a priest after the order of Melchizedek (7:11).

By promising to raise up such a priest, God made it clear that the Levitical system was inadequate to satisfy the exigencies arising from His peoples” sins. He also announced His intention to replace it with a priesthood that could satisfy the spiritual needs of sinners.

The Crux of the Problem

It does not seem that those to whom our author addressed this treatise had any doubt about Jesus’ Messianic claims, since the writer never concerned himself with that issue. Both he and his readers agreed that Jesus is the Christ. In other words, this is one of the presuppositions of both the writer and the readers. For that reason, instead of covering ground about which both sides agreed, he concerned himself with the plain implications that arise from that presupposition. The crux of the problem is that Jesus could not possibly officiate as both king and priest unless the Levitical system and the covenant with which it was associated had been abolished. Psalm 110, which even the Jews acknowledged to be a Messianic Psalm, makes it clear that the promised Messiah would not come from the tribe of Levi but from the tribe of Judah. Such Old Testament promises led some, e.g., members of the Dead Sea Sect, to conclude erroneously that there would be two messianic figures, one from the priestly line and the other from the royal line. It seems that at least part of our author’s purpose in this chapter is to show how a single individual can fulfill the offices of both a priest and a king. If, as they had acknowledged, Jesus is the Christ, then He is either one of two messiah’s (The other would have to be born of Levi’s tribe), or He is priest of a different order. One great obstacle to the “two messiah theory” is that there is not a single Old Testament prophecy of a messiah arising from the tribe of Levi. Every prophecy that mentions His lineage makes it clear that He would arise from the tribe of Judah.

One corollary of the “two messiah theory” was the idea that, in the messianic age, God would restore the sacrificial system of Israel in its original purity. This, of course, directly contradicts the prophecy of Psalm 110:4. It is for this reason that the writer expounds that prophecy in this chapter. In so doing, he sets a choice before them. They must renounce their belief that Jesus is the Messiah, or they must renounce Judaism. If they insist on clinging to the old covenant, they must renounce their professed belief that Jesus, the Messiah has come. If the old covenant remains in force, then Jesus is an unauthorized intruder into the priesthood. Conversely, if Jesus, who has no ancestral connection with the tribe of Levi, is a legitimate priest of a different order, then God must have abolished the old covenant.

(Footnote 2 “The parenthetical way in which the statement ho laos gar ep autes nenomothetetai [for in relationship to it the people were given the law] is thrown out almost as an aside, in verse 11, can only mean that a question about the Law is assumed to underlie the whole discussion [emphasis mine]. That is to say, the writer apparently anticipates the probability that the Law might be appealed to as the guarantee for the eternal validity of the Priesthood, and here joins them closely together so that both [emphasis mine] can be seen to be transcended in the advent of the new order of priesthood (verse 12) [emphasis mine]” Graham.Hughes, Hebrews and Hermeneutics, (Cambridge: University Press, 1979). p. 17. “. . .Ps. 110:4 proves that with him there begins a new order (taxis) which cannot be combined with the Aaronic priesthood. Melchizedek implies the dissolving of the Jewish Law and cultus [emphasis mine]” O. Michel, “Melcesedek” TDNT. Vol. IV. ed Gerhard Kittel’s–trans. &. ed Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), p. 570. “His [Christ’s] coming implies that the former priesthood is done away with and is no longer in effect. Yet this Levitical or Aaronic priesthood was the essential feature in the Mosaic Law [emphasis mine]. Therefore in the person and work of Christ that entire system was brought to an end [emphasis mine]” Charles R. Eerdman, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 1954). “Before their conversion they had envisaged no priesthood beyond the Levitical priesthood; even if they looked for a new priest to arise in the age to come, he was still a Levitical priest. Their Christian teachers would have encouraged them to think of the Levitical priesthood as something belonging to the age of preparation, which had now given way to the age of fulfillment; but they were in danger of concluding that, after all, the old order (including the Levitical priesthood and everything else that went with it) had still much to be said in its favor. To such people our author’s assurance that the supersession of the Levitical priesthood by another had been decreed by God long before would have had practical relevance. Nor is it only the Aaronic priesthood which must be superseded. That priesthood was instituted under the Mosaic law, and was so integral to it that a change in the priesthood carries with it inevitably a change in the law. If the Aaronic priesthood was instituted for a temporary purpose, to be brought to an end when the age of fulfillment dawned, the same must be true of the law under which that priesthood was introduced” F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews 1964), p. 145.)

“For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law” (7:12). “If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law” (8:4).

Some have taken the position that by the phrase “a change in the law” the writer intended to refer only to the law regulating the priesthood. In other words, the law of the priesthood was discarded, but the covenant in association with which God gave that law remained in force. Consider the following observations concerning this view:

There is no indication that the author considered the law regulating the priesthood as a law of operation that could be separated from the whole fabric of the old covenant. On the contrary, he, along with every other biblical writer, viewed the different elements of the law (Mosaic covenant) as integral components of the entire covenantal document. The biblical writers knew nothing of the artificial, systematic theological, distinction that modern writers often make between moral, judicial, and ceremonial laws.

If there is any question that the writer intended to show that the covenant as a whole has been abrogated, a careful examination of the following chapter should settle it. In Hebrews 8, our author explicitly states that a new and better covenant has superseded the Mosaic covenant (vv.7-13). We need to emphasize here that we should not understand “the old covenant” that God has rendered obsolete to be everything that belonged to that economy except the tables of stone. The ten commandments that God wrote on the tables of stone were the words of the covenant. Exodus 34:28 makes this abundantly clear:

Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forth nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant–the Ten Commandments (see also 2 Cor 3:7-11).

In Hebrews 7:15-16 our author writes, “And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.” Up to this point in his argument he has centered on the prediction of Psalm 110:4. He now turns to the fact that another priest has risen after the order of Melchizedek. This predicted priest has now appeared on the stage of history. Consequently, what he has been saying about the dissolution of the old covenant and its priestly system has become even more evident.

Once we acknowledge that Jesus is God’s anointed Priest, predicted in Psalm 110:4, we cannot escape the conclusion that there has been a change in the law. Additionally, since the laws that regulated the Levitical system are inextricably woven into the fabric of the Mosaic covenant, God must also have replaced the covenant itself. The inferior, outworn covenant of Moses has given way to the new and better covenant of which Jesus has become the guarantee.

Jesus, The High Priest Who Meets Our Need

Having described the eternal and powerful priesthood of Jesus, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, our author now tells us that such a high priest is perfectly suited to us and to our needs. He does what none of the Old Covenant Priests were able to do. He satisfies the needs of sinful rebels; needs that are far greater than the priests of the Levitical system were able to meet.

His Personal Qualifications

Perfection of Character

One of the reasons for the inadequacy of the Levitical priests is that they, like the ones they represented, were sinners who needed a sacrificial offering. Our author writes,

Heb 7:26Such a high priest meets our need’s– one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed fot their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

By contrast, Jesus is a priest of sterling character and infinite authority. He is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” Consider His characteristics one by one.

He is Holy

The word hosios, translated “holy” in this verse, occurs seven times elsewhere in the New Testament Scriptures. Of those occurences, is it used only twice to describe human holiness. In both instances (1 Tim 2:8; Titus 1:8), it is used concerning the necessary qualifications of an overseer. “The word stood for that which was in accordance with divine direction and providence. The word describes the pious, pure, and clean action which is in accordance with God’s commands.” (Footnote 3– Fritz Rienecker. A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. ed. Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. 1987, p. 620). In Acts 13:34, Paul cites the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 55:3 in which hosios is used to translate the Hebrew word hesed which denotes Yahweh’s faithful, covenant kindness to Israel. It is used in this verse to refer to His determination to grant mercy to David’s house in keeping with His covenant. In Hebrews 7:26, our author uses this word to describe our high priest, in contrast to the priests of the Levitical system. Though ministering in holy things, they, themselves, failed in their covenant obligations and were in need of a priest. But Jesus, in devotion to His Father’s will, fulfilled every obligation of the covenant. Thus, His holiness is defined in terms of His devotion to the Father and obedience to His will.

He is Blameless

The second characteristic of our high priest that suits Him to represent believers is blamelessness. The word translated “blameless” is literally without evil or wrong. Our Lord was totally without evil or wrongdoing in all His motives and His interactions with His fellowmen.

By contrast, we sinners are not merely polluted in the stream of our outward actions; we are polluted at the fountain of our inward motivation. There was not one “blameless” man among the thousands of priests who ministered in the Levitical priesthood. But, the high priest who satisfies our needs is “blameless.”

He is Pure

The priests who functioned in the Levitical system stood as types of Jesus, our great priest. Consequently, God required that they be ceremonially undefiled. The ceremonial washings in which they engaged symbolized the purity that God demands in those who serve, as representatives, before Him. Yet those priests, like those sinners whom they represented, were inwardly defiled by sin. By contrast, the priest who meets our need possesses a purity that goes deeper than superficial ceremonial cleansing. His purity is both internal and external.

He is Separate from Sinners

When our author tells us that the high priest who meets our need is separate from sinners, he does not refer to Jesus’ geographical proximity to sinners during His earthly ministry. The only one in the universe who had a right to keep His distance from sinners, embraced sinners in His holy bosom. In derision, His enemies dubbed Him “a friend of sinners” (Matt 11:19; Lk 7:34). The Pharisees and the Scribes complained, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Yet, that which was scandalous in their estimation is a great cause of rejoicing to His blood-bought children.

Jesus was never afraid to “rub shoulders” with sinners. For Him, separation from sinners had nothing to do with where He was. It had to do with who He was. Calvin writes, “For he is not said to be separate from us, because he repels us from his society, but because he has this excellency above us all, that he is free from every uncleanness.” (John Calvin, Calvin”s Commentaries. vol. 22., p. 176). This designation, separate from sinners, “brings into a single focus the central implication of the three preceding definitions of his person as holy, blameless, and unstained.” (Hughes, Commentary on Hebrews, p.273).

Infinite Authority

Our Great High Priest not only possesses personal qualities that qualify Him to represent us before God’s throne; He is, Himself, exalted to occupy the throne. He, like Melchizedek, is a royal priest. Our author tells us that He is “exalted above the heavens.” He occupies the place of highest glory and authority. Not only has He, as our pious, blameless, and pure high priest, obtained eternal redemption for us, He now dispenses His purchased blessings from His glorious throne. “The power of His all-sufficient atoning work is available without diminishment to us today as it was to the believers of the first century, and it is so because he who died for us is alive from the dead and enthroned on high.” (Hughes, p. 275).

His Efficacious Work

In verses 27-28 there is a clear contrast between Jesus, Our Great Priest, and the priests of the Levitical system. Our author writes,

7:27Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

Once for All

The first reason Jesus’ priestly work was superior to that of the Levitical priests is that He offered one sacrifice, once for all. Because of the ineffectual nature of their priesthood and of the sacrifices they offered, they were many priests, who needed to offer many sacrifices. These were sinful priests who themselves needed a sacrifice to atone for their sins. Only after a priest had offered a sacrifice for his sins, could he offer a sacrifice to cover the sins of the people. This he did day after day, year after year. The terms “once” and “once for all” are fundamental to a proper understanding of this section of this epistle. The finality of Christ’s sacrifice speaks to us of the perfection of His work. It also heralds the abolition of that system in which the continual offering of sacrifices bore eloquent testimony to their ineffectiveness.

Our priest did not need to offer a sacrifice for Himself. He had no sins for which to atone. He is holy, blameless, unsullied, separate from sinners. His sacrifice had nothing to do with His own needs. It wholly concerned the needs of His people.

He Offered Himself

Moreover, unlike the Levitical priests who continually offered ineffectual animal sacrifices, Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice. Because of its perfection, His one offering continues to be effective forever.

The priests of the old covenant were weak and ineffectual, but the Son is ever effectual. He is made perfect forever. The remainder of the theological section of this epistle concerns itself with Jesus’ perfected and, therefore, superior priesthood. Our author presents Him as a priest who mediates a better covenant (8:6-13), ministers in a better sanctuary (9:1-24), presents a better sacrifice (10:1-18), and perfects better worshippers (10:1-2). We will consider these truths concerning Jesus’ priesthood in greater detail in section two of this work, “The Soteriology of Hebrews.”


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