In 1903, someone noticed a Russian sentry standing guard at a post with no apparent reason for his being there. When asked why he was standing guard there, he answered, “I’m just following order.” The question was then asked of the captain of the guard, but he also didn’t know why a sentry was posted there. The inquiry eventually went all the way up the chain of command to the czar, but he didn’t know either! So he asked someone to track down the answer. Finally, it was discovered in 1776, that Catherine the Great had planted a rose bush there, and posted a sentry to guard it. The bush had been dead for over 80 years now, but the sentry was still standing guard. Traditions are hard to change!
Religious traditions are especially hard to change and that is because people insist that God, not man, ordained them. The Jews rightly believed that God had ordained the traditions and practices of the Mosaic law almost 15 centuries before the time of Christ. The Law was the very center of the Jewish culture. They ordered their lives around the Sabbath worship and the yearly feasts. The priest and Levites oversaw and regulated the worship at the temple. The sacrifices and rules for ceremonial cleansing were all spelled out in the law. These laws and traditions were deeply entrenched!
To challenge the validity of these laws could cost you your life! The opponents of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, charged, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the Law; for we have heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth, will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-14). Paul’s opponents shouted, “This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place” (Acts 21:28). Even many Jews who had professed faith in Christ were still “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20).
So the author of Hebrews faces the formidable task of trying to convince his Jewish readers and that Law (having to do with ceremonies) and the Levitical priesthood that was inextricably linked to the Law was now obsolete and set aside because of the far better New Covenant and priesthood of Jesus Christ.
He will make some radical statements about the law: it was weak and useless; it made nothing perfect (7:18, 19). Because of these problems, it has been changed and set aside (7:12, 18). He is drawing a distinct dividing line between Judaism and Christianity here. You cannot blend the two into a homogenous hybrid. He doesn’t want his readers to go back to the old Jewish way, as if it were “good enough.” Even if they must suffer persecution for their faith in Jesus Christ, they must persevere, because Jesus has provided “a better hope…through which we draw near to God” (Hebrews 7:19).
That statement was radical, too. Every Jew knew that you couldn’t just stroll into the Holy of Holies and have a little chat with God! Emphasizing the holiness of God, the Levitical system was designed to keep uncleanness and sin at a distance from God, lest He destroy them. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that once a year on the Day of Atonement after purification and offerings for his own sins. But the key phrase of this passage is that “we draw near to God” (v. 19; cf. 4:14-16; 6:19-20; 10:19-22). This was a staggering concept for those from a Jewish background!
At the end of this passage we find the author arguing that our salvation is complete and secure precisely because of Jesus’ superior priesthood. Since He lives to make intercession for us, He saves us “completely” (Heb. 7:25). Thus, we can dare to draw near to God and be saved completely because of the superior priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Let me read Hebrews 7:11-28…
11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. 13 For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, 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. 17 For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 18 For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness 19 (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. 20 And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, 21 but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.'” 22 This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. 23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 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. 26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. 28 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.
In our last study of in Hebrews 7 we saw that our author was establishing the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood because it is based upon the order of Melchizedek. Now, in vv. 11-14 our author will explain the insufficiency of the Aaronic priesthood and in vv. 15-19 the sufficiency of Melchizedek’s priesthood.
Both sections are based on the author’s brilliant and original understanding of Psalm 110:4, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek,’” which the author saw as a solemn decree of appointment spoken by God to God the Son that would establish him as our eternal priest.
The Levitical priesthood and the Law are inferior because they cannot make anyone perfect. Verses 11 and 12 say…
11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.
Notice how the author is concerned with this concept of perfection. It does not mean being without any flaw or defect, but rather it refers to “the condition in which men are acceptable to God” (Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:66). Often in Scripture the word “perfection” has the meaning of “maturity” or “completeness.” So, some assume “perfection” here means “completeness in relation to God.” But actually the meaning here is more specialized and means “to put someone in the position in which he can come, or stand, before God”— access to God. This is also the meaning of “perfect” in verse 19, which says, “(for the Law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.” It is also the meaning in two other Hebrews texts—10:1, 14. So again, “perfection” here in verse 11 refers to access to God and a right relationship to him.
Our author is arguing that the Levitical priesthood did not give someone access to God and a right relationship with Him.
This right relationship is precisely what the old covenant Law and priesthood could not provide. The Law, of course, was not useless. After all, it came from God and was mediated by angels (cf. 2:2), and it provided important services. The Law marvelously served to enhance one’s awareness of sin. Paul tells us in Romans 7:7, 8 that the Law’s command not to covet made him aware that all he did was covet. The Law helped him see how spiritually dead he was (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:7ff.). The Law also programmed God’s people regarding the necessity of an atonement, as seen in the repeated demand of a blood sacrifice. Sin necessitated the shedding of blood. Sin . . . blood, sin . . . blood, sin . . . blood—this developed a conditioned reflex regarding the need for atonement. Indeed, the whole system provided a type of Christ, so that John the Baptist would cry out as Jesus passed by, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36). The Law was, in effect, a teacher, as Paul explained in Galatians 3:24, “The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (NASB).
In reality, the Law was an excellent institution. The real problem was that man was sinful. “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do . . . the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:3, 7).
As to the crucial matter of access, F. F. Bruce says, “The whole apparatus of worship associated with sacrifice and ritual and priesthood was calculated rather to keep men at a distance from God than to bring them near.”
Our author then argues for the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood in three ways:
First, if the Levitical priesthood would have accomplished its purpose, God would not have predicted a new order of priesthood according to Melchizedek (7:11).
Notice here that the priesthood is the basis of the law, not the other way around. Without that priesthood it would be impossible for the law to operate in its fullness (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, 66).
But at the height of the Levitical priesthood, in the Golden Age of Israel, David predicted that another priest would arise according to a different order—the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4). The simple fact that God describes a priest… according to the order of Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4 shows there is something lacking in the priesthood according to the order of Aaron. God would never establish an unnecessary priesthood. And He would not introduce an inferior priesthood.
The writer’s point was that since God promised in Psalm 110:4 that the coming Messiah would be a priest after Melchizedek’s order, He intended to terminate and replace the Levitical priesthood, because it was inadequate. If the Levitical priesthood had been adequate, the Messiah would have functioned as a Levitical priest.
What he’s saying is that, for all its beauty and truth, the OT Levitical priesthood could never bring men and women into the presence of God or offer a sacrifice that would forever cleanse them from the guilt of sin. Furthermore, if that OT priesthood had been perfect, why would King David have announced hundreds of years later in Psalm 110 that God has appointed a new priesthood, not after the order of Aaron but after the order of Melchizedek? Whatever is “perfect” and permanent doesn’t need to be replaced. His point, then, is that years after the Levitical priesthood was established God speaks of yet another, superior, and abiding priesthood, namely, that of Jesus Christ, not in the line of Aaron but in the line of Melchizedek.
Philip Hughes (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], pp. 255-256) points out that the first century Jewish Dead Sea sect “looked for the appearance of two Messianic figures, one priestly, ‘the Messiah of Aaron,’ and the other lay and kingly, ‘the Messiah of Israel’…” The priestly Messiah would be the head of the nation, with the kingly Messiah, from the line of David, subordinate to him. Hughes suggests that if the original readers of Hebrews had been influenced by this or similar teaching, then the author’s point that Jesus fulfills both roles in his one person, according to the superior order of Melchizedek, is quite relevant.
Second, our author argues that a change of priesthood necessitates a change of law, for they are intertwined. Verse 12 says “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”
Imagine how unthinkable this would be to a Jew! The Law of Moses was the bedrock of the Jewish religion and culture. How could you even talk about changing the Law? But the author is arguing that the Law and the Levitical priesthood were so closely linked that you could not change the priesthood without changing the Law.
The Mosaic Law was given in order to validate the Levitical priesthood. If the Levitical priesthood is taken out of the Mosaic Law, nothing of meaning is left. Why? Because the whole purpose of having a religious system is to bring people into fellowship with the living God. If there are no priests to represent the people, then there is no reason to have a religious system.
This is certainly a pivotal concept in Scripture! If the priesthood is changing—with Jesus’ priesthood replacing that of the Levitical priesthood, then the law is no longer operative in a way that brought about a completion of its purpose. He is at least arguing that the ceremonial part of the Law (dealing with sacrifices and the temple) had been fulfilled and changed by the death of Jesus Christ as the Passover Lamb.
So, is the Law now null and void? Do we have no responsibilities to keep the law under the New Covenant? Actually, Ezekiel’s revelation of the New Covenant includes the idea that God gives us His Spirit to “cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” and Jeremiah’s explanation of the New Covenant includes this statement about the law: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” There would be no purpose in doing that if the Law has no lasting value to us today.
But in what sense? It seems obvious that Christ fulfilled, through his death, the ceremonial aspects of the law—what the sacrifices signified. The civil laws, which regulated life under the nation of Israel, seem to be incorporated largely into our own civil laws, without some of the strict penalties attached. It is the expression of the law of God contained in the Ten Commandments for which we have obligation to fulfill today. These Ten Commandments flesh out what it means to love God and love our neighbor.
But it is primarily the sacrificial system and priesthood that the writer of Hebrews says has been replaced. The New Covenant (Hebrews 8) and Christ as the great high priest according to the new order of Melchizedek, replace the Mosaic Covenant and Levitical priesthood.
The New Covenant, with this new high priest, offers us everything that the Old Covenant could not provide.
Atonement: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
Life: Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25, 26).
Conscience: “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” (9:14).
Access: Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).