Two Special Benefits of Jesus’ Superior Priesthood, part 2 (Hebrews 7:13-19)

Last week we began to explore three ways in which the Levitical priesthood was inferior to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, according to the order of Melchizedek.

We saw that 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).  But God did predict that new order in Psalm 110:4 and Jesus fulfills that prediction.  Second, any change in the priesthood necessitates a change of the law, for they are intertwined with one another.

Third, Melchizedek and Jesus were not of the Levitical bloodline, thus they represent a new, different priesthood.  We see this in vv. 13-14…

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.

Our author states what everyone knew—that Jesus descended from the tribe of Judah, not the tribe of Levi.  The tribe of Judah has no one that has ever served at the altar.  The word translated “was descended from” is literally, “has arisen from” and is a Messianic reference (see Luke 1:78 where Simeon calls Jesus the “sunrise from on high” and Malachi 4:2 where he is called the “sun of righteousness,” also 2 Peter 1:19 where Peter speaks of “the morning star arises,” in reference to Jesus).  Verses 11 and 15 speak of another priest arising, and the Greek word means “another of a different kind.”  Jesus is thus legitimately a priest, just of a different order, and He is the only priest of that order.

Again, as Philip Hughes pointed out (p. 260), if the author is countering the false concept of a Dead Sea sect—that there would be two Messiahs, one from the priestly tribe of Levi and another from the kingly tribe of Judah—then his point here corrects that error.  In one person, Jesus is both our king and our priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  The old Levitical order has been set aside.  There is no longer the need for a Levitical priest to function for the people in offering sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins.

Note also that our author calls Jesus “our Lord” in v. 14, a title that he uses only again in 13:20 (in 2:3 he is “the Lord”).  He wants us to recognize that Jesus isn’t just another human priest, but God in the flesh.  He is the exalted Lord.

Having established the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood, our author now turns to establishing the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood.

The New Covenant and the Priesthood of Jesus are Superior Because They Provide the Way for Us to Draw Near to God (Hebrews 7:15-19).

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.”

Again, the argument proceeds in three steps:

First, Jesus is superior because, unlike the Levitical priesthood, Jesus’ priesthood is eternal.

The qualifications for being a Levitical priest were all external—chosen by physical lineage (Lev. 21:6-23).

The qualifications for the Levitical priesthood were patently external.  A priestly candidate had to be: (1) legitimate, (2) a Levite (meaning that his mother had to be an Israelite and his father a priest before him), and (3) having no physical defects.  There were 142 physical blemishes listed that could disqualify him, some of which are recorded in Leviticus 21:16–23.  His ordination ceremony was painstakingly external regarding how he was to be bathed, clothed, anointed with oil, and marked with blood.  After his ordination he had to observe specified washings, anointings, and hair-cutting.  The focus was external throughout.

Jesus, however, has become a priest, like Melchizedek, based on one internal power–the “power of an indestructible life” (Heb. 7:16).  Melchizedek was a type of this quality, “having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (7:3), but Jesus is truly eternal.  John 1:4 says “in Him was life.”

This does not mean that he never died.  It means that our priest died a death that could not hold him; the grave couldn’t hold him—a death that was followed by resurrection!  Therefore, to say that Jesus is high priest on the basis of “an indestructible life” is to say that he is high priest on the basis of the Resurrection.  This is implicit in the words of the Father to the Son: “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (v. 17).  Thus, the Resurrection not only declared Jesus to be the Son (Romans 1:4), but it also marks the inauguration of Christ as our high priest.

This thought will be continued in vv. 23-24…

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.

The Levitical priests existed in greater numbers because they all died and had to be replaced by the next generation.

  • The Jewish historian Josephus says that there were 83 high priests from Aaron to the destruction of the temple in A. D. 70.
  • The Talmud says that there were 18 during the first temple and more than 300 during the second (Leon Morris, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:71).

However many there were, the point is that they were not perpetual.  They all died and were replaced.  But Jesus, “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.”

No one else was needed to step in and take His place because He still lives.

Matthew 27:1 tells us about the priests who conspired in the death of Jesus.

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.

Although they accomplished this, Jesus lives today and they are all dead!  He became a permanent high priest after His ascension, because He would never die again.

Jesus’ priesthood was based on the life that was in Him, not His physical descent from anyone.  His was a life that could not be overcome by either sin or death.  What’s more, He had the power to transmit this life to those who believed in Him.  Thus, He could do what no Jewish priest could ever do–give a life to people that neither sin nor death could overcome.  And since His life is not limited by time, His priesthood continues forever.  (C. S. Lovett, Lovett’s Lights on Hebrews, 153)

Second, the old covenant and Levitical priesthood are set aside (7:18-19a).

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.

The “former commandment” in v. 18 is a reference to the law by which the Levitical priesthood and its succession were regulated.  It had to be “set aside” or abrogated because it was unable to bring us to God and unable to secure full and final forgiveness of sins.

The word used for “set aside” is athetēsis (NIV – set aside); that is the word used for annulling a treaty, for abrogating a promise, for scoring a man’s name off the register, for rendering a law or regulation inoperative. The whole paraphernalia of the ceremonial law was wiped out in the priesthood of Jesus.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, Hebrews, 79)

It was set aside because of “its weakness and uselessness.”  It was always weak, but formerly useful.  It was useful precisely in that it anticipated the advent of a superior priest, it pointed to the need of a better sacrifice and priesthood.  Now that the superior priest has arrived, the “former commandment” is now useless.  Therefore, it is set aside.

The weakness and uselessness of the Law was not inherent in the law itself.  As Paul explains (Romans 7:12), “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Rather, the problem was in the weakness of our sinful flesh that made it impossible for us to keep the law (Romans 7:13-14; 8:3).  The law made demands we could not keep; grace supplies what the law demands.

One reason that God instituted the Law was to show us the utter sinfulness of our hearts (Rom. 5:20; 7:13).  As such, it was never designed to bring sinners near to God.  This is what the author means by “for the law made nothing perfect (Heb. 7:19).  Sinners were prevented from entering the Holy of Holies.  And, the sacrifices prescribed by the Law could never completely cleanse the sinner’s conscience or take away his sins (Heb. 10:1-4).

The first statement of verse 19, “for the law made nothing perfect” is the issue.  If we are not made perfect before God, our efforts and service and worship are worthless.  The law did not make us perfect, therefore, it is worthless.

Now, the Law itself can be summed up in two words: be perfect.  The problem is, we cannot be perfect.  This kind of attitude still exists today.  We have lowered our standard.  When they are asked, people routinely say that they will get to heaven by “being good” or by “doing the best I can.”  But if we could get to heave by our own efforts, we would have to be perfect.  Not just “good” but perfect.  Not “doing the best I can” but “living without any sin whatsoever.”  And that is impossible!

“The law made nothing perfect,” let all legalists mark this.  Let all who think they can be perfect, realize that we “all fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

The law provides expert diagnosis of our sin problem, which is absolutely essential. But the law does not provide the cure to our sin problem. Only Jesus can save us from our sin problem.

“Although the law performed a valuable function, its essential weakness was that it could not give life and vitality even to those who kept it, let alone to those who did not.  In fact, its function was not to provide strength, but to provide a standard by which man could measure his own moral status.  Its uselessness must not be regarded in the sense of being totally worthless, but in the sense of being ineffective in providing a constant means of approach to God based on a totally adequate sacrifice.” (Donald Guthrie)

The writer came to the same conclusion about the law as Paul did in Galatians 3:19-25, but he got there in a totally different way.  In Galatians, Paul showed the law as a tutor that brings us to Jesus.  In Hebrews the law is associated with a priesthood that has been made obsolete by a superior priesthood.

Third, the new covenant and the priesthood of Jesus provide a better hope through which we draw near to God (Hebrews 7:19b).  The rest of verse 19 says, “but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.”

We have a better hope, and that better hope comes through the priesthood of Jesus.  The “former command” is replaced by a “better hope.”  What is this “better hope”?  It is connected with a “better covenant” (Heb. 7:22) that involves “better promises” (Heb. 8:6) of a “better country, that is a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16).  Hope, as we have already seen in our study of Hebrews, looks forward to this better country, where we will worship the Lord in sinless bodies and serve him in his creation (Heb. 3:6; 6:11).  It is the priesthood of Jesus that allows for this hope.

That “better hope” is the New Covenant, which we will unpack later in Hebrews 8:6-13.

The author’s point is, if you’ve got something better, why go back to something “weak and useless”?  Maybe they were nostalgically thinking of “the good old days,” but they were losing sight of the fact that what they presently had in Christ was far better than anything that they had under Judaism.  What the Old Testament saints looked forward to, we have received!  We have full forgiveness of sins through Christ’s better sacrifice.  We don’t have to stand out in the courtyard while a priest represents us in the Holy of Holies.  Instead, we have a high priest within the veil, and He invites us to draw near to the very throne of God, which is the throne of grace, to receive grace to help in our times of need!

We should revel in the fact that we can be brought near to God, not through anything we do, but simply because of what our high priest did.

During his student days in France, Donald Grey Barnhouse was pastor of a little Evangelical Reformed Church in the French Alps.  Once a week he went to a neighboring village for an instruction class.  Each time he made the trip he passed the local priest, going on a similar errand in the opposite direction.  They became good friends and often chatted together for ten minutes or so before they went their separate ways.

On one occasion the priest asked him why we Protestants do not pray to the saints. “Why should we?”  Barnhouse asked.  The priest launched an illustration of the way one might get an interview with the president of the French Republic.  One could go to the Ministry of Agriculture or to the Department of the Interior, etc.; any one of the cabinet members might succeed in opening the door of the president’s office so that Barnhouse might see him.  The priest’s triumphant smile implied that the simplicity and clarity of the argument were such as to preclude any reply.

At that time Raymond Poincare was president of the Republic; he lived in the Palace of the Elysee in Paris—the equivalent of the White House.  Barnhouse said to his friend, “But, Monsieur le Cure, suppose that I were the son of Monsieur Poincare?  I am living in the Elysee with him.  I get up from the breakfast table and kiss him good-bye as he goes off to his office.  Then I go down to the Ministry of the Interior and ask the fourth secretary of the second assistant if it is possible for me to see the Minister of the Interior.  If I succeed in reaching his office, my request is for an interview with my papa.”

The absurdity of a son’s having to go through a father’s assistants to reach him was at once apparent.  The priest was thunderstruck as Barnhouse added that he was a child of God, an heir of God and joint-heir with Christ, and that he had been saved through the death of the Savior and thus had become a son with immediate access to the Father.

What “a better hope” (v. 19) is ours through the eternal priesthood of Christ.  It was a hope the psalmists longed for and the prophets predicted.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul gives the essence of the mature, spiritually fulfilled Christian life.  “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith–that you, being rooted and grounded in love,may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3:17-19).  This is Christianity–“the fullness of God.”

That is the basic goal of the gospel.  Judaism brought a man into the presence of God, but not in the purest and fullest sense.  The veil was always there.  Only in the New Covenant is complete entrance possible.  Only by the blood of Jesus Christ, only by His priestly intercession at the right hand of God, based on His perfect sacrifice on Calvary, was access to God opened.  These are the great recurring themes in Hebrews.  (John MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur NT Commentary: Hebrews, 184)

Today, perfection —access—is ours through Jesus Christ.  The veil has been rent asunder, inviting us into the Holy of Holies.

Let us come with joyful boldness to our constant priest and Savior and Lord!

In Hebrews 10 we read…

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 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. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

What a privilege we have!  Don’t hesitate now to take it.  Jesus Christ has made the way for you to have free and full access to God by believing in Jesus Christ.  The better hope that Christians have is the assurance that this special, eternal, and intimate relationship with God is now possible for us to experience thanks to our Great High Priest.

How does this relate to you today?  Well, make sure that you understand revel in the fact that you have been made acceptable to God totally through what Jesus has done and not at all through anything you have done.  Second, make sure that you are utilizing and enjoying the great privilege of drawing near to God through the blood of Jesus Christ every day.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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