Originally my hope was to take the last two weeks of the class and talk about Christ as prophet, priest, and king. But because we took an extra week when we dove into looking at some complex issues in our study of humanity, we only have one week left. Therefore, I just want to talk about Christ as priest. But, this doesn’t mean that all is lost in thinking about Christ as prophet and king. In fact, if you go back and listen to the lesson on humanity being made in God’s image, you’ll basically hear how I would argue that Christ is our human king. And in terms of Christ as prophet, you can think of the prophet as the mouthpiece for God throughout the Scriptures until God the Son himself came, took on flesh, and spoke to us as “God with us” (i.e. the true and perfect prophet, for he is the Word of God himself). Therefore, I want to use this morning to talk about Christ as our great high priest.
Christ as Priest
Hebrews 5:1 tells us, “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Thus, as the prophet is God’s mouthpiece (or representative) before man, it is the priest who serves as man’s representative before God. In the Old Testament the priest would go into the tabernacle or temple, into the presence of God, carrying twelve gems on his clothing (Ex 28:15-21). These twelve gems symbolized the reality that the priest did not simply come for himself but as a representative for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. As man’s representative before God, the priest would intercede for the people and preside over the sacrifices, with the High Priest alone being involved on the Day of Atonement.
The Levites, Aaron, and Jesus – the Great Problem
It is easy to see how Jesus could fulfill the categories of the priest. In the New Testament we read of his interceding for his followers, specifically we see this in his “High Priestly” prayer in John 17. Also, he is clearly shown to offer a sacrifice for his people, representing them before the Father. In fact, Jesus is not only the one offering the sacrifice, but he is himself the sacrifice offered. Therefore, it seems right and good to affirm that he is both the priest and the sacrifice. And the book of Hebrews clearly pictures Jesus as our great High Priest. One such example is found in Hebrews 4:14-15 as the author of Hebrews writes, “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.” Therefore, the case seems quite simple – Jesus is the ultimate High Priest functioning in regards to sacrifices as both offerer and offering.
However, there is a problem. In Number 3:5-10, the Lord instructs Moses as to who shall be able to serve as priest. The text reads:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death."
Therefore, it is quite clear that the Lord wanted the priesthood to be an exclusive group. Only those from the tribe of Levi could minister to the priest and only Aaron and his direct descendants could function in the priesthood. When one looks at Jesus, then, it is quite apparent that he does not qualify under such a law. He is not from the tribe of Levi but the tribe of Judah, and he is not a direct descendant of Aaron. So, how is it that Jesus can accurately be called our High Priest?
Hebrews 7 – The Great Answer
In Hebrews 7, the author of the book makes it his aim answer the great problem of Jesus being called a high priest. He does this mainly along the lines of arguing that an Old Testament figure named Melchizedek typologically pointed to another priesthood, and then he shows that Christ’s priesthood and work are superior to the priesthood and work that has come before him. Therefore, let us now turn to the exposition of that text so that we might understand the argument utilized by the author of Hebrews to show how Jesus has become our great High Priest.
An Exposition of Hebrews 7
The superiority of Melchizedek: laying groundwork for a superior priest (7:1-10)
The author of Hebrews opens this chapter with an exposition of Genesis 14:17-20 concerning this individual named Melchizedek. Now, if you’ve read the letter to this point, you know why this figure is important. For more than once he has stated that Christ has been appointed a high priest by God “after the order of Melchizedek.” That is, in fact, the ending note of chapter six.
Now, there are only two places in the Old Testament where Melchizedek is mentioned. One of them is Psalm 110:4, in which David writes, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” And this text has been used many times throughout this letter, while not giving us a lot of information about what’s going on here. Yet there is one other place where he is mentioned, and that is in Genesis 14:17-20.
In this text, Abraham has just returned from a battle in which he had to rescue his nephew who had been captured. And on his way back he has an encounter with this King-Priest named, Melchizedek. The text reads: “And after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High). And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”
That’s it! Nothing more is given but this text and Psalm 110:4. However, the author of Hebrews wants us to see how this figure points us to Jesus Christ and the superiority of his priesthood and the hope that he brings as he exposits this text in the first ten verses of Hebrews 7.
He first gives a summary of the events that transpired, writing in 1-2a, “For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything.” Then, he begins to show how this individual is meant to typify and point us to Jesus Christ, for that was his very purpose.
He points out that Melchizedek’s name means “King of Righteousness,” writing, “He is first, by translation of his name, king of rightouesness.” In Hebrew, melek means “king” while sedek means “righteousness.” Therefore, as you put those two words together (i.e. Melek + sedek = Melchizedek) you form a construct that means “King of Righteousness.” He also points out that his is the king of peace, writing, “ . . . and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace.” Now, again, this is looking to Hebrew where shalom means “peace.” Thus, being the king of Salem (i.e. shalom), he is the king of peace. So he is the king of peace and his name means king of righteousness. But that is not where the similarities with Christ end. He also mentions, “He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.”
This probably means the same thing we have witnessed as we read the Genesis account. For in a book where lineage is everything and everybody who is anybody has their heritage traced, this individual who seems to be quite important has no recorded genealogy, has no account of recorded account of his birth, and has no recorded account of his death. Therefore, the author of Hebrews wants us to see that he resembles Jesus Christ, for just as Melchizedek’s priesthood has no record of ending because of death, so Christ is our eternal high priest. Therefore, in these first few verses he shows us how this strange individual typifies and points us to Jesus Christ.
He then, shows us that this order of priesthood after Melchizedek is superior to the Levitical priesthood that would later follow. He does this mainly by picking up on the fact that Abraham offered a tithe to Melchizedek. Now, receiving a tithe was the responsibility of the Levites according to Numbers 18:21-32. They did not inherit land, but they did receive a tithe from the people. Thus, the author of Hebrews writes, “See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham” (4-5). Now, pausing for a moment, we see that the Levites took tithes from their brothers, so they were in a position of honor among those who descended from Abraham. But he goes on to point out that Abraham himself tithed to one who was not even in the Levitical line, writing, “But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises” (6). He then focuses on the superiority of Melchizedek to the Levitical priests, writing, “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.” That is to say, Melchizedek is greater in that he is never said to have died, he blessed Abraham, and received tithes from him. And in receiving tithes from him, he received tithes from the father of the Levites. So in some way, even the Levites who received tithes were tithing to Melchizedek through Abraham, for they would eventually come from his seed.
Therefore, we are simply not told much about this man, Melchizedek, except that he was superior to the Levitical priests and pointed us much toward Jesus Christ. However, this lays the groundwork for showing the superiority of Christ’s priesthood, as he was appointed a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. And with that the author turns in verse 11 to now expositing Psalm 110:4, in which we read, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’
The weakness of the law: pointing us to a better hope (7:11-19)
Starting with verse 11, the author begins to point out the weakness of the Levitical priesthood. He writes, “Now if perfection [i.e. completion of God’s redemptive mission] 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 Aaron.” This is a good and pointed question to a people who thought they could simply return to living under the law, forgetting Christ, and still be okay. The author is pointing out that if that were a real possibility, then there would have been no need for God to raise up another priest from a different order.
He then points out how this different order works, writing, “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change is the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (12-14). Do you see what he’s saying here? If Christ really is a priest, then something in the law has changed, for the law only allowed descendants from the tribe of Levi to be priests, while Christ is from the tribe of Judah.
He then adds to the argument that something must have changed concerning the law, writing, “This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has because a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him, ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek’” (15-17). So, again we see more evidence for something concerning the law changing, for not only was one made a priest who was not from the tribe of Levi (as the law prescribed), but he was made a high priest not because of anything regarding his physical descent. He was made a high priest because he lives forever. That is why he is made a priest forever.
So, we see the author’s conclusion then in verses 18-19 as he shows us that the law then must have been set aside (not being able to produce a priest who could truly accomplish our eternal salvation), but we are not discouraged, for there must then be a better hope by which we can draw near to God. He writes, “On the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.”
The superiority of hope from Christ: the means for eternal salvation (7:20-25)
So, the author of Hebrews has destroyed their hope in looking to the Old Covenant and the priesthood of the Levites, but he has pointed them to hope by pointing them to Christ and the New Covenant that he brings.
Next, he continues writing about Christ’s superior priesthood and answers that question, writing, “And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, 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.” This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but 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” (20-25).
Thus, because Jesus became a high priest because of an oath, there is no fear of Christ’s priesthood being insufficient and God changing his manner of bringing salvation to his people. Also, because Jesus lives forever, the hope and promises he offers will never pass away, unlike the former priests who died. Therefore, our salvation is sure and eternal if we hope in Christ, for our hope is in one who lives and intercedes for us forever.
A summary of Christ’s person and work (7:26-28)
The author then simply summarizes again the superiority of Christ to the levitical priesthood, writing, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 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. 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” (26-28).
Thus, Jesus’ character and status were greater than the levitical priests. Thus, he offered no sacrifice for his sin, but offered himself as a sacrifice for our sin. Also, whereas the priests’ ministry was here on earth, Christ’s priestly ministry has reached into the heavens. Next, whereas the priests had to offer sacrifices again and again, Christ offered himself once for all. And finally, while the law appointed men who could not ultimately accomplish what we need, God (by his word of oath) appointed a Son who has perfectly accomplished our salvation forever. And it came later, superseding the former. Thus, the law is good in that it anticipated and pointed to the reality brought about in Christ, but it has been replaced because it (by nature) was unable to produce what we needed – a high priest who could save us forever. That is indeed who Jesus and what Jesus has done.
Therefore, we rightly see Jesus as fulfilling his role of priest in offering the sacrifice of himself that our sins might be atoned for and in interceding for us eternally so that we might appear in God’s presence. In his role as priest he provides the basis for our forgiveness, that which the priests and sacrifices in the Old Covenant were unable to provide.