Monday, January 31, 2022

Christ’s Heavenly Priesthood (Hebrews 8:1-5)

We come in these verses to what our author calls “the sum” of “the things which we have spoken” (1). There are several meanings that this word “sum” can have, as in a sum of money or the main point or essence of an argument. However, there is another meaning which it can take, and that is the idea of the summit of an argument. I think that very well may be the idea here: what we have in these verses is not only the sum of the argument but the summit of the argument. And it is the summit in the sense that at this point in the epistle we are brought to the pinnacle of our Lord’s priesthood. We are not to find the capstone of our Lord’s work on the cross or in the tomb but in his position as the ascended Lord of lords and King of kings.

The main idea therefore that our author is asserting in the first five verses is that our Lord’s priesthood is a heavenly priesthood, in contrast with the earthly ministry of the Levitical priests. Thus we are told, “We have such an high priest” – this is a reference back to 7:26-28, where our Lord is described in terms of his purity (26) and in terms of the perfection of his offering (27-28) – “who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man” (8:1-2). The “sanctuary” and the “true tabernacle” is a reference to heaven, where our Lord now ministers as our high priest, where he continually is presenting the blood of his offering before his Father for our sakes and interceding for us (7:25). The tabernacle in which he now ministers is “true” in the sense that the tabernacle and temple on earth pointed to it.

In this heavenly tabernacle, Jesus ministers: the word in verse 2 (leitourgos) is a word that refers to the work of a priest. And priests offer sacrifices. This involves not only killing the sacrifice but also, as in the Day of Atonement, taking some of the blood and bringing it into the Holy of Holies and sprinkling it upon the Mercy Seat, the lid on top of the Ark of the covenant. This is what verse 3 picks up on: “For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.” What is our Lord doing in heaven? He is doing what the Levitical high priest merely prefigured: he is presenting the efficacy of his redemptive work upon the cross in heaven. He is not bringing into the true Holy Place the blood of goats and calves – he is bringing in his own blood (cf. 9:11- 14). This is the picture which we get in a very symbolic fashion in Rev. 5:6: “And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.” How does our Lord present himself in heaven? He does so as the “Lamb as it had been slain.”

This is all in contrast with the Mosaic institution of the priesthood in two very important ways. Their priesthood was merely an earthly priesthood: “Now if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law” (4). And their priesthood was merely a figurative priesthood: “Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount” (5). Jesus, on the other hand, ministers in heaven as the true priest offering the true sacrifice in the true sanctuary.

All this assumes that heaven is the ultimate destination of the people of God. As our author will go on to say, “For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (9:24). Our Lord appears in the presence of God – in the true, heavenly sanctuary – for us, not only as our advocate but as our forerunner (6:20). Jesus is the perfect high priest because he is actually able to bring us into the very presence of God reconciled. We can now appear before him as our heavenly Father. This is something the Aaronic priesthood was never able to actually accomplish.

In other words, the reason why our Lord’s heavenly priesthood is so important and meaningful is because heaven is our ultimate destination. If this were not so, if in this life only we have hope in Christ, then we are, as Paul put it, of all men most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). Of course we must not think of heaven merely in terms of golden streets and pearly gates. Heaven is heaven because heaven is the place where God most fully reveals his presence to bless. Heaven is heaven because it is there that we see God’s glory most fully revealed. It is the hope of the Christian that we will see him (Mt. 5:8; Jn. 17:24; 1 Jn. 3:2-3). But where this happens most perfectly and fully is in heaven. This is why we long for heaven and this is why our Lord’s priestly ministry being in heaven is the pinnacle of his saving work. He is in heaven to bring us to heaven and that is our hope: “In my Father’s house,” he told his disciples, “are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (Jn. 14:2-3).

So today I would like us to consider, in light of our Lord’s heavenly ministry, why our hope should be set on heaven. In particular, I would like to give you four reasons why you should set your hopes in heaven. These reasons are the price of heaventhe person of heaven, the perfection of heaven, and the perspective of heaven.

The Price of Heaven

First, you should set your hope on heaven because it took the blood of Christ to give us access to it. We see this in the text, because our Lord continues to function as a priest in heaven on our behalf, presenting not the blood of animals but his own blood (2-3). This shows that it is his blood that gives his people access into heaven and the presence of God.

One way to gauge the value of something is to ask how much money was spent to purchase it. Though this is not of course a universally valid way to determine the value of something, generally the more valuable something is, the more money it is worth. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that introduction into heaven and into the presence of God’s eternal favor and blessing is something which is infinitely valuable, for it took the blood of Christ to give us access to this grace. As the apostle Peter put it, the gift of God cannot be purchased with money (Acts 8:20). In fact, he will say this in one of his epistles: “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). The value of the blood of Christ is such that all the gold and silver in this world is a “corruptible thing” – a perishable thing – in comparison.

On the other hand, it is a serious thing to discount the value of the blood of Christ. To count his death and sacrifice as nothing, to tread him under foot and to count the blood of the covenant an unholy thing brings down the fiercest wrath and judgment of God (cf. Heb. 6:6; 10:29). God counts it as supremely valuable, and if he does, then of course so should we.

But why is the blood of Christ so valuable? The answer of the Bible is that it is the blood of the Son of God. In fact, Paul will put it this way to the Ephesian elders: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The Son of God, the God-man, is the one who hung on the cross. But he is not just another man. The blood shed was of course real, human blood. In that sense, it was no different from yours or mine. Jesus was fully human. But he was also fully God, and the two natures, human and divine, are perfectly united in the one person of Jesus Christ. So, in that sense it is right to say that God purchased the church with his own blood. And what or who can be more valuable than God? God is the basis of all reality – the Creator of the universe. He alone is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. He alone is self-existent. Everything else is a shadow in comparison with God. In fact, I would say that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that has intrinsic value, except for God. Whatever value anything has, it has in reference to and in connection with God. It follows that the blood of Christ is infinitely valuable, being as it is the blood of one who is himself infinitely and incomparably valuable.

But the blood of Christ is not only valuable because of its intrinsic worth, but also because of the way it was given. Jesus did not give his blood in a blood drive. He shed it on a cross. He was crucified and his body was tortured, and his soul weighed down with the weight of our sins. “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:28). He endured unutterable agony for the sake of sinners. We will sometimes speak of the cost of freedom, and when we do so everyone understands that we are talking about the men and women who have given their lives for this country. But what of the cost of redemption? It took the death of Christ. His blood was shed, drained out of his body, in the most humiliating and devastating way that the art of human malice and evil could devise. This is what it takes for sinners to enter heaven. My friend, heaven must therefore be a place of indescribable worth.

Let me put it one more way. A fool may spend a lot of money on frivolous things. As they say, a fool and his money are soon parted. But a wise man, because he is a wise man, spends his money on things that have real worth. God is infinitely wise. The fact that the Son of God spends his own precious blood so that redeemed men and women can spend eternity with him in heaven indicates that this is something which is truly priceless, and something in which we should therefore invest our deepest hopes.

The Person of Heaven

Second, you should set your hopes on heaven because it is there that our Lord Jesus is physically present. Christ did not ascend into an airy nothing, into an ethereal mist of ghosts and shadows. No, he physically ascended into heaven, which tells me that heaven is a place. It is not merely a state of mind. It is a place in which our Lord is present, and which will come down to earth when God creates new heavens and a new earth. It is the place where our spirits will dwell before the final resurrection and the place where we will dwell in renewed bodies and souls after the resurrection.

Again, we see this in our text. For Christ is in heaven as our high priest, to bring us into heaven. This is our hope: “which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20). He is in heaven, and he is in heaven to bring us to heaven.

But the point I want to primarily make here is that heaven is heaven because Christ is there. And those who have been redeemed love Jesus and want to be with him. As the apostle Paul put it, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” – why? Because “I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:21, 23). Those who live for Christ will find death to be gain because they will spend eternity with the one they love above all things. To be with Christ is far better than any other thing. It doesn’t matter what earth can give; it can give nothing like the enjoyment of the immediate presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is what our Lord himself prays for: “Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovest me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24). To see the glory of Christ must be something which will eternally satisfy us in ways that nothing else can. For consider this: everything else, like the moon, has a borrowed glory. But from what does everything else get its glory? From Christ. He is the creator of all things. The Grand Canyon is glorious because Christ is glorious. So with everything else. Jonathan Edwards once said that just as the flowers and the trees and the grass receive their glory from the sun, even so heaven receives its glory from the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Isn’t this what the apostle John himself saw? “And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof” (Rev. 21:22-23). Heaven is heaven because Christ is there. What Christ told the thief on the cross is the very best news: “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43). Heaven is paradise because we are with him.

Now I know that we have Christ’s presence now (cf. Mt. 28:20), and that is a glorious reality. The Holy Spirit mediates the presence of the risen Christ for the church. But we do not now have his presence most fully to bless. God in his wisdom and goodness has chosen for the present to give us a foretaste, “the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14). But we have to await the fullness for the future. Though we enjoy “the firstfruits of the Spirit” yet we now “groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). We are grateful for “joy unspeakable and full of glory” yet for now we await yet greater joy and glory (1 Pet. 1:8). And that happens when we are with Christ in heaven. Therefore, let us long for and look toward heaven where we will be with Christ.

The Perfection of Heaven

Third, we should put our hopes in heaven because it is in heaven where we shall be made perfect. What our Lord as our high priest purchased by his blood was not just the forgiveness of sins but also freedom from the power of sin and eventually freedom from the very presence of sin. We have freedom from the penalty and power of sin now. But we still wait for the time when we will be free from the presence of sin. That happens in heaven, for heaven is described as the place where “the spirits of just men made perfect” dwell (Heb. 12:23).

If sin is ultimately the cause of all our sorrows and pain and grief, then to be free from the very presence of sin must be a state characterized by unceasing joy and peace and love and contentment. When you are sick, you look forward to a time when you will be well. The more sick you are the more you long for freedom from whatever disease it is that plagues you. How much more should we then long for heaven and for the time when we will no longer have to fight with ourselves? When we will no longer be betrayed by our own hearts and desires? When we will no longer have to worry about the temptation to sin?

Not only so, but we also long for heaven as the place where we will spend eternity, not only in sin-free souls, but also in redeemed bodies. To be glorified in the Biblical sense of the word is to have a sinless soul inhabiting a resurrected body. Presently, our bodies are decaying. They are defined by corruption. And yet that is not the final word, is it? “Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must be on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:51-57). How could we not long for this?

The Perspective of Heaven

Fourth, we should put our hopes in heaven because it is by keeping this eternal perspective that we are enabled to grow in grace and holiness and fruitfulness. Do you want to be Biblically motivated to pursue holiness and more Christlikeness? Then look to heaven. We read earlier from 1 Cor. 15, ending in verse 57, about the resurrection. The next verse says this: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). The apostles do not motivate us primarily by earthly blessings. They motivate us primarily by an anticipation of the age to come. Thus Paul says in his next letter to the Corinthians: “For which cause we faint not” – well, how do you do that, Paul? He answers: “but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look, not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

In the same way the apostle John writes, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3). What kind of hope purifies a believer? It is the hope that we shall one day be like Christ and be with him in heaven.

This is the apostle Peter’s point as well in 1 Pet. 1:3, ff. He speaks of their heavenly inheritance (4), and then reminds them that it is as they rejoice in this reality that they are enabled to endure through these refining trials (6-7). Then notice what he says in verses 13-16: “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: but as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.” Again, it is important that we see the tight connection there is between the call to holiness and the call to hope to the end for grace which is to be brought to us at the coming of Christ.

Why this connection? I think it is for this reason: you become what you hope in. If your hopes are in earthly riches, you will become a greedy and covetous person. If your hopes are in human praise, then you will become a people-pleaser and a manipulator. If your hopes are in earthly comforts, then you are going to become the kind of person who makes decisions based on what you think will maximize your earthly comforts. But the problem is that you cannot be holy if you are that kind of person. On the other hand, if your hope is in being with Christ and seeing his glory, if your hope is in heaven where you will be made perfectly holy, then that perspective is going to have to affect the way we live now and the priorities we choose for ourselves. The reality is that it is the most heavenly minded that are the most earthly good.

One last thing: how can we know that heaven-focused hopes will not be in vain? They are not in vain because Christ rose from the dead so that all who trust in him will one day rise from the dead, not to be condemned but to enter into the joy of the Lord. We began this morning with John 14, where our Lord told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them in heaven and then come back for them so that where he was, they would be also. He then told them, “And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.” Thomas, however, wasn’t sure, and asked him: “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” To which our Lord answered: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:4-6). Jesus is the way to heaven, the surety that we will fully inherit the new covenant blessings in a new heaven and a new earth. It reminds me of what our Lord said to Martha after her brother Lazarus had died. “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (Jn. 11:25-26). Indeed, do you believe this? Believe it, for it is true, and in trusting in Christ you will find him to be the very door to Paradise.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Jesus: Our Only High Priest (Heb. 7:20-28)

What is all this to-do about priests and priesthoods in the book of Hebrews? It sounds so unmodern. Or perhaps it even sounds like a foreign religion. Maybe to some of our ears it sounds Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox. However, the reality is that the message of the New Testament and the message of the Christian church and the gospel is incomprehensible apart from the realities behind and around priests and their responsibilities and functions. And so if we really want to appreciate the message of our text we need to remind ourselves what a priest is and why we need them.

A priest is a fundamentally a person who stands as a mediator between men and God. If we think in terms of the Old Testament priesthood, a priest was someone who took an offering, a sacrifice, and offered it to God for you, so that God would accept it from your hands. There were many reasons an Israelite would offer a sacrifice: there were sacrifices of thanksgiving, sacrifices of consecration to God (burnt offering). And then there were offerings that were explicitly sin and trespass offerings. But the reality is that every offering, no matter what the reason for it, was an acknowledgement of sin. This is what our author says, for example, in Heb. 10:3. Every time you offered an animal sacrifice, you put your hand on the animal as the priest killed it and offered it to God (see Lev. 1:4; 3:2, 8,13; 4:4, etc.). Why would they do that? They did that because it was an acknowledgement that this animal was dying in their place, and that was an acknowledgement of their sinfulness, that this animal’s death was happening because sin has to be purged by death. The wages of sin, as the apostle Paul puts it in Romans, is death, and the debt of sin must be paid (Rom. 6:23).

Nevertheless, why would people think they needed a priest and needed to offer blood sacrifices? The reality is that blood sacrifices were part and parcel of the ancient world, whether inside or outside of Israel. Animals were slaughtered by the thousands for religious purposes in the ancient world. The meat in the meat markets were often left-overs from religious ceremonies in pagan temples – it was this in fact that led to some difficulties for early Christians who weren’t sure whether or not they should eat such meat. But why would people think they needed to do all that?

The main reason people offered sacrifices is that they believed that God (or the gods) needed to be appeased and the way they appeased God (or the gods) were through blood sacrifices. But ancient people didn’t generally offer these sacrifices themselves directly to God, they did so through priests. This is because people who lived in the ancient world understood something that modern man has somehow forgotten: that there is a gulf that separates man from God. This distance that separates us from God is not a distance created by God being unknowable but it is a distance created by God being holy and unapproachable.

In other words, especially in light of the Biblical teaching, the reason for priests is sin. And sin is a problem because God is holy. God is holy and God is just; he cannot fellowship with sin and he must and will punish sin and the sinner. As the prophet Isaiah put it, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2).

The fundamental property of sin is that it is against God. Sin is rebellion against the Creator. It is refusing to bow the knee and acknowledge his rights over us. It is a refusal to obey the One to whom we owe our obedience. It is trying to define reality on our own instead of conforming ourselves to the reality that God has created. Like saying that a man can be a woman or a woman can be a man. Or saying that we get to decide when a human being gets the right to live. Or saying that if something feels good to us, then for that reason it must be good. But all this is sin and rebellion against God’s rightful sovereignty over us. God will have none of it.

But such is the blindness and treachery of our willful rebellion against God that instead of owning up to and admitting our guilt and sin, we ignore it or cover it up. Worse still, we turn the tables and try to blame God. It is a fool’s errand.

Our culture sees no need for a priesthood and priests because we want the wrong person to be justified. What I mean is this: we are so consumed with the “problem” of evil and suffering, and the injustice of it all, that we have missed the greatest problem of all, our own sin. We spend our days either condemning or denying God on account of “injustices” that we no longer see our own condemnation and the infinitely heinous injustice we have perpetrated against God in our sin. We think God needs to be justified. We have forgotten that we are the ones who need to be justified.

Further, God does not need to justify his ways to us. Why does he allow so much suffering? Why did he allow sin to come into the world in the first place? Of course, many will say that God must be either unloving or not sovereign. God's own word tells a different story, of course, that leaves us with perplexing questions: how can such a good and holy and omnipotent God rule over so much chaos and criminality? God's word denies that he is unloving or unholy or unable. He could have kept the world in sinless perfection if he had wanted to. But he does not tell all us the whys or hows. And he does not have to. Because he is God, and you are not.

But whereas God does not have to answer to you or me, we have to answer to him. And the fact is, we are traitors. We owe God everything, and we have taken his good gifts and turned them into idols. We have not been thankful. We have not been good. Our minds and thoughts and affections have been very much anti-God. Why should he have to answer to us? We must answer to him. And we are sinners, naked before the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

God does not need to be justified. You do. How will you appear before God? With arguments and accusations? I dare say, all your accusations will appear criminal in themselves when you are finally confronted with the holiness of God. Until we drop our frivolous case against God and realize that we already stand justly condemned in the court of the Sovereign of the universe, we will never truly understand or appreciate the gospel. We need to stop trying to get God to justify himself, and face the reality that you need to be justified by God.

It is when we understand this that we will see the need for a mediator. Whether or not we put it in priestly language does not matter. We will see that we cannot justify ourselves, and therefore we cannot approach God on our own. We need someone to interpose for us. We need a priest.

And this is what the gospel is fundamentally about. It is the good news that we can approach God, that we can in hope draw near to God, that we can be at peace with God, because Jesus Christ came to be our high priest. The gospel says this: it is the good news that God has come into the world, not to be justified, but to justify. He has come to make sinners right with himself. And the way he has done that is through his own Son, Jesus Christ, who took our sin on himself and paid the debt in our place. He became simultaneously the priest and the offering. He was everything the OT priesthood pointed toward. And when a sinner places his or her faith in the Son, God's word says that they are justified. And that is what every single human being on earth needs right now.

The best news in the world is that Jesus Christ is a high priest. However, in light of the thousands of priests that have existed in the history of the world, why Jesus Christ? Why is he not only a superior priest, but also the only priest that we need? This is the issue our text addresses. In particular, it gives us three reasons why you should look to Jesus Christ and to Christ alone as your priest before God. These three reasons can be briefly summarized in the words promise, perpetuity, and purity. These three realities in turn are tied to three acts of God in history: revelation, resurrection, and incarnation.

Promise anchored in Revelation (20-22)

The first reason you should embrace Jesus Christ as your priest before God and no one else is because of the promise of God ordaining him as such. I am using the word “promise” but the actual word used in the text is “oath.” However, the two words are related: an oath, after all, is by definition simply a solemn promise. What raises Jesus Christ above all other priests is that he was made a priest by God the Father with a promise-oath, which distinguishes him not only from the Levitical priests but from every other kind of priest as well. This is the argument of verses 20-22: “And inasmuch as not without an oath he was made priest: (for those [Levitical] priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord swore [an oath] and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek:) by so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament.”

We noted in our message on the last part of chapter 6 that God really doesn’t need to give oaths. We give oaths in solemn venues, like a court-case, because men are basically liars. We can’t be trusted to tell the truth. So we are put under oath in order to put some kind of external pressure on us to tell the truth. But God always tells the truth. He doesn’t need any arm-twisting to speak the truth. Nor does he ever go back on his word or fail to keep his promises. Hence, the reason for the oath is not for his but for our sake. God gives these promise-oaths in order to help us understand just how committed he is to doing what he has said he will do.

Thus, by this oath our Lord becomes the “surety” or “guarantor” of a better covenant (the Greek word is diatheke which can mean both “testament” or “covenant”). Jesus is the personal guarantee that God will bring about the promises of the covenant through his priesthood because God has appointed him as priest by an oath.

We will look at this in more detail in the next chapter, but the reference here to the “better testament” is the new covenant foretold by the prophet Jeremiah in the 31st chapter of his prophesy. The fundamental promise of that covenant is, “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people” (Heb. 8:10). In other words, the covenant is all about God bringing sinners into a saving relationship with him. The fact that Jesus is the surety of the covenant means that he is the one whom God has appointed to satisfy the conditions upon which this amazing promise becomes a reality. And the way he satisfies those conditions is through his office as a priest – in other words, by his atoning death on the cross.

So why should we approach God through faith in Christ? And why should we eschew any other way of relating to God? We should do so because God made him alone to be our high priest and he did so with an oath. In doing so, he abrogated the Levitical priesthood by the priesthood of Christ. And any other priest is just a phony.

But how do we know that God did this? We know it because God has revealed it to us in Scripture. Remember, where is this “said”? It is said in the book of Psalms, in Psalm 110. It is said and written in the Bible. I’m not now making an argument for the authority of Scripture. I’m assuming it. Right now, I’m speaking to folks who agree that the Old and New Testaments are God’s inspired and inerrant word to men. We believe that what God speaks in the Bible is true. And what he has said there is that there is one and only high priest through whom we can approach God and relate to God, and that is Jesus Christ. God the Father put his own Son in that office and no one else. The Bible is not about what we do to make ourselves worthy of God. It is about what God has done in Jesus Christ to make us worthy before God by his own perfect and saving righteousness.

If someone claims to be someone who can represent me before a judge in a court of law, I want to know that that person is properly qualified. I might want to peek at his or her law degree, for example. I might want to know that they are a licensed attorney. It is infinitely more important to know that someone who claims to be able to represent me before God is qualified. There are so many charlatans out there, false Christs. But Jesus is the Christ and he is absolutely qualified – precisely because the Judge of all the earth, God the Father himself, made him so, and has made it known to us in Scripture. Look to Jesus and look no further!

Perpetuity revealed by Resurrection (23-25)

This is one the big points of this chapter: according to Psalm 110, our Lord is not only a high priest ordained by God with an oath, but he is so forever. “And they [that is, the Levitical priests] truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: but this man, because he continueth forever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (23-25).

Now it’s not that Jesus didn’t die! He did die, and in that way he is like these other priests. By the way, Islam, which claims to believe that Jesus was a prophet and even the Christ refuses to believe that he died. They reject this about him, and they do so because they don’t believe that he is the Son of God who came to earth to atone for the sins of his people. But he did die and was buried in a tomb. There is no way the Romans would have had him taken down from the cross if he had merely looked dead or had fainted. Remember that one of the soldiers put his spear through the side of Christ to make sure that he was dead. Make no mistake: Jesus died.

However, the difference between our Lord and the Aaronic priests (and every other priest as well) is that he rose from the dead, never the die again. Here we have another evidence that his atoning work, his sacrifice, was accepted by God. If he had not been successful in bearing and purging the sins of men, he would never have arisen and ascended to heaven to be seated at God’s right hand. But he did rise and he did ascend and he is seated at God’s right hand!

The great significance of this is underlined in verse 25. Because Christ is an everlasting priest with an unchanging priesthood, that means that “he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” I take this to mean that the perpetual priesthood of Christ is a guarantee that those who trust in him [“come unto God by him”] will never be lost. This is because he not only died for them and put away their sins forever in one sacrifice, but also continues to intercede for them and to present before the Father the eternal efficacy of his finished work.

To see how this works, consider what our Lord told the apostle Peter. Peter, our Lord knew, was about to deny him and Satan was behind it. The devil was going about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour this apostle. But he would not be successful. Why? Because Jesus was praying and interceding for him. “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Lk. 22:31-32). In other words, the fact that Peter didn’t finally fall away is due ultimately, not to Peter’s own resilience, but to the intercession of Christ for him. It follows that if the Savior who intercedes for his people never dies and ever lives to make intercession for them, they cannot fall finally away. (It also follows, by the way, that to deny the final perseverance of the saints is to derogate the work of Christ for them.)

There is a great illustration of this in The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. While in the Interpreter’s house, Christian is shown a fire in a fireplace, and in front of the fire was a man throwing water on it, trying to put it out. However, the funny thing was that the fire, instead of being quenched, burned “higher and hotter.” Then the Interpreter took Christian around to the back, and there was a man pouring oil on the fire. The interpretation was this: the fire represented the grace of God in the heart of man. The devil was the man trying to put the fire out. Why then did it burn higher and hotter? Because Christ is on the other side pouring oil on the fire, even though he did so behind the fireplace unseen – representing the fact that often we know not where the grace comes from that keeps our hearts in tune. But he is there, praying for us and working in us by his Spirit and word. He not only saves those who come unto God by him, he saves them to the uttermost. He saves us from every sin and he keeps us saved – to the uttermost!

This is the reason why Paul exults in the intercession of Christ for his elect as the crowning glory of his redemptive work: “What shall we say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? How shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us?” (Rom. 8:31-34). It is a reason we should exult too.

Why should you come to God by Jesus Christ and by Christ alone? It is because he is the only one who stands between men and God in an unchangeable priesthood. He ever lives to make intercession for them. And therefore he is able to save us with an eternal salvation.

Purity exercised through Incarnation (26-28)

Finally, the sinless purity of our Lord is highlighted in these verses. You know, the thing about the ancient gods is that so often they were just like the people who were supposed to worship them (if not worse!). But not so our Lord. He is very much unlike us in this way, and you see this partly in the reactions of people to Jesus in the gospels. Often their reaction is one of fear, because we fear that which is not like us. However, like the lion Aslan in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, our Lord is not tame by human standards, but he is good. And in that lies his supreme fitness to be our Savior.

This is the point of verses 26-28: “For such an high priest became us” – let’s stop here for a moment. The language here does not mean that Jesus became us in the sense of becoming human. He did so, of course, a point that is made at length in chapter 2. The meaning here is that it was fitting for Jesus to be our high priest. In other words, he is the perfect high priest for us. Now the question is, how does the author make the case that he is the best and most fitting priest of us sinners?

Let’s read the rest of the passage. Our Lord is the best and most fitting priest for us because he is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for their own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself. For the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated forevermore” (26-28).

The obvious emphasis in these verses is on the purity of our Lord. He is separate from sinners, not in the sense that he has nothing to do with them for he is the friend of sinners, but because he is “holy, harmless, undefiled.” He doesn’t need to make an offering for his sin because he never sinned. He was made sin for us who knew no sin that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21). It was because he knew no sin that he was able to be made sin for us – not by being made sinful but by becoming our substitute before God, our sin offering, and bearing the punishment due to our sin. This makes him very different from the Levitical priesthood – and every other type of priest in any religion – for they are characterized by “infirmity” (28), which, as we’ve noted before, is not just physical infirmity but also moral infirmity and weakness. Not so Jesus.

Of course he did this as a true man. “The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ who being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was and continues to be God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism). He broke the law but he was born under the law so that he could keep it in our place. And he did so perfectly. And having fulfilled the law in its demands for obedience he was then able to fulfill the law in its demands for justice. As such he is our perfect high priest.

So what should we do? How should we respond to this? In verse 19, we are told that Jesus Christ brings a better hope by which we draw near to God. In verse 25, we are told that he saves to the uttermost those who come unto God by him. How do we draw near to God? How do we come to God? We do so by Jesus Christ and by Christ alone. There is no other way, yes. But this is not bad news; this is the best news. God did not have to provide a way back to him. But he has. It is not the way that so many religions dictate – by becoming a better person – rather, we come to God through Jesus Christ who as our high priest is the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:4). And so we sing, as we do in the hymn,

Come ye sinners, poor and needy, 
Weak and wounded, sick and sore, 
Jesus ready stands to save you, 
Full of pity, love, and power.
I will arise and go to Jesus
He will embrace me in his arms 
In the arms of my dear Savior 
Oh, there are ten thousand charms!

Sunday, January 16, 2022

A New Priesthood (Hebrews 7:11-19)

There are two things happening in the verses of our text. First, in verses 11-17, we are given three pieces of evidence that the Levitical priesthood (and thus the law of Moses) has been exchanged for a new priesthood. The reasons are, because of (1) the time in which the order of Melchizedek is reestablished (ver. 11-12), (2) the tribe from which the order of Melchizedek comes (ver. 12-14), and (3) the type of priest which describes the order of Melchizedek (ver. 15-17).

The second thing that is given here is the reason why the priesthood is being changed (ver. 18-19). The fundamental reason, as we shall see, is that the law made nothing perfect. This argument actually bookends the text in verses 11 and 19 and so constitutes the main and fundamental idea in this paragraph.

But then we need to step back and ask ourselves why this is relevant for the twenty-first century person. Why should anyone care about some arcane argument about orders of priesthood and why one is passing away and giving place to another? Why should we care about the passing away of the Mosaic institution of the Aaronic priesthood? It doesn’t seem to be important or relevant – maybe what is more important are issues like social justice and poverty and drug abuse and so on. Why don’t we deal with that instead? Aren’t we wasting time here? Well, obviously, I don’t think we are wasting time in considering the argument of this text, and I want to show you why it is not only of interest to theologians but vitally important for everyone in this room.

Evidence the priesthood is being changed.

First of all, let’s consider the argument of the text. What is the author saying here? He has just been telling us what sort of person Melchizedek was, and how he differed from the Levitical priesthood (1-10). He is now going to work out the implications of the Biblical text, especially that of Psalm 110:4. The main, overarching theme here is that the priesthood of Aaron is being replaced by the order of Melchizedek. We have statements like that in verse 12, “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.” Or that in verse 18, “For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof.” In both of these passages, the point is that the Levitical priesthood and the laws in the Mosaic covenant that established it are being changed and replaced by a different priestly order, namely, the order of Melchizedek.

That is a huge thing. For the Law of Moses was sacrosanct to the Jew. This was the word of God spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai. There was no doubt about that to these folks. So if the law of Moses is being changed in any sense, you better have some good pieces of evidence for this. Our author has some, three in fact.

Evidence 1: the time in which the order of Melchizedek is reestablished (11-12)

The first piece of evidence is that, according to Psalm 110:4, which was written hundreds of years after the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, there would arise a new priest, a Messianic priest, after the order of Melchizedek: “If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was therefore that another priest should rise after the order of Melchizedek, and not be called after the order of Aaron?” (11). The fact that a different order of priest is predicted to come indicates that the Levitical priesthood was not perfect. For if it were, why would there be any need for a priest from a different order? Why fix something if it isn’t broken?

In verse 12, we note in passing that you cannot change the priesthood without changing the law which establishes it – in this case, the Mosaic Law. This argument is going to be further developed in the next chapter, that the Christian does not relate to God through the Mosaic (or Old) Covenant but through the New Covenant established through the redemption accomplished by Christ.

Evidence 2: the tribe from which the order of Melchizedek comes (13-14).

The next line of evidence that something is changing is that the priest after the order of Melchizedek does not come from the line of Aaron. This is something that has already been said (6), but it is reiterated here: “For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah: of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood” (13-14). Now the point is basically that the order of Melchizedek is just that: it is the order of Melchizedek and not the order of Aaron. The Levitical priesthood depended on one being related to the Levi, and in particular to Aaron. The order of Melchizedek is not related to Aaron in any way. Moreover, the author points out that the Messiah comes from Judah. He is not only referring in verse 14 to prophesies which foretold this fact, but to the historical fact itself. The Messiah, the Lord, had come, and he had arisen from the tribe of Judah. He is the son of David, not the son of Aaron. So his priesthood is a different priesthood and necessitates a change in the law.

Evidence 3: the type of priest which defines the order of Melchizedek (15-17).

The whole Levitical institution was an institution based on “the law of a carnal commandment” (16). The word “carnal” means “made of flesh or human.” In other words, it was a merely human institution in terms of who served as priests, and as such it was defined by the one thing that all humans experience, namely, death. That death is in view here in the word “carnal” [so that it carries with it the idea of mortality] is seen in what it is contrasted with: “the power of an endless life” (16).

In contrast with the Levitical priests who die, the Melchizedekian priest is a priest who is made so “after the power of an endless life.” The reference is to Psalm 110: “For he testfieth, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (17).

When you look at it this way, the contrast between priests who die and a priest who lives forever, it is obvious, “yet far more evident” (15), that the Levitical priesthood must make way for the order of Melchizedek and the ministry of Christ. That which is subjected to death must inevitably be replaced by that which is characterized by an indestructible life.

Very well, so the Levitical priesthood is going to be replaced and changed. There is ample Biblical and historical evidence for that. But now the questions is, why? Why would God replace something he put in place to begin with? And that brings us to our next point.

Why the priesthood is being changed.

As we’ve noted before, the reason for this is stated at the beginning and at the end of this paragraph. In verse 11, the author implies that perfection is not by the Levitical priesthood. In verse 19, he states it outright: “for the law made nothing perfect.”

In verse 18, we see what is meant by this lack of perfection: “For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof.” The law – and the priesthood defined by the law – could make nothing perfect because it was weak and unprofitable (“useless or harmful”).

But why was an institution as divine as the priesthood under the Mosaic Covenant weak and useless? This seems to be a problem – God doesn’t create worthless institutions; it would be blasphemous to say so. So the fact of the matter is that we must never think that the Levitical institution as such was weak or worthless and that it needed replacement like our current tax code with its many problems needs to be replaced. No, the problem is not with the priesthood itself.

The weakness of the law comes from its being used in ways it was not meant to be used. The Levitical priesthood is weak when it is looked to for that which it cannot deliver. A butter knife is good if you use it to cut butter. But try using it to cut down a Redwood and it is weak and unprofitable. The law in terms of the priesthood and the sacrificial system was only meant to be temporary and to point ahead to the coming of Christ who would do what the law could only prefigure. For that it was perfect. But it was never meant to be something which by itself could deliver a person from their sin and guilt. People were not saved under the Old Covenant by keeping the law; they were saved when they looked through the law to the One foretold who would come and take away their sins.

This is a point made throughout the book of Hebrews: the law cannot bring perfection in the sense of our conscience before God. So, in 9:9, we read that in the tabernacle “were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience.” In 10:1-2, “For the law having a shadow of things to come, and not the very image of those things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? Because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins” (see also 10:14-18). The law and the priesthood cannot truly take away the guilt of our sins and therefore cannot provide any real and lasting relief for consciences burdened by sin.

But on the other hand, Christ has decisively dealt with our sin and guilt by taking our guilt and bearing it and purging it by his sacrificial death upon the cross for us. The Son of God who has become for us sinners a priest after the order of Melchizedek brings in for us “a better hope . . . by the which we draw nigh unto God” (19). The priesthood is being changed, not only because the Levitical order is weak but because Christ is a priest according to the power of an indestructible life who can do what the law cannot do (cf. Rom. 8:3).

Now why is this relevant?

Now why should you be interested in this? You should be interested in this because the passing away of the Levitical priesthood means that the reality to which it pointed has come. That reality is Jesus Christ. And he is of ultimate and supreme importance because he is the only one who can bring in this “better hope . . . by the which we draw nigh unto God.”

This is relevant for those of you who feel that any type of spirituality is all a person needs in order to live a life that is pleasing to God. Or that any type of spirituality is evidence of belonging to God and being saved. What the author of Hebrews is saying is that this is just not so. Here were people who were thinking about abandoning the Christian faith – which is the fulfilment of the OT faith – for Judaism without Jesus. Maybe one of things they were thinking is that at least that religion was divinely sanctioned and if they went back to that it must not be all that bad.

But here’s the thing: now that Christ has come, to forsake the reality and go back to the shadows is an act of unbelief and even of rebellion against God. Even abiding by the terms of the Mosaic religion apart from faith in Christ is now an act of disobedience to God because he has abrogated it and annulled because his Son has fulfilled its types. To honor God we must honor his Son and you cannot do that in a Christless Judaism. As the apostle John puts it: “Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: [but] he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:23).

Hence, we must not think that God accepts just any type of spirituality. This is so easily believable here in the West because our culture has programmed us to believe that we get to decide “our truth.” We’ve come to believe that it is impolite to say that another person’s religion is wrong or false. But here’s the thing: even the claim that “because truth is relative therefore all religions are relative and are different ways of relating to God” is itself a claim that poses as absolute truth.

It’s like the problem of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. In the parable, one blind man holds the elephant by the trunk and says that elephants are like snakes. Another blind man holds the elephant by the ear and says that elephants are like leaves. Another holds it by the leg and says that they are like trees. And so on. The lesson is that all the blind men are saying true things about the elephant and that different religions relate to God the way these blind men relate to the elephant. The problem with this parable is that it requires the person telling it to see the whole elephant. In other words, the parable only makes sense if one knows what an elephant looks like to begin with. In the same way, to say that all religious beliefs have a claim on the truth about God supposes that you know the whole truth about God. If you claim that no one can know what God is really like and that all religions approach God like blind men to an elephant – how do you know this? For you are claiming to know something about God, not in a relative way but in an absolute way. You may argue that any religion which claims to be true to the exclusion of other religions is being arrogant, but how can you escape this arrogance as well? For you too are making a claim that poses as an absolute and exclusive truth claim.

No one can escape making truth claims that are in some measure exclusive. So it does not follow that the exclusive claim that Christ is the only way to God must be false because it is so offensively exclusive. What we should really ask is not whether the Christian religion is making exclusive truth claims, but whether or not there is evidence that they are true.

This is what we ought to be seeking. Not whether a religion – or the lack of one – makes us feel comfortable, but whether or not this religion is true. We shouldn’t therefore judge the quality of a person’s spirituality by their zeal (cf. Rom. 10:1-2) or even by their good works (cf. Galatians). We should judge the quality of a person’s spirituality by whether or not that spirituality actually brings them into a relationship with the true God.

The Christian faith is a faith which is based upon the historical reality that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. When the author of Hebrews says that “it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah” (14) he is referring to historical realities. In other words, the Christian faith is not something that is unfalsifiable. It’s not based on a vision some guy had in secret. It is not based on theories that can’t be tested or proven. If it could be proved that Jesus never rose from the dead then, as the apostle Paul himself put it, our faith would be in vain (1 Cor. 15:13-19). But when you consider the evidence for it – if you don’t assume a worldview (like philosophical materialism) that automatically rules it out – then I believe the evidence for it is overpowering. There is no better explanation than the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead for the facts surrounding the death of Jesus and the empty tomb and the post-mortem appearances of Jesus to the disciples and the courageous boldness of the early church beginning in first-century Judea.

If Jesus rose from the dead – and he did! – then there is no alternative to the Christian religion if you truly want to have a relationship with God. As he himself put it, he is the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through him (Jn. 14:6). And as the text of Hebrews puts it, Jesus brings a “better hope” that enables us to draw near to God.

This is also relevant for those of you who feel that a merely formal Christian faith is enough. What do I mean by “a merely formal Christian faith”? I mean a person whose faith which is nothing more than an intellectual adherence to certain truths of the Bible but whose heart knows nothing of real love to Christ and devotion to him. The apostle Paul speaks of those who have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof (2 Tim. 3:5). This is a person who is all about being orthodox but who doesn’t understand the necessity of a prayer life, who knows how to hate false teachers but who doesn’t know how to love God’s people let alone God himself.

There is a picture of this kind of person in 3 John. There the apostle John writes about a man named Diotrephes. This is what John says of him: “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God” (3 Jn. 9-11). Here was a man who was “evil” and had “not seen God,” and yet who held a prominent position in the church – just where he liked to be! Here was a man who apparently knew how to be orthodox in doctrine but whose life did not reflect that doctrine. That is what we mean by a merely formal Christian faith. It is not a saving faith, but it is a look-alike in the sense that a person can say all the right things without those things ever really getting into the heart and changing the affections of that person.

What does this have to do with our text? Well, the fundamental thing that Jesus Christ does as our high priest is that he brings us near to God (19). Now it is not that no one in under the Old Covenant could draw near to God. But those who did, did so because they were able to see the grace of God in a coming Messiah, the one pointed to in the law and the priesthood. But the law itself reminded people of their distance from God. The very fact that there was a priesthood that had to interpose between people and God and the division of the tabernacle and Temple which kept even the priest out of the immediate presence of God except once a year – all this was there to remind people of the sin that separated them from God and kept them at a distance from him. But all that has been changed in Christ. He tore the curtain between the holiest place and the rest of the Temple and he makes his people a kingdom of priests unto God.

And that is not just a positional reality but a reality that every child of God experiences in some way. So ask yourself: do you draw near to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do you walk with him and before him? Can you say, with the psalmist, “But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, that I may declare all thy works” (Ps. 73:28)? Is it good for you? Or is it a chore for you?

Now I’m not saying that this all comes down to prayer or that this means that a true Christian always finds prayer to be easy. I think it was Martyn Lloyd-Jones who said that prayer is one of the most difficult things a Christian can do. I have found that to be true. But the difficulty should not lie in a lack of desire to do it. If you’re a child of God you should want to be near your Father. There is in fact some inevitability to prayer in the life of a true Christian; John Gill said that prayer is the breath of a regenerate man. Does that ring true with you? Or can you go through your whole day, day after day, with never a thought about God or a desire to please him and to be in his presence? If so, you need to examine yourself, to see whether you are in the faith. For a mere intellectual faith is neither pleasing to God nor saving.

This is also relevant for those of you who feel that your sin and your weakness overwhelm you and that you cannot find your refuge in a holy God. Jesus is the one by whom we can draw near to God. He does not just make it possible; he doesn’t just put us in a position where we can try to make it up to God on our own – no, he himself brings us into the presence of God, not to be our judge but to be our Father. He gives us hope, a better hope. This is not describing just a feeling that a person experiences, or even a powerful spiritual experience. All sorts of people can have those sorts of things and be completely lost. No, my friend, quite apart from your own feelings, whether you feel yourself to be spiritually whole or spiritually inept, Jesus Christ brings those who put their trust in him into the presence of God.

We draw nigh, not by a reliance upon our goodness but by a reliance upon his goodness. In the Bible, coming to God through Christ is a coming by faith in Christ (Jn. 6:35; Heb. 11:6), and this is a faith which does not look to ourselves but which looks away from ourselves. This is a faith which is the hand of the beggar opened toward the grace and mercy of God in Christ. This is a faith which recognizes that God does not justify the godly but the ungodly because there is a righteousness outside of ourselves which satisfies the just claims of God upon us (Rom. 4:5). So let us be like Paul, who said of himself – and may we join him! – that he wanted to “be found in him [that is, in Christ], not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness of God by faith” (Phil. 3:9).

So how should we respond to this text? Let us not respond by saying that this is of no relevance, for it is eternally relevant! Neither let us respond by thinking that we can approach God on our own terms and in our own strength and goodness. No! Let us rather respond with faith in Christ, in his merit and in his mediatorship, in his priesthood and in his promise. For it is through him that we have the inexpressible privilege of drawing near to God as our Father and friend.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Mysterious Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-10)

A few weeks ago, I watched part of a video by a guy who claimed that Jesus was nowhere to be seen in the Old Testament, and that Christians are simply mistaken to think that their religion has any real connection to the faith of Abraham. And there are many who would say that what Christians consider to be prophecies which Jesus fulfilled during his earthly life and ministry all admit of other interpretations, and that Jesus is not in fact pointed to by any OT Scripture.

However, there is a problem with this kind of approach to the connection between our Lord and the Hebrew Scriptures. The problem is that such claims start off by assuming that Jesus is not the Messiah, and if you assume that, of course you are going to be able to come up with alternate ways of reading OT passages that Christians say point to Jesus. An alternative is to look at Jesus himself, his life, and his claims, and especially his death and resurrection. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead and therefore vindicated his claims. What were his claims? He claimed to be the Son of God, the I AM from Exodus 3, the way, the truth, and the life. These are not claims of a mere ordinary man. Moreover, his life as well as his death matched such claims. Someone who gives sight to the blind and raises the dead is no mere ordinary man. This is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

If you start there, and then look back into the Old Testament, you are going to find many, many pointers to our Lord. It is clear that this is the way the apostles worked with their Bibles. They didn’t arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is the Christ by simply reading their Old Testaments and then figuring out that Jesus matched the description of the Messiah. It was mostly the other way round: they first realized they were face to face with the Messiah, and then read the OT in light of that reality.

And it makes sense to look at it this way. For if we suppose that salvation history is being gradually unfolded over time, from less clear to more clear, then it makes sense to read the OT in light of the NT. As it has often been said, “The New (Testament) is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” It is a sound principle of interpretation to read the less clear in light of what is clearer.

At the same, that doesn’t mean that the OT doesn’t help to illuminate the NT in any way. It’s not that the OT is opaque and the NT is transparent. In fact, the OT is crucial in understanding the NT, especially the work of Christ. The entire sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant gives us a vocabulary with which to understand what happened on the cross when Jesus died. In the same way, the person of Melchizedek helps us to understand who Jesus is and why the Levitical priesthood was always meant to be a temporary institution. This is what our author is doing with the mysterious person.

These verses are basically an exposition of Gen. 14:18-20 and Ps. 110:4. Christ is the one being spoken of in Psalm 110, a Psalm that at least in our Lord’s day was generally acknowledged to be about the Messiah (cf. Mt. 22:41-46). In that psalm, which is repeatedly referred to in the epistle to the Hebrews (cf. 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17), we are told that the Messiah is to be a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4). This helps the argument of the epistle in the following way: it shows that the priesthood of the Messiah is not a Levitical priesthood and therefore the coming of the Messiah means the abrogation of the Mosaic Covenant. Furthermore, it shows that Jesus is superior to the Levitical priesthood because his priesthood, like that of Melchizedek, is eternal, whereas theirs was ended by death. To abandon the gospel is therefore to abandon Christ and to revert to an inferior state of affairs.

So what we have here in our text is this back-and-forth mutual illumination of the OT and NT. Since Jesus is the Christ, we now know who is being spoken of in Psalm 110: a case of the NT illuminating the OT. At the same time, the person of Melchizedek helps us to understand some things about the priesthood of Christ, especially as it relates to the priesthood under the Mosaic covenant and the superiority of the priesthood of our Lord in terms of its eternality: a case of the OT illuminating the NT.

However, to see how this works in this passage, we need to understand what is and is not being said about this strange fellow Melchizedek. In other words, we need to understand the first 10 verses of chapter 7. In particular, what we want to do in this message is to answer the following two questions: who is Melchizedek and what is his purpose in the OT Scriptures?

Who is Melchizedek?

There are only four verses in the entire Old Testament written about Melchizedek. There are three verses in Genesis 14 (ver. 18-20), and then there is Psalm 110:4. That’s it. Here are the verses in Genesis, which, as Heb. 7:1 indicates, are telling us about an incident that took place immediately after the slaughter of the kings by Abraham and his makeshift army. These were the kings who had previously defeated the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and had taken Abraham’s nephew Lot captive: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: and blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he [Abraham] gave him [Melchizedek] tithes of all.”

Then there is Psalm 110:4, which reads, “The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The context of the psalm is telling of the one who is David’s Lord as well as David’s Son, to whom God will say, “Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (1).

And that’s it.

However, these few verses still tell us something and in the first three verses of Hebrews 7, our author explains what these OT texts reveal to us about this man. The big picture is that this man is one of the few individuals in the OT who was both a priest and a king. This comes out immediately in verse 1, where he is introduced to us as “Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the most high God.” In sum, he was a monarch, he was a minister, and he was mysterious.

He was a monarch.

First of all, he was a king. To be specific, he was the King of Salem. There has been some dispute about the location of this place, but the fact that in Psalm 76:2 Salem seems to be synonymous with Jerusalem tilts the scales in favor of the city which would later become the seat of the Davidic kingdom. In verse 2, the author goes on to explicate the significance of his role as king: “first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of Peace.” The name Melchizedek itself means “king of righteousness.” Then we are told that “Salem” means peace.

He doesn’t spell it out for us, perhaps because he knows that his audience is well acquainted with the OT identification of the Messiah in these terms. But these are terms that clarify the mission of the Messiah. So the prophet Isaiah writes, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it, with judgment and with justice from henceforth ever forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Isa. 9:6-7). In the same way, the prophet Jeremiah writes also about the Messiah: “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell in safety: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Jer. 23:5-6). What is especially significant about these prophesies is that they tell us that the Messiah would not simply be a king himself characterized by righteousness and peace (though that is true), but the one through whom righteousness and peace would be brought into the world. By bearing these titles, Melchizedek was pointing not so much to himself as to the person and work of Jesus Christ who is King of Kings and Lord of lords.

He was a minister.

He was not only a king, but he was also a minister, not in the sense in which we often use that term today, but in the sense of a priest of the “most high God.” And he was not a pagan priest, but a priest of the true God. It was in this capacity that he gave a blessing to Abraham (1, 6, 7). It was also in this capacity that he received from Abraham the tithe of the spoils of war (2, 4, 6, 8, 9). The author is intent on pointing out that the giving of the blessing and the receiving of the tithe prove that, as great as the patriarch Abraham was, Melchizedek was greater (4, 7). Indeed, we are told to “consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils” (4).

He was mysterious.

So far so good! But there are other things predicated about this man that are a little more puzzling. The fact of the matter is that this guy is just plain mysterious. But our author is going to build on that and make an important point about him. It comes in verse 3: Melchizedek, we are told, was “without mother, without father, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.” At first, this looks like our author is saying that Melchizedek was never born and never died. In fact, in verse 8, we are told “And here men that die receive tithes; but there he receiveth them, of whom it is witnessed that he liveth.” When you add to that the witness of Psalm 110:4, where the point of contact between the Messiah and Melchizedek is in an eternal priesthood, it sure sounds like Melchizedek was never born and never died. In other words, that he was not just a man.

Now the truth of the matter is that throughout history some Biblical interpreters have said just that. Some have identified him with an angelic figure. However, though Melchizedek was in several important ways greater than Abraham, he was just a man. Which means that he had a father and a mother, a beginning and an end on this earth. There is no indication in the text that this was some angelic figure. No, he was a man like Abraham.

Others have tried to say that this was an example of the preincarnate Christ, which is tempting, given the numerous points of contact between the two. However, the problem with this theory is that our author precludes its possibility in verse 3, when he explicitly says that Melchizedek was “make like unto the Son of God.” “Like unto” is very different from “equal to” or “identical with,” which is what we would have to say if he was the preincarnate Christ. But if he wasn’t an angel and he wasn’t a preincarnate Christ, then what is meant by all this language about having no parentage and no end of days and so on?

The key is that the phrase “without descent” really denotes “without priestly genealogy.” There is also evidence in ancient Greek literature that “without father” can mean “father unknown,” and so “without mother” would then mean something similar.1

In other words, the point being made here is not that he literally had no father and mother, but that his father and mother were not recorded in any known genealogical record. Thus, his priesthood did not depend upon some genealogical succession. Now it is noteworthy that in Genesis where genealogical succession is so important (we can trace Abraham’s back to Adam!), nothing is said about Melchizedek. There must have been a reason for this, especially given the fact that we are told that he was a priest of the most high God. In other words, our author is not stretching the canons of Biblical interpretation by putting so much importance on the silence of the text about Melchizedek’s origins. This was a point meant to be made by the text itself.

We should then interpret the statements about his apparent deathlessness in the same way. It is not that Melchizedek never died; it is just that the text never reports that. The only time he appears in the text, he appears as a living man and that is the only way we meet with him in the history of Abraham. In other words, the way he is presented in the text of Scripture, where nothing is said about his parentage and nothing is said about his origin and nothing is said about his demise, all this is meant to make a point. And the point that it is making is that this man was meant to be a type of Christ, who really does have an eternal priesthood.

The mystery of this man thus sets up an important contrast between Melchizedek – and thus the Christ – and the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priesthood depended upon genealogical succession (cf. Ezra 7:1-6). It also ended upon the death of the priest. The Levitical priests don’t carry their office into eternity. So the fact that the Messiah would be like Melchizedek means that his priesthood could never be merely an extension of the Levitical priesthood. It was radically different – different especially in terms of its origin and different in terms of its continuance.

So all this is meant to make two big points. The first big point is that Melchizedek was like Jesus in his priesthood, and the second big point is that he was different from the Levitical priesthood. Putting those two things together, our author will be able to make his main point in the following verses: that the Levitical priesthood is inferior to the priesthood of Jesus. Melchizedek was like Jesus in that his priesthood was a type of Christ’s eternal priesthood. And he is different from the Levitical priesthood in that he does not have a succession-dependent priesthood. He is also like Jesus in that he is greater than Abraham – although of course Jesus is ultimately greater than Melchizedek himself! Which also makes him different than the Levitical priests since being greater than Abraham makes him also greater than Abraham’s descendants.

Now all of this will be unpacked further in the following verses. We simply want to point these things out as we explore what our author has to say about this mysterious person. But this leads us to our next main point.

Melchizedek tells us something very important about the purpose of the Old Testament.

It is sometimes easy to see the OT as a series of disconnected stories about interesting and sometimes very colorful people. But the reality is that all the OT is meant to tell one story. And that story is the story of the redemption of sinful humanity fallen in Adam. It is the story of how God is working out his plan of redemption in history through the family of Abraham in accordance with the promises God made to him. Two things are therefore happening in the OT: first, God is working in history to bring about a Savior, a Savior who will be a descendent of Abraham. Second, God is progressively unfolding his plan of redemption, beginning with the books of Moses and then through the Prophets and the Psalms.

This being the case, the OT is really essentially unified around God’s plan of redemption, which comes to us in its pages in God’s words and works. The purpose of the history it relates and the purpose of its ethical teaching and doctrinal instruction is all meant to bring about faith in the God of Abraham who saves. This history and teaching will continue in the NT in the person and work of Jesus the Son of God, the son of Abraham, and in the teaching of his apostles. This is what the book of Hebrews teaches: the NT is the continuation of the message of the OT (Heb. 1:1). Which means that ultimately the whole Bible, OT and NT, is about the person and work of Christ.

We see this illustrated in the man Melchizedek. His brief appearance in the pages of Scripture is not to satisfy morbid curiosity but to point us to Jesus Christ. His being a king points us to the righteousness- imputing and peace-bringing Savior. His being a priest points us to our Lord’s atoning work on the cross to purge the guilt of our sins and to intercede for us in heaven. Even the mystery behind his origins and his future are meant to point us to the never-ending and eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Now this doesn’t mean that we read the OT allegorically, as if every detail was meant to convey a specific spiritual truth. For example, I’m not meant to read the story of David and Goliath and interpret the five smooth stones in terms of the Five Points of Calvinism! This would be to turn the OT into a nose of wax. But it does mean that we should read the OT in light of its overall purpose – to read it and to interpret it in light of God’s overarching purpose of redemption in Christ. Thus the history of the OT shows us the faithfulness of God in keeping his promises, promises which all ultimately find their yes and amen in Christ. The teaching of the OT is meant to point us to the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man so that we will see our need of a Savior.

So the story of Melchizedek shows us how we should read our OT. It shows us that we should read it with a gospel focus. Which means two things: we read the OT in light of NT realities, and then as we read the OT, we are seeking to understand how a particular text connects to the bigger story of redemption in Christ.

Of course, we can’t do this if we don’t read the OT! I often hear people say that the book of Hebrews is hard. Perhaps one of the reasons we find it difficult is because we spend so little time in Genesis – Malachi. We need to read the stuff before Matthew: remember that this is primarily what the Scriptures were for the early church. When Paul tells Timothy that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable, he was primarily referring to the OT (2 Tim. 3:16-17). What was profitable for Paul should be profitable for you and me!

But it also shows us something else: that even the details of the OT are important! Four verses in the OT provide important and critical information about the person and work of our Lord. Even the silence about Melchizedek’s origins is important! No space is wasted in the OT, indeed, in all the Bible. Beware of scanning over verses that may not seem important. Rather, pray for insight and ask the Lord to help you see the meaning and importance even of those obscure passages in the Bible. For there are no vestigial passages in the Bible.

So what’s the bottom line here? The bottom line is that God is speaking in the Scriptures. That’s what makes all this important. That’s why we are seeking to understand the intricacies of the interpretation of this passage. It’s why we’re interested in the person of Melchizedek; it’s because he is in the Bible and everything in the Bible is important. On the other hand, if God is not speaking in the Bible, then we’re just wasting our time here. Who cares what this author thought about some mysterious character who barely shows up in the OT if it is not the word of God? The whole reason why you should be interested is because whatever God says, it’s important, whether I see it at first or not, whether I see the relevance of it or not, whether I feel the reality of it upon me or not.

There are so many people talking today, so many blogs, so many podcasts, so many messages on social media. And most of it has very little, if any, real value or substance. But the claim of the Bible is that in its words God speaks. He is speaking from the first words of Genesis to the last word of Revelation. He not only spoke it into existence in the past, but the Holy Spirit continues to speak through it today. Which means that this word is worthy of your most serious attention. I fear for those who yawn their way through the Bible, who think it is not important for them. Does that describe you? How much thought have you given to the claims of the Bible upon your life?

When you hear the Bible, you are hearing the word of God to you. You need to understand that. And you need to do something with that (cf. Mt. 7:24-27). Most importantly, you need to understand this word is not here to make you a self-righteous religious person who is a Bible expert; it is meant to tell you about the Son of God, Jesus Christ, so that you will trust in him as your Lord and as the only one who is able to wash away your sins, so that when you stand before God most high on the Day of Judgment you won’t be trying to find a hole to crawl into or a mountain to fall on you, but find him to be for you the Rock of Ages. As the hymn puts it,

While I draw this fleeting breath 
When mine eyes shall close in death 
When I soar to worlds unknown 
See Thee on Thy judgment throne 
Rock of Ages cleft for me
Let me hide myself in Thee.

God is speaking in all of Scripture the sweet and satisfying story of the gospel. It’s in the Garden of Eden when man fell, in the promise of the serpent-crushing seed of the woman. We see it in Noah’s ark. We see it in Melchizedek. We see it in the lamb slain on Passover night. We see it in the reign of David. We see it in the predictions of the prophets and the longings of the psalmists. All the music of the Bible is there for you to hear, and it is gospel music, inviting you to see and savor Jesus Christ. Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed are they that put their trust in him (Ps. 34:8).

William Lane, Hebrews 1-8 [WBC, vol. 47A], (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1991), p. 158.

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