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.