NOTES on Hebrews
7:11-22 (click here for study)
The author of Hebrews has just shown how the Melchizedek priesthood was superior to the Levitical priesthood by explaining that Melchizedek had been greater than Abraham. Abraham had paid tithe to Melchizedek, and Melchizedek had blessed him. The greater always blesses the lesser, says the author in verse 7.
Furthermore, Melchizedek was "without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life." (verse 3)
Now the author shows how Jesus is like Melchizedek. He is the true fulfillment of the Melchizedek priesthood.
Verse 11 begins by asking a question. "If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood," he asks, "(for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come-one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?" (v. 11)
Perhaps we need to ask a more basic question. Why was a priesthood necessary at all?
Why a Priesthood?
From the moment God created Adam and Eve, he warned them that if they disobeyed his command-"Do not eat from the tree!"-they would die. The moment they ate the fruit, death entered humanity. The sentence was unalterable. "The wages of sin is death," says Paul in Romans 6:23.
Sin was more than a naughty act. Sin cut off humanity's intimacy with God. The spiritual part of humanity died when Adam and Eve ate that fruit. They broke trust with God, and without him they could not live. Humanity had to die.
Rather than lose humanity, however, God introduced his eternal solution to sin. He would come as a human and serve the human death sentence. He could accomplish this singular act because he was God. He alone could serve the sentence in the place of sinners. He had created them, he was responsible for them, and only he could save them.
Until Jesus came, however, God created a nation who would know his plan. Israel would have an elaborate system of sacrifices, rituals, and feasts that would foreshadow the coming Savior. It was God's intention that there would be people on the earth who knew he was holy and who knew he intended for humanity to be holy also.
While they waited for their Savior to come, Israel was to experience the horror of death that their sin caused. They had to bring their animals to the temple of God to be sacrificed as atonement for their sins. But humanity was cut off from intimacy with God. The people of Israel could not come into God's presence and offer sacrifices to him and beg his forgiveness. They were spiritually dead, and if they entered the presence of God in their condition, even bearing sacrifices, they would immediately die. Spiritually dead people cannot survive the literal presence of God.
To take care of the problem of facing him, God provided a special family to function as priests. These priests would take the sacrifices from the people and present them to God for the sinners. These priests were sanctified for their office. They were not required to work the land, and they had no material inheritance. They were dedicated to serving Israel by mediating between them and God.
Only the high priest, however, could enter the room where the literal presence of God resided. The problem, however, was that the high priest was also a sinner. He couldn't walk into God's presence at his own discretion and survive, either.
Each year he presented the sacrifice of atonement for Israel's sins in the presence of God. But before he could present it, he had to offer a sin offering for himself before entering the Most Holy Place.
The blood of the sacrifices represented the blood of humanity that had to be shed for sins. Humanity lived under a death sentence. But the blood of the sacrifices also represented the blood the Savior would shed to take the place of the death of the race.
"The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood," the author of Hebrews writes in Hebrews 9:22, "and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."
Because the people were separated from God, they could not approach him with their own sacrifices. Further, their sacrifices would not be able to permanently atone for their sins. Israel had to have someone represent them to God. They had to have someone bear the blood of their sacrifices into the presence of the Creator. The high priest's job was to serve as Israel's mediator.
Besides the priests' sinful condition, another problem with this system of priests, sacrifices, and observances, was that animal blood could not replace human blood. The Israelites had to bring sacrifices each time they sinned, and the cleansing of the nation on the Day of Atonement had to happen over and over again. Humans had sinned; human blood had to flow. The animals were a symbolic stand-in for the coming Savior who would die for the sins of the world.
The world needed a new high priest, one who was not a sinner. The world needed a high priest who held his office on the basis of his perfection and God's sovereign choice rather than on the basis of his human lineage. The world also needed a better sacrifice.
A New Order of Priest
Israel had only a shadowy understanding of what their Savior would be like. They knew certain details, but much of the reality of their promised Redeemer and his kingdom was shrouded in mystery.
Unlike the pagan nations which typically had priest/kings ruling over them, Israel had priests and kings which came from separate tribes, and their functions did not overlap. The tribe of Levi served as priests; the tribe of Judah produced kings.
During the reign of David, God gave his first prophecy hinting at the new priesthood the coming Savior would establish. When David conquered Jerusalem in 1000 B.C. and inherited the line of priest/kings descended from ancient Melchizedek in that city, David wrote this Messianic prophecy: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: 'You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.' " (Psalm 110:4)
With the conquest of Jerusalem and the inheritance of the priest/king leadership of its people, David became the first person to represent Christ's revolutionary role. Jesus would come from the tribe of Judah, as David did, and he would be both a priest and a king. Jesus would intercede with God for humanity, and he would also reign as a king over his people.
It's doubtful that Israel understood the full meaning of this prophecy of David's. It was one of God's promises that would only make sense when it was finally fulfilled. When God gives promises, he presents them in such a way that we humans can't try to fulfill them prematurely and deceive others. We also can't know the details in advance; if we could, we would not feel the need to trust God in faith.
Midway between David and Jesus, God gave Zechariah a vision further establishing a new order of priesthood. In Zechariah 6:11-13 God told Zechariah to make a royal crown and to place it on the head of the high priest who just happened to be named Joshua. He was to declare that God called him the Branch, and he would build the temple of the Lord. This incident is the first time the Bible physically links Israel's priesthood with a kingly role.
Change of Priesthood, Change of Law
"For when there is a change in the priesthood," says Hebrews 7:12, "there must also be a change in the law."
The Old Covenant law, according to verse 11, was established on the basis of the Old Covenant priesthood. The law did not determine the priesthood; the priesthood determined the law.
The Old Covenant priesthood came from the tribe of Levi. They were all sinners, spiritually dead and separated from God, just like the rest of the nation of Israel and the world. These priests, who inherited their positions from their fathers, offered animal sacrifices for Israel's sins repeatedly. Sin had no solution. People were bound to sacrificing animals as sin offerings, and there was no hope that these offerings would undo the spiritual death that imprisoned them.
Atonement was never permanent. Because of humanity's spiritual death, God was at arm's length from them. Sin and death claimed them. People had no understanding of intimacy with God; they had no awareness of eternal life. They accepted the promise of a Redeemer as an act of faith.
Because the priesthood which mediated God's forgiveness to Israel was spiritually dead, because they could not offer sacrifices which would truly atone for sins and reconnect Israel to God, because God was external, the law also had to be external.
The Ten Commandments were carved into stone, a permanent reminder of the holiness God expected of his people, and a permanent curse because Israel could not be holy. The stone law continuously accused Israel of its sinfulness. It kept guilt and shame alive. It confronted Israel with its death sentence.
The despair the law bred also brought Israel face to face with the promise: a Redeemer would one day come. Hope was an act of faith.
When Jesus came, everything changed. Almost unrecognized by the people who had kept his promise alive in their law and ceremonies, he was born as a human baby. The mystery was alive in flesh and blood. God the Creator was a human being. He was a man, but he was like no other man. He was the first human to be born spiritually alive. He was not a sinner.
He lived in intimacy with his heavenly father, and everything he did was the will of God. He took the sins of the world onto himself, and as he hung bleeding on the cross, he became a curse for our sakes. His agony was the agony of the whole world's death. His suffering was the separation from God that all of humanity had carried and would carry in the future. He died, not from the floggings or the spear wound in his side; he died from the weight of our spiritual death. Our death killed him.
But he rose from the grave. He came back from the death of sin, and never again can sin define humanity. Jesus destroyed the power of sin by conquering death, and he returned to heaven, alive, glorified, and victorious. He went straight to his father's side, and now he mediates for humanity before God.
Jesus is our new High Priest. The sinful Levitical priesthood is obsolete. Jesus of the tribe of Judah is not a priest because of human inheritance; rather, he is a priest because of his eternal sinlessness and because of God's appointment. He offered himself, the only sacrifice that could atone for sin. Because he is human he fulfilled the requirements of the law that demanded humanity's death. Because he was born spiritually alive, because he is God, he lived the sinless life the law required.
A Better Covenant
Because Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the law, he is the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice. Because he is eternally sinless, because he defeated death, his blood is eternal. His death pays the price forever for our sin. Because he is sinless he entered the literal presence of God and lives. And because he broke the power of our sin, he has sent his Holy Spirit to us to give us spiritual life also.
When we accept Jesus, he gives us his Holy Spirit, and we become spiritually alive and eternally connected to God. His sacrifice and mediation are not symbolic; they are real. They actually do atone for sin, and he presents us to his father as if we were sinless, too. When we accept Jesus, his righteousness becomes ours by his grace.
Because we have a High Priest who has actually accomplished atonement for sin and had made us spiritually alive, the law has had to change. Instead of being external, a perpetual reminder of holiness and sin written in stone, the law is now inside us. Because we are spiritually alive and connected to God forever, the Law lives in us. This new Law is the Holy Spirit, and this Law can actually change us!
We have absolute confidence in Jesus' priesthood because God, who cannot lie, guaranteed it with an oath. God's promise without an oath is absolute. But because oaths were the means of people's guaranteeing their promises to each other, God swore with an oath to guarantee Jesus' Melchizedek priesthood. Because Jesus and the cross would change reality forever, God wanted to be sure that no one could ever doubt them.
Jesus is the guarantee of a New Covenant. Instead of being ruled by the law of sin and death, we now live by the Spirit of God. In Christ we become alive; in Christ sin no longer controls us, even though we live in our still-sinful flesh.
A New Reality
Our new High Priest and the change in the law means a new reality for us. While we are still born dead as all humanity since Adam has been born, we no longer have to live our lives dead. Jesus has taken away the barrier between us and God, and through him we can stand before our Father, perfect in his sight and spiritually alive, one with him.
This new birth is not just a change in understanding or a theological enlightenment. It is real. A person who accepts Jesus and receives the Holy Spirit sees all reality differently. Nothing external changes, but when our spirits pass from death to life, God is no longer at arm's length as he is when we're spiritually dead. He comes to us and lives in us. We begin living life with new understanding and accountability. We begin to live in love.
God as asking us to accept our new High Priest, Jesus. This call from God is not a request for us to accept new facts. It's a call for us to risk being in a living relationship with Christ.
Israel had to live by faith in a coming Redeemer; we are called to let our Redeemer become intimate with us. Jesus asks us to stop analyzing the atonement and let him place it in our hearts instead. He asks us to give up our right to be independent and to allow him to overwhelm us with his grace. He asks us to surrender every accomplishment and personality trait by which we identify ourselves and to allow him to be our new identity.
God calls us to embrace eternity.
When Jesus becomes our only identity, the unrelated, split-off parts of our emotions and our experiences begin to come together. When Jesus brings us to life with his indwelling love, we begin to see that we have pockets of inconsistencies and dishonesty in our hearts. The love of Jesus reveals these things to us, and the life of Jesus heals them. But we have to give up our right to keep them.
Let go of your control over your plans and your entanglements and your shame. Stop trying to live according to an intellectual idea about the New Covenant. Let go of your expectations for your Christian experience.
Jesus stands before you. He is all you need. Your plans, your problems, your shame will all be transformed by the life he holds out to you.
Jesus asks you to love him. And if you allow him to come to you, he will know you, and he will never let you go.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised February 15, 2001.