The High Priesthood: Christ is Sovereign
The ministry of the priest was the focal point of Judaism. He was held in high esteem among the people as the one who represented them before God, made atonement for sin, and instructed them in righteousness. They tenaciously clung to the priest’s ministry as their only hope to be accepted by God.
The people were faced with some perplexing questions concerning Christ’s high priestly ministry. Why was He not called a priest during His earthly ministry? How can He be a legitimate high priest if He is not from the tribe of Levi? Since Christ is not from the Levitical tribe, was His atoning work efficacious on their behalf?
The writer of Hebrews reaches back into the Old Testament and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit presents an obscure truth which had been hidden for two millennia. Christ is High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:6, 10; 6:20) not after Aaron. Melchizedek? Yes, Melchizedek! He becomes one of the most significant types in Scripture to validate Christ s high priestly ministry.
Christ Is A Preeminent High Priest (vv. 1-10)
Much controversy has revolved around Melchizedek. He briefly steps on the stage of biblical history and then vanishes. He is first mentioned in connection with Abraham soon after he delivered Lot, his nephew, from King Chedorlaomer and those with him in the valley of Shaveh (Gen. 14:17). But who is this Melchizedek?
His Priesthood (vv. 1-3)
The writer of Hebrews states that he was “king of Salem, priest of the Most High God … (v. 1). This phrase reveals more than appears on the surface. First, his name means “King [Melchi] of righteousness [zedek]”. Second, he was from “Salem”, later known as Jerusalem, which means “peace”. Third, he was priest of the “Most High God” (Heb. El Elyon), literally “God the Highest”, speaking of the true and living God. His very name, residence and ministry typifies Christ as “King-Priest”. Christ is the “righteous” One (1 Jn. 2:1), who secures “peace” (Eph. 2:14) for all who put their faith in Him. Today our Lord functions as High Priest sitting at the right hand of God (Heb. 8:1). He will not fulfill His kingly role until He comes as King of kings to sit upon the throne of David (Lk. 1:31-33).
Little is known of Melchizedek’s background. The writer simply says that he, “Without father, without mother, without descent [genealogy], having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like unto the Son of God, abideth a priest continually” (v. 3).
Some interpret verse three to be a preincarnate appearance of Christ, similar to when He appeared to Abraham (Gen. 18:1). This cannot be. The text simply says that he is “made like unto the Son of God” (v. 3), and not “the Son of God”. Notice Melchizedek is made like Christ, not Christ like Melchizedek. In the revelation of Melchizedek, God has concealed the particular details surrounding his life. Since his priesthood continues, not having a recorded genealogy, nor beginning and end, he becomes a type of Christ.
His Prominences (vv.. 4-10)
To convince the Hebrew Christian that Melchizedek was of a greater priesthood than Aaron’s, the writer sets forth a twofold contrast. First, Melchizedek was greater than Abraham:
- Abraham, progenitor of the nation Israel, acknowledged Melchizedek’s superiority over him. How? By giving him a tenth of the spoil taken from the five kings he defeated (vv.. 2, 4; cp. Gen.
- Melchizedek was superior to Abraham since he existed before him, being without descent (genealogy) [v. 6] .
- Melchizedek was superior to Abraham in that he had no genealogical connection with Abraham, neither the Levitical priesthood, since Levi sprung from Abraham (v. 10).
- Melchizedek was superior to Abraham in that the lesser was blessed by the greater (v. 7), Abraham, already blessed by God, receiving great promises from Him (Gen. 12:1-3), in turn blessed Melchizedek. This made him greater than Abraham.
Second, the Melchizedekan priesthood was greater than the Aaronic priesthood:;
- Levi, who was a descendant of Abraham, had the right to receive tithes from the other eleven tribes according to the Mosaic law (v. 5).
- All the Levitical priests who received tithes died, but there is no record of Melchizedek’s death. Thus, his priesthood stands as a living and continuing office (v. 8).
- The Levitical priesthood who received tithes, even though unborn, paid tithes to Melchizedek through his great-grandfather Abraham (vv. 9-10), Thus, the lesser (Levi) pays to the greater (Melchizedek).
Here is a beautiful truth showing the greatness of our Lord’s high priesthood. Melchizedek, the king-priest, was superior to the Aaronic priesthood. But with all his greatness, Melchizedek was only a type of the true High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is preeminent over all priests. Thus, Christ is the Priest in whom Hebrew Christians are to find all their needs met.
Christ Is A Perfect High Priest (vv. 11-22)
Not only was Melchizedek’s priesthood superior to the Aaronic priesthood on historical grounds, but it was to replace it for theological reasons. Why? Because the Aaronic priesthood fell short of “perfection” (v. 11). By “perfection” is meant the ability of the Aaronic priesthood to bring the believer into a right (complete) standing before God through the expiation of sins (not that the believer becomes sinless).
Neither was “perfection” to be attained by the law (Mosaic system), for it was inseparably linked to the Aaronic priesthood (for under it the people received the law) [v. 11]. Since the priesthood would be changed, it necessitated a change in the law as well (v. 12). For if the priesthood did not stand, neither would the law which had been given in connection with it.
The law, being “holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12), demanded perfect righteousness which sinful man, functioning in the office of the priesthood, could not provide. Therefore, man’s hope for a perfect standing before God must be brought about by means outside of the Aaronic priesthood and the Mosaic law. Christ is the only one qualified to function as High Priest on behalf of sinful man (Rom. 8:3).
This was a new concept to Hebrew Christians in the first century, which many found difficult to understand and accept. Their faith had been centered in the Aaronic priesthood and the Mosaic law which were the embodiment of Judaism for centuries. Yet, Jesus had stated that the new faith could not be poured into old “wineskins”, nor used as a patch to strengthen their Jewish beliefs (Mk. 2:21-22).
The writer now gives a number of reasons why Christ’s priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek, supersedes the Aaronic priesthood in perfection. First, He is not from the tribe of Levi, but “another tribe” (v. 13). Our Lord “sprang out of Judah”, from David’s seed (Isa. 11 ;1; Mt. 1:1; Acts 2:29-31; Rom. 1:3), which Moses never once spoke of concerning a priesthood (v. 14). How wonderful is the grace of God who planned and predicted this centuries ago!
Second, the Aaronic priesthood was after the “carnal [fleshly] commandment” (v. 16), such as Aaronic descent, offering up of animal sacrifices, and following of priestly regulations stipulated in the law of Moses. But Christ’s priesthood was “after the power of an endless [indissoluble] life” (v. 16). He is the eternal Son of God (Jn. 1:1); Creator and Sustainer of all things (Col. 1:16-17); the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8); who has the power over life (Jn. 10:15-18); and unlike the Aaronlc priesthood, has the power to bestow eternal life (Jn. 1 1:25-26). The indissolubleness of Christ’s priesthood was prophesied long before His birth when David wrote, “Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:17).
Since the Aaronic priesthood is no longer in effect, there is “an annulling of the commandment” (v. 18). But why the annulling of the law? For three reasons:
- The priesthood, being changed, necessitated a change of the law (v. 12).
- The law, although holy, just and good, was weak and unprofitable (v. 18) in that it could never be a source to provide or produce righteousness in man. Paul tells us “. . . the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). The law was added because of sin “till the seed [Christ] should come (Gal. 3:19); limiting man to justification by faith as the only way to be declared righteous before God (Gal. 3:23).
- We are told that “the law made nothing perfect [complete] ” (v. 19), for it could not bring man into a right standing before God. It was only temporary (Gal. 3:19) and a shadow of good things to come (Heb. 10:1). As we have seen, “. . . Christ is the end of the law for righteousness …” (Rom. 10:4).
In fact, the law never did bring man near unto God (v. 19); it kept the individual far from God. Even though the law has been annulled, it did pave the way for a “better hope (v, 19) through the priesthood of Christ, in whom man could be brought into a perfect (right) standing before God.
Third, Christ was ordained to His priesthood by an eternal oath after the order of Melchizedek (vv. 20-21), but the Aaronic priesthood was not. Thus, being made a priest by an oath, Jesus is the “surety” (guarantee) that God will keep His promises made to the believer in the new covenant, which He has inaugurated through His shed blood (v. 22).
Fourth, the Aaronic priesthood was temporary, having to replace its priest because of death (v. 23). In contrast, Christ’s priesthood is “unchangeable”, meaning it was inviolable and untransmittable because He continues to live forever (v. 24). Christ’s priesthood was incapable of being altered, nor passed on to a successor.
Since Christ is an unchangeable high priest, “.. .he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him . . .” (v. 25). The verse is not speaking of God’s ability to save men out of the depths of sin, even though this is true. The word “uttermost” speaks of the comprehensiveness or completeness of our salvation. Christ saves the total man (body, soul, spirit) from the penalty and power of sin, and someday will deliver him from the presence of sin at his glorification.
He is able to provide such a complete salvation because “. . he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (v. 25). The word “intercession” encompasses Christ’s whole ministry on behalf of the believer which is based on the merits of His sacrifice. He is an “ever living” priest who continually intervenes in Heaven before the throne for the needs of each believer.
In type, the Aaronic priesthood did the same for Israel. When the priest entered into the presence of God, he wore the name of each tribe upon the breastplate representing them before Him. But Christ’s priesthood is perfect, far exceeding the intercessory ministry of Aaron’s priesthood.
Christ Is A Pure High Priest (vv. 26-28)
Having described the greatness of Christ’s high priesthood, the writer culminates his argument, almost shouting out, “. ..such an high priest was fitting for us” (v. 26)! Christ is the only High Priest suitable, because of His character, to officiate before God on behalf of sinful man. In simplistic beauty, the writer pulls together the salient features which he has presented and paints a final portrait of Christ’s great priesthood.
A Portrait of His Person (v. 26)
First, He is “holy” . There are two Greek words for holy. One is “hagios”, referring to a person being set apart unto God by virtue of his standing, like the Aaronic priesthood. The other is “hosios” , speaking of holiness of character, an innate purity. It is in this sense that Christ is holy. Second, He is “harmless” (guileless). Christ is free from malice or deceit of any kind. Third, He is “undefiled”, free from any moral impurity. Fourth, He is “separate from sinners”. We know that Christ associated with sinners for He ate and drank with them, but not once did He sin. Fifth, He is “made higher than the heavens”. Christ has entered into the presence of God, being enthroned In the highest place of honor and power. His character makes Him a fitting high priest to meet man’s need!
A Portrait of His Provision (v. 27)
The Aaronic priesthood needed to offer up repeated sacrifices daily because the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin (Heb. 10:4). In contrast, Christ did not have to offer up sacrifice for His own sins for He is sinless. Yet, for the sins of man, He offered Himself “once” (lit. once for all) as a blood sacrifice to expiate sin. His sacrifice makes Him a fitting high priest to meet man’s need!
A Portrait of His Perpetualness (v. 28)
In order to persuade the Hebrew Christian of Christ’s sovereign priesthood, the writer pulls together the threads of all that he has previously stated showing a contrast between the two priesthoods. They were ordained during the time of the law; but Christ’s perfect priesthood is “since the law” (Ps. 110:4) showing He superseded them. They were ordained priests by “the law”; Christ by “the word of the oath”. They had “infirmity” (weakness of the flesh); Christ is perfect. They were only priests in their lifetime; Christ is a priest “for evermore” (Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews, p, 423). Christ’s consecration as High Priest is perfect and permanent in every detail and will continue eternally.
Oh, Christian friend, we shout as well — “Such a high priest we have” — an unchangeable Priest, once for all, having offered Himself as a sacrifice for our sins; a Priest who is able to save to the uttermost, seated at the throne of God making intercession on our behalf; an ever-living Priest whom we will someday see face to face and enjoy throughout eternity. With Peter we exclaim, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68).