Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 26, June 22 to June 28 2008

Hebrews 7:1-25

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning with our study of the Letter to the Hebrews, picking up at verse 1 of chapter 7 and working through to about verse 25 of the same chapter. Those of you who have been with us throughout this series will know that the main purpose behind this very important letter has been to encourage Christians who are having a pretty rough time of it to keep hanging on, and, at the same time, to discourage them from drifting away from the faith and returning to their former beliefs and practices in Judaism.

The writer's approach to achieving that aim has been to systematically show his readers how Jesus Christ is better than anything and everything that they might be tempted to return to with regard to their former beliefs and practices. Most recently, he has devoted his energies to demonstrating how Jesus, in his role as High Priest, was and is superior to any high priest that has come before.

However, after making a couple of preliminary comments on this subject, the writer of Hebrews stops his argument and takes a sudden detour. The complexity of the discussion regarding Christ's priesthood causes him to reflect on his readers' current situation, and especially upon their ability to understand the things he was about to tell them.

He was apparently pretty aware of the circumstances of many of them and as a result, knew that a number of them had become "dull of hearing", i.e., they had become complacent and sluggish and, as a result, had gone backwards, spiritually speaking, and were now struggling to understand basic things about Jesus which ought not to have been a problem for them.

However, far more unsettling than this for the writer of Hebrews was the fact of what this present state of sluggishness might actually mean for some of them. Therefore, he very sternly warns them about the dangers of continuing on the path that they are currently on and one day finding themselves in a place that is beyond hope, with no possibility of returning.

Nevertheless, in spite of the seriousness of his concerns, the writer of Hebrews still feels that most of his readers will not continue in their "dullness," but will faithfully persevere and so moves from words of warning to words of encouragement and hope.

Therefore,, after all of that, the writer is now ready to return from his detour to the matter at hand - further, and more substantial teaching about Christ's priesthood. To be sure, it may be more than some of them can handle in their current state of sluggishness. However, the writer is determined to "leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity." Thus, the author proceeds.

In the verses before us this morning, we will be looking at some of these more substantial teachings. In doing so, we are admittedly taking a pretty large section of scripture that might just as easily have been divided up into some smaller sections. However, in order to preserve some of the overall flow of the writer's argument, and to avoid too much repetition in some of the upcoming sermons, I have decided to stay with a larger section. Before we look any further at these things, let's pray together..............

Now, in addition to the introductory comments just made, it will be helpful for our understanding of these verses if we think about a couple more background issues. Firstly, as we continue to work through Hebrews, you have to keep in mind the situation of the original recipients of this letter, or at least what we can know of that situation through what we have seen.

In particular, you have to remember that these are people who know something about the Old Testament scriptures. These are people who very likely have believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who understood and appreciated the Old Testament system involving the temple and its priests and all of the many sacrifices that were made there. These are people who believed God was sovereign and was working his purposes out.

Indeed, these were people who were not only convinced that God was working his purposes out but who were quite sure, at least up to the point of their conversion, that the centerpiece of what God was doing to bring about His purposes was the Old Testament system of temple and priest and sacrifice. As one commentator puts it:

...Somehow, the ancient Israelites believed, God the creator would work through [this OT system] to bring Israel to perfection [and completion] and thereby bring perfection [and completion] to the wider world. But it didn't happen that way - not least because God didn't intend it to. He had already promised, early on in the process, that there would come a time when the Levitical priesthood would be replaced with a different one altogether. The Levitical priests and their work pointed forward to the eventual "perfection" , but they couldn't by themselves, bring it into reality....They were part of a whole system which, as Hebrews has already argued at length, was designed by God not to be permanent but to point forward to what was to come.....
And so, even though the original recipients of this letter would have moved on from their former beliefs as to the permanence and centrality of the Old Testament system they would still no doubt have felt pretty challenged by some of the sweeping things said in these verses, especially those statements which reflected on the weakness and uselessness of the law, and its being set aside. Now we will have more to say about those things in an upcoming sermon. But for now it is enough to note that some of these things said here in chapter seven would surely have been tough for the original audience to hear, even now.

The other background reality that should help in understanding these verses is the "timeline" - the particular sequence of things which took place over a long period of time and which have a bearing on the issues at hand. The particular "timeline" to which I am referring, goes something like this:

Before time began, God had a plan and purpose for his creation and for the creatures that he made to inhabit it - including the people made in his image. The centrepiece of that plan involved sending his Son to earth to redeem a people for himself and to set in a motion that which would eventually lead to the full restoration and reconciliation of his creation and his creatures after the fall into sin.
Now, as the New Testament tells us, God had a particular time and place within the sequence of his overall plan that he wanted to send His Son (Gal. 4:4). It is that fixture that then serves as a reference point for everything else that God has done, and is doing and will do. And so, even though the sending of His Son did not happen for quite some time after the whole project began, it was still the controlling reality for everything that led up to it, and for everything that followed it.

Accordingly, and with a view to his Son's eventual coming to earth in human flesh, God sets some things in place very early on in the biblical plotline that would prepare the way for and point to that eventual coming. One of those things was an incident involving Abraham whom God had chosen and set apart and blessed and this mysterious person named Melchizedek (the story of whom is found in Genesis 14.)

Following this event, which we will say more about in a moment, the next "timeline" event to note is that after many years, Abraham's descendants have multiplied to the point of becoming a great nation that was, unfortunately in bondage. Thankfully, God delivers them from their bondage to Egypt through his servant Moses, and then proceeds to set them up and establish them as a free and independent nation.

Part of that set up included the inauguration of the Old Testament system of priests and temples and sacrifices. The first High Priest was Aaron, and the Tribe of Levi was set apart by God and was the only family from which all the priests would come.

The next piece of the "timeline" is found in the time of King David, who appeared on the scene many, many years after the Old Testament system of priests and sacrifices had been established. During the time of David's reign, he wrote, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, some of the Psalms that now make up our Bibles. One Psalm in particular, Psalm 110, is especially significant because it is one which is prophetic in that it looks ahead to the person of God's Messiah and, in speaking of this Messiah, describes him as both a king and a priest, and in particular as a priest after the order of Melchizedek. Again, when was this Psalm written? It was written after the Levitical priesthood had been going for hundreds of years. This Psalm, looking forward to the time of the Messiah's coming, speaks of a priest who will NOT come from the Tribe of Levi.

The final piece of the "timeline" is when Jesus shows up on the scene, many, many years later. You know the rest of that story. Therefore, very briefly, here is the sequence that you need to remember and keep in mind:

1) God's plan for creation, before time began, and his intention that his Son would be at the center of that plan.

2) God chooses to set Abraham apart and bless him and his descendants.

3) God sets apart Melchizedek as a priest. He is also a King of "righteousness and peace".

4) Abraham wins an important battle and upon returning honors Melchizedek and pays a tithe/tribute of the spoils of war to him. In return Melchizedek blesses Abraham.

5) Many years later, Israel is a nation, Moses leads them, and the OT system of Levitical priests is established.

6) Many years after that, David, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes Ps 110, speaks of the coming of a priest of a different order - the order of Melchizedek.

7) Jesus arrives, ushering in a change of priesthood, according to a different order than that of Aaron and the Levites, whose time has now passed, and with it, the laws pertaining to that system.

That sequence of events, that timeline, is one that you should keep in mind as we go on now to discuss what I think are a few of the more significant points to consider from this passage. And even though it is a long section and the words are many, and in spite of the long introductory remarks, what remains to be said at this point is actually not as much as you might think.

The first thing I want to say is this: As part of his efforts to show the superiority of Christ's priesthood, the writer of Hebrews is aware that if he is to be successful in demonstrating that he will have to show not only why Jesus priesthood is superior but even more fundamentally how it was even possible in the first place - given the constraints of the Old Testament system. Jesus wasn't a descendant of Levi. He was of the line of Judah. How could someone who was not from the line of Levi even claim to be a priest at all? That is a legitimate question.

The answer that the writer of Hebrews provides is to say that he can do so because he is a priest of a different order. An order that actually preceded the Aaronic priesthood. An order that, because it preceded even the descendants of Abraham, could not be connected to any of the tribes and, as a consequence, whose succession then is not a function of bodily descent, as verse 16 says, but of something else. This is one place where the timeline I gave you is so important. Clearly, long before there was any nation of Israel or any of the twelve tribes or any Levitical priests, there was this one who was a priest of the Most High God who obviously was a priest by some other means and of some other order than the Levitical one.

The second thing I want you to see is that, in addition to showing how Christ's being a legitimate priest was even possible, the writer of Hebrews wants to show that it was more than just possible, it was pre-eminent, it was superior. The way he makes this point is to talk about this incident with Melchizedek and Abraham to which we have already referred.

Now we do not have nearly enough time to explain the whole incident in question, and fortunately, it is not necessary for our purposes this morning. The writer of Hebrews actually provides us with a good summary of what took place in chapter 7, starting at verse 1:

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. 8In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
So way back in the beginnings of the Old Testament, there is this "priest of the Most High God" who appears and meets Abraham after an important battle has been won. This priest is a man who, as the text says, was "without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever." Now, in saying these things, the writer is not meaning to imply that Melchizedek literally had no mother or father or any traceable lineage. The writer is not talking so much about Melchizedek's situation as he is talking about his presentation - i.e., how the Book of Genesis portrays him.

In other words, in a book like Genesis, which has genealogies all over it, and which talks a great deal about who begat whom, and is very concerned to nail down the origins of so many things - in a book like that a figure like Melchizedek really stands out, as much for what is not said about him as anything else. There is no mention of parents or any other family, no word on how he became a priest, who long he continued as one, or when he was born or when he died. It is very much as if he just "appears" - out of nowhere - and then just as quickly, fades away into the fog of history, never to be heard from again. To put it another way, there is a timelessness about his presentation on the pages of Genesis, and this is no accident. It is by design - God's design - as God puts in place, very early on, this figure of whom He will make much more significant use when He Son arrives.

This greater significance is seen here in Hebrews when the writer, looking back and reflecting on Christ, uses the priesthood of Melchizedek to demonstrate the pre-eminence of Christ's priesthood. His argument basically runs like this:

1) It is beyond dispute that when you have one person pronouncing blessing on another person, the person who is pronouncing the blessing is superior to the one receiving it (v7).

2) Melchizedek pronounced a blessing on Abraham, which he gladly received, and thus Melchizedek must have been in some sense superior to Abraham - which is saying a lot since Abraham was the recipient of God's great promises!

3) And if Abraham was inferior to Melchizedek, then Levi, and by implication, the Levitical priesthood was inferior since Levi was "in" Abraham, so to speak, as an eventual descendant of his.

4) So, the Melchizedekian order of priests is superior to the Levitical order of priests.

Having established that point, the writer of Hebrews then makes the connection to Jesus more explicitly (vss. 11-17):
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him, "You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek."
The writer of Hebrews, in making the connection to Jesus, starts out by adding one additional observation that signals the pre-eminence of the Melchizedekian order. His observation is that if the Levitical priesthood was really "all that" or "it and a bit" as the Aussies say, then why would King David have written, many hundreds of years after the Levitical priesthood had been established and operating, that a priest would arise of a different order, indeed, of the order of Melchizedek. If the Levitical priesthood, and all that went with it, was sufficient, then why the need for a priest of a different order?

Following that, the writer makes the observation that when there is a change in priesthood, there is then necessarily a change of law as well. The two go hand in hand. This point then becomes important because according to the former order of priests - and according to the laws associated with that priesthood, only those who are from the tribe of Levi can serve as priests, which would then rule out the possibility for Jesus since he was of the tribe of Judah. However, because the law does change with the change in the priesthood, then that restriction no longer applies.

Even further, as these verses show, Melchizedek's being made a priest by God was not a function of his having descended from anyone, but on some other basis. And so Jesus' having been declared a priest "after the order of Melchizedek" was also not a function of his having descended from a particular person but rather was a function of his having been set apart by God "by the power of an indestructible life" - as v16 says. This clearly seems to be a reference to Christ's resurrection, by which his life was shown to be "indestructible" and through which he performed the greatest act of high priestly service that could ever be performed.

The writer of Hebrews then makes an additional, and important, comment about the changing of the law that took place with the change of the priesthood in verse 18. However, because we will be dealing with that subject in fuller detail in chapter 10, I will refrain from saying anything further about that aspect of it this morning.

So, the writer of Hebrews has tried to very effectively show both the legitimacy and the pre-eminence of Christ's high priestly service, and he has done so by taking his readers to their own Scriptures and getting them to read and think about them much more carefully and deeply.

Having then made the point of the superiority of Christ's his priesthood, the writer, in verse 20 and following, makes a few more comments which also contribute to his argument for the superiority of Christ's priesthood, including: was confirmed with an oath. As we saw last week, the making of oaths, for God, is an accommodation on his part. He voluntarily does this thing. Oath-taking is not really necessary for a perfectly holy and just God to do. But he does it for the sake of giving confidence to his finite, worldly creatures. And so the writer reminds his readers that in David's Psalm 110, which speaks prophetically of the coming Messiah or Lord, God the Father declared his Messiah to be a priest forever, and he did this by means of an oath. He swore. And so the better priesthood of Christ was confirmed with an oath by God himself, whereas those who were among the former priesthood had no such oath taking going on by God. And so, as the writer says in verse 22, "This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant."

....Another factor that sets Jesus' priesthood above that which it superceded is, as we have seen before, just the fact that all of the previous high priests were limited in the amount of time they could serve as priest. As they died, they had to be replaced, over and over and over again. There was continuity, to be sure, but there was also a perpetual discontinuity to the whole thing, a stopping and starting, a going back to the drawing board. Christ, by contrast, will not have this problem as he holds his office forever. The writer of Hebrews, in vs 25, concludes on the basis of this reality that this means Jesus is able to save "to the uttermost" those who draw near to God through him. Why? Because he always lives to make intercession for them. There is never an interruption. And he will see them through, all the way to the end, the very end.

Now there are many, many more things that could be said about these verses - believe me, I know that. But I think that we have hit upon the most important ones and so, as we bring this study to a close, let me just finish out our time by drawing your attention to a few things that I hope will be helpful for you to take away from these verses:

One thing you can take away from these verses is, hopefully, an improvement in your understanding of the biblical story and the biblical plotline. The more you understand how this Bible hangs together - from one end to the other, how one book relates to another, how one theme can be seen worked out across the pages of the various books, etc. - but the more you understand those things, the better off you will be. The writer of Hebrews has tied some important things together for us here and just knowing these things should make a difference for us in our knowledge of God's word, our confidence in reading it, and in our ability to explain it and make use of it in ministering to others.

Another thing you can take away with you is not just a better understanding of the biblical plotline but also a better understanding of at least one very important principle in biblical interpretation, namely this: the Bible is its own best interpreter. You see one of the things going on as we continue studying through the Book of Hebrews is that we are learning how to read our Bibles better.

Because of the Book of Hebrews, we know that when we start reading the Old Testament, and start seeing things about the Temple, and all the sacrifices being made for sin - we know that whatever we conclude about the meaning and significance of those things for us today, the one thing we cannot conclude is that we ought to go out and rebuild the Temple, or start making sacrifices of goats and lambs. Hebrews tells us that something has changed. Something new is going on that has made those things no longer necessary for God's people. In short, Hebrews is telling us how to read our Bibles better, especially the Old Testament scriptures.

Therefore, that is an important principle of biblical interpretation that I want you to take home today. The Bible is its own best interpreter or, to put it another way, the best interpreter of scripture is scripture itself. That means that context means everything in studying the Bible, and it means that when you come to something that is difficult, the very first place you should go, is not to your best friend, or to a commentary, or your pastor, or someone else. Rather, you should go to the other parts of the Bible to see how that helps you to understand. Look at the immediate context. Use the knowledge that you have of other, clearer, truths in Scripture to help you understand what is being said or, at the very least, what is most certainly not being said. Then, after you have done those sorts of things you ought to go and talk with others, or check out a good commentary, etc. But do not do those things right away. Do not cheat yourself out of the opportunity to grow in your ability to understand and apply God's Word.

Following on from all of this is a corollary. Namely this: Try to understand the obscure in light of what which is clear - not the other way around. In other words, when you get to a challenging passage, whatever you do, do not make the mistake of allowing your tentative understanding of the obscure things cause you to deny or contradict other truths that are much more straightforward and obvious.

Do not do what so many others have done - and that is to come up with some quirky, highly specialized interpretation of a difficult passage of Scripture that you can only really cling to by abandoning or ignoring or twisting the clear meaning of other Scriptures that are not difficult at all. Do not interpret the clear in the light of the difficult. Interpret the obscure in the light of the clear.

Finally, and this flows more directly from the passage itself, the thing I do not want you to miss here is the longevity and continuity of Jesus' high priestly ministry. The writer of Hebrews holds this up as something that distinguishes Jesus' high priestly ministry from that of his predecessors:

The former priests were many in number, because there were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
Now that might not, at first glance, seem like such an amazing thing. However, it really is. Moreover, it is easier to see that when you think about the effects of continuity in other areas. For example, have you ever been in a work situation or a working environment where things were just fantastic. Everybody got along well, the teamwork was strong, the support was there, the attitude around the office was terrific. In addition, a big part of what made it all work was the fact that the manager who was looking over the whole thing was a really good manager. Therefore, as long as that manager is there, you enjoy a really good run.

Then the day comes that the manager leaves and uncertainty sets in and you wonder what will happen. You wonder if things will be the same or if they will get a lot harder and less pleasant. The new manager is okay, but things are definitely not the same. You do not think you can talk to this manager like you could the previous one. You are not sure if this manager is as concerned about you as the last one. Moreover, even if the new one is okay, you wonder how long he/she will be there before another one comes along who is not.

Continuity and longevity in a work situation can be a good thing. Or, it can be a horrible thing. It all depends on the quality of the person. Still, even when it is a good person, you know they will not be there forever.

A similar sort of thing happens with coaches and sports teams. You get a good coach, and you never want them to leave. However, they always do, eventually. You find a church with a pastor that you really love, but if the church has been there for any length of time, there is always that one part of the building, that one hallway with all the pictures lined up in neat little rows - all the pastors that have come and gone, each one of them both jeered and mourned when they left. Some better than others. But death and other circumstances keeps moving them along.

But while that may be a reality that we cannot avoid in any other area of our lives, now, thank God, because of the Lord Jesus Christ, we no longer have to endure that sort of thing when it comes to the one who stands before us, representing us as our high priest before God.

The cycling in and out, the steady, un-ending parade of people, the revolving door that keeps going around and around that characterizes everything else we know - that is no longer true for the people of God when it comes to their high priest. Which is a great thing.

If you have any familiarity with the Old Testament, then you will know what can happen from one generation to the next in terms of the high priestly office. You might have an Eli as your priest, but then you might get stuck with one of his ratbag sons later on. On and on the roller coaster went for God's people.

However, Jesus' priesthood is not like that. There is no more fear for us there. There will be no gaps. No one will be asleep at the switch, there will be no potential mishandling of the baton at the exchange because there will never be any exchange. There will be no fluctuation in quality or concern or effectiveness. There will never come a moment when you will need this priest and he will be unavailable, or otherwise occupied, or prevented by age and infirmity from being of any use to you. You will never have to worry that he will ever walk away from his post and that the very moment you need him might be that five minutes that he's away from his desk or his phone. That will never happen with this priest. He is always there. Always on duty. Every watchful. Always praying, having the un-interrupted and un-diminished attention of His Father at all times. He will be there to see you through every single step of this life - and then even beyond this life until you finally embrace him, face to face, in glory.

The Old Testament priesthood was good, as far as it went. Nevertheless, it did not go far enough. It could not. It was not meant to. That job was left to another priest. A priest from an entirely different order. That priest is Jesus.

He is the one who takes you all the way home.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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