Perfect High Priest (Part Three)

After two notable sections of the book of Hebrews, as viewed in part two of this study, which describe Jesus as the ultimate High Priest (in 2:14 – 3:11 and in 4:10 – 5:10) the unknown author once again breaks away from this theme to give another serious “pep talk” to his audience. Even though we know very little about the original recipients of this unique document, it is clear that the writer knew their struggles quite intimately. One might compare this situation to how Paul knew deeply which issues should be addressed when dealing with problems in Corinth, Galatia, and other locations.

By the way, despite what Christians have generally assumed, as influenced by the title: “to the Hebrews”, we do not even know if the original audience really consisted of “Hebrews” (as a possible label for Christians from a Jewish background). Though the book might have been written as early as the mid-first century, “the name ‘Hebrews’ is undocumented before about 200 A.D.” (1) “The document was known and quoted before the end of the first century, but not under its traditional title ‘To (the) Hebrews.’ The title goes back to the last quarter of the second century….” (2)

In wherever the audience’s location might have been, these Christians (perhaps a mix of folks from different Jewish and Gentile backgrounds) had experienced some very stressful suffering. They had undergone some level of persecution, being insulted and attacked, needing to have sympathy for prisoners, and having had their property confiscated (chapter 10:32-34). After early zeal with cheerful attitudes in former years, they were sorely tempted later to get extremely discouraged! Hebrews is certainly very relevant now for any believers who struggle with stressful pressures and temptations to quit. Because of the approaching hope, we are to strive not to lose our confidence in God for it will be richly rewarded; his coming will not be delayed. We are to persevere in faithful action (as seen in the latter part of chapter 10) and not shrink back from our commitment.

According to the start of the third section of urgent warnings (in 5:11 – 6:12), one can see that the recipients had not matured past basic teachings as they should have done. It is thus implied that they had already experienced a thorough foundation in “milk for babies.” Though this exhortation to grow up might equally apply to certain individuals and groups nowadays, there are Christians in the twenty-first century (from diverse backgrounds) who might need, in fact, to get back to basics – to acquire fundamental understanding which has been severely lacking – before progressively moving on. For example, some may really need to examine repentance truths or resurrection realities if such things were previously deficient.

After a solemn reminder to be fruitful like well-watered land that should produce good crops (instead of producing thorns and weeds worthy to be burned), great encouragement is offered in Hebrews to those original recipients. “But dear friends, we believe better things of you and your salvation, even if we speak like this! God would not be so unjust as to forget what you have done and the love you have shown for Him by the care you have shown for fellow believers – and this is something you are still doing” (6:9, 10 – OGFOMMT). Then these believers are further exhorted to “hang in there”, staying committed and confident in the hope instead of lapsing into laziness.

Right after this, a brief consideration about what it means to promise and to “swear by an oath” leads into a major discussion of Jesus being the supreme High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Oath-swearing solves disputes, depending on how high an authority is invoked. There is no one higher than God, and He swore by Himself! God’s doubly emphatic manner of giving assurance to Abraham after the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac (in Genesis 22:16, 17) is the basis of this discussion: “I swear by own self, Yahweh declares…” (Gen. 22:16 NJB) and, “Indeed I will greatly bless you…” (Gen. 22:17 NASB). This bold idea of God’s reliable assurance of: 1) – making a promise and 2) – swearing by an oath (in Hebrews 6:13ff) is later connected in chapter 7 to Jesus’ High Priesthood when Psalm 110:4 is quoted: “Yahweh has sworn an oath he will never retract, you are a priest for ever of the order of Melchizedek” (NJB). As noted later in Hebrews, chapter 7, Levitical priests under the temporary, foreshadowing Law of Moses became priests without the assurance of an oath. This is one of a few highlighted points made to demonstrate that Jesus (of the order of Melchizedek) represents a vastly superior priesthood to all Levitical, priestly functions.

Also, it is significant how Melchizedek’s lack of a recorded genealogy (in Genesis 14) is used symbolically as a comparison to Jesus’ endless life now (and his perpetual priesthood). It is not at all to be inferred that Melchizedek himself literally enjoyed an endless life or priesthood!

The powerful assurances rooted in Abraham and Jesus, presented here to the original audience of Hebrews as well as to all Christians (anywhere, at any time) who are tempted to be discouraged, are so boldly all-encompassing, so able to encourage us to stay faithfully focused on the hope of the coming Kingdom!

The sense of Melchizedek’s superiority to Abraham (by receiving the tithe and then blessing Abraham) leads to the conclusion that Jesus’ High Priesthood (in Melchizedek) is far superior to the Levitical priesthood, as descended from Abraham. Starting in Hebrews 6:17, we observe the following:

That is why God wanted to demonstrate more clearly to those who would inherit the promise that He would never change His mind. So by these two actions [referring to the promise and the oath to Abraham] which cannot be changed, and since it is impossible for God to lie, we can have total confidence, having run for safety to take hold of the hope God presented to us. This hope is our spiritual anchor; it is both certain and reliable, and it takes us beyond the curtain to the presence of God. That is where Jesus went in on our behalf, because he had become a High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of the Most High God. He met Abraham who was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him. Abraham gave him a tithe of all that he had gained. Melchizedek’s name means “king of justice” while king of Salem means “king of peace.” We do not have any information about his father or his mother or his family tree. We do not know when he was born or when he died. Like the Son of God, he continues as a priest forever.

Think how great this man was for Abraham the patriarch to give him a tithe of what was won in battle. Yes, the sons of Levi who are priests were commanded by the law to receive a tithe from the people, their brothers and sisters, who are descended from Abraham. But Melchizedek who does not share their ancestry received tithes from Abraham, and blessed the one who had God’s promises. There is no argument that the lesser person is blessed by the one who is greater. In the one case, tithes are received by men who die, but in the other, by one who is said to be living. So you could say that Levi, the one who receives tithes, has paid tithes through being a descendent of Abraham, for he was yet to be born from his father when Melchizedek met Abraham. Now if perfection could have been achieved through the priesthood of Levi (for that is how the law was received), what need was there for another priest to arise following the order of Melchizedek and not following the order of Aaron? If the priesthood is changed, then the law needs to be changed too. The one we are talking about comes from a different tribe, a tribe that has never provided priests to serve at the altar.

It is clear that our Lord Jesus is a descendant of Judah, and Moses said nothing about priests coming from this tribe. What makes it even clearer is when another priest appears who is similar to Melchizedek, who did not become a priest by virtue of his human ancestry but by the power of a life that can never be ended. That is why it says, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” So the previous rule has been set aside because it was powerless and ineffective. For the law did not make anything perfect.

But now it has been replaced by a better hope by which we can come close to God. This was not without an oath, even though those who become priests do so without an oath. But he became a priest with an oath because God said to him, “The Lord has taken a solemn vow and will not change His mind: you are a priest forever.” This is how Jesus became the guarantee of a covenant with God which is so much better.

There have been many priests because death prevented them from being able to continue; but since Jesus lives forever, his priesthood is permanent. As a result he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he is always living and able to plead their case on their behalf. He is exactly the High Priest we need, holy and without fault, pure and separate from sinners, and given a place in the highest heavens. Unlike those human high priests, he does not need to offer a daily sacrifice for his sins and then the sins of the people. He did this once and for all, and for everyone, when he offered himself. The law appoints imperfect men as high priests, but God gave His solemn vow after the time of the law and appointed His Son, perfect forever.

The main point of what we are saying is this: We have such a High Priest who is seated at the right hand of God, who sits in majesty on His throne in heaven. He serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle which was set up by the Lord and not by human beings. Since it is the responsibility of every high priest to offer gifts and sacrifices, this high priest must also have something to offer. Now if he were here on earth, he would not be a high priest at all, because there are already priests to present the offerings required by the law. The place where they serve is a copy, a mere shadow of what is in heaven. That is what God told Moses when he was going to set up the tabernacle: “Be careful to make everything according to the blueprint you were shown on the mountain.”

But Jesus has been given a far greater ministry, just as he is the one who mediates a far better covenant between us and God, which is based on much better promises. If that first agreement had been perfect, then a second would not have been necessary. Pointing out their failings, God said to His people, “Pay attention, says the Lord, because the days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. This will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I led them by the hand out of the land of Egypt. For they did not keep their side of the covenant, so I gave up on them, says the Lord” (6:17 – 8:9 – OGFOMMT).

After this somewhat lengthy consideration of Jesus’ perfect position as the ascended, seated High Priest, there is a brief emphasis (toward the end of chapter 8) on Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant to replace the old, Mosaic covenant (according to Jeremiah 31:31-34). This new covenant is fulfilled in Jesus’ superlative accomplishments. As will be seen in further developed themes from Hebrews about what is greater, better, and higher regarding new covenant realities, Jesus’ High Priesthood and his offering of himself are the vital basis for solid understanding (in this context) of our redemption and hope. Once again, what deep consolation and loving encouragement are offered to any who face overwhelming fatigue or discouraging obstacles!

Footnotes:

  • Edward William Fudge, Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today (Abilene, Texas: Leafwood Publishers, 2009) p. 23
  • F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964) p. xxiii

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