Lesson 11: A Fitting High Priest

Having established Melchizedek’s superiority to Abraham and thus his superiority to Abraham’s descendants (including Levi and Aaron), the Hebrews author then turned to why an oath was made that the Messiah would be “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (cf. Psalm 110.4): the Levitical priesthood made nothing perfect (Hebrews 7.11)! 

Hebrews 7.18-22, Changing Of The Priesthood… And The Covenant

As we’ve already seen the Levitical priesthood could not make one perfect (vs. 11), and neither could the “former commandment” i.e. the Law (vss. 18-19). The author says this was because “of its weakness and uselessness”. “Its “weakness” (ἀσθενής) inheres not in the law or its purpose, but in the people upon whom it depends for its accomplishment (see Comment on 4:155:27:28). Its “uselessness” (ἀνωφελής) derives from the fact that the law regulated the approach to God in a cultic sense and was able to cleanse only externally (9:9–10132310:14).” (William Lane, Word Biblical Commentary). And since the Law could not make anything perfect, it was “set aside”.

But God had prepared something better to follow: a better priesthood under a better covenant which would bring in “a better hope, through which we draw near to God” (vs. 19). Note that this hope is tied directly to the change in priesthood and covenant, because we’ve already seen that Jesus’ priesthood is how we can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace” (4.16). Furthermore, this was always God’s intention for while the Levitical priesthood was “without an oath” (vs. 21), the Lord made an oath that the Messiah would be “priest forever” (vs. 21). And since Jesus is priest forever, He “has become the guarantee of a better covenant” (vs. 22). “He guarantees to men that God will fulfill his covenant of forgiveness, and he guarantees to God that those who are in him are acceptable.” (Leon Morris, Expositors Bible Commentary).

Before we move on we should note that vs. 22 is the first occurrence of the term “covenant” in the letter. It is an important concept, being found 17 times in the letter. It would seem that the author uses the term diathēkē to get across a couple of concepts: “This is the writer’s first use of the term “covenant” (diathēkē), a word whose importance for him may be gauged from the fact that he uses it no fewer than seventeen times, whereas in no other NT book is it found more than three times. In nonbiblical Greek it denotes a last will and testament, but in the LXX it is the normal rendering of the Hebrew berîṯ (“covenant”). It is agreed that in NT diathēkē mostly means “covenant.” It also seems, however, that now and then the meaning “testament” is not out of mind (e.g., 9:16). The author may have chosen this word rather than synthēkē, the usual word for “covenant,” because the latter might suggest an agreement made on more or less equal terms. By contrast, there is something absolute about a will. One cannot dicker with the testator. And in like manner man cannot bargain with God. God lays down the terms.” (Leon Morris, Expositors Bible Commentary).

Hebrews 7.23-28, Superiority Of The New Covenant Priesthood

The new priesthood of Jesus and the associated new covenant are better than the Levitical priesthood and the Mosaic Law, and now the author gives one concrete reason why this is true. The high priests under the Law, being mortal, died! (vs. 23, cf. vs. 8). Josephus states that there were 83 high priests from Aaron until the destruction of the temple in AD 70 (Antiq. XX, 227). But Jesus, being after the order of Melchizedek, retains his high priesthood forever (vs. 24). 

Since Jesus lives forever and thus remains high priest forever, it follows that He saves forever. And this He does for those who “draw near to God through Him” (vs. 25). He saves forever because He is able to always intercede for us (see Romans 8.34; Hebrews 9.24). Jesus is a “fitting” high priest of the new covenant because of His holy character (vs. 26) and because of His superior sacrifice (vs. 27). Thus, the author again makes a contrast between the old and new covenants: the old appointed weak high priests, but the oath of Psalm 110.4 appointed God’s Son to be an eternally perfect high priest for us.

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