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Hebrews 4 - Jesus Brought a Superior Priesthood (4:14 - 7:28)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Also available:

1: Superior Revelation (1:1-4) 2: Superior to angels (1:5 - 2:18)
3: A Superior Rest (3:1 - 4:19) 4: A Superior Priesthood (4:14 - 7:28)
5: A Superior Covenant (8:1 - 10:18) 6: The Better Way of Faith (10:19 - 12:39)
7: Practical Instructions (13:1-25)

Exhortation 2: Hold fast and approach the throne boldly (4:14-16)

This second exhortation passage actually contains two exhortations. The first is to hold fast to our confession (v14), and the second is to draw near with confidence to the throne of grace (v16). These two exhortations are repeated in chapter 10, which forms the conclusion of the discussion of Jesus as our high priest (10:23, 22).

“Since we have a great high priest” (v14) refers back to chapter 2:18. As noted before, chapters 3 and 4 form a digression of exhortations and warning. The author now returns to the theme of Jesus’ high priesthood, which is now explained more fully, even though another digression comes shortly.

It states that Jesus has passed through the heavens (v14), which refers to Jesus’ complete and victorious work. He has not just passed through the veil in the tabernacle or temple, but into the very presence of God. We now share in this access (10:19) and are exhorted to join him by drawing near and holding fast to our confession (v14).

Jesus is a high priest who can sympathise with our weakness (v15). He is like his brothers in every respect (2:17), which qualified him to be a High Priest. Jesus is not remote and untouchable, so we must be careful not to make Jesus or the Father remote in our own thinking. We also need to recognise our own weakness. In the Sermon on the Mount, the first beautitude is “blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). There is no room for any pride or self-sufficiency in our approach to the throne of grace.

Jesus was tempted in every way, the question is when? All through Jesus’ ministry he was being tempted. Nobody has ever been tempted more than Jesus, because of who he was. Satan was trying his utmost to deflect Jesus from achieving his purpose of dying, taking the penalty for sin and defeating sin and evil. In Luke’s account, he concludes the temptation account by saying, “when the devil had ended every temptation” (Lk 4:13), suggesting that there were many more than the three temptations recorded. Even at the end, Jesus was challenged to prove who he was by coming down off the cross (Mt 27:42), which of course would serve as a victory to Satan as that would avoid his death. The fact that Jesus was tempted in every way, gives complete identification with men. We do not suffer temptation alone, Jesus understands the real pressure of being tested. Paul stated that, “no testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone” (1 Cor 10:13) - everybody is tempted. This passage also shows that temptation is not sin. It only becomes sin when we give in, but Jesus gives us the grace and power not to give in.

The second exhortation comes because of v15. Because Jesus is sympathetic and has been tempted in every way, we can draw near to the throne of grace with boldness (v16). This is where we can receive mercy and grace to help in our time of need. We need to be people who are quick to come to Jesus to ask for his help and strength. His grace is always available when we do that.

Christ the superior high priest (5:1-11)

The author now compares the human high priest from the OT times (5:1-4), with Jesus as the superior high priest (5:5-10). The passage shows a chaism (ABBA).
The human high priest was sympathetic (v2-3) (A),
and appointed by God (v4) (B),
just as Jesus is appointed by God (v5-6) (B),
and sympathetic (v7-10) (A).

The human High Priest from OT (5:1-4)

He begins by giving the job description of an OT high priest, as the one who is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf (v1). In other words, the high priest was a mediator between mankind and God, to offer their gifts and sacrifices. Notice that he begins by saying, “Every high priest ...” (v1). In chapter 7, the author expands on this concept by contrasting the many high priests of the OT, each of whom eventually died and had to be replaced, with Jesus who remains the high priest forever. The human high priest suffered from human weaknesses and sinfulness, and therefore had to offer sacrifices for their own sins (Lev 16:11), which is something Jesus did not have to do (7:27). This was the first qualification of the earthly high priest - he can sympathise with the people, dealing gently with the ignorant and wayward (v3).

The second qualification was that he was appointed by God (v4). The high priests in OT times were called by God (v4). Aaron, the brother of Moses, was the first high priest (Ex 28). Only the direct descendants of Aaron could become the high priest, otherwise they were not valid high priests. This continued until around 175 BC, when the last Aaronic high priest, called Onias III, was deposed. After that, the high priesthood became a political appointment, often open to the highest bidder. High priests in the first century, such as the corrupt family of Annas and Caiaphas, were appointed by the Herods.

The author of Hebrews consistently looks back to the ideal situation in the OT, which he saw was in the time of Moses and the original tabernacle, rather than to the temple in Jerusalem, which was probably still standing at the time of writing.

Jesus the High Priest: Appointed (5:5-6)

Jesus was also appointed by God to be high priest, which has already been discussed in 4:14- 16. However the main difference from the Aaronic priesthood is that Jesus is from an eternal, and therefore superior, order of priests, that of Melchizedek. This idea will be expanded upon in chapter 7. There are two quotations from the OT about Jesus’ priesthood: The first is from Psalm 2, about the eternal sonship of Jesus (Ps 2:7), which has already been quoted (1:5). The second is from Psalm 110, about his continuing priesthood, declaring that he is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4) (v6).

Jesus the High Priest: Sympathetic (5:7-10)

The author again looks back to the incarnation of Jesus when he took human form, “In the days of his flesh ...” (v7). He makes a reference to the events in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he offered up prayers, with loud cries and tears. Some manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel record that in his anguish his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground (Lk 22:44).

The next verse makes a surprising statement, that Jesus learned obedience (v8). We can ask, how can the Son of God learn obedience? However, we have to remember the continual emphasis on the humanity of Jesus in this book. During his incarnation Jesus continually choose obedience to the Father. Paul stated that he was, “obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), making the cross the great act of obedience. In the Garden of Gethesemane, Jesus consciously chose obedience, “not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). As the human Jesus, he had the imminent prospect of a agonising and degrading physical death the following day, but also the more intense and terrifying prospect of having to take the sins of all the world on himself, and being forsaken and cursed by his own Father.

His suffering made him perfect (v9). Again, it did not make him morally perfect, but perfect in the sense of being completely qualified to become the source of salvation for all who obey him, and to be the great high priest. As a result of his obedience to death, he becomes a high priest in a new order of priesthood, which is superior to the order of Aaron. The author now postpones his discussion of this new order of Melchizedek priesthood until after the next lengthy digression, which contains another serious warning.

Warning 3: Press on to Maturity (5:11-6:20)

This passage forms a long digression from the author’s discussion about the high priesthood of Jesus. The digression begins at 5:11 and the author brings it cleverly back to the subject at 6:20. Again, it makes perfect sense if the digression is omitted.

The author could not continue explaining about Melchizedek and Jesus’ high priesthood because of the readers’ ignorance. They had not progressed beyond the basics (the milk), because they are still like babies. In a similar way, Paul could not address the Corinthians as spiritual men, but as babes in Christ, not ready for solid food (1 Cor 3:1).

The problem of ignorance (5:11-14)

The main problem seems to one of ignorance of the scriptures. The readers are described as being “dull of understanding” (v11). They are sluggish, lethargic and lazy. They had become apathetic about spiritual things, having lost the desire to grow as Christians and to study the scriptures. These two are very strongly linked.

The author contrasts the immature with the mature. The immature need milk, like a child (v13). They are unskilled in the word of righteousness, the Scriptures, and need to be taught again the basic elements of the oracles of God (v12). The mature feed on solid food (v14), because they have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil (v14).

The way to become mature is to become skilled in the scriptures, learning the skills of handling Scripture correctly. Believers need to be taught the very practical principles of good Bible study, learning how to interpret the passages in their context. This is a skill which takes a lot of practice.

Ignorance of the scriptures leads to ineffectiveness. The author declares that they ought to be teachers by now (v12). Instead of being able to pass truth on to others, they are still needing to be taught, which effectively robs others who should be taught by them by now. They did not have enough basic understanding to be able to pass it onto others. They were still needing to be taught the first principles, which are listed in 6:1-3. This is a strong call to move away from the all-too-common dependency mentality. We all should be involved in teaching in some form or other, though not necessarily in a teaching ministry.

The author defines maturity as, “being trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (v14), being trained as in a gymnasium, to hone skills and to create habits. This training takes persistent effort and diligent study of the Bible. The result of that training is the discernment between good and evil. Thorough understanding of the Scriptures enables the reader to test what they hear, see and read, keeping the good, and laying aside the evil (1 Thess 5:20-22). The word 'mature' (v14) is the same word as the word for 'perfection' (6:1), the concept of moving toward completion of the growth process, a challenge to continue to grow as Christians.

Going beyond the basics (6:1-3)

Now follows a challenge to progress beyond the elementary doctrine of Christ. The author is going to stretch the readers beyond the milk, onto the meat. There is a double exhortation: to leave behind the basics (foundation), and to go on to maturity (perfection) (v1).

He begins by giving his definition of the elementary doctrine (the milk), giving a very challenging list, which can seem quite advanced to us today. If the foundation is laid well, then we will not need to go over it again and again. This list gives the foundational teaching for new converts, so they are told not to re-lay the foundation (v1). The foundation of a building should only need to be laid once. Many problems in Christian living come from weaknesses in laying these foundations. However, it is essential to ensure that people have come to Christ before attempting to lay the foundations.

In the list are three pairs of what the author considers are the basic aspects of Christianity. It is interesting to note the Jewish background of these basics, which now have been given Christian content. Christianity and Judaism may superficially appear the same, but the author is distinguishing the two clearly.

The first two are to do with a person’s initial response to God (v1). Repentance and faith really form the core of the Gospel. Paul summarised the Gospel message to the Ephesian elders as repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus (Acts 20:21).

The first is repentance from dead works, seen as the first step in the Christian life. Repentance is far more than merely saying sorry, but means a turning away from sin, and turning towards God. John the Baptist practised a baptism for repentance, a turning away from dead works. It is important to consider what the dead works are that need repenting from. These can include every single attempt at achieving salvation by our own effort, normally by law-keeping. Essentially, a dead work is anything that we do which is not in obedient response to the prompting of God’s Holy Spirit, anything that is not initiated by God. It is all too easy to do 'good' things which are actually dead works before God.

The second follows directly, faith toward God. The old dead works are left behind, as there is a turning away from sin and towards God. Faith is our grateful response to God’s grace as expressed in the Gospel message. It is essential that all believers have a genuine understanding and revelation of the true nature of grace.

The second two are concern outward ordinances, associated with initiation into the Christian community, and taking our place in the body of believers (v2a).

The third is instruction about baptisms. The reference here is to water baptism and teaching about its meaning. Baptism in water is a powerful image of personal identification with the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:3-4). It is also a public declaration of a change in life, of turning away from the old life, and declaring to the world that we are now going to live in obedience to Jesus. For the original readers there would also be the comparison and contrast between Christian baptism and Jewish washings for purity.

The fourth is the laying on of hands. In the NT, this is normally associated with impartation of the Holy Spirit for giftings and ministry (eg: 1 Tim 4:14). It is challenging that one of the basics essentially implies that a person needs to discover their Spirit-given gifts and these being recognised by the church community. As the writer says, “by this time you ought to be teachers” (5:12).

The last two look to the future (v2b). Eschatology is an essential part of Christian theology, and is seen as essential to the understanding of the Christian message, not an optional extra to be argued about. A thorough understanding of the nature of the Kingdom of God is essential to living the Christian life. The nature of the Kingdom is rather paradoxical, in that the Kingdom is here, but we are still waiting for its full establishment, while still living in a fallen world.

The fifth is the resurrection of the dead. The fact that Jesus was raised physically from the dead brings great hope to the believer. He is described as the firstfruits (1 Cor 15:23), which guarantees our own physical resurrection in the future.

The sixth is eternal judgement, reserved for the unbelievers. At the end, there will be a final accounting before God for every person, when there will be a separation of the righteous from the unrighteous. Both will be raised, one for the resurrection of life, and the others for the resurrection of condemnation (Jn 5:29).

The author wants to press on towards perfection (v1,3), leaving behind the basic teaching, if God permits. There is a condition for going on, and it may be too late for his readers, because there is a big problem.

The problem of apostasy (6:4-6)

This section contains a very strong warning, which is repeated in chapter 10. These verses have caused many questions, debates and arguments.

We should note the use of pronouns in this passage. From v3-8 he uses the pronoun 'those', probably referring to a small group within the fellowship who have fallen away. This is contrasted with the use of the pronoun 'you' (v9-10) where he encourages others in the fellowship who remain faithful. The readers had come to faith in Jesus out of Judaism, but were now facing persecution. Some ('those') were falling away, while the majority ('you') are commended for continuing in faith.

It is important to look carefully at the description given of these people (v4-5). In the past, they once were enlightened, but are now returning to darkness. They have tasted the heavenly gift, having had personal experience of the forgiveness of God, but are now despising the free gift of the Gospel. They have shared in the Holy Spirit, but now reject the Spirit of grace. They have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come, having known and understood the new life in the kingdom, through which we can experience the power of the age to come, while still living in this age.

They are now falling away, or committing apostasy, described as crucifying again the Son of God (v6), and holding up to contempt. Apostasy is basically rebellion against God. This is the reason the author declares that it is impossible to restore them to repentance (v4).

This is strong public rejection, they are disowning Jesus and repudiating his salvation. This is much more than carelessly falling into sin, spiritual weariness or apathy, or slight backsliding, but outright rejection of Jesus, often turning into fierce opposition. For the readers it is to go back and identify with Judaism, with the Jews who crucified Jesus, the Pharisees, priests and scribes who called “crucify him!”. It would be like the apostle Paul going back to being a Jewish Rabbi and persecuting the church. Jesus gave a similar strong warning in Mt 7:22, about those who will say on that Day that they prophesied, cast out demons and did mighty works in the name of Jesus, but Jesus declared that he never knew them and commanded them to depart as evildoers.

This introduces a 2000-year-old disagreement in the church, “Can a believer lose his salvation?” Is it once saved, always saved”? Calvinists (followers of French / Swiss John Calvin) would say, “No he cannot”, with their emphasis on the sovereignty of God and his grace, that a believer is one of the God’s elect, and is kept by the power of God. Arminians (followers of Dutch Jacob Arminius) would say, “Yes he can”, as they emphasise human responsibility, endurance, and keeping oneself in the love of God. Often the teaching of the people the views are named after are taken to a more extreme position then the original teaching, as a reaction against the opposing viewpoint. An Arminian would say that the person described in Hebrews chapter 6 man had been saved, but had lost his salvation, while a Calvinist would say that he was not really saved, but had only tasted of the goodness of God. We need to keep the balance of scripture. In this passage there is a strong warning, which should be balanced against reassuring passages such as Mt 18:14, where Jesus stated that it was not the will of the Father that any of the little ones should perish.

The Bible is not a book of academic systematic theology, but contains great truths of theology being applied into real-life situations. In other places, such as the letter to the Ephesians, the readers needed to know their security in Jesus, when they lived in a very dark place spiritually. To the Ephesians, Paul made an emphasis on them being chosen and elect (Eph 1:4-6). By contrast, the author of Hebrews was writing to people who were being tempted to give up their faith, so a strongly worded warning was called for. It would have been rather counter-productive to have given the readers a teaching on their election and predestination. These two sides have to be held in tension, as they form two sides of a paradox.

Observation of life situations

Many of us have met people who began the Christian life with enthusiasm and later turned away wanting nothing to do with it. We wonder about people who fall away, were they really converted? Those who renounce the faith are some of the most difficult people to reach with the gospel, humanly it seems impossible. They seem to become immunised against Christianity and hardened against the gospel. What the author of Hebrews is warning is that it is possible to become so hardened, that they are no longer able to respond. People are in a worse state after rejecting the gospel they once believed, it was better for them never to have known (2 Pet 2:21).

There are a few examples in the NT of people like this. One is Simon the Magician (Acts 8:9- 24). During Philip’s mission in Samaria, Simon believed and was baptised, and continued with Philip, being amazed at the miracles. He tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from Peter. Peter said he was “in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity”. According to church history, he later became a determined opponent of Christianity. Another is Judas Iscariot, who spent three years with Jesus as one of the disciples, but betrayed Jesus and was not restored. Paul describes a man named Demas (2 Tim 4:10), who deserted Paul in love with the world, was probably not restored. The great exception was Peter, who denied Jesus, but repented and was restored.


Note that this passage is not saying that God will not have you back if you commit apostasy. He is not threatening a punishment, making a rule or penalty. It is more probably making an observation that if you fall away, you will find it very impossible to come back to faith. But remember, that nothing is impossible for God. But this is a genuine warning, so we need to be careful, and not be presumptuous.

An illustration from farming (6:7-8)

The author gives an illustration from farming, where land which receives the God-given rains and is cared for by the farmer is expected to produce fruit, otherwise it will face judgement. The illustration alludes to the parable of the vineyard (Is 5) in which the vineyard (Israel) only produced wild grapes, so Isaiah predicted judgement and destruction. The readers have had truth given to them, so fruit is expected. If there is no fruit, they should expect judgement, another strong warning. Jesus gave a similar warning when talking about the vine and the branches (Jn 15) - the branches that produced no fruit were burned.

An encouragement to the faithful (6:9-15)

Immediately after the strong warning, he encourages the faithful, who are addressed as 'beloved', the only time they are addressed this way in the book. This comes in strong contrast to the apostates, coming as a reassurance after the warnings. We should notice the change in pronouns: he refers to 'they' or 'those' (v4-6), probably referring to a minority in the church who are about to commit apostasy, contrasted to 'you' (v9-12), probably encouraging the faithful majority. God’s justice is to punish rebellion (v4-6) and to reward faithful service (v11-12). This comes as an encouragement to continue their faithful service. He is calling them not to give up, not to be sluggish (as in 5:11), as there will be a reward for faithful service. This reward is distinct from and nothing to do with salvation (v12). The reward is to inherit the promises, as imitators of those who inherited the promises through faith (ch 11). We should notice the importance of eschatology as an encouragement in difficulties and persecution.

As part of this encouragement he gives the example of Abraham, which begins the author’s clever link back to his interrupted teaching on Melchizedek, that God’s promises never change (6:13- 15). Abraham was a man who through faith and patient endurance inherited the promise (of his son Isaac) (v12). God swearing by himself is a quotation from Gen 22:16. The normal pattern is to swear by someone greater than themselves (v16), but because God has no one greater to confirm the promise, he has to swear on himself.

Final encouragement to trust God (6:16-20)

After the warning, the long digression concludes with a strong encouragement to seize the hope before us (v18). There are two unchangeable things (v18), the promise of God, and his oath to confirm that promise (v17).

The anchor was used as an early Christian symbol of hope. In the first century, when a ship was trying to get into a narrow harbour entrance in rough weather, an anchor was taken from the ship in a small boat, and dropped inside the harbour. The sailors on the ship then pulled on the anchor rope and so pulled the ship out of the rough sea into the safety of the harbour. This is a powerful picture of Jesus being our anchor in the Holy of Holies, the unfailing anchor giving us refuge and safety. The exhortation is to pull on the anchor rope and find refuge in Christ.

Behind the curtain is a picture taken from the Exodus tabernacle and the temple. The presence of God was behind the veil (curtain) in the Holy of Holies. Jesus has opened the way for us directly into the presence of God. This links us back to the superior eternal priesthood of Jesus (after the order of Melchizedek).

Jesus: A Priest in the Order of Melchizedek (7:1-28)

The main argument of this section is that there are two different orders of priesthood. Jesus is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek, so therefore is superior to the Aaronic priesthood.

Melchizedek - who was he? (7:1-3)

Melchizedek is a rather mysterious figure who is only mentioned a few times in the OT. The main place is in the description of what is often called the War of the Kings (Gen 14). Four kings from the east (Elam) invaded Sodom (by the Dead Sea). Sodom served twelve years servitude, then rebelled. The four kings fought five kings of the area around Sodom to put down the rebellion. The enemy looted Sodom, taking Lot (Abraham’s nephew). Abram then pursued the enemy north, bringing back Lot and the goods. The King of Sodom came out to meet Abram at the King’s Valley (Gen 14:17). Melchizedek brought bread and wine and blessed Abram, who gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the spoils of war (Gen 14:20).

Chapter 7 gives five titles and descriptions of Melchizedek: Firstly, he is King of Salem (probably Jerusalem), which means king of peace (v2). Secondly, he is Priest of the Most High God (v1). Thirdly, he is King of Righteousness (v1 & 2), which is what the name Melchizedek means in Hebrew. These first three are titles of Jesus. Like Jesus, Melchizedek was both King and Priest. Fourthly, he had no genealogy (v3), and fifthly, he had no beginning of days of end of life, making him eternal (v3). The last two are arguments from silence. The Genesis account gives no genealogy, or any account of the birth or death for Melchizedek, in contrast to most other Israelites. This seems bad exegesis to us, but it was common in Jewish and Greek thought to argue from silence. He was without father or mother or genealogy (v3), he had no birth or end of life, in other words he is eternal, hence he is a “priest for ever”, like Jesus.

There is quite a debate about the identity of Melchizedek, whether he was a human king who met Abraham, or whether he was a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus in the OT, what is known as a Christophany. The Jewish Rabbis taught that Melchizedek was actually Shem, the son of Noah, so Melchizedek was a title (king of righteousness), rather than his actual name. And Malka Zadika (Melchizedek), who was Shem bar Noah, the king of Yerushalem, came forth to meet Abram, and brought forth to him bread and wine; and in that time he ministered before Eloha Ilaha (God Most High). And Malki Zedek, king of Yerushalem, who was Shem, who was the great priest of the Most High. And he blessed him, and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of the Lord God Most High, who for the righteous possesseth the heavens and the earth. And blessed be Eloha Ilaha, who hath made thine enemies as a shield which receiveth a blow.’ And he gave to him one of ten, of all which he brought back. (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 14:8). According to the genealogies in Genesis, Shem lived to the age of 600, so would still have been alive for most of Abraham’s life (Gen 11:10-11). If he was human, he was at least a type of Christ, a real physical person who in some way foreshadowed the person or ministry of Jesus. However, when reading Hebrews we get the impression that the author considered him to be more than a mere human being.

Melchizedek received tithes, so is superior to Levi (7:4-9)

“See how great he is!” (v4). This exclamation really sums up the author’s argument. According to the law of Moses, the people had to tithe to Levi and to the priests descended from him (v5), but by contrast, Abraham spontaneously tithed to Melchizedek (v6). Abraham was the most respected figure in Judaism, the founder and father of the nation, and the great-grandfather of Levi. (We should note that this passage is certainly not intended to establish any principles about tithing in the church today.)

The author states the principle that a superior person blesses an inferior person, and the inferior pays tithes to the superior (v7). Abraham gave a tithe to, and was blessed by Melchizedek, so therefore Melchizedek is superior to Abraham. Levi was the great-grandson of Abraham (in the loins of Abraham), so the yet-to-be-born Levi effectively tithed to Melchizedek, therefore Melchizedek is superior to Levi too.

Abraham -> Isaac -> Jacob -> Levi -> Amram -> Aaron -> priests
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| tithed to: | tithed to:
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Melchizedek <

The two orders of priesthood compared (7:11-19)

The author now shows the need of a new priest from the order of Melchizedek to supersede the Aaronic priesthood, because the Aaronic priesthood was ineffective. Perfection was not attainable through the Levitical priesthood (v11) because it did not achieve unlimited access to the presence of God. If it had been effective, then there would have been no need for the OT to predict another order of priesthood (of Melchizedek - Ps 110:4). The argument continues to prove that because the priesthood of Melchizedek is superior to the priesthood of Aaron, and because Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek, therefore his priesthood is superior to the Aaronic priesthood.

The rest of this chapter gives a comparison and contrast between the Levitical priesthood (of the order of Aaron), and the priesthood of Jesus (of the order of Melchizedek). There has been a change in the priesthood, so there also needs to be a change in the law (v12, 18). The change in the priesthood has come because Jesus was from the kingly tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi, so the priestly tribe has changed from Levi to Judah (v13-14). This allows Jesus to become both priest and king, which was forbidden in the OT.

The Aaronic priesthood had to be a direct physical descendent of Aaron, so genealogy was most important. A man had to prove his genealogy to become a priest. So for the Levitical priesthood, the big question was who you are the son of (v15-16). By contrast Jesus qualified to be a priest because of who he is, because he has been declared priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek (v17, quoting Ps 110:4).

The OT law has been annulled and laid aside because it was weak and ineffective, unable to bring perfection (access to the presence of God), but Jesus brought a better hope, through which we can approach God (v18).

The contrast between the two orders of priesthood

Levitical (Aaronic) Melchizedek
Jewish priesthood (tribe of Levi) Jesus (tribe of Judah - not priests)
Temporary Eternal
Perfection not attainable (v11) Effective
Bodily descent (v16)
genealogies (who he is son of)
personal qualification (who he is)
Laid aside (v18)
weak and ineffective
Better hope introduced (v19)

Jesus - the superior priest (7:20-28)

The priesthood of Jesus is now shown to be superior to the Levitical priesthood, particularly in three areas. The first is that Jesus became priest through divine oath (v20-22). The second is that Jesus’s priesthood is permanent (v23-25), and the third is that Jesus was sinless (v26-28).

Levitical priests took their office without an oath (v20). No oath was needed because they qualified to be priests through their genealogy. To become priest, Jesus received the divine oath, “You are priest forever” (Ps 110:4). Jesus is described as the surety, guarantee, or pledge of a better covenant (v22). He is the guarantee that the covenant will be honoured. God swore an oath that Jesus’ priesthood can never pass away, therefore Jesus is guarantee of a better covenant. If we need a new priest and a new order of priesthood, then we also need a new covenant. All of the old, including the priesthood, the covenant and the law has passed away. This theme is developed further in the next three chapters.

Levitical priests were mortal, so could not remain in office forever. According to Josephus, between Aaron and the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, there were 83 high priests (Ant 20:227), although the line of Aaron was ended around 175 BC with the murder of Onias III. High priests after that time were not of the line of Aaron. The office became open to the person who could pay the most money to the rulers at the time. By contrast, Jesus is eternal (like Melchizedek), and therefore remains in office permanently. Because of this, he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, and make intercession for them (v25).

The third great difference is that Jesus is a sinless high priest, holy, blameless, and exalted. Jesus has therefore no need to offer a sacrifice for his own sin (v27). The Aaronic high priests had to offer sacrifices every day, day after day, for their own sins, and for the sins of the people. An example of this was on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:6). Jesus offered a once and for all sacrifice when he offered himself (v27). He was the sacrifice, so the sacrifice has no need to be repeated. This argument is developed more in chapter 9. Under the OT law, imperfect, fallible, sinful men were appointed as high priests. They were subject to weakness (v28). But the word of the oath appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. As already stated, he is holy, blameless, undefiled and separated from sinners (v26).

The contrast between the Levitical priesthood and the priesthood of Jesus:

Levitical Jesus
Took office without oath (v21) God made oath (Ps 110)
Many priests (v23) One priest
Died (v24) Permanent, continues forever (v24)
Daily sacrifices for self and people (v27) Once and for all sacrifice of himself
no sacrifice for himself
Imperfect men in weakness (v28) Holy, blameless, unstained,
separated from sinners (v26)
Outward cleansing Inward purity

Also available:

1: Superior Revelation (1:1-4) 2: Superior to angels (1:5 - 2:18)
3: A Superior Rest (3:1 - 4:19) 4: A Superior Priesthood (4:14 - 7:28)
5: A Superior Covenant (8:1 - 10:18) 6: The Better Way of Faith (10:19 - 12:39)
7: Practical Instructions (13:1-25)