An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Priesthood Changed
In Hebrews 5:1-9 the apostle has shown (in part, for he returns to the same theme again in Hebrews chapter 9) how Christ fulfilled that which Aaron had foreshadowed of Him as the High Priest of His people. Then, in Hebrews 5:11 he declares Christ had been hailed by God as High Priest "after the order of Melchizedek". Immediately following, the apostle adds that, though he had "many things" to say of him, he was restrained through the Hebrews’ dullness. After a lengthy parenthesis in which he corrects their faulty condition, return is made to the subject of Christ’s priesthood in Hebrews 6:20, which is amplified in Hebrews chapter 7. The main object now before him was to show that Christ is superior to the Jewish high priest, and, in proof, he appeals to the striking type of Melchizedek. Concerning that type he pointed out that not only was Melchizedek greater in his own person than Aaron, but that his superiority had been owned by the whole Levitical stock, inasmuch as they, represented by Abraham, had done homage to him.
In the second section of Hebrews chapter 7 which begins at verse 11, the apostle points out the inevitable inferences which must be drawn from and the certain corollaries which are involved in what had just been shown. The fact that the Messiah was Priest after the order of Melchizedek, necessarily set aside the Levitical order. The fact that God had sent His Son to perform a sacerdotal work, plainly signified that the ministry of Aaron and his successors was inadequate. The fact that "perfection" was not brought in till Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice to God, clearly showed that imperfection attached to those who preceded Him. To bring this out the more clearly was the great design of the apostle in the verses which are to be before us. He had now reached that which was the most difficult for the Jews to receive, viz., that what had been so long venerated by their fathers had now been set aside by God.
To announce that the Mosaic economy was temporary, inadequate, defective, was unbelievable to a pious but unregenerate Israelite, and it was something which was far from easy to prove to a regenerated Jew. They believed that the Levitical system of priesthood was "perfect". It had been instituted by Jehovah Himself, so surely it must be sufficient and permanent! If the whole Aaronic system was of Divine appointment how could it possibly be, in itself, so unsatisfactory that it must now be discarded? The apostle might have reasoned from the analogies supplied by Nature. Many things made by God—such as chrysalis for the butterfly—serve a temporary purpose and then become useless when a more perfect stage of development is reached. But the apostle takes much higher ground and proves by invincible logic that the Levitical system was imperfect, and therefore had been superceded by something else.
God had raised up a Priest who belonged not to the Levitical tribe. This the believing Hebrews freely granted: that Jesus Christ had by His sacrifice put away their sins and brought them nigh unto God, was the glorious truth they espoused when they received the Gospel. But they were slow to perceive and acknowledge the necessary implications of it. That the Lord Jesus was Priest "after the order of Melchizedek", intimated unequivocally that the priesthood which preceded His was incapable of producing "perfection", for there was no need of introducing something new if the old met all the requirements of God. But more: not only did Christ’s bringing in "perfection" presuppose the imperfection of the old order, but it necessarily involved a change of economy, i.e. all that was distinctly associated with the Levitical system was now effete, out of date. It is this which the apostle proceeds to show.
It was never the intention of God that the Levitical priesthood should remain forever, for in the Old Testament Scriptures He gave intimation of another Priest, of another order, rising to supercede the former. That intimation was to be found, first, in Genesis 14, where the head and representative of the whole Jewish race had owned Melchizedek as the priest of the most High God. Still plainer was the prophecy which God gave to David. In the 110th Psalm He had greeted the Messiah with these words, "Sit Thou at My right hand" (verse 1), and then He had declared, "The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (verse 4). This the apostle here cites, and by so doing bases his argument on a ground which no pious Jew could gainsay: the inspired and infallible testimony of Holy Scripture. Therefore if Christ was Priest "after the order of Melchizedek", the Aaronic must be imperfect, or there had been no need for introducing this change.
"If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need that another priest should rise after the order of Melchizedek, and not be called after the order of Aaron?" (verse 11). The apostle now points out some of the consequences of Christ’s being a Priest "after the order of Melchizedek". The first he mentions is that the Levitical was unable to bring in "perfection". This was evident. Had it done so there was no need for introducing another. But wherein was it that the Levitical system fell short? What was it that it failed to procure? To answer these questions we need to carefully weigh the expression "perfection".
The term "perfection" is one of the characteristic and key-words of this Epistle. It has a different shade of meaning than it has in the other Pauline Epistles. Unless careful attention be paid to its immediate connections, we are almost certain to fall into an erroneous conception of its force. It has to do more with relationship than experience, though as the relationship is spiritually apprehended a corresponding experience follows. It concerns the objective side of things rather than the subjective. It looks to the judicial and vital aspect rather than to the experimental and practical. Its first occurrences are in Hebrews 2:10 and Hebrews 5:9, used of Christ Himself, where the obvious reference is what pertained to Him officially rather than personally. Then it is found in Hebrews 6:1—compare our comments thereon. In Hebrews 9:9 we are told that in Old Testament times the gifts and sacrifices offered "could not make him that did the service perfect as pertaining to the conscience". The same thing is affirmed in Hebrews 10:1. But in blessed contrast therefrom we read, "For by one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified" (Heb. 10:14).
"Perfection" means the bringing of a thing to that completeness of condition designed for it. Doctrinally it refers to the producing of a satisfactory and final relation between God and men. It speaks of that unchangable standing in the favor and blessing of God which Christ has secured for His people. In Hebrews 12:23 we read of "the spirits of just men made perfect", which does not mean that the Old Testament saints had been perfected in holiness and happiness (though that, of course, was true of them), but that they had been "made perfect" as their title to heavenly glory. This did not take place till the sacrifice of Christ had been offered, though, in the certain prospect of its accomplishment, they had received the blessings which flow from it long before: cf. Hebrews 11:40.
In our present section the apostle insists that "perfection" could not be produced by the Levites, and that a priesthood which did bring in perfection must be superior. It therefore remains for us to enquire next, What are the great ends of priesthood? What is it that the priest should effect? The priest was the mediator who drew near unto God on behalf of others. His work was to present to Him a sacrifice for the satisfying of Divine justice. It was to effect such a procuring of His favor and such a securing of a standing-ground before Him for those whom he represented, that their conscience might be at peace. It was to come forth from His presence that he might pronounce blessing. Had the Levitical priesthood been able to obtain these things? Had Aaron and his successors obtained God’s remission from all the consequences of sin and brought in a complete and abiding redemption? No, indeed.
The office and work of a priesthood may be considered two ways: first, as it respects God, who is the prime and immediate object of all the proper acts of that office; second, as it respects His people, who are the subject of its blessings and the beneficiaries of its administration. As priesthood respects God, its chief design was to make expiation of sin by means of an atoning sacrifice. But this the Levitical priesthood was unable to do. A typical, ceremonial, and temporary value attached to their sacerdotal ministrations; but an effectual, vital, and permanent did not. This is positively stated in Hebrews 10:4, "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins". Why, then, were such appointed? To exhibit the holy claims of God and the requirements of His justice; to prefigure the great Sacrifice yet to come.
Let us next inquire, What was the "perfection" which Christ hath brought in? And here we cannot do better than give a summary of the most helpful exposition of John Owen. That which Christ hath produced to the glory of God and the blessing of His people is, First, righteousness. The introduction of all imperfection was by sin. This made the law weak (Rom. 8:3) and sinners to be "without strength" (Rom. 5:6). Therefore perfection must be introduced by righteousness. That was the fundamental of the new covenant: see Isaiah 60:21, Psalm 72:7, etc. Therefore do the saints speak of Christ as "The Lord our righteousness" (Jer. 23:6). Christ has brought in an "everlasting righteousness" (Dan. 9:24), and therefore are believers "made the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21).
Second, peace is the next thing which belongs to the evangelical "perfection" of Christianity. As the High Priest of the covenant it pertained to the Lord Jesus to make peace between God and sinners. "When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son" (Rom. 5:10). Therefore is He denominated "The Prince of peace" (Isa. 9:6): He is such because He has "made peace through the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:20). The result of this is that believers have "peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). Thus the evangel we proclaim is "The Gospel of peace" (Eph. 6:15).
Third, light. God designed for Christians a greater measure of spiritual light and knowledge of the mysteries of His wisdom and grace than were attainable under the law. God reserved for His Son the honor of making known the fullness of His counsels (John 1:18, Hebrews 1:1, 2). There was under the Levitical priesthood but a "shadow of good things to come" (Heb. 10:1), but the mystery of them remained hid in God (Eph. 3:9). The prophets themselves perceived not the depths of their own predictions (1 Pet. 1:11, 12). Hence, the attitude of the Old Testament Church was a looking forward unto a fuller revelation: "till the day break, and the shadows flee away" (Song 2:17, 4:6). The contrast between the two economies is seen in 1 John 2:8, "The darkness is past, and the true light now shineth".
Fourth, access to God. There belongs to the "perfection" which Christ hath brought in, a liberty and boldness of approach unto the throne of grace that was not only unknown but expressly forbidden under the law. At Sinai the people were fenced off at the foot of the mount, when Jehovah appeared to Moses on its summit. In the tabernacle, none save the priests were suffered to go beyond the outer court, and they not at all into the holy of holies where God dwelt. How blessed is the contrast today. "For through Him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father" (Eph. 2:18). To us the word is, "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith" (Heb. 10:19, 22).
Fifth, the unveiling of the future state. Christ hath "brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel" (2 Tim. 1:10). Whatever knowledge of resurrection and eternal blessedness individual saints enjoyed in Old Testament times, it was not conveyed to them by the ministrations of the Levitical priesthood. That which characterized the people under the Mosaic law was that they "through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Heb. 2:15). Nor could it be otherwise while the curse of the law hung over them. But now our great High Priest has endured the curse for us. He entered the devouring jaws of death. But He did not remain there. He triumphed over the grave, and in the resurrection of Christ His people have the evidence, guarantee, and pattern, of their own victory too. He has gone on High, and that as our "Forerunner" (Heb. 6:20). And His request is, "Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am" (John 17:24).
Sixth, joy. "The kingdom of God is . . . righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17). True it is that many of the Old Testament saints rejoiced greatly in the Lord, yet it was not by virtue of the Levitical priesthood. The ground of their joy was that death would be swallowed up in victory (Isa. 25:8), and that awaited the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore did Abraham rejoice to see His day (John 8:56). But ordinarily their joy was mixed and allayed with a respect unto temporal things: see Leviticus 23:39-41, Deuteronomy 12:11, 12, 18, etc. But the Christian has a joy "unspeakable, and full of glory" (1 Pet. 1:8). It is that inexpressible satisfaction which is wrought in the love of God by Jesus Christ. This gives the soul a repose in all trials, refreshment when it is weary, peace in trouble, delight in tribulations: Romans 5:1-5.
Seventh, glorying in the Lord. This is the fruit of joy. One chief design of the Gospel is to exclude all human boasting, to empty us of glorying in self (Rom. 3:27, Ephesians 2:9). God has so ordered things that no flesh should now glory in His presence, so that he that glorieth must glory in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:29, 31). Thus it was promised of old: see Isaiah 45:25. Glorying in the Lord is that high exultation of spirit which causes believers to esteem their interest in heavenly things high above things present, to despise and condemn all that is contrary thereto, to say with the apostle, "God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ". If the reader desires to follow up more fully the contrast between the glory and excellency of the two economies, the Mosaic and the Christian, let him study 2 Corinthians 3.
Ere leaving this blessed subject, let us make a brief practical application of what has been before us. To be a real Christian is to have a personal and vital interest in and be an actual participant of those blessings which the "perfection" of Christ has brought in. Multitudes make an outward profession of the same; few have an experimental acquaintance with them. Again; the pre-eminence of Christianity over Judaism is entirely spiritual and cannot be discerned by the carnal eye: wherein it excels has been pointed out above—it consists of a clearer knowledge of God, a freer approach to Him, a fuller enjoyment of Him. Finally, let it be said that the attempts to find glory and satisfaction in outward forms and ceremonies is to prefer the Levitical priesthood before that of Christ’s. That is the outstanding sin of all ritualists.
A brief word needs to be added upon the parenthetic clause of verse 11: "For under it the people received the law". Its evident design was to strengthen the apostle’s argument. It is brought in as a subsidiary proof that "perfection" could not be by the Levitical priesthood. We are therefore disposed to regard "the law" here as referring to the whole system of the Mosaic economy. The passive "received the law" is a single word in the Greek, and really means "were legalized". The reference is not to bring to the actual giving of the law, but to the state of the people under it, their being brought beneath its power. The law demanded perfect righteousness, but fallen man was incapable of producing it (Rom. 3:19, 20; 8:3); nor could the Levitical priesthood effect it. Thus the only hope lay outside of themselves. "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth" (Rom. 10:4).
"For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law" (verse 12). Here the apostle names the second consequence which must be drawn from the facts stated in verses 1-10. First, the Levitical priesthood was inadequate, incapable of producing "perfection". Second, therefore it was but a temporary institution, and the whole economy connected with it must be set aside. In other words, Judaism as such, was now defunct. Thus "a change of the law" means a change of dispensation, a change of Divine administration. This at once fixes the meaning of "law" in the parenthetic clause of the previous verse. The reference is not to the ten commandments, but to the Mosaic system.
The "change also of the law" or setting aside of the Mosaic system was that to which the Jews were so strenuously opposed. They stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58, 59), and vented their rage upon Paul, on this very charge (Acts 21:28). Yea, many who professed the faith of the Gospel continued to obstinately contend that the Mosaic law remained in force (Acts 21:20). It was this same contention which caused so much trouble in the early churches, the Judaisers harassing the Gentile converts with their insistence upon circumcision and subjection to the ceremonial law. Difficult as it was for a pious Jew to believe that God should have set aside as dead and useless the whole solemn system of worship, which He had appointed in so glorious a manner and accepted for so many centuries, yet the proof that He had done so was abundant and clear. The law and the Gospel could not mix. Works and grace are antithetical. Moses must disappear when Christ was revealed: carefully compare Mark 9:5-8! So far from God’s people being the losers they are immeasurably the gainers by His bringing in the "better hope" (Heb. 7:19).
"For He of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar" (verse 13). The argument of this verse, introduced by the "for" makes it plain that it is not the moral law which the apostle had reference to at the close of the preceding verse: the closing words of the next verse make this still more evident. We mention this because certain "Dispensationalists" have appealed to Hebrews 7:12 in their misguided efforts to show that Christians are, in no sense, under the ten commandments. The moral law is not at all under discussion in this passage. 1 Corinthians 9:21, Matthew 5:18, etc. are quite sufficient to prove that the moral law has not been (and never will be) repealed.
"For He of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar". The apostle’s object here is to give further proof that the Levitical priesthood, and the entire ceremonial law, has been set aside by God. He appeals to the fact that our Lord, according to the flesh, belonged not to the tribe of Levi, and therefore His sacerdotal office was not according to the Aaronic order. The expression "attendance at the altar" signifies, "exercising priestly functions". The "these things" looks back to what is said at the end of verse 11, which receives amplification in verses 17, 21.
The honor of the Aaronic order of priesthood continued, by Divine appointment and privilege, within the bounds of the Levitical tribe: Exodus 40:12-16. None belonging to any other tribe in Israel was suffered to officiate at the altar or minister in the holy place. So strictly was this institution observed, that when one of Israel’s kings dared to violate it, the judgment of God fell immediately upon him (2 Chron. 26:18-21). In smiting Uzziah with leprosy God maintained the sanctity of His law, and gave a most solemn warning against any obtruding into holy office who have received no Divine call to it. Furthermore, this exercise of God’s severity should have been more than a hint to Israelites that when He did introduce a priest of another tribe then the priesthood of the old order must have been Divinely set aside.
"For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood" (verse 14). The opening "for" at once denotes the apostle is here continuing his proof that the Levitical priesthood and economy was now a thing of the past so far as God’s recognition of it was concerned. His words here contain a double assertion: our Lord, according to His humanity, belonged to the tribe of Judah; of that tribe Moses revealed nothing concerning priesthood. All that was needed to complete the proof of his argument was that Christ was a Priest: this he shows in the ensuing verses. The appeal made to this verse by those who deny that the Lord Jesus entered upon His priestly office till after His ascension, proceeds from such gross ignorance or malice that it deserves no direct refutation.
First, it was "evident" that our Lord "sprang"—as the "Rod" out of Jesse’s stem—from Judah. This was included in the faith of believers that the Messiah was to come out of the royal tribe. Such prophecies as Genesis 49:8-10, 2 Samuel 7:12, Isaiah 11:1-5, Micah 5:2 had made that very plain. The genealogy recorded in Matthew 1 established the same fact. Whoever therefore acknowledge the Lord Jesus to be the true Messiah, as all to whom the apostle was directly writing did, (though most of them still clung to the ceremonial law), granted that He was of the tribe of Judah. Nor did the unbelieving Jews deny it. In passing, we have noted that Judah signifies "praise": Christ still dwells in the midst of His people’s praises!
Second, about Judah Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood. The apostle’s object is to render it conclusive that God’s raising up of a Priest out of the royal tribe, must necessarily exclude all the house of Aaron from sharing His office. Moses did specify that the priesthood should be exercised by those belonging to the tribe of Levi, but he nowhere intimated that a time would come when it should be transferred to the royal family. Again we may take note of the significance of the silences of Scripture, and the justification of arguing therefrom. As, for example, no mention is made of the month in which the Savior was born, intimating that God did not intend us to celebrate the anniversary of His birth: cf. Jeremiah 7:31. Paul here reasons from the silence of Moses as being quite sufficient to show that the legal or Aaronic priesthood could not be transferred to the tribe of Judah.
"And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchizedek there ariseth another priest" (verse 15). In this and the next verse the apostle presents the third consequence which follows from the facts set forth in verses 1-10. First, he had pointed out from those facts that, it necessarily followed the Levitical priesthood was inadequate, for it was unable to bring in "perfection". Second, therefore it was evident that the Levitical priesthood could only be a temporary institution, and that the whole economy connected with and based upon it must be set aside. Third, he now insists that the priesthood of Christ must be radically different from and be immeasurably superior to the Levitical order. So much for the general scope of these two verses. Let us now attend to their details.
"And it is yet far more evident". What is it that was "far more evident"? What was the particular point to which the apostle was here calling the Hebrews’ attention? Not that Christ had sprung from the tribe of Judah, nor that He fulfilled the Melchizedek type, but that the Levitical priesthood and economy was now obsolete. The proof that this was so obvious is presented in what immediately follows. That proof may be expressed thus: the priesthood of Christ was no temporary expedient, brought in only to supply the deficiency of the Levitical order. No; it was a permanent office and abiding ministry. Therefore as God would not own two separate and different priesthoods, the former and inferior must give place to the latter. The second, "consequence" had been drawn from the tribal humanity of Christ; this third "consequence", from the character of His priesthood.
"And it is yet far more evident". It is to be carefully noted that the apostle did not say "it is far more certain". No, he was not absolutely comparing one thing with another, but comparing them only with respect to their evidential significance, the relative force of those facts to all who were capable of weighing them. The fact that God had caused our great "High Priest" to spring from the tribe of Judah rather than from that of Levi, made it obvious that the Aaronic order could no longer continue. But the further fact that He had been made "after the similitude of Melchizedek", rendered this still more obvious. The apostle is but adding argument to argument, in order to show how wrong it was for the Hebrews to still cling to Judaism.
"For that after the similitude of Melchizedek there ariseth another priest". The Greek word for "similitude" means "likeness" and occurs elsewhere only in Hebrews 4:15. The emphatic here is "another priest". It is not "allos" which means another of the same species, but "heteros", another of a totally different order: one who was a stranger to the house of Aaron. Let the reader consult Exodus 29:33, Leviticus 22:10, Numbers 16:40, and he will see how impossible it was for one from the tribe of Judah to perpetuate the Levitical priesthood. The word "ariseth" is also very emphatic. It means to be brought forth after an extraordinary manner: cf. Judges 5:7, Deuteronomy 18:18, Luke 1:69. The arising of Christ in His priestly office put an end to the Aaronic, just as His arising in the hearts of His people (2 Pet. 1:19) puts an end to their looking to anything or anyone else for salvation.
"Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life" (verse 16). This completes the sentence begun in verse 15. The apostle is still showing how manifest it was that the Levitical priesthood had been set aside, for one infinitely superior had now been set up by God. The contrast here made between the two is very striking. The Aaronic was constituted "according to the law of commandment fleshly". The same expression is used in Ephesians 2:15 to designate the whole system of worship under Judaism. This emphatic denomination may be accounted for by the fact that under it commandments were so multiplied, and because of the severity wherewith obedience was exacted. The Levitical priesthood was "carnal", First, inasmuch as the sacrifices offered at their consecration were the bodies of beasts. Second, inasmuch as the priesthood was by fleshly propagation, from father to son. Third, inasmuch as their ministration availed only to the "purifying of the flesh" (Heb. 9:13). In sharp contrast, Christ was not dedicated to His office by the sacrifice of beasts, nor did He claim any right to it by His natural descent.
"Who is made . . . after the power of an endless life". Let the reader compare our remarks on Hebrews 5:5. The Lord Christ did not merely on His own authority and power take the priestly office upon Himself, but by the appointment of His Father. The way or manner in which He was "made priest" is here stated: according to "the power of an indissoluable life". These words have been grossly wrested by those who seek to prove by them that Christ never entered upon the priestly office until after His resurrection. It is truly pitiable to find those who ought to know better echoing the errors of "annihilationists". Christ officiated as priest before His resurrection, or He could not have offered Himself as a sacrifice to God. As this will, D.V., come before us again in the 9th chapter we will say no more thereon at the present juncture.
Christ’s "indissoluable life" here has unquestionable reference to His life as the Son of God. Upon that depends His own mediatorial life forever, and His conferring eternal life upon His people: John 5:26, 27. It was only by the Mediator being made priest "after the power of an indissoluable life" that He was qualified to discharge that office, whereby God was to redeem His church with His own blood (Acts 20:28)—i.e., here called "His blood" because the humanity had been taken up into union with the second person in the Godhead. Should it be objected, But Christ died! True, yet his person still lived: though actually dead in His human nature, He was still alive in His indissoluable person, and therefore there was no interruption whatever to the discharge of His sacerdotal office; no, not for a moment. Thus the contrast between Aaron and Christ is that of a mortal man and "The King eternal, immortal, invisible" (1 Tim. 1:17).
How deeply thankful should every Christian be for such a Priest. The eternal Word became flesh. The Lord of glory stooped to become man. As the God-man He mediates between the ineffably holy God and sinful creatures. The Savior is none other than Immanuel (Matthew 1:21, 23). In His humanity, He suffered, bled and died. But in His Divine-human person He Himself quickened that humanity (John 2:19, 10:18). We profess not to understand the mystery, but by grace, we believe what the Scriptures record concerning Him. The "life" that was given to Christ as the Mediator (unlike that of His humanity) was an indestructible one. Therefore He is "a Priest forever", and therefore "He ever liveth to make intercession" (Heb. 7:25). Hallelujah!