An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Perfect Priest
"This chapter is a continuation of the argument which has been prosecuted in the previous chapters respecting the priesthood of Christ. The apostle had demonstrated that He was to be a priest, and that he was to be, not of the Levitical order, but of the order of Melchizedek. As a consequence, he had proved that this involved a change of the law, appointing the priesthood, and that in respect to permanency and happy moral influence, the priesthood of Christ far surpassed the Jewish. This thought he pursues in the chapter, and shows particularly that it involved a change in the nature of the covenant between God and His people. In the prosecution of this, he (1) states the sum or principal point of the whole matter under discussion—that the priesthood of Christ was real and permanent, while that of the Hebrew economy was typical, and was destined in its own nature to be temporary: verses 1-3. (2) There was a fitness and propriety of His being removed to heaven to perform the functions of His office there—since if He had remained on earth, He could not have officiated as priest, that duty being by the law of Moses entrusted to others pertaining to another tribe: verses 4, 5. (3). Christ had obtained a more exalted ministry than the Jewish priests held, because He was the Mediator in a better covenant—a covenant that related rather to the heart than to external observances: verses 6-13" (Albert Barnes).
The above is perhaps about as good an analysis of Hebrews 8 as can be supplied. We too are satisfied that the passage which is before us is both a continuation and a summarization of the whole preceding discussion of the apostle. In the previous chapters he has produced indubitable proof that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, is the great High Priest of God’s people, infinitely superior to all the priests who went before Him. The closing verses of chapter 7 especially, supply a conclusive demonstration that He was priest and exercised the priestly office, while He was here on earth, and which He is now continuing to do in heaven. First, the description given of Him as "High Priest" in Hebrews 7:26 has no pertinency whatever if it treats of what He was here upon earth. Take the expression, "undefiled"—what is there in heaven to defile? Nothing whatever· But understanding it to describe one of Christ’s perfections while He was here in the world, it is full of significance.
Rightly did George Smeaton declare, "Hebrews 7:26, 27 show Christ on earth, as both Priest and Sacrifice. The ‘such’ of verse 26 refers not back to verses 1-25, but to verse 27, cf. Hebrews 8:1. The qualifications described, holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, are descriptive of what He was here on earth when brought into contact with sin and sinners". Again; mark well the expression, "made higher than the heavens" in Hebrews 7:26. Who was? The first part of the verse tells us: our "High Priest"! Note also that the last clause of verse 27, "this He did once, when He offered up Himself". Who did "this"? Who is the "He"? The Lord Jesus, of course· And in what specific character is He there viewed? Why, as "High Priest". As we are told in Hebrews 2:17, "He was a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation (Greek) for the sins of the people", and as Romans 3:25 plainly declares, He made propitiation at the cross. So again, in Hebrews 4:14 we read, "Seeing then that we have a great High Priest that is passed into the heavens". He did not enter heaven to become a priest, He was "Priest" when He "passed into the heavens". Language could not be plainer.
There is no excuse whatever for a mistake at this point, and our only reason for laboring it is that many who have boasted so loudly of their orthodoxy have systematically denied it. That Christ’s sacrifice was a priestly one is clear from Ephesians 5:2, "Christ . . . hath given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God": not only as a "sacrifice" but as "an offering", and none offered to God the sacrifices of Israel save the priests. That Christ did not become Priest after He entered into heaven is also unequivocally established by Hebrews 9:11, 12, "But Christ being come an High Priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands . . . by His own blood He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us". He passed into heaven in the capacity of High Priest. Therefore we say that they who teach Christ became priest after His ascension are unconsciously or consciously, ignorantly or maliciously, corrupting the Truth of God and denying one of the most cardinal articles of our holy faith.
The line of argument followed by the apostle in the opening verses of Hebrews 8 is not easily perceived. So far as the Lord has deigned to open their meaning to us, we understand it to be thus: Since Christ has ascended to the right hand of God, and now sits there as a Priest upon His throne, proof has been given that He is not a Minister of the earthly and Jewish sanctuary, but of the antitypical and heavenly one. Having set forth in chapter 7 the pre-eminence of Christ’s priesthood over the Aaronic order and His all-sufficient qualifications for the office, the apostle now proceeds to evince His faithful execution of the same, and this, to the end of Hebrews 10:19. In chapter 7 it is the excellency of our High Priest’s person which is demonstrated; here in Hebrews chapter 8 it is His ministry which is contemplated. Note how in verse 2 He is spoken of as "a Minister of the sanctuary", that in verse 3 He has "somewhat also to offer", and observe the word "serve" in verse 5 and "ministry" in verse 6. In chapter 8 we are further shown the excellency of our Redeemer’s sacerdotal office, first, from the high Sanctuary in which it is now exercised (verses 1-5); second, from its functions corresponding with the better Covenant with which it is connected (verses 6-13).
"Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an High Priest who is set on the right hand of the throne of the majesty in the heavens" (verse 1). The participle is in the present tense and should be rendered "of the things of which we are speaking" (cf. Revised Version), the general reference being to the entire contents of the epistle, the specific to what is found in Hebrews 4:14 to Hebrews 10:18. "This is the sum" or crowning point: it is here that all the previous teaching of the epistle culminates, for the priesthood of Christ is, really, its distinguishing theme.
"We have such an High Priest", looks back, particularly, to Hebrews 7:26. John Brown pointed out the very close connection which exists between the closing verses of Hebrews chapter 7 and the opening ones of Hebrews chapter 8, thus, "It is to be borne in mind that the high-priesthood of Jesus Christ is the great subject of discussion in the section of the epistle of which these words form a part; and that, after having shown the reality of our Lord’s high priesthood by two arguments (Heb. chapter 5)—the one derived from His legitimate investiture with this office, the other from His successful discharge of its functions—the apostle proceeds to show the pre-eminent excellence and dignity of our Lord’s high-priesthood. He, with much ingenuity, deduces four arguments for the superiority of our Lord’s priesthood to that of Aaron and his sons from the ancient oracle recorded in Psalm 110:4: ‘The Lord hath sworn and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’. A fifth argument suggested by, though not so wholly grounded on, this ancient oracle, is entered on in Hebrews 7:26, and is prosecuted, if we mistake not, down to the middle of the 6th verse of Hebrews chapter 8, where a new argument for the superiority of our Lord to the Aaronical priests obviously commences, the substance of which is this:—The superiority of our Lord’s priesthood above that of Aaron and his sons is evident from the superior excellence of the covenant with which His priesthood is connected.
"The substance of the argument contained at the middle of verse 6 of Hebrews chapter 8, may be thus expressed:—To fit a person for the successful discharge of the priesthood in reference to man, certain qualifications are necessary. These qualifications are wanting in the Aaronical priesthood: they are to be found in the highest perfection in Christ Jesus. We, that is, men, need a high priest ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, made higher than the heavens’. Jewish priests do not answer to this description: Jesus Christ does. In Him we, Christians, have such a High Priest; and the conclusion is, He has received ‘a more excellent ministry’. In this way, I apprehend, everything hangs well together, and the apostle’s argumentative illustration appears complete and satisfactory. Indeed, the recurrence of the phrase ‘such a high priest’ (Heb. 7:26), and ‘we have such a high priest’ (Heb. 8:1), seems intended for the express purpose of showing that the train of thought is continuous."
"We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens". These words point another contrast between Christ and the Levitical priests. It is true that our Lord Jesus entered for a season, a condition of deep humiliation, taking upon Him the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of sin’s flesh; and this was necessary unto the sacrifice which He was to offer. But as to His durable and abiding state, wherein He continues to discharge His priestly office, He is incomparably exalted above Aaron and his successors. After the Jewish high priest had offered the annual sacrifice of expiation unto God, he passed within the veil with the blood, presenting it before Him. But he stood before the typical mercy seat with holy awe, and upon the fulfillment of his duty immediately withdrew. But Christ, after He had offered His sacrifice unto God, entered heaven itself, not to stand in humble reverence before the throne, but to sit at God’s right hand; and that, not for a season, but forevermore.
The immediate design of the Holy Spirit was to comfort the hearts and establish the faith of the sorely-tried Hebrews, who were constantly represented by their unbelieving fellows for no longer having fellowship with the sacred rites of Judaism, and thus, in their esteem, being without any temple, priest or sacrifice. The apostle therefore reminds them again that "We have such an High Priest", who, though invisible, has been exalted in dignity and glory far above those who serve under the law of a carnal commandment. For Christians today the "we have such an High Priest" defines the relation of Christ to God’s elect: fallen angels and reprobate sinners have no High Priest, that is one reason why their punishment shall be eternal—there will never be a Mediator to plead their cause.
The great object before the apostle in this epistle was to present that which was calculated to draw the hearts of the Hebrews away from the temple at Jerusalem, to the true Sanctuary of Christian worship on High. It is for that reason that the ascension of Christ occupies so prominent a place in it. One of the objections which carnal critics have advanced against the Pauline authorship of Hebrews is the fact that only once (Heb. 13:20) is the resurrection of Christ directly referred to, whereas in all the other epistles of Paul it is given a place of great prominence. But the reason for this is easily accounted for. The emphasis in Hebrews is placed upon Christ’s being at God’s right hand (Heb. 1:3, 1:13, 8:1, 8:9, 10:12, 12:2) for the purpose of assuring those who were deprived of the temple-services in Jerusalem, that they had the reality and substance of those things which were merely typical and temporary, and that the real Sanctuary was not on earth, but in heaven, and there Christ Himself is now officiating.
"Who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens". The exalted position which our great High Priest now occupies should commend both His person and His office in our esteem and assure us what abundant cause we have for expecting the successful discharge of its functions. Who is "set" or "seated": Acts 7:55 warns us against interpreting this in a carnal or literal manner. With Hebrews 8:1 should be compared Hebrews 1:3 (see our comments thereon) and Hebrews 12:2. There are some verbal variations to be noted. In Hebrews 1:3, where Christ’s personal glory as "Son" is in view, there was no need to mention "the throne". In Hebrews 12:2, where it is the reward of the man Christ Jesus, the "throne" is seen, but the "Majesty in the heavens" is not added. Here, in Hebrews 8:1, where the dignity and glory of His priestly office is affirmed, we have mentioned both "the throne" and the "Majesty" of God.
"A Minister of the sanctuary" (verse 2). This is exceedingly blessed. "Having declared the glory and dignity which He is exalted unto, as sitting down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, what can be farther expected from Him? There He lives, eternally happy in the enjoyment of His own blessedness and glory. Is it not reasonable it should be so, after all the hardships and miseries which He, being the Son of God, underwent in this world? Who can expect that He should any longer condescend unto office and duty? Neither generally have men any other thoughts concerning Him. But where then would lie the advantage of the Church in His exaltation which the apostle designs in an especial manner to demonstrate"? (John Owen).
Our blessed Redeemer, in His exalted glory, still condescends to exercise the office of a public minister in the behalf of His Church. It is required that our faith should not only apprehend what Christ did for us while He was here on earth, but also appropriate what He is now doing for His people in heaven. Indeed, the very life and efficacy of the whole of His mediation depends upon His present work on our behalf. Nowhere does the marvelous grace and the wondrous love of the Savior more gloriously appear than in the ministry in which He is now constantly engaged. As all the shame, suffering, and pains of death deterred Him not from making an oblation for His people, so all the honor and glory, dignity and dominion with which He is now invested, diverts Him not from presenting its virtues before God and pressing for its blessings to be bestowed upon those for whom it was offered. His attention is still concentrated on His poor people in this wilderness world.
The "Sanctuary" in which our great High Priest ministers is Heaven itself: cf. Hebrews 9:24, 10:19. It is the place where the majesty and glory of God are most fully displayed. "He looked down from the height of His sanctuary, from heaven did the Lord behold the earth" (Ps. 102:19). Heaven is here called "the Sanctuary" because it is there really dwells and actually abides all that was typically prefigured in the holy places of Israel’s tabernacle. In the heavenly Sanctuary does Christ now discharge His priestly office for the good of His Church. It was a joyful time for Israel when Aaron entered the holy of holies, for he carried with him the blood which made atonement for all their sins. So the presence of Christ in heaven, pleading the efficacy of His meritorious blood, should fill the hearts of His people with joy unspeakable: cf. John 14:28.
"And of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man" (verse 2). This is not, as so many have supposed, an amplification of the preceding clause, but instead, a quite distinct thing. The word "true" is not here used in opposition to what is false (the temples of the heathen), but in contrast from the tabernacle of Israel, which was typical, shadowy, temporary. It has the force of that which is real, solid, and abiding. Israel’s tabernacle was but an effigy of the antitypical one. "Moses gave you not that bread from heaven, but My Father giveth you the true Bread from heaven" (John 6:32), gives the force of the term. But what is the "true tabernacle" here referred to? We answer, the Redeemer’s humanity, in which He ministers before God on high. In proof of this note, First, the metaphor of a "tabernacle" is used for the body of man in 2 Corinthians 5:1 and 2 Peter 1:13. Second, the Holy Spirit has expressly used this term (in the Greek) in John 1:14, "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us". Third, in Hebrews 9:11 "tabernacle" manifestly refers to Christ’s humanity—observe it is there distinguished from "the holy place" (sanctuary) in Hebrews 9:12!
In addition to what has been said above, it should be pointed out that the tabernacle of Israel was the outstanding Old Testament type of the incarnate Redeemer. We have more fully developed this wondrous and beautiful truth in our exposition of John 1:14, to which we would refer the interested reader. Here we must confine ourselves to only two or three details. God sanctified Israel’s tabernacle as a place to dwell in (Ex. 29:44, 45); so in Christ "dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9). God’s glory was most conspicuously manifested in the tabernacle—"The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Ex. 40:34); so of Christ the apostle declared "we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father" (John 1:14). In the tabernacle, sacrifices and incense were offered to God, and all holy services were performed; so Christ in His body offered up His own sacrifice, prayers, and all holy services (Heb. 5:7, 10:5). To the tabernacle the people brought all their offerings (Lev. 1:3), so must we bring all ours to Christ (Heb. 13:15).
"The true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man". Here there is a manifest reference to the virgin-birth, the supernatural character of our Lord’s humanity, being parallel with "A body hast Thou prepared Me" (Heb. 10:5). The verb, "pitched" is a word proper unto the erection and establishment of a tabernacle—the fixing of stakes and pillars, with the fastening of cords thereto, was the principal means of setting up one (Isa. 54:2). It is the preparation of Christ’s humanity which is signified: a body which was to be taken down, folded up for a season, and afterwards to be erected again, without the breaking or loss of any part of it. "Which the Lord pitched" shows the Divine origin of Christ’s humanity: cf. Matthew 1:20. The words "and not man" declare that no human father was concerned with His generation: cf. Luke 1:34,35.
"For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer" (verse 3). The opening word of this verse intimates that the apostle is here supplying a confirmation of what he had declared in verses 1, 2. He argues from a general to a particular: "every high priest is ordained to offer" (that being the specific purpose for which God calls him to this office) therefore, Christ, the great High Priest, must also have been ordained for that end. Thus, the Lord Jesus has done and is still doing that which appertains to the antitypical Sanctuary.
In the opening verses of our chapter we behold the Redeemer in the heavenly sanctuary, ministering there before God on the behalf of His people. "But how did He enter into this sanctuary? The high priests under the law entered into their sanctuary after having offered a sacrifice; and so also did the great High Priest of our profession. ‘For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer’. No attentive reader can help being sensible that these words, taken by themselves, do not convey a distinct, complete, satisfactory meaning. The statement is obviously elliptical; and the following seems to be the most probable way of supplying the ellipsis: We have a High Priest which has entered into the heavenly sanctuary, the true holy of holies. Every high priest is appointed to offer up sacrificial gifts in order to his entrance into the earthly sanctuary: it was necessary, as the antitype must correspond to the type, that this illustrious Priest should have somewhat also to offer, for the purpose of opening His way into the true sanctuary.
"Christ’s being there, in the heavenly sanctuary, is the proof at once that an expiatory sacrifice has been offered, and that that sacrifice has been effectual. And what was this ‘somewhat’ which it was necessary that He should offer in order to His entering into the true sanctuary? We have but to look back to find the answer. It was ‘Himself’, ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners’. His perfect, cheerful obedience to the preceptive part of the Divine law, and His perfect, cheerful obedience to the sanctioning part of it, opened for Him, as a High Priest, His way into that true holy place, where in the presence of God He acts as a public functionary in the name of His redeemed ones.
"It is plain that He could not have the sacrifices prescribed by the law to offer, for He did not belong to that class of persons to whom the offering of those was by law restricted; but He had a better sacrifice: read Hebrews 10:5-13" (John Brown). "The apostle intends to show (verse 3) that Christ’s priesthood cannot co-exist with the Levitical priesthood. He proves it in this way:—The law appointed priests to offer sacrifices to God; it hence appears that the priesthood is an empty name without a sacrifice. But Christ had no sacrifice such as was offered under the law; it hence follows that His priesthood is not earthly or carnal, but one of a more excellent character" (John Calvin).
Thus far the Holy Spirit has affirmed that the great High Priest of Christians is enthroned in heaven (verse 1); that He is there a "Minister", serving in the antitypical Sanctuary, and that, in the "true tabernacle", His own humanity (verse 2); and that His right to entrance there was His own perfect sacrifice (verse 3). He now declares, "For if He were on earth, He should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law" (verse 4). The opening "For" looks back to what had been declared in verses 1,2, and introduces a further proof that the continuation of Christ’s priestly ministry must be in the heavenly sanctuary. The earthly system, Judaism, had its own priests who offered gifts "according to the law." "This mere earthly, typical, inferior priesthood has been already provided for, its rules are fixed, and the order of men defined who fill its functions; and according to those rules, Christ Jesus could not be one of them, not being of the right tribe. The fact, therefore, that He has priestly functions, a fact before proved, shows that His priesthood is in a different sanctuary" (F.S. Sampson).
This 4th verse is the one that is most appealed to by those who deny that Christ entered the priestly office before His ascension. But if it be examined carefully in the light of its setting, nothing whatever is to be found in it which favors the Socinian view. That which the apostle is treating of here in chapter 8 is the full execution of the whole of Christ’s priesthood: thereunto belonged not only the once oblation of Himself, but His continual intercession as well. Now that intercession must be made in heaven, at God’s right hand. We say "must" for the Old Testament types require it. Aaron had to carry incense, as well as blood, into the holy of holies (Lev. 16). Had Christ remained on earth after His resurrection, only half of His priestly work had been performed. His ascension was necessary for the maintenance of God’s governmental rights, for the vindication of the Redeemer Himself, and for the well-being of His people; that what He had begun on earth might be continued, consummated and fully accomplished in heaven. The expiatory sacrifice of Christ had been offered once for all, but He must take His place as an Intercessor at God’s right hand, if His Church should enjoy the benefits of it.
In this 4th verse the apostle is not only confirming his statement in verses 1,2, but he is also anticipating the objecting Jews: But you Christians have no high priest on earth! True, says the apostle, and well it is that we do not. It is to be carefully noted that the Spirit does not here say that when Christ was on earth He was not a Priest—no, He would not flatly contradict what he had plainly affirmed in Hebrews 2:17, 5:7-9, 7:26, 27. Instead, He says "If He were on earth," that is, had He remained here, He would not have completely discharged His sacerdotal functions. Had Christ stayed on earth, He had left His office imperfect, seeing that His people needed One to "appear in the presence of God" (Heb. 9:24) for them. If Aaron had only offered sacrifice at the brazen altar, and had not carried the blood within the veil, he had left his work only half done.
"Seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law" (verse 4). This states the reason why Christ had not been a perfect priest if He had not gone to heaven: there were already priests, and that, of a tribe which He was not of, that offered gifts on earth, yea, had done so long before He became incarnate. Therefore if the entire design of Christ’s priesthood had been merely to be a priest on earth, they would plead possession before Him. But, as verse 5 immediately proceeds to tell us, those priests only served "unto the example and shadow of heavenly things." Nothing but a real priesthood in heaven could supercede and abolish theirs. This is brought out plainly in Hebrews 9:8: the "first tabernacle" was to stand until a Priest went into heaven and executed that office there: so that if Christ is to be Priest alone, He must become a Priest interceding in heaven, or otherwise, the Levitical priests would share that office with Him.
To sum up. The first clause of verse 4 is not an absolute, but a relative statement: "For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest". And why? "Seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law", that is, the place is already occupied. Yes, but what place? Why that of offering gifts according to the law. Since Christ was above the law, the ideal and perfect Priest, He could not officiate in the temple at Jerusalem, for not only did His fleshly descent from Judah hinder this, but the sanctuary in which He now presents His sacrifice must correspond in dignity to the supreme excellency of His office. Thus, so far from His absence from the earth casting any suspicion on Him it is the necessary consequence of His being who He is and of having done what He has done.
"Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith He, thou make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount" (verse 5). Here the apostle furnishes further proof of what he had said at the beginning of verse 4. The presence of the type necessarily implies the absence of the Antitype (cf. Hebrews 9:8-10), because the very nature of a type is to symbolize visibly an absent and unseen reality. From the Divine viewpoint, Judaism was set aside, ended, when God rent the veil of the temple (Matthew 27:51); but from the human, it was not abolished till Titus destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Israel’s priests still served, but the only significance of their ministry was a typical one.
The design of the Spirit in verse 5 is obvious. There was something above and beyond the material tabernacle which God prescribed to Moses: that which he built, only furnished a faint foreshadowing of spiritual and heavenly realities, which are now actualized by Christ on High. The entire ministry of Israel’s priests had to do with earthly and carnal things, which provided but a dim outline of things above. The word "example" signifies type, and is rendered "figures" in Hebrews 9:24. The term "shadow" means an adumbration, and is opposed to the substance or reality; see Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 10:1. "Shadows" are but fading and transitory, have no substance of themselves, and but darkly represent.
"See, saith He, thou make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount." "This passage is found in Exodus 25:40, and the apostle adduces it here on purpose, so that he might prove that the whole service according to the Law was nothing more than a picture, as it were, designed to shadow forth what is found spiritually in Christ" (John Calvin).
The practical application to us of the teaching of verse 5 is: Christians ought to exercise the utmost care and diligence to ascertain the revealed mind of God in what He requires from us in our worship of Him. Though Moses was learned in all the wisdom of Egypt, that was of no value or avail when it came to spiritual acts. He must do all things precisely as Jehovah ordered. In connection with what is styled "Divine worship" today, the great majority of professing Christians follow the dictates of their own wisdom, or inclination of their fleshly lusts, rather than Holy Scripture. Others mechanically follow the traditions of their fathers, or the requirements of popular custom. The result is that the Holy Spirit is grieved and quenched by the worldly inventions of carnal men, and Christ is outside the whole thing. Far better not to worship God at all, than to mock Him with human "will worship" (Col. 2:23). Far better to worship Him scripturally in the seclusion of our homes, than fellowship the abominable mockery that is now going on in almost all of the so-called "churches".