Sermon preached on Hebrews 7:11-19 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 8/5/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Through Which We Draw Near to God”
True religion has long been about having fellowship with the one true God. Before man’s fall into sin, Adam had fellowship with God in the garden. Yet, at the fall into sin, mankind fractured that fellowship with God. Remember, Adam and Eve’s first reaction after that sin: they tried to hide from the all holy God. Surely, they feared punishment from the all holy God; they dared not approach him! And it’s been that way ever since. True religion has always needed to deal with our problem of sin, so we could have fellowship with God. That’s why, for example, the Old Testament worship among God’s people involved so many kinds of sacrifices for sin. The job of the Levitical priests under that old covenant was to intercede to God on behalf of sinful people with various sacrifices that attempted to atone for their sin. This arrangement was a gracious provision by God so that under the old covenant the people could be granted a measure of access to God. Yet, as we learn in the book of Hebrews, that Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system under the old covenant was always provisional. It was never meant to be a permanent solution. That permanent solution came in Jesus Christ and his better priesthood. That’s what this passage helps us to learn more about today. Last week’s passage showed us how the priesthood of Melchizedek was better than the Levitical priesthood. That idea is then advanced today when we see that Melchizedek was only a type of Jesus Christ. And so, if Melchizedek’s priesthood was better than the Levite’s, then we see how much more is Jesus’ priesthood better! That is what we look at today.
Today’s passage has a chiastic structure, meaning that the ideas are grouped and repeated in reverse order, making a sort of sandwich with different symmetrical layers. So, the first point will be the outermost idea presented here. This is about the idea of attaining perfection which we find addressed in the opening and closing verse of our passage, verses 11 and 19. Beginning then with verse 11, Hebrews asserts that the Levitical priesthood couldn’t bring perfection. The Greek word for perfection can carry the sense of completion or fulfillment. The idea seems to basically be this: God came up with a plan of redemption, but the Levitical priesthood on its own would never be able to realize that. Yes, God’s plan included the Levitical priesthood for a time, but that priesthood could never bring his plan across the finish line. God’s plan had as its goal to redeem a special people unto himself. Hebrews says here that the Levitical priesthood, on its own, could never get the people to that final goal. I love how Hebrews make that point. In putting this Old Testament institution in its place, it does so with Old Testament scripture. Verse 11 points us again to Psalm 110:4 where King David received the prophecy from God that the Messiah would also be a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Psalm 110 was a prophecy that God gave long after he gave the command to Moses under the law to establish the Levitical priesthood. Hebrews states what is implied. If the Levitical priesthood could accomplish everything God intended for his plan of salvation, there wouldn’t be need for another priest to rise up of a different order. When this later prophecy of Psalm 110:4 was delivered, God was letting his people know that the Levitical priesthood wasn’t sufficient. It couldn’t perfect, it couldn’t complete, the salvation of God’s people. There would need to be another priesthood who would complete the work.
Verse 19 then gives us two additional thoughts in this regard. Look with me there. First, in returning to the notion of perfection, Hebrews concludes that the law made nothing perfect. And so there he connects the Levitical priesthood with the law. That’s something we’ll develop further in our second point for today. But the point for now is that it is not just the priesthood specifically, but what he describes as the law more generally, that couldn’t perfect God’s people and complete their salvation.
Second, verse 19 explains more of what this perfection involves. It speaks of the hope of drawing near to God. In other words, it’s that fellowship I mentioned at the start. God’s goal of redemption is that he’d have a people who are in fellowship with him. And so, this passage is saying that the Levitical priesthood wasn’t sufficient to fully secure this access to God. That priesthood could never on its own deal adequately with sin. If there was nothing else to come, no greater priestly ministry, then God’s people couldn’t draw near to God. Of course, there was a way in which the people had some degree of access to God under ministry of the Levitical priesthood. But Hebrews’ point is that this access could never be realized in the full and complete sense God intended apart from the future priestly ministry of the Christ. Hebrews rests this point in Psalm 110:4 which is quoted there again explicitly in verse 17.
That’s the first point then; to see the insufficiency of the Levitical priesthood to bring God’s plan of salvation to completion. So then, the second main idea in this passage comes layered in verses 12 and 18. It’s about the change of the priesthood and law. Looking first at verse 12, we see this connection between priesthood and law. The logic is straightforward. It’s saying that if Psalm 110 says another priest is coming, then that is signaling a change, an abrogation, in the existing priesthood. It then says that if there is a change in priesthood, then that inherently requires a change in the law since it was the law that instituted the previous Levitical priesthood. So, the bottom line is that Hebrews sees Psalm 110:4’s prophecy of a coming non-Levitical priesthood as effecting a change in the law once that priesthood arrives.
At this point, it would be helpful to ask what this passage has in mind when it talks about the law. In the New Testament, this same Greek word for “law” is used to refer to different things. Sometimes it can refer to God’s various moral laws of what is ethically right and wrong, like what we have summarized in the Ten Commandments. But that surely is not what is referred to here, because that never changes. Other times, this word for “law” has particularly in mind all the various ceremonial laws under the old covenant; everything associated with the sacrificial system and the Levitical priesthood, dealing with the people’s worship of God, especially in the Tabernacle. Well, that is at least what Hebrews has in mind here based on the context which pairs the law so closely with the priesthood. Similarly, the word “law” here is sometimes used in Scripture to refer to the whole Mosaic economy, that covenant which God entered into with his people at Mt. Sinai, which we sometimes simply refer to as the old covenant. Arguably, Hebrews may have in mind the whole old covenant here when it speaks of a change of law. Hebrews definitely has that in mind when we get to next chapter. There, he explicitly talks about the change from the old covenant to the new. So, at a bare minimum here he refers to the laws being changed regarding the priestly ministry, though likely he is already beginning to talk about the whole old covenant being changed. That seems to be a logical conclusion because it’s hard to see how the old covenant doesn’t inherently have to be changed if the priesthood and sacrificial system get changed.
Well, if verse 12 said that the law and priesthood was being changed, verse 18 takes it a step further. There it uses an even stronger word to say that the former commandment was being annulled – a legal word for it being cancelled. This is being stated in parallel with verse 12. At a bare minimum, he’s saying that the law’s provision for the Levitical priesthood has been annulled. But based on what we said in verse 12, we can’t help but notice how this essentially applies to the whole Mosaic economy and covenant. To annul the Levitical priesthood is to change the whole law. Clearly that connection is warranted because of the very next verse again mentioning the law (verse 19).
Think of how dramatic of a statement this is, that the law was being changed and canceled. Remember, this is why the Jews arrested Stephen and ultimately killed him, because they believed he was speaking against the law, Acts 6:13. And just to add insult to injury, verse 18 says why that law is being annulled – because it is weak and unprofitable. In other words, it’s as what we said before: it couldn’t bring to completion God’s plan of redemption. And so, if you were a Jewish Christian back then having any nostalgia or desire for the old covenant priesthood and rituals, this book would have boldly confronted you. The things of the old covenant, including its priesthood, had become obsolete in light of the coming of Christ. There’s no going back to that, now that Christ had come. It’s almost like going back to a dial-up modem after you get high speed Internet, though that analogy falls grossly short, and I digress. But the point is that it would have been shocking and even offensive to so many at that time to say that the law and its Levitical priesthood had become obsolete. Yet, the author of Hebrews is saying that this isn’t something they made up at that time. Per verse 17, Hebrews is saying that God himself in the Old Testament declared this all the way back in Psalm 110:4. As a side note of application, we learn hear that later revelation can often shed more light on earlier revelation and therefore we should look to use later revelation to help us interpret earlier revelation. Certainly, the New Testament helps us to better understand the Old Testament!
A typical question that gets asked at a point like this – why then the law? If the Levitical priesthood was going to get replaced with a better priesthood and the law was going to get replaced with a new covenant, why did God command such things in the first place? Well, the Bible gives us various positive reasons, but I’ll give just one for today: it promoted faith in God’s promise until the promise was fulfilled. You see, the Levitical priesthood served to acknowledge sin and its need for atonement through a sacrifice. The priesthood was typological until the greater priest arrived who would provide a sufficient sacrifice to atone for the sins of God’s people. And so, if the people under the old covenant had made the Levitical priesthood an end in itself, they would have stumbled. Rather they should have been faithful to the law and its Levitical priesthood as an expression of faith in God’s promised redemption that would one day come.
That leads us then to the third and central point of this passage. It comes right at the center, first in verses 13-14 and then developed further in verses 15-17. It’s about Jesus Christ’s superior priesthood. Here it becomes clear that though Hebrews had been talking about Melchizedek having a better priesthood than the Levitical priesthood, he’s ultimately been talking about Jesus. This switch becomes clear in verses 13-14 when he mentions the tribe of the one he’s been talking about. He’s not of the tribe Levi. He is of the tribe of Judah. Verse 14 asserts that of Jesus as common knowledge, while calling Jesus “our Lord”. Interestingly, Jewish rabbinical thought not only recognized a priesthood that was distinct from the kingship, but they would have also said that the king was ultimately subservient to the priesthood. But here Hebrews as well as Psalm 110 bring the two together. Hebrews acknowledges here in verse 14 that this is something that the Moses never spoke about. There is a possible allusion here to something that Moses did talk about. When it says in verse 14 that “our LORD arose from Judah”, the word “arose” is the same Greek word used in the LXX from Numbers 24:17, a messianic passage about a star rising out of Jacob. But even in that passage in Numbers, the emphasis is on the work of a king, not a priest. The point remains that Moses never wrote about a priest coming from the tribe of Judah. That revelation did not come until David brought it in Psalm 110:4. But all this just heightens the point that has been already made. If Moses did not speak of a Judean priesthood, then the law does not institute a Judean priesthood. Thus, the law is changed and abrogated by Psalm 110:4. More specifically, the law is abrogated by the one who comes in fulfillment of Psalm 110:4. And Hebrews is identifying that as happening in Jesus.
That’s the other part of this third point, in verses 15-17. There we see the clarification made between Melchizedek and Jesus. Verse 15 says that Jesus came in the likeness of Melchizedek. In other words, as we said last time, Melchizedek was not some pre-incarnate manifestation of the Christ. But he was a type of the Christ to come in several ways. Melchizedek stood above the Levites in terms of priesthood; so too does Christ. Melchizedek’s priesthood was not dependent on genealogy; neither was Jesus’. Melchizedek was described as holding his office as priest indefinitely. So too, we see here with Christ the emphasis on his being a priest forever. This is stated in verse 16 in contrast to the Levitical arrangement. For the Levites, their priesthood was based on fleshly descent; one generation to the next, from the line of Aaron, one priest’s service ends and the next begins. But Jesus’ priesthood is not a fleshly or temporary priesthood. It is a forever priesthood according the power of his endless life. When it speaks of his endless life, it sees Jesus’ priesthood connected with his resurrection life. As Jesus rose from the dead he effectively entered into the age to come; something beyond the flesh of this life. He took on priesthood into the eternity of the age to come. As we’ll see as we study further in Hebrews, his priestly ministry, likewise, was not like the Levites which is done in an earthly tabernacle. Rather, Jesus’ superior priestly ministry was done and is done in the true, heavenly tabernacle, the real Holy of Holies. But the point here, is that Jesus’ resurrection authenticated that he was the one that Psalm 110:4 testified about. Therefore, Jesus is the one who has come and abolished the old priesthood and the old law. Jesus has come and brought this new priesthood; with the coming of the new order, the old had become obsolete. Thus, by way of application, we no longer have an earthly priesthood like they did under the old covenant.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, this passage declares that Jesus’ priesthood came to accomplish what the Levitical priesthood only foreshadowed and prefigured. The result now for us as Christians is to have a better hope, verse 19. Yes, the saints of old could and did hope. And we see what the hope is hoping for in verse 19. The hope of drawing near to God. The hope of having fellowship and access to God. But that hope could only truly come if our sin was dealt with. And so, the saints of old had to hope in something yet to be accomplished, that one day their sins would be truly atoned for. Our hope now is in that which Christ has already accomplished as our high priest. He made purification for our sins at the cross, Hebrews 1:3. So then, Christ has made perfect that which the law could not. Since he did completely accomplish the atonement, our problem of sin has been resolved. We now do have unrestricted spiritual access to God. We do have true fellowship with our Heavenly Father. Already this is true and already we can approach God in things like worship and prayer. And we also know that Jesus has promised ultimately to return and bring us to glory where we will even physically be in the presence of God for eternity. In other words, in glory we will have an access to God in an even greater way. What Jesus has needed to accomplish, this, he has done at the cross. That is why then we have a better hope than they had under the old covenant. They had to hope in the promise. We get to hope in the fulfillment. The law couldn’t complete our salvation; but Jesus can and has. Jesus has both already and not yet completed or perfected our salvation. That which he has already completed in our justification should strengthen our hope in the final completion of our glorification.
Let us then in faith make use of this great access to God that we have already begun to experience. Let us pray. Let us worship. Let us draw near to him for help. Let us enjoy the peace and comfort we receive from him in this life. Let us rejoice at the fellowship we have with our creator. In all of this, we look forward to final consummation of this fellowship that we will have with God in glory forever. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.