Teaching series from Hebrews

Jesus' High Priesthood

Hebrews 5:1-11; 7:1-19

Teaching t10576


Last week we ended with the author’s pronouncement that Jesus is our new High Priest (read 4:14).  The idea of a priest is central to the Bible.  A priest is a mediator, a specially designated person who fixes the problems between two estranged parties so that access and reconciliation is restored.  We need a priest to mediate between us and God because God has a problem with us, namely our sin.  The moral guilt that results from our sin creates a barrier between us and God so that we cannot come into his presence until this barrier is removed.  So because God wants to fix this problem, he appoints a priest to do this by offering a sacrifice to pay for our sins.  Because the priest does this, we can come to God through his priest and relate to him.

In the Old Testament, the Levitical priests played this role.  God selected certain individuals from one of the 12 tribes of Israel (Levi) to act as mediators between himself and Israel.  The Levitical priests “fixed” the problem of Israel’s sins by offering up highly ritualized animal sacrifices to God on their behalf.  5:1-4 describes how the Levites played this role (read).  But by claiming that Jesus is a High Priest, the author seems to be contradicting God’s Word. 

If God chose Levites to be his High Priest, how can Jesus (not a Levite) be a High Priest?  God devoted dozens of Old Testament chapters to the Levitical priestly system (big sections of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy)—he seems to be ripping them out and throwing them away.  If God already said that his people must relate to him in this through this human priesthood in this highly ritualized way, how dare he say that this is no longer necessary?  This why he must prove that the Old Testament itself predicted that the Messiah would be part of a different priesthood that would replace the Levitical priesthood.

This is not just some dry theological issue that mattered only to first-century Jewish Christians.  This issue is super-relevant to you and me today.  Most church traditions (not just Roman Catholic, but also Orthodox and many Protestant denominations) prescribe relating to God through a human priesthood and highly ritualized worship-services that copy the Levitical priesthood system.  Many of you (like me) grew up in one of these traditions.  Why don’t we have priests and ritual-laden worship services?  Is it just because we are ornery and rebellious?  No, it is because Jesus is now our High Priest—and he doesn’t want us to relate to God that way.  I’ll show you where the author actually says this soon—but first we need to see resolve the dilemma...

The priesthood of Melchizedek

The author argues that this change in priesthood is mandated because Jesus is part of an older, superior priesthood—the  priesthood of Melchizedek (read 5:5,6,11).  Before we read his explanation of this fact, let’s look at the two Old Testament passages that talk about this priesthood.

The first passage is in Gen. 14, which briefly records a strange encounter between Abraham and this person Melchizedek.  The time is about 2100 BC—700 years before the Levitical priesthood began.  Abraham is returning from a battle in which he rescued his nephew Lot after he had been kidnapped by some wicked local rulers.  Read 14:17-20.  What a strange event!  It raises a lot of questions.  Who was this Melchizedek?  Where was Salem?  Why was he both a priest and a king?  Why did he bless Abraham and receive gifts from him?  Why did God make sure this event was recorded?  Nothing further is said about Mel—until 1100 years later when God says something very strange to David...

Read Ps.110:1-3.  David is relaying a conversation he overheard between God (“the LORD” – YHWH) and his ruler (“my lord” - Adonai).  The problem is that David is the ruler of Israel; he has no human ruler.  Who is this “lord?”  Both Jewish and Christian scholars have long agreed that David is talking about the coming Messiah—for two reasons.  David’s description of him fits the description of the Messiah in Gen.49:10 (read).  David was from the tribe of Judah, and God promised David that one of his descendents would reign permanently as God’s King (read 2Sam.7:12,13).  So David is recording a conversation between God and the future Messiah, in which God presents his kingdom to the Messiah.

But David also hears God says something else to this Messiah (read 110:4).  Wow!  Not only would the Messiah be a King from the tribe of Judah—he would also be a priest from the order of Melchizedek!  And God swears that the Messiah’s priesthood would be permanent.

So what do these two Old Testament passages tell us about relationship between the Messiah and the Levitical priesthood?  They tell us that the Messiah will be a part of an older priesthood that is superior to the Levitical priesthood, and that when he comes his priesthood will last forever.  In other words, the Old Testament itself taught that when the Messiah came, he would replace the Levitical priesthood!

Now turn to Heb.7, where the author resumes his comments about this subject.  He repeats what we have already concluded, but he also makes some additional points.

Read 7:1-3.  Melchizedek was more than an ancient priest-king; he was a prophetic picture of Jesus the Messiah (“TYPE” SLIDE)!  Both his name (“king of righteousness”) and his title (“king of peace”) were names later given to the Messiah.  The city of his reign (Jerusalem) was the future site of the Messiah’s kingly reign.  The fact that he was both a priest and a king was a picture of the Messiah, who will be both king and priest.  The absence of any reference to his human lineage implies no successor, which was a picture of the Messiah’s permanent priesthood.  Maybe even the meal he gave to Abraham (wine and bread) was a picture of the Last Supper Jesus gave his disciples—a meal he said symbolized the priestly sacrifice he was about to make.  Wow!

Read 7:4-8.  His point is that Melchizedek was clearly greater than Abraham.  Their culture dictated giving a tenth of one’s battle spoils to one’s superior/king.  It also dictated that only a greater person can bestow a blessing on someone beneath them.  So God went out of his way to record these details to show that as great as Abraham was, Melchizedek was far greater.  So why is this so important?

Read 7:9,10.  Since Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, Melchizedek’s priestly order is greater than any priestly order that would arise out of Abraham.  And since the Messiah would be a Melchizedekian priest, he would supercede the Levitical priesthood.  So the author has resolved the dilemma: Jesus’ high priesthood does not contradict the Old Testament—it fulfills it!

A new & better way to relate to God

But there is more—and it is radical.  Now that Jesus is our High Priest, it is “out with the old and in with the new.”  It is no longer appropriate to relate to God through human priests and ritualized sacrifices—whether Jewish or “Christian.”  God has set this aside and replaced it with a new and better way to relate to him.  Let’s see how he argues this...

Read 7:11.  The point is that God never planned the Levitical priesthood to be permanent.  If he had planned this, he would never have spoken of the Messiah as a Melchizedekian priest.  He sovereignly arranged the encounter between Abraham and Melchizedek, and he inspired David to say the Messiah would be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek so that his people would know that a change in priesthood was coming.

And why was the Levitical system only a temporary arrangement?  Because it never did the job—it never fixed any of the problems between us and God.  He says this again in 7:18,19 (read).  The only value of the Levitical system was that it provided prophetic pictures of Jesus (we’ll study this in the coming weeks).  But it was “weak and useless” because it never truly fixed any of the problems between us and God.  And now that Jesus has come, God has set it aside—he no longer wants us to relate to him through human priests and ritualized sacrifices.  Like TRAINING WHEELS, this system was a help for a time—but now it needs to be set aside or it will restrict the freedom that it helped to develop!

What great news this is!  Do you want more reasons why having Jesus as your High Priest is better than any system of human priests and ritualized sacrifices?  How about these:

You can be confident of God’s acceptance.  This is the best thing of all.  Like the Levitical system with its ongoing sacrifices, the other systems imply (and sometimes teach) that you have to keep observing the rituals through the priests in order to avoid God’s condemnation.  But since Jesus paid for all of your sins, you are completely and permanently forgiven if he is your High Priest.  This confidence is the key to a dynamic relationship with God!

You can experience relational closeness with God.  Human priestly systems by their very nature keep God at a distance.  You can’t relate to God directly; you have to relate to him through the priests and by observing the rituals and at special places and times.  But all of this is over if Jesus is your High Priest.  Through him, God actually indwells you through the Holy Spirit.  This means you can relate to God anywhere and any time, and you can relate to him heart to heart—sharing your problems and joys, asking him for the help you need, thanking him for his work in your life, etc.  God truly becomes your best friend and ever-present guide instead of a religious object disconnected from real life.

You can relate to God with others who know him.  Human priestly systems do not promote spiritual closeness with others.  But when Jesus is your High Priest, you become part of a new family of spiritual brothers and sisters.  You can experience closeness with God with them as you talk to him together, read and discuss his Word together, share what God is doing in your lives, help each other to follow him, etc.  This is one of the sweetest parts of relating to God through Jesus!

Do you relate to God this way—confident of his acceptance, experiencing loving intimacy with him alone and with others?  If you don’t, you can.  The whole reason that God sent Jesus was so that you could have this kind of relationship with him.  If you want this, all you need to do is tell Jesus that you want him to be your High Priest.  Ask him to pay for your sins through his death, and ask him to give you this kind of personal relationship with God.  Today could be the day you begin to experience this—are you ready