POST OVERVIEW. This fifth post in our series on Melchizedek from Hebrews 7 explores why the priesthood of Melchizedek is superior to the Levitical priesthood established by the first covenant at Sinai. (See post #574, #575, #576 and #577 for previous posts in this series.)
The objective of this series of posts is to explore and interpret Hebrews 7, which is devoted almost exclusively to a discussion about how Melchizedek relates to Jesus Christ. Our fifth post will continue to follow the author’s argument about how our High Priest, Jesus, is far superior to any old covenant priest and how the priesthood of Melchizedek is far better than the weak Levitical priesthood created by the Law.
In post #577 covering Hebrews 7:12-17, we concluded by saying that “the author has (in these verses) shown how Christ is far greater than any of the Levitical priests, for Jesus was not of the dying, sin-stained Levitical priests appointed to fulfill a commandment of the Law. Rather, He was a sinless Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek who was appointed by an oath from the LORD.”
THE AUTHOR’S POINT IN THE CHAPTER
It is true that it is difficult to follow the flow of the author’s argument in these verses, but the meaning will be revealed with persistence and diligence.
So, before we tackle these verses (7:18-22), we should begin by taking a step back from the details of the text and reminding ourselves of the author’s main point in the chapter. As he proved that Jesus is greater than angels (chapters 1-2), and as he proved that Jesus is greater than Moses (chapter 3:1-6), so here the author is demonstrating that Jesus is a greater High Priest than any priest of the Levitical order. Keeping that in mind will tend to keep us from wandering too far off the exegetical trail.
7:18. Before we again look at the details of these verses, some preliminary work is necessary. Here is Hebrews 7:18 (NAS):
18 For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness
A “former commandment” has been set aside because it was weak and useless. But the question is, “What is this ‘former commandment’?” As we scan back in the preceding verses of the chapter, we see no reference to “commandment.” What is going on here?
The solution involves a translational decision in 7:16. Where the NAS has “law of a physical requirement,” the literal Greek reads “law of a fleshly commandment.” The Greek word for “commandment” in 7:16 is the same Greek word for “commandment” in 7:18. Thus, the readers of the original Greek text would have seen the connection between 7:16 and 7:18. Therefore, the “former commandment” of 7:18 refers to the “fleshly commandment” of 7:16. The “commandment” here should be understood not as a single instruction in the Law, but rather as the entire temporary, weak Levitical priesthood and all its ceremonial laws, including the law of appointing mortal, sin-stained priests solely on the basis of physical descent.
Our exegetical work so far has yielded something like this: “For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of the old-covenant Levitical priesthood . . .” “Setting aside” is probably too weak a translation for the Greek word in the original. More to the author’s point would be “the cancellation.” Thus, “on the one hand, there is a cancellation of the old-covenant Levitical priesthood . . .”
But why was the Levitical priesthood cancelled; abolished? It was cancelled “because of its weakness and uselessness.” We have already seen the weakness of the Law’s priestly system, in that the priests were all subject to death and they were all sinners like the rest of the people. The sacrifices had to be repeated day after day and year after year because the Levitical sacrifices could only cover some unintentional sins but could not remove any. The priesthood was useless because it was unable to help men draw near to God and it was unable to bring about the justification of sinners before God. Thus, the priesthood failed at both of its chief functions.
“For, on the one hand, there is a cancellation of the old-covenant Levitical priesthood because of its weakness and uselessness”
7:19. After acknowledging what we have already shown in our exegesis, that “the Law made nothing perfect,” the author concisely states how Christ and His priesthood of Melchizedek surpass the useless Levitical priesthood. [NOTE. The word “perfect” in this verse does not convey the idea “sinless” or “without a single flaw,” as much as it means “complete” or “in its ultimate stage of development.”]
“On the other hand . . .” signals the complement to the “on the one hand” in 7:18. The Levitical priesthood has been cancelled because it was weak and useless, but Christ and His priesthood have been brought in (“there is a bringing in”). The idea is of replacement. The priesthood of Melchizedek with Christ as its great High Priest has replaced the temporary, weak, and useless priesthood of the Law.
And what do we know about this Priest according to the order of Melchizedek? We know that Christ brings in “a better hope.” He is a Priest who is able to remove sin and to provide forgiveness for any sin because He lives forever to make intercession for His people and because He has made His one all-sufficient sacrifice to atone for sin. Our Priest offers us a better hope for He has guaranteed our entrance into the heavenly dwellings.
But also, through Christ our High Priest we can draw near to God. Whereas the Levitical priests were unable to draw us near to the throne of grace because they, like us, were also sinners, through Christ the sinless one we can draw near to the Majesty on high.
So, Christ accomplishes for us all that the Levitical priests failed to do.
7:20-22. When God is going to make a solemn promise to someone, He seals that promise with an oath. Of course, all of God’s promises are certain to come to pass because God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18), but those promises which last forever are validated with an oath. The author has already given us an example of this when, in chapter 6, God guaranteed His promise to Abraham by means of an oath (6:13-18). So here in 7:20-22 we see the superiority of the priesthood of Melchizedek because this priesthood was established to last forever by an oath from the Lord. The Levitical priests became priests without an oath (7:21), but the LORD confirmed His promise to the Messiah with an oath: “You are a priest forever” (7:21, quoted from Psalm 110:4). Since an oath is far superior to a mere law of physical requirement, Jesus our High Priest “has become the guarantee of a better covenant” (7:22). The author is saying that, since the old-covenant Levitical priesthood has been replaced by the superior priesthood of Melchizedek, then the new covenant ushered in by this new priesthood is a better covenant.
Simply put, a better High Priest from a better priesthood guarantees a better covenant.
Our next article will be Part 6 and will conclude this series by covering Hebrews 7:23-28.
SDG rmb 10/10/2022 #580