This is one of the rare sermons which is clearly the second part of a two-part series that we started last week, so I feel like it’s only appropriate that we do something equivalent to what they do on a television series, a kind of “previously on Melchizedek and the superior priesthood of Christ” bit. So, here we go. If you were here last week, this will jog your memory a bit, and if you weren’t here last week, this will provide the context for the sermon text this morning.
This letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians, who were feeling the pull to walk away from Jesus and go back to the merely Jewish practices of worship they would have been about before they professed faith in Christ (e.g., sacrifices, priests, temple, etc.). I think (based on ch. 10) that the most likely reason they were tempted to walk away from their profession of faith is because they had endured some persecution for following Christ. But along with that, they were most likely battling some questions about Jesus, anyway. For example, how can we say that Jesus is our high priest, when the high priest had to come from the tribe of Levi and specifically be one of Aaron’s sons and Jesus was neither?
Therefore, as I argued last week, the author of Hebrews is not merely engaging in an academic debate; he is fighting for their souls. He’s already warned them that to walk away from Jesus is to walk away from their only hope for salvation. So he spends this chapter showing how it is that Jesus is indeed our high priest and is superior to the high priests in the line of Aaron.
And the assertion he’s made before this chapter a couple of times already is that Jesus is not a high priest after the order of Aaron. He’s willing to acknowledge this clearly. But this isn’t a surrendering of the claim that Jesus is a high priest. Rather, he argues that he is a priest according to another order that is superior to the order of priests in the Levitical line. He is a priest “after the order of Melchizedek (5:10; 6:20). Therefore, beginning in chapter 7, we began last week to dive into this character named Melchizedek and follow the argument made by the author that just as Melchizedek is superior to the Levites, so his priesthood is superior to the priesthood prescribed under the law of Moses.
As I noted, last week, Melchizedek is only mentioned briefly two times in the OT. The first is in Genesis 14:18-20 where we’re told that he met with Abraham, and Abraham gave him a tithe and was blessed by Melchizedek. That’s it. That’s all that was said about him there. But the author takes those three verses from Genesis 14 and exposits them so that verses 1-10 sound like a sermon he’s preaching on that text. He summarizes the events, makes some observations about Melchizedek (like the fact that the translation of his name means “king of righteousness,” that he is the king of peace (since Salem means peace), and that there’s no record of his birth, death, father, or mother in a book where everyone who is anyone has those details recorded). Thus, he argues that in these ways this individual resembles the Son of God, who literally was never born and never died. He is the eternal Son of God.
But he doesn’t stop with these ways that Melchizedek resembles the Son of God, he pushes further and argues that he’s superior to all the Levitical priest by nothing that they’re all clearly inferior to Abraham—he was their patriarch. Melchizedek, however, was given a tithe by Abraham and blessed Abraham, both of which show his superiority. Consequently, we can say that if Melchizedek received more honor than Abraham, and Abraham is of greater honor than any of the Levites, then Melchizedek is superior to the Levites. And, we can add, so his priesthood is superior to theirs. That’s pretty much a summary of the major points of last week’s sermon.
But you’ll remember that I said there is one other place where Melchizedek comes up in the OT. In addition to his brief appearance in Genesis 14:18-20, he is mentioned one other time in one other verse in Psalm 110. In Psalm 110:4 David writes, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” And the author of Hebrews figures—so it seems—that since he’s already preached one sermon on three verses in Genesis in these first ten verses, he might as well preach another sermon in the rest of this chapter based on this one verse in Psalm 110, and that’s what he does. Hebrews 7:11-28 is an exposition of that one verse in which the author is going to complete his argument is showing the superior nature of Melchizedek and his priesthood and, consequently, the superior nature of Jesus and his priesthood.
If I were to sum up the argument of this text in one sentence it would be: only Jesus as our high priest can provide eternal salvation. So, I’ll make that the one point of my sermon this morning.
Only Jesus as our high priest can provide eternal salvation
But the way the author of Hebrews gets there is by making a logical argument based on what he reads in Psalm 110:4. It is argument that in my own mind unfolds in seven steps, so I’ll just walk through them over the next bit. First:
1. Eternal salvation wasn’t attainable through the Levitical priesthood (v. 11).
The author notes this in verse 11, a verse I made reference to at the conclusion to the sermon last week. Here’s what he writes: “Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?”
Now, I’m saying “eternal salvation” instead of “perfection” (as the author says) because I think that’s what he means by the term. But consider what he’s saying. Under the law of Moses, there were prescriptions for who could be priests. First, you had to be of the tribe of Levi. Only people from that tribe could serve in making sacrifices, etc. But specifically, in order to be the high priest, you had to be a direct descendent from Aaron. In fact, as I noted last week, this was such a serious deal that if anyone tried to do the work of a priest who wasn’t qualified in terms of his descent from Aaron, he was to be killed.
However, as the author noted from the text we looked at last week, even before the law of Moses gave provisions for who could be a priest, we already have a priest show up in Genesis 14:18-20 as Melchizedek, priest of God Most High, comes out to meet and bless Abraham. And now in Psalm 110:4, we have the Messiah being appointed a priest in the order of Melchizedek. So, the question is, “If God could have brought eternal salvation to his people through the priesthood from Aaron’s line, then why would there have been a need to introduce another priesthood?”
The answer, already being implied, is that Aaron’s priesthood was never God’s solution for providing eternal salvation for his people. It was always meant to be temporary because God was laying in place another, more superior priest than any from Aaron’s line. So, that’s his first note in the argument: Eternal salvation was not attainable through the Levitical priesthood.
Second, he simply draws the obvious conclusion to all of this, noting that Jesus is a priest based on some other qualification or basis or law.
2. Jesus is a priest based on some other qualification or basis or law (vv. 12-17).
The author first acknowledges what these Jewish believers had no doubt been wrestling with, namely, that Jesus doesn’t qualify to be a priest according to the law of Moses. He writes in verses 12-14, “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.”
Again, I think we see this, but let’s make it crystal clear. The law required you to be from the tribe of Levi if you were going to qualify to be a priest, and Jesus is not from the tribe of Levi but from the tribe of Judah. Consequently, if Jesus is a priest, he’s not a priest on the basis of the qualifications laid out in the law of Moses, is he? There must be another law, or basis, or qualification, right?
Well, he says, this becomes even more evident when you consider that the basis for Jesus’ priesthood is not that he’s from a certain tribe but that he has an indestructible life. He writes in verses 15-16, “This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent [i.e., not by being a descendent of Aaron from the tribe of Levi], but by the power of an indestructible life.” That is, the reason Jesus qualifies to be a priest in the line of Melchizedek is because he has an indestructible life (as was foreshadowed by Melchizedek simply in that there was never any record of his death in Genesis).
Now, my guess is that some of us might be responding by saying, “Okay, Lee, I see why you’re saying that. That’s what verses 15-16 clearly say, but where in the world is the author of Hebrews coming up with this? How does he know that Jesus was qualified to be a high priest because he had an indestructible life? Well, he answers, by writing in verse 17, “For it is witnessed of him, ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
Remember, the author of Hebrews is crafting his argument from the two texts in which Melchizedek is mentioned in the OT. He’s already preached part of his sermon based on Genesis 14:18-20 in verses 1-10 from this chapter. Now, he’s preaching the second part of his sermon from the other place where Melchizedek is mentioned—Psalm 110:4. That’s all he has before him.
But consider that verse for a second. I’ve said repeatedly through our study of Hebrews that the author of this book is doing nothing crazy when he reads the OT Scriptures; he’s simply reading it carefully. So, if all we had before us was Psalm 110:4 where David says of the Messiah, whom he calls his “Lord” in verse 1, that he is a priest forever, what’s one thing that you’d conclude? Wouldn’t it be that the Messiah must have an indestructible life? That he’s going to live forever? That’s the very thing the author of Hebrews sees. This priest, by necessity, must live forever. And if what qualifies him to be this forever priest is the fact that he lives forever, then clearly the basis for being a priest is different than what the law of Moses said. He’s not qualifying becaue he’s a descendant of Aaron. He’s qualifying on the basis that death won’t defeat him, and he’s living forever.
3. This means the law has been set aside, but something better has taken its place (vv. 18-19).
If Jesus is a priest based on some different law or basis, then clearly the law has been set aside. It’s no longer operable in terms establishing priests, demanding sacrifices, etc. But that’s not a bad thing, the author tells us. He writes, “For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.”
In other words, there’s no need to be sad that the Mosaic law has been set aside with its covenant regulations, qualifications for priests, etc., because it was never able to bring eternal salvation. We know that from looking at Romans. The law’s weakness was that it could never do what we needed most—change our hearts. And so we’re no longer under the Mosaic covenant, with its regulations for sacrifices and the like; it’s been set aside. But, there’s something to get excited about because something (or better, someone) has come along that can bring eternal salvation.
Are you beginning to see how the author of Hebrews is showing why it is crucial for them to keep holding to Jesus as their high priest? He’s not only superior to the Levitical priests; he alone can bring eternal salvation.
So, let’s say you’re buying in at this point, but you have a question: “How was Jesus then appointed a priest?” The author tells us that even the way Jesus was made a priest is superior to the Levitical priests. He was made a priest by an oath.
4. Jesus was made a priest by God making an oath (vv. 20-21).
Those who were formerly priests were simply priests because they were descended from Aaron. But Jesus was appointed a priest by God swearing with an oath, which again the author draws from Psalm 110:4. He writes, “And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.’”
Consequently, we can say that Jesus is certainly a priest, for God has appointed him by the word of his oath. And it will never be otherwise; the Lord will not change his mind. Jesus is our forever priest. And all of this then means that the covenant, or terms of our relating to God, and the saving blessings he brings are better.
5. Jesus brings about a better covenant (v. 22).
This is what the author clearly states in verse 22. The law covenant under Moses called for daily sacrifices, sinful priests to represent us, and cleansing and forgiving rituals that would need to be repeated again and again. But God promised in Jeremiah a new covenant where he would be merciful toward our sins and remember them no more. He would change our hearts to love him and obey him. He would give us his Spirit. That is the covenant and the covenant promises that Jesus has brought about as our high priest. He is a priest forever. He lives forever. And the blessings of salvation that he brings are better.
And now the author, having made his argument, turns to a couple of points of application:
6. One of the benefits of Jesus’ priesthood is that our salvation is eternal (vv. 23-25).
The author writes, “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (vv. 23-25).
My guess is that when we think of what Jesus did and does for our salvation that we typically don’t think of his intercession. We no doubt think of his perfect life, penalty-bearing death, and justifying resurrection. And that is good. But Jesus also intercedes for us before the Father. That, after all, was the work of any high priest. He offered sacrifices for sin and then interceded before God for the people. Well, Jesus is able to intercede forever for us because he lives forever. And the benefit is that there is never one second where we don’t have him interceding, and so there is never one second where our salvation is at risk.
I was playing tennis with a friend recently who said that he was in a situation in which we’ve all found ourselves. His family was on a road trip when his son really needed to go to the restroom. And so after several minutes of looking for a restroom, they finally found an exit, pulled off, and went into a gas station. The only problem is that each of the restrooms in the gas station were one-person restrooms, and the men’s room was occupied. So, after a second of panic, the son looked at his dad, and the dad said, “Go into the women’s restroom.” The son did, but then said to his dad, “I can’t get the door to lock.” And the dad answered, “Don’t worry. I’ll stand guard.”
The problem is that after a few minutes, something grabbed the dad’s attention, he forgot why it was necessary for him to stand where he was standing, and so he walked away and began looking at this item that had caught his attention. Meanwhile, a woman walked in and, well, you know where the story goes from here.
What was demanded was constant standing guard, but the dad was easily distracted. Comparatively, what is needed for us is constant intercession that never ends, but the priests under the old covenant couldn’t do that, if for no other reason than because they died. But Jesus lives forever, intercedes forever, and so we can rest at every single moment, knowing that our high priest saves us to the uttermost. Now, think of that for a second—every second of your life the Son of God is pleading before the Father his work on your behalf. Right now, as the devil accuses you, Jesus is interceding. That is a reason to rejoice and delight in your God.
Finally, his sacrifice for sin was perfect.
7. Jesus’ sacrifice for sin was perfect (vv. 26-28).
The author ends writing, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever” (vv. 26-28).
If all we had were the priests and the sacrificial system under the law of Moses, we could never be saved. We could make our sacrifices, but they’d have to be made again. We could have priests intercede, but they would only be able to do it for a limited amount of time. But when Jesus died, he died once for all, offering up the perfect sacrifice of himself. And I know we can take this for granted, but I urge you not to. Jesus as our high priest means that as believers, walking our lives in repentance and faith, we can live our whole lives without dread of the fear of God’s condemnation toward us. We can live our whole lives knowing that our high priest offered the once-for-all perfect sacrifice of himself and intercedes forever, so we can start each day knowing that there is no condemnation for us who are in Christ Jesus.
That is what these Jewish believers were being tempted to walk away from, and the letter to the Hebrews is written to say that not only does Jesus qualify as a priest, but he qualifies on the basis of having an indestructible life, living forever, interceding forever, so they can be saved forever—something that wasn’t possible merely through the work of the old covenant priesthood.
Now, how about a word of application for us. I know that we’re probably not tempted to go back to the animal sacrifices and all that could never really saved. But there is a temptation that we all face that’s very similar. We all can be tempted to think that we’re right before God on the basis of being good enough. We’ve heard the gospel. We sing the songs. But each day we start with the mindset saying, “I haven’t been good enough for God to get God’s approval this morning,” or “If I can be good enough today, then maybe I can be right with God by the end of the day.” We forget Jesus’ perfect sacrifice and constant, eternal intercession for us. And, brothers and sisters, that’s really no different than what these Jewish believers were doing because you can never be good enough. That road will lead to you coming up short.
But instead of looking away from Jesus to your works, if you’ll consider Jesus and that as our high priest he’s done good enough for us, so by faith we can rest in his finished work, then you’ll be able to start each day knowing that because of Jesus’ righteousness, you are approved of God. And then, as an approved child of God, you’ll get to live each day in a way to lovingly obey the one who has done everything necessary for your eternal salvation. That is the only basis for consistent and faithful obedience to our God. So, let’s pray that our Father will keep the glorious work of our high priest before us, and let’s come to the table and give him thanks now. Amen.