Chapter currently under revision – with study group
Up to this point, we’ve focused our attention primarily on the Law of Moses. We have not yet mentioned that the law was administered by the priesthood. Actually, the law is based on the priesthood. Another way to think about this is that the priesthood is the foundation Heb. 7:11 of the law. To better understand the priestly responsibilities under the Mosaic system spending time in the book of Leviticus is a worthwhile endeavor.
What actually is a priest? We often think of the word priest as a member of the clergy (usually of Catholic or Orthodox tradition) who performs religious duties mediating the relationship between God and man. In our earthly experience, we also see the priest separated from parishioners by an ecclesiastical structure. In a general sense, this view holds true for the Levitical priests in the Old Testament but there is more to this priestly role which was designed by God.
Moses was considered the lawgiver in the Old Testament. He received the law from the finger of God on Mt. Sinai and delivered the law to the Hebrew people. His brother, Aaron and Aaron’s sons were the first Levitical priests for the Jewish people. They represented God’s requirements to the people and interceded for the people’s needs to God.
A careful reading of Exodus and Leviticus should provide a glimpse into some of the priestly roles:
- Leviticus goes into great detail about the priestly role of receiving and preparing the burnt offering, guilt offerings, sin offerings, peace offerings, etc.
- The priests also spoke words of blessing over the people, made distinctions between clean and unclean and cared for the tabernacle.
- On their priestly robes, when ministering before God, they carried the names (representing intercession) of the tribes of Israel. They also carried sacred stones (Urim and Thummim) used in seeking divine guidance.
Obviously, the priests were very busy and carried a great deal of responsibility for the community. It’s helpful to think of priests as men who brought the law of God to life and maintained its’ efficacy in ancient Israel’s communal life.
Failure of the Old System
What was wrong with the priesthood and the Mosaic system and why did they need to be replaced? There were two main issues.
- The people were not able to meet the demands of the law
- The priests did not faithfully execute the duties of being priests.
Let’s tackle these one at a time. The first three chapters of Romans demonstrate our inability to live up to the law of God. The apostle Paul summarizes this section of scripture with these words:
“No one is righteous – not even one.|
No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God.
All have turned away; all have become useless.
No one does good, not a single one.”
Ouch, those words sting! But the real question is are we willing to agree with scripture and accept the fact that left to ourselves this is our true condition. When we understand our helpless state and then see the mercy of God – that is a revelation of the mercy and grace of God!
Now the second reason why the New Covenant was needed was due to the failure of the priesthood. Read the first several chapters of Malachi and notice the Lord’s rebuke to the priesthood. Malachi 2:7+ is a good summary.
“The words of a priest’s lips should preserve the knowledge of God, and people should go to him for instruction, for the priest is the messenger of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So I have made you despised and humiliated in the eyes of all the people. For you have not obeyed me but have shown favoritism in the way you carry out my instructions.”
He then prophecies regarding the coming of the new priesthood.
“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
We see that our failure to live up to the law of God and the failure of the Levitical priesthood to faithfully discharge their duties lays the groundwork for a new priesthood and the renewed Abrahamic covenant. The amazing thing to realize is that the laws failure to bring about righteousness and the priesthoods failure to faithfully discharge their duties was not unexpected. Quite the contrary, this was God’s plan from the beginning.
Melchizedek – A deeper look
Since the priesthood did not remain faithful to God’s calling nor were the people able to live according to the law of God a better system was required. So we see Jesus as the new high priest in the order of Melchizedek. He comes to fulfill the typecast prophecies that were written and spoken hundreds of years prior to the giving of the law.
The long-awaited Messiah is the high priest who is able to faithfully represent God in all matters as well as intercede with God on the people’s behalf. It was this renewed priesthood of Melchizedek which would bring us back into the covenant relationship introduced under Abram. As we begin this section please read over Hebrews 5:1-6.
In this passage from Hebrews, we see Jesus being called by God to be the high priest in the order of Melchizedek. As followers of Jesus, we spend much time studying Jesus’s life, teachings, and parables, but we know very little of his role as a priest after the order of Melchizedek. This ancient priest was also the king of Salem (or Peace), he was without ancestry, no beginning or end to his life and he abides as a priest forever. He met Abram when he was returning from battle and served him bread and wine as well as blessing him. The description of Melchizedek sounds very much like an epiphany of Christ in the Old Testament.
We may ask why it’s important that Jesus is a high priest from this order, namely Melchizedek. The crux of the answer forms the foundation of all New Testament theology and it is firmly rooted in God’s covenant with Abram. Abram was returning from a battle against the armies of five kings (Gen. 14 and 15). His nephew, Lot, had been captured and taken prisoner. On Abrams return trip from battle, he was met by two people, the king of Sodom and the king of Salem – Melchizedek. During this encounter, Melchizedek blessed Abram and Abram gave him a tenth of the spoils from battle. Notice how Melchizedek blessed Abram, it was with bread and wine and a spoken blessing over Abrams life. Abram was blessed on both natural and spiritual levels. The bread and wine were a type of the new covenant instituted by Messiah at the last supper and the spoken blessing was a revelation of God himself. Read it closely in Gen. 14:19-20.
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And blessed be God Most High,
who has defeated your enemies for you.”
When the king of Sodom began making demands on Abram, notice Abrams response. We see that he responded to the King of Sodom (who represents the world system) with the revelation of God he’d just received.
“I solemnly swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth that I will not take so much as a single thread or sandal thong from what belongs to you”.
Abram had received revelation from Melchizedek of God’s nature and that he was most high and creator of all things. When the king of Sodom(representing the world) began making demands on him he responded out of the revelation just received from Melchizedek. This is an early picture of how we are to interact with the world in which we live – responding to its demands out of our revelation for who God is. This lays the foundation for understanding God’s character, developing an intimate walk with him. It is out of that experience that we can respond to the worlds demands. Could this be one aspect of what it means to live by the spirit?
Hebrews 7 tells us more about Melchizedek, stating he was without parents or ancestral heritage and that he remains a priest forever. Unlike the priesthood of Levi through Aaron where the genealogies could be easily traced and verified, Melchizedek gives us no such validation of his credentials. He simply showed up one day while Abram was going about his business and blessed him. Isn’t this how God sometimes just breaks into our lives when we least expect him?
The point to highlight here is the timing and sequence of events. First, Melchizedek was both a king and a priest. The promise to Abram and introduction of Melchizedek occurred 430 years before the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. The promise to Abram and Melchizedek’s blessing to him were never repealed because God would have been breaking his promise.
Levi points us to Melchizedek
At the risk of oversimplifying, hopefully, we are beginning to see a distinction between the ministration of two very different priesthoods. Melchizedek met Abram with bread and wine as refreshment, provided him with a blessing and stood with him against the king of Sodom. In all of this, he demanded nothing in return. We will delve further into this encounter, but for now, let’s recognize the differences between the priesthood of Levi and that of Melchizedek.
In the Old Testament, it is important to understand that God never abolished the Abrahamic covenant nor the priesthood of Melchizedek on which it was based. On the contrary, the priesthood of Melchizedek and Levi existed side by side until the fulfillment of both through Israel’s long awaited Messiah.
Ok, time for a theoretical question.
Did God after several thousand years of Jewish history suddenly decide to change the Levitical system regarding law and priesthood because it was not working as planned?
No, in fact, it was working exactly as planned. The two priesthoods were in operation side by side throughout the Old Testament. God established the covenant of grace in seed form through Melchizedek long before the law was given on Mt. Sinai. He then began to manifest it through multiple Gentile converts (who knew nothing of the law) in the Old Testament until the full picture unfolded in the gospels. In addition to Gentile converts in the Old Testament (mentioned in an earlier chapter) consider two prophetic scriptures concerning the Gentiles.
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles…..
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Can we see how Isaiah is picking up on the promise given to Abraham that through his descendants all nations (think Gentiles) will be blessed?
The two priesthoods (Melchizedek and Levi) were operating in parallel, side by side, during this period. When reading scriptures about the foreknowledge of God, or the lamb slain from the foundation of the world, or that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, we can have a fuller appreciation for this revealed mystery of God.
Each priesthood had a great deal of value but a very different purpose. The law which included the Levitical system was a schoolmaster and its value was in pointing us to Christ or the renewed covenant of Abraham. But God needed a system (the law) to demonstrate our fallen nature so that we could see our depravity. Once we realized our helpless condition, the Holy Spirit is able to point us toward the only means of redemption (the Messiah). Consider Romans 3:20; 7:7 for evidence of this idea.
So we understand the law is not intended nor able to make men holy. We are not made righteous in God’s sight nor do we receive eternal life by keeping the law. If we could achieve perfection by keeping the law, we would have something to take pride in and boast about. But the law was not designed to make us holy but rather to show us our spiritually bankrupt condition.
Various passages in the scripture teach that the law is there to point us to Christ. Once we realize our failure and recognize our need for a savior we then run to Christ. Since the law cannot make us holy, it must be taken out of the way and a new system introduced. But since the law is based on the priesthood in order for the law to change the priesthood must change first. What does the book of Hebrews say about this?
So if the priesthood of Levi, on which the law was based, could have achieved the perfection God intended, why did God need to establish a different priesthood, with a priest in the order of Melchizedek instead of the order of Levi and Aaron? And if the priesthood is changed, the law must also be changed to permit it. For the priest, we are talking about belongs to a different tribe, whose members have never served at the altar as priests. What I mean is, our Lord came from the tribe of Judah, and Moses never mentioned priests coming from that tribe.
In other words, God is saying that the Levitical system was unable to achieve perfection, so a different priesthood is required. But for the law to change the priesthood must change because the law is dependent on the priesthood. Since the law is based on the priesthood, if the priesthood changes the law must change to permit it. This really is the heart of the New Testament – the priesthood changed and as a result, so did the law. If we grasp this singular point, we will make a giant leap in understanding the difference between the Old and New Testament.
Hopefully, the reason for the constant friction between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is becoming apparent. The Pharisees and Sadducee’s were still operating under the priesthood of Levi not realizing that both the priesthood and the law had now changed. As we begin to understand that Jesus is not operating under the old system but under the order of Melchizedek, we can appreciate the conflicts with the religious leaders in greater clarity. Basically, it was the clash of two priesthoods. The Messiah was operating under a different priesthood and a different law, one which pre-dated Levi. The religious leaders were operating under the priesthood of Levi and the law of Moses. The first-century religious leaders did not comprehend the change in priesthood which had occurred, which led to recurring conflict.
To illustrate, last year I grew corn and soybeans in my fields but this year I will plant a citrus crop. Obviously, that would be disastrous. Citrus requires a different soil, rainfall, sunlight, growing season, etc. – everything must change to permit a successful citrus crop. It’s the same here, the priesthood changed and the law must be amended or replaced to allow this change. So the new law is one based on the law of the Spirit of life, not on external obedience.
Let’s briefly look at Hebrews 5:5 for more insight into the calling of Jesus.
And no one can become a high priest simply because he wants such an honor. He must be called by God for this work, just as Aaron was. That is why Christ did not honor himself by assuming he could become High Priest. No, he was chosen by God, who said to him, “You are my Son.
Today I have become your Father.”
Jesus takes up the family business
With the incarnation of Christ and the beginning of his public ministry, God is unveiling the next step in his marvelous plan. This seems to be what occurred during the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan river. Heaven opened, and God was declaring (for all the world to see) that Jesus was indeed his son. Recall that Jesus had been growing in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man, studying the scriptures and learning what it meant to be a man in first century Israel. The second half of this passage is enlightening as the father is acknowledging that the Son is taking up the Father’s mission on the earth.
The statement, “Today I have become your father,” implies that Jesus is accepting the Fathers’ purpose, goals, and mission in the earth. This is the mission that has been in the Father’s heart since the beginning of time. After receiving the Father’s blessing on his life and accepting this high calling, he is immediately taken into the wilderness for testing by the devil. This is the enemy’s way of challenging the Messiah’s coming into his life purpose and the Father allowed this to happen. You will notice that after the wilderness temptation the Lord’s public ministry began. This sequence beautifully shows the Father’s blessing, the Son taking on the Father’s ministry in the earth, his calling being challenged by the adversary, and he then moves forward to extend the Father’s rule and reign.
Hebrews confirms Jesus taking up the Fathers’ plan according to the original priesthood.
And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
It’s interesting that God’s gifts and his calling are placed on his people (even Messiah Jesus) before he had succeeded in his earthly mission and ministry. He doesn’t wait for our success before establishing our calling.
Let me ask you to read over Hebrews 6:13-20.
God also bound himself with an oath, so that those who received the promise could be perfectly sure that he would never change his mind. So, God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. Jesus has already gone in there for us. He has become our eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek.
God is referring to the promise of Abraham. He states that he confirmed that promise with an oath. The Levitical system was not established with an oath, otherwise, we would be locked into that system forever. Since God did not establish the Levitical system with an oath it allows God to make it obsolete. This is what occurs with the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. We are moved out from under the jurisdiction of Levi and the law and made descendants of Abraham under the Abrahamic covenant of which Christ is the fulfillment. Remember when God took Abraham out and showed him the night sky and asked him to count the stars. As a descendant, we are one of those stars (Phil 2:15).
This is the confidence we have in the promise of God. He gave his promise and sealed it with an oath. He then lets us know that since God cannot lie, we can have perfect confidence in this promise. By saying, “Because God cannot lie,” he is grounding this promise in the essence of God’s own character. Do we see the confidence this yields? God would have to violate his own character in order to break the promise given to Abraham? As believers in Jesus, we flee to God for salvation and have confidence through the everlasting mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. This understanding of God’s promise and covenant being grounded in his very nature truly becomes an anchor for our soul.
Let’s try to summarize. When the Levitical system was established, God did not say to Aaron’s descendants that they would be priests forever, nor did he establish the Levitical system with an oath. But with the Son (in the order of Melchizedek) he did both. He established his ministry forever and with an oath tied the establishment of this priesthood into God’s very identity by stating, “It is impossible for God to lie.”
The priesthood of Levi was temporary and for a specific purpose but the priesthood and kingdom of Melchizedek through Christ is to last forever. Both of these priesthoods existed side by side up until the time of Christ. The incarnation was an event which instituted a change in the priesthood and therefore a change in the law. This change of law and priesthood opened for us the heavenly gateway, allowing the law of the spirit of life to be written on our hearts.
As we leave this chapter, consider the profound encounter between Caiaphas, the high priest, and Jesus the high priest in Mathew 26:57-66. Caiaphas was the high priest of the Levitical system and Jesus the high priest according to Melchizedek. When Caiaphas demanded of Jesus, “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus responded by combining two commonly understood Messianic prophecies (from Psalms and Daniel), “You have said it. And in the future, you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The first part of his response is from the beginning of Psalm 110 and the second part is from Daniel 7:13 regarding when the Lord establishes his rule and reign on the earth.
Jesus combined these two Old Testament messianic prophecies together in response to Caiaphas. These scriptures show dual role of king and priest which the high priest understood that the Messiah would fulfill. There was absolutely no confusion in the mind of Caiaphas regarding this reference. This explains his extreme reaction of tearing his robes in horror and declaring “blasphemy”. The Levitical system had met the priesthood of Melchizedek and there was no compromise.
Meditation and discussion
Why is it important to consider that Jesus is a high priest from a different priestly order?
Why do I need a high priest (Jesus) to mediate my relationship with God? Why can I not relate to the Father directly without this priest?
In this chapter, we saw how Abram responded to the king of Sodom. As God makes himself known to me, does it change the manner in which I interact with those around me?
Do I understand the change of priesthood from the Old to the New Testament?
Do I spend most of my life living under the priesthood of Levi or Melchizedek? If under Levi, how can I begin to make a change?