The Weakness of the Levitical Priesthood and Worship
It could not bring to perfection (vv. 11,19)
Life’s most fundamental truth is that we must have a priest to represent us to God. He must be a priest whose ministrations God will accept for us. He must be able to make atonement for our sins, intercede for us efficaciously, and sympathize with us in our weakness. If we do not have such a priest, nothing else matters, for we are sinners under God’s wrath and curse. To the degree that the technological wizardry and constant noise of modern life further dulls our consciences against these truths, our tools have become our deadly masters. Sin, righteousness, and judgment – these are not only the Spirit’s main three witnesses to the world (John 16:9-11), but they are also inseparable from the work of a good and faithful high priest. When the Holy Spirit speaks of priests and priesthood, he would not have us think of confessional booths and “Hail Mary’s,” but of God’s grace to bring us to perfection. The Levitical priesthood could not do this or come anywhere near. It was temporarily ordained by God and prepared the world for the coming of Jesus Christ. Outside of Abraham’s family, no speck of truth about obtaining God’s favor and forgiveness and holiness was to be found anywhere. All was blindness and superstition.
What is this perfection that God wills we reach? In the light of the priestly context, with its worship, sacrifices, and constant emphasis upon the assured conscience of the worshipper, we can say that by perfection is meant the establishment of the church on earth upon its surest and most God-honoring foundation. It is a state of righteous assurance with God, based upon the perfect sacrifice that atones for our sins and the shed blood that secures his free and full forgiveness. Peace in the heart and liberty in the conscience and mind thus characterize this perfection God intended for his people from the beginning. It involves a form of worship that is simple, sincere, direct, and celebrates our free and confident approach to God, and is not burdened down with useless ceremonies. Being reconciled to God and adopted into his family, perfection includes our future prospects of eternal life in his eternal kingdom, joy and hope now, peace with one another, strength to endure the cross, and glory in God’s grace and truth before the world.
The Levitical priesthood was unable to bring this perfection. Its sinful priests, dying and endless line of priests, repetitive and unwitting sacrifices could at God’s appointment direct the worshipper’s faith to Christ, but it could not give the blessings he has now obtained. Thus, its system of worship was necessarily burdensome so that the people would feel the weight of their sins and exercise a lively hope for deliverance and the promised Messiah. The old covenant worship emphasized separation, not nearness to God. The conscience might obtain a provisional sense of relief, but the “blood of goats and bulls could not take away sin” – and therefore, the conscience was not permanently at rest. And thus, there was promised in the time of David, while the Levitical priesthood was fully operating as well as it would ever hope to do, an entirely different order of priesthood and priest. Did more than a handful anticipate that a “priest after the order of Melchizedek” would mean an end to the Levitical order and the law of worship to which it was inseparably tied? It is doubtful. The prophets spoke by the Spirit of Christ, and they searched diligently, but they saw these glories at a distance, for they were inseparable from the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, his sufferings, and the new order he would then bring (1 Pet. 1:10-11).
We can see them more clearly, for Jesus Christ has come and brought an end to sacrifice. He has brought Jew and Gentile together into one body upon the permanent basis of his finished work and living intercession and abolishment of the old ceremonial system that divided them. We also see that the temple has been destroyed, and thus serves as a monument to the deadly futility of Judaism’s rejection of the heir of the promise, Jesus Christ. God in Christ has laid the foundation for the church’s perfection in this life. It is not her personal and real holiness that is meant by perfection (Heb. 10:14) but the fullness of knowledge she has in the Scriptures, fullness of freedom through Christ’s sacrifice and intercession, and fullness of power and hope by the indwelling Spirit. The old system could not bring the church to perfection, and it is now abolished, as God had said it would be.
It was based upon a carnal commandment (v. 14).
It was nothing less than the greatest trial of faith in the whole history of the church when God in his Son dismantled the older ceremonial system and Levitical priesthood. This work of God engulfed the apostolic church in controversy (Acts 15). The Jews to this day are still reeling over this, and Judaism has waived the white flag of surrender when it says it is no longer a religion of the priest but of the rabbi. This is nothing but a declaration of defeat and hopelessness. It is also the very thing intended by “carnal commandment.” The sons of Levi were made priests not because of any personal worth – and some of them were extremely worthless and criminally wicked before God – but by lineage – a law of flesh, a law of weakness. This is the reason that the Jews were so careful to keep genealogies, including those we see preserved in Scripture. The whole basis of a man’s legitimate priesthood was who his father was. But the promise was of a priest like Melchizedek – we do not know his father or mother. This is not because he lacked them but because his legitimacy rested upon an entirely different and far more powerful basis.
It contained no oath or surety (vv. 20-21).
Peter was not exaggerating when he spoke of a burdensome system under which God’s old covenant people languished (Acts 15:10). It set forth Christ to come, but through types and shadows. One of its burdensome features was that it could not make the worshipper perfect, as pertaining to his conscience. He was pointed to Christ, but his guilt remained, for the wages of sin was not really paid, but only typically so. The type profited the worshipper only if he laid hold in some measure upon God’s promise of salvation in the coming Redeemer. Contributing to the weakness and uncertainty of the Levitical priesthood was God had not appointed it with an oath. Lacking an oath of office, so to speak, what certain confidence could the worshipper have that the priest truly atoned for sin by satisfying God’s justice? There could not be full enjoyment of peace with God, for that basis of that peace had not yet come; and thus, there was no surety for the worshipper. Could the sinful priest, who was subject to death and appointed only by a carnal commandment, provide surety for weak and struggling consciences? Could the unthinking sacrifice provide that surety? It was a temporary system officiated by sinful men whose only claim to legitimacy was being a descendant from Levi. It is no wonder that God prophesied another order of priesthood. And now that he is come, we should bless God for his grace and hold fast to Jesus Christ without wavering.
The Change from Aaron’s Priesthood to Christ’s (vv. 11-14,18)
Before considering what a wonderful thing it is for us to have and enjoy the Son of God incarnate as our great high priest, we should note these additional arguments that the Spirit draws from Melchizedek’s priesthood. Remember that he would leave no stone unturned to convince these struggling believers that they must hold fast to Jesus Christ and not return to a dead and decaying form of worship that God already said would come to an end and that could not save them from their sins. First, the prophecy of another priesthood after the order to Melchizedek indicates that God never intended for the Levitical order to last forever (Ps. 110:4). And with that changed priesthood, the priestly laws pertaining to sacrifice and worship must also be abolished.
Here we have one of the clearest statements to be found in Scripture of the abolishment of the entire Levitical and ceremonial system (v. 18). God ordained it for a time. While it was functioning in David’s day, God said that another order of priesthood was coming. Now that his Son has come, the order has changed. The old laws that upheld it – not the moral laws, for these remain in perpetual force as standard of a holy life – have now given way to the church’s perfection in Christ. Those ceremonial laws pertained to the tribe of Levi and its priestly service. Jesus Christ sprang from Judah. His order of priesthood, being able to bring us to perfection through his perfect sacrifice and powerful intercession, does away with the older priestly law and its worship. Thus, we see that these changes were monumental: a change of priestly order, law, worship, and priestly tribe. It is no wonder that these changes created tremendous upheaval in the church, as the apostles, Jews, and Gentile believers struggled with the implications of these changes.
For these Hebrew believers, the simple truth was that returning to Judaism – its worship, sacrifices, priesthood, ceremonies – in any form, was a repudiation of Jesus Christ and his finished work. He was from a different tribe, offered a different sacrifice, ministers in a different temple, and institutes a different, simpler form of worship. The older covenant and its priesthood pointed to him, as the Scriptures make clear, but the Jews made an idol of their system without being led by the hand to Jesus Christ. Would these believers let go his hand and return to the dead in order to save themselves from persecution? What will a man give in exchange for his soul? Will he let go of eternal life in Jesus Christ? But of course, Christ is also repudiated by the Romanists, cultists, with their hazy Christ and heavy emphasis upon following the rules of their cherished founder, and spiritualists of all ranks, who look for another basis of God’s acceptance other than his once-for-all, finished, and final sacrifice. We must hold fast to Jesus Christ, or we grasp at straws. His is the only name under heaven by which we must be saved.
The Better Priesthood of Jesus Christ
A Better Basis: His Endless Life (vv. 16-17)
Why is Jesus Christ a better priest? Many false prophets have gone out into the world and many claim to be speaking the truth. Why must we hold to Jesus Christ? First, his priesthood is not based upon his lineage but upon his life (v. 16). He is a priest forever (v. 17). He was dead, when he was crucified in weakness for our sins, but he lives by the power of God and possesses the keys of death and hell (2 Cor. 13:4; Rev. 1:18). And this is the only priest who will do us any good – the death conqueror. How can we trust a priesthood if the priests are always dying? If they cannot save themselves from the wages of sin, how can they save us? Here comes our Savior: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, has eternal life (John 6:54). “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And he that lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). This is the reason the apostles bore constant witness to the resurrection (Acts 1:22; 4:33), that the Old Testament Scriptures prophesied his resurrection, and the New Testament is replete with evidences of his resurrection. We must have a living priest who never dies, for this is our only assurance that he has conquered sin and can therefore bring us near to God.
A Better Hope: To Draw Near to God (vv. 18- 19)
So perfect is our Savior’s sacrifice and his intercession that he has abolished or annulled the former commandment (v. 18). This is a restatement of the earlier point that with the change of priesthood necessarily comes a change of the legal system to which it was attached. This does not refer to the moral law, unless one wants to affirm what Jesus expressly denied – that he came to change anything about God’s commandments considered as the rule of godliness (Matt. 5:17-20). Respecting the ceremonies, however, sinners had to have a better hope than slain animals and an endless procession of priests and burdensome regulations that Paul calls pedagogues (Gal. 3:24), the paid servants that Roman parents commissioned to flog their children to make sure they went to school.
Christ does not beat us down but raises us up to be God’s sons and daughters, to indwell us by his Spirit, and to work the fruits of righteousness in us, all so that we shall have a firm share in his joy and peace! And he has done all this for us so that we draw near to God through him. Right now, when Satan is scheming and the wicked roaring and the fires threatening – draw near to God. Tell him all your fears and cast your cares upon him. Ask him for help and give him no rest; your believing prayers in Jesus’ name rise as incense, a sweet-smelling aroma through Jesus Christ, and then fall to the earth in God’s good time for the church’s endurance and deliverance. When Levi and his sons entered the Most Holy Place, they closed fast the curtain behind them; when Jesus Christ rose and entered within the veil, he left it wide open! We may draw near with full assurance and a living hope in his help and love and vigilance.
A Better Guarantee: God’s Oath (vv. 20-21)
Connected inseparably to this better hope is a better guarantee of God’s grace and of our saving interest in his promises when we look to his Son. Remember that the Levitical priests were made without an oath. There was no direct promise attached to their persons or officiating. But with our Melchizedek-Jesus, we have a priest made with an oath: “The Lord has sworn and will not repent.” This is the reason that millions upon millions have and continue to flock to Jesus Christ – God has sworn. So many have laid down their lives for Christ without looking back, personal sacrifices willingly made for him, not blowing themselves up in religious hysteria, but a living, loving sacrifice. They have done so because we trust God’s oath to us in his Son. If we look to Jesus Christ, our Father will never turn us away but will freely forgive our sins and give us strength to overcome the world and resist the devil so that we may finally arrive at God’s eternal kingdom. And what hope have we in this? What hope did these early believers have? They had nothing as we have it – no long history of Christ’s great works; no demolished empires that rejected Christ and his gospel; no completed New Testament.
We have all these, but at one level, they could have the same assurance that we now have. God has sworn. He swore by himself. He will not go back upon his word (Ps. 33:11; 89:34). He has pledged to be our God and Father forever through Jesus Christ. He has pledged that through this Priest, his Son, his justice is satisfied. He is reconciled to us, and we are reconciled to him, for the hatred for God in our hearts is taken away by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. So, let the world rage and tempt, and our flesh, who can speak of all the insinuations, doubts, and cravings against which we have to fight it seems every hour? Still, God’s oath must prevail. His oath in Jesus must prevail. He will not go back. No matter how berserk any age of the world seems like it has gone in rebellion and how much it looks like the church must compromise God’s truth in some way in order to survive, this must all give way before God’s oath. His oath is our shield and our fortress. Let us trust him.
A Better Covenant: Christ our Surety (v. 22)
In making this oath, our Father bound it to the person and work of his Son in a way that can never be said of a Levitical priest. Jesus Christ is himself the surety, the sponsor, the guarantor of the covenant. He is the covenant (Isa. 42:4). He stands good for us respecting our sins, so that he became sin for us and suffered in his body on the cross the full judgment we deserved. He stands good for us respecting righteousness, so that his obedience is imputed to us, and we are counted righteous. Whatever promise God has made, it is “yes and a-men in Christ Jesus” (2 Cor. 1:20). He is the A-men of God (Rev. 3:14). His is the precious blood that seals the everlasting covenant of redemption and of grace. Righteousness, peace, light, liberty, hope, joy – all secured by Jesus Christ – bought and paid for by his blood, poured out upon us by the sealing Spirit. In every way, God is telling us, “Look to my Son. Hear my Son. Trust my Son.”
He is the surety of a better covenant, the new covenant in his blood. The old covenant certainly pointed to him in its substance, and it was all of grace. If anyone doubts this, just remember that under the Mosaic covenant, everything was sprinkled with blood. But the old covenant could not give that glory and grace to which it pointed. The new covenant gives it. It is new because it is based upon redemption accomplished, not just promised. It is new because it is written upon our hearts with the finger of the living Spirit, so that our natures are changed (2 Cor. 3:3; Heb. 8:8-10). The kingdom of God, the new covenant manifestation of the kingdom, comes with power (1 Cor. 4:20). It is also new because it is universal in its scope and effects, with the old wall between Jew and Gentile torn down so that all may be gathered together under Christ’s headship. Of this covenant to redeem his elect, Jesus Christ is the surety. He exercises a royal priesthood and dominion to ensure the fulfillment of God’s word. Now from his glorious throne as on the earth from the cross of shame, he lives as our Mediator to ensure that “the Scripture must be fulfilled.”
Cling to Jesus Christ. Satan raises up persecution from without and doubts within to weaken our resolve to hold fast to him. The devil uses domestic frustration to alienate spouses from each other and from Christ, as well as parents from children and children from Christ. He does not care who holds the reigns of earthly power, provided they do not use it for the honor of Christ but to destroy men’s lives through tyranny and bloodshed and worldly promises. From God’s perspective, all the trials of life are so many invitations to us to hold more tightly to our Savior and to set our affections upon him, where he lives and reigns at God’s right hand. Personal trials, threatened hardship for the gospel, and the world’s mockery – all are ladders God lets down from heaven to lead us higher and to establish all our happiness and security in our great high priest. He will never fail us. There may be no immediate remedy for troubles or no way to escape some difficulty or even death for Christ’s sake. Trust him. Remember the martyrs who loved not their lives. Remember Jesus who loved not his life in order to redeem us to God. He will bring you to perfection. He is the only priest who can. Call upon him now. Whatever your stains, your past wickedness, your present frustrations, call upon the name of the Lord. The Master is come, and calls for you. Will you come to him, close with him, hold fast to him? He is all your righteousness, peace, and wisdom.