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A High Priest of Judah - Part 1

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 14, 1998

Hebrews 7:11-28

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I invite you to turn with me to Hebrews 7.  This is a relatively difficult passage to outline, and so I have given you a relatively complete outline and we’ll try and hit the high points as we go through.  You remember that so far in Hebrews 7, the author of Hebrews has introduced to us the idea that Jesus is a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, meaning among other things that He is not a high priest in the line of Aaron.  But that the order of priesthood in which Jesus stands is entirely distinct and different from the Levitical order of priests who had served God’s people for many hundreds of years in the days of the Old Testament.  He is going to begin to explain to us in what ways Jesus’ priesthood was different and why it is different, in this passage.  As we have said before, in the Book of Hebrews, the author of Hebrews has mentioned the idea of Jesus being a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  But it’s not until the end of chapter 6 and through those first verses of chapter 7 that he really devotes himself to the theme.  In verses 11-28 of Hebrews 7 are an extended meditation on why Jesus was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek and what that means for us as believers.  So let’s hear God’s holy and inspired word in Hebrews 7, beginning in verse 11. 

Hebrews 7:11-28 

Lord Father, teach us the truth of this passage.  May we imbibe it in our spirits, may we grow in grace by it.  May we glorify You in our lives as we live it and believe it.  For Christ’s sake.  Amen. 

In this passage, the author of Hebrews makes clear the necessity of a new priesthood.  The old priesthood was not capable of bringing the hope and the maturity and the assurance which God desired for His people under the New Covenant.  Therefore, a new priesthood was necessary.  In this passage, the author shows us the superiority of Jesus as a priest over the priests of the Old Testament; and in this passage, the author points us to the unique qualities of Jesus as our High Priest, focusing on His person, and especially things displayed in His office as our mediator which show Him to be superior to the Old Covenant priests. 

I. The old covenant was not the culmination of God’s plan.

I want to point to four or five things that this passage emphasizes.  First in verse 11, which is in a sense a capsule summary of what the author is going to be arguing for the rest of the chapter.  He sort of tells you ahead of time an outline of his argument and then he expands on it for a number  of verses.  In fact, you could argue that verse 11 is an outline for verses 12 all the way down to verse 25.  Then the author enters into a new stage of argumentation. 

Notice the words, “if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood, what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek.  It’s not so much that the priests of the order of Aaron were deficient.  That’s not so much the argument here.  The argument is that they were not designed in the economy of God to bring about the fullness which God envisioned occurring in the New Covenant, after the time of the Lord Jesus Christ, after the time of Pentecost, in the time of New Covenant ministry.  He is saying that those Old Covenant priests, by God’s own design, were never intended to represent the fullness and the culmination of God’s work amongst His people.  Jesus’ ministry was that culmination.  And we live in that era of the New Testament, of the New Covenant.  We live in the era of that culmination of the ministry of God, expressed in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of His people.

So his point is, God never intended the Old Covenant priesthood to be permanent and to achieve the things that He did intend for the permanent priest of His Son to achieve.  The argument of verse 11 is very simple.  It goes like this:  If sanctification and assurance had been achieved through the old system, through the old priesthood, there would have been no need for Christ’s priestly work.  But in view of the fact that Christ did come as a priest, it must mean that the old system was not able to bring full assurance of hope, full sanctification as God desires for His children now. 

The argument is very simple.  If the old priesthood had been capable of bringing about the kind of believing maturity and assurance that God desires for His people, then there would have been no need for Jesus Christ.  And the very fact that Jesus Christ has come is a reminder that the old priesthood was a shadow of the reality to come in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

That reminds us among many other things that God’s purposes for us as believers, as He works His grace in our lives.  His purpose for us is a maturity, a moral likeness to God which will culminate when we stand before the Lord.  In glory, in our glorified humanity, we will be perfect before the Lord.  God intends us to be perfect as He originally created us.  He will be satisfied with nothing less; and even in this life, He intends there to be a sanctification and an assurance of hope as the norm amongst believers.  This is something He desires in His new covenant ministry. 

By the way, that’s a theme that runs throughout the Book of Hebrews.  You will see it especially when we get to chapter 10.  The author of Hebrews makes a great point of the fact that the Old Testament sacrifices weren’t able to bring peace of conscience to the Old Covenant people’s minds.  But Jesus’ sacrifice is able to bring peace of conscience.  We sang that stanza, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part, but the whole, was nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, it is well, it is well with my soul.”  No Old Covenant believer could have said forcefully what we can say because of the finished of the Lord Jesus Christ, and because of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. 

And oftentimes we don’t think of those benefits that we have as New Covenant believers because we have never experienced the other.  We’ve never experienced what it would have been like to go year after year after year, down to Jerusalem, laying our hands on those bulls and goats, taking them off and watching the priests slaughter them, and know that we’re going to have to come back and offer another one next year, reminding us over and over that our sins need forgiven.  Because we’ve always looked at the cross and known that our sins were dealt with there and there is not further sacrifice to be offered.  What a tremendous thing the author of Hebrews is point us to.  He is pointing us to the very basis of our security and assurance before God.

What stands us before God?  Nothing about us.  Nothing in us.  But Christ stands us before God.  Christ in His priestly work stands us before God.  This is a very important message that the author of Hebrews is teaching us.   

II. The new covenant priesthood not based on ceremonial law.

Look at verses 12-17 and perhaps we ought to stop there. In verses 12-17, the author then tells us that there is a connection between this new priesthood and the change in the law.  He teaches us there that the New Covenant priesthood (And I want you to notice that this New Covenant priesthood is not multiple, it’s not plural, it’s singular.  In the Old Covenant, there were many priests.), in the New Covenant, there is one priest.  There are not multiple priests in the New Covenant.  That is why we Protestants don’t refer to our ministers as priests, because there is only one priest in the New Covenant, that is the Lord Jesus Christ. 

I had a Brazilian roommate from a Roman Catholic background, although he hadn’t been in a Roman Catholic church in 30 years when we were rooming together at the University of Edinburgh.  But he couldn’t get it into his head that I was not a priest.  So when I would walk in the door at night after hearing various other words coming out of his mouth, he would often say, “Hey, priest, I want to ask you a question,” and then off he would go.  I would say, “Houy, I’m not a priest.  I’m a preacher and there is a difference.”  There is a difference.  There is one priest in the New Covenant and that priest is the Lord Jesus Christ. 

And in this passage, the author tells us that this new priesthood is not based on the Law of Moses and the ceremonial Law.  It’s not the Aaronic priesthood set forth at the time of the Exodus.  It’s a different priesthood.  He argues that since the Old Covenant priesthood was based upon God’s law given at the Exodus, when we see a change in priesthood, it must mean that there was a change in the law.  He carries that out by two arguments.  One you will see in verses 13 and 14, and the other you will see in verses 15-17.

First he says it is obvious that there has been a change in the law because the law of the Old Testament did not allow someone from the Tribe of Judah to be a priest.  Look at his words there.  “It is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests.”  Never there was a priest from the Tribe of Judah.  They were all from the Tribe of Levi, and yet Jesus was a priest.  That must mean He is not a priest in accord with those ceremonial laws established at the time of the Exodus.  He goes on to argue furthermore that this is obvious in light of the requirements for Jesus’ priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek.  Look at his argument in verses 15-17.  “It is clearer still if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, who had become such not on the basis of the law of physical requirement (in other words, He was not descended from Aaron, he was not descended from Levi), but according to the power of an indestructible life.”

What is he saying?  He is saying that Jesus’ resurrection is confirmation that His priesthood is not temporary.  It is eternal.  Remember, one of the points that the author of Hebrews draws from the life of Melchizedek that is presented in the Book of Genesis is, the Book of Genesis never tells us when Melchizedek was born and it never tells us when he died.  So, the author of Hebrews draws from that fact the eternality of the Melchizedekian priesthood and he says Jesus’ priesthood is eternal.  It is eternal and you can see it because He was raised from the dead.  His priesthood did not end.  He continues to be a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. 

This is very important for us in understanding Jesus’ priesthood.  His ongoing intercession for us is very important to the assurance that the author of Hebrews is talking about.  But it is important for us as we understand New Covenant ministry.  The early church made a serious mistake when it attempted to model the Christian ministry since Pentecost on the priesthood of Leviticus, on the priesthood of Aaron and Levi.  Cyprian in the North African church was one of the first ones to argue this,  that the New Covenant priesthood ought to have priests in the New Testament just like in the Old.  And that’s a serious mistake. 

The author of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus’ priesthood, itself, was not patterned on that  Old Covenant priesthood, but furthermore, the author of Hebrews stresses that He is the culmination of that priesthood.  That priesthood is not to be repeated, because the sacrifices are not to be repeated.  No human, but the Godman, the Lord Jesus Christ, is to intercede for you, needs to mediate for you.  You have one mediator.  I’m not your mediator.  The elders are not your mediator.  The ministers are not your mediator.  Oh, we will and do gladly intercede for this congregation.  We praise the Lord that the Lord has called us to often lift up public prayers and private prayers on your behalf.  But, you don’t get to God through us.  You are in fellowship with the living God through the one priest, Jesus Christ; and that is something to sing about.  That’s where we will stop tonight and we’ll come back and look at this passage as the Lord brings us together again.  Let’s look to Him in prayer. 

Our Lord and our God, we thank You that You have given us one priest through Whom we now have concourse with the very Triune God of heaven and earth.  It’s an amazing thing, O Lord, that You have called sinners like us into fellowship with Yourself and that You determined to sanctify and assure us by the power of the Spirit.  As we study Your word, we pray that these would become not simply realities that we talk and read about, but which are actually worked out in our lives.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

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