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A High Priest of Judah - Part 2

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 21, 1998

Hebrews 7:18-28

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This is a rich passage, and I want to try and be as clear as we possibly can about the chain of argument here, because in my opinion, the change of argument from Hebrews 7:11 down to the end of the chapter in verse 28 can be a bit difficult to follow.  It needs to be followed closely.  It’s all tied together with what the author of Hebrews is telling us about Jesus as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  It’s also tied together with His main theme which is to show the superiority of Jesus Christ to a group of Jewish Christians in a local congregation who have been tempted to think that there is some sense in which Jesus is optional to relationship with God.  They have been tempted to think that maybe the ceremonial code that they have abandoned in their Judaism is just as sufficient in bringing them into fellowship with the living God and there are sufficient themes being taught in the contemporary forms of Judaism of their day to justify their turning their backs on the profession of faith in Jesus Christ that they had made and relating to God apart from the high priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Over and over in this book, we have seen the author of Hebrews appeal to them from the bottom of his heart, with the most powerful of Biblical arguments and with the strongest of admonition, not to try to fellowship with the living God apart from the high priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And this is what this extended and somewhat complex argument is about.

So, after we read the scripture tonight, I’d like to take you through the argument, not only to rehearse what we did last week, but perhaps to prepare you to appreciate more of the argument as we walk through it tonight.   So let’s hear God’s holy and inspired word in Hebrews 7, beginning in verse 18. 

Hebrews 7:18-28 

Father, we thank You for this glorious passage.  We thank You that it is so rich that it confounds our understanding.  We bow before Your word.  You are awesome and sovereign.  We know this word was not given to confound us; it was given to edify us.  And though we may never in this lifetime or the next, plumb the depths of your truth of redemption completely, yet we know that You want us to understand enough of this truth, that we might bow in wonder, love, and praise to our Redeemer and we might be built up and equipped to live and work for Him, glorifying Him and enjoying Him, both here and hereafter.  We ask that You would help us then by the Holy Spirit to be so edified as we study Your word tonight.  We ask  it in Jesus’ name. 

Now if you will hold your Bibles in front of you and look at the first 10 verses of this chapter, glance through them and remind yourselves that finally you have been waiting since Hebrews 5, at least, for the author to pick up on this theme of the priestly order of Melchizedek and explain what in the world it means that “Christ was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”  Finally, after these gorgeous explanations of the work of Christ on our behalf, and these solemn warnings that He gives us in Hebrews 5 and 6, he gets to this point in Hebrews 7.  He barely introduces it in the last verse of Hebrews 6.  Then he devotes a glorious chapter to explaining that which he had hinted at before.  In those first 10 verses, he reminds us that Jesus is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, and he provides for us an exposition of the Old Testament background of that.  He reminds us of the story of Melchizedek and Abraham and of the permanency of Melchizedek as a priest and of the superiority of this priesthood.  Because even Abraham gives tithes to Melchizedek.  So he sets forth a theological explanation of that which had happened in Genesis 14, with a view to understand how significant it is that Jesus was not a priest according to the order of Levi as all the other priests had been in the Old Testament, descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses.  But He was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  He is wanting us to appreciate the significance for that as Christians — what that means for us in terms of our ability to draw near to the Lord, our confidence, our assurance, our perseverance in the faith, the certainty of the benefits which Christ has accomplished for us.

 So, remember that the theme here in Hebrews 7 is simply continuing to reinforce the theme that Jesus Christ is superior.  You remember the temptation of some or many in this congregation is to think that they can relate to the Lord perhaps by going back to whatever form of Judaism they had professed and again approaching Him through the rich themes of the ceremonial law.  And the author of Hebrews at every point wants to say, “You are underestimating the uniqueness and the sole sufficiency, the supremacy, the superiority of Jesus Christ in every aspect of His work as prophet, priest, and king.  In this passage, especially, he has zeroed in on that idea of Jesus as high priest, as the culmination of every thing that had gone on before in the Old Testament and he is trying to bring that practically to there to pull that congregation back away from trusting anything else than the One whose name they have already professed as their Lord and Savior. 

That is, of course, a standing issue for Christians.  All of us go through times where our hearts feel a bit dry and we feel a bit removed from the Lord and we ask ourselves how much we are, in fact, trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Has our hope shifted or drifted.  And the author of Hebrews provides us a beautiful call back to Christ by showing us how superior He is.  So if you will walk with me through the argument of this chapter, glance at verse 11, and I’d like to take you from verse 11 all the way down to verse 28 and scope the argument for you, give you a survey of the argument.

It seems to me that this argument and you could number it in different ways, (I’m not wanting to be dogmatic in my numbering, I’m simply using the numbering as a way to help keep it in our minds).  Let’s say that this argument is a five-point argument.  He has already introduced the idea of Melchizedek.  Now he is wanting to show you the significance of that.  In verse 11, you get the first plank of his argument.  In verse 11, he basically tells us that the Old Covenant was not the culmination of God’s plan, not the final part of God’s plan, not the ultimate aspect of God’s plan.  His argument in verse 11 is that the fact that Jesus was sent as a High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek reveals the inherent limitations of the old priesthood.  If the old priesthood was sufficient in design and in result, why would we have needed to have a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek?  That’s the argument, very simply. Why would we need Jesus as a great high priest, if the old priesthood did the job. So he draws our attention to the limitations of that old priesthood.

Then the second plank of the argument, you’ll see in verses 12, 13, and 14, which goes on to basically say this: Indeed, not only was that old priesthood inherently limited, but a new and distinctly non-Levitical priesthood requires a different divine law for its basis.  In other words, you know that the law of Moses established the priesthood of the sons of Levi.  When you come along and say that Jesus’ priesthood was according to the order of Melchizedek, you immediately have to ask, “Well, what was the basis of that priesthood?  I know the basis of the Levitical priesthood.  It was very explicit.  It was in the law of Moses.  But there is no Melchizedek priesthood spoken of in the law of Moses.”  And the author of Hebrews says, “That’s right.”  And therefore you know that it must be based on a different ground than the priesthood of the Old Testament, a different law for this new priesthood.

And he goes on to say in verses 13 and 14 that this is very apparent because Christ is from the tribe of Judah.  He is speaking to Jewish Christians.  They know there was no priest from the tribe of Judah.  If a man from the tribe of Judah had showed up at the temple to offer sacrifices, he would have been turned away; because only those in the line of Levi were qualified to do that kind of priestly work.  So he says, “Look, all you have to do is know that Jesus was from the tribe of Judah to know that he could not be a priest according to the old system.”  He had to be a priest on another basis.  Furthermore, he says in verses 15-17, that this is evident when you consider the basis of the priesthood of Melchizedek.  What was that basis?  He summarizes it in that gorgeous phrase, “the power of an indestructible life.”  You remember we commented about the fact that in the Old Testament story of Melchizedek, there is not mention of his birth or of his death, no mention of his lineage, no mention of his end.  The author of Hebrews takes that as a hint to remind us of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the eternality of Him. He is not thwarted from going on and fulfilling His priestly function by death.  Death could not hold Him.  He was raised from the dead.  He ascended on high and He now ever lives to intercede.  And so His priesthood, unlike the Old Covenant priesthood, is permanent.  And so for all these reasons, the author reminds us that Jesus’ priesthood was of an entirely different nature than the priesthood than the sons of Levi.  Therefore it was based on a different ground or foundation and that foundation was seen in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and, of course, in His ongoing session at the right hand of God. 

So the law which undergirded that priesthood is the oath which the Lord declared, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” and Christ’s perfect fulfillment of the Covenant of Works.  Christ earned His right to be a priest forever in His fulfillment of the Covenant of Works.

The three arguments (verses 18-22) that I’m about to give you now parallel point 1, 2, and 3 in your outline.  So I’m being redundant on purpose.  I’ve brought you into the Redundant Department for a reason.  The third plank in the argument of this passage is that the former priestly system that God had set up in the Old Testament was imperfect and impermanent by design.  In other words, God never intended that priesthood to stand on its own.  It was never designed to accomplish the salvation of God’s people on its own.  Its benefit, its effaciousness, its effectiveness, were entirely tied to the real priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If Christ’s priesthood had not been done, the Old Testament priesthood would have been nothing.  It would have had no benefit.  That’s an amazing thing about the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Our great theologians in the Reformed tradition remind us that the benefits of Christ’s work on the cross flow both directions.  They flow back and cover the Old Testament saints and they flow forward in covering all those who come after Christ believing in His name.  And so the benefits of the Old Testament priesthood are only beneficial insofar as they forecast the perfect priesthood which came and insofar in which they benefitted from the effect of the Lord Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, out of time, as it were.  And so He argues that that priesthood by design was never designed to stand on its own and it was by definition impermanent.  It always looked forward to a day when it would be replaced by the priesthood of Christ.

The fourth argument, and I think you can see by now why I’m walking you through the argument.  It can get confusing as you work through this glorious chapter.  If you will look down at verses 23-26, the argument is this.  In the previous system, under the priesthood of the Old Testament, men ministered who died; and they had to be replaced in order for the Old Testament sacrificial system to go on.  But Jesus’ priesthood is eternal.  He never has to be replaced.  His sacrifice was once for all.  His intercession, His mediation goes on forever. 

Then finally, in the last verses of the chapter, verses 27 and 28, you see him press home one last point of his argument — the fifth point of his argument that Jesus is a perfect and sinless high priest in contrast to the priests of the Old Testament.  They had to offer sacrifices even for themselves, because they were weak and sinful just like we are.  But the Lord Jesus Christ was perfect, separated from sinners in the sense that He did not share in our propensity for sin, in the natural condemnation for sin which rests upon us as children of wrath; and in the actual living out of sin.  He was sinless; He was unfallen; He was perfect in His humanity.  And that’s his five-point argument for the superiority of Christ. 

I. The inherent limitations of the ceremonial law and the better hope of the new covenant.

So let’s go back and draw the implications of those last three points.  Let’s look again at verses 18-22.  Here again, the argument is that the ceremonial law, which was the basis of the Old Testament priesthood, had inherent limitations built into it by God.  This was not something that God did and then said, “Oops, that didn’t quite work like I intended it.”  He planned it just like He did, but He planned it with limitations because one of its jobs was to point forward to the real work of priesthood that Jesus Christ was going to do.  The first argument in verses 18-22 is that we see in the inherent limitation of the ceremonial law and in the better hope of the New Covenant, one reason why Jesus Christ is superior to anything that Judaism has to offer.  Let’s look at this passage together and pay close attention to those words in verses 18 and 19. :“For on the one hand there is a setting aside of the former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness.  And on the other hand, there is a bringing in of a better hope through which we draw near to God.”

Notice here that the necessity of the change of the law and the priesthood is shown to us here both in negative and positive terms.  First in verse 18, “on the one hand there is a setting aside of the former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness.”  Now, you can’t imagine the force of that kind of language on Jewish Christians.  To describe the commandment of God as weak and useless, even the ceremonial aspect of that commandment must have been absolutely gobstopping.  To speak of the law of God in that way, the author of Hebrews is shaking them and getting their attention and saying, “Now look at that law.  That law was weak and useless in the sense of gaining, in and of itself, peace of conscience from sin and assurance of salvation.”  He says that’s the negative reason why we needed a Great High Priest. 

Then he says, “let me give you the positive reason.”  He goes on in verse 19: “And on the other hand, there is a bringing in of a better hope through which we draw near to God.”  His point is that in the New Covenant, in the ministry inaugurated by the Lord Jesus Christ which we call the New Covenant ministry as opposed to the Old Covenant, that ministry which went on prior to Christ.  That New Covenant was designed to bring a better hope.  Of course, the reference there is precisely to our assurance.  The argument is that the old system was unable to bring conclusive assurance to the believer.  Just remind yourself of what the system would have been like.  Year after year, as faithful believers, you would have made your way with your family, the head of the household leading the way, to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement.  Year after year after year, you would see your father,  the head of the household, lay his hands on the sacrificial animal and remove those hands and see the priest plunge the knife into that animal, perhaps the prize animal of the herd.  And then you would see that animal consumed on the altar and you would know that that animal hadn’t sinned that year.  But that animal had died because of your sins, that atonement was being made so that you might be in fellowship with God.  And though the sacrifice of blood would have reminded you of the possibility of the covering of sin, the fact that you had to do it year after year after year inherently would have made you ask the question, “Can my sin really be covered?  How will my sin really be dealt with?”  Because as the author of Hebrews says, “The blood of bulls and goats cannot forgive sins.” 

But in the New Covenant, we make our way once to Calvary; and we see the knife of the Father plunged into the Son who dies for us once for all.  We do not see a sacrifice repeated year after year after year.  We see a sacrifice which was so efficacious that it not only covered all of our sins, but it covered all of the sins of all of those who believe in Christ, both now and forevermore.  And we realize we have something which is a sure ground of a better hope and the author of Hebrews is saying, “Now you are going to leave that and you are going to go back to killing bulls?”  You have got to be kidding.”  Don’t think that there is any surer ground of the sense of the acceptance of God than the Lord Jesus Christ.  There is not only not surer ground, there is no other ground of acceptance with God than through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And so he goes on to argue in verses 20 through 22 that this better covenant is also seen because God gave this priesthood to the Lord Jesus Christ by an oath.  And the author of Hebrews points out that the priests of Levi were not promised a permanent priesthood by oath; whereas, the Lord had said to the Lord Jesus Christ: “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, ‘Thou art a priest forever.’”

So the author is the Lord Jesus by virtue of the superiority of His sacrifice and by virtue of the fact that God the Father has sworn an oath to Him, and I suspect that there is more than a hint at the Covenant of Redemption and Counsel of Peace before the foundation of the world hidden in that little phrase, “which He has sworn to Jesus Christ.”  “My Son, give Yourself on the tree for them.  You will be their priest forever, You will be their mediator forever, and no one will snatch them out of Your hand.”  You hear that counsel of eternity, from the very beginnings of time when God set out His plan to redeem His people, echoing in the words of the Psalmist, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”  The Lord has sworn and He will not change His mind.  You see then, for the author of Hebrews, the issue of assurance of our salvation is not peripheral to our growth in the Christian life.  The author of Hebrews knows that for us to grow to Christian assurance, we cannot simply survive on a vague wish that we are accepted with God.  We grow in grace as we are assured with a spiritual certainty of what it means to have an interest in the Lord Jesus Christ.  And so growing in assurance is not a peripheral issue in the Christian life.  If we are an individual who struggles with the issue of assurance, we should not turn away from the struggle there and concentrate our attention somewhere else.  We need to be concerned about the matter of assurance.  There are some tender consciences that struggle exceedingly with the doctrine of assurance and their own personal assurance.  It is a matter upon which we reflect with great benefit and the author of Hebrews knows that a Christian who lacks that assurance of the mercy of God towards him is a Christian who is potentially weak and ineffective.  And so he is piling up the arguments here as to the basis on which we ought to be assured.  And he is reminding us that only Jesus Christ and only His finished work provides an adequate foundation for that assurance. 

II. The new covenant priesthood is permanent.

Then he goes on in verses 23 through 26 to argue this.  The New Covenant priesthood is permanent.  The Old Covenant priests had to be replaced year after year.  They died.  But the Lord Jesus Christ not only was raised from the dead, but He ascended visibly and bodily to Heaven and He now rules at the right hand of God, what the old theologians called, “the heavenly session.”  He rules the world by His word and Spirit for the sake of His people; and because of the permanency, the eternity of His priesthood, His priesthood is superior to anything in the Old Testament. 

And that, again, my friends, reminds how significant the exaltation of Christ is to our assurance.  If you are a Christian who struggles with assurance, one of the first things that Christians tend to do is turn in and look at their faith.  Now there is a place for asking ourselves about our faith.  But there is also a place for turning ourselves away from looking within and looking to the great objective truths of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If we have not spent time meditating on the significance of Christ’s resurrection for us and Christ’s ascension for us, and Christ’s heavenly session for us, I assure you that you have not obtained the full fruits which God has laid forth in His word for you in order to bolster your assurance.  

Our friend, Derek Thomas, has recently written a book on the Ascension, and one of the reasons, pastorally, why he wrote that book is because so few Christians meditate on the Ascension.  We think sometimes about the resurrection and at least we pray sometimes about the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ ever lives to intercede at the right hand.  But we don’t meditate on the significance of the Ascension.  I’d challenge you to take up that book and other books on the resurrection and the heavenly session and meditate on those things because God has given those to us in order to bolster the strength of our assurance.  Because our assurance is not grounded subjectively in our faith.  Our faith is but the instrument by which we receive assurance as we receive salvation.  Our assurance is grounded objectively in the work of Christ.  And if we don’t meditate, pray through, reflect upon, chew, digest, and taste and see that those great truths are good, our assurance will be lacking.  All of us could use the robust assurance that God is calling us. 

III. The new covenant priesthood is perfect.

One last thing.  In verses 26-28, the author of Hebrews reminds us of the perfection of the priesthood of Christ.  The Old Covenant priests were imperfect.  They had to offer up sacrifices for themselves.  Christ is a perfect High Priest.  I want to stress this because the author of Hebrews has already argued to us that the Lord Jesus Christ is able to have sympathy with us because of His shared infirmities.  He knows our weaknesses.  And this same author can turn around and tell us this in verse 26: “that He is a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” 

You see, we must know two things about Christ.  He is both like us and unlike us.  The is both continuity in His experience and discontinuity between His experience and our experience.  That unlikeness, that discontinuity between the Lord Jesus Christ’s perfection and our imperfection does not rob Him of the ability to be sympathetic with you.  There are some theologians, however well meaning, who will say that if Jesus Christ is unlike us at all, He can’t sympathize with us at all.  The author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 7:26 that that is rubbish.  He is the one who gave us those glorious words about His ability to share, to sympathize, to empathize with us.  And he is the same author who tells us that He is utterly unlike us in our sin.  If Jesus has to be exactly like me in order to sympathize with me, then He is going to have to be a sinner because that is what I am.  That is precisely what the author of Hebrews says — He is not.  And yet He can still sympathize with me and, in fact,  it is precisely because He is without sin that He is a superior savior and priest to the priests of the Old Testament. 

And so the author of Hebrews has laid out for us this series of arguments to show us the superiority of Christ, to show us the essentialness of Christ to our fellowship with God and to remind us as ell of the importance of our being assured because of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  I hope that the Lord, by His Spirit, would cause all of us in our congregation to yearn to know these truths that we might grow in our assurance and our lives might be transformed by His sanctifying grace.  I wonder what would happen?  Surely the gates of Hell must tremble at that thought.  Let’s pray.

“Our Lord and our God, we praise You for Your word.  We cannot do justice to Your word, it’s so glorious.  Help us to understand it enough, Lord, that we might strength from it for Christ’s sake. We ask it in His name.  Amen.”

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