In the last week’s post(s) we have seen the author of Hebrews using the figure of Melchizedek to make certain assertions about Jesus. Today we see again the sharp logic of the author. What he is saying is something like, “If everything was fine with the Levitical priesthood (and for that matter with the law) why change it? Why a different priesthood if a right relationship with God could have been established otherwise?” The Levitical priesthood was instituted hundreds of years before Ps. 110 with its messianic hopes was written. Thus, even the survey of revelation itself shows that the inferior priesthood was inadequate and was to be superseded by a superior one (Hughes, 255). Here we see the author switching from the Genesis account to Ps. 110:4 the only other mention of Melchizedek in the Hebrew Bible.
Before we will move on with the exposition of the test let us reiterate the author’s usage of the word “perfection” (and its cognates). Ellingworth writes on the term “perfection” that it “include[s] elements of reaching a goal or fulfilling a function (e.g., 11:40; 12:2), especially through worship (9:9; 10:1; 12:23; cf. 7:19); and more specifically of Christ, through his sacrifice (2:10; 5:9), which in turn perfects and sanctifies (10:14) believers” (371). What the author is saying in verse 11 is that the Levitical priesthood with the old system (i.e., the law) could not achieve exactly that – the perfection of the worshiper in the above mentioned sense (see verse 19).
The change in the priesthood requires a change in the law (Verse 12). Since the law and priesthood are so intrinsically linked, if one changes the other does too (Peterson, in loc.). An example would be with a candidate for the American presidency. Let us suppose an one living in the U.S. but born in Germany (hint: we are talking about a real person) wants to become the president of the U.S. yet the constitution regulates that only persons born in the U.S. are eligible to become president of the U.S. So what has to happen in order for this young man – born in Germany – to become president would be a change in the constitution. The author of Hebrews will deal with that issue further in chapters 9-10.
That our Lord Jesus Christ was not a descendant of Levi is of common knowledge (verses 13-14). No one from the tribe of Judah – where the Messiah rightly belongs – has ever served at the altar. Though the tribe of Judah has the promise of the lineage to the Messiah (this also includes the line of David!), nothing is said about this tribe in regards to any kind of priesthood.
The text of Ps. 110:4 is explored and gives reason (in v. 17 – gar; to be understood as a causal conjunction here). Because it is witnessed of him that he would be a “priest forever” it is for sure that he has “indestructible life.” Peterson comments that
[t]his last expression is best understood as a reference to Jesus’ resurrection and his heavenly exaltation. He clearly functioned as high priest of the new covenant on earth, when he offered himself as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. But he had to be brought to life again to function as a priest for ever, serving in the heavenly sanctuary, at the right hand of God (cf. 8:1–2). (in loc.)
Christ did not become high priest by any legal requirement like those priests of the order of Aaron/Levi, but due to the resurrection and his indestructible life!
That the former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness is reasoned through the parenthetical statement, that it made nothing perfect (verses 18-19). The subject of weakness and uselessness will be dealt with in 8:7-8 (where the law is found fault because of the people), 9:13-14 (where the author explains that the offerings and rituals only dealt with external issues), and in 10:1 (where it is written that the sacrifices made under the law can “never make perfect those who draw near”).
But we have a better hope – the gospel (Bruce, 169) – the ultimate sacrifice by the Son of God, our great high priest (this topic is especially dealt with in ch. 10).
Again the author using Ps. 110 states the superiority of the priest after the order of Melchizedek, this time by means of the oath of his inauguration to this priesthood (verses 20-22). “The oath declares the purpose of God in an absolute fashion” (Morris, 69). We have seen a similar argument in 6:13-19 where it states the ultimate certainty of God’s promise (not that there’s no certainty without the oath, but for our sake God takes an oath to make his promise more secure in our sight). Davidson comments on this, ‘Formally all that the swearing of the oath implies in the covenant is its finality and eternity” (141). This oath makes Christ the guarantor of a better covenant (this covenant is dealt with in chapter 8).
Another superior aspect of the priesthood of Christ is also found in its eternal aspect (verses 23-24; see also verse 16). The Levitical priests were “many in numbers” because they (like all human beings) were hindered by death to continue the sacerdotal office. But Christ who lives forever can also perform the priestly duty permanently.
Now, let us look at verse 25. This verse concludes vv.23-25 and states what is flowing out of the author’s argument. Because Christ is holding the priesthood permanently, due to his eternal life, he can “save to the uttermost.” The “intention [of the author] is to strengthen a community that has lacked certainty” (Lane, 189). The phrase eis to panteles could be understood (1) qualitatively, as meaning “completely, fully, wholly,” “to the uttermost”; or (2) temporally, “for ever” (Ellingworth, 391). Maybe both aspects are on the author’s mind. Moffatt (100) and Ellingworth (391) argue for the temporal because of the context in verse 24 (eis ton aiōna aparabaton). “Just as Christ’s priesthood is permanent, so is the salvation which he makes possible (Ellingworth, 391).
The salvation the author is writing about has more eschatological significance in that it talks about the eschatological inheritance (cf. 1:14; 5:9; 9:28) but also present implications. He is able to help those being tempted (2:18; 4:14-16).
What does it mean that Christ is interceding on our behalf? Does this not imply an ill disposed Father whose wrath towards us has to be calmed by the Son’s presence? In Paul’s words “mē genoito” (“may it never be”). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in love and purpose (cf. Hughes, 270). Peterson writes,
The image of the heavenly intercessor is used to emphasize Christ’s willingness and ability to go on applying to us the benefits of his once-for-all sacrifice (cf. 2:18; 4:14–16; 10:19–22). However, the image should not be pushed too far. Jesus sits at the right hand of God, claiming the fulfilment of the covenant promises for his children, not begging for their acceptance before the Father’s throne! (in loc.)
This is more a picture of Christ sitting on the Father’s right hand, securing our salvation and “claiming the fulfilment of the covenant promises for his children” to a Father “who is for us” and “who justifies” (Rom. 8:31,33 respectively) and is pleased to grant His Son’s wishes.
Though a whole lot could be said about these few verses (i.e., verses 26-28), only some brief remarks have to suffice for the sake of time and space.
That Jesus is holy, blameless/innocent, pure/unstained recalls “the teaching about his sinlessness (4:15) and explain[s] why his sacrifice was so perfect, needing no repetition” (Peterson, in loc.) Christ was obedient (5:8-9) and he sacrificed for us “once for all himself” (27; cf. 9:14). Peterson again observes that this “is a new thought, explaining exactly how he made ‘purification’ (1:3) or ‘atonement for the sins of the people’ (2:17).”
The author emphasizes the “once for all” aspect of this sacrifice (here; and in 9:12, 26, 28; 10:10). This is unlike the offerings and sacrifices under the old covenant where the priests offered “sacrifices daily, first for [their] own sins and then for those of the people.” But Christ sacrifice is sufficient for all and does not have to be repeated ever again.
Christ is “separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” where “he sits at the right hand of God” (1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), through his resurrection and indestructible life, we have a great high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Do you see and marvel about this great High Priest? It is astonishing and awe-inspiring to see him who loves us and gave himself for us (cf. Gal 2:20).
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Davidson, A. B. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
Ellingworth, P. The Epistle to the Hebrews : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids; Carlisle England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47A. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
Moffat, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: Clark, 1948.
Morris, Leon. “Hebrews.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. With the New International Version of the Holy Bible, Hebrews–Revelation Volume 12. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, v. 12. Ed. Frank Ely Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 1981.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.