A Better Hope
A Better Hope
Hebrews 7 breaks down for us what it means that Jesus is a priest forever after or in the order of Melchizedek. That sounds strange to our ears. It's not something we typically talk about in Christianity, Jesus being a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. I think most Christians understand that he has a priestly function. He represents God to man, man to God, as well as being a prophet and a king.
But why does the writer to these Hebrew Christians make so much of this fact that he's not in the Aaronic priesthood? He is not a descendant of Aaron, Moses' brother. He's not part of the Levitical priesthood. He's a priest after the order of Melchizedek, a guy who appears once in the Book of Genesis. He's mentioned again once in the Book of Psalms in Psalm 110:4, and then he disappears off the pages of Scripture until we find him again here in the Book of Hebrews. He's mentioned in Chapter 5, in Chapter 6, and all of Chapter 7 is about Melchizedek and Christ's relationship to Melchizedek, how Melchizedek is a picture, a foreshadowing of Jesus.
Why is this so significant?
(Read Hebrews 7:4-19)
We have to remember that this Old Testament encounter between Melchizedek and Abraham that he's talking about, teaches us about our need for Christ alone. Beyond that, the writer to the Hebrews is telling us how we should read the Old Testament. As Augustine put it, "The New Testament is in the Old concealed. The Old Testament is in the New revealed."
Whenever we read the Old Testament, we're always looking. We don't read the OT as though we didn't know the NT. We read it knowing that it's been fulfilled in Christ, that all those Old Testament pictures point to Christ, that the sacrifices point to the sacrifice he made, that God's dealing with his people there ultimately point to the way he'll deal with his people in the New Testament, in the New Covenant, and even throughout eternity. We're always looking there for pictures of Christ, for glimpses of the gospel that are foreshadowed and foretold.
In Melchizedek, remember we said his name means “my king is righteous.” He's the king of a place called Salem. The author made much of that. It means that he's the king of peace. Salem means peace. It's the same root word as the word shalom. He's Melchizedek, my king is righteous, the king of peace, king of shalom. This is a beautiful picture of Jesus. In Melchizedek, we have a picture of Jesus. That's what those first three verses were about.
Hebrews’ Commentary on Psalm 110:4
If you look at verses 11 through 19, what you have there is a commentary on one Old Testament verse. It's Psalm 110. If you look at verse 1, this is a verse that Jesus quoted in his discussions with the priests, the Pharisees, the scribes. He asked them, "Hey, how can David say this?" Psalm 110:1 says, "The Lord says to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'"
This is a verse about a prophesy of the coming Messiah, that the Messiah would not be merely human. He would be human, but he would also be God. He would be the Lord. "The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit thou here at my right hand until I make your enemies my footstool.'" Jesus would quote that and apply it to himself.
Psalm 110 is a Messianic psalm, what God's going to do through his Messiah. He's going to send him forth from Zion with a mighty scepter. He's going to rule in the midst of his enemies.
Verse 4 says, "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind. You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek." All right, now that's a strange verse. Again, Melchizedek's not been mentioned anywhere else since Genesis 14. This seems almost like a chance encounter. Abraham coming back from the defeat, the slaughter of the kings. He got Lot back. He got the spoils of war back. He comes to Salem there to the king. He pays him a tithe of the spoils, returns everything else to the king of Sodom, and that's all.
Yet, the writer to the Hebrews says, "Oh, this is very significant." How does he know that? Because God speaks through David in Psalm 110 and says that this Messiah, the One that's he's going to send with a scepter from Zion, the one to whom he says, "The Lord says to my Lord, 'Set at my right hand until I make your enemies my footstool,'" that that same Messiah is going to be a king. He rules with a scepter. He's also going to be a priest. But he's not going to be a priest after the order of Aaron. He's not going to be a Levite. He's not going to be in the tribe of Levi. He's going to be a priest like Melchizedek.
That made no sense to anybody until Jesus came, and now the writer to the Hebrews takes it and let’s see what he does with it.
A Better Priesthood
Beginning in verse seven, the writer to the Hebrews shows us that there's the insufficiency of the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priesthood proves the insufficiency of the Law. Verse 11 says, "Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood, for under it," under the Levitical priesthood, "The people received the law, what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek?"
When God gave the Law to Moses in the Book of Exodus, when Moses was on Mount Sinai and he spelled out for him, "Your brother Aaron is going to be a priest, and after him all his descendants are going to be priests. The tribe of Levi will be the priestly tribe. When the land is divided up in the Promised Land, I'm not going to give them any land, because I'm going to be their portion, and they're going to serve me forever." Now, he doesn't spell out exactly what kind of service that will take, but he says that the descendants of Levi are going to serve him. The descendants of Aaron will serve him as priests.
Yet, there's a problem. The problem is that these guys, they're not good guys. He says, "Look. You can't approach God by the Levitical priesthood." He says, "If perfection were attained by the law, there would be no need for God to ever say what he said in Psalm 110::4." If the Levitical priesthood could do its job, if it could perfectly represent God to man and man to God, God would never say, "I swore you are forever a priest after the order of Melchizedek."
Why would he bring up Melchizedek when he's got a priesthood? Well, let me tell you a little story about the descendants of Aaron, the Levitical priesthood. Do you remember in the Book of 1 Samuel the high priest's name is Eli. You can read this story in 1 Samuel 2-4. Eli is the high priest at Shiloh. He ministers in the tabernacle, and he's got two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. One of them is in line to be the high priest, because Eli's the high priest, and when he dies, one of them will become the high priest.
But these guys, you know what they do? Well, the priests, they had certain privileges, remember? God did not give them land like he gave all the 12 tribes. He didn't give the tribe of Levi land, so he told the people that, "Your sacrifices are going to take care of my priest." It was the job of the 12 tribes to care for the priest.
One of the things they did was when they would put a burnt offering on the altar, after it burned a while, the priests were able to put a hook in, and whatever they pulled off the bone with that hook they got to keep. You do this multiple times a day and you can feed a large family. God said, "That's enough." This way they got meat. They didn't take the whole sacrifice. They took what they could get on that one fork.
But if you read 1 Samuel 2, Hophni and Phinehas, what they did is they told people to boil it instead of to burn it, and therefore the meat would stay more intact. While it was still pretty raw and the meat wasn't falling off the bone, they'd stick a fork in and they'd take it all. They're taking more than God has provided for them.
As if that wasn’tt bad enough, and that was terribly offensive to God, they're stealing the sacrifices of his people. They were given as an act of worship to him, and they're taking advantage of that. On top of it, they're having sex with a lot of the women. Women that are coming, and they're coming to the tabernacle to offer their sacrifices. It says Hophni and Phinehas were doing the unthinkable.
You hear that and you say, "How can people let that happen?" Well, I've got news for you. Hardly a week goes by that you don't hear of it happening somewhere, that there are some guys claiming to speak for God and being preacher of the Word, and what are they doing? They're abusing people by taking their money, and they're having sex with women other than their wives. Really things haven't changed. You still have those that will use an office and a pretense of being a man of God for their own benefit, their own gain, their own lust. Hophni and Phinehas did it.
What did God say? If you read, he sends a man of God. One of my favorite preachers in the Bible, we don't even know his name. He just steps right into the presence of Eli. He's just called a man of God. He said, "God sent me to tell you something. 'Why have you profaned my sacrifice? Why have you favored your sons over me and you've let them do what they've done? Because of this, though I said you and your descendants would serve me forever, you will not, because I will not allow anyone who profanes my sacrifice to serve me.'" God tells Eli that he is going to cut off his line. God says, “You're going to be the only one that I'm going to let live, and with your own eyes you're going to see this and you're going to weep. The sign to you will be that I'm going to kill Hophni and Phinehas the same day."
It happens just as the man of God predicts. Hophni and Phinehas both are killed by the Philistines. When Eli hears about it, the Bible describes Eli as grossly, morbidly obese. Which you think about it, in a subsistence culture for a man to be that big, he's done that by living off of the people and not working. This is again evidence against him. He falls off of his seat, breaks his neck, and he dies.
What a picture you have of the insufficiency of the Levitical priesthood. Right there it is. They don't even get as far as David. They don't even build the Temple yet. They're still in the Tabernacle, and the priests that God had ordained to serve him have already shown that they're out for themselves, not for the glory of God.
You see, you can't attain perfection by the Law. You can't approach God by the Levitical priesthood. All these Levites that are supposed to represent God represent themselves. What's the problem? Well, you've got three problems.
Number one, human beings change. The human priests, they changed what God started out with Aaron. It denigrates over time. It dissipates. It loses its power and its authority because they don't follow God. These human priests change. You don't have the same one all the time. You don't have the same character from one to the next.
Second, human priests corrupt. We need go no further than Hophni, Phinehas, and Eli to show that this is true. To think that the priests of God, the ones who are supposed to be offering blood on the altar, the ones who are supposed to go in on the Day of Atonement and make an atonement for their sins and for the sins of the people, they're not sensitive to sin. They're abusing women. They're stealing food. They're corrupt.
Third, human priests croak. They die. That's the writer of Hebrews’ point. How can you attain perfection through guys who die? Part of perfection, if you're truly perfect, your body does not decay. It doesn't die. To be perfect would be to not have to die. The wages of sin is death. So how can you attain perfection through a priest who himself dies? You can't approach God by the Levitical priesthood.
Change in the Law
Then in verse 12, he says this. "Now, every time that there's a change in the priesthood, there's necessarily change in the law as well." In Genesis 14, we have the story of Melchizedek. He's mentioned as a priest of El Elyon, the priest of the Most High God. When God gives the Law to Moses in Exodus 20, he changes the priesthood. Now he gives the Aaronic priesthood, the Levitical priesthood.
But when Jesus comes as a priest after the order of Melchizedek in fulfillment of Psalm 110:4, he says, "Okay. Now the law has changed." Because the law in the Old Testament always had as its point to show us our inability and our incapacity, that we can't keep the law. We can't be perfect. It was to drive us to Christ. When Jesus comes as a priest after the order of Melchizedek, now there's a change in the Law. The law is no longer do this or die. It's do this, that is believe, and live. There's a change in the law. We have the law of Christ Jesus, the law of the Kingdom, the law that drives us to faith in Christ.
These Hebrews believers, who are now tempted to turn from their faith in Christ and go back into their Judaism, need see that you can't do that, because the law has changed. When Christ came, he fulfilled the law. When Levi became a priest, God gave his law, but when Christ became a priest, the law changed because it was fulfilled. That's what changed about the law when Christ came. The law is completely fulfilled.
There's still parts of that Law that certainly show me the character of God, the desire of God. I still see the character of God for instance in the command to not covet my neighbor's stuff or his wife. That's certainly the character of God revealed. But I'm not under the Law of not mixing wool and linen, because that was a law that had a different purpose. It does not show me the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ. That Law has been fulfilled. The Law changed when Christ came.
So he says in verse 13, "For the one of whom these things are spoken belong to another tribe from which no one has ever served at the altar." Jesus wasn't a member of the tribe of Levi. He was a member of another tribe, and nobody in this tribe ever served at the alter. "For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah."
This is not the point of the sermon, but I dare not pass over this without showing you this. He's writing to a Hebrew audience, right? Now, he's writing in Greek, but in the same way when I read Portuguese, what am I thinking in? I'm translating it into my vernacular, right? If he's writing to a Hebrew audience, they're reading this in Greek, but in their minds, they've got this Old Testament background. When he calls Jesus, "It is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah," what word are they thinking? Yahweh. They're thinking Yahweh or Jehovah. He's calling Jesus God. No question about it. He equated Jesus with the Lord, the Jehovah, the Yahweh of the Old Testament when he says that. "It's evident that our Lord," that is Jesus, "Was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests."
"This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek." In fulfillment of Psalm 110:4, there has to be another priest that God raises up who's not a priest of the Levites, but one like Melchizedek. "Who has become a priest not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent." In other words, because of what family he was born in. "But by the power of an indestructible life."
Now, here's what he's saying. Christ proves the superiority of his work. His work is far superior to those priests of the Levites. I could point you to story after story after story about priestly malfeasance in the Old Testament. Read Judges 19 about the Levite and his concubine, and how he allows her to rape to death, and he chops her body up into 12 pieces. Read 1 Samuel 2. Over and over and over, you see that the priests were a major disappointment. Those descended from Levi never fulfilled God's will.
Jesus proves the superiority of his work because he didn't become a priest because of a legal requirement that says, "Well, you were born into this family, therefore you have to be a priest." No. He became a priest because of, and here's a phrase that I love, because of an indestructible life.
You look at the priestly function of Jesus and it's displayed in two primary ways. One is before his death in his prayer. In John 17, we read Jesus' priestly prayer as he prays for his people. The same way that the priest went in and he made an atonement for his people, in John 17 Jesus says that. He says, "I pray for these you have given me. I pray not for the world, but these you have given me. I pray that they might be one. I pray that you might glorify them with the glory that we had before the world was. That the love that we have had, that they will share." Jesus prays that they will have everything that he has. He represents them to God. In John 17, he prays for them as a high priest.
Then, when he dies, what does he do? The veil is torn in two, right? He enters into the most holy place, and there in the presence of God he puts his own blood on the altar, making an atonement for his people. Now, every other Aaronic priest, every Levitical priest who ever did that, somebody had to do it after them. It had to be done again. But when Jesus did it, he did it once for all. It never had to be done again.
Do you see how much better his priesthood is? Wouldn't you rather have Jesus as your priest than Hophni and Phinehas? Wouldn't you rather have Jesus as your priest than any Levitical priest? You see, he became priest because of an indestructible life.
I think that certainly means that he rose from the dead, that Satan could not destroy his life, but I think it means more than that. I think it speaks of the holiness of his life. Hophni and Phinehas, their lives were destroyed by their sin. Not just by their death, but by their sin. Jesus' life was indestructible because he was sinless and because death could not hold him.
‘Weakness and Uselessness’
The inferiority of the Law is set aside. He says the Law just couldn't do it. He goes on to say in verse 17, "It is witnessed of him, 'You're a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.' For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its," look at this, "weakness and uselessness."
Now, he couldn't get any stronger than that. He's saying to you, "If you're trusting in the Law for your salvation, if you're trusting in the Law for your eternal life, you are up a creek without a paddle. There's no place for you to go. The Law is weak and useless, so far as attaining perfection goes." That's how he started in verse 11, "If perfection were attainable by this, why would there have to be another priest?" Perfection's not attainable. The Law as far as attaining perfection goes, as far as getting you eternal life goes, it is weak and it is useless. It is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness.
The inferiority of the law is set aside, "For the law made nothing perfect. But on the other hand, a better hope is introduced through which we draw near to God." The superiority of Christ's work is introduced. The law set aside. The work of Christ introduced.
Now, just I'm going to be very plain with you for a moment. Christianity is under a worldwide assault right now like I have never seen in my life. I read the account of an Anglican vicar, a priest in Baghdad who a child that he baptized five years ago was cut in half. He told about the parents coming in and weeping about how these radical Muslims with ISIS had come in and cut this child in half because he was a Christian.
That's happening in the Muslim world. It's happening in communist countries. Here in our country, it's happening intellectually and in the public square that if you uphold a biblical form of Christianity, you're just going to be drummed out of the square and you're going to be treated as though you are a bigot, hateful, and weird.
There's a pastor in town who pays for space in the local newspaper to write his opinion. He pays for people to know what he thinks. He wrote in one piece about a sexual ethic. He said, "Now, if Jesus knew what we know about sexual orientation, he wouldn't have said what he said." I find that astounding. What astounds me is that he and others like him call those of us who believe the Bible, that we're the arrogant ones. You can speak for what Jesus would have said if he were as smart as you, and everybody else is arrogant. Go figure. Don't get it.
So I wrote on Facebook and Twitter that I was astounded that someone would actually say that had Jesus known what we know, he wouldn't have said what he said. Well, I got a response. I got several responses as a matter of fact. One of the things I said after I wrote that, then I said this. "I am thankful to pastor a church that would summarily vacate the pulpit if I ever claimed to know more and better than Jesus." I would hope you would. If I ever preach that I know anything more or better than Jesus, please fire me immediately. Would you do that? Would you promise me you'll do that? Check me into an asylum, something, but don't let me keep talking.
Well, I got an answer from Doctor Dwight Moody. Dwight and I have known each other. Dwight was baptized in Ashland Avenue when his father was on staff there years and years ago with Brother Clarence Walker. Dwight is the former dean of the chapel at Georgetown College down the road. Dwight tweeted this. "Careful, Hershael. Did Jesus know Portuguese, calculus, UK basketball, autism, Twitter? No evidence he did." I just answered back, "Dwight Moody, those who need a limited helper can come hear you, and those who need an omnipotent, omniscient savior, come hear me at Buck Run."
He answers back, "You did not answer my questions. Jesus does not need to know Portuguese in order to be a great savior for us all." I answered, "I have every confidence that the creator of the universe and the one who gave the Spirit on Pentecost knows Portuguese." He said, "Ah, you are slippery." I'm not trying to ... I'm not trying to be slippery at all. I don't think there's anything slippery about it. He goes, "Ah, you are slippery. Did Jesus know Portuguese? Did Jesus know Kentucky basketball? Is that necessary for our atonement?"
I answered, "First, we simply don't preach the same Jesus." He says, "I preach a biblical Jesus. There is no Portuguese, calculus, or UK basketball there." I answered, "Jesus is the great I Am, coexistent, co-equal, co-eternal with the Father, omnipotent, omniscient, self-existent, knows Portuguese."
He answered, "You are quoting patristic theology, not the New Testament. Portuguese was neither probable, necessary, or relevant to our salvation." I answered, "'Before Abraham was, I Am,' is theological treatise enough for me."
Now, people try and reduce to silliness our assertion that Jesus is God, that he knows everything, but I've got news for you, I'm not backing down on that one bit. Jesus is the one who is the great I Am. He existed before the world was. He is the creator and sustainer of the universe. That little baby in a manger in Bethlehem is the One who spoke the world into being. He was present at Babel when all the nations were divided and the languages were confused. I guarantee you, he knows Portuguese.
I'll even go so far as to say he's a UK basketball fan. Be that as it may, you may argue that one, I'll grant you that, but he definitely knows everything about UK basketball. I don't want to trivialize that. He's omnipotent. He's omniscient. He is the eternal God.
I'm glad today that I don't have to preach to you a Jesus who's really no better than Hophni and Phinehas and those Levitical priests who lived and died and stayed dead. I'm glad that I can preach to you someone who lived a sinless life, a perfect life. The Law is useless and weak in helping us attain perfection, but Jesus, our great high priest, has perfected us by proxy. He has been perfect for us on our behalf.
This is why the writer can say that he has given us on the other hand a better hope. On the one hand, the former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness, but Jesus, because of the power of an indestructible life gives us a better hope, because it doesn't depend on a succession of priests, one after the other. The whole priesthood is predicated on death. One dies, and another has to step up and take his place, until he dies and another one comes up to take his place. Jesus’ priesthood doesn't depend on human frailty.
There's no plan of succession in the order of Melchizedek. It doesn't depend on a temporary sacrifice. He doesn't have to do this once every year. He doesn't have to do it every time you sin, every time you mess up. This Man, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
This hope depends on Christ. Christ, my perfect high priest, having lived that sinless life, having known everything about me. He knows every sin I have ever committed and yet loved me with a perfect and everlasting love and offers salvation that depends completely on Christ, not on me. That's a better hope, because it depends on Christ. Because it depends on him, it draws me near to God.
See, the Law didn't draw me near to God. The Law drove me away from God. The Law showed me how unlike God I was. This is why I don't need Jesus to be an example for me. Jesus didn't live simply as an example of what a Christian life looks like. That just drives me further away from God. I could never live up to that example. He'd better be more than an example. He has to be a Savior. That's a better hope, because it draws me near to God.
Oh, what fools we are to ever think that I just need Jesus to help me a little bit. That I'm a pretty good person, and if Jesus will just supply what I'm lacking, I'll be okay. No. The Levitical priests could do that. They could help you. They could steal from you too, but they could help you a little bit.
Jesus isn't in the business of helping a little bit. Jesus is Lord. He takes over completely. He claims your life and he gives you his righteousness. There's no negotiation. There's no quid pro quo. There's no little bit of this, a little bit of that. No. He's sovereign Lord. He demands all, which is exactly what he gave for you.
Today, your hope will lie in one of two things. It'll lie either in yourself or in Christ, the Savior. I want a better hope than me.
Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as professor of Christian Preaching and dean of Southern Seminary's School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky.