A better priest

The following paper was prepared for Dr. Steven McKinion’s Hermeneutics class, with the constraint that it be between 600 and 625 words.

Hebrews 7

The meaning of the text

Jesus officiates a better priesthood under the New Covenant than the Levitical priests of the Old Covenant did. After returning to the subject of Melchizedek in verses 1–3 (from which he had turned aside throughout chapter 6), the author makes this point clear in a series of short reflections, each contrasting the various elements of the Levitical priesthood with that of Jesus Christ.

First, Levi’s ancestor paid tithes to Melchizedek. Second, Jesus was of the line of Judah, not Levi; bodily descent was not the grounds of his priesthood (as it was for the Levitical priests) – an indestructible life was. Third, the law the Levites served was weak and useless, able to perfect no one, while the hope Jesus introduced allows people to draw near to God. Fourth, the Levitical priesthood was instituted without an oath, but Jesus’ priesthood was instituted with an oath. Fifth, the old way required many priests, because they died one after another; the new has only a single priest who lives and makes intercession forever. Sixth, the old priesthood required sacrifice after sacrifice which the priest offered for his own sins as well as those of the people – but the new priesthood has one sacrifice: the priest himself given up for the people. Finally, the law appointed men in their weakness, but Christ the Son has been made perfect forever.

The themes of the chapter are echoed throughout the book. The call to draw near to God on the basis of Christ’s priesthood first appears in chapter 4. The author introduces Melchizedek in chapter 5. In the exhortatory aside on perseverance in chapter 6, the author underlines the authority of a God-given oath in the context of the promise to Abraham. That discussion of oaths then supports the author’s assertion that an oath-bound priesthood is superior to one without (7:20–22). Then, the argument introduced in chapter 5 and fleshed out with reference to Melchizedek here is carried on through chapter 9 and 10’s extended treatment of the contrast between Levitical priestly practice. Indeed, chapter 7 serves as something an outline for chapters 9 and 10.1

As for links beyond the epistle itself, the text first refers to Abraham’s meeting Melchizedek on his way back from the slaughter of the kings (Genesis 14:18–20). Second, it quotes Psalm 110, David’s ode to the coming Messianic priest-king – as the author does throughout the epistle (c.f. Hebrews 1:13, 10:13), and as do many of the other authors of the New Testament (c.f. Jesus’ and Peters’ quoting of Psalm 110:1 in the gospels and the Pentecost sermon respectively). More, Melchizedek, the king of righteousness and of Salem, of peace, is inextricably linked with the righteous Messianic king of Jerusalem who is also the prophesied Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).2

Paul makes much the same argument, though briefly, in Acts 13:38–39, and the superiority of Christ over the Old Covenant is a recurrent theme in his letters, most notably in the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians.

Finally, one would be remiss not to note how the author draws on the entire structure of the Levitical priesthood as laid out in Exodus and Leviticus in particular.

The significance of the text

Following the author in verses 18, 19, and 25, and thinking of the author’s exhortation in 4:16, Christians ought to draw near to Christ: he is our salvation and perfect high priest, who has offered himself in sacrifice on our behalf and now intercedes for us forever. The Old Covenant priesthood offers nothing that Jesus does not offer better.

  1. Accordingly, individually tracing out all the connections between chapter 7 and chapters 8–10 would largely be an exercise in quoting chapters 8–10.

  2. I owe this insight to D. A. Carson’s brilliant exposition of the passage at The Gospel Coalition 2009 National Conference.

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