There are several themes that might legitimately summarise the content of the epistle to the Hebrews: for instance, the superiority of Christ; full and final salvation; running the race and the perseverance of the saints; a sure anchor of the soul; etc. But as we have seen over the course of the past several studies, certainly hope is a theme that pervades this epistle: the “hope of glory,” to be specific.
The writer seeks to assure Christian Jews that their salvation in Christ is certain and hence their hope of being fully and finally saved is “both sure and steadfast” (6:19). Though under the old covenant believers were given the hope of forgiveness of sins (Psalm 130:3–4), that “order” (or “administration”) could not transform the life because it could not cleanse the conscience or remove the pollution of sin. And because of this, their hope was at times uncertain.
Under the old covenant, sins were covered, but guilt remained. In a very true, sense even the believing sinner could not truly “draw near to God” (v. 19). Because guilt remained, the relational gap remained between God and man.
But as Paul expounded so often in his letters, the old covenant—the law—was not designed to do this. Rather, the old covenant was designed, among other reasons, to show us the need for another covenant. It was designed to show us our need for another kind of priesthood—a better one. That is, the old covenant pointed to the need for the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek.
Yes, the old covenant was intended by God to point sinners to our need for the gospel—the new covenant instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ. And with this new covenant—administered by a better (in fact, a superior) priesthood—we have a better hope.
The new covenant, ushered in by Jesus Christ, cleanses the conscience and removes the guilt, and therefore the Christian is able to draw near to God. This is why the priesthood of Jesus, in the order of Melchizedek, has brought in “a better hope” (v. 19).
Our text for this study highlights the better hope of drawing near to God. One could never have a more important hope and, by the grace of God, such hope is certain through the Lord Jesus Christ.
The author informs us, very logically, that those who have repented and believed on the Lord Jesus Christ have “a better hope” than those who preceded Christ. That is, those who live under the new covenant have a better hope than did those who lived under the old covenant. Of course, they also have a better hope than those who refuse the Christ of the new covenant. This is because, by the work of Christ, there are no rituals or real obstacles that impede the Christian from drawing nigh to God. By His redemptive work on the cross, vindicated by His subsequent resurrection, our Lord Jesus Christ has entered “the Presence behind the veil … having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (6:19–20). Jesus has fulfilled the prophetic meaning of His name: He has saved, does save and will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
The thought of drawing near to God may not strike us as it should, for we too often take this gracious privilege for granted. We pray this concept daily as we pray to our Father in Jesus’ name. We sing about it weekly and, in one shape or form, hear this truth expounded on a regular basis. But for a Jewish person living in the first two-thirds of the first century this was revolutionary teaching. It was radical. And, to some, it was completely irreverent and hence rejected. This is one major motivation for the writing of this epistle. Jewish Christians needed to be assured that indeed in Jesus Christ the old covenant which had kept people at a distance from God had now been fulfilled and the new covenant—under a new priesthood—brought the believer into the very presence of God. In the words of another Jewish Christian, the believer is “seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).
The text can be divided into two broad sections, the first highlighting an insufficient hope (vv. 11–12) and the second focusing an a better (all-sufficient) hope (vv. 13–19).
An Insufficient Hope
The writer argues in vv. 11–12 that the Levitical priesthood, despite being ordained by God, was unable to provide sufficient hope to God’s people.
Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law.
In this passage the author provides further logical evidence to substantiate his argument that the priestly order has changed. He argues, in essence, that the “rules” have changed because the priestly order has changed.
Under the old covenant, God’s people sought to obey the rules in order to draw near to God. The laws were those of the Mosaic covenant. But, of course, the law was never intended to provide salvation; rather, it was given to prove that we needed salvation! In other words, man could not draw near to God perfectly by keeping the law. Another way was needed. Another “rule” was needed. Enter Jesus in the priestly order of Melchizedek.
The Need for a Perfect Priesthood
If one is going to draw near to God, and to do so continually, then perfection is required. This is the burden of the writer in this chapter. Let’s begin by defining some terms.
The word “perfection” as used here (and pretty much as it is used throughout Hebrews) connotes fulfilment of a purpose. It has the idea of attaining a goal. It is sometimes used of moral perfection, or at least spiritual maturity. All of these concepts are tied together by the context, which is clearly that of “the perfect way of being made right with God” or “the perfect way of drawing near to God.”
The word has been accurately defined as “to put someone in the position in which he can come, or stand, before God.”1 Therefore, “perfection” here refers to access to God and a right relationship to Him.
Our Need for Perfection
We learned recently that for us to be acceptable to God we need to be righteous. This theological term does not mean much to most today, so let me define it. The word carries the idea of a standard by which we are measured. For us to draw near to God, we need to conform to God’s standard of character and conduct—perfectly. We must be perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). We must be holy. We must be sinless. We must be completely conformed to God’s righteous, holy character.
Of course, this is a problem. The writer recognizes that this problem plagued the Levitical (Aaronic) priesthood. This is what lies behind his use of the word “perfection” in v. 11. We need a perfect way of salvation. Leon Morris helpfully explains that this implies something like “made fit for God,” and that “the law did not give people complete and lasting access to the presence of God. It had its merit, but it did not satisfy their deep needs.”2 It was insufficient to do so. Therefore they needed a more perfect way to draw near to God. We might say that the law was sufficient for drawing near to the tabernacle, but it was insufficient for a sinner to draw near to God.
Drawing Safely Near
Let me try and impress upon you the supreme importance of drawing near to God.
First, what does this mean? Simply put, it means to be safe in His presence. Until we appreciate the holiness of God, we will never appreciate the enormity of what it means to “draw near to God.”
But, second, how can we be safe? We can only be safe in His presence if we have been saved by His Priest. As the writer will tell us in chapter 12, without holiness no one will see the Lord because our God is a consuming fire. The average Jew of the day, at least theoretically, understood this. In fact, their entire ritualistic (in a good sense) worship was predicated upon the Jews being protected from the God who desired to dwell among them.
It has been observed that everything about the old covenant temple system/order was designed to keep man at a distance from God. The nation of Israel, having just come out of Egypt, might be criticised for a lot, but they at least were correct in appreciating that God is dangerous (Exodus 19; etc.). As I trust we came to realise increasingly in our studies in Exodus and Leviticus, the design of the tabernacle, and the ordinances associated with it, were very much about protecting the people of Israel from the holy wrath of God.
At the risk of rehashing Exodus and Leviticus, it is patently clear that God’s desire in those books was to dwell with His people, and it was for that reason that He gave them a heaven-originated blueprint for the tabernacle. This dwelling place was intended to be fireproof, in the sense of enabling God’s people to worship Him without being consumed by His glory. The various ordinances and laws that God prescribed for approaching Him had to be minutely obeyed if the worshipper would survive the experience.
On more than one occasion, would-be worshippers were struck down by God because they sought to “draw near” in a manner that violated His rules. The nation was taught that it is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).
Drawing Near to a Dangerous God
It is spiritually healthy to remember that God is dangerous—very dangerous. It is only when we properly grasp this that we will see the complementary truth that God is gracious—very gracious. And when we do, then—and only then—will we properly, passionately and purposefully draw near to God.
Martin Luther once characterised humanity as a drunk whom, upon falling off the left side of his horse, remounts only to fall off the right side! This is no less true in our day. I fear that there are today two extremes when it comes to one’s approach to God.
The first extreme is that of flippantly approaching God. People assume that they can draw near to God in any way that they please. They have little or no regard for God’s holiness, and so they seek to barge into His presence with little thought that they might be in a very dangerous place. In the words of David Wells, God is “weightless.” Or in the paraphrased words of a songwriter, “He ain’t heavy; He’s my Buddy.”
The other extreme is to be so terrified of God that one refuses to draw near—when in fact God invites us to do so. Such people—including a large number of Christians—display that they have no hope of being accepted by God. They live with an unjustified fear that God will not forgive them, or that God has not forgiven them. They live joylessly, always looking over their shoulders for God’s omnipotent foot to crush them.
Perhaps there is another category here as well. This is comprised of those who are fearful to confess that indeed they are able to draw near to God—not out of an unbiblical fear of God but rather out of an unbiblical, unhealthy (and sinful) fear of man. They are fearful of the consequences of turning to Christ alone as their Lord and Saviour. I believe many of these readers were in this category. Such fear of man is tantamount to unbelief—the besetting sin that was such a major concern of the author (12:2).
It should be noted that, throughout this epistle, the readers are often encouraged to draw near to God. The nation of Israel understood what Lucy needed to learn in The Chronicles of Narnia: that God is not tame. However, where they perhaps needed some help was in seeing that He is also good. And the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek was proof of this.
The second major word that requires definition is found in vv. 11–12: “law.” Simply put, the word, as it is used here, refers to the old covenant. It includes the Ten Commandments of course, but it also refers to the various case laws and the many laws associated with Israel’s civil, moral and religious life.
Technically, the people of Israel received the law from the hands of Moses. But it was the Levites who were entrusted with the administration of the law. This is how we should interpret the phrase, “for under it [the Levitical priesthood] the people received the law.” The particular idea, established by the context, is that of the sacrificial system of the old covenant as administered by the priesthood.
The Need for a Changed Priesthood
Verse 13 shows that it was necessary for a change in priesthood.
Change is Good
The writer is laying the foundation for his argument that since God did change the priesthood, He clearly was making the point that the way that one approaches God has also changed. And since there was a change, it must have been for the better. If the Levitical order was a perfect means of enabling one to be made right with God, why would there need to be another priestly order?
In v. 12 the writer assumes that there has been such a change. He then informs us that with a new priesthood comes a change also in the law. There is a change of rules, so to speak. With the accomplishment the redemptive work of Jesus there was a change from the old covenant to the new covenant. Later, the writer will develop this more thoroughly.
Let me try and make this clear: The priesthood and attendant administration (rules) of how one approaches God are inseparable. A new priesthood implies a new administration (rules) of how one approaches God. If God made a change in the priesthood, then the former one was insufficient.
The Discomfort of Change
It is clear that the writer has in mind those who were struggling with this change in the priesthood. Such a change made many uncomfortable. In fact, many of those on the outside of the church were asking this very question. They could not (would not?) accept that a change was needed. They were saying, “Indeed, on what basis can such a claim to another priestly order be substantiated?”
It should be noted that the Old Testament clearly anticipated another priestly order, and Psalm 110:4 is proof of this. (By the way, for those who argue that something must be mentioned several times in Scripture to be a major issue, think again! This entire argument about the priesthood of Jesus is grounded in the only verse in the Bible that reveals it!) According to Psalm 110:4, even while the Levitical priesthood was functioning, the Bible recognised an ongoing priesthood, which both transcended and anticipated it. As Richard Phillips reminds us, “Long before the coming of Christ, the old order was recognized as transitional, temporary, and insufficient.”3 That is, when David wrote these words, he was still going to the temple, though he recognised to some degree that another priesthood—the Melchizedekian order—was still in operation.
Clearly, David wrote about the need for a better, perfect priesthood to supersede the existing one. This would be very important to those Jews who claimed to be followers of the Old Testament. Their own Scriptures pointed them to the reality that the Aaronic priesthood was limited. It was imperfect in its goal to bring men near to God.
It was a glorious experience for David as a believer who lived under the old covenant. He could, for example, cling to God’s promise of cleansing for sin (Psalm 51:1–2). But it was not the old covenant that provided this cleansing. Rather, it was the gospel of the new covenant that provided it. For as the author to the Hebrews is concerned to prove, the old covenant could never provide such assurance. It was only under the new covenant—under the priesthood of Jesus—that one could truly draw near to God.
Under the old covenant priesthood, only the high priest could draw near to God—and then only once a year. Those he represented could not come to God directly. But in Christ we can!
An All-Sufficient Hope
The Levitical priesthood was an insufficient hope, but Jesus’ priesthood is an all-sufficient hope (vv. 13–19).
For He of whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no man has officiated at the altar.
For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident if, in the likeness of Melchizedek, there arises another priest who has come, not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life. For He testifies: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.
Clearly there has been a change.
Genealogical Evidence of a Changed (and Perfect) Priesthood
In vv. 13–14, the writer provides evidence of his assertion of a changed priesthood by referring to the genealogy of Jesus. He was of the tribe of Judah rather than Levi. If indeed His priesthood is legitimate—and it is, because He has already proven that He is in the order of Melchizedek—then so is the change of the rules or the way by which one draws near to God.
Again, please note that the writer is assuming this to be the case because he recognises the authority of Scripture. He is not trying to convince sceptics is rather seeking to shore up the faith of believers.
We can learn from this that God’s Word is sufficient authority to prove the all-sufficiency of our Saviour.
Indestructible Evidence of a Perfect Priesthood
The author then presents even clearer proof of his argument.
It will be helpful for us to see that, when the writer speaks of “another” priest, the word means “another of a very different kind.” There are two different Greek words for “another:” allos and heteros. The latter is used here.
If I told you that I was going to get “another” motor vehicle, I might mean another Toyota Yaris or a vehicle of a completely different kind—say, a Rolls Royce. The Rolls is still a vehicle, but a very different kind of vehicle. It is this latter “another” that the writer has in mind. He is not simply speaking of another priest in the long line of priests, but of an altogether different kind of Priest. As Leon Morris summarises, “Christ is not another Aaron; he replaces Aaron with a priesthood that is both different and better.”4
The writer reasons that, according to Psalm 110:4, the priestly order of Melchizedek, unlike the Levitical priesthood, is forever. This is significant with reference to Jesus Christ because He is a priest, “not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life.” (The ESV translates the first phrase, “not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent.”)
In other words, the Levitical priesthood was “fleshly” in the sense that those who served were subject to the weakness of the flesh. They would eventually have to retire and/or die. Their qualification was human. Further, they were fallen sinners.
But though Jesus qualified “humanly” as Messiah (by His genealogical line through David and ultimately through Abraham), His ultimate qualification as our High Priest is that He is divine. He is sinless and therefore has an “endless” or “indestructible” life. He rose from the dead, vindicating His perfect righteousness and complete holiness. Therefore, as Psalm 110 shows, He is appointed by Yahweh as Priestly King.
It is clear that Jesus has brought about a completely different priesthood and covenant because of the revealed fact that God has appointed Him as such. The priesthood of Jesus is unique in that it is dependent upon inherent ability, not merely upon external regulations. After all, “A priest didn’t have to have a sterling character or superlative accomplishments. It wasn’t his education, his training, or his spiritual devotion. He got the job because the law said so.”5
Confident in God’s Word
Note again the authority of the Word of God, which the writer takes for granted. He assumes that his readers will submit to this. He expects it.
There is a lesson here for us: If we will draw near to God then we will do so because of confidence in His Word. Apart from God’s Word, there is no reliable revelation as to how to draw near to God. If you choose any way to draw near to God than what He has revealed, then though you may draw near to the thought of drawing near to God, nevertheless you will completely fall short of actually doing so.
Jesus died and rose again to never die again. His life is endless—indestructible. Just as the priestly order of Melchizedek transcends time so, in a far greater way, does the priesthood of Jesus.
When it comes to the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ, His life never ends and so His priesthood is never interrupted—nor can it ever be annulled or usurped. The reference to the typology of Melchizedek substantiates this claim. As Guthrie says, “Christ’s right to the priestly office rests on totally different grounds from the Levitical priesthood. His is an inherent right which transcends tribal qualifications.”6
We have a Perfect Priest
In vv. 18–19—the closing verses of this passage—the writer brings his logic to a fitting conclusion. He points out that the appearance of this perfect priesthood results in a once-for-all annulling of the former priesthood and its administration. That is, this priesthood after the order of Melchizedek abrogates the old covenant. The word “annulling” is a legal term, which means “to make void.”
Now, lest one should think that the people are left high and dry by such an abrogation, the writer concludes that, on the contrary, this “new” priestly order is far better, for by it we “draw near to God.” We can conclude that the new covenant is far better than the old covenant. And though under the old covenant those desiring to draw near to God were hopeful, yet under the new covenant the hope is better, for it is fulfilled in Christ “after the order of Melchizedek.”
The former commandment is first characterised as being “weak.” This means, in the light of the context, that those who served as priests did not have the power of an endless life. That is, those priests died. And as the further passage(s) will highlight, they died because they were sinners.
It is also said that the Levitical priesthood was “unprofitable” or “useless.” In what sense? In the sense in which this passage begins: There was no “perfection” with the Levitical priesthood. As William Lane states it, “The particular concern of v. 19a is the failure to bring people into a right relationship with God through the cleansing of the conscience or heart.”7 Or as Richard Phillips notes, “as an administration of salvation, the law could not bring about what it sought. The goal of every priesthood is to draw people to God, but the old covenant could not do this. This was its weakness, and why it demanded another covenant to come.”8
On the Day of Atonement, sins could be covered but they could not be cleansed. A guilty conscience could not be relieved. In fact, as the writer will later argue, the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins. The entire Levitical order, though ordained of God, was ordained to be both “weak” and, in the long run, “useless” as far as making sinners right with God. “The point is that the need for a new priesthood indicates the old priesthood could not itself accomplish the salvation to which it pointed. The very fact that there was another priesthood testifies that the old priesthood was imperfect and transitory.”9
Only one could do what no other priesthood could do. And that one is Jesus Christ, who is of the order of Melchizedek. Blessed be the name of the Lord for such a High Priest, the one who is “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
In summary we can conclude that through the person and work of our High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, we have the removal of guilt, the cleansing of conscience and the power for a transformed life. There can be no better hope than that!
So, what can we learn about drawing near to God?
First, recognise your need to draw near to God. This is far more important than many in our day realise.
Though the idea of a priesthood may seem archaic to some, nevertheless you need a Mediator with God, and Jesus Christ is the only acceptable one. So although the truths addressed in this chapter may at first seem confusing and even irrelevant, let me assure you that there is nothing more relevant or important for you. These are eternal realities. Raymond Brown helpfully drives this point home when he asks, “Why is Christ’s work unique?” He answers, “The relevance of his argument is not a first-century affair…. Like them, we are sinners, without strength, without hope and without God in the world.”10
If you do not embrace and submit to God’s Word in this matter, then you will never draw near to God in the blessed sense of being forgiven and receiving eternal life. You will continue to live with a guilty conscience. You will die with a guilty conscience. You will stand before holy God with a guilty conscience. And that is eternally dangerous.
Second, don’t choose a useless approach to God. Edgar Andrews, in summarising the temptation facing these Hebrew Christians, highlights what is still a temptation for many: “The Hebrews were living in a twilight world in which they were seeking to graft the new covenant in Christ on to the Mosaic covenant. They believed in Christ, but clung to the law, fearful of abandoning what was familiar and comfortable.”11But to do so is ultimately damning. They were clinging to a useless life preserver as they faced the sea of God’s wrath.
Perhaps you are doing the same thing. You may be clinging to an approach to God that is dependent upon fleshly works. But this will never suffice. You need one with the power of an indestructible life to be made right with God. Any other approach will fail. It will not bring perfection.
Christians need this exhortation as well. We need to draw near to God by the gospel; there is no other way. As the songwriter says, “In Christ alone my hope is found.” This brings us to the next exhortation.
Third, take God at His Word. As I have emphasised, the writer’s argument is grounded in the authority of God’s Word. He assumes its authority and its sufficiency to settle the matter of salvation once for all. It should for you and me.
Take God at His Word. There is only way to draw near to God, and it is through the one who is so near to God that He is at His right hand. He intercedes to forgive sinners, to cleanse sinners and to transform sinners. Believe Him.
Kent Hughes gets to the heart of the matter when he pointedly writes,
What massive egocentricity on our part to imagine that He does not know how we feel, or that we are somehow unique and beyond His perfect priestly ministry. May God deliver us from the self-centeredness of imagining that we are the exception to His understanding—the ego-twisted reason that thinks, “He may understand others, His empathy may be adequate for others, He may be able to meet their needs, but not mine! Because … well, I’m different.” What foolishness.12
Fourth, live like you have a better hope. In other words, draw near to God through Christ. Respond to His invitation to come to the throne of grace to receive grace and mercy in your time of need. Preach the gospel to yourself and be hopeful both about the present and about the future. Live out the perspective of having such a High Priest who lives, never to die again, which means that you are eternally secure. Let this produce great joy in your life. Regardless of what you are facing—and it may indeed be painful—may the joy of the Lord be your strength.
Finally, point others to this better hope. Paul is one example of a man who did this. He was hopeful because he knew that Jesus had made him right with God. And this moved him to proclaim the gospel so that others might have hope as well.
A new government will not bring in this hope, nor will a stronger currency or will a lower crime rate. In fact, such things may actually rob us of true hope.
The only provision that will give true hope is the Lord Jesus Christ. So let us be faithful to proclaim, promote and publish the gospel of Jesus Christ. This indeed is the message of a “better” (because best) hope.
- R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 195. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 69. ↩
- Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 233. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 67. ↩
- Phillips. Hebrews, 235. ↩
- Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 165. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 185. ↩
- Phillips, Hebrews, 237. ↩
- Phillips, Hebrews, 232. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 130. ↩
- Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 195. ↩
- Hughes, Hebrews, 199. ↩