Sermon preached on Hebrews 7:20-28 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 8/12/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Such a High Priest”
We just read of how amazing of a high priest we have. We have such a high priest! There are many things we can “get” out of a text of scripture. Let us “get” today that we have “such a high priest”! Let us be spurred on again to worship and exalt our royal priest, King Jesus. Let us be encouraged today in all the saving benefits we have in such a high priest. Let us be drawn to worship our great God for giving us such a high priest. Let us see this as a wonderfully chief application of this passage: that we exalt such that is our great high priest, our Lord Jesus Christ!
This chapter has been displaying how great of a high priest we have by comparing priesthoods. It began in verses 1-10 by showing how Melchizedek’s priesthood was superior to the Levites. Thus, since Jesus’ priesthood came in the order of Melchizedek’s priesthood, his priesthood was also superior. Then verses 11-19 began to more specifically compare Jesus’ priesthood with the Levitical priesthood, focusing especially on the weakness of the Levitical priesthood – they couldn’t complete God’s saving plans for his people. Thus, another priesthood – the one that came in Jesus – was needed. So then, today’s passage continues this comparison between Christ’s priesthood and the Levitical. It has three main points and they each especially highlight the strength of Jesus as priest.
Let’s begin then in our first point by seeing that we have such a high priest compared to the Levitical order because Jesus’ priesthood was established by divine oath. This is verses 20-22. Verse 20 asserts this of Jesus. Verse 21 asserts the opposite for the Levites. This of course doesn’t make the Levitical institution illegitimate. It too was instituted by God and served God’s purposes at the time under the old covenant. God instituted that priesthood under the Mosaic covenant. He gave the sons of Aaron of the tribe of Levi the job to serve as priests in the earthly tabernacle and temple. God’s command under that covenant was sufficient to legitimize their priestly ministry. On a side note, as an additional comparison, I would also point that Scripture doesn’t record any oath regarding Melchizedek’s priesthood either. And so, if there was no Scriptural doubt for the Levitical priesthood (or the Melchizedekian), then we should certainly have no doubt with regard to Jesus. If former precedence only required God’s Word to establish a legitimate priesthood, then how much more legitimate and authenticated is Jesus’ priesthood when God established it additionally with an oath? Again, if there were any at that time or still today that wanted to say that Christians needed to go back the Levitical priesthood or somehow thought Christ’s priesthood was either inferior or even illegitimate, they were wrong.
Obviously, the point is that a solemn oath in general, even among humans, is useful to confirm the validity of something. Like for example, if I purchase some product and the manufacturer states that it is a quality product and they will stand behind it if there is any problem. Well, that is comforting. But it is all the more assuring if that manufacturer provides a written warranty stamped with the company seal guaranteeing in writing that they will fully warranty the product. Well, that’s what God did for Jesus’ priesthood even though he didn’t do it for the other biblical priesthoods. So, Jesus’ priesthood is all the more sure and certain.
Don’t miss however, that this point is saying something more than just that Jesus’ priesthood was sealed by an oath and the Levites’ weren’t. Verse 21 quotes where this oath was given: Psalm 110:4. There the oath is not just that Jesus would be a priest. It’s not like he’s being made by oath a priest like the Levitical order. No, the oath is that Jesus would be a “forever priest”. Hebrews has already begun to show us why that is so significant. Jesus’ oath is not only to be a priest similar to the ways that the Levites’ priest. That alone would have made Jesus’ priesthood superior. But the oath is given to make Jesus into a completely different kind a priest – a forever priest, which we’ll explain the significance of that in our second point.
But before we get there, notice the significance that Hebrews gives to this first point. Verse 23 says that because Jesus’ priesthood was established by oath, he is the surety of a better covenant. Next chapter, Hebrews will really get into the comparison between the old and new covenants. I’ve already suggested that earlier references to the law in this chapter might already begin to consider that. But here it is explicit. Jesus is the high priest of a different covenant than the Levites, and his covenant is better. We’ll explore that more when we get to chapter 8, but for now think about Jesus being a surety. The word “surety” can also be translated as “guarantor.” A guarantor, in this sense, is someone who is personally pledging to make sure the obligations of the covenant are fulfilled. A helpful example might be when a young person moves out of their home for the first time, and goes to rent their first apartment room. The landlord will probably want a guarantor like their parents to sign the lease agreement to guarantee the lease will get paid. The idea being that the parents’ financial credibility would serve as a greater surety than the young person just starting out in life. It would give the landlord a greater sense of security that one way or another he’ll get paid. Likewise, Jesus is said here to be a guarantor of this covenant and that is connected with the divine oath. That is one reason why Jesus can personally guarantee the benefits of the new covenant – because the Almighty God, who does not lie or change, has sworn it! That’s why Jesus can say, “Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And that’s why he can say, “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live (Jn. 11:25). Jesus is such a high priest that he can personally guarantee our salvation under the new covenant.
Let’s turn now to the second comparison shown here between Jesus and the Levitical priesthood. In verses 23-25 we see that Jesus’ priesthood is an unchangeable priesthood. This point begins in verse 23 by acknowledging that with the Levites they had to have many priests over time because they kept dying and thus replacements were needed. We see this vividly with the very first one. In Numbers 20:28, we see Moses go up to the top of Mount Hor with Aaron and his son Eleazer. There, just before Aaron dies, Moses stripped Aaron of his priestly garments and put them on Eleazer. Aaron then died, and Eleazer his son carried on the priestly duties. Well, eventually, in Joshua 24, Eleazer also died, and his son took over the priestly duties. This continued, generally, until 70 AD when the temple was destroyed by the Romans.
In contrast, verse 24 says that Jesus doesn’t have this limitation of death that the Levitical priesthood had. Jesus, in contrast, has an unchangeable priesthood and the power of an endless life (see also verse 16). This of course has in view the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet, if that is the case, I think we should make some observations then that help spell out further how much greater Jesus’ priesthood is. Start with the fact that Jesus did die. That’s a huge point of Christianity. Jesus died on the cross. We can’t simply say that the difference between Jesus and the Levites is that the Levites died and Jesus didn’t, because in fact Jesus did die! Of course, we could reply that Jesus rose again, overcoming death. That’s certainly true and certainly a big part of this. But don’t the faithful Levitical priests also rise from the dead and enter into glory? Well, that’s true too. So then, what’s the difference between Jesus and the Levites regarding death and their priesthoods? Well, when the Levitical priests died in this life, their service as Levitical priests would end. That’s like was seen with Aaron’s priestly garments being given to Eleazer at his death. This is because the Levitical priesthood is about service in this life, in this world. It’s a service done in an earthly sanctuary located in one specific geographical place, using physical sacrifices of bulls and goats. When a Levitical priest dies, yes, the faithful will rise again and enter into their eternal rest; but they can’t keep doing this earthly priestly service there. That would be impossible.
In contrast, Jesus’ unchangeable priesthood isn’t tied to this life and to this world. Quite the contrary. Though Jesus’ served as a priest prior to his death on the cross, it was his death which became the pinnacle and crowning moment of his priesthood. Instead of his death preventing his continued service as priest, it was his death that marked the climax of his priestly service. That’s because his service was not in an earthly, physical tabernacle which was but a type and copy of the true temple in heaven. Rather, when Jesus presented himself as a sacrifice to God, he was presenting in the true heavenly tabernacle in the realm of the spirit. We will see this described further in chapter 9. Thus, his resurrection from the dead helps to show us that his priesthood is of the kind described in Psalm 110:4 – a forever priesthood; an unchangeable priesthood because it is one done in the power of a life that is greater than this earthly life. The Levites’ priesthood served only in this life, as a symbol looking forward to that greater, eternal life of the world to come. Jesus’ priestly service is chiefly conducted in that world to come, of which it has already begun to break into this present age in these latter days. We have such a high priest!
Verse 25 gives us the application of this kind of priesthood: “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” Jesus’ ministry is done in the power not of life in this age, but in the power of the Spirit of the life of the age to come. He is there already entering into the glory of the age to come, there in the true Holy of Holies, in the heavenly Zion, making intercession for us. This enables us to draw near to God in Christ. Now, while we live in this age, we have access to God in the life to come through Jesus Christ. We approach God spiritually in the heavenly places in Christ. In doing this, we begin to experience that which will be our heritage for eternity in glory.
I love how this is expressed as Jesus being able then to save us to the uttermost. The word for “uttermost” is a compound word of “all” and “complete”. The salvation he brings us is “all-complete”. This is a word to emphasize how nothing is missed and he accomplishes all that we need. Jesus saves us in an all-complete way. This is in contrast to last passage which said that the how the old priesthood and the law could not bring us perfection. We said last time that referred to how the law with its Levitical priests couldn’t complete our salvation. Of course, this would be true of Melchizedek as well – he does not in any way complete the salvation for God’s people. But Jesus Christ does. He “all-completes” it! And I love that “save” in verse 25 is in the present tense. We should see in this that Jesus’s saving work for us is not only about something he’s done in the past, nor only about what he’ll do in the future. But even now, in the present, he saves us to the uttermost! Past, present, and future, Jesus is our priest. In the past he purged our sins at the cross. In the present he intercedes for us and helps us in our weaknesses. In the future, he will bring us to where he has already entered; in that glorious world to come! We have such a high priest!
In the last comparison made here, we come to verses 26-28 and see indeed how fitting Jesus is to be such a high priest. Verse 26 speaks of this fittingness with three initial adjectives. The pew Bible translates them as holy, harmless, and undefiled. The word translated as “holy” has to do with his devotion and piety to God and his faithful service to God. The word translated as “harmless” is about not having any guile; he’s without deceit. The word translated as “undefiled” is about being without spot, used in a cultic sense to describe ceremonial purity. Jesus is these things in a way that no other human is, let alone any other priesthood. The Levites were not perfect or without blemish. That point is even mentioned in the next verse, verse 27. The Levites were sinners. So too was Melchizedek, since the Bible says that Jesus is the only one who has ever lived a perfect, sinless life (c.f. Rom 3:23). In all of this, we can see how Jesus is indeed separate from us sinners as is said in verse 27. But we can also think how that has become true in a locational sense too, with his becoming higher than the heavens in his exaltation to the right hand of God.
Yet amazingly, Jesus is not so separate from us, so high and lifted up, as to be of no use to us as a priest. Quite the contrary. The point here is that this nature of Jesus is exactly what we’ve needed. That is why it says he is so fitting of a high priest for us. He is fitting in the sense that this is exactly what we’ve needed. The Levites couldn’t even adequately atone for their own sins, and were frankly too much like us. This is the point in verse 27. Daily, and we’ll see especially annually on the Day of Atonement, the priests under the old covenant made sacrifices both for themselves and for the people. They had sin and so did the people they represented. So, they needed sacrifices for both. But verse 28 implies that this weakness of sin in the Levitical priests made them ineffective in completing our work of salvation.
In contrast, you have Jesus. He did not need to atone for his own sins. His priestly ministry could focus on our weaknesses. He could focus on atoning for our sin. And he did that by offering himself, verse 27. In light of the description of him being holy, harmless, and undefiled, we realize that he’s the kind of sacrifice we needed. He was the lamb without spot or blemish. And not only that, his worth as a sacrifice was not some mere animal. Nor was it even simply the worth of an ordinary man. But as the last verse reminds us, his sacrifice is the worth of the very eternal Son of God. That was a sufficient sacrifice. That is what we needed. That is why he is such a fitting high priest for us, as well as such a fitting sacrifice for us and our sin. This one who was perfected in his own active and passive obedience while here on earth, has perfected us. He has saved us so that God’s redemptive plans for us are realized in the full. We indeed have such a great high priest!
In conclusion, I would like to ask a couple questions for reflection from this passage. First, how do you try to approach God? Obviously, trying to come to God through the Levitical system would be the wrong answer. Yet, people today try to approach God in various ways. Some try to approach God on their own merits, saying they have been a pretty good person and that surely God won’t turn them away. Others try to access God by the practices of some new age or eastern mysticism. There are also other religions out there that claim to bring you to God by some other savior. But verse 25 says we need to approach God in Jesus Christ. He’s the only way we can safely access God. As sinners weak by our fallen nature, we need to come to God through Jesus. But that’s the joy of the gospel that we see again today. This is exactly what we have available to us through putting our faith in Jesus.
A second and final question is this. Who do you identify with more here, the Levites or Jesus? I think we should recognize that we look a lot more like the Levites here than Jesus. Our life in this age is one of weakness and sin as we live in this earth. Jesus is even said to be separate from us and up in heaven. So, our first inclination is to think we can identify more with the Levites. In a sense that is completely right. Yet, in the gospel, Jesus tells us to come to him so that he can make us look like him. Romans 8:29 says that our destiny as God’s elect is to be conformed to Christ’s image. And 1 John 3:2 says that the Christian hope is that one day Jesus will come back, that we will see him as he is, and he will complete our transformation so that we will be like him!
Jesus draws us upward and heavenward into the world to come where we are changed from glory to glory into the perfected humans God always destined for us to be. We won’t get there through Levi or any other system or religion in this world. We can and do get there through Jesus. Let us again, today, put our faith and hope in Jesus. He is such a great high priest! Let us also exalt his name and worship again at his feet! What a great God we have in Jesus! All glory and praise be to him, our great King and Priest! Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.