The Letter to the Hebrews: Believe in Better 4
A better priest
And then we come to what Barclay describes as the writer‘s “special contribution to Christian thought – the doctrine of the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ.” At that time, the priest’s role was seen and understood by all. The writer draws on an everyday example to illustrate a heavenly truth, just as Jesus did in his parables. For us today, the analogy is not such an easy one to follow, although the writer does provide much background information in his comparisons and refers back to the Hebrew Scriptures more than in any other book in the New Testament.
Each priest is called by God from the priestly genealogy; personal qualities did not come into it at all. He offers gifts and sacrifices to God for the sins committed by the people. However, because he is human and also prone to sin, the priest must make a sacrifice for his own sin before being able to make sacrifices for the sins of others. Being human, the priest can understand the struggles of the people. And in Chapter 2, the writer explains that this is why Jesus had to become fully human – not only to make atonement for the sins of the people, but to be able to help them by identifying fully with them (1). This would have seemed blasphemous to all at the time – “The Jews had their different God; the Stoics, their feelingless gods; the Epicureans, their completely detached gods. And into that world of thought there comes the Christian religion with its completely incredible conception of a God who has deliberately undergone every human experience.”
Jesus Christ exceeds any other priest in every way possible. It was not a role that he took upon himself; God chose to make Jesus “a priest in the order of Melchizedek.” (2). In Chapter 7, the writer explains more about Melchizedek. He was without beginning and end, appearing only once in Scripture in Genesis 14. He therefore came before the time of Aaron and the priestly line, just as Jesus was not descended from the Levitical priestly genealogy. This represents a different priesthood and a different Law –
“The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.” Hebrews 7:18-19.
In her book “Temple Theology”, Margaret Barker suggests that this better priesthood is actually the fulfilment of the older faith that preceded Moses and Aaron, a faith represented by Melchizedek in the time of Abraham.
This would have been heresy to the Deuteronomist Jews, who placed emphasis on “the Moses strand of Israel’s religion” but the writer is not saying that what had gone before was bad, but to contrast something good with something better. This change in priesthood and law in turn brings about a better covenant. Albeit God-given, the old covenant was based on man’s actions in response to God; the new covenant is based solely on God’s love (3) However good and true and ’of God’ the old system was, it has now been taken up into something new and better in Jesus Christ. He is the visible, tangible fully human incarnation of the Divine. From The Letter to the Hebrews: an evaluative outline of the key themes and theological insights by Helen Redfern
I did say I’d written far more than I could fit in the actual essay! This extract is from the Appendix to the essay I wrote for Living Theology Today in 2008. This is part of what had to be left out and yet it is definitely worth including here. It provides an overview to the truth that Jesus is better than any of the priests who had gone before.
I’m studying the Book of Leviticus with a group of friends at the moment and in this book, the very first priests are appointed and all the rituals surrounding the priesthood established. This was the way the people could be in relationship with the one true God – via the priests. The traditions surrounding the priesthood were firmly entrenched, a key part of the Hebrew identity and what it was to be Jewish.
Here are the verses referred to in the extract above:
(1) For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. Hebrews 2:17-18
(2) And no one takes this honour on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was. In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.”
And he says in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 5:4-6
(3) But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises. Hebrews 8:6
Priests are no longer needed in the same way, for Jesus is the ultimate priest. Jesus is the way to God. Through Jesus, God’s relationship with His people has been transformed forever. We can now draw near to God. This is revolutionary teaching.
This is a better hope.