Hebrews 7 is the center of the book of Hebrews. Not only are there six chapters both before and after chapter 7, but it also presents the central argument of the book. The author was attempting to convince his Jewish Christian readers not to abandon their faith in Christ. In a variety of ways he argued Christ's superiority to the important persons and concepts of Judaism.
The central point in his argument was that Jesus was a better priest than any that could be provided by Judaism. The key support to that argument was that Jesus was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Hebrews 7:1-25 had argued the superiority of Melchizedek to the Jewish priests.
However, in Hebrews 7:26-28 the author introduces another aspect of Christ's priesthood that is different from both the Aaronic priesthood of Judaism and from Melchizedek. That unique aspect was the sinless character of Jesus.
The superiority of Jesus as high priest had several important implications in the mind of the author. As a better high priest Jesus performed a better ministry, a concept developed in Hebrews 8:1-5, and was the mediator of a better covenant, as Hebrews 8:6-13 argues. Both paragraphs are structured in a similar way. Hebrews 8:1-2 introduces Jesus' new ministry and verses 3-5 then contrast that new ministry with the old ministry of the Jewish priests. Hebrews 8:6 introduces the new covenant and then verses 7-13 contrast the new covenant with the old covenant. The author then argues the superiority of the new covenant that is provided by Christ in Hebrews 9:1-10:18. The superior new covenant is provided by the superior priest, Jesus, and provides superior access to God in worship.
The Ultimate Uniqueness of Christ - Hebrews 7:26-28
With verse 26 Melchizedek is left behind. He has served his purpose and the author's attention turns completely to the meaning of the high priesthood of Jesus. The opening words might be translated, "For such a high priest was precisely appropriate for us." Normally the word translated such points to the preceding material, but the Greek sentence is constructed so that the readers would understand that such here points forward to the description of Christ given in verses 26-28. The new priesthood is superior to the old because the new priest is Jesus (Bruce, p. 175). The readers' real needs can be met because of the cross of Christ and the one who bore the cross and was raised from its death is the one who is able to meet those needs (Lane, WB, p. 191).
The author then describes Jesus as high priest with three significant adjectives. All three derive from the Old Testament language of worship. It is hard to separate their meaning totally, yet they reveal different nuances of thought.
The first adjective is usually translated holy, but it is not the usual New Testament word for holy. Some translated it "devout" but the Old Testament background of the word describes a person whose relationship to both God and others is based on faithfulness to the covenant. The concept is one of loyalty to the covenant, but since the covenant defined the way a person was to live this word really speaks of integrity in covenant obedience. It describes a person who genuinely fulfilled not only the external, but also the heart expectations of the covenant. Such a person was all that God wanted them to be and thus the translation holy was appropriate. As high priest Jesus was all God wanted him to be; he was loyally obedient to the Father; and he lived with integrity.
The second adjective is often translated blameless. It literally means "without evil" and can be translated "without guile, pure, innocent." In the context of priesthood it meant that no wrong was attached to Christ. Both his reputation and the reality of his life had no impurity, nothing inappropriate, connected to him.
The third adjective is undefiled or pure. Its meaning is similar to blameless. Being blameless had a primarily active sense for Jesus. He had done nothing evil, deceptive, or impure. The term undefiled had a more passive sense. Nothing impure attached itself to him. The three adjectives describe Jesus spiritually, morally, and religiously. In every dimension with spiritual implications Jesus was pure and well qualified as a high priest.
Verse 26 has two final phrases that describe the superior priesthood of Jesus. The first, separated from sinners, has been taken as a further explanation of the moral purity of Jesus. He was different from all other human beings in his sinless perfection. In that sense it could very appropriately be said that he was different from or separated from sinners. The same phrase may also be taken as a reference to the ascension of Jesus. After a life of identification with sinful humanity by means of the ascension Jesus has become separated from sinners. That is to say, he has departed from the sinful sphere of human existence to return to his rightful place at the right hand of God the Father. If the second meaning is adopted, it becomes synonymous with the final phrase, exalted above the heavens.
Verse 27 continues to describe the unique character of Christ. Our high priest has no necessity to offer sacrifices day by day. The point of contrast is twofold. There is no necessity on his part to offer sacrifices for his own sins because he was "tested in every respect like we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). Hebrews 5:3 had noted that every humanly chosen high priest must offer sacrifices for his own sins. Not so with Jesus.
The second point of contrast is that Jesus did not need to offer sacrifices day by day because he offered himself once for all. Since he was "holy, blameless, and undefiled" according to verse 26 as a high priest, he was also holy, blameless, and undefiled as an offering. Thus the perfect priest offered the perfect offering. This meant that "both the necessity and the possibility" of repeating such a sacrifice disappear (Lane, WB, p. 193). The sacrifice of Jesus is once for all. Both the idea of once for all people and once for all time are included in this phrase, but the time element is the obvious point of comparison in this verse. Our author is ready to argue that the very fact that the Jewish priests had to repeat their offerings on a daily basis demonstrated the inferior and temporary character of their atoning power. As a result of his once for all sacrifice of himself Jesus was obviously not like other priests, especially not like the priests of Judaism.
The summation of the argument appears in verse 28. Three contrasts appear in the verse though one of them is not completely spelled out. The priests of Judaism were those whom the law appoints. On the other hand the word of the oath (referring to Psalm 110:4) appoints Jesus. The author also notes that the word of oath came after the law. The point is that Jesus had replaced the priests of Judaism. He was not only after the law; he was also beyond and above the law.
The second contrast is that priests of Judaism are subject to weakness whereas Christ has been made perfect. The word weakness was translated "infirmity" by the King James Version. This suggests that range of human weakness, susceptibility to sickness, failure, and sin, and the general unreliability indicated by the concept of weakness. It stands in total contrast to the ability to have become all that God wanted - the meaning of Christ's being made perfect. The Greek tense shows that Christ became perfect at some point in time - probably his death and resurrection which were also the means by which he became perfect. However, that full completion of the will of God has continuing results. One of the results is the superiority of Christ's priesthood.
The third contrast is implied by the word forever. Christ's priesthood is forever by virtue of his resurrection, while the priests of Judaism are temporary because they die.
A New Ministry in a Heavenly Sanctuary - Hebrews 8:1-5
The author begins a new section at Hebrews 8:1 that will extend through Hebrews 10:18. He begins with a backward glance by mentioning what we have been saying. Thus the argument of the superiority of Jesus' high priesthood is still in view. However, clearly he wants to draw new and more significant conclusions from that argument.
The typical translation the point of what we have been saying does miss out on a significant word in the Greek text. Though the word could mean the main point of an argument or the summary of an argument, the fact that the author does not summarize or point out specifics of his previous argument suggests that neither of those meanings was on his mind. The word can also meaning the "crowning affirmation" or the final stage of an argument. That is the meaning here. What follows in Hebrews 8:1-10:18 is the culmination of the argument begun back in Hebrews 4:14 that Jesus is a superior priest to the priests of Judaism.
In his high priestly role Christ is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens. This reference to the right hand of God connects the role of Jesus as High Priest to the role of Jesus as Son since the Son "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" according to Hebrews 1:3. The idea of Christ being at God's right hand is also alluded to in Psalm 110:1 so the idea is connected to the Melchizedek argument that was based on Psalm 110:4. However, the key concept in the author's mind appears to be that Jesus is now in heaven.
Hebrews 8:2 further defines Jesus as a minister in the sanctuary. The word that is translated minister referred to a person who performed a public service for the people whether it was leading a ceremony or performing public service work. It was the word often used of priests of the Greco-Roman religions when they performed a religious act (prayer or sacrifice) at a public ceremony for the town or region. The word (leitourgos) meant one who did work for the people and our words liturgy, liturgical, and liturgist all come from the word. Thus the reference to Jesus as minister is a way of referring to his activity as high priest rather than to his status. The word sanctuary literally means "holy things" but that expression was regularly used for either in the Holy Place or the Most Holy Place (Holy of Holies) in the temple at Jerusalem (or in written references to the tabernacle mentioned in the Old Testament).
The following expression, the true tent, however, shows that the sanctuary in which Christ served as high priest was not an earthly one, but heavenly. There are several interesting aspects to the way the author writes here. First, it is of interest that he speaks of the tent or tabernacle rather than referring to the temple. The question of whether this means that the temple was still standing or was not standing and thus the question of the date of Hebrews (before or after A.D. 70) cannot be answered by this reference to the tabernacle.
Second, the author speaks of the true tent as the place in which Jesus ministered. On the basis of Exodus 25:9 and 40 Judaism had come to believe that there was heavenly sanctuary that provided the pattern for the earthly sanctuary constructed by Moses (a specific allusion to Exodus 25:40 appears in verse 5). The use of the word true shows the influence of the philosophy of Plato. The word true here refers to that which is genuine or authentic, that of which the earthly is only an imitation or a copy. Thus the fact that Jesus ministers in the true sanctuary is consistent with his superiority over the Jewish priesthood. They served in the earthly sanctuary, an imitation and a copy of the real or authentic sanctuary where Jesus served.
Further, the author notes that since Jesus is the priest of a heavenly sanctuary it would be necessary for him to offer gifts and sacrifices like any other priest. The author has in mind that Jesus himself became the perfect sacrifice which is offered by the perfect priest, but he does not get around to actually describing Christ as his own sacrifice until Hebrews 9:14. His point here is the heavenly nature of the sanctuary in which Jesus serves. Verse 4 notes that if it were an earthly sanctuary Jesus would not even be offering sacrifices since the Law of the Old Testament provided the Levitical priests to perform those duties.
Verse 5 goes on to describe the sanctuary of the earthly priests as a sketch and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary where Jesus serves. The word shadow was used in Greek philosophy to describe that which was an imitation of the authentic thing. Its use here implies that the earthly sanctuary is inferior and only partially reflects the reality of the very idea of the heavenly sanctuary. On the other hand, the word sketch or "copy" is more positive. It describes an example or model (the Greek word is related to our word "paradigm"). For both words the reality lies in the heavenly sanctuary; the earthly was a reflection. Since Jesus served in a better sanctuary his priestly service is a better ministry than that of Judaism.
From Old Covenant to New - Hebrews 8:6-13
The opening phrase of Hebrews 8:6 refers back to the argument of verses 1-5. Now, because Jesus has obtained a more excellent ministry, he is the mediator of a better covenant. The more excellent ministry has been described in verses 1-5. The concept of the better covenant will be the subject of verses 7-13.
The covenant is not just a synonym for the Old Testament but it is related to the Old Testament. The covenant was the contractual description of the relationship between God and Israel. Both Exodus 20-23 and the entire book of Deuteronomy follow the legal format of a covenant. Both scriptures refer to the historical circumstance of the Exodus from Egypt which was the event upon which God's relationship with Israel was based. Both contain the stipulations of the covenant in general statements (including the Ten Commandments) and in very specific laws. Both give indication of the consequences Israel will experience if the stipulations are obeyed and the consequences if they are disobeyed. In a real sense the Old Testament was simply an expansion of the covenant form. The history of the events connecting God and Israel was given in greater detail and the laws were more fully explained. The books of the prophets dealt with the consequences of both obedience and disobedience.
But the covenant was more than the Old Testament or the book of Deuteronomy or the Book of the Covenant found in Exodus 20-23. The real thing was the relationship between God and Israel that was defined by those writings. Disobedience was a sign of deterioration in the relationship. Within the covenant agreement disobedience was just cause for God to terminate the relationship by handing Israel over to being captured by another nation. Given the long pattern of disobedience in the Old Testament, the real question is not why God allowed Israel to be destroyed by Assyria and Judah to be captured by Babylon. The real question is why God delayed so long the punishment Israel had coming. The delay created tension between awareness of God's mercy and awareness of God's justice and judgment. Different prophets dealt with that tension in different ways. The solution of Jeremiah was the concept of a "new covenant." Jeremiah 31:31-34 described that new covenant and those verses are quoted in full in Hebrews 8:8b-12 (see commentary on Jeremiah 31:27-34).
The time of the new covenant is placed by Jeremiah 31:31 and Hebrews 8:8 simply in the future, the days are coming. However, that phrase was used enough in Judaism that it came to refer not to just any indefinite future, but specifically the last days. Part of the basic Christian faith was that the last days had arrived with Jesus. Thus when Jeremiah said the days are coming the first Christians read "the time has arrived." Thus the promise of the new covenant was a promise early believers thought to be fulfilled by Christ. Thus first century believers did not think of the provisions of the new covenant as things to look forward to, but as things present in the here and now.
The new covenant that Jeremiah prophesied was characterized by three things: 1) the implanting of the law of God in the hearts of his people, 2) knowing God by personal experience, and 3) the blotting out of their sins. The implanting of the law on the hearts of God's people meant much more than simply memorizing it. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 had already made adequate provision for memorizing the law. Further, the whole education system of Judaism in the time of Christ was built around the memorization of the Scripture. Personal copies of the Bible were simply not available because of their scarcity and cost. Every schoolboy memorized great portions of the Old Testament because that was the essential curriculum of "elementary" school.
Memorization of the oral tradition was advanced school for the rabbis-to-be. But that was a different matter than having it written in their hearts. The prophet Ezekiel, writing about a generation after Jeremiah, gave this word from God (Eze 36:26-28):
I will give you a new heart, and I will put within you a new spirit ; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. . . . and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
The writing of the law of God on the hearts of his people did not mean a new formula for the covenant. The covenant formula both new and old is stated in Hebrews 8:10, "I will be their God and they shall be my people." F.F. Bruce states, "While the 'formula' of the covenant remains the same from age to age, it is capable of being filled with fresh meaning to a point where it can be described as a new covenant. 'I will be your God' acquires fuller meaning with every further revelation of the character of God; 'you shall be my people' acquires deeper significance as the will of God for his people is more completely known." (Bruce, pp. 190-191). Since God has been fully revealed in Christ, his love profoundly revealed by the cross, and his will clearly known, the most superior covenant possible is now available in Christ.
The new covenant also promised knowledge of God based on personal experience according to Jeremiah 31:34 and Hebrews 8:12. The knowledge of God based on personal experience was limited under the old covenant because the law restricted access to God. Only the high priest was able to enter the Most Holy Place where Yahweh sat enthroned on the cherubim. And that entrance was only available to the high priest once a year. The superior high priest, our Lord Jesus, has provided access into the very presence of God and he, in fact, invites us to draw near. One of the blessings that that access makes available is personal knowledge of God. This concept is so basic to evangelical Christianity that we sometimes forget both what a blessing it is and what an innovation it was when Christ first opened up the way to the Father.
The final characteristic of the new covenant is that God would no longer remember his people's sins. This does not simply mean that God had a decision to forget some information about the sins committed by his people. Rather it means that God is providing a means by which the sin problem can be taken care of. Atonement, not just for sins but for sin, was made by the better sacrifice offered by Christ.
Though the formula of the new covenant was the same as that of the old covenant these three promises provide a power in the new covenant relationship that was not available before. These are the better promises of Hebrews 8:6. They reveal the obsolete nature of the old covenant as verse 13 points out. The author does not mean that the Old Testament is obsolete - he has just quoted four verses of the Old Testament to prove his point! If the Old Testament were obsolete there would have been no value in quoting it. What he means is that a relationship with God that does not implant the law and will of God on a person's heart, that is not built on a personal experience with God, and that does not solve the sin problem - that kind of relationship with God is obsolete and will soon disappear. The author may have been speaking of the end of the sacrificial system at the temple in Jerusalem, but that is not clear. What is clear is that there is no future for a relationship with God that is not built around the promises of the new covenant made available in Christ.
The Sanctuary of the Old Covenant - Hebrews 9:1-5
The author of Hebrews then proceeds to defend the new covenant by a comparison of the ways in which worship takes place in the new and in the old covenant structures. The provisions for worship under the old covenant are described in Hebrews 9:1-10. Verses 1-5 describe the earthly sanctuary which was the tabernacle or the tent that was used in the wilderness and early days of occupation of the land of Canaan. The furnishings of the tabernacle are listed. The author appears to give special emphasis to the ark of the covenant and its contents and to the mercy seat lid of the ark with the cherubim of glory.
This list of furniture seems to be background material for what will follow in Hebrews 9:6-10 where the author describes the act(s) of worship as it was conducted by the priests. Given the author's skill in interpreting the Old Testament in new ways we would expect that he could have given an impressive interpretation of each of the pieces of furniture. However, he states that he cannot speak now in detail of those matters. This reminder of the tabernacle furnishing was sufficient to point out the earthly character of both the tabernacle and the things inside it. It is no wonder that Jesus is a better priest, had a better ministry, served in a better sanctuary, and offered a better sacrifice.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.
First Day: Read the Notes on Hebrews 7:26-9:5. Look up the Scripture references that were given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Select a truth that has a personal application in your own life. How does it apply to you?
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to write his law and his will on your heart.
Second Day: Read Hebrews 9:1-28. Now focus in on Hebrews 9:6-10.
1. What do the focus verses say are the duties or responsibilities of the priests of Judaism?
2. What was not available as long as the first tent was still standing according to these verses? What spiritual gain would become available then when the first tent was replaced?
3. What did the gifts and sacrifices of that time accomplish? What important goal can not be accomplished by them?
Third Day: Read Hebrews 9:1-28. Focus on Hebrews 9:11-14.
1. On the basis of what you have studied thus far in Hebrews, what do you think is the "greater and more perfect tent not made with hands?" How is it related to "the holy place" mentioned in verse 12?
2. What two things do these focus verses state that are provided for us by the death of Christ? Have you experienced those blessings yourself?
3. What is the goal for Christians that is mentioned in verse 14? What would be necessary for you to reach that goal?
Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 9:1-28. Now turn your attention to Hebrews 9:15-22.
1. What benefits are available to believers according to verse 15?
2. Based on these focus verses why did the author of Hebrews believe that it was necessary for Jesus to die?
3. Hebrews 9:19-20 is based on Exodus 24:6-8. Read the two passages and compare them. What differences do you see between the two passages? Is there any significance to these differences? If so, what?
Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 9:1-28. Focus your attention on Hebrews 9:15-28.
1. What role does the blood play in the focus verses? Why do you think the author states that there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood?
2. How would you state the meaning of verse 23 in your own words?
3. What benefits are made available to believers through the death of Christ according to these verses?
Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 9:1-28. Now focus in on Hebrews 9:23-28.
1. How does the author argue that Christ provides a better sacrifice in the these verses?
2. What view of the second coming comes through in these focus verses? Is this view primarily positive or negative? Why do you say so?
3. Have you received the benefit of Christ's better sacrifice for yourself? If not, would you like to write a prayer asking Christ to enter your heart and atone for your sins. If you already have, write a prayer of thanksgiving to Christ for his indescribable gift to you.