Hebrews 7 - A Better (Effective) Hope
June 2, 2013 Speaker: Series: Hebrews
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Hebrews 7:1–7:28
[Text: Hebrews 7] “A Better (Effective) Hope”
Last week we heard a sober warning, an exhortation and a strong encouragement that pushed us back to Jesus. It was a parenthesis – albeit an important one – in the pastor’s train of thought meant to – very lovingly – grab us by the collar, pin us to the wall and say, “Now listen because what I am about to say is of the utmost importance.” Now he picks up in chapter 7 where he left off in 5:10, coming to the heart of his sermon in chapters 7-10 and encouraging his friends to stand firm in faith by explaining just who Jesus is for them.
[Read Hebrews 7 and Pray]
Beneath this rich text revolving around the priesthood of a mysterious character – beneath that is something that resonates with me and I think it might with you, too. Even if the name “Melchizedek” and the contrasted priesthoods of he and Aaron might be confusing and even if I have to wrestle with understanding why the “tithe” the pastor mentions is so important, there is a phrase here – a simple phrase – that I can immediately understand. And it speaks of a hope that calls to us and woos us and meets a need in humanity that goes back to the very beginning of the Story. In 7:19, it speaks of a “better hope…through which we draw near to God.”
“…(D)raw near….” It’s such a simple concept that is such normal part of life between humans. When we talk to a friend we draw nearer to them than we ever would a stranger, whom we keep at arm’s length. Children draw near to those in whose love they rest securely, sitting in laps and leaning into a grandfather’s chest, telling him about every scraped knee and playground enjoyed. Husbands and wives draw near to one another, embracing unashamed; forgiving and being forgiven; knowing and being known. Even for the one deprived of this human intimacy, the yearning for it is powerful, is it not? To “draw near” to another person speaks of acceptance and love and intimacy. It speaks of free access.
If that deep need exists between humans, we shouldn’t be surprised that we have such a need to be near to the God who made us.
So this simple phrase speaking of a “better hope…through which we draw near” not to other people, but “to God” tells us that something powerful has happened in our story. Something has happened because even if humans drawing near to other humans is familiar, we know that humanity drawing near to God (apart from the hope introduced here) is as impossible as it is yearned after.
That is our experience since the Fall. We lost communion with God and there was nothing we could do to regain it. Though we were made for true intimacy with Him, we shattered that relationship through our disobedience. That’s because ignoring the words of a lover never brings two people together. Rebellion always separates. Adam’s sin and every sin since opened and widened a yawning chasm between us and God, preventing us from drawing near to the One who is the desire of every heart, whether realized or not. Disobedience shattered humanity’s relationship with God in Eden. And my own sin only added to the distance between God and me.
All the religions of this world revolve around humanity trying to work their way back into the favor of God. Each one is an attempt to draw near to Him. There is a deep-seated understanding that what we need is to be near to God, our Creator and the only Source of life, though it is suppressed by many who go the way of irreligion (although even in them we see echoes of that longing for God). But how can we draw near to him? If we understand the distance that exists between fallen creatures and the Creator, if we have felt the absence of intimacy with God for which we were made, if we know our own actions have separated us from Him, then we feel the need for that which, apart from grace, we cannot have: the nearness of God.
But this passage tells us that what we need has been provided by God. We need a mediator, someone who can stand between us and God, through whom we can draw near to God and find our true intimacy with Him restored. And God has given such a mediator to us in Jesus, our better hope, who has become our free access to God when we embrace him by faith.
This passage tells us what kind of a mediator Jesus is. Over the previous chapters, the pastor who first wrote this sermon to suffering friends spent a great deal of time proving that Jesus is our high priest, that is, one who ministers on behalf of others before God and who ministers on God’s behalf to His people. Now, that’s an office that would have been very familiar to the Hebrew Christians who first heard this message (even if it is a little less familiar to us).
It was familiar to the Hebrews because God had always met the need of His people, even in their brokenness and rebellion. During the time of the Old Testament, after God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, He gave His people the Levitical priesthood. These were the priests who would regularly offer the sacrifices through which God said He would forgive the sins of His people. The priests, all belonging to the tribe of Levi, would offer up sacrifices first for their own sins and then for the sins of their brothers. Even the high priest – the one who alone would draw near to the very presence of God in the Most Holy Place once per year to make atonement – even the high priest had to offer a sacrifice for his own sin before making atonement for the people. So, beginning with Aaron and going down generation after generation through his sons, the high priests served their brothers, meeting the need of sinners and becoming for them the means by which God and His people could draw near to one another – only…their work was incomplete. The separation between God and His people remained in place. Aaron’s priesthood – the pastor goes so far to say in v. 18 – the priesthood established by the law was “weak and useless.” His high priesthood wasn’t able to effect what it meant to achieve. God and His people were not yet as near to each other as He meant them to be. It wasn’t God’s fault. It had to do with the weakness of the priests.
But the pastor has hope because the priesthood of Aaron was not the first priesthood in the Story of Redemption. While there are some similarities (he focused on those in 5:1-4) and Jesus is the substance of that which the Levitical priesthood symbolized, the pastor’s point is that the priesthood of Jesus is actually of a different order – that of the first priest of God mentioned in the Bible. He is a priest like Melchizedek, the mysterious character who appeared only once in the Story of Redemption and who was only mentioned once more – so very briefly – nearly a thousand years later.
Even though it is unfamiliar, even though this is pretty confusing, the importance of Jesus’ specific order of priesthood is unparalleled. Remember the urgency of the pastor for his friends to hear and understand and believe this truth! The reason why you can draw near to God is because Jesus is like Melchizedek. The reason why you and I can draw near to God is because we have a strong and effective high priest in Jesus.
In vv. 1-10, the pastor focuses on the person of Melchizedek from Genesis 14 and begins to show the superiority of his priestly office not only over the Levitical priesthood but over Abraham, the father of the faith. And because Jesus is a priest like Melchizedek – greater than the priests who came from Abraham – Jesus’ priesthood is the one which promises to actually fulfill the purposes of God in His intention to be close to His people.
We tend to focus on Melchizedek’s name, which is important since it speaks of who he is, what he is like. He foreshadows Jesus reign as the king of righteousness and king of peace. But the pastor moves on quickly to make two points. First, Melchizedek “is without father or mother or genealogy,” which would have been unthinkable in the minds of a Jew, knowing that the high priest must be able to trace his genealogy back directly through his father’s line back to Aaron. Second, Melchizedek has “neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.” He’s not saying that Melchizedek is alive and running around today. He’s simply pointing out that from the Scripture’s point of view Melchizedek is very much unlike the high priests in the line of Aaron, whose life of ministry had very clear beginnings and ends. Indeed, much of Jewish history is recorded set in the context of who was serving as high priest and in what year of his service the event happened. Their time of service to the people of God was clearly defined by a beginning (at their 30th birthday, according to the law) and by their death. But that is not so with Melchizedek. His priesthood is endless.
In those two ways – his lack of lineage back to Aaron and his endless priesthood – in those two particular ways, Melchizedek “resembl(es) the Son of God.” Hang on to that.
What follows in vv. 4-10 speaks to the greatness of Melchizedek’s priesthood – even Abraham paid homage to his greatness (v. 4 says) by paying the tithe to this priest of God Most High, something that would later be paid to the priests in the line of Abraham’s descendant, Levi. So the emphasis is on the greatness of Melchizedek, but this paying of the tithe also goes to confirm that this man’s priesthood wasn’t something that could be ignored as if it wasn’t authoritative. Abraham’s act of reverence to this great priest showed that Melchizedek’s office was a valid office – not made up. It was a priesthood to be recognized and embraced. Here, the saying could be applied, “If it was good for my father (Abraham), it’s good enough for me.” The pastor is writing to his friends encouraging them that something greater than what they have known has come in Jesus and they need to recognize it and embrace it.
Next, in vv. 11-25, the pastor goes on to emphasize the ways in which Jesus is like Melchizedek and unlike the Levitical priests. Here, he leaves behind the story from Genesis 14 and begins drawing out the significance of a word spoken not just before the priesthood of Aaron (as was the case in Genesis 14) but the word spoken some 350 years after Aaron served as high priest. The pastor quotes the words of David from Psalm 110 as he speaks of a priest like Melchizedek appointed to serve the purposes of God.
When the Holy Spirit spoke through David of the Christ being “a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek,” He spoke of a replacement to the priesthood of Aaron that the law of God had established at Sinai after God led his people out of bondage in Egypt. That is a radical idea. David speaks of a coming priest – an eternal priest – belonging to an order very different from those who were alive and working during his own day.
That “change in the priesthood,” as v. 12 mentions, means there needs to be a fundamental change in the law. The law had previously ruled out any but those of the tribe of Levi from serving as priests, but Jesus (as the pastor points out in v. 14) came from Judah.
So, in other words, Jesus couldn’t be a priest like Aaron. But he could be a priest like Melchizedek because he became a priest not by the law, but by the appointment of God, who said to you, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
The pastor says that God was setting aside the old commandment about who could be priest. Even though that commandment was good and right for the time in the Story in which it was given, in order for the salvation of His people to be achieved and in order for God to be as near to His people as He meant to be, the old priesthood would have to disappear for something effective to take its place. And God guaranteed that it would be effective with an oath; “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever,’” v. 21 says.
Remember the two ways that the pastor said Melchizedek resembles “the Son of God?” First was his lack of lineage to Aaron. But he now shows that isn’t a problem because Jesus became a priest by something better than fatherly descent. He became high priest by the irrevocable oath of God! Back in 6:17-18, that oath is meant to be a “strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” But God gives more reason to hope because of the second way in which Melchizedek resembles the Son of God. Melchizedek had “neither beginning of days nor end of life….”
If we read Hebrews 1 we have to see the affirmation that Jesus, the Son of God, had no beginning of days. He is fully God, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” Jesus, the Son, is on the throne “forever and ever,” he laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning” and although all things change he is “the same and (his) years will have no end.” So, Jesus fulfills the first qualification; there was not a time when he did not sit in the office of high priest for you. But he was confirmed in his office when he demonstrated that he has no end of days. V. 16 says that Jesus became a priest “by the power of an indestructible life.”
We know that Jesus died. The pastor himself in chapter 2 spent a great deal of time talking about the death of Jesus, how that was part of his full identification with us and part of his priestly work on our behalf. And he will go on in the next few chapters to consider Christ’s death even more deeply. But the fact remains that if Jesus died and remained dead, then he would not be a priest like Melchizedek. He wouldn’t be able to continue in his service for us. He would not be our access to the Father and you and I would still be unable to draw near to God as we so desperately need in our times of need (4:16).
But in the resurrection of Jesus the pastor sees Jesus “is actually what Melchizedek was symbolically;” an eternal high priest who always lives to serve both God and His people – always saving, always helping, always keeping, always protecting, always praying, always forgiving, always providing a covering with his blood he poured out on the cross. In vv. 24-25, we can take strong encouragement from our better hope in Jesus since he “holds his priesthood permanently because he continues forever.” And because that is true, it means “he is able to save to the uttermost (that is, completely, at all times) those who draw near to God through him.”
What a word to suffering Christians! What strength and comfort could they have taken from this hope in Christ when Rome called them to forsake their great high priest and light a candle in worship of Caesar! What confidence they could have taken from this hope in Christ that they need not go back to the Levitical priesthood the Jews called them to. Something better had come. Something effective had come; a better covenant guaranteed in the blood of the new high priest Jesus!
And you, church, what a hope you have in Jesus. Through him you may, at all times – in every moment of need – draw near to God and be saved to the uttermost by your faithful high priest. He has sacrificed his own life, “once for all,” (v. 27) to atone for your sin and gain eternal forgiveness for you. And he lives now to continue as your priest forever. That is the substance of vv. 26-28. The pastor reflects on the person of Jesus – how he is perfectly qualified to help us in our need, more than that, how he has already perfectly helped us and perfectly continues to help forever those who look to him in faith. Through him we may draw near to God – forgiven, counted as righteous in His sight – drawing near as boldly and lovingly as the children of God and priests of God Christ has made us to be.
So, draw near to God, believer, through your faithful high priest Jesus. Draw near to him with your grief. Draw near to him with your fear and questions and in every difficulty, knowing that Christ your high priest will save you. And do not despair if your experience closely follows his because even if he carries you – not away from but through suffering – you who rest and receive Jesus by faith will find his salvation to be full and complete and full of life and glory. It will be a complete salvation because your high priest, Jesus, will bring about in the age to come that which the old priesthood could never accomplish. It is by the work of Jesus – appointed by God and through the power of his resurrection – that God will be so near to you that He himself will wipe away every tear from your eye. Then, you will hear “a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’” (Revelation 21:3)
And until that day, we remain with hope because God is still near to us. He has put His Spirit within us, His Spirit who gives us life and gives us the gift of faith and applies the blessing of Christ to us and unites us with Christ even now, so that if Jesus our high priest is exalted in the heavens, we are with him.
[Transition to the Lord’s Supper]
Indeed, that is the reality this meal symbolizes and seals for you who have fled for refuge in Christ. Come and eat it by faith, being strengthened by the hope that in Christ you have already been brought near to God. What grace God gives to His people in this meal! God and man sat down at table together! And see in this meal the cost of your acceptance, the cost of your being able to draw near to God. It was the body and blood of Jesus given for you on the cross so that your sins could be forgiven and the very righteousness of Christ be counted as yours by faith in Him.
[Pray – Most High God, who is worshipped forever and ever, whose holiness and righteous and justice and who dwells in light unapproachable – we praise you O God that although you are high and lifted up you are please to dwell with the weak and broken, even sinners like us who have fled for refuge into the pierced side of our crucified yet living Lord, Jesus. We praise you, Merciful God, that you given us this meal, instituted by Jesus himself, to be a sign and seal that by faith we have been made partakers of Christ, with all his benefits and that in this meal you nourish us still by the power of the Risen Christ through the work of your Spirit. Father, as we come to this table, we come by faith in your Son, Jesus Christ. We come confessing our weakness, even the weakness of our faith, and so, Father, we come to be strengthened and nourished by our Savior. We ask you to set these elements apart for our spiritual benefit and in them to raise us up with Christ into the heavenly places; so that we may live and walk with our confidence in him. We ask this in the name of our Savior, Jesus. Amen.]
[Benediction, from Hebrews 13:20-21]
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
 William L. Lane, Hebrews: A Call to Commitment, 109. Emphasis in the original.