Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests (Heb 7:11–14; ESV).
The great challenge faced by the Jewish Christians to whom Hebrews was written was the temptation to go backward in redemptive history. It was not a popular thing to be a Christian. Jews who converted to Christianity faced objections from family and friends who did not understand why they no longer attended synagogue, why they did not keep Sabbath on the right day or in the right way, and why they did not observe the ceremonial laws. Christianity did not seem very glorious. There was no priesthood, no sacrifices, and not much pomp and show. There was a lot of pressure to “come home,” i.e., to go back to the synagogue, to return to Judaism, and to abandon Christ.
So the reader will not be surprised to learn that the epistle to the Hebrews is about the superiority of the New Covenant to the types and shadows of the Old Testament broadly, and particularly those of the Old or Mosaic Covenant (2 Cor 3:14). The progress of revelation and redemption is central to the argument of the epistle. According to Hebrews, it is not only undesirable to go backward in redemptive history, it is deadly.
Inferiority And Superiority
The New Covenant is the “better covenant” (κρείττονος διαθήκης; Heb 7:22) relative to the Old, Mosaic Covenant.1 Christ is the mediator of the “better covenant” (Heb 8:6). The Old Covenant is “obsolete” (πεπαλαίωκεν; Heb 8:13). The temptation faced by the Jewish Christians was to leave the New and better covenant and to go back to the Old and obsolete covenant.
The argument in chapter 7 is a turning point. The writer to the Hebrews appeals to Melchizedek beginning in 6:20, the last verse in that chapter. Melchizedek was King of Salem (Heb 7:1) and a priest of “the Most High God.” Abraham, the greatest of all the Old Testament patriarchs, paid a tithe to him thus assuming a subordinate position (Heb 7:2). That priest-king Melchizedek is “King of Peace.” Like God the Son who became incarnate, as a literary figure, Melchizedek has no beginning and no end. Melchizedek was a figure of Christ.
The Levites are descended from Abraham (Heb 8:5). They receive tithes from the people.
But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him (Heb 7:5–10; ESV).
In other words, just like Moses (Heb 3:1–6), the Levites work for Christ, as it were. Levi paid tithes, being in Abraham’s loins, to the Christ-figure Melchizedek. Everything in the types and shadows points to Christ. Therefore it is futile to go back to the types and shadows.
The Law Rests On the Priesthood
By nature it would seem that the law came first and then the priesthood. After all, how do we know what the priesthood is except by the law? This, however, is not how Hebrews, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, understands things.
The first point of this argument is that “perfection” (τελείωσις) was not possible under the Levitical priesthood. Perfection here means completion or fulfillment.2 The old, typological priesthood was incapable of accomplishing that to which it pointed. It came, as we used to say about cars, with obsolescence built in.
In his second point, Hebrews says the most remarkable thing by way of explanation (γὰρ): “For, on the basis of the priesthood, the people received the law.” This sentence has not always received the attention it deserves and it is quite relevant to the question of theonomy, i.e., the proposed imposition of the Mosaic judicial laws.3 According to Hebrews, the law worked for the priesthood, as it were, and not the inverse.
That is why, Hebrews explained, another priesthood had to arise, according to the order (κατὰ τὴν τάξιν Μελχισέδεκ) of Melchizedek. The ESV translation “after the order” is potentially confusing. The point is not chronological but one of taxis or taxonomy. The Levitical priesthood belonged to one class and the Melchizedekian priesthood belonged to another. Christ’s priesthood is in the order of Melchizedek—or ultimately, insofar as Melchizedek himself worked for Christ, we might say that Melchizedek was in the order of Christ’s priesthood.
Third, like Melchizedek’s, Christ’s priesthood is imposed from heaven. Christ belonged to “another tribe.” He was from the line of Judah, not from the line of Levi, and Judah had no relation to the priesthood. The only way Christ, as regards his humanity, could be a priest is by divine fiat and that, according to Hebrews is just what happened. Just as Abraham recognized Melchizedek for who and what he was, so too Christians recognize Jesus for who and what he is: the eschatological Priest-King come from heaven. He does not work for the temporary Mosaic laws: they work for him. Their function was to point to him. They were always temporary and he was never temporary.
Fourth, that is why it is so significant when Hebrews further explains, “For (γὰρ) when there is a change (μετατιθεμένης) in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change (μετάθεσις) in the law as well” (Heb 7:12). The imposition of the Christ-Melchizedekian priesthood necessitates a change in the law. The entire Mosaic system, insofar as it was distinctly Mosaic, was fulfilled by and expired with Christ. The Levitical system was fulfilled and expired and the judicial system was fulfilled and expired.4
Hebrews does not distinguish here between the judicial and ceremonial or religious laws. They are treated as a unit inasmuch as the are all temporary, all imperfect, and all expired with the death of Christ. According to Hebrews, we may no more go back to the temporary Mosaic laws than we may go back to the Levitical priesthood. It too has been fulfilled. The whole Old Covenant (Mosaic) system is complete. Its work is done.
Theonomy is a retrograde movement in the history of redemption. It neglects the forward movement of redemptive history toward Christ and, as it were the upward movement or orientation of the types and shadows, toward heaven or toward the eschatological. The whole Mosaic system, “the law” in Hebrews 7:11–14, always pointed that way, toward the final and away from the temporary. That is why Hebrews says Moses chose the “reproach of Christ” (Heb 11:26). According to Hebrews, Moses, the lawgiver, was looking upward and forward to Christ. He and the other believers were looking for a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10).
To seek the reimposition of the Mosaic judicial laws, just as it would be to seek the reimposition of the religious laws, is a form of Judaizing, of going backward to the types and shadows.
In contrast to the temporary Mosaic ceremonial and judicial laws, the moral law is grounded in the nature of God. In its essence it cannot change because God does not change. That is not true of the judicial and ceremonial laws. The moral law is the natural law, which reflects the nature of God and the nature of his created pattern. Thus, Hebrews is not counseling antinomianism, i.e., rejection of the moral law, but rather, it is teaching us to observe the movement of redemptive history and revelation and to pay attention to the breaking into history of the the final thing, Christ, the Logos, the Priest-King and his kingdom, his salvation, and his ancient and new order.
1. It is essential to understanding Hebrews to recognize that Hebrews, like Paul, equates the Old Covenant with Moses. The Abrahamic covenant is typological but it is not Mosaic or “old” in the strict sense. Failure to observe this distinction has led to needless confusion.
2. BDAG, s.v., τελείωσις.
3. One of the more important errors of the theonomy movement is their ignorance of or rejection of the historic Christian threefold division of the law: moral (permanent), ceremonial (temporary), and judicial (temporary). The latter two classes have always been regarded by Christians as distinctly Mosaic, temporary, and fulfilled with the death of Christ. E.g., this is the teaching of Belgic Confession art. 25 and >WCF 19.3–4. On this distinction see Philip S. Ross, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law. See also the HB resource page on this topic.
4. The use of the verb “expired” is intentional. It is the verb used by the Westminster Divines in WCF 19.4 regarding the Mosaic judicial laws and “the state of that people.” To expire is to breathe out one’s last breath, to die, to cease to be living or “to come to the end of validity.” See The Oxford Dictionary of English, s.v. “Expire.”
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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