Priests, Laws, and Covenants in Hebrews 7-8
Many Christians, when they hear that someone wants to follow God’s instructions for life (Torah), will claim that the Law of Moses* was made obsolete by the cross and had to be changed. They derive this opinion from Hebrews 7-8, especially these verses:
For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.
For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.
For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
But if the greater context of the whole of Scripture is ignored, one could find a verse or passage to support any doctrine you can imagine.
In Matthew 5, Yeshua said that the Law would not change in the smallest detail until heaven and earth passed away and everything has been accomplished. As I have pointed out many times before, heaven and earth are still here, and all is not accomplished. So if the Letter to the Hebrews actually says that the law changed or has been thrown out, then either Matthew or Hebrews is in error.
Whenever you are faced with an apparent contradiction between two biblical passages, you can be certain that the contradiction is not in the Scriptures themselves, but only in your interpretation of them. This is one of the basic common sense rules of Bible study. Either Matthew 5:18 does mean that nothing in God’s Law can be changed or else the Letter to the Hebrews does mean that God changed the Law of Moses. Both of those statements can’t be simultaneously true.
Both Matthew and Hebrews are divinely inspired and neither book is in error, so the confusion must be in our interpretation of the text rather than in the text itself. One or both of these passages is commonly misunderstood. Either the Law cannot be changed (as Matthew 5 seems to say) or else the Law was changed (as Hebrews 7-8 seems to say), but how can we tell which is true?
Another of the common sense rules of Bible study is that clear, unambiguous passages must take precedence over obscure and difficult passages. The language of Matthew 5:17-20 is plain. It doesn’t appear to contain any complex arguments, metaphors, or subtleties. I don’t mean that it cannot have any such complexities, only that none are apparent in the plain reading and immediate context. Hebrews 7-8, on the other hand, contains elaborate arguments based on metaphor and implications of other texts, and relying on a knowledge of Jewish tradition and the Temple service. Hebrews is, by far, the more difficult passage to understand, and we are therefore much more likely to misunderstand it.
Nobody knows for certain who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, but some early church fathers believed it was Paul, and that’s still a popular opinion today. The Greek is very different than that of Paul’s other letters, but the content and style of argument is very similar, especially to his letter to the Romans.
Paul’s writing can be maddeningly imprecise even while superficially sounding very certain and specific. For example, he wrote that there is no more “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female in the Messiah” (Galatians 3:28), but he also wrote of the spiritual and mundane differences between Jews and Greeks (Romans 11:13-23), slaves and free men (Ephesians 6:5-9), and men and women (Ephesians 5:22-33). The key to understanding these apparent contradictions is to interpret each one within the specific context in which it was written.
Paul wrote the Letter to the Galatians to address some errant teachings on justification for salvation, on the basic requirements for membership in the body of Messiah, not ethnic identity. He had just written (Galatians 2:15) “We ourselves are Jews by birth…”—not “were Jews,” but “are Jews”—so he couldn’t possibly have meant that there are no differences whatsoever between Jew and Gentile. When he wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…”, the reader must interpret this in that context of justification: Nobody is more justified for the purposes of eternal salvation because he is a Jew. We are all saved by faith in the grace of God to forgive our sins, not through an accident of birth nor through our own adherence to law or tradition.
Paul made sweeping statements that he meant to be interpreted and applied within narrow contexts, and he was in good company. God did the same thing throughout the prophets. He alternately referred to Israel as his children, his people, his son, his bride, a slave, a baby chick, and an adulterous woman. None of those things are literal, of course, but they are all true when understood in the immediate context in which God meant them.
The reader must be on his toes to be able to follow Paul’s letters, and Hebrews is perhaps more difficult than others because of the complexity of its arguments. As Peter strongly warned us, some of Paul’s words can be confusing to people who are not well grounded in the Torah and the Prophets (2 Peter 3:15-18). It can be confusing even to those who do have a good understanding of the Old Testament, especially if they are not watching for Paul’s tendency to use absolute statements that only make sense as such in the specific context in which he wrote them. Whoever wrote Hebrews, he certainly followed in Paul’s footsteps in this respect. Keep that in mind as we work through this passage.
In Hebrews 6:19-7:4, the author wrote about the covenant with Abraham and how Abraham tithed to Melchizedek. He compared Melchizedek’s history, title, and role to that of Yeshua the Messiah, showing that they were priests of the same kind, what David called the Order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4). This Order consists of priest-kings (or maybe a single priest-king, but that’s another topic) who are entirely pure, who do not inherit their office from an earthly father, and who occupy their offices for eternity.
(19) We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, (20) where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, (2) and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. (3) He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. (4) See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils!
A person does not tithe to a spiritual peer or inferior, but to one in authority. The Levitical priests have spiritual authority over the people of Israel, and Melchizedek had the same authority over Abraham. If Melchizedek is then superior to Abraham, he is also superior to Levi, a descendant of Abraham. Therefore the priests of the Order of Melchizedek are superior to the priests of the Order of Levi. This hierarchy is again evidenced by the mortality of Levitical priests and the immortality of Melchizedek and Yeshua.
(5) And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. (6) But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. (7) It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. (8) 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. (9) One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, (10) for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
We know that the sacrifices and rites of the Levitical priesthood could never fully remove the stain of sin. For the perfection of our souls and our eternal salvation, we must appeal to a higher priesthood, that of Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews explained that if we must look to a higher priesthood for our salvation, then we must also look to a higher law, because the Mosaic Law contains no provisions for eternal salvation (though it points us toward a higher Priest and Law by numerous hints and shadows). If we have a change in our focus from fleshly atonement to spiritual atonement, we must also have a change from one priesthood to another and from one law to another.
(11) 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? (12) For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. (13) For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. (14) For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. (15) This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, (16) who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. (17) For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
Did the author write that there was a change in the priesthood itself, that Yeshua became a priest in the order of Aaron and thereby changed that order? No, he wrote that Yeshua is a priest of a completely different order, that of Melchizedek. Therefore, when he wrote “when there is a change in the priesthood,” he was not referring to a change within the Levitical priesthood, but to a change in which priesthood applies in a different context. The Levitical priesthood serves in a Tabernacle and Temple made by hands, while the Melchizedek priesthood serves in a Heavenly Tabernacle.
If Hebrews 7:12 is manifestly not describing a change within the Levitical priesthood, then it must also not be describing a change in the Law over which the Levitical priesthood presides. The author was not writing about a change within any priesthood or Law, but rather a change in which priesthood and law applies in a different covenantal context.
Priesthoods and laws are tools. They were designed by God to perform certain tasks, such as atonement, teaching, judging disputes, leading worship, and maintaining the health of the community. As with any task, you need the right tool for the job. If you have to drive a nail, you reach for a hammer. If you have to drive a screw, you need a new tool because the old hammer is no longer appropriate for the purpose at hand. So you set aside the hammer and reach for a better tool: a screwdriver. You don’t refashion the nail into a screw and the hammer into a screwdriver. You simply exchange one tool for another.
(18) For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (19) (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.
You can see how easy it is to misunderstand the text to be saying something contrary to all the rest of Scripture. However, I have demonstrated that, when Hebrews talks of a change in the priesthood and the law, it does not mean that the priesthood or the law has changed, but that we employ a different priesthood for a different law.
[There are additional difficult points in the Letter to the Hebrews. Please continue to bear with me. I won’t be able to get to them all, but I would like to address some of the most commonly misunderstood passages of chapters 7 and 8.]
One of the greatest reasons that the Melchizedek priesthood can effect eternal salvation, while the Levitical priesthood cannot, is the eternal nature of its High Priest. He was crucified and died, but God raised him from the dead in incorruptible form and made him to be a High Priest forever. He will never be ill. He will never be sick. He will never be in a state of uncleanness and thereby unable to perform his duties as priest. God swore that Yeshua would remain a priest forever (Psalm 110:4, Hebrew olam) and has kept that oath.
God also swore that the Levitical priesthood would belong to Aaron and his sons forever (Exodus 29:9, Hebrew olam), but there is a material difference in that its members get sick, grow old, and die, releasing the office to their successors. Something of the effect of the sacrifices and the judgments that the Levitical priest performs dies and decays just like he does, but the Melchizedek priest will never die, so his sacrifice will last forever. In this way, he atones for our sins for all eternity. We do not need to fear our inevitable failures because he will always intercede on our behalf so long as we love him and continue to be subject to him.
(20) And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, (21) but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.'”
Yeshua ministers in the Tabernacle in heaven while the sons of Aaron are meant to minister in the tabernacle in Jerusalem. Yeshua cannot fill the earthly office without violating God’s oath to Aaron because he is not a descendant of Aaron. The converse is true of the Levitical priests. They cannot make offerings in the heavenly Tabernacle and cannot make sacrifices that can permanently remove our sin because that would violate God’s oath to Yeshua if it were possible at all.
(22) This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. (23) The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, (24) but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. (25) Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (26) For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. (27) He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. (28) For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
(1) Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, (2) a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. (3) For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. (4) Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law.
The temple in Jerusalem was still standing at the time the letter to the Hebrews was written, and the priests there still offered sacrifices on the altar. Just a few years later, however, the temple was destroyed and the Jewish people resumed their exile from the land. Does that mean that God broke his promise to Aaron? If God can break that promise, why can’t he break the other promise to Yeshua that ensures our salvation?
We humans are real beings of physical bodies and spirits. We really exist. We eat, breath, speak, love, and grow old. We are corruptible. Like the Levites (who are also human, after all), we get sick. We are weak. We sin. Yet, despite our poor and worthless natures, relatively speaking, we are copies of an unimaginably majestic original, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Our physical bodies as they are now will eventually die, but we have a promise that we will be resurrected with incorruptible bodies. No one can rightly say that we will one day pass away only because we are copies of something greater.
Yeshua told us that we will have eternal life. Paul, John, and others confirmed it: we will be restored to glory and not only as incorporeal spirits, but with tangible bodies, just like Yeshua’s. This is entirely fitting for images of the eternal, incorruptible God.
The tabernacle in Jerusalem was also a real physical structure in which the presence of God was actively seen, heard, and felt. The sacrifices made there really did atone for us before God, cleansing the flesh of sin, at least temporarily. Although, like our own bodies, it was made of corruptible materials that must be renewed or rebuilt entirely, it is a copy of a more majestic, heavenly structure. The earthly tabernacle is not eternal like that one. Like the priest who dies to be succeeded by another priest, the earthly tabernacle has been destroyed and recreated more than once. It was once transformed from a mobile tabernacle to an immobile temple by Solomon. It has been destroyed twice, rebuilt once, and refurbished or expanded many times. Finally, in accordance with Yeshua’s statement in Matthew 5 and God’s promise to Aaron, Ezekiel prophesied that it will be built again in Jerusalem—resurrected, so to speak—and sacrifices will again be offered on its altar under the supervision of the Messiah, Yeshua. At that time, the Levites and the sons of Aaron will resume ministering before its altar (Ezekiel 44:11 & 48:10-14).
(5) They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”
We, the human race, are a copy of something greater and we have not and will not pass away, but will be perfected. The earthly tabernacle and priesthood will be resurrected and perfected too. Whether or not it will survive the destruction of the whole earth, I couldn’t say, but we know that it will survive and continue its function at least through the Messiah’s millennial reign. And if the tabernacle and priesthood continue, so must the Law that they carry out. The existence of the Father, his Son, the heavenly Tabernacle and the higher Law over which they preside does not automatically necessitate the utter destruction of the lesser, poorer human race, Levitical priesthood, Jerusalem tabernacle, and Mosaic Law.
The matter is a little different with the Law. Unlike the Levitical priesthood and the tabernacle, God’s Law is not a physical thing that can grow old and die. It was always perfect for its purpose (Psalm 19:7-10) because it always only consisted of God’s word (Psalm 119:160). Its practitioners, its ministers, and its holy places die and require resurrection, but the Law itself is incorruptible. The Law’s parallel with the death and resurrection of the priests and tabernacle doesn’t lie with the Law itself, but with the medium on which it is written.
The Law was given to Moses on stone tablets which were broken and recreated, like the Temple. Those second tablets were lost or destroyed, and now the Law is written only on paper. However, Jeremiah prophesied that as part of the New Covenant, God’s Law will eventually be written on our hearts. There is no hint in Jeremiah 31 that it is a different law written on hearts than was previously written on stone. To the contrary, the text gives every indication that it is precisely the same Law.
Why do we need a new covenant? Because we have a new and better purpose. The old covenant was perfect for its purpose, but the people, who were an intrinsic part of the covenant, were flawed and required something better to address those flaws. (This is what it means when Hebrews says that the covenant was flawed.)
Although we have received a down payment of our final redemption under the covenant (Ephesians 1:13-14), the complete fulfillment has not yet come. If it had, we know from Jeremiah that we would not be having this discussion; we would all know God and his Law without having to be taught or to argue over it (Jeremiah 31:34). But someday, when God has resurrected us in incorruptible form, he will also finally and fully write his Law on our hearts so that it can never again be lost or forgotten or misunderstood.
(6) But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (7) For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. (8) For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, (9) not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. (10) For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (11) And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. (12) For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29), especially when he has explicitly declared them to be forever. Just as one priesthood operating in one scope does not automatically replace another priesthood operating in another, lesser scope, one covenant does not automatically replace another, lesser covenant. Instead, it encompasses the lesser covenant. God’s covenant with David did not replace his covenant with Israel at Sinai. His covenant with Abraham did not replace the one with Noah, and the one with Noah did not replace the one with Adam. So there is no reason to suppose that the new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah described in Jeremiah 31 should automatically replace the old covenant with the unified people of Israel.
However, we can see that the new will completely outshine the old just like the sun outshines the moon as it rises. Once we had been given the earnest of the new covenant in the person of the Holy Spirit, its full manifestation became a real future possibility to the Apostles. They looked ahead to a day that seemed imminent and under the light of which the stone and parchment of the old covenant fade away, having been replaced by hearts of flesh that obey God’s Law out of love for him and not out of fear of condemnation and death.
(13) In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Even if the Mosaic Law might someday be completely annulled with the full onset of the New Covenant—and I don’t believe it will—that has not happened yet. We can know by four things that this is certain:
-The heavens still turn above.
-The earth still turns below.
-All has not been completed.
-The future tabernacle and Levitical priests whom God has said will serve again in Jerusalem can operate only within the Mosaic Law.
Finally, if you love the Father, if you love his Son, then you must obey his commandments (John 14:15 & 1 John 5:3). If you do not obey his commandments, then you can neither fully love him nor fully know him (1 John 2:3-4). And if you don’t fully know him, then the New Covenant is not yet fully in force (Jeremiah 31:34).
*I almost always use the terms “Law of Moses” and “Law of God” interchangeably.
Jay Carper is a Bible teacher at American Torah, which focuses on helping people answer tough questions about the Bible. He focuses on the relevance of Torah for Christians today and how to live as a disciple of Yeshua the messiah.