To End the Levitical Priesthood of the OT
Man was created to live in harmony with his Creator but due to sin was cut off from God and excluded from what should have been a warm and intimate relationship.
The Bible is a record of God’s rescue plan.
God did not give up on the world he had made nor on the creature he had formed in his own image. But how was a holy God to be reconciled to unholy human beings who had declared themselves to be independent of him? This question finds it ultimate solution in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ but this solution was not brought about immediately. Instead God carefully and painstakingly prepared the salvation that his Son would bring about.
For the Lord Jesus Christ to be properly appreciated men and women needed to be brought to understand just how serious their plight in sin actually was. Men and women had to be brought to realize that no superficial remedy would be sufficient to solve their problem of being separated from God.
During this preparatory time God didn’t totally abandon the people of his choice. He did intervene giving them a set of temporary solutions that allowed him to graciously pardon without yet solving the underlying problem of sin. OT religion was therefore something of a stop-
OT religion was not false but it had never been designed to secure that which was most necessary – the full and complete pardon of sin and the consequent transformation of a human sinner into a child of God and member of God’s family. The honour of completing this work would be Christ’s and Christ’s alone.
OT Religion – a shadowy hint of better things to come
In approaching OT religion we must realize that it is dealing not with the ultimate realities but merely with pictures of those realities. There is truth in those pictures but the reality they try to illustrate is far, far greater.
Central to the religion of the OT is the notion of the priesthood. The work that a priest performed was the work of a mediator and the work of a mediator is to draw together two sides who have fallen out with each other. The priest in OT religion represented men and women standing between them and God.
There are two priesthoods referred to in Scripture: there is the Levitical priesthood which served and ministered for some 1.500 years, firstly in the tabernacle and then subsequently in the temple. During that time hundreds upon hundreds of men all descended from that one tribe of Levi carried out their priestly duties.
This Levitical priesthood, which was entered only by strict genealogical descent, offered the divinely ordained sacrifices and oversaw the religious feasts and festivities of God’s people. Who knows exactly how many sacrifices they offered as they presented day after day, week after week, year after year, decade after interminable decade?
The sacrifices they presented spoke of forgiveness and of reconciliation but the fact that these sacrifices needed such regular and frequent repetition indicated that they secured no final resolution of the problems caused by human sin.
The second priesthood of which there is mention is that of Melchizedek who is something of an enigmatic character in the OT. There is no record that Melchizedek owed his priesthood to anybody else – it was his not by descent but by right. Melchizedek’s status was greater than that of Levi and he was not only a priest but also a King – something that was not true of any of the Levitical priests.
In Psalm 110, a well-
In accomplishing his ministry as Messiah, the Christ, Jesus had to fulfil this priestly/high priestly function. The success of his ministry was only secured as he died – his death being the unique yet all sufficient sacrifice that he offered to God for the sins of his people.
With the fulfilment of this high priestly "Melchizedekian" ministry, Jesus brought to an end any need for a continuing ministry of the Levitical priesthood. Everything to which the Levitical priesthood could only ever faintly point had been achieved in the "once for all" sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews developed this theme at some length because the Jewish converts to whom he was writing were being tempted to give up on the new covenant for the comfortable familiarity of the old. The author of the letter wanted to help them to understand that to retreat from the real and the complete to return to the shadowy types and pictures of the old was to wholly fail to grasp what God had done in Christ. To backslide away from such a Saviour would be foolishness and to give up on him altogether in apostasy would be utter madness.
Jesus the Great High Priest – Hebrews 7
The writer to the Hebrews lists a number of truths concerning the relative merits of Jesus’ priesthood when compared to that of the Levitical which preceded it.
1. His priesthood was of a higher order than the Levitical priesthood. Jesus was a priest after the order of Melchizedek and that means that Melchizedek sets the pattern for the Kingly priest Jesus Christ.
Jesus did not inherit the priesthood for it was his by right. It was a priesthood that he would never ever relinquish either – we never read of Melchizedek dying and after Jesus was raised from the dead we are told that he lives forever in the power of an indestructible life (v.16) and so he exercises his priesthood eternally.
2. Jesus’ priesthood was and is far more effective than anything achieved by the Levitical.
No Levite was ever able through his service of the ceremonial law to bring anything to a state of perfection:
v.19a "for the law made nothing perfect"
If such perfection had been possible under the Levitical regime then there would never have been any need for the Messiah to come in another order of priesthood. The failure of the Levitical order with its rites and ceremonies having failed to secure the wanted perfection would be set aside and with the setting aside of this particular priesthood all the rigours of OT ceremonial law are set aside too. The whole system was only temporary. It was not designed to be an end in itself but rather to keep alive the hope and expectation of the reality to which it dimly pointed.
v.19b "but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God."
Being enabled to draw to God in and through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ we possess the reality and thus we no longer need the picture stage of God’s plan. God’s purpose in planning the Levitical system ended when Christ came and completed his work.
3. Jesus standing as a priest is more firmly established. A Levite served as a priest by virtue of being born into a particular tribe and no other requirement was really necessary. Jesus on the other hand was established personally as the result of an oath given by God and in this way he became the guarantor of a better covenant.
4. No OT priest could serve forever and one generation of priests was regularly replaced by the next up and coming generation. As priests grew older they retired and died.
v.23 "The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office,"
How different things are with Jesus!
v.21b "You are a priest forever"
And this is confirmed:
v.24 "he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever."
This means that we can always come to God through him because he is always there, ready and willing to help us. He is all-
There in heaven he unfailingly intercedes for us who are weak and faltering – what an encouragement that should be to us all!
5. Christ’s priesthood exactly meets the needs we have as sinners seeking to be reconciled to God.
Not only does Jesus have superior rank and superior power, he is also himself holy. This means that he does not have to offer sacrifices for himself but has the right and ability to stay in the divine presence and represent me. The Levitical priest might go into the picture illustration of the temple but Jesus stands in heaven itself!
Jesus the man is exactly the high priest we need. He is not weak, living with the burdens of his own but he is unstained, elevated and forever perfect – he is forever able to help me and represent me the sinner before God because he has also offered the perfect sacrifice, himself.
"Once for all"
Five times over in the NT "ephapax" is found and it is translated "once for all". Four of those five occurrences refer to Jesus’ death (the 5 th refers to one of his resurrection appearances).
Levitical priests had to offer sacrifices over and over again because their sacrifices of animals and birds were never able to fully cleanse the conscience or finally substitute for a guilty man or woman. Jesus’ sacrifice was fully sufficient and fully satisfied God so that no further sacrifice was ever or will ever be necessary!
Rom.6:10 "For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God."
Heb.7:27 "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."
Heb.9:12 "he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption."
Heb.10:10 "And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."
What a price has been paid by what a person! Nothing need be added, nothing can be added, indeed we must not try to add anything for his work is complete. We are to believe on him and to receive him and go with confidence to God through him.
As we think of the worthiness of our Saviour perhaps we should think for a moment about the Lord’s Supper and realise just how insulting and futile it would be to consider the Supper as a sacrifice to be repeated.
Listen to these words of Stuart Olyott on the subject of Jesus the great high priest:
"With Jesus Christ as my high priest, there will never be an occasion when I approach God but find that I have been turned away. Because of his intercession, there will never be a day when I find that I am condemned to live out of fellowship with God. His intercession for sinners is perfect and successful. I can come to him with confidence, knowing that I will be certain to obtain both mercy for my sins and grace to help in my need. And this is all true because he exercises a priesthood that is in every way superior to the shadowy priesthood of OT days."
So let us live joyfully in the light of such wonderful truths.