Jesus is our high priest in the true tabernacle, which is in heaven. The Levitical priesthood, with its earthly tabernacle, was only a copy of the reality in heaven, and could therefore not free people from guilt for sin. Only Jesus, who offered a better sacrifice, and who is the mediator of better covenant-promises, and who is permanently appointed as high priest according to the greater order of Melchizedek, is really able to take sin away; even sin committed under the first covenant.
The main point in the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus is our high priest in the true tabernacle (8:1-2). Hebrews is one of the most difficult books in the Bible. This article is the second in a series of articles aimed to provide an overview of Hebrews’ teachings of Christ as our high priest. The first article discussed How Jesus became high priest. This current article discusses the many proofs provided by Hebrews that Jesus’ priesthood is better than the Levitical priesthood.
The Levitical priesthood was a copy of the heavenly things.
What happens in heaven, is true reality. The Levitical priesthood was a mere copy and shadow of the heavenly things:
8:5 The priests on “earth” (8:4) “serve copy and shadow of the heavenly things”.
9:11 “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation”.
9:24 “Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself”.
These verses seem to say that the earthly tabernacle was a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things”. But it was not only the earthly tabernacle that was a copy and shadow of the things in heaven; the entire system of priests and sacrifices was a copy and shadow of “the heavenly things” (8:5) or of “heaven itself” (9:24):
10:1 “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things (NIV – the realities themselves), can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near”.
In this verse “the Law” is “only a shadow”. As can be seen from this verse as well as from others (7:12, 16, 19, 28), the “law” in Hebrews often refers specifically to the laws regarding the system of priests and sacrifices.
We conclude then that, what happens in heaven, is real. The tabernacle and its ceremonies were only symbols and types of that invisible reality, and are therefore decisively inferior.
The Levitical priesthood could not take sins away.
Hebrews may be described as the better-book because the word “better” is found frequently in the letter and because so much of the book argues that Christ is better than the Old Testament. Another way in which Hebrews does this is to argue that the Levitical priesthood was unable to take sins away, as indicated by the verses quoted below.
7:11 “if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood .., what further need was there for another priest to arise”?
This implies that perfection is indeed possible through the “another priest”, which is Jesus. Hebrews uses the word “perfect” in a fairly unique way, namely to says that people have been made “perfect” when their sins have been taken away (forgiven) (10:1, 4; cf. 7:11, 19; 9:9; 10:14; 11:40; 12:23).
7:18-19 “There is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God”.
The “former commandment” and the “Law” refer to the Law of Moses (7:28), but as discussed above, it refers specifically to the laws regarding the system of priests and sacrifices. Given the immediate context (7:19), the “better hope” is for perfection.
8:6 “He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second”.
Hebrews never refers to the “old covenant”. It always calls it the “first covenant” (8:7; 9:1, 15, 18), in contrast to the “new covenant”. As shown below, on the basis of chapter 10, the main purpose of the new covenant, for the writer of Hebrews, is that “their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (10:17). In this respect the first covenant was not “faultless”. The new covenant is “better” (8:6) because it promises that God will remember “their lawless deeds” no more.
9:9 … the present time. … sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, 10 … imposed until a time of reformation. 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest …., He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle … 12 … through His own blood …. 14 how much more will the blood of Christ … cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
These verses contrast the “present time” (9:9) with “a time of reformation” (9:10). In “the present time … sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience” (9:9). To be “perfect in conscience” may be understood as certainty that your sins are forgiven. The NIV translates it as “clear the conscience of the worshiper“.
At the “time of reformation” (9:10) “Christ appeared as a high priest” and “entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle … through His own blood” (9:11-12) to “cleanse your conscience” (9:14).
10:1, 4 “For the Law … can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. … For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
10:11 “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins”.
The argument that the old sacrificial system cannot take away sin was therefore very important to the writer of Hebrews. Only “the blood of Christ … (will) cleanse your conscience from dead works” (9:14). 10:1 links this concept to the fact that the Levitical system was a copy, saying that the Levitical system cannot take away sin exactly because it was only a copy of true reality.
The verses quoted above use many different phrases as synonyms for God forgiving the sins of people, and unless one is aware of this, these verses may be difficult to follow. Note therefore these parallel phrases:
“take away sins” (10:4, 11);
“make perfect” (7:19; 10:1) and “perfection” (7:11);
“cleanse your conscience” (9:14);
“make the worshiper perfect in conscience” (9:9);
Notice also how many times the word better has been used in the quotations above. A “better hope“, “better covenant” and “better promises” were mentioned.
Jesus offered a better sacrifice.
This subject is related to the previous one, for Christ is able to make people perfect because He offered a better sacrifice. Hebrews, however, separates these two concepts to some extent. Statements that the Levitical system was unable to make people perfect are found in chapters 7 to 10, while the statements about the “better sacrifice” (9:23) are concentrated in chapters 9 and 10.
Chapter 8 starts by saying that “every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; so it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer” (8:3). “This high priest” is Jesus (7:28). After chapter 8 added that He has a better tabernacle (8:5) and better covenant-promises (8:6-13), chapters 9 and 10 return to the subject of His better sacrifice:
9:13-14 “For if the blood of goats and bulls … sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
The previous section above already mentioned these verses, but our purpose now is to focus specifically on Christ’s better sacrifice. In these verses “the blood of goats and bulls” is contrasted with “the blood of Christ”. “The blood of goats and bulls … sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh” while “the blood of Christ … cleanse your conscience from dead works”. “The blood of goats and bulls” therefore only cleans the outside, while “the blood of Christ” cleans the inside.
9:15 His death even redeems the “transgressions that were committed under the first covenant” (9:15).
9:18-23 With the inauguration (9:18) of the first covenant Moses ceremonially cleansed the earthly tabernacle (9:19-23) with “the blood of the calves and the goats” (9:19) “but the heavenly things themselves (were cleansed with) with better sacrifices than these” (9:23).
The blood of Christ cleaned the “things in the heavens”. His sacrifice is as much “better” than the animal sacrifices as the tabernacle in heaven is greater than the earthly tabernacle.
Note again the word “better“; this time “better sacrifices“.
Why was it necessary to clean the “heavenly things” (9:23)? As has been shown above, Hebrews uses different words and phrases for the same thing. Hebrews is also highly symbolic or idiomatic. The word “inaugurated” is also found in 10:20, where it says that “His flesh” “inaugurated for us” “a new and living way” “through the veil”. The “veil” is symbolically the door of the tabernacle in heaven. It is therefore proposed that the cleaning of the “heavenly things” is the same as the preparation of the “new and living way” into the tabernacle in heaven, and that both these are symbolic expressions of Christ entering “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (9:24). This will be discussed further in the next article.
Here the writer alternatives effortlessly between referring to blood and to sacrifices. Blood and sacrifices are obviously related. The animals were killed outside the tabernacle. Their blood was then brought into the tabernacle to atone for the sins of the people. These are symbolic of what happens in true reality; Jesus was sacrificed outside the true tabernacle (on earth) and then the evidence of His death (symbolically His blood) was brought into the true tabernacle (heaven itself) to atone for the sins of the people.
9:25-28 While “the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own”, Christ have “been offered once to bear the sins of many”.
According to these verses Jesus offered a better sacrifice for two reasons; His sacrifice is really able to take sin away and a single sacrifice was sufficient. Chapter 10 is the last chapter that substantively deals with Christ as our high priest, and it continues the contrast between the sacrifices that were offered endlessly year after year and day after day (10:1, 8, 11), but could never take away the sins of those who draw near to God (10:1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 11), and Jesus’ once for all sacrifice (10:12), by which He made perfect forever those who are being made holy (10:14, 10).
Jesus is priest according to the greater order of Melchizedek.
Jesus is “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:6, cf. 5:10; 6:20). This is a quote from Psalm 110:4, which refers to an amazing incident recorded in Genesis 14, where “Melchizedek” comes out of nowhere and is called “priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:18). Psalm 110, which is accepted as a Messianic psalm (see Psalm 110:1) also amazingly, picks up on this incident and by implication calls Jesus a high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek”. By emphasizing the greatness of Melchizedek, Hebrews uses this psalm to show the greatness of Jesus’ priesthood :
Melchizedek blessed Abraham (Gen. 14:19) and, as Hebrews 7:7 points out, the greater always blesses the lesser, which means that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham, even though Abraham “had the promises” from God (7:6).
Abraham also gave Melchizedek “a tenth of all” (Gen. 1:20) and, as Hebrews 7:9-10 notes, Levi therefore effectively gave “a tenth of all” to Melchizedek, which implies that the Melchizedek priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood.
Melchizedek “remains a priest perpetually” (7:3).
The writer argues, since Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, and therefore greater than the Levites, who came out of Abraham, that the Melchizedek priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood. And since Jesus is “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”, He is greater than the Levitical priests.
Other reasons why Christ’s priesthood is better:
Above it was argued that Christ’s priesthood is better that the Levitical priesthood because:
(1) The Levitical priesthood was a mere copy and shadow of the reality in heaven.
(2) Only Christ’s priesthood is really able to take sins away.
(3) Jesus offered a better sacrifice.
(4) Jesus is priest according to the order of Melchizedek, and therefore greater than the Levitical priests.
To these the following may be added::
(5) Jesus is mediator of a better covenant, with better promises (7:22; 8:6; 9:15).
(6) He became high priest forever (6:20).
(7) The “Law appoints men as high priests who are weak” (7:28), but Jesus is “innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners” (7:26-28).
The Levitical priesthood was set aside.
Jesus is not only superior to the Levitical priest, the entire Levitical priesthood was set aside by Him:
7:18 “There is a setting aside of a former commandment”.
8:13 “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete.”
10:9 “He takes away the first (animal sacrifices – 10:4, 8) in order to establish the second (the offering of the body of Jesus Christ – 10:10)”.