Believe Jesus: A New Hope
For those of us who do not come from a Jewish background, the focus on the priesthood we find in Hebrews can leave us feeling a bit bogged down. So here are six questions arising out of Hebrews 7 that will hopefully help us get a firmer grasp on what is being described.
Q1: What’s the point of being a Christian?
The reality is that Christianity is often difficult and costly. As Paul puts it in Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” So why be a Christian at all?
Clearly, some embrace Christianity from fear – basically not wanting to go to hell. Others are Christians culturally, because their family is. Some choose Christianity for moralistic reasons, believing it to offer the best way to live. Some are convicted of the truth of Christianity, while others are drawn by the benefits of becoming part of a community. Some of these reasons are better than others, but none of them is sufficient reason to follow Christ. It would be like getting married because of wanting sex, or someone to do your cooking, or because of cultural expectations – reasons that have greater or lesser validity, but miss the essential place of joy in relationship that marriage is meant to involve.
We live in a restless age, are desperate for relationship, and, like Augustine, what we need more than anything is to be in relationship with God: “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”
The people of Israel knew this. Without the presence of God they were nothing (Ex 33:14-16) but under the Law of Moses access to relationship with God was always limited. YHWH was with his people but access to him was limited, mediated through priests, and focussed on a box made from acacia wood. The point of being a Christian – our new hope – is that through Christ we now enjoy unlimited access to God.
Q2: Why was there restricted access?
Genesis 3:24 spells out the problem: “He drove out the man.” The story begins with man in God’s presence, but (as always) the man messed it up. We are the dinner guest who always messes up, spills the drink, says inappropriate things, gets drunk, throws up and starts a fight. We are the child who always breaks something and throws a tantrum in the process. As a result our access to God had to be tightly regulated.
The system of priests was given so that things might be done right, but the Levitical priesthood couldn’t, and was never meant to, secure perfection. It couldn’t secure access to God. The point of Hebrews 7 is that something new is happening. Melchizedek is an example of this, that we do need a priest to get access to God, but a different kind of priest. We need a priest who can give full, unlimited, access.
Q3: Why couldn’t the Levitical priesthood give full access?
The priesthood was always meant to be temporary. It guarded the law of Moses, and the law itself was temporary because it could not effect perfection. It was even possible to keep the law yet still not have full confidence about drawing near to God. This is how law works – it is like driving along with a police car behind you. When this happens I always find myself wondering whether I am obeying the traffic laws enough.
Q4: So what was the purpose of the Law?
Paul tells the Galatians that, “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). The law was a temporary measure, giving supervised access to God. Something needed to change because we want unlimited access. That change was Jesus! Jesus brought a change of tribe, a change in the law, and a change of priest. He has made a better covenant which offers direct access to God. Guaranteed!
Q5: How does Jesus give us full access to God?
According to Josephus there were 83 high priests from Aaron to the fall of the Temple in AD70. No high priest lasted that long, but Jesus is forever! This means he can “save to the uttermost.” He is always interceding for us, as he is restricted by no earthly limit. The Levitical priests had to be perfect, in their keeping of the law, and even in their appearance (Lev 21) but they were still human, essentially flawed, and inevitably died. By contrast, Christ is “Holy, innocent [blameless], unstained [pure].” He is spiritually and morally perfect and made the once for all, perfect, sacrifice.
Where things are messed up there is always a cost to set it right. The Son, perfect forever, has paid the cost and deals with our Genesis 3:24 problem. Wonderfully we get to share in his perfection!
Q6: What is the point of Hebrews 7 for us?
Hebrews 8:1 answers this question: “We have such a high priest.” The first recipients of the letter to the Hebrews were tempted to go back to Judaism. Christianity just felt too hard. The point our author makes in response is to spell it out: We mustn’t rely on anything other than Jesus. He is the only solution to our mess.
Nearly 2,000 years on there can be many temptations for us to ‘go back’. We can start being Christians for the wrong reasons, or, worse, think we are Christians because of those other reasons, and when things get tough we are tempted to look for another solution. But truly becoming a Christian, and remaining a Christian, means we ‘draw near’ (vv19 & 25) to God. The presence is the thing, and in Christ we have a new hope of experiencing it.