Sunday, October 25, 2020

Our Great High Priest: Salvation in Hebrews

The letter of Hebrews opens with a magnificent section in which the writer brings out the greatness of Jesus. He looks back to the past when God sent His prophets and contrasts this with the coming of the Son, who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being” and who “provided purification for sins” after which He “sat down at the right hand” of God, His saving work completed (1:3). The writer proceeds to show Christ’s superiority to the angels, the highest order of created things. Right at the beginning, he makes it clear that he is writing about something new and important, the coming of God’s Son to effect salvation for sinners.

The Great High Priest

The writer of this letter is the only New Testament writer to interpret Jesus’ saving work in terms of the liturgical practices of the day. He uses the term High Priest seventeen times (the only one to use the term outside the Gospels) and priest fourteen times (more than any other New Testament writer). In addition, he speaks of priestly activities such as the use of blood (which he has twenty-one times).

In the religions of antiquity, the high point of religion came when an animal was brought to the altar and solemnly slain in accordance with the accepted ritual. In the Old Testament, this was regularly done to put away sin. Our author sees Christ as perfectly fulfilling in His death what the ancient sacrifices pointed to but could not accomplish. He points out that those sacrifices could not take away sins (10:1–4), but Christ “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (9:26). Christ perfectly accomplished the atonement for sin to which the old sacrifices pointed but could never accomplish.

A Priest in the Order of Melchizedek

Our author develops the idea of Jesus as a priest “in the order of Melchizedek” (ch. 7), a figure mentioned in the Old Testament only in Genesis 14:18–20 and Psalm 110:4. Melchizedek’s greatness is shown in Abraham’s paying him tithes and his blessing of the patriarch. Nothing is said of his ancestry, and our author apparently follows the accepted idea that the silences of Scripture are due to inspiration, just as are its statements. What is true of Melchizedek only as a matter of record points us to what is literally true of Christ. Melchizedek is “made like unto the Son of God” (7:3 KJV). It is Christ, not Melchizedek who is the standard, though Melchizedek teaches us something about Christ. The writer is strongly making the point that Christ’s priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood and that this can be seen in Scripture.

The New Covenant

Covenant was an idea at the heart of Jewish religion. God made a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:18; 17:2ff.) and with the whole nation (Exodus 24:8—notice the people’s pledge of obedience, vv. 3, 7). But they broke that covenant (Jeremiah 31:32). Hebrews speaks a good deal about the new covenant Christ made, and which he sees foretold in Jeremiah 31:31–34, a passage he quotes in 8:8–12. He insists that the new covenant is a “better covenant” (7:22; 8:6).

Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant that is “superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises” (8:6). The new covenant rests on the promise “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (8:12). In the new covenant, the elect receive the inheritance: “He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (9:15). Clearly the new covenant is superior to the old one.

A Better Covenant

Our author speaks of the new covenant as “a better covenant” (7:22; 8:6). Indeed, he is more than a little interested in what is “better.” He uses the word better thirteen times (out of nineteen times in the whole New Testament). He begins early, saying that Jesus is better than the angels (1:4). He speaks generally of “better things” (6:9) and of “the lesser person” as “blessed by the greater” (7:7). He can speak of a better hope (7:19), of better promises (8:6), and of better sacrifices (9:23). Christians have “better and lasting possessions” (10:34), a better country (11:16), and like God’s people of old, they look forward to “a better resurrection” (11:35). God has planned “something better for us” (11:40).

This emphasis on the “better” should not be missed. It is important for our author that in sending his Son to be our Savior, God has provided something better than anything that had been known before. There is now a perfect Savior who has completely done away with our sins and has brought in a better state of affairs.