The author of Hebrews continues his comparison between the priestly order of Melchizedek and the priestly order of Levi. As we shall see, understanding the difference makes an immense practical difference.
“Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. For He of whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no man has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident if, in the likeness of Melchizedek, there arises another priest who has come, not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life. For He testifies: ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’ For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God. And inasmuch as He was not made priest without an oath (for they have become priests without an oath, but He with an oath by Him who said to Him: “The Lord has sworn and will not relent, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’”), by so much more Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant. Also there were many priests, because they were prevented by death from continuing. But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever
In the first section of this passage (vv. 11-19), we see the inadequacy of the Levitical priesthood. In verses 20-24, we see the two contrasted, with Christ’s priesthood marked as immeasurably superior. And in the last section (vv. 25-28), the application of the doctrine is made.
We are dealing with a change in the law. The recipients of this letter were considering “going back.” But if perfection, or completeness, were to be found there, back where they were going, then why did David prophesy another kind of priest? It is not possible, the author of Hebrews argues, to have a change in the priesthood without having a corresponding change in the law which governs that priesthood (v. 13). The word used for change here means to “put one thing in place of another.” This means that the older Levitical system knew and understood itself to be temporary and provisional. The Old Testament prophesies the necessity of the New. If a man who knew nothing of the Christian faith, Judaism, or the history of the Church were given a copy of the Old Testament, and he read it carefully, his first question would be, “Where’s part two?”
But nevertheless, this change from the old Levitical system was very difficult to the Jews who had “done it this way” for many centuries. They got attached to the provisional as though it were the permanent set-up. In desperation, some Jewish Christians might be tempted to do some genealogical research on behalf of the Lord — “maybe we can get Him (somehow) into the tribe of Levi.” But our writer heads off any and all such attempts. Our Lord was from the tribe of Judah.
In the following section, we find more evidence that Christ is not identical with Melchizedek. He arises as “another priest” in the likeness of Melchizedek. In contrast to the sons of Aaron, His power does not come from law that governs what we do here and now, but rather His authority comes from an endless life. “You are a priest forever” (v. 17). Consequently He annuls a weak and unprofitable commandment—that which consisted of the system of one Levitical priest replacing another.
This brings us to the everlasting oath. The two priesthoods are then compared and contrasted, with the priesthood according to Melchizedek shown to be immeasurably higher. The author of Hebrews has already shown that the father of Levites paid tithes to Melchizedek. Here he goes further.
1. The Lord was made a priest by an oath (vv. 20-21), unlike the Levitical priests. “The Lord has sworn. . .” (v. 21).
2. The Lord, having risen everlastingly from the dead, never needs to be replaced, unlike the Levitical priests (vv. 23-24).
The result is that we may conclude the Lord is the surety of a better covenant (v. 22). The word “surety” gives a sense of what is about to be said concerning our salvation. The word means that the Lord is the sponsor, or guarantee of our salvation.
This is the basis of “salvation to the uttermost.” Jesus Christ is able to save completely. “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (v. 25). The word for uttermost is a great adverb in the Greek—panteles— which means “utterly, completely, perfectly.” When Christ saves, there is nothing left to be done; all that remains is the simple application of what He has done by the Holy Spirit.
In this text, we identify those whom He saves in this way (those who come to God through Him), and we identify them on the basis for that salvation—His ability to make intercession. And His intercession as Priest is based upon His sacrifice as Lamb. The greatness of our salvation must never be detached from the greatness of our Savior. “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens . . .” (v. 26). The writer of Hebrews says something profound in the next verse. Christ does not need to offer up sacrifices daily. And why not? He doesn’t need to offer daily sacrifices for His own sins because He doesn’t have any. And He doesn’t need to offer daily sacrifices for us “for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (v. 27). Our salvation is based upon the glorious premise that no sacrifice for sins remains. This is one of our central blessings.