In this post, we will be walking through Hebrews 4-10 in an effort to understand one of the most important matters of Christology: the mediatorial work of Christ. We will answer the following questions along the way:
- What is the nature of the old covenant and its priesthood?
- What is the nature of the new covenant and its priesthood?
- What is the intent of the atonement?
- What is the effect of the atonement?
The goal of exegeting these passages of Scripture is to present a strong and consistent objection to the LDS doctrine of priesthood and atonement. In order to place myself prior to exegesis, I am approaching these texts as a Reformed Baptist and so I accept the doctrine of sola scriptura, tota scriptura, penal substitutionary atonement, and the inerrancy of God’s Word in the Bible; however, I plan on letting the Scriptures speak for themselves. The debate over priesthood and atonement is a dividing line between orthodox Christian belief and religions of men like Mormonism. Let us begin right away in Hebrews 4. We read:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Here we begin with the discussion of the priesthood of Christ. The first two things to note are the two adjectives used to describe the priesthood of Jesus are “great” and “high.” As was seen in chap. 1-3, Christ is greater than all other beings in creation, including angels, Moses, Abraham, and so on. Two of whom covenants where made too in the form of a promise and in the form of the Law. The adjective “high” refers to the type of priesthood that Christ holds. There are two priesthoods according to the Mosaic Law. There is the general priesthood, which is a foreshadowing of the priesthood of all believers in the New Covenant, and then there is the high priesthood. In the Old Covenant there were many priests and only one high priest. We will see that in the following passages of Scriptures as the Apostle to the Hebrews continues with his Christological discussion. The second important point to notice is that our high priest is one who is able to empathize with our weaknesses. The importance of this point will be brought out later as the high priest of old and our (that is, the believer’s high priest) high priest share a similarity. Because we have a high priest, the author says, who has been tempted just as we were we may come to the throne of God and ask for grace and mercy in our time of need.
Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was. (Hebrews 5:1-4)
Here the author reminds the Hebrews about the duties of the high priest. The important things to note are:
- There is only one high priest
- He is selected from among the people
- He is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God
- To offer gifts and sacrifices for sins
This high priest, we are told, is able to treat those who have gone astray as he himself is subject to sin as well. Because he is subject to sin, during the Day of Atonement, the high priest is to offer up sins for the people and for himself since he himself is a sinner. However, the author makes note that this is not an honor that may be taken by any man. The office of the high priest is one of divine institution. In the Torah, we read of Aaron’s calling. The Scriptures say:
Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. (Exodus 28:1)
But only you [Aaron] and your sons may serve as priests in connection with everything at the altar and inside the curtain. I am giving you the service of the priesthood as a gift. Anyone else who comes near the sanctuary is to be put to death.” (Numbers 18:7)
In both of these passages we have YHWH instituting the Levitical, or as Mormons would say, the Aaronic priesthood (however, it should be noted that Mormons believe that the Melchizedek priesthood and Aaronic priesthood preceded their divine institution in the establishment of the Old and New Covenants). Throughout the rest of these latter Scripture passages the author of Hebrews will parallel the priesthood and covenant of the Law with the priesthood and covenant of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.
In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.”
And he says in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
In the order of Melchizedek.”
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
The author points out that Christ did not take up the honor of priesthood of His own accord. Rather, the Father said to the Son, “You are my Son (see John 1:18); today I have become your Father,” a quote from Psalm 2:7. The application of this passage, established by earlier usage in the book of Hebrews declares Christ to be the only begotten, unique Son of God. The Father has proclaimed this to the Son. The author then uses Psalm 110:4 to parallel the Old Testament passages recalling the calling of Aaron to the high priesthood. Just as Aaron was called, it was said to the Son, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” In both passages, the speaker was YHWH. The author then makes a statement on the effect of the atonement in vs 9 which also contrasts the effects of atonement in the Old Covenant. In vs 1-4, the high priest must offer sacrifices for sins for himself and the people every year (see Leviticus 16:34); however, the sacrifice of the Son becomes “the source of eternal salvation.”
People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:16-20)
Here we are presented with the great hope of our soul. The Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek, has entered behind the veil into the Holy of holies (which was limited to the high priest on the Day of Atonement and was the place of God’s dwelling) on our behalf. He has made atonement on our behalf. He has gone before us into the presence of God and is the reason for why we may go boldly to the throne of God to ask for grace and mercy for us who believe. It is also important to note the word forever. The high priests of old were mortal and died. Therefore, their priesthood was passed on (as we will see later); however, the priesthood of Christ remains with Christ as He is eternal.
This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, from their fellow Israelites—even though they also are descended from Abraham. This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater. In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor. (Hebrews 7:1-10)
In this section, the author lays out just exactly who Melchizedek the priest was and what the parallel between him and Christ. First of all, note the similarities between the name of Melchizedek and names ascribed to Christ. Melchizedek means “King of righteousness” and “King of Salem” means “King of peace.” Christ is called the “prince of peace” (see Isaiah 9:6) and “the Righteous One” (see Acts 7:52 and 1 John 2:1). The second thing of note about Melchizedek is that in the book of Genesis he has no genealogy, record of birth, or record of death. Just like Melchizedek, the Son of God never came into being at any time, nor did He ever cease to be. The third thing of note is that even Abraham, the great Patriarch who was given the very promises and covenants of God Almighty, paid a tithe to Melchizedek the priest. What a mystery! As the author states, the law requires that the people of Israel pay a tithe to those who are children of Levi; however, Melchizedek was not a child of Levi or a descendent of Abraham. In fact, the author of the Hebrews goes so far as to say that those who die paid a tithe to him who is “declared to be living,” because Levi was in the loins of Abraham when he paid his tithe to Melchizedek.