Jesus' Parables for Disciples
6. Jesus, Our High Priest Forever (Hebrews 6:13-7:28)
Jesus in Prayer. "King of Kings," Solid Rock Church, Monroe, Ohio. Designer: Brad Coriel, Artist/sculptor: James Lynch.
What is it like to have a High Priest? We don't have any real experience here, either as Gentiles or even contemporary Judaism for nearly two thousand years. In this passage our author spells out some the great blessings of Jesus, our great High Priest.
As you read this section, it's valuable to remember the author's purpose: to convince Jewish Christians to continue in the faith and not return to their former Judaism. So most of his points have this goal in mind -- that the High Priesthood of Jesus is superior to the Levitical priesthood of Judaism:
Steadfastness of God's promise to Abraham
Superiority of Melchizedek over Abraham
Superiority of Melchizedek's priesthood over the Aaronic priesthood
Superiority of the divine oath instituting the New Covenant
Superiority of Christ's priesthood due to its permanence
Superiority of Christ's priesthood due to Jesus' character
I'll trace the logic of our writer's argument for you, but not linger. We'll spend most of our time probing and luxuriating in the passages that describe how Christ serves as High Priest on our behalf.
God Takes an Oath on Himself (6:13-18)
If you recall, the previous section concluded with an exhortation based one of the themes of Hebrews: "We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised" (6:12). Now the writer of Hebrews builds upon this using Abraham as an example of one who "received what was promised" (6:15)
"13When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, 14saying, 'I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.' 15And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.
16Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms1 what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17Because 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. 18God 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 offered to us may be greatly encouraged." (6:13-18)
The writer is making the point here: We can surely trust God who has promised us eternal life with Christ. Abraham is the example.
Abraham and his wife Sarah, as you recall, were childless. Yet God promised him many descendents. When he called him to Canaan, the Lord promised him: "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you...." Year after year they waited and hoped. Finally, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90, God's promise for an heir was fulfilled. The Apostle Paul says,
"Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, 'So shall your offspring be.' Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead -- since he was about a hundred years old -- and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised." (Romans 4:18-21)
Our faith may run hot and cold at times, but the writer to the Hebrews uses the word "unchanging/unchangeable" (ametathetos) two times in verses 17-18 to make the point that God never changes. We can trust him! Two unchangeable things undergird our faith:
- God's Word, God's promise, in which it is impossible for God to lie, and
- God's oath, in which he swears by himself, since there is no one greater (quoting Genesis 22:16).
We who are exhorted to keep on trusting God have sufficient reason for our confidence.
Hope as an Anchor for the Soul (6:18b-20)
"... We who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. 19We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 6:18b-20)
From faith, hope is but a small step away, Greek elpis, which is "the looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfillment, hope, expectation."2 Bultmann comments, "When fixed on God, hope embraces expectation, trust, and patient waiting. It is linked to faith, as in Hebrews 11:1, which stresses the certainty of what is divinely given."3 Our Christian hope is not a hope-so kind of longing, but a firm expectation in the fulfillment of all God's promises.
Our writer now uses an interesting word, katapheugō, "flee, to gain shelter from danger, take refuge."4 Vincent says, "It expresses flight to a definite place or person for safety, hence often used in connection with an altar or a sanctuary."5 Our writer describes us Christians as those who have fled for refuge in Jesus, who alone can bring us hope. Fleeing danger is not a sign of cowardice but wisdom. Jesus is our sanctuary for refuge.
Our author now compares our hope in Christ to an anchor for the soul, "firm and secure." Ancient anchors were shaped much like our own, heavy and designed to bite into the bottom in order to hold a ship fast from being blown out to sea in a gale. The anchor was an early symbol of our Christian hope, often found carved into marble tombstones in the Roman catacombs -- no doubt based on the analogy suggested by this verse. The form of the cross at the top of the anchor also reminded early Christians of their hope in the cross, and Jesus' death for all their sins.
The anchor of our hope is both "firm and secure." The word for "firm" (NIV) or "sure" (KJV, NRSV) is asphalēs, "pertaining to being stable, firm," a compound word: a, "not" + sphallō, "to make to totter or fall." Thus the word means, "that which can be relied on."6 "Steadfast" (KJV, NRSV) or "secure" is bebaios, "of something that can be relied on not to cause disappointment, reliable." Describing an anchor, "unshifting."7
Notice that we must not be passive about hope, but "take hold of" it. The word is krateō, "seize, hold fast," from kratos, "power, strength."8 This theme of grasping hold of the promises of God is found throughout Hebrews (3:6, 14; 6:15; 10:36; 12:1).
The result of our hope and expectation in Christ is strong encouragement, expressed by two words. Ischuros means "strong, firm, sure."9 Paraklēsis, translated "encouragement" (NIV, NRSV) or "consolation" (KJV), is related to the word for Paraclete or Comforter, the One-Who-Comes-Alongside-to-Help. Here it means, "act of emboldening another in belief or course of action, encouragement, exhortation."10 It can also carry ideas of "comfort, consolation, solace."
Q1. (Hebrews 6:18b-20) In what sense have we "fled to a place of refuge"? Why are we to "take hold of" this hope actively? How does Christian hope differ from hoping that something is true? In what ways does an anchor illustrate the idea of hope?
Jesus Enters the Heavenly Sanctuary (6:19b-20)
"It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf." (6:19b-20)
Hope enters the "inner sanctuary," says the writer, renewing his discussion of Jesus our great High Priest, which he has developed earlier (3:1; 4:14-15; 5:5, 10)
The tabernacle and later the temple building was divided into two rooms: (1) the Holy Place, where the priests ministered daily, and (2) the Holy of Holies, where the high priest entered once a year on the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for Israel's sins that year.
A veil of heavy cloth separated the "inner sanctuary" (sometimes referred to as the "Holy of Holies") from the "outer sanctuary" (sometimes called "the Holy Place"). The writer is ready to develop the role of Jesus as our High Priest who entered the heavenly "Holy of Holies" and presented before God his own blood for our sins. We, too, will stand before God, but he is referred to in verse 20 as a "forerunner" (prodromos). This word was used in Classical Greek to refer to "one who is sent before to take observations or act as spy, a scout, a light-armed soldier."11 Here it refers to Jesus who gets to heaven before we do, presenting his own blood as a sin offering, so to "prepare a place for us" (John 14:2). When we get there, he will have paved the way and will be waiting for us, seated at the right hand of the Father to speak on our behalf as our Advocate (1 John 2:1).
Melchizedek Is an Everlasting Priest (7:1-2)
Now, having reintroduced the idea of Jesus' high priestly ministry before God, he begins an argument that Jesus is qualified to serve as our priest.
"1This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, 2and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means 'king of righteousness'; then also, 'king of Salem' means 'king of peace.'" (7:1-2)
The writer recounts the story of Abraham defeating the Mesopotamian kings that had attacked Sodom and carried away its residents as slaves -- including his nephew Lot (Genesis 14). Abraham takes his own private army, disperses the enemy army by a surprise night attack, and rescues the prisoners as well as all the plunder of war that had been seized. On Abraham's way back from the battle, Melchizedek, "king of Salem and priest of God Most High" comes out to meet him. Salem (which means "peace," Hebrew shalom) is another name for Jerusalem.
Now Melchizedek (whose name means, "king of righteousness" or "righteous king") performs two actions toward Abraham:
- He blesses him, and
- Receives as a tithe, 10% of the plunder recovered from the Macedonian kings.
These facts and the mention of Melchizedek in a Messianic prophecy (Psalm 110:4) are the raw material that the writer of Hebrews works with to fashion his argument that Jesus' priesthood has a greater validity and longevity than the Levitical or Aaronic priesthood of Judaism.
Comparing Melchizedek with the Son of God (7:3)
"Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever." (7:3)
What does the writer of Hebrews mean? He is using a rabbinical approach to interpretation common in first century based on an argument from silence. For the sake of argument, according to this reasoning, if it isn't mentioned in the scriptural text, it cannot be assumed. Thus, since Melchizedek's parents, lineage, birth, and death aren't mentioned in Genesis 14, he is "without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever" (7:3).
Does this mean that Melchizedek actually had no parents, no birth, and no death? No. I don't think so. This is rather "an outstanding example of the argument from silence in a typological setting." Bruce mentions a number of examples of this kind of argument from silence which the Jewish theologian Philo uses for allegorical purposes.12 It isn't the way we would argue today, but it had weight to the people our writer was trying to convince, so he argues in this fashion.
Melchizedek is Greater than Abraham and Levi (7:4-10)
"4Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! 5Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people -- that is, their brothers -- even though their brothers are descended from Abraham. 6This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater. 8In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. 9One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, 10because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor." (7:4-10)
Next our writer argues that Melchizedek is greater than Aaron and the priests that descended from him:
- Because Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, proving that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham;
- And Levi's seed (Aaron's ancestor, Abraham's descendent) was within Abraham's seed at this time, even though he wasn't born yet;
- Therefore, Melichizedek's priesthood is superior to Aaron's Levitical priesthood.
Perhaps we wouldn't use the same argument, but then, we're not in a very good position to know what argument will most effectively convince the Jewish Christians our writer is addressing. Think of it as a sermon in context with a particular congregation at a particular point in history, and you'll get the idea.
A Priest by Reason of an Indestructible Life (7:11-17)
Don't all priests come from the tribe of Levi, I can hear the recipients asking? Here's our author's answer:
"11If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come -- one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law. 13He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. 14For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 17For it is declared:
'You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.'" (7:11-17)
The writer's argument is this:
- If God's plan could be accomplished through the Levitical priesthood,
- Then God wouldn't have spoken through the Psalmist about an eternal priest in an entirely different order.
- Because Jesus has an "indestructible life" (declared "a priest forever") as did Melchizedek (that is, his death is nowhere mentioned),
- Therefore, Jesus qualifies as a priest in Melchizedek's order.
It's a fairly involved argument that had impact for the initial readers of this letter.
The Guarantee of a Better Covenant (7:18-22)
Now the writer looks at the Law and the Covenant, a theme he'll develop at length a bit later. Remember verse 12 above? "For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law." Because Jesus is our High Priest after a different order -- not the Mosaic law that instituted the Levitical priesthood -- our author reasons, there must be a change in the law. Elsewhere in the New Testament we see a number of indications that the Law, the Old Covenant, has been replaced by the New Covenant (for example, Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; John 1:17; Acts 15:1-10; Romans 7:1-6; 8:3; 10:4; 2 Corinthians 3:3, 7-14; Colossians 2:14-23; Galatians 6:15-16; Ephesians 2:15; Philippians 3:3). Now the writer of Hebrews develops the same point from another direction, comprising one of the great themes of this letter:
"18The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19(for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
20And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, 21but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him:
'The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
"You are a priest forever."'
22Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant." (7:18-22)
Our writer makes a point about the oath ("the Lord has sworn") mentioned in Psalm 110:4. Priests are ordained without an oath, he says, so that being declared a priest by means of an oath is superior.
Notice what he says about Christ in verse 22: "Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant." "Guarantee" (NIV, NRSV) or "surety" (KJV) is egguos, "under good security, guarantee."13 This word in common Greek "is found frequently in legal and other documents in the sense of a surety or guarantor. The egguous [guarantor] undertakes a weightier responsibility than the mesitēs or mediator; he is answerable for the fulfillment of the obligation which he guarantees."14
Far more than a human high priest, Jesus himself is responsible to bring about the New Covenant -- and did on the cross. At his return he will usher in the Kingdom in all its glory and the New Heaven and New Earth (Isaiah 65:11; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1).
Q2. (Hebrews 7:22) What is a guarantee or surety? In what sense is Jesus the guarantor of the New Covenant?
Always Living to Make Intercession (7:23-25)
Here's another comparison between human priests of the Aaronic Levitical order and Jesus, the eternal Son of God:
"23Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them." (7:23-25)
Look what he says about Jesus:
- Jesus lives or continues15 forever -- literally, "unto the ages."
- Jesus has a permanent or unchanageable16 priesthood.
- Jesus is able to save completely those who come to God through him. This word "to the uttermost" (KJV), "for all time" (NRSV), and "completely" (NIV) is literally "unto completeness" (pantelēs) -- "completely, perfectly, utterly."17
- Jesus always lives to intercede for us. In Classical Greek, the verb entugchanō means "to go to or meet a person" especially for the purpose of conversation, consultation, or supplication." Here and at Romans 8:21, 34, it means "to pray, entreat, make intercession of."18
Jesus' intercession for us is mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (Romans 8:21, 34; 1 John 2:1), but here the writer ties this priestly act to Jesus' continual and permanent High Priestly ministry. If you're in trouble, Jesus is interceding for you before the throne of God. Not as a supplicant, but as enthroned Priest-King at the right hand of the Father!
Q3. (Hebrews 7:24-25) Why is Jesus able to save people "completely" -- "to the uttermost" according to verse 25? What is the essential function of a priest? Why is intercession the essence of being a priest?
Our High Priest -- the Son -- Made Perfect Forever (7:26-28)
"26Such a high priest meets our need -- one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever." (7:26-28)
The author describes Jesus our High Priest with five adjectives or adjectival phrases:
- "Holy" is hosios, "pertaining to being without fault relative to deity, devout, pious, pleasing to God, holy."19
- "Blameless" (NIV, NRSV) or "harmless" (KJV) is akakos, "innocent, guileless"20 "free from malice and craft."21
- "Pure" (NIV) or "undefiled" (KJV, NRSV) is amiantos, "undefiled, pure" in a religious and moral sense.22
- "Set apart" (NIV) or "separated" (KJV, NRSV) from sinners. The verb is chōrizō, "to separate by departing from someone, separate, leave." The word in this context seems to carry a dual meaning: (a) "physically" separated by his exaltation to the heavenly world as well as (b) different from sinful humans. 23
- "Exalted" (NIV, NRSV) or "made higher" (KJV) above the heavens. The adjective is hupsēlos, "tall, high," that is, "raised to greater heights than the heavens."24
Our writer is contrasting Christ with the human high priests who served God and the people by making atonement, but need to make atonement for their own sins at the same time. He concludes this section with three contrasts:
Human High Priest
Frequency of offering
Once for all
Sacrifice for sins
For himself and people
For the people only
Made perfect forever
The phrase "once for all" (7:26b) translates the word ephapax, "taking place once and to the exclusion of any further occurrence, once for all, once and never again."25 Of the five times it occurs in the New Testament, it is found in this sense twice more in Hebrews (9:12; 10:10; also Romans 6:10). Its repetition in Hebrews underscores the absolute uniqueness and finality of Christ's death for sins. The readers of Hebrews cannot go backwards from Christ's unique, final atonement.
Next, our author says, "He offered himself" (7:27b) for our sins. Think about that for a moment. He offered himself as the way to solve our sin problem. We fell short, he stepped in at the greatest cost imaginable -- that is, of the holy, divine, pure Son of God bearing the filth and degradation of our sin on himself. It boggles the mind to think what that would have meant. Gethsemane is not about dying. Many men have died bravely for a cause. But the agony of Gethsemane is about the Holy One bearing sin. "He offered himself."
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Finally, he describes Jesus as "the Son, who has been made perfect forever" (7:28b). We explored this frequent term in Hebrews, "made perfect" (teleioō), under 5:9. It means here that Jesus has reached his goal, his Messiahship has been fulfilled. And so he can be to us the atoning Sacrifice. As our author says in 5:9-10:
"Once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek." (5:9-10).
Our salvation was costly, but now it is eternal salvation, it is "once for all," and we are the ever-grateful recipients of God's largess in Christ Jesus. This is the very good news of the gospel!
Q4. (Hebrews 7:26-28) How is Jesus described in verse 26? How does Jesus differ from human high priests? What about Jesus' role as High Priest gives you special confidence?
Thank you, Father, for your immense love in sending your Son to us. While we were yet rebellious sinners, Christ died for us. Thank you for loving us that much and believing that we are worth saving. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
"We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 6:19-20)
"Such a high priest meets our need -- one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself." (Hebrews 7:26-27)
- Bebaiōsis, "confirmation, validation." The word is "a legal technical term for guaranteeing, furnishing security" (BDAG 173).
- Elpis, BDAG 319-320.
- Rudolf Bultmann, elpis, ktl., TDNT 2:529-535.
- Katapheugō, BDAG 529.
- Vincent, in loc.
- Asphalēs, BDAG 147; Thayer 82, a.
- Bebaios, BDAG 172.
- Wilhelm Michaelis, kratos, ktl., TDNT 3:905-915.
- Ischuros, Thayer 309, b.)..
- Paraklēsis, BDAG 766. O. Schmitz, parakaleō, TDNT 5:793-799.
- Prodromos, Thayer 538. The word means literally "running before," "going ahead" (BDAG 8867).
- Bruce, Hebrews, p. 159, fn. 18. He cites Gottfried Quell, apatōr, TDNT 5:1019-1021.
- Egguos, BDAG 271.
- Bruce, Hebrews, p. 171, fn. 70.
- Meno, "remain, continue," BDAG 630-632.
- Aparabatos, "permanent, unchangeable" (BDAG 97).
- Pantelēs in Classical Greek means, "all-complete, perfect." With the preposition eis, "unto completeness, completely, perfectly, utterly" (Thayer 476). "Pertaining to meeting a very high standard of quality or completeness, completely." However it could also mean, "pertaining to unlimited duration of time, forever, for all time" (BDAG 754-755, 1.a. and 2.).
- Entugchanō, Thayer 219, 2. "To make an earnest request through contact with the person approached, approach or appeal to someone" (BDAG 341).
- Hosios, BDAG 728, 1.b. Vincent (Word Studies, in loc.) comments: "Throughout the New Testament its look is godward. In no case is it used of moral excellence as related to men...."
- Akakos, BDAG 34.
- Vincent, in loc.
- Amiantos, BDAG 54, b. It is derived "from a, "not" + miainō, "to defile," especially to defile by staining, as with color (Vincent, in loc.).
- Chōrizō, BDAG 1095, 2.b.
- Hupsēlos, BDAG 1044-1045, 1.
- Ephapax, BDAG 417, 2. Gustav Stählin, hapax, ephapax, TDNT 1:381-384.
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