Before the Levitical priesthood was established, from the time of Adam down through Moses, many kings and leaders served as priests on behalf of themselves, their kingdoms, and/or their families. Cain and Abel offered the first recorded sacrifices to God. Later Noah gave a burnt offering to God. Many of the patriarchs such as Abraham and Jacob made sacrifices to Him. Even Job regularly made burnt offerings to the LORD on behalf of his children.
During this ancient period, the people of God were a population “of priests”. No one was excluded or restricted from offering a sacrifice because of their family tree. If so led, practically anyone could make an offering to the LORD. With the advent of the Levitical priesthood, this arrangement was drastically altered. God’s chosen people Israel became a nation “with priests”. Specific men were set aside to offer sacrifices on behalf of others.
The fundamental nature of the priesthood changed, at least for a while. In today’s message we will compare the Levitical priesthood with that of Jesus Christ. Any guesses as to which is better? You probably already know the answer, but let’s dig into the Scriptures to find out why.
I. THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE PRIESTHOOD (v18-19)
The Levitical priesthood was weak and useless in that it could never bring about perfection. It could never rightly reconcile the severed relationship between sinful men and a holy God. Therefore, it had to be set aside and replaced by something more effectual. The new priesthood of Jesus Christ accomplished what the former priesthood could not. In Christ, repentant sinners are perfected by the imputed righteousness of Jesus.
Whenever a lost person places their faith in Jesus as their Savior, they become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). They aren’t merely cleaned up or repainted to look like new. Rather, they are perfectly remade and reconciled with Almighty God. As such, Christians have “a better hope” or a more confident expectation of eternal life. Because they have been forgiven and justified by Him, they are free to “draw near to God” without restriction or reservation.
If someone who suffered from extreme headaches took Tylenol and it didn’t help, surely they would try other medications. Perhaps eventually they would find something that would adequately soothe the pain. In a similar fashion, the priesthood of Aaron was woefully unable to resolve man’s sin problem. But where it failed miserably, the priesthood of Jesus succeeded!
II. THE BASIS OF THE PRIESTHOOD (v20-22)
The Levitical priesthood was based upon several statutes contained in the Mosaic Law. These were given to the Children of Israel by God while they were camped at Mt. Sinai during the exodus. All of the rules and procedures concerning the priests, the sacrifices, the sanctuary, and other related things are collectively called the Ceremonial Law.
The priesthood of Jesus Christ is based upon God’s solemn oath. In Psalm 110:4 David wrote that the LORD swore that Jesus would be “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” God appointed His Son Jesus to be the Great High Priest and vowed that His priesthood would continue eternally.
The Levitical priests were not required to swear an oath in order to become priests. They were qualified for the office by being born into the tribe of Levi, specifically from the lineage of Aaron. But Jesus was designated to be the High Priest expressly by God’s oath, and therefore “has become the guarantee of a better covenant”. This better covenant will be discussed more thoroughly in the next chapter.
III. THE NUMBERS OF THE PRIESTHOOD (v23-25)
The Levitical priesthood “existed in greater numbers” because of aging and natural death. A new priest(s) arose with each passing generation to lead the people. According to a traditional listing of the Jewish high priests, more than 80 different men held this office during the tabernacle/temple period starting with Aaron and spanning until the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Even this thorough list is incomplete, as there are known gaps in the official chronology. If the historical records were completely accurate, this already lengthy list would include several additional names.
The priesthood of Jesus Christ consists of only one divine Person. Because Jesus never dies, His role as High Priest “continues forever” and He holds the office “permanently”. There is no need for a replacement. As discussed in last week’s sermon, Melchizedek appears to be a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. If so, the priesthood of Melchizedek is rightly understood as an early revelation of the priesthood of Jesus, since in fact they are the same Person.
Jesus lives eternally and is therefore able to “make intercession” for His people continuously. In so doing Jesus is able “to save forever those who draw near to God through Him”. His redemptive work applies to all generations, thereby making salvation available to anyone who will humbly accept Him as their Savior and Lord.
IV. THE PURITY OF THE PRIESTHOOD (v26-28)
The Levitical priesthood consisted of defiled men. They were required to “offer up sacrifices” for themselves as well as their people on a “daily” basis. They were plagued by sin, and often just as corrupt as the people they represented. The Bible names several high priests who brazenly sinned against God and were punished severely for it, such as Nadab and Abihu who offered strange fire before the LORD (Leviticus 10:1-2).
The priesthood of Jesus Christ is “undefiled”. Jesus is “holy”, “innocent”, “separated from sinners”, and “exalted above the heavens”. He does not have to repeatedly offer up new sacrifices on behalf of Himself or His people. Jesus “offered up Himself” as a single and acceptable sacrifice to God “once” and “for all”. This great sacrifice will be the focus of an upcoming chapter in Hebrews.
Jewish priests made multiple offerings to God each day on the altar for an interval of almost 1,500 years. There were certainly seasons when the priestly work was suspended or postponed for various reasons, but these were generally sporadic and short-lived. During the Levitical priesthood era, literally thousands of animals - including bulls, goats, and sheep - were killed. Yet all of these sacrifices combined could not even begin to equal the atoning work of Jesus on the cross.
The priesthood of Jesus Christ is far superior to that of Aaron and the Levites. In today’s sermon we have highlighted 4 major reasons why this is so. Let’s briefly review them:
- The Levitical priesthood was unable to “perfect” sinners, but the priesthood of Jesus can and does make sinful men perfect before God.
- The Levitical priesthood was based upon the Mosaic Law which has since been fulfilled, but the priesthood of Jesus is founded upon God’s solemn oath which endures forever.
- The Levitical priesthood consisted of many men as new priests were chosen for each passing generation, but the priesthood of Jesus consists of only one Divine Man - the Son of God - who holds the office permanently and never dies.
- The Levitical priesthood was impure and its priests had to continuously offer up sacrifices for their own sins as well as those of the people, but the priesthood of Jesus is “holy” and “innocent” (without sin) and He only offered up a single sacrifice for His people that was pleasing to God “once for all”.
Next Sunday we will continue our journey through Hebrews with a message about the ministry of Christ. I trust that God will speak to us abundantly through His word, just as He has today. May you all have a blessed week.