Christians and the Law: Answering the Objections, part 8

Statement 9: The old covenant was made obsolete(Hebrews 8) since there was a necessity to change it (Hebrews 7). -Toby Temple

Among the myriad random stones Toby threw out at Vox’s place hoping to hit someone, somewhere, he inadvertently made this very serious and common charge. Yeshua said that the Law would not change in the smallest detail until heaven and earth passed away and all is fulfilled. As I have pointed out several times before, heaven and earth are still here, and all is not fulfilled. So if the Letter to the Hebrews actually says that the law changed or has been thrown out, then either Matthew or Hebrews is in error. I believe they were both divinely inspired and that neither is in error. Toby’s is a very common belief, but I am going to show you how it is wrong. I want to take a look at this whole section of Hebrews with you to see what’s really going on.

Paul’s writing can be maddeningly imprecise even while sounding very certain and specific. He wrote that there was no more “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female in the Messiah” (Galatians 3:28), but he also wrote of the spiritual and mundane differences between Jews and Greeks (Romans 11:13-23), slaves and free men (Ephesians 6:5-9), and men and women (Ephesians 5:22-33). He is in good company. God does the same thing throughout the prophets. He alternately refers to Israel as his children, his people, his son, his bride, a slave, and an adulterous woman. None of those things are literal, but they are all true when understood in the immediate context in which God meant them. Paul is the same way. The reader must be on his toes to be able to follow along. While we don’t know for certain who wrote Hebrews, the writing style, vocabulary, and traditional evidence indicates that it was probably Paul. As Peter strongly warned us, some of Paul’s words can be confusing to people who are not well grounded in the Torah and the Prophets (2 Peter 3:15-18). It can be confusing even to those who do understand, especially if they are not watching for Paul’s tendency to use absolute statements that only make sense as such in the specific context in which he wrote them. Keep that in mind as we work through this passage.

In Hebrews 6:19-7:4, Paul talked about the covenant with Abraham and how Abraham tithed to Melchizedek. Paul compared Melchizedek’s history, title, and role to that of Yeshua, the Messiah, showing that they were priests of the same kind, what David called the Order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4). This Order of Melchizedek consists of priest-kings (or a single priest-king, but that’s another topic) who are entirely pure and who occupy their offices for eternity.

Hebrews 6:19-7:4  We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, (20) where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, (2) and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. (3) He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. (4) See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils!

A person does not tithe to a spiritual peer or inferior, but to one in authority. The Levitical priests have spiritual authority over the people of Israel and Melchizedek had the same authority over Abraham. If Melchizedek is then superior to Abraham, he is also superior to Levi, a descendant of Abraham. Therefore the priests of the Order of Melchizedek are superior to the priests of the Order of Levi. This hierarchy is again evidenced by the mortality of Levitical priests and immortality of Melchizedek and Yeshua.

Hebrews 7:5-10 And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. (6) But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. (7) It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. (8) In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. (9) One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, (10) for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.

We know that the sacrifices and rites of the Levitical priesthood could never fully remove the taint of sin. (See part 5.) For the perfection of our souls and our eternal salvation, we must appeal to a higher priesthood, that of Melchizedek. Paul went on to explain that if we must look to a higher priesthood for our salvation, then we must also look to a higher law, because the Mosaic Law contains no provisions for eternal salvation (though it points us toward a higher Priest and Law by numerous hints and shadows). If we have a change in our focus from fleshly atonement to spiritual atonement, we must also have a change from one priesthood to another and from one law to another.

Hebrews 7:11-17  Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? (12) For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. (13) For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. (14) For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. (15) This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, (16) who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. (17) For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”

Priesthoods and laws are tools. They were designed by God to perform certain tasks, such as atonement, teaching, judging disputes, leading worship, and maintaining the health of the community. As with any task, you want to make sure you have the right tool for the job. If you have to drive a nail, you reach for a hammer. If you have to drive a screw, you need a new tool because this one is no longer any good for the purpose at hand. So you set aside the hammer and reach for a better tool: a screwdriver.

Hebrews 7:18-19  For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (19) (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

You can see how easy it is to misunderstand Paul to be saying something contrary to all the rest of Scripture. I have demonstrated that, when Hebrews talks of a change in the priesthood and the law, it does not mean that the priesthood or the law has changed, but that we employ a different priesthood for a different task.

[There are additional difficult points in the Letter to the Hebrews. Please continue to bear with me. I won’t be able to get to them all, but I would like to address some of the most commonly misunderstood passages of chapters 7 and 8.]

One of the greatest reasons that the Melchizedek priesthood can effect eternal salvation while the Levitical priesthood cannot is the eternal nature of its High Priest. He was crucified and died, but God raised him from the dead in incorruptible form and made him to be a High Priest forever. He will never be ill. He will never be sick. He will never be in a state of uncleanness and thereby unable to perform his duties as priest. God swore that he would remain a priest forever (Psalm 110:4, Hebrew olam) and has kept that oath. God also swore that the Levitical priesthood would belong to Aaron and his sons forever (Exodus 29:9, Hebrew olam), but there is a material difference in that the individual priests get sick, grow old, and die, releasing the office to their successor.  Something of the effect of the sacrifices and the judgments that the Levitical priest performs dies with him, but the Melchizedek priest will never die, so his sacrifice will last forever. In this way, he atones for our sins for all eternity. We do not need to fear our inevitable failures because he will always intercede on our behalf so long as we love him and continue to be subject to him.

Hebrews 7:20-21  And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, (21) but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.'”

Yeshua ministers in the Tabernacle in heaven while the sons of Aaron, the Cohanim, are meant to minister in the tabernacle in Jerusalem. Yeshua cannot fill the earthly office without violating God’s oath to Aaron because he is not a descendant of Aaron. The same is true of the Cohanim. They cannot make offerings in the heavenly Tabernacle and cannot make sacrifices that can permanently remove our sin because that would violate God’s oath to Yeshua.

Hebrews 7:22-8:4  This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. (23) The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, (24) but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. (25) Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (26) For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. (27) He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. (28) For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

(1) Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, (2) a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. (3) For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. (4) Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law.

The temple in Jerusalem was still standing at the time this letter was written, and the priests there still offered sacrifices on the altar. Just a few years later, however, the temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were sent into a 2000 year exile. Does that mean that God broke his promise to Aaron? If God can break that promise, why can’t he break the other promise to Yeshua that ensures our salvation?

We humans are real beings of physical bodies and spirits. We really exist. We eat, breath, speak, love, and grow old. Real bodies. Even so, we are corruptible. Like the Cohanim (they are human, after all), we get sick. We are weak. We sin. Yet, despite our poor and worthless natures, we are copies of an unimaginably majestic original, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Our physical bodies as they are now will eventually die, but we have a promise that we will be resurrected with incorruptible bodies. No one can rightly say that we will one day pass away only because we are copies of something greater. Yeshua told us that we will have eternal life. Paul, John, and others confirmed it: we will be restored to glory and not only as incorporeal spirits, but with tangible bodies, just like Yeshua’s. This is entirely fitting for images of the eternal, incorruptible God.

The tabernacle in Jerusalem was also a real physical structure in which the presence of God was actively seen, heard, and felt. The sacrifices made there really did atone for us before God, cleansing the flesh from sin. Like our own bodies, it was made of corruptible materials that must be renewed or rebuilt entirely, but is a copy of a more majestic, heavenly structure. The earthly tabernacle is not eternal like that one. Like the priest who dies to be succeeded by another priest, the earthly tabernacle has been destroyed and recreated more than once. It was once transformed from a mobile tabernacle to an immobile temple by Solomon. It has been destroyed twice and rebuilt once. Finally, in accordance with Yeshua’s statement in Matthew 5 and God’s promise to Aaron, Ezekiel prophesied that it will be built again in Jerusalem one day–resurrected, so to speak–and sacrifices will again be offered on its altar under the supervision of the Messiah, Yeshua. The Levites will resume ministering there (Ezekiel 44:11 & 48:10-14).

Hebrews 8:5  They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

We, the human race, are a copy of something greater and we have not and will not pass away, but will be perfected. The earthly tabernacle and priesthood too will be resurrected and perfected. Whether or not it will survive the destruction of the whole earth, I couldn’t say. However, we know that it will survive and continue its function at least through the Messiah’s millennial reign. And if the tabernacle and priesthood continue, so must the Law that they carry out. The existence of the Father, his Son, the heavenly Tabernacle and the higher Law over which they preside does not automatically necessitate the utter destruction of the lesser, poorer human race, Levitical priesthood, Jerusalem tabernacle, and Mosaic Law.

There is a difference with the Law. Unlike the Levitical priesthood and the tabernacle, God’s Law is not a thing that it can grow old and die. It was always perfect for its purpose (Psalm 19:7-10) because it always only consisted of God’s word (Psalm 119:160). Its practitioners, its ministers, and its holy places die and require resurrection, but the Law itself is incorruptible. The Law’s parallel with the death and resurrection of the priests and tabernacle lies in the medium of the Law.

The Law was given to Moses on stone tablets which were broken and recreated. Those second tablets were lost or destroyed and now the Law is written only on paper. Jeremiah prophesied that as part of the New Covenant, God’s Law will eventually be written on our hearts. Although we have a down payment of our final redemption under the covenant (Ephesians 1:13-14) the complete fulfillment has not yet come. If it had, we know from Jeremiah that we would not be having this discussion (Jeremiah 31:34). But someday, when we have been resurrected in incorruptible form, God’s Law will be written on our hearts so that it can never again be lost or forgotten or misunderstood.

Hebrews 8:6-12  But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (7) For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. (8) For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, (9) not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. (10) For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (11) And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. (12) For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29), especially when he has explicitly declared them to be forever. Just as one priesthood operating in one scope does not automatically replace another priesthood operating in another, lesser scope, one covenant does not automatically replace another, lesser covenant. Instead, it encompasses the lesser covenant. God’s covenant with David did not replace his covenant with Israel at Sinai. His covenant with Abraham did not replace the one with Noah, and the one with Noah did not replace the one with Adam. So there is no reason to suppose that the new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah should automatically replace the old covenant with the unified people of Israel.

However, we can see that the new will completely outshine the old just like the sun outshines the moon as it rises. Once we had been given the earnest of the new covenant in the person of the Holy Spirit, its full manifestation became a real future possibility to Paul. He looked ahead to a day that seemed imminent to him in which the stone and parchment of the old covenant would fade away having been replaced by hearts of flesh who obey God’s Law out of love for him and not out of fear of condemnation and death.

Hebrews 8:13  In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Even if the Mosaic Law might someday be completely annulled with the full onset of the New Covenant–and I don’t believe it will–that has not happened yet. We can know by five things that this is certain:

  1. The heavens still turn above.
  2. The earth still turns below.
  3. All has not been fulfilled.
  4. The future tabernacle and Levitical priests whom God has said will serve again in Jerusalem can operate only within the Mosaic Law.

Finally, if you love the Father, if you love his Son, then you must obey his commandments (John 14:15 & 1 John 5:3). If you do not obey his commandments, then you can neither fully love him nor fully know him (1 John 2:3-4). And if you don’t fully know him, then the New Covenant is not yet fully in force (Jeremiah 31:34).

part 6part 7, part 8, part 9, part 10

Vox’s original article: Christians and the Law.

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