The law was temporary because the priesthood was flawed
By Colleen Tinker
I’ve been rediscovering the book of Hebrews over the past few months. Next to Paul’s shocking rebuke to the Galatian believers—telling them that embracing the law was to fall from grace (Gal. 5:4) and that keeping days, months, seasons and years was the same as being enslaved to pagan gods (Gal. 4:8-11)—the book of Hebrews is perhaps the most precise explanation of exactly why the law is obsolete and why God gave a new covenant.
I know, we also have Romans, Ephesians, Colossians—the whole New Testament, actually. Who can really rate its individual letters which explain God’s eternal purposes in Christ? Hebrews, however, is specifically written to expose the non-eternal, flawed nature of the Mosaic covenant and to explain why the old covenant law is now obsolete. It’s no wonder that Hebrews is a book of confusion for most Adventists.
I’m more and more horrified at the ways Adventism has taken verses of Hebrews out of context and has twisted them to attempt to support its “sanctuary doctrine”, using this incredibly clear epistle to confine Jesus to a heavenly building where He supposedly pores over the heavenly books, investigating those who claim to follow Him and deciding whose sins warrant the application of His blood. The irony—not to mention the heresy—of it is beyond description.
What about Melchizedek?
Every chapter of Hebrews reveals truth about Jesus and the eternal purposes of God that shatter the structure of Adventist doctrine. Chapter 7, however, reveals the foundational problem of the law that limited its existence and mandated its eventual obsolescence. The law was shaped around a flawed priesthood. The law cannot be eternal because its core, the levitical priests, aren’t perfect.
As an Adventist I had been taught that the law was a “transcript of God’s character”. The Ten Commandments were eternal because they were written by the finger of God on tablets of stone. The law had existed from all eternity, only being codified by Moses, as one reader recently wrote to me, because Israel needed written laws after they left Egypt. The oral tradition was no longer sufficient; the new nation needed a written law.
In the past I had thought of the law as an independent set of rules and consequences given by God; I had never thought of the law as inseparable from the priests. I understood the priests had not been perfect as Jesus the new high priest was perfect, but I had never seen that problem as affecting the law in any way.
Hebrews 7, however, explains how my understanding was wrong. In fact, the writer of Hebrews develops his point methodically, gradually establishing the evidence for Jesus’ unique high priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek”. The author first introduces this idea in chapter 5:6 where he quotes Psalm 110:4, emphasizing that God Himself said of Jesus, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Interestingly, the author acknowledges that the subject of Melchizedek is a big one which is “hard to explain” because his readers have not become mature enough to digest the “solid food” of “the word of righteousness” (v. 12-14). Yet this very issue of Melchizedek and his unique role as a priest and king is central to understanding why the old covenant was flawed and why the law is temporary.
In chapter 6 the author walks us through the reasons it is necessary for us as believers to dig deeply into God’s word and to allow the Lord to produce fruit from Him in our lives so that we will “realize the full assurance of hope until the end” (6:11). He reminds us of God’s promises to Abraham which could not fail because God Himself promised them, and he explains that these promises are the source of our “sure and steadfast” hope “which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (6:19-20).
There is is again—the high priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek. Why is this obscure Old Testament figure showing up here in the oh-so-new-covenant book of Hebrews?
The author is not done with Melchizedek, though. In fact, he spends chapter 7 reminding us of this enigmatic king and priest who received tithes from Abraham, and he explains why Melchizedek defines the priesthood of the Lord Jesus. He begins by demonstrating that Melchizedek is greater than the patriarch Abraham—greater than the one who is the father of all the faithful, the first one of whom Scripture says he believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness!
How can Melchizedek be greater than the great Abraham? Yet Hebrews 7:6-7 declare that he is!
After giving us Melchizedek’s background—that he had no father, mother, nor genealogy and was “made like the Son of God”, remaining a “priest perpetually” (v. 3)—the author of Hebrews demonstrates that this king-priest truly was greater than Abraham because Abraham gave him a tenth of the spoils after returning from war.
Then the author compares the levitical priesthood with Melchizedek—and although the levitical priests were commanded by the law to collect tithes from their own brethren, even this status was inferior to Melchizedek (v. 5). Here is how the writer develops the argument:
But the one whose genealogy is not traced from them [the Levites] collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed the one who had the promises. but without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater.…And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him” (v. 6-10).
In other words, the levitical priests were great because God had appointed them to minister to the people. They had been appointed to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people (and also for themselves). They had been appointed to “deal gently with the ignorant and misguided” (5:2) because their own weaknesses gave them the ability to minister to their fellow Israelites and to mediate forgiveness through offering sacrifices for them and through receiving tithes and gifts from them.
Now, however, we learn that there was a priest who was even greater than the levitical priests. God had sent Melchizedek to minister to the patriarch whom God Himself had appointed to receive His eternal covenant and through whom God made promises to the world.
From Israel’s perspective, no one was greater than Abraham—yet here in Hebrews we learn that there actually was someone greater: Melchizedek. Furthermore, this man Melchizedek foreshadowed someone even greater than himself: the one true eternal High Priest who fulfills every promise God made to Abraham and through whose life, death, and resurrection every shadow of the levitical priesthood became obsolete!
And now we come to the very bottom line—the foundational truth I never learned in my past.
What does the law have to do with Levi?
The author of Hebrews now articulates the core reason that the law cannot be eternal. In fact, he explains that the law was actually built upon a flawed foundation to begin with, by God’s design. Read Hebrews 7:11-12:
Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also.
Notice the parenthetical clause in verse 11 above: the people received the law on the basis of the levitical priesthood! This one phrase explains what I had never known: the law is not a set of rules and consequences that exists independently. On the contrary, the entire law (of which the Ten Commandments are a part) cannot exist apart from being administered by the levitical priesthood. The old covenant promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience—but these blessings and curses involved the intercession of the levitical priests. In fact, obedience to the law could not even be evaluated apart from the people’s devotion to the sacrifices and gifts which they brought to the priests.
The Israelites could not go “straight to God” and offer sacrifices themselves. They were required on pain of death to bring their sacrifices to the priests for them to offer on their behalf. In other words, the law, including its requirements and laws, demanded a priesthood that would intercede for the sinful Israelites whenever they broke the law—which was always.
To make matters even more serious, the priests themselves, as Hebrews 5 explains, were filled with weaknesses. In other words, the priests were flawed, and their flaws meant that they could not actually make atonement for he sins of Israel when they broke the law. They priests had to offer sin offerings not only for the people but for themselves.
There was NO actual atonement in the old covenant law. There was representative atonement, shadows of the Perfect Priest who was to come, but the law provided absolutely no actual forgiveness or reconciliation between God and sinful man.
The law given on Mt. Sinai, written by God Himself and mediated by Moses, could not be eternal because God gave it to Israel based upon a hopelessly flawed and broken priesthood. It was not a law that could be given at another time in another place with a different priesthood. It was, as Hebrews 7:11 states, given on the basis of the levitical priesthood—and that very priesthood was not able to provide perfection.
The author of Hebrews could not be more clear: the law could not exist apart from the levitical priests, and the priests could not provide what the people needed. Therefore, a new priesthood was needed. In order for the people to have their sins actually forgiven and to receive righteousness, they needed a perfect priest—a priest not like any merely human priest. They needed a priest who was eternal. They needed the Son of God Himself!
Verse 12 explains what happened when Jesus became that new high priest, a priest according to the order of Melchizedek: the law had to change!
The law which we as Adventists learned was eternal and unchangeable actually was temporary and had to be changed. Indeed, God Himself had given the law based on a flawed priesthood in order to help Israel understand that they absolutely could not please God. They had to have a Priest who was eternal and without sin, and this new, sinless, eternal priest would inaugurate a new law—a completely new covenant!
Our new High Priest is not a priest because he came from the tribe of Levi; instead, He became our High Priest “according to the power of an indestructible life” (7:16). He is “according to the order of Melchizedek” who preceded the tribes of Israel and who was greater than Abraham.
The “former commandment” was weak and useless (7:18), and the law made nothing perfect. Moreover, it provided no reconciliation with God (7:19). Now, however, our new High Priest guarantees us something better. His priesthood is eternal on the basis of God’s own oath that He will be a priest forever (7:21), and also on the basis of His own indestructible life (7:16).
Now we have a new law, “a better covenant” (7:22) “which has been enacted on better promises” (8:6). This new law is built on the perfection of the Lord Jesus, not on the sinful shadows of the sons of Levi. Now we have a new law which guarantees our eternal security and righteousness on the basis of our eternal, perfect High Priest when we believe and worship Him.
Many of us have learned that Jesus fulfilled all the shadows of the law, thus rendering the entire old covenant obsolete because of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. This fact is absolutely true.
What many of us did not understand, however, is that the law was never an eternal document which existed both before and after the old covenant. It could not be transplanted into different administrations with different priests and administrators, because the law was built around the foundation of the levitical priests.
God, not the law, is eternal. His provision of the old covenant law and the flawed, imperfect priesthood was a gracious provision meant to awaken His people to the fact that they could not succeed. No matter how hard they tried, Israel would break their law, and their priests would be unable to offer any sacrifice that actually atoned for their sins. God intended to make them realize they were in utter despair, and He foreshadowed the perfect High Priest by providing the account of Melchizedek and Abraham. He let them experience their utter hopelessness while giving them hope in the story of their father receiving a blessing from a king and priest who was greater than they were.
The law had to end. It could not be separated from its leivitcal priesthood, and it was “only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things” (10:1). Now we have a new law—a new covenant—based on an eternal High Priest who lives forever to make intercession for us (7:25).
Now the God of peace will equip us “in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever” (Heb. 13:21).
This new law, based on the sinless blood of the Perfect High Priest, is eternal and cannot fail. In Him, we are eternally secure.