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Hebrews chapters 7-9 were written to address the obsolescence of the Law and its replacement by the New Covenant. Let’s step through these three chapters and see what they have to say about the present applicability of the Law.
Melchizedek was a priest-king in the pre-Israelite city of Salem, later called “Jerusalem.” All that is known of him from the Old Testament is recorded in Genesis 14:17-20 and Psalm 110:4. According to Hebrews 7:1-10 he seems to have been a prefigurement of Christ. That is not to say that he was somehow an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ; he was not, since a thing cannot illustrate itself, but that in some ways he illustrated what Christ would be like when he came. The writer of Hebrews goes to great length to demonstrate that the priesthood of Melchizedek was superior to the Levitical Priesthood under the Law. His argument is simply that Abraham, and thus by extension Levi, who was as yet unborn within Abraham, paid tithes to Melchizedek; and since the lesser pays tithes to the greater (v. 7), Melchizedek must have been the greater, and thus his priesthood greater. As we are about to see, the superiority of the Melchizedekian Priesthood is a precursory argument leading to the conclusion that the New Covenant is superior to, and replaces the Law.
In verses 11 and 12 the writer makes the point that the priesthood and the covenant, i.e., the Law, cannot be separated; a change in one requires a change in the other. Verses 13 through 15 demonstrate that a change of priesthood has already taken place; Christ is a priest after the order of Melchizedek—a superior priesthood. The stage is now set for the argument that since the priesthood has changed, the covenant (the Law) has been set aside. It has been argued that such a view amounts to antinomian, but that is not so. The Law did not create righteousness; righteousness has its roots in God’s eternal character, and the passing of the Law does not leave us without righteousness. The Law was a mere candle in a dark, sinful world to allow fallen men to walk without stumbling until God sent a greater light. Christ, on the other hand, is like the noon-day sun! He not only illuminates the way, but also infuses life and transforms lives.
If there has been a change of priesthood, it is indicative that there has been a change of covenant (“law,” ” covenant,” and “commandment” are used somewhat interchangeably in this epistle). Why was the former covenant set aside? Because it was weak and useless; it had no power to perfect or transform. Note that this is God’s assessment of the Law. Did God do a poor job in designing the Law? No, it was only a temporary light, a candle, and when seen for what it was, the Law was good and served its purpose. Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-18, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. (18) For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (NASB). It is sometimes claimed that this statement supports the eternality of the Law, but those who make that claim fail to hear what Jesus was saying. It is not uncommon to see the last few words of this passage (“…until all is accomplished”) omitted when the passage is quoted, and no wonder, those words tell us that the Law is not eternal. Both the Law and the prophets will be fulfilled. The Law was fulfilled in Christ’s righteousness and atoning death (Rom. 8:1-4; 10:4; Heb. 10:1-18), and the messages of the prophets will be fulfilled just as they were spoken, even to the smallest letter. (The term “law” as used in verse 18 encompasses the entire Old Testament, which is variously referred to as “the law,” “the prophets,” “the writings,” or some combination of these terms.) Christ’s priesthood is evidence of a better covenant (vv. 20-22), and his priesthood abides forever (vv. 23-25); thus, “He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him….”
Hebrews chapter 8 serves to summarize and reinforce the concepts communicated in chapter 7. The amount of space devoted to this subject underscores its importance. Notice how this section begins with a summary statement: “Now the main point…is this.” And what is the main point? We have such a High Priest as has been described in the previous section; it is an accomplished fact. He is now seated at the right hand of the Father, demonstrating the completeness of his work. He ministered the true sacrifice in the true sanctuary, of which the earthly was only a copy, and therefore inferior. He is the mediator of a better covenant (v. 6) enacted upon better promises (i.e., the unconditional promises made to Abraham, cf. Gal. 3:15-18). Again, he states the temporary nature of the Law in verse 7 and backs up the statement by quoting the prophecy of the New Covenant from Jeremiah 31:31-34. In verse 13 he restates the main point that the Law is now “obsolete” and ready to disappear. (At the time this letter was written, the ceremonial system of worship was still in place, and Jewish Christians still participated as they had been taught for generations; but this would soon change with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70.) The writer next begins a supplemental line of argumentation based on the nature of worship in the temple.
The writer goes on to describe the earthly tabernacle, or temple, in which the sacrificial provisions of the Law were carried out. He describes the outer area (the Holy Place) wherein were kept the Lampstand, the Table, and the Holy Bread. Behind the Holy Place separated by a veil was the Holy of Holies, containing the Ark of the Covenant. Having given the physical description, he goes on to describe the system of worship that took place in the temple. While the priests regularly entered the outer room (the Holy Place), only the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, and only once a year, having offered the appropriate sacrifices for himself and for the people. The point is this: As long as the outer tabernacle stood, it signified that the way into God’s presence was not open; man could only approach God through the sacrificial system given under the Law. (Men were, of course, still saved by faith alone.) No doubt the hearers would have been familiar with the fact that upon Christ’s death the veil of the temple, a covering several inches thick, was ripped from the top to the bottom (Mt. 27:51). While the rending of the veil was an immediate sign of the obsolescence of the Law, it would be the final destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 that would bring an end to the practice of temple-based worship. What is the implication of this line of argumentation? Simply that the Old Covenant is passé. In the light of what Christ accomplished on the cross, the former covenant is no longer needed, and it is precisely the implication of that point that many miss; if the Law were still needed, that would imply some insufficiency in the atoning work of Christ.
Since Christ has entered the greater and more perfect tabernacle, what need is there for the copy? He entered not through the blood of sacrificial animals, but by his own blood. He entered once and for all, the Just for the unjust and obtained eternal redemption for those who believe. We see here the great difference between the shadow and reality. The sacrifices made under the Law could only sanctify the flesh, merely covering sin from sight (10:4), but Christ’s sacrifice cleanses the conscience (the inner man) from dead works to serve the living God. It is not the Law working externally that empowers one for divine service, but the transformation from within, made possible only by faith in the atoning work of Christ. There is no greater source of power and motivation for holy living than that of inner transformation, something the Law is powerless to accomplish. So, which covenant is superior: the Law, or the New Covenant sealed in Christ’s blood? If we re-establish the Law that God has removed out of the way, we simply make ourselves prisoners to the powerlessness of dead works; we return voluntarily, at least operationally to the same prison cell from which Christ has freed us.
Christ is the mediator of a New Covenant (v. 15). That covenant was sealed with his blood and is the only basis of sanctification from sin. Even sins committed by God-fearing worshipers in the Old Testament could only be remitted, ultimately, as a result of what Christ did on the Cross (Rom. 3:25). Under the Law, the sprinkling of the blood of animals sanctified the earthly tabernacle and its implements (symbolically), but the blood of Christ sprinkled the heavenly tabernacle (in actuality). The earthly tabernacle was only a shadow of the heavenly. Why return to the shadow when one has the reality? To illustrate the folly of this, we may well imagine a young woman who has fallen in love with the picture of a man, who when he appears in the flesh finds that she does not love him so much as his picture. In the same way, some have been unwilling to give up the shadow for the reality; they have been so stuck in externalistic thinking that they are blinded to the true nature of the redemptive work of Christ, a redemption of the world not through Law, but through the power of a resurrected Savior, who as Scripture says, will come again in power to claim what he has purchased, and personally rule in righteousness forever. As a binding covenant, the Law is obsolete, because it was satisfied at the cross. Paul said in Colossians 2:13-15: “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, (14) having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (15) When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him” (NASB). For the one who places his or her faith in Christ, the Law is completely fulfilled at the cross, much as a note of debt is marked “PAID” when the debt is satisfied. One might well ask what purpose the Law still serves, i.e., if it still has a use beyond historical information. This is the principal question addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and the topic of the next article in this series.
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Copyright 2005, 2017 Sam A. Smith