The more I read Hebrews, the more I find the Old Testament coming alive. The authors of the New Testament, and most strikingly the author of Hebrews, see Jesus everywhere in the history of Israel. It is as Martin Luther says somewhere, they found Christ on every page of Scripture. The people, the events, the preaching, the hymnbook (that is, the Psalms), and even the institutions all offer a shadowy picture of Jesus’ person and work. Following Hebrews, three institutions stand out for many theologians: Prophets, Priests, and Kings. So, our author introduces Jesus by saying:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son (Jesus the prophet), whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins (Jesus the priest), He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name He has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Jesus the King/Lord)” (Hebrews 1:1-4).
This week, we are focused on Jesus our Priest. To stick with the series, our focus in this sermon will be how Jesus is greater than the Levitical priesthood. Hebrews has made this case earlier in speaking of that mysterious king and priest Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:1-10; 7:1-28, also see Genesis 14:17-24). As we have discussed before, many early Jewish Christians were tempted to return to Judaism due to the persecution they were facing. The author of Hebrews would respond by saying they would be leaving the reality of Christ which the whole of the Old Testament foreshadowed, including the priesthood. The Jews may respond, “But what about the priesthood. Jesus was Jewish (from the tribe of Judah), but He was not a Levite (from the tribe of Levi). Thus, He came from a kingly lineage, not a priestly one. By returning to Judaism, we would have our priests back!”
Hebrews argues Jesus is of a priestly order higher than and prior to that of the Levitical priesthood. After all, Abraham was the ancestor of the Levites, and he bowed and worshipped God through a priest who was prior to Levi, namely Melchizedek. What is more, since Abraham is the father of all Israel, he is greater than the Levites. So, if the greater father appeals to a priest, that priesthood must be greater than the priesthood of the Levites. The author of Hebrews is arguing Jesus is a priest, not in the order of Levi, but of Melchizedek. Just as their father, Abraham, worshipped through this priesthood, so should His descendants. Jesus brings the greater priesthood.
Hebrews argues Jesus is of a priestly order higher than and prior to that of the Levitical priesthood.
The sermon should spend time, then, demonstrating how Jesus’ priesthood is superior to that of the Old Testament priesthood. To preach the text, I might suggest a three-point sermon which focuses on how Jesus does the work of the priesthood in that He: 1) Prays for God’s people, 2) Makes the perfect sacrifice for God’s people, and 3) Distributes the blessings to God’s people.
1. Jesus our Priest Prays
Priests offer up prayers on behalf of God’s people. The pericope begins by demonstrating Jesus’ superiority to the Levitical priesthood in that He has conquered death and will never die again. Thus, His priesthood never ends. “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but He holds His priesthood permanently, because He continues forever” (7:23-24). What this means is your Priest prays for you eternally! He lives to do it! “He always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25).
2. Jesus our Priest Offers the Perfect Sacrifice
The Levites were responsible for offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. However, they also had to offer sacrifices for their own sins before they would be able to do it for others. Jesus was without sin: “Holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26). The Law appointed, “men in their weakness as high priests,” but the Gospel appoints, “a Son who has been made perfect forever” (7:28). Jesus offered His life as a perfect sacrifice which covers sins, once for all!
3. Jesus our Priest Preaches
The third and final task of the priest you will want to emphasize is preaching. Preaching should be understood not just as finger-wagging morality lectures, but more so as a proclamation and distribution of God’s gifts. Though our pericope does not deal directly with this aspect of the priesthood, it will be worth announcing to your people that the “word of oath” which appointed Jesus as, “a Son who has been made perfect forever,” (7:28) was not preached just for His sake, but for yours and mine. Jesus sends His word to His preachers to they might distribute the benefits from Christ’s cruciform altar.
Preaching should be understood not just as finger-wagging morality lectures, but more so as a proclamation and distribution of God’s gifts.
Christ in the Text
If you are in a congregation which has its roots in the Reformation, you will know we do not talk much about priests in our contexts unless we are discussing the “priesthood of all believers.” As wonderful as this gracious designation is, I would suggest that this Sunday you preach Christ’s priesthood FOR all believers. Despite sloppy rhetoric that suggests we do not need a priest because we are not Roman Catholic, Hebrews proclaims you absolutely do need a priest and you have one. This priest is Jesus! Hebrews is not telling its readers they should not go back to Judaism because they no longer need a priest, but that the particular priesthood of the Levites is obsolete. It finds its fulfillment in the greater priesthood of Jesus Christ. In a world wondering where God is and what He is doing, Jesus our priest who offered up His life as a sacrifice for us, who prays before the Father with holes in His hands and your name on His lips, and who distributes all the blessings of life and salvation in His Word and Sacraments is exceptionally good news, indeed!
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Hebrews 7:23-39.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Hebrews 7:23-29.