Becoming truly human

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 7:11-28

The prayer of Jesus

One of the more interesting aspects of the ministry of Jesus Christ is his ongoing and eternal intercession for us. Paul in Romans 8:34 tells us that Christ "intercedes for us." In Hebrews 7:25, the writer tells us that Jesus "always lives to make intercession" for us. Jesus, right now and forever more, is praying. He's speaking with the Father on our behalf. What might he be praying for? As we shall see, his prayer concerns our humanity. He is praying that we become what God intended us to be in all our humanity. In giving us Jesus, who offered up his life for us and now intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father, God meets our need to become truly human.
In the first 10 verses of Hebrews 7, the writer invited us to "behold" the greatness of Jesus by observing Melchizedek, whose priesthood, as depicted in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, prefigured that of our Savior. In the rest of the chapter, the writer tells us what Jesus does for us as the "high priest according to the order of Melchizedek." First, the writer tells us, we have a need for this kind of priest.

We have a need (7:11-19)

Hebrews 7:11-19:

(11) 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? (12) For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. (13) For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar. (14) For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. (15) And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, (16) who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life. (17) For it is witnessed of him,

"You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek."

(18) For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (19) (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.

The word translated "perfection" implies fulfillment of purpose. God's purpose for humanity is to be in worshipful relationship with him, thereby being like him and serving him in his creation. This purpose was not fulfilled by the Levitical priesthood in the nation of Israel. The priests in Israel were from the tribe of Levi, and the high priests descended from Aaron, who was also a Levite. Although the Levitical priesthood was ordained by God in the law given by Moses, it was lacking. Therefore, there was "need" for a different kind of priest from a different kind of order - one who was like Melchizedek, not Aaron. Whose "need" was it? It was our need. What was our need? We needed to fulfill God's purposes for us; we needed to become truly human, fully human. God saw our need, and he met it. He met it through this different kind of priest.

So, the writer says in verse 12, there was a change. Human need precipitated a divinely ordained change in priesthoods. Therefore, there was need to change the law that ordained the priesthood; the former law is actually "set aside," according to verse 18. The law, even God's law, adapts to human need - genuine human need. God's law, of course, was originally given to address human need. So this new priesthood bursts on the scene, and everything - and everyone - must adapt to it.
Being a different kind of priest, Jesus comes from a different kind of tribe. He was of the tribe of Judah, not Levi. Kings came from Judah, not priests. The writer acknowledges, even boasts, that Jesus, "the one concerning whom these things are spoken," does not have the expected priestly lineage. Moses, in the law, spoke nothing of a priest coming from Judah. No one from Judah has ever served as a priest, which means that if one does, and God ordains it, it must be an extraordinary case. Jesus is an extraordinary case. There is no one like Jesus; he shatters existing categories. He shatters the categories in order to meet our need.

The verb in verse 14 translated "descended" may be better translated "arisen," or "risen up." The verb is used three times of Jesus in this section (verses 11, 14 and 15). Jesus rises up. He rises up to meet our need. Isn't this not only what we need, but what we want - someone to rise up on our behalf, someone who sees our desperate state and comes to our aid, someone who pulls us out of the pit? That's Jesus. That's our priest. Jesus rises up to meet our need.

So Jesus, unexpectedly, from the standpoint of the writer's Jewish readers, is not qualified to be a priest on the basis of a law of "physical requirement," or, more literally, "fleshly command" - a command that ordained priests of solely human flesh who died; he is not qualified based on the precepts of the Mosaic law. Rather, he is like Melchizedek, the shadowy figure from Genesis 14. In noting that the biblical account leaves no record of Melchizedek's birth, genealogy or death, the writer says that his priesthood, so to speak, was "perpetual" (7:3). Jesus' priesthood is like that. Thus he is qualified based on the "power of an indestructible life." Power is better than law, in that it accomplishes something, and an indestructible life is better than a fleshly command, in that it is eternal and heavenly, not bound to the "flesh" and death of earth. The powerful, indestructible priesthood of Jesus is "witnessed" by Psalm 110:4, which anticipated the eternal aspect of it. When Jesus rises to meet our need, he rises with power; he rises with a life that cannot be destroyed; he rises with eternal ability to meet our need.

In verses 18 and 19, the writer explains exactly why the Levitical priesthood was done away with and how, precisely, Jesus meets our need. The "former command," the fleshly command that ordained priests who die, was set aside because of its "weakness and uselessness." The law was weak because it appointed weak priests who died (7:28). Therefore, ultimately, it was useless. It was always weak but was formerly useful. It was useful in that it anticipated the advent of a superior priest. Now that the superior priest has come, it has outlived its usefulness. Therefore, it is set aside.

Because the law was weak, it is now useless. It does not meet human need. What is our need? Our need is to become "perfect," to fulfill God's purpose for us. But the law made "nothing" perfect; it couldn't even enable an inanimate object to totally serve God's purpose for it. The Levitical priesthood was unable to bring the men and women of Israel into conformity with God's purpose for them.

The second part of verse 19 describes what the priesthood of Jesus does for us. The "former command" is replaced by a "better hope." What is this better hope? It is connected with a "better covenant" (7:22) that involves "better promises" (8:6) of a "better country, that is a heavenly one" (11:16). Hope, as we have already seen in our study of Hebrews, looks forward to this better country, where we will worship the Lord in sinless bodies and serve him in his creation (3:6, 6:11). It is the priesthood of Jesus that allows for this hope.

It is "through" this hope of a heavenly future that we draw near to God. To "draw near" means to move toward God in relationship and worship. How does this hope enable us to move toward God? The hope he has set before us shows that his plans for us are good. His good plans tell us that he is good. He is not punitive, miserly, vindictive or passive. He is not any of those things that might keep us from drawing near to him. His good plans show us that he is good, that it is safe to move toward him. More than that, if his plans are this good, if he is this good, how can we resist him? He overwhelms our fear with his goodness, which draws us close to him.

The law made nothing perfect, but the better hope makes us perfect; it enables us to achieve God's purpose for us. It enables us to draw near to him, to be in close relationship with him, where we are transformed into men and women who reflect his splendor and serve him in his creation. This will be perfectly fulfilled in the re-creation, in the better country.

The point the writer is making in these verses is that God meets our need to be what he intended us to be. He meets it by giving us the kind of high priest we need. It's important for us to place ourselves in the position of the readers. We have never subscribed to the Levitical priesthood, but we have invented our own priesthoods that are just as weak and useless. We have adopted ways of thought and behavior that we hope will enable us to achieve whatever distorted purpose we have for our lives. We know that our priests are weak and useless because, like the Levites, they keep failing and dying. Into the middle of our desperate lives, God sends Jesus, the kind of priest we need, the kind of priest that meets our true need to become fully human. Out of the blue, Jesus rises up. We may have trouble recognizing the true Jesus because he blows our categories. He is the kind of priest we need, but he may not be the kind of priest we're looking for. The writer has to spend much time explaining the category shift for his readers, who are wed to the Levitical priesthood. It may take time for us as well, even those of us who have already embraced Jesus, to discover the true Jesus and to draw near to God through him. Jesus, the priest we need, is a shock to the system. But he is what we need, and God gives him to us.

God's desire to give us what we need, even if it shatters our categories and shakes our world, was beautifully illustrated by Jesus. He went outside the expected categories in order to meet needs, helping all kinds of unclean people and doing all kinds of things to help people on an unexpected day: the sabbath.

The writer now will show that God is not only meets our need, he wants us to believe that he meets our need.

God takes an oath (7:20-22)

Hebrews 7:20-22:

(20) And inasmuch as it was not without an oath (21) (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but he with an oath through the one who said to him,

"The Lord has sworn
And will not change his mind,
'You are a priest forever'");

(22) so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.

What was "it" that was "not without an oath"? It is the better hope of the better covenant, the centerpiece of which is Jesus. Within the framework of this covenant (which will be fully explained in Chapter 8), God took an oath. No oath was involved in the ordination of the Levitical priesthood. The oath of the covenant is better than the command of the law. What this tells us is that God is serious. Mostly, in these verses, he is determined for us to believe in Jesus and in his superior priesthood.

Actually, the oath is spoken to Jesus, but from the writer's perspective, it is for our benefit. Again, the writer quotes from Psalm 110:4 (5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17), but this is the first time he has included the first part of the verse, "The Lord has sworn, and will not change his mind ... " The writer for the first time emphasizes the oath that the Lord took in Psalm 110:4, which was addressed to the future Davidic king, the Messiah, who was Jesus, of course. The Lord not only takes an oath, he declares, through the psalmist, that "he will not change his mind." God is showing us that he has given us the kind of priest we need, a "priest forever."

Verse 22 begins with the words "... so much the more also ... " The writer is making a distinction between the oath and the law. The oath is better than the law and provides a guarantee. And that guarantee is Jesus. Jesus, particularly in his priesthood, guarantees the better covenant through which we fulfill God's purpose for us.

The Lord takes an oath. He says he will not change his mind. He issues a guarantee. Do we get the picture? The Lord not only meets our need for a high priest, he helps us to believe that he has met our need. God knows how difficult belief is for us. He knows how attached we are to our priests, weak and useless though they be. So he takes an oath. He tells us he will not change his mind. He guarantees it. Again, our need motivates God's action. We need to believe, so God takes action to help us believe. Do we hear him?

It's important for us to believe God's oath concerning Jesus, because he is the one who saves us.

Jesus saves completely (7:23-25)

Hebrews 7:23-25:

(23) And the former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers, because they were prevented by death from continuing, (24) but he, on the other hand, because he abides forever, holds his priesthood permanently. (25) Hence, also, he is able to save forever those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

The weakness of the Levitical priesthood is illustrated in verse 23. Because those priests died, they had to be replaced. We do the same thing with our failed priests: We replace them. If our present course of thought and action fails to achieve our goals for life, we replace it with another one. We're always changing priests, because they always fail us.

Jesus doesn't fail us. He doesn't die. Oh, he died, yes, but he rose, never to die again. He doesn't have to be replaced. He never will be replaced. His priesthood is neither weak nor useless, and he holds a permanent priesthood, or, more literally, an "unchangeable" one. The Levitical priesthood "changed" (7:12). The priesthood of Jesus does not. That means our search is over. No longer do we have to change priests as we change socks. We simply need to draw near to God through Jesus.

What does Jesus do as our high priest? He is able to save forever, or completely, those of us who draw near to God through him. He is able to this because he always lives to make intercession for us. What does is it mean "to save" someone? From a biblical perspective, it means to save for God's purpose. In the fall, humanity lost its purpose. It rejected God. We were therefore subject to God's wrath, which is expressed in his giving us what we want, alienation from him (Romans 1:18-32). God's intention, though, is to save humanity, to restore us to relationship with him and place us in our proper place in his creation. Salvation has an ongoing dimension to it. Those of us who believe in Christ have been saved, yes, but we also are being continually saved as we abandon our distorted purposes for ourselves and align ourselves with God's purpose. This salvation here is brought about by drawing near to God through Jesus. Quite simply, this is what changes us. People who draw near to God become like God. We become like what we worship. This is how we fulfill our entire purpose, by drawing near to God through our high priest, who allows us to do so, encourages us to do so and motivates us to do so.

How is it that the ongoing intercession of Jesus enables us to draw near to God and experience ongoing salvation? This intercession does not concern the atonement, for "this he did once for all" (7:27). When Jesus intercedes with the Father, what is he asking for? To answer that question, we need to ask what his intercession results in. It results in salvation. Can Jesus be interceding for anything less than our salvation, which is brought about by our drawing near to God? He must be asking the Father to draw us close. This is how God is "working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ" (13:21). What is pleasing in God's sight is our salvation, our "perfection," our fulfillment of his purpose for us, our journey toward becoming truly human. Paul also speaks of Jesus' intercession for us in Romans 8:34. The Father answers Jesus' prayer by sending the Holy Spirit and prompting him to move us toward God. He causes us to feel our deep need for the Father and cry out, "Abba! Father!" (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6). It seems likely that the intercession of Jesus on our behalf will continue even in the better country, for Jesus "always lives" to make intercession for us and his priesthood is eternal. In other words, he will always nudge us toward the Father.

Jesus in Luke 21:31-32 prays for Peter in precisely this way: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." Jesus prays for Peter's faith, for his relationship with God. And there seems to be no question as to the answer Jesus expects from his prayer, for Peter will "turn again" to God.

Let's personalize this. Allow an image to form in your mind. Jesus, our king and priest, is enthroned next to the Father, at the right hand of the Majesty on high. He turns to the Father in order to speak. He speaks softly and tenderly. Listen in. He's speaking to the Father about you. He says, "Father, bring this one close to you." And the Father says, "Yes, Son, you know my heart. I'm sending the Holy Spirit even now to move in this child's heart. This one I love. This one is precious to me. This one I want close. This one I will draw near." And there is an ache, a longing, a groaning in your heart. Then you feel something else. It is a feeling that almost has words. It's as if someone is speaking to the longing. It feels something like, "Go ahead. Draw near." And you cry out, "Abba! Father!" In your desperate hours, this may be an image you can call to mind. Know that in your anguish, Jesus is praying, "Father, draw this one near."

This is what Jesus does for us, and somehow, in God's design, it's appropriate that we have this kind of high priest.

God deems it fitting (7:26-28)

Hebrews 7:26-28:

(26) For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; (27) who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this he did once for all when he offered up himself. (28) For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.

The writer says it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, an eternal one who always intercedes so that we draw near to God. As the writer says in verse 26, he is "exalted high above the heavens," where he makes intercession. But he was exalted because he is "holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners." The other priests were not such. They were men of sin, and sin leads to death, which terminated their priesthood.

Unlike the Levitical priests, Jesus did not have to offer up any sacrifices for his own sins, because he didn't have any. Because he doesn't have this "need," he meets our need (7:11-12). His offer was not for his sins but solely for those of the people, and such was the nature of his priesthood that his one-time offering was good for all time. That offering, of course, was himself.

Once again, the writer contrasts the law and the oath. The men who are appointed by the law to be high priests are weak. The weakness of the law (7:18) is seen in the weakness of the men it appoints. Men are weak because they are subject to sin and death; therefore they are inadequate as priests. God's oath, through David in Psalm 110, came after the law and supersedes it, causing it to be set aside (7:18). The oath appoints someone who is not only a man but a Son, which implies kingship and intimacy with the Father. He is an extraordinary priest. He has been "made perfect forever." Earlier, we saw that God "perfected" Jesus through sufferings (2:10) - meaning, Jesus became qualified to become a high priest. He fulfilled the purpose that God intended for him. He is now eternally qualified. He is now the perfect high priest - one who meets our need perfectly. Because he is the perfect high priest, he is able to meet our need for "perfection" - our need to become what God intended us to be.

This is our high priest. It was "fitting" for us to have this kind of priest. God not only deemed it necessary (7:11-12) but fitting. Now that is an amazing thought, really. Consider first how we have treated God. And he deems it not only necessary but fitting that we have a high priest like Jesus, one who is holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, exalted about the heavens; one who intercedes for us; one who asks the Father to draw us near; one who accomplishes our salvation by making us what God intended us to be. God gives us that kind of priest? We must be beyond precious in his sight.

Draw near

God meets our need to become truly human by giving us the kind of priest we need, one who is sinless and eternal. The Father wants us to draw near to him and become like him. The Son came that we might draw near, and asks the Father that he enable us to do so. The Spirit moves in our hearts to move us closer. All persons of the godhead are wanting and working for us to draw near. What's holding us back? If there is any fear within us that God doesn't want us to draw near, this passage in Hebrews shatters it. God wants us to draw near. God wants you to draw near.

- SCG, 11-9-97