Church of God, New World Ministries

Does The New Covenant Do Away With God’s Law? (Part 3)

The High Priest Essential to Salvation

Consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus, who has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who built the house has more honor than the house” (Heb. 3:1-3).

With this article, we began addressing passages in five New Testament letters that are regularly misunderstood and seriously misinterpreted. Four of these – Galatians, Romans, Ephesian and Colossians – explicitly declare the writer to be the apostle Paul. The other, Hebrews, is traditionally attributed to him, which is likely. Though every section of the Bible is often misinterpreted, passages from Paul’s letter are particularly and consistently distorted (See II Peter 3:15-16) especially where the New covenant and the law of God are concerned.

We began in Hebrews, which contrasted the role of Jesus Christ as the mediator of the New Covenant with the role of Moses as mediator of the Old or Sinai Covenant.

Moses was the historical giant of the 1st century Judaism. When early Christians accepted Jesus Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant, as the Messiah and as a Prophet greater than Moses, most Jews – especially the religious leaders – were highly offended. They refused to accept Jesus as their High Priest or as a prophet greater than Moses.

The implications of this problem are addressed in the book of Hebrews. It was written to explain the superiority of Christ’s priesthood over that of the Levitical high priest appointed under the Sinai Covenant and to verify from the Scriptures that Jesus Christ is a greater prophet than Moses.

 In this context, Hebrews covers the distinctions between the Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant – and the role of God’s law in each.

Because Moses was such a dominant figure in 1st century Judaism, most Jews rejected any possibility that Jesus was the “Prophet” that Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15. The Jews of the 1st century eagerly hoped that prophet would appear in their lifetime (compare Mark 6:14-16; John 1:21, 25; 7:40). But they expected him to come as a great military leader who would organize a Jewish army to liberate them from Roman occupation.

Their common view of themselves was that they were God’s righteous victims deserving freedom, not sinners needing His forgiveness.  They anticipated a conquering King -not a Savior who would solve the problem of sin by dying for them. As a result, a Messiah who would die for their sins rather than lead a rebellion against the Roman army for the purpose of reestablishing the throne of David was to them a “stumbling block” (I Cor. 1:23).

The book of Hebrews was written to counter this blinded reasoning and systematically prove from Scripture what the Messiah was really prophesied to be and to do at His first coming.

The author of Hebrews, again probably Paul, uses the Old Testament Scriptures to prove that Jesus Christ is the prophesied Messiah who was explicitly foretold to be a prophet superior to both Moses and Aaron. Those Scriptures also stated that he would be declared the new and much superior High Priest.

Therefore, a clear understanding of the reasoning and content of the book of Hebrews is essential to appreciating just how thoroughly God planned in advance the mission and work of Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, especially that of His first coming.

In Hebrews 1, the author cites specific scriptures to prove that the prophesied Messiah would come not only as the son of David but also as the Son of God (v. 2), even being the “exact representation” of God (v. 3). Also, He has “by inheritance obtained a more excellent name” than even the angels (v. 4). The theme of the superior priesthood of Jesus Christ, as the Messiah, continues through the rest of Hebrews.

Because the reign of the Messiah over the kingdom of Israel was so anticipated by the Jews, the author of Hebrews now goes to the Psalms to prove that God intends to keep His promise to once again seat a son of David on the throne of Israel. But the One to take that throne is to be not only a son of David but also the Son of God. Hebrews 1:8 quotes a passage from the Psalms to show that God will establish the “throne” of His “Son” over the “Kingdom” promised to Him.

That quoted passage promises: “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom. You love righteousness and hate wickedness, therefore God, your God has set you above your companions (the previous prophets) by anointing you with the oil of joy” (Ps. 45:6-7).

The words “by anointing you” suggests a reference to the Hebrew word for Messiah, the Anointed One. The Greek equivalent is Christos, altered to Christ” in English.

In Hebrews 2:5 the author continues to show that the Messiah is to be made the divine Ruler over “the world to come” rather than over kingdoms of this present age. Jesus, of course, has already been made the Head of His True Church, the Body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23).

In regard to the scope of Christ’s rule, the author of Hebrews makes this point: “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:8-9).

God’s first priority for the Messiah was to provide all of humanity with a Savior, to open the door to justification and salvation for all who would repent. Jesus, the prophesied Messiah, had to first fulfill the mission of that Savior – to preach repentance and then to take on Himself the death penalty for sin that we all deserve. Therefore, His Kingdom was not prophesied to be established at His first coming. But it will be established when He returns.

In chapter 3, the author goes directly to his main point: Moses and Jesus were both faithful to God, but Christ is greater than Moses (vs. 1-3). In God’s house, Moses was a faithful servant (vs. 4-5). “But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast” (v. 6). In other words, Christ’s position in God’s family is superior to Moses and all the other children of God who will enter His eternal family.

Grace and Law: Why Are They Inseparable?

The word grace is regularly used by some religious people as if it replaces all need to obey God’s law. That conclusion is not only inaccurate, it is also diabolical!

Here is the reason: Without law, there would be no need for grace. The word grace, as the Greek word Charis is translated in the New Testament, means freely shown “favor” – a gift (it’s from Charis that we derive the English word charity). In a religious context, the word grace is used most often for the gift of forgiveness. It refers to how God extends His favor to repentant sinners by forgiving their former disobedience of His law – the ‘sins previously committed’ (Rom. 3:25).

This is necessary because “everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness: (I John 3:4). If there is no law to break, there is no such thing as sin. And if there is no sin the very idea of grace, as God’s forgiveness, has no meaning at all.

God does not just dismiss our sins, our lawless acts nor does He simply ignore them. Rather, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3), so “that He by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).

In other words, it was to make God’s favor – His grace – available to all who repent (by turning away from sin) that Jesus “gave Himself for us, that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).

Therefore, grace encompasses more than just the forgiveness for past sins. It also includes the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us obey God’s laws. Indeed, it refers to all the free and unmerited gifts of God. It includes His help in initially turning us away from sin and leading us to His truth and way of life, His forgiveness of our past sins and ultimately His granting us the greatest gift of all – eternal life in His Kingdom.

But without law, grace would be meaningless because there would be no way to define sin. Yet without grace, forgiveness of sin for breaking God’s law could not be made available to us. So, Jesus died and rose again to make grace available to anyone who is eager and willing “to go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Through grace, we can first be forgiven of our lawbreaking and then enabled by the Holy Spirit to obey God’s law from the heart – with the ultimate goal and promise of being able to live for all eternity in perfect obedience.

Thus, law and grace are utterly inseparable. Law is necessary to define sin and its consequences. Grace is necessary so sinners can be forgiven and led to obedience to God though the power of the Holy spirit and the assistance of Jesus Christ, who is our Savior and High Priest. 

To the Jews, the temple was God’s house. Before its destruction in A.D. 70, Judaism was a temple-based religion. Almost everything in their worship of God revolved around the temple. But after A.D. 70 – following the temple’s destruction – Judaism was transformed, of necessity, into a decentralized, synagogue-based religion. Their priest no longer had any viable duties.

Christians, on the other hand, still had “a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God” (Heb. 4:14). But the lofty position of this High Priest does not mean that he is out of touch or does not understand what we go through as human beings. Having been human Himself, He is not “a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (v. 15).

A crucial reason for Christ’s appointment as High Priest was to secure a solution to the problem of sin – and have a High Priest capable of giving assistance to every person who would kneel in prayer before the throne of God to ask for help. And in Christ we have One who is both eternal and omnipotent as well as one who has experienced life as a human being.

In Hebrews 5 the point is emphasized that the change in the priesthood was instituted through appointment by God the Father “So Christ also did not take upon Himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father’ (quoted from Ps. 2:7).  And he says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek (quoted from Ps. 110:40”’ (Heb. 5:5-6).

Next, the book of Hebrews compares Jesus Christ’s example of perfect obedience to the same type of obedience He expects from His followers. Chapter 5 continues: “Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (vs. 8-9).

Jesus Christ obeyed the Old Testament scriptures. He commands His disciples to follow His example and to teach that same obedience to others (Matt. 28:19-20).

The author of Hebrews then chides those Christians who had neglected developing real skill in rightly applying the Scriptures to their lives: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of Gods’ word (the Hebrews Scriptures) all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness” (Heb. 5:12-13).

Then Hebrews 6:1 continues with this appeal: “Therefore let us go on toward perfection.” The following verses cover the principles on which that enlightment pursuit of spiritual perfection must be founded and the diligent perseverance we need to continue that pursuit.

Then in chapter 7 the author returns again to Christ’s priesthood. He explains that there is a precedent, a former model, for Jesus Christ receiving the office of High Priest. Scripture foretold explicitly that He would become the High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” instead of “according to the order of Aaron” (v: 11).

Melchizedek was a priest of God hundreds of years before the Levitical priesthood was established (Gen. 14:18-19). After receiving the tithe (a tenth) of Abraham’s recovered spoils following a battle, Melchizedek blessed Abraham. This act of blessing Abraham confirmed that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham.

One may be “blessed “in that manner only by someone greater than oneself. This, therefore, confirms that Jesus, having the same rank as Melchizedek, is superior to Abraham and therefore superior to the Levitical priests who descended from Abraham. This verifies that Jesus Christ, whose birth was not of the priestly tribe of Levi, is nevertheless scripturally legitimate as our new High Priest.

This brings us to the most crucial point covered in this letter to the Hebrews. “For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change in the law” (Heb. 7:12). In chapters 8-10 the author explains that the transfer of the priesthood to Jesus Christ is the central reason that certain modifications in the law were necessary to accommodate this transition.

At this juncture, it is vital that we understand that amending items in an established body of law does not abolish the entire body of law – it only modifies certain portions of it. Grasping this is essential if we are to correctly understand how, why and in what manner the law that began to be written in a book at Mt. Sinai could be modified.

First, we must understand the reason for its modifications. That reason is clearly explained. “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: “We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man” (Heb. 8:1-2).

Changes in the law became necessary to accommodate a new and permanent High Priest and a new and more accurate concept of the temple in which God would be actively present through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

With Jesus Christ replacing the Levitical high priest, the Church He built would now take precedence over a physical temple.

As Paul explains: “So then you are no longer stranger and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Eph. 2:19-22).

With these changes, God raised His expectations for His people. The Sinai Covenant did not produce lasting righteousness. Its priests could fulfill only symbolically the role that Jesus Christ fulfills completely under the New Covenant.

So some changes in the law were essential to support this new and better relationship. The new emphasis would be on changing people’s hearts and minds rather than on perpetuating an army of symbolic rituals and ceremonies (Heb. 8-10).

The physical tabernacle with its ceremonial and figurative system of worship was only a temporary measure. Its value was symbolic – figuratively indicating what God had in mind, on a much greater scale, for the future. Its services were also merely “symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience” (Heb.9:9).

None of the ceremonial aspects of the Sinai Covenant could define righteousness in respect to the people’s hearts, minds and actions. Those ritualistic services could only remind people of guilt incurred by breaking the spiritual laws that define sin. They were “concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation” (v. 10).

That “time of reformation” began with Jesus Christ’s first appearance as the Messiah. As the book of Hebrews explains, the temple’s ritualistic worship system then in existence represented “only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship” (Heb.10:1).

The use of the word shadow to describe this system of rituals is helpful in understanding what the book of Hebrews tells us about this ceremonial sacrificial system. Just as an approaching shadow reveals the form and outline of what is coming, so did the Sinai Covenant ritual system reveal only a partial representations of Jesus Christ’s role as the one great sacrificial offering for the sins of mankind and His subsequent role as our High Priest.

The sacrifices at the tabernacle and temple that foreshadowed Christ’s role were the central focus of this Old Covenant’s worship system. But, according to the author of Hebrews, the value of those sacrifices was clearly only symbolic: “Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshippers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin?” So he explains: “But in these sacrifices there is (only) a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (vs. 2-4).

It is vitally important to notice that the author of Hebrews, again traditionally and most likely Paul, intentionally limits his discussion of changes in the law to its temporary and ceremonial aspects. He never suggests that any law of God that defines righteousness or sin has ceased. To the contrary, Paul writes in Romans 3:20 that it is “through the law we become conscious of sin”. Sin is defined by God’s law (I John 3;4) as it always has been and always will be.

The book of Hebrews explains, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgement and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb. 10:26-27). Anyone desiring to claim Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for forgiveness cannot “deliberately keep on sinning” and be accepted by God.

Regulations mentioned in Hebrews as changed do not include laws that define sin. Rather, the author insists, a day of reckoning and judgment is still very much a part of God’s plan for those who refuse to quit sinning. He even classifies those who knowingly and deliberately or willfully choose to continue sinning as enemies of God.

Beginning with Hebrews 10:35-36, the author seeks to strengthen his reader’s confidence in doing “the will of God.” In chapter 11 he then gives Old Testament examples of people who had the faith do do what God told them to do under difficult circumstances. He presents them as persons whose example we should follow. They obeyed God under great duress. We should do no less.

“Therefore,” says the author, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1).

The book of Hebrews plainly admonishes faithful Christians to follow the example of God’s servants in the Old Testament who, because of their faith, refused to sin at the risk of losing their lives. This faith is having the courage to do what God commands regardless of personal risk and hardship. It is living an active faith to obey God, not a dead or dormant faith without the conviction or courage to do His will.

James explains this very clearly: “But someone will say, ‘you have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that this faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did” (James 2:19-22).

Only by having constant access to a living permanent High Priest is it possible for us to obey God in a manner that pleases Him. Hebrews 4: 14-16 recaps this in the following words: “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an High Priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”

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