Commentary on Hebrews 7:23-28
The reading for this week from Hebrews 7:23–28 provides a summary of a rather important discussion from the author of Hebrews. Prior to this selected text, the author goes to great lengths to explain how Jesus can serve as a high priest. Jesus was descended from the line of Judah (Hebrews 7:16), but according to Torah (the Jewish law), to be a priest you had to be from the line of Levi. Further, to be a high priest, you had to be a son of Aaron and be the one selected (Leviticus 21:10).
But this is not to say that no one outside that lineage had ever served as a priest. In fact, at this point in history, many non-Levitical priests had been installed. The Jewish temple had been co-opted by political leaders, and the sanctity of that space had been compromised. The people of God hoped that proper worship might be restored, but they might wonder: how could that happen with yet another priest who wasn’t a Levite?
We do not know for sure what concern the author of Hebrews is addressing among his audience, but he clearly desires to establish the biblical warrant for the high priesthood of Jesus in the central section of Hebrews (4:11–10:25). To do this he uses references to Melchizedek, a priest-king mentioned in Greek versions of Psalm 110:4 as well as Genesis 14.
While Melchizedek deserves additional attention, the reading in the lectionary does not feature this mysterious character. Instead, it highlights the end of the author’s discussion of Jesus’ high priesthood, where he contrasts Jesus with the Levitical priests.
There were many Levitical priests because each one would die and leave an ongoing need (Hebrews 7:23). Their work never ceased. How could it? Their offerings took place daily, weekly, and yearly, and those offerings weren’t retroactive. In other words, new sin required new offerings.
Jesus, conversely, is a perpetual priest (7:24). He lives forever. He needs no succession plan and no descendants. He is a one-person priesthood. Further, since he remains alive, he is always able to intercede on our behalf (7:25). Intercession here probably refers primarily to his prayers on our behalf to God, but these prayers are accompanied by the offering of his own blood on the altar.
Hebrews 7:25 offers an important reminder that the work of Jesus is ongoing. Interpreters frequently point to passages in Hebrews that refer to Jesus sitting down at the Father’s right hand in order to illustrate that the work of Jesus is finished (often citing John 19:30 as further confirmation); however, there is a difference between the offering of Jesus being effective “once-for-all,” and the work of Jesus being completed. He is sitting and waiting (10:12–13), but as he waits, he is interceding on our behalf.
The author then goes on to describe the character of this priest. He is “holy, blameless, and undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26). Each description shows why he is a “fitting” priest. The Law assumes that priests will become ritually impure and that they will sin (see, for example, Leviticus 16:6). Jesus has no need to make an offering on his own behalf (7:27) since he is “undefiled” (7:26).
Even though he has no need to offer a sacrifice on his own behalf—because a sacrifice would be of no benefit to him personally—he still chooses to make one. Like the other priests, he dedicates his life (unto death) to serve his brothers and sisters.
This offering is once-for-all.
Throughout Hebrews, the author goes to great lengths to show how the offering of Jesus corresponds to or parallels offerings from the first covenant. Many acknowledge the parallels with the rituals on the Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur), but the author of Hebrews also alludes to other types of offerings, from the daily offerings (the tamid; for example, Numbers 28:3) to the Red Heifer ritual (Numbers 19:1–13).
It also is important to note that comparing Jesus to these offerings is not the author’s way of diminishing the practices of the Jewish people—quite the opposite! The author of Hebrews is drawing upon the beauty and complexity of the Jewish sacrificial system to illustrate the comprehensive nature of the work of Jesus on their behalf. Can you fathom an offering that cleanses all of your sins (individual and corporate), praises God for his generosity and goodness, and unites you in fellowship with other believers? In the Levitical system, these things were accomplished by multiple offerings, made by the priest on behalf of the worshipper. The person making the offering would not shed blood, but that person would pay the cost of what was offered—whether that was grain or a dove or a bull.
But Jesus makes his once-for-all offering by paying all its costs, both physical and metaphorical. As priest, he makes an offering that he himself supplies.
The final verse in this section is also a final point of contrast. Throughout Hebrews 7, the author has drawn a contrast between the Law and the Oath. The Law established the Levitical priesthood; the Oath established the priesthood of Jesus. In Hebrews 6:13–20, the author teaches his audience about oaths: they endure. Another point of contrast established throughout this chapter hinges on the author’s concept of “perfection.” Perfection was not possible through the Levitical law (7:11)—in fact, it made nothing perfect (7:19). But the author of Hebrews says that Jesus is “made perfect” (5:9).
This raises the question: In what way is Jesus not perfect?
In no way. To say that Jesus is “made perfect” is not to say that he is at any point “imperfect.” Our typical use of this term (“perfect”) does not align with how the author is using it. When he refers to Jesus being “perfected,” he most likely refers to Jesus obtaining resurrection life.1 After the Incarnation, the human Christ no longer can die. Further, he perfects those who approach the altar (10:1; see also 9:9). They too are offered this enduring life.
And so, Hebrews 7:23–28 presents to us a perfect priest who lives forever serving as a priest in a perpetual covenant.
- David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, NovTSup 141 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 194–208.