20 And it was not without an oath. 21 Those who formerly became priests took their office without an oath, but this one was addressed with an oath, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “Thou art a priest for ever.” 22 This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant. 23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he abides for ever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, as he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those other priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself. 28 Indeed, the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever.
The author is continuing to develop his thesis that Jesus is truly our great and merciful high priest, through whom we draw near to God in confidence as His children. In Israel’s history, God established through Moses and Aaron the office of high priest to serve as the mediator between Himself and His people. It was the high priest who entered once a year, on the Day of Atonement, into God’s presence in the Holy of Holies to intercede with sacrifices for himself and the people, and then to return to the people on behalf of God, bringing the word of forgiveness and blessing.
In Jesus, this office of high priest, comes to its true fulfillment. But how is this possible when Jesus is descended from the tribe of Judah and not Levi? This is the question that the author has just finished dealing with in the previous section. Before Levi there was Melchizedek, who blessed Abraham and received a tithe from him. Jesus is a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” and not because of descent, which is how the Levitical priests obtained office, but “by the power of an indestructible life.”
Jesus is not an interloper, or a high priest that is either illegitimate or inferior to the Levite priests that have served at the altar since the time of Aaron. God is not changing His plan in the last days or making an exception in the case of His Son. Jesus is the one true high priest—the reality that all the other high priests served as signs to point to, whether the Levites or Melchizedek.
The author begins this section by returning to the point made earlier (6:13-20) about God who, seeking to reassure His people, swears by Himself concerning the fulfillment of the promise He makes. In 7:19, the verse right before the section for today, the author tells his readers that through Jesus, our great high priest, a better hope has been introduced “through which we draw near to God.” Now he goes on to say that this better hope that God has established for us through Jesus is established with an oath. This oath distinguishes Jesus’ office from all those that went before Him.
The oath that he is referring to here, that he quotes again, is from Psalm 110:4, where God swears to His Messiah, “Thou art a priest for ever.” If you look back to 6:18-19, you see that it is remarkably similar to 7:19-20. In both places the author connects God giving an oath with the better hope that He now has provided us, a hope that is described in the earlier passage as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” See what God will do, the author is saying, to grow our trust and hope in Him!
This oath, that God gives to Jesus concerning His high priestly office makes Jesus “the surety of a better covenant.” In Jesus a better hope has been introduced. The person and work of Jesus is the guarantee, the surety, that God gives us that He has now established a better covenant with us. There is no going back to what is less when the greater has now arrived.
Our author is not finished, though. He goes on to spell out for his readers the great superiority of Jesus over all the high priests that have gone before. Let’s look at his points. It might help us to make a table that includes some of the information from the previous passage:
- became priest according to legal requirement
- former commandment set aside
- take office without an oath
- many in number because they die (and so need to be replaced)
- offered animal sacrifices, first for own sin and then for people
- the sacrifices were offered daily
- law appoints men in their weakness as high priests
- became priest by the power of an indestructible life
- better hope introduced through which we draw near to God
- takes office with an oath
(makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant)
- only one. He holds his priesthood permanently because continues forever
- offered Himself, but only for others
- His sacrifice was once and for all
- oath appoints Son who has been made perfect forever
Jesus in every way is superior to the Levitical priests! Now let’s work our way through the rest of this passage.
First of all, the author compares the number of Levitical priests with Jesus. Because of their mortality, there have been many priests over the years. But with Jesus, this need to pass on the office to the next generation permanently ends. Jesus lives, He can and does continue in this office because He Himself abides, or remains, forever.
Because of who Jesus is, the unique Son of God, who abides forever, what He is able to do for us as our high priest is far beyond what the Levitical priests were able to do. This is why the author has spoken of a better hope and a better covenant. Here he describes more of the content of this better hope. He declares (7:25) that Jesus “is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
Let’s consider these remarkable words. First, Jesus is fully able to save “those who draw near to God through him.” The word translated “save” means “to deliver” or “to rescue” in order to restore, heal, make well. An image that lies behind the word is one of bringing someone who has been shut up or in bondage out into the open, into freedom. Think of a captive being set free.
But He is not just able to save, but to save for all time. The Greek word that is translated here is panteles which is a combination of 2 words: pan which means all or the whole and telos which means perfect, complete, or mature. So what our author is saying is that Jesus’ salvation is complete, whole in every way. Jesus doesn’t just save us (minimally or barely) and He doesn’t save us just once. It is a complete and ongoing rescue, deliverance, and healing. It is a salvation that leads to our being made complete and perfect. Another way to say it is that He is able to save us to the uttermost.
Jesus is able to save those drawing near through Him in this way because He “always lives to make intercession for them.” What does this mean? Jesus is still our high priest. It is not an office He took on while on earth and has now moved on to other things. He is still now mediating between us and His Father, bringing us into His Father’s presence, providing the way for us as creatures to be sons and daughters before our heavenly Father.
What is Jesus doing right now? Well, according to this verse, He is interceding for us, speaking of us to His Father, carrying us and our burdens to the Father. James Torrance, in his book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (IVP, 1996) tells the story of meeting a man whose wife was dying of cancer. James met him on the beach where the man was pacing up and down, struggling with how to pray. The man’s father had been a minister but he himself had drifted from the church and this was compounding his struggle.
Here is part of what James said to him, “‘May I say to you what I am sure your father would have said to you? In Jesus Christ we have someone who knows all about this. He has been through it all—through suffering and death and separation—and he will carry you both through it to resurrection life. He has heard your cry for faith and is answering.’ I continued, ‘You have been walking up and down this beach, wanting to pray, trying to pray, but not knowing how to pray. He has heard your groans and is interceding for you and with you and in you’” (p. 44)
The second main comparison the author makes here between the Levitical priests and Jesus is that Jesus does not need to offer sacrifices for His own sins. In verse 26, Jesus is described as being “holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” Jesus does not come to us as one who has sin like we do. The author has pointed out His sinlessness earlier in the letter (4:15). And we are told here that it is fitting or right that we should have such a high priest.
Why is it fitting? Well, Jesus may not have needed to offer sacrifices for Himself, but, as high priest, He did need to offer a sacrifice for us. The high priests before Him offered sacrifices for themselves and then for the people. They mediated reconciliation between the people of Israel and God, but they needed mediation for themselves at the same time because they also needed to be forgiven.
Remember that it was God who instituted the system of sacrifice. It was not done to condition Him into forgiveness, or to appease an angry God. As Torrance says in the book quoted above, it was an ordinance of grace. God Himself will reconcile us to Him and the system of sacrifice was given by Him to the Israelites to provide a way for them to dwell with Him, to draw near to Him even though they were fallen people.
Jesus, the sinless, does not offer an animal for the sins of the people, but Himself and He is the holy, sinless, perfect sacrifice. With His sacrifice, the daily sacrifices of the people were over! That’s because they were always a sign. There was no salvation in those sacrifices in and of themselves. These were just pointers full of promise. It is God himself who saves. It is God who would provide the real, true sacrifice on our behalf. And so Jesus, as our great high priest, is the sacrifice as well!
In conclusion, the author highlights the temporary nature of both the law and the priesthood. Indeed, the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever. The author is not criticizing the law or the cultic system here. They were given by God for His good purposes. But the law could do no more that appoint men “in their weakness” to the office of high priest.
Notice the author has been developing his whole argument about Melchizedek and the oath to show that Jesus is not just an add-on to the law, just another in the sequence of high priests, perhaps the best of the group. In Jesus, while there is continuation with the past, there is something utterly discontinuous—because greater. The word of the oath doesn’t just appoint another man, but the Son, the Son through whom God has spoken in these last days (1:2), who is superior to all the angels and to Moses. And the Son is the One who has been made perfect for ever.
This idea of being made perfect has already come up, as you’ll remember, a couple of times. In 2:10, the author says that it is fitting that the pioneer of our salvation has been made perfect through suffering. And in 5:9 we read “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation…” The root word in all three instances is telos which we spoke of earlier and which also means complete or mature. In this verse the word has a prefix which gives the meaning of being fully complete.
Remember that the idea here isn’t that Jesus, the Son of God, was not perfect already. But rather, when He became one with our fallen humanity, like us in every respect but without sin, He had to sanctify Himself on our behalf. As our high priest, He actually wrestled to turn humanity back to God, to end our rebellion in His own person. His whole life of obedience was a part of His becoming our great and merciful high priest, culminating in His death, resurrection, and ascension. This is why we can say, with the early church father, Athanasius, that Jesus has become one with the patient (us) to heal us from the inside out!
Jesus is still our high priest, today, right this minute. He is fully able to make you whole, and is interceding on your behalf before our heavenly Father—our Father because we are now His brothers and sisters!