March 9, 1997
The early recipients of Hebrews, Alistair Begg explains, needed spiritual reassurance. Under the old covenant, people looked forward to a Great High Priest for their redemption. Those under the new covenant, meanwhile, were called to gaze back upon Jesus’ costly, once-and-for-all sacrifice. When we similarly anchor our hope in the person of Christ, we obtain the privilege of an eternal Priest who ever lives to intercede.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, let’s turn once again to Hebrews chapter 7, shall we? It’s good to see that some brave souls have come for a second dose. And we left it this morning by noting the question in verse 11: “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood … why was there still need for another priest to come?” And we said that was the, if you like, sixty-four-thousand-dollar question in the book of Hebrews. Because the great issue that is being addressed is how men and women may, as he mentions in verse 19, “draw near to God.” And how that was going to be possible and what the implications of it would mean for life was essential in the instruction of the writer.
In point of fact, the phrase “draw near to God,” or “drawing near to God,” is used on multiple occasions throughout the book, and it is used in different ways. I won’t take time to belabor the point, but if you check the phrase “drawing near to God,” you will find that it is clearly used for trusting in Christ for salvation, receiving the forgiveness of our sins, continuing to trust in Christ’s priesthood, persevering in faith despite difficulties, boldly coming to God in time of need, asking God for his help, being faithful to God, and keeping on doing the will of God. And all of those dimensions of Christian experience are caught up in this phraseology. So it is clearly a vital, essential phrase. If all of that is contained in it, then it is imperative that his readers—and that we—would understand how it would be possible to draw near to God.
Now, the reason it is so central to his argument is because the whole function of the priesthood was to bring men to God—to make men and women the partakers of his favor and of his image and of the joy and happiness which God alone could provide, and to do so in the extent of their nature and in the eternity of their being. In other words, it was no “flash in the pan” experience. It was to have one’s life completely taken over by the power of God, indwelt by the Spirit of God, and lived in the service of God. And this was not something that was to be marked simply in a moment in time but was to be categorized by a life of steady pilgrimage. And in order for that to be the case, certain things had to happen. Guilt had to be atoned for; the conscience of man had to be settled or, if you like, tranquilized; and the heart of man had to be purified. All of those things were involved in setting the unbeliever at peace and at rest before a sinless God.
Now, the very fact that the Levitical priesthood is inadequate to achieve this is made abundantly clear, as the writer says, since, long after the establishment of this priesthood, there was still need for another priest to come—“one,” he says in verse 11, “in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron.” Because what was there was, as far as verse 18 is concerned, “weak and useless.”
Now, this is something that he is going to drive home with great conviction and renewed emphasis in the verses that follow. And, for example, if you turn a page in your Bible, you’ll be at chapter 10, and you will find that he is going to say the same thing, and I just want to anticipate it with you for emphasis this evening. 10:1: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming,” he says to them,
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. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshippers would have been cleansed once [and] for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.
But the fact is, they always felt guilty for their sins. Because what they experienced in the structure of the Levitical priesthood was only that which could be of transient import to them, and they were coming back again and again.
Now, while the Israelites, then, were enabled to render an outward obedience to the laws which regulated the service of the earthly temple and sanctuary, the priests of the people were unable—totally powerless—to effect the inward cleansing of conscience that was necessary. They were unable to bring to the people that which could make perfect. And those who drew near to worship, as he says in chapter 10, were left kind of high and dry.
Now, back in 7:12–13, the writer makes the point that these means and laws to which he’s referring served a temporary purpose. And when the time came, they had to be changed for something that would be permanent, complete, and eternal. Because what was represented in this structure was impermanent and incomplete and valid only in time. “And so,” he says, “it’s very important for you to understand that he, the one who was to come in the order of Melchizedek”—and we’re in verse 13 and then into 14—“did not descend from the tribe of Levi. He belonged to a different tribe.” He says in 13, “And no one from [the] tribe [to which he belonged] has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from [the tribe of] Judah”—you remember in the Old Testament that he is the Lion of Judah, who breaks the chains that bind those who are held in captivity—“and in regard to that tribe Moses [has] said nothing about priests.”
Now, again, the logic is fairly straightforward: since Jesus had no right to minister at the material altar, it would be inconceivable that they would maintain such altars, in light of the nature of his priesthood. So that if you imagine all that was represented in the ceremonial structure of the Levitical system—fully in force, surrounded by people—and then comes one after the order of Melchizedek, and on his cross there is a once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice for sins, and unlike the Levitical priests, who only were able to exercise priesthood for a while, he now is exercising a permanent and eternal priesthood, it is inconceivable that people would still keep coming to these tables and going through all of this stuff.
That which had been before was obsolete, and that which had now come in the person of Christ was perpetually significant. Hence his quote from the psalm we read: “For it is declared”—verse 17—“‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’ The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.” The law made nothing perfect. It couldn’t make the priests perfect. It couldn’t provide a perfect expiation for sin. It couldn’t afford men and women’s hearts a perfect peace. It couldn’t grant to them a perfect conscience. If it had been able to accomplish all of that, then it would have been permanent. And it was on account of the fact that it couldn’t that it was to pass away.
Well, the thoughtful person is then inevitably going to say, “Well, then why did it even exist? Why did it exist?” Well, we could spend a long time answering that question, but in essence, the answer is, because it foreshadowed the grace which was to be revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ. And all the benefits that it conveyed in that system were on the basis of Christ’s forthcoming sacrifice. So that people were redeemed in the Old Testament the way that people are redeemed in the New Testament. There wasn’t an Old Testament way and a New Testament way. People were redeemed in the Old Testament in prospect of the atoning sacrifice which would be made in the person and work of the Great High Priest. And people are redeemed in the New Testament era and in our era on the strength of that to which we look back. And so they looked forward—albeit not seeing it in all of its fullness and yet trusting in the promise of God—and we look back to it, and at the same place we find forgiveness of sins, peace with God, a cleansed conscience, and a whole new hope. It is at the cross that we see the light and are born again.
And that is why the once-for-all sacrifice negates all of the previous regulations. And in the giving of himself, the Lord Jesus Christ vanquished any form of remaining divine authority for all the rights and regulations that went before. And if you know your Bible at all, you know that in the death of Christ upon the cross there was given, at least to the immediate residents of Jerusalem, the classic and graphic illustration of this. It must have been an amazing event to be standing in the temple precincts at the time of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. For all those who had gathered there were most aware of the fact that there were certain precincts into which one could go—the Court of the Gentiles, and the Court of the Jews, and the Place of the Priests, and then finally into the Holy of Holies, which was separated by this mammoth curtain, which once and for all signalized the fact that you can’t draw near to God. Someone else is going to have to go and do that for you. And before they ever go in there, they’re gonna have to make sure they’ve cleaned themselves up. And as they gathered on that day, witless—the vast majority of them—to what was taking place, all of a sudden this gigantic curtain is torn apart in a dramatic, symbolic gesture on the part of God, to say to men and women, “Step this way.”
Now, loved ones, I need to say to you tonight that to cling to the shadow is to forfeit the substance that it represents. I was involved in a significant discussion yesterday with a man who was trying to explain to me that it was fine for him to hold on to the shadows although he still believed in the substance. I don’t think so. Because the reality is so different from the shadow. Once you have embraced the real thing, why would you ever want to spend time around those tables again? You think it out; you’re sensible people.
What is this “better hope” in verse 19? From whence does it spring? How can we have “a better hope … by which we draw near to God”? Well, it is a hope which springs from belief in the “indestructible life” of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the assurance that that life is still active in his priestly function as he intercedes for us. It is a better hope, which is anchored within the veil, fixed in the person of Christ, which is able to bring us immediately and wonderfully into his presence.
Now, in verses 20–28, which is the final section, he simply goes on to provide further instruction and make some crucial points of application. And he makes much of the fact that the Lord Jesus has been appointed priest not by regulation of the law, not on the basis of the ancestry which was his, but he has been appointed on the basis of an oath. “And it was not without an oath!” he says. And of course, again, the readers would be immediately tuned into this, in a way that we need educated to. He then quotes from Psalm 110:4, which we read earlier. And the point that he is making is the selfsame point: it is the superiority of the priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, you will perhaps recall from chapter 6 that this is the second occasion in which the writer to the Hebrews tells his readers that God has sworn by an oath. Back in 6:13 we read, “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself.” Now, what does this mean? Well, Peter Adam very helpfully says,
The fact that God swears on oath means that he will certainly do what he has promised, that he stakes his whole character and credibility on doing it. It is not that God’s ordinary promises are less trustworthy, but when [he] swears an oath with a promise he is letting his people know of the crucial and central importance of a particular promise within his purposes.
So that it is not that his promises are any less trustworthy without an oath, but when he swears by an oath, he is reinforcing a vital, central truth.
Now, if you think that out in relationship to the two promises here in chapter 6 and chapter 7, you will understand something very wonderful. Because these two promises are at the very heart of biblical faith. For example, back in chapter 6—we might backtrack for a moment—God’s promise to Abraham, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants,” began to be fulfilled in the calling and keeping of his chosen people. Right? It was then fulfilled in the Lord Jesus, Abraham’s descendant, who in God’s plan was to bring blessing to all the nations through his atoning death. Because when you read in the Old Testament of the promise of God to Abraham—“In [your] seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed”—you say, “Well, what does that possibly mean?” Well, it means that it finds its fulfillment insofar as Jesus is a descendant from Abraham, lives his life, dies an atoning death, and thereby makes it possible for the Muslim and the Buddhist and the pagan in twentieth-century America to be born again of the Spirit of God and to understand life in all of its fullness. The promise advances in fulfillment when you discover Jews and gentiles both coming to trust in Christ, both discovering what God has done in Jesus, and both becoming the children of Abraham.
You see what I’m saying? The promise made to Abraham finds its fulfillment in the choosing of his special people. It is advanced in the coming of Christ and in his atoning death, whereby men and women may trust in Christ throughout all the nations of the earth, and Jew and gentile together may become his children. Indeed, ultimately, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the result of God’s promise to Abraham. And while this may not mean much to many, the story of the Bible and the story of church history is the record of God doing what he swore to do. That’s the whole story of the Bible. It is the unfolding of God swearing on oath to Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” And you can take everything from that point and run it out.
In the same way, in the second promise to which he refers here, the promise that God makes to Jesus—“You[’re] a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek”—it was fulfilled in the incarnation, when Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice, when he was raised from death to the right hand of God, where he continues as a priest forever. And the story of salvation in Christ is the story of God doing what he swore to do.
Now, let me just reinforce this for you in Ephesians chapter 1. Ephesians 1:11: “In him”—that is, in Jesus—“we were also chosen.” Remember God chose the Jews? “How odd of God to choose the Jew?” What was it that God determined in these people that he would choose them? What does he say in Deuteronomy? He says, “I didn’t choose you or call you because you were more significant than any other person. I didn’t choose you because I saw in you some peculiar redeeming quality. I simply loved you because I loved you. And I determined of my own sovereign, free choice to make a promise to you that will be throughout all time significant in its implications.” What does he say to us in redeeming us? The exact same thing.
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. [And] having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.
You may need to get the tape and go back and listen to this to unpack some of the truth I’m conveying to you, but understand: in his merciful goodness, God deigned to enter into a covenant with us through the work and merit of his Son—and he is the initiator in the covenant.
And it is this better covenant of which Jesus himself has become the guarantee. Verse : “Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.” In other words, you can bank on it! And you can bank on it in the Bank of Heaven. “Lay not up for yourselves,” says Jesus, “treasures on earth, where moth and rust get in and eat it and bite it and destroy it, and where thieves come in and steal the stuff. But lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” He’s talking there about our endeavors as we live out our lives, but the great significant treasure which is ours in heaven is the treasure of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. And when I am tempted to despair, and when, like many of these early readers, I feel like chucking it, and when I am so confronted by my own waywardness and my disinterest in the things of Christ and my lax approach to so much, and when all the accusations of the Evil One are against me, saying, “You know, you have got no guarantee whatsoever that you will make it in the end,” I’m going to remind him that in the Lord Jesus Christ, on account of God’s oath, stated plainly in Psalm 110, I have in Jesus a guarantee of a better covenant.
Now, let me just work out some practical application of this, and we’re through. First of all, in verse 23, notice that the priesthood of the Lord Jesus is permanent rather than temporary. No matter how dedicated these Old Testament priests may have been, death put an end to their work. That’s what he says: “Death prevented them from continuing in office.” But look at verse 24: “But because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.” That work of the cross, which was once and for all, is abiding in its significance. And Jesus “ever lives.”
Secondly, his power is limitless. Verse 25, isn’t that what he’s saying? In light of this, he says, “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him,” because of this very permanence, “because he always lives to intercede for them.” This Lord Jesus is able to secure salvation for all who come to him. He is the only source of salvation. All false religion is simply a choice of other things and other people in which men and women place their trust, to the neglect of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is able to save entirely and forever.
If I was trapped somewhere in the caves of Yorkshire, down a deep pothole, and I cried out for someone to come to my rescue, and eventually someone appeared, and I felt my spirits lift within me at the prospect of my deliverance, and they let me down a rope, upon which I fastened my hands with great eagerness, and they began to pull me up, and the higher I came, the more I realized that the rope was fraying on the sides of the millstone grit which is so much a part of those cave dwellings, and I realized that there was every prospect that in a moment the rope may finally fray, and I would crash all the way to the bottom and may never, ever be able to raise my voice in a plea for rescue again—that would be a cruel experience, imaginary albeit.
But that’s some people’s view of what it is to become a Christian: That they think that Jesus can save them a wee bit, but they’re gonna have to try their best in case they snap the rope. That they’re gonna have to make a contribution to it to fill up anything that might be missing. That they cannot somehow or another trust themselves unreservedly into the work of what Jesus has done. And so you meet them all the time and everywhere, proclaiming a salvation which is a little bit of believing plus a little bit of doing. Salvation is all about believing! Believing! Believing! Believing!
How much doing was there for the thief on the cross? Exactly! If salvation was about believing plus doing, with the doing making a contribution to the salvation event, then all of us would be scurrying from hither and yon to try and ensure that we were okay. But when we get a grasp of biblical theology, then it will radically change us. When we get ahold of Toplady’s words:
Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill thy laws demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and thou alone.
What use is a Christ who cannot save completely and eternally? I don’t want to know of a salvation that lasts for a moment in time, that has an expiry date on it, that needs constant renewal: “Tear off the bottom portion and send it back in to let me know if you’re still on board.”
Thirdly, notice that he is “always liv[ing] to intercede.” Let me just say it to you again, in the words of the hymn writer; I say it so often, but it’s one of my quotes as I go around in my car:
Before the throne of God above,
I have a strong and perfect plea,
A great High Priest whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
And if you’ll get that anchored in your heart, loved one—if the Spirit of God will burn that into the recesses of your being, if that will become for you the reality of your trust and your hope and your confidence—your life will be revolutionized.
And the intercession of the Lord Jesus Christ is that which is exercised meaningfully, as we’ve already seen, on account of his identification with us. Remember back in [4:]15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” So, his intercession is meaningfully done, it is compassionately done, and it is effectively done. He has the power to meet all of our needs.
And therefore, he says in verse 26, it is significant that this high priest is sinless in his character. Notice that he is “holy” in his character and his will. He was “blameless” before men. Remember, the Pharisees came again and again to try and find something to say about Jesus, try and find fault with him in some way, and they couldn’t find fault. When Pilate took him and examined him, eventually he says, “I’m gonna have to wash my hands of this predicament, because I can find no fault in the man.” And he sends him off somewhere else. And the other person says, “You know, I really don’t understand what everyone’s on about. He seems to be faultless.” Even his enemies had nothing to say about him.
He was “pure,” and his purity was a real purity, not a ritual purity. He was “set apart from sinners.” “Oh,” you say, “but didn’t they call him the ‘friend of publicans and sinners’?” Yes. So what does “he was set apart from sinners” mean? It clearly, then, does not mean that he never spent time with sinners, because we know that he did. It clearly does not mean that he did not address sinners in the most intimate of ways, because we know that he did. It simply means this: that he was in no sense compromised or contaminated by his contact with sinful men and women. And he is the one, he says, who is “exalted above the heavens” and sits at God’s right hand.
And he, in verse 27, “unlike the other … priests,” is able to have offered a perfect sacrifice. The other priests “offer[ed] sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people.” And Jesus “sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” It was a sacrifice that was unique in its permanence, in its purity, in its efficacy, and in its cost. There’s a whole sermon there, I think you would understand, but we don’t have time for it this evening.
Have you understood what it means for Jesus to have sacrificed for sins once for all in the offering of himself? In light of the scene upon the cross, is it not arrogant and pompous for us to feel somehow or another that we can make ourselves acceptable to God? That we would run the risk and run the gamut of trying to outweigh the balances of our bad with the expressions of our good? The law appointed men, he says in verse 28, with sinful infirmities, but with an oath which came after the law, the sinless Son, in the perfection of his sacrificial work, was appointed to the task that no one else could fulfill.
It’s that lovely Easter hymn:
There is a green hill far away,
Outside a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save [them] all.
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n, and let us in.
O dearly, dearly has he loved,
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.
When I concluded my studies this week, I said, “There are two things, then, that I must resolve to continually do.” And here they are.
I must resolve with confidence to trust in God’s Word. To trust in God’s Word. For the book of Hebrews is essentially about two things. It is about revelation—namely, what God has said to us. And it is about redemption—what God has done for us. And therefore, the whole message of Hebrews should bring us again and again back to the Word of Truth, so that we might say, “I’m going to take my stand and my trust in the Word of God.”
And I am going to rest in the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is “the author of [an] eternal salvation,” we’ve been told in 5:9. And therefore, he is the source of our present salvation. He is the one who rescued us, and he is the one who rescues us, and he is the one who will continue to rescue us. The hymn writer says, “Day by day, and with each passing moment, strength have I to face my troubles there.” Why? Because of the abiding, permanent significance of the work of the Lord Jesus:
A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord,
A wonderful Savior to me;
He hideth my [life] in the cleft of the rock,
Where rivers of [mercy] I see.
When we grasp this, then lines out of hymns like, “His oath, his covenant, his blood, support me in the whelming flood”—I mean, how many times have you sung that hymn? And you say to yourself, “What in the world is this? ‘His oath, his covenant, his blood’? Maybe we’ve got a little bit about blood because we’ve been at enough Easter services, but what about this covenant? What was that? And what is this oath?” It is this: that God from the very essentials of eternity entered into a covenant—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit covenanting together that they would redeem a people. And it is the utterly undeserved privilege of all of us who come to trust in the saving work of Christ to have been included in that company of the redeemed.
This is not arm’s-length theology. This is vital, essential, biblical stuff, to give us confidence in the day of difficulty, to give us peace when our conscience alarms us. And when the flood threatens to overwhelm us, we will turn again to the Rock that is higher than ourselves. And on that solid Rock we’ll take our stand.
Let’s pause for a moment in prayer.
There’s some of you here tonight, and today has been news to you. This evening is news to you. You might be a religious person, you’ve done a lot of good things throughout your life, but as you have been pondering what that has meant to you, you’ve got to admit that you still have a burden of sin. You have to admit that you have no assurance of forgiveness—that you have no assurance that if you were to die tonight, you would go to heaven. And you may even have stepped up your religious endeavors. You may have started even to try harder. You may even have begun to come to church regularly in the hope that maybe that would gain you enough points. And now you’ve come, and you’ve heard this dreadful news that the rope upon which you’ve been relying is snapped and broken, and you’re at the bottom of the canyon, and there’s no way out—certainly not in your own strength.
But the good news is that the Lord Jesus has come to provide the only way out. And if you would admit where you are and believe that he came to be that Savior that you’ve just admitted that you need, then you need to consider the implications of turning away from your sin and trusting unreservedly in Christ. ’Cause it’ll be a radical difference. And then you need to do something about it, and just where you’re seated, to cry out to God for his mercy and for his grace—to say, “Lord Jesus, I believe that you’re able to save me completely. I’ve been trying to save myself, patch myself up, and I recognize this evening that it can’t be done. Will you do for me what I cannot do for myself? I want to be your child.”
If you are expressing that in your own heart, then the promise of God’s Word is, as you just read it, that “he is able … to save … to the uttermost” all who “come unto God [through] him.” And a divine transaction takes place.
Father, I pray that since we’ve dealt with issues of such eternal significance, that each of us tonight will examine our lives before the compelling story of the good news. “Show us ourselves, show us our Savior, and make the Book live to us.” For Jesus’ sake, we pray. Amen.
 Hebrews 7:11–13 (paraphrased).
 See Hosea 5:14.
 Peter Adam, The Majestic Son: Reading Hebrews Today (Sydney, Australia: Anglican Information Office, 1992), 81.
 Hebrews 6:14 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 22:18 (KJV).
 William Norman Ewer, The Week-End Book (1924), quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, ed. Elizabeth Knowles, 5th ed. (1999; repr., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 305. Paraphrased.
 Deuteronomy 7:7–8 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 1:11–13 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 6:19–20 (paraphrased).
 See Hebrews 7:25.
 Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1776).
 Charitie L. Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
 Matthew 27:24 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34 (KJV).
 Cecil Frances Alexander, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (1848).
 Hebrews 5:9 (KJV).
 Carolina Sandell, trans. A. L. Skoog, “Day by Day” (1865/1872). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Fanny Crosby, “He Hideth My Soul” (1890).
 Edward Mote, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” (1834).
 See Psalm 61:2.
 Hebrews 7:25 (KJV).
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.