At this point in history Christian evangelism to the Jewish people is something of a minefield. Because Christian-identifying gentiles have so often oppressed Jews, any attempt to proselytize has, to many Jews, become synonymous with anti-semitism—a kind of spiritual pogrom. In addition, it is not uncommon for traditional Jews to accuse Jewish Christians of self-hatred and of abandoning their people to join an oppressor. For many of these traditional Jews, becoming a Jewish Christian is more shameful than becoming a Jewish atheist.
As grievous as the church’s antisemitism has sometimes been, and as understandable as it is for Jews to be wary of the Christian faith, whether or not self-identifying Christians have been antisemites is not logically connected with whether or not the Christian faith is itself antisemitic, let alone with whether or not it is un-Jewish to accept it as one’s own. To underline this point, it would be advantageous for us to go back before the antisemitism in the church to the days of Jesus’ Jewish apostles. When we do, we fill find in a New Testament document entitled “The Epistle to the Hebrews” an argument centered in Tanakh (the so-called Old Testament) that the acceptance of Jesus as Messiah is the logical outworking of the acceptance of God’s Tanakh. Though other Jewish (and gentile) Christians made various arguments to this effect, the author of this epistle’s argument focuses on the fact that Jesus’ covenant has a better priesthood, covenant, sacrifice, and ministry than that in the covenant made through Moses. More than that, he establishes that the Tanakh itself points to the fact that these Mosaic ordinances were only temporary until the coming of Jesus the Messiah.
A Better Priesthood
In chapter 7 of this epistle our author highlights a priesthood which predates Levi’s—that of Melchizedek, king of Salem.1 Melchizedek was a priest of God whom Abraham gave tithe to;2 and since Levi was still, so to speak, in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham, this means that in some sense the entire Levitical line paid tithe to Melchizedek through Abraham. Of this man we know next to nothing. His birth, death, and ancestry are never even alluded to. And yet David, when writing of Messiah, said that the Lord had sworn of him, “you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”3 This new prophesied priesthood, which is not by Levitical line but by oath of God, is the key to the author’s argument in this section. After all, if the Levitical priesthood was perfect and eternal, why would God mention another to come after it?
Although the great Rabbi Maimonides wrote that Jesus could not be Messiah since he caused the Torah to be altered,4 David’s prophecy of a new priesthood tells us differently. As our author tells us, “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”5 In other words, if David looked forward to a different priesthood, this means the old one was passing away. And since this priesthood was at the center of God’s Torah, and the Torah was at the center of the covenant, the priesthood of Messiah (whom both the Torah and the rabbis taught would be of the line of Judah, not Levi) would initiate a new covenant.
Although Melchizedek is only apparently immortal (since we never learn of his birth, death, or ancestry), the Messiah’s priesthood truly is eternal. This is one reason why His priesthood is superior to that of the Levites: “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.”6 An eternal priest is able to make intercession for his people to the end of the age.
More than this, “he has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (7:27). This underlines the fatal weakness of the old priesthood: its priests had to make offerings continuously. In contrast, Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself was final and fully efficacious, and His remaining priestly work consists of making intercession for those who draw near to him (7:25).
A Better Covenant
Now, if a change in the priesthood requires a change in the law, what has happened to the covenant which commands the keeping of the law?7 For this the author quotes at length (in chapter 8) from the prophet Jeremiah, who told the Jewish people, on behalf of God, that:
“the days are coming… when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hears, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… For I will be merciful to their iniquities and I will remember their sin no more.”8
It is important to note that this new covenant is not made with gentiles as if God would abandon the Jewish people. It is instead a covenant made with the Jewish people but extended beyond the boundaries of ethnic Israel to the nations who are blessed through them This is why the Jewish apostle to the gentiles, Paul (also known as Saul or Shaul), wrote of a gospel which went “to the Jew first and also to the [gentile].”9 Furthermore, he warned gentile converts to Jesus as Messiah that if they thought of themselves as superior to the Jewish people, who are God’s “tree” by nature, God would remove the gentiles (branches which were not natural but grafted in) from His people.10 This teaching undermines the rabbinic narrative that Christianity, properly practiced, is part and parcel with the gentile abuse of the Jewish people just as it undermines the claim of any antisemite to be a Christian in good standing.
In any case, an obvious question presents itself here: if a new covenant is spoken of, where does that leave the old one? According to the author of this epistle, “in speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”11
This does not suggest that the Tanakh is useless. As the Jewish believer in Jesus, Adolph Saphir, wrote:
“And yet no portion of Scripture can ever become antiquated, losing its instructiveness, significance, and value. No period of the history of God’s people, no type, no institution, no event of any dispensation, can be forgotten; nothing that God has said, given, or done, will be lost. For the eternal Spirit, who saw the end from the beginning, hath so ordered it that the whole Scripture ministers unto all generations of His people, that as the fathers cannot be made perfect without the children, so the children who are privileged to see the better things provided for them by God are gathered unto the fathers, and blessed with the ancient household of faith…”12
It is not that what God had revealed through Moses was useless, but that it anticipated what He would reveal through Christ. In the case of the covenant, it looked forward to a new covenant, spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah, where sins would be cleansed fully by a different kind of high priest and the law of God would be written on our hearts instead of on tablets of stone.13
A Better Sacrifice
If the priesthood has changed, and the covenant with it, what kind of sacrifice remains for sins? Although it is common for the rabbis to claim that prayers will have to substitute for our offerings until the temple is rebuilt, the author of this epistle gives an answer which is much more tightly integrated into the fibers of the Tanakh. Indeed, our author reminds us that, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”14 If the basis for both our forgiveness and for the Mosaic covenant is sacrificial blood, and the Mosaic covenant can no longer offer blood sacrifices, there must be a new covenant if there is to be forgiveness of sins.
In chapter 9 our author summarizes the procedure of sacrifice for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). On this day alone could someone enter into the full presence of God in the temple’s most holy place, and even then only the high priest. This mediator, “entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.”15 Upon this fact our author hangs his most essential point. This sacrifice obviously could not perfect either the priest or the people since (1) it had to be offered over and over and (2) it could not open the way into the most holy place, and the presence of God, for all. The Day of Atonement was centered around an imperfect priest making imperfect sacrifices for a people who were not perfected by them. This doesn’t make those sacrifices useless, however. They served their purpose at the time they were given. But if this is so, “how much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”16 Through the final and perfect sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah, we may have complete forgiveness of sins and the Spirit of God motivating our motives, actions, and intentions.
For our author, the old covenant sacrificial system pointed to something greater to come. If the new covenant, priesthood, and sacrifices are better, then the ministry which our high priest performs on behalf of his people is as well. Since the New Covenant was established upon better promises, then also “the ministry Jesus has received [is] superior” as well.17 Why? In summary, because:
“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”18
What is the application for those living today? Because of what Jesus did, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”19 and “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body.”20 Furthermore, we may be grateful that God fulfilled what was only a shadow in his beautiful Torah, forgiving us of our sin by the ministry of our New Covenant High Priest and by making a way to cleanse our conscience from sins once for all.
1. Or, more literally, King of Righteousness, King of Peace.
2. See Genesis 14.
3. Psalm 110:4, ESV. All additional biblical citations are from the ESV.
4. See his work The Laws Concerning the Messiah.
5. Hebrews 7:12.
6. Hebrews 7:23-25.
7. As we read in Exodus 24:7, “Then [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.‘”
8. Hebrews 8:8-12, quoting from Jeremiah chapter 31.
9. Romans 1:16.
10. Romans 11:16-21.
11. Hebrew 8:13.
12. Saphir, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Exposition, Kindle edition.
13. Compare the giving of the Old Covenant law in Exodus 19-20 to the inauguration of the New Covenant by the writing of God’s law on the heart in Acts 2, both taking place on Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks.
14. Hebrews 9:22.
15. Hebrews 9:7.
16. Hebrews 9:14.
17. Hebrews 8:6.
18. Hebrews 9:24-26.
19. Hebrews 10:10.
20. Hebrews 10:19-20. See also Matthew 27:51, which tells us that at the time of Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”