Our passage today continues the train of thought from chapter 4. We have a great High Priest that is Who the high priesthood pointed to, through Whom we can boldly enter into the presence of God to receive His grace and mercy. And what is a priest, but one who is chosen from among his brothers to represent them and offer sacrifices for their sin (5:1). And the high priest under the old covenant is just like us in his humanity: weak (v. 2) and sinful (v. 3). The only difference between him and his brethren is that he is called by God (v. 4).
Christ did not take on Himself the role of High Priest. He was appointed by the Father Who sent Him (v. 5 – see John 8:42) Who has made Him a true Priest (v. 6). The writer pulls from Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 to make this point. And as One called among His brothers (as we saw in chapter 2) He was weak exactly like we are weak (vv. 7-8), yet did not sin, precisely so that He could be our High Priest before God (vv. 9-10). In verses 11-14, the writer (preacher) takes up correcting his readers (hearers) because all he has said about Christ is basic doctrine. It is milk. And they need to mature so that they can eat solid food. But to what end? To know theology? No! That they may be righteous (v. 13) and be able to distinguish good from evil (v. 14).
Chapter 6 begins with an exhortation to move beyond the “milk” doctrines and move toward maturity, which means “not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God…” (6:1). And this leads us into one of the most disputed and hard to understand passages in the entire New Testament. So we need to keep this passage in its larger context, that is, the context of the entire book, which means to understand it we need to look back at what has already been said, and we need to keep this in mind as me move forward. The writer wants his readers, Jewish Christians, to grow into maturity in Christ, and holding on to any of the types and shadows that pointed to Christ as inherently valuable would leave them immature. Even worse, it may indicate that they have not truly been converted by faith in Christ if they are still relying on the works of the Law.
Follow the argument. There was the Old Testament sacrificial system that, as it turns out, never sufficed to atone for sin (see Heb 10:4). There was the priesthood that, as it turns out, was not the true priesthood (as we are about to see). So day after day, year after year, Israel would offer sacrifices, and offer sacrifices, and offer sacrifices. And the priest would mediate between them and God and offer sacrifices, and offer sacrifices and offer sacrifices. This is what atonement for sin looked like for those under the Law. So every time they offered their sin, guilt, burnt, or peace offerings, it was atoning for sin anew.
Now, apply that way of living to the New Testament church, where atonement for sin is accomplished by the true High Priest with the true sacrifice for sin at the cross. This is applied to us in space and time how? Through repentance for our sin and placing our faith in Christ. This is the foundation, as it were, of our becoming Christians. If we apply the “sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice” of the old way, we will believe we have to repent and place our faith in Christ anew every time we sin, so day after day, year after year.* This is why we can “not lay again” such a foundation (v. 1).
I have seen such Christianity. At my first church, there was an altar call every week; an opportunity to “ask Jesus into your heart” and “be saved.” When I became the associate pastor, the senior pastor asked me to stand in the back of the sanctuary to see who raised their hand or walked the aisle so that he or I could speak to them after service. Week after week, the same people raised their hand and walked the aisle. They did not truly understand what Christ did. They were trying to offer sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice.
It is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. – Hebrews 6:4–6 (ESV)
This is not speaking about apostacy. This is not speaking about one who is truly saved falling away from grace to reprobation. This is talking about the impossibility of the Christian religion being one where any further sacrifice for sin can be required or made beyond what our dear Lord has already provided. It is impossible! Christ did it, once for all! And those who are stuck at the beginning, as it were, laying the foundation over and over again are Christians that are either stuck taking really small sips of doctrinal milk, or they are, in reality, a useless crop whose end is to be burned (v. 8). To me, this goes hand in hand with the most terrifying passage in all of Scripture, Matthew 7:21-23.
In contrast to such weak or absent faith, we should look to Him Who swore by Himself because there is nothing greater by which to swear (v. 13) that He would preserve an offspring of Abraham (v. 14). And when did God make this promise, this oath? When Abraham by faith was ready to offer Isaac:
“By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” – Genesis 22:16–18 (ESV)
The blessing. The multiplication. The victory. It would be by the offering of a Son. And do not let verse 15 slip by! Abraham obtained the promise! He never got the physical land. He never saw the physical offspring as the stars of heaven. He did not see them physically possess the gates of their enemies. So that was not really the promise.
And for us, the promise is just as sure, because we are heirs of the promise (v. 17). It is rooted in Who God is (as we have seen throughout the Old Testament so far!) and what He does – both unchangeable (v. 18). So we have a hope that brings us into the very presence of God (as we saw in chapter 4) because Jesus is our High Priest Who offered Himself (vv. 19-20).
Chapter 7 establishes the motif of Jesus as the true High Priest. The father of our faith made his free will offering to that original priesthood (v. 4), and by extension, understanding the idea of representation, so did the priesthood of the Levites (v. 10). The idea here is that the conclusion of the Levitical and Aaronic priesthoods should not be a surprise, because priesthood did not begin with it. There was a beginning to that priesthood, why should it surprise us that there was an end? This is why it is pertinent that Melchizedek had no discernable beginning or end (v. 3) – the true priesthood is eternal.
Now, if the Levitical priesthood and the sacrifices had an end, then the Law is at an end (v. 12). Under the law, Levites were the priests. But Jesus is of Judah (v. 14). Thus, the Law has ended. And why? Because Christ is greater (vv. 18-19)! And we know this, because God has sworn an oath, and cannot lie, and has made Christ our High Priest (vv. 20-21). And so: Christ is greater (v. 22)!
But there’s more! He is greater because He lives! There is no succession of priests, because there is an eternal priest that has overcome death (vv. 23-24). And His priesthood continues in heaven (v. 25). And note verse 26. It is fitting – it is proper, it accords with what God has already revealed – that our High Priest should be sinless, and should offer Himself, and should ascend to heaven to be our Priest (vv. 26-28).
Chapter 8 begins with the point: Christ is not like the high priest who entered into the symbolic presence of God in a tabernacle that represented heaven. He is the true High Priest Who is in heaven (8:1-2). Because He offered Himself, sinless, and has obtained the better promise (vv. 3-6). And the New Covenant is faultless, because unlike the Mosaic covenant, it is mediated by One Who is faultless (v. 7).
Verses 8-12 quote Jeremiah 31:31-34 to show that God made a better promise to His people while we were still under the old covenant. He told us that the Mosaic Covenant would end. And that is why, in Christ, the old has passed away (v. 13 – see 2 Cor 5:17).
Is Hebrews your favorite book yet?
*Understand, we should repent every time we sin. We should strive to grow the faith we have. What we are talking about is the “foundational” repentance and faith, i.e. initial salvation. It had to be done over and over again under the Law. As we have seen, after the sacrifice of an animal, nothing changed for the offeror. The next time they sinned, they were right back where they were before the sacrifice. This was to show us our need for the ultimate once for all sacrifice.