Hebrews in Light of Paul’s Analogies

Last updated: 2021-04-20

Most of the time Paul uses covenants as analogies for soteriologies. See here:

However, I think in Hebrews Paul uses covenants as analogies for the priesthoods and ministries of those covenants. He uses kal-vahomer to argue that the new priesthood is greater than the old just like the new covenant is greater than the old. In fact, the new covenant priesthood is so much greater than the old priesthood that it is as if the old priesthood was “faulty” and “weak” because they could not perfect Israel. However, Paul does not mean this literally since he elsewhere states that the Levitical priesthood was never designed to take away sin:

1 Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? (Hebrews 10:1-2)

13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Hebrews 9:13-14)

The first problematic chapter is 7:

11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood—for the people received the law under this priesthood—what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. 13 Now the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.

15 It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, 16 one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is attested of him,

“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”

18 There is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual 19 (for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God. (Hebrews 7:11-18 emphasis mine)

Notice the subject is the priesthood and the fact that the Levitical priesthood could not accomplish what Christ could. There is no indication of a change of rules that humans are supposed to follow rather a transposition of priesthoods. In verse 12 “change” means “transpose” and is used that way in Hebrews 11:5 to speak of Enoch being “transposed” into heaven: https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/G3346

This same idea is stated more explicitly here:

23 Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. (Hebrews 9:23-24)

So the law was not changed from one thing to another but rather moved in practice from earth to heaven.

In verse 18 the corresponding Hebrew can mean “transgression” or “offering for transgression” See 1 Samuel 24:11 https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/G115 and compare with this: https://www.blueletterbible.org/kjv/1sa/24/11/t_conc_260011
You’ll see this as the corresponding word: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H6588

Indeed in Hebrews 9:26 it is translated as “to remove” but could just as easily mean “as an offering for” compare this https://studybible.info/interlinear/Hebrews%209:26 with the following:

for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:26)

Following this new translation then in verse 18 Paul is speaking only in terms of the transgression of the laws of the Levitical priesthood. Those laws were transgressed either because the priesthood was made of imperfect humans unlike Christ or–more likely–the priesthood’s temple was destroyed and made them unable to carry out the laws. If the later, then this was because Israel was not perfected and God allowed the enemies of Israel to destroy the Temple. Observe the context which is all about the priesthood. If we translate Hebrews 9:26 and Hebrews 7:16-22 with the same meaning that the Greek has in 1 Samuel 24:11 then we end up with the following:

for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age [as an offering for] sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:26)

16 one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life.
17 For it is attested of him,“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”
18 There is, on the one hand, the [transgression] of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual 19 (for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God. 20 This was confirmed with an oath; for others who became priests took their office without an oath,
21 but this one became a priest with an oath, because of the one who said to him,

“The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
‘You are a priest forever’”—

22 accordingly Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant.(Hebrews 7:16-22 emphasis mine with the translation changed to the Hebrew meaning of “abrogation” in verse 18)

This is one of the quirks of Hebrew where “transgression” can mean “offering for transgression” which makes the “offering” literally become the “transgression” being consumed on the alter.

Finally, we see that the reason the priesthood in verse 18 was weak was because of the ministry of the Levitical priesthood that was not designed to take away sin unlike the new covenant ministry. Paul does not mean this literally though because he is aware that the Levitical priesthood was never designed to take away sin—just to point to Christ and bring the knowledge of sin. Observe the parallels here:

(for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God. (Hebrews 7:19)

1 Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1-3)

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. (Hebrews 10:11)

This understanding will help us with the most problematic chapter 8:

1 Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2 a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up. 3 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” 6 But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. 7 For if that first [covenant] had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.

8 God finds fault with them when he says:

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah;
9 not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors,
on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt;
for they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord.
10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach one another
or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.”

13 In speaking of “[a] new [covenant],” he has made the first [one] obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:1-13 emphasis mine)

I have put in brackets where the word “covenant” is supplied in the NRSV. In verse 13 most Christians interpret the covenant as a whole as growing old and disappearing. However we must look at this in light of the subject of the previous verses:

6 But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. 7 For if that first [covenant] had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.

8 God finds fault with them when he says:

1. The new covenant is said to be better only to the degree that Jesus is a more excellent minister, this implies that the law/instruction remains the same for humans who aren’t priests.

2. God finds fault with a plural entity: the Levitical priesthood and Israel, not a singular covenant.

3. The term “faultless” https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/G273 is about being faultless under law (hence the transgression of the priesthood) and  “finds fault” https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/G3201 is about complaining or finding fault.

4. Verse 7 has parallels implying it is about the priesthood:

For if that first [covenant] had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one (Hebrews 8:7)

Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood—for the people received the law under this priesthood—what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? (Hebrews 7:11)

8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 This is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, (Hebrews 10:8-9)

So moving on to verse 13:

In speaking of “[a] new [covenant],” he has made the first [one] obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear [i.e. be destroyed]. (Hebrews 8:13 NRSV with my changes in brackets)

The focus of the “fault” is on the priesthood and the ministry of that covenant which just was not designed to take away sin: it only brought knowledge of that sin and was used to point to the one that makes an offering for sin. However, you could even say that inserting/supplying “covenant” is correct because of Paul’s use of the “law” analogy to refer to the priesthood and ministry (as we see elsewhere e.g. Hebrews 7:17-19). However, “covenant” could even be literally supplied correctly if Paul is using the idea of “covenant” in the broader sense of the rules and administration of those rules under the priesthood. This would be in contrast to 2 Corinthians 3 where he makes a distinction between the ministry and the covenant:

The word for “disappear” is used to talk about the literal destruction of human things and concepts such as nations. This implies a human priesthood and ministry being destroyed with the destruction of the Temple: https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/854/start/30 This would be translated as follows:

In speaking of “new,” he has made the first obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon be destroyed. (Hebrews 8:13 NRSV with my changes)

So it is entirely consistent with Torah to say literally that the “covenant” will be destroyed in the broader sense that it will become obsolete because the ministry that is part of it will be destroyed and is already in the process of being made obsolete by the Holy Spirit. Once the law is written on the heart by the Holy Spirit and is obeyed the curses incurred by Israel at Sinai become obsolete by their lack of a sinful target. However, Paul is probably just using the idea of “covenant” as an analogy for the priesthood. Either way I think he is using the idea of “covenant” in Jeremiah to explain the destruction of the Temple and the eventual destruction of the priesthood’s ministry. (there is some evidence that the sacrifices continued after the temple was destroyed) What is interesting is that Paul never supplies the word “covenant” why not? We shall see later.

Hebrews implies this destruction elsewhere:

8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary has not yet been disclosed as long as the first tent is still standing. 9 This is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, (Hebrews 9:8-9)

To shore up the fact that Hebrews 8:13 is indeed focusing on the priesthood and not the covenant rules you can observe the parallel in Hebrews 10:9 where it implies God is in the process of “taking up” the old sacrifices to replace it with the new ministration (probably the Holy Spirit). However, notice that when Paul talks about the “sacrifice” of Christ on the cross he uses the past tense perfect “sanctified” in contrast to him progressively “taking up” the priesthood in Hebrews 10:9 or the old covenant ministration progressively becoming obsolete in Hebrews 8:13. This is because the law takes time to be written on Israel’s heart in contrast to the discrete death of Christ on the cross.

8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He [takes up] the first in order to establish the second. 10 And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:8-10 NRSV with my modification in verse 9)

Why does Paul leave out the word “covenant” in Hebrews 8:13? The entire context is about the priesthood but as an extra percaution Paul I think leaves out the word “covenant” because he doesn’t want you to think that the “covenant” in the more specific sense of God’s rules at Sinai will be done away with. God’s Sinai covenant is fine and its Levitical priesthood acted as the shadow to point to the greater priesthood of Christ. The Levitical priesthood can only be said to be “faulty” in that it did not accomplish what the new covenant priesthood will. Paul is using the covenants as analogies for the priesthoods: in a sense the new priesthood is so great that it is as if the Levitical priesthood was faulty. (kal-vahomer!)

Finally, Paul says it is becoming obsolete. This is at variance with those who insist this is related to the discrete work of Christ on the cross or in his resurrection:

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” (Hebrews 10:12)

Rather, what Christ did on the cross was only the beginning of a process of the ministry of the Holy Spirit writing the law on our hearts which is better than the human priests who cannot actually take away sin:

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. (Hebrews 10:11)

The first covenant only becomes obsolete in the sense of its ministry because of the work of Christ through the holy spirit to write the law on Israel’s heart makes pointing to that work obsolete. However, that process was started by the discrete event of Christ sending going to heaven to send the Holy Spirit:

For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. (Hebrews 9:15)

” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,

16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”

17 he also adds,

“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:14-18)

The last problematic chapter is 10:

1 Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He [takes up] the first in order to establish the second. 10 And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:1-10 NRSV with my modifications)

In verse 10 I’ve changed the word “abolishes” since it can also mean “take up” like how Pharaoh’s daughter “took [Moses] up” in Acts 7:21 https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/337/start/60 so it could mean that God took up the ministry of the covenant into heaven with a heavenly priesthood or it could mean that the ministry of the earthly priesthood is destroyed in order that the second ministry is established: to explain the destruction of the Temple. I suspect that the Temple was destroyed to take away a distraction from the heavenly priesthood because Israel did not see the end to which it pointed. However, once Israel as a whole sees this, the priesthood will be reestablished to elucidate the heavenly priesthood to other nations since Israel is a priesthood to the world.

Paul well knows that the Levitical priesthood will be reestablished in Ezekiel 44-48. Also Zechariah 14 talks of the festivals being reestablished at Jerusalem (so presumably the priesthood and the Temple is again in action) This is just Paul’s way of reassuring people in a time where it looked like the world had ended for Jews. The Temple was destroyed and the sacrifices ceased (or were soon going to) and people were wondering if they could still carry on. Maybe the Levitical priesthood was destroyed because Israel did not see that it pointed to the heavenly priesthood. Maybe once Israel as a whole sees this, the priesthood will be reestablished to elucidate the heavenly priesthood to other nations. Regardless, it doesn’t matter because God’s plan will carry on for his people. Paul tells them that this could have been completely expected and that it really isn’t a big deal after all since what the Temple pointed to was the true Temple in the heavens. I hope you are also reassured.

Conclusion

I think we see throughout this that the focus is on the priesthood being changed and that the “law” is just used as an analogy for it’s ministry and priesthood. The old covenant could only be said to become obsolete in the sense that the ministry of it (death) is no longer needed to bring awareness of sin with the new covenant perfecting people. Paul leaves no room in the context to say he is speaking of anything but the priesthood and even goes so far as to leave the word “covenant” out when making his analogy–yet people still misunderstand him.

  1. The new covenant is said to be better only to the degree that Jesus is a more excellent minister, this implies that the law/instructions remains the same for humans.
  2. Paul uses covenants as analogies for priesthoods just like he uses covenants as analogies for soteriologies or ministries in his other works.
  3. God finds fault with a plural entity: the priesthood or Israel, not a singular covenant.
  4. The term “faultless” https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/G273 is about being faultless under law (hence the transgression of the priesthood) and “finds fault” https://studybible.info/search-interlinear/strongs/G3201 is about complaining or finding fault.
  5. Paul knows that the Levitical priesthood was never designed to take away sin. If he calls it “faulty” it is only because of the failings of that priesthood or more likely because it is so inferior to the new priesthood that it is “faulty” by comparison.
  6. Paul is reassuring people. He does this by saying that the Temple could be expected to be destroyed since Christ had just come to inaugurate the new covenant and that when the old priesthood ceases to operate completely we will have an even better priesthood so take heart!