The New Covenant, the Melchizedek
Priesthood, and Torah
NCW 75, January-March 2002
Q. I have been reading the Epistle to the Hebrews recently, particularly the priesthood of Melchizedek, the new covenant, etc... particularly Chapters 4, 7 and 8 where it talks about God's rest, talks about the old vs. new covenant and the new priesthood which totally eliminated anything to do with any laws or ceremonies of the old Levitical priesthood.
How does NCCG fit their beliefs in with much of what Hebrews writes ... and what traditionally, Protestantism teaches about this epistle?
It seems that what may at times appear as the milk to some could actually be the meat since it was with the simple things that God would use to confound the wise.
A. For purposes of unity, I am going to address your questions about Hebrews using the Greek texts that are available to us, adding such remarks as I deem pertinent to the discussion from the Hebrew and Aramaic New Testament texts for clarification, principally the Hebrew-roots Version (HRV). I shall be using as my ground text the Jewish New Testament (JNT) by David Stern which is based on Greek texts.
1. The Sabbath Rest (Heb.4:3-11). This passages quotes Psalm 95 (Heb.4:8-11) was sung on the Sabbath Day in the Temple and indeed still remains part of the Sabbath liturgy in Jewish synagogues. It is quite natural therefore for the author to make his point about rest by introducing the quotation from another Sabbath-related passage, Genesis 2:1-3, and commenting:
"So there remains a Shabbat-keeping for God's people" (Heb.4:9, JNT).
Although the author may be thinking of the rest that comes to believers after they die (Rev.14:13), which is the principle understanding of Protestant commentators, its seems more likely to many Messianic Jewish commentators that he has in mind Jewish traditions that equate a day with 1,000 years and is therefore speaking of the rest that comes in the Messianic or Millennial Age. For example, in Sanhedrin 97a, Rav Kattina teaches that six millennia of ordinary history will be followed by a millennium of Shabbat. The passage is drawn from Psalm 90:4 and is quoted in 2 Peter 3:3-9.
Now most Protestant and Catholic Bibles translate Hebrews 4:9 along the lines of "there remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God" (NIV). Even Trimm renders the passage, "therefore, it is remaining for the people of Eloah to be given rest" (HRV) which adds a different twist, translating literally as he does the Aramaic. However, the Greek sabbatismos used to render "Sabbath-rest", is only used here in the NT. In the Septuagint (LXX), the related Greek word sabbatizein was coined to translate the Hebrew verb shabat which means "to observe Shabbat". The usual translation, therefore, "there remains a sabbath rest", minimises the observance aspect and makes the rôle of Yahweh's people entirely passive.
Christians often assume that the NT does not require Yahweh's people to observe Shabbat and go on to claim that Sunday has replaced Saturday as the Church's day of worship (see 1 Cor.16:2 which is used as a proof text though is not, in fact, describing a church meeting at all). But this passage, and in particular v.9, shows that Shabbat-observance is expected of believers. From Col.2:16-17 which says that the Sabbath was a shadow of things that were to come, but the substance comes from the Messiah, we learn that the essence of Shabbat-observance for believers is not following the detailed rules which halakah sets forth concerning what may or may not be done on the seventh day of the week, but rather, as v.10 explains, the Shabbat-keeping expected of Yahweh's people consists in resting from "ones own works, as God did from His" (JNT). It consists of being faithful to Yahweh (vv.2-3). Although the specific "works" from which the readers of this letter were to rest were animal sacrifices, by implication all self-struggle, in which one relies on one's own efforts instead of trusting Yahweh, is to be avoided. And in this the author (whom we believe to be Paul) is making the same point as Paul does in Romans 3:19-4:25.
The Sabbath discussion continues into v.11 where non-observance is linked to the Israelites' disobedience in the desert (see Heb.3:2-4:3). The writer also ties the concept of obedience to that of trusting and being faithful which may be compared to the "trust-grounded obedience" of Romans 1:5 and 16:25.
My point being that the Messianics and the Protestants are both half right - we are to observe the seventh-day Sabbath but not in the way the Jews formerly did. The truth actually lies between the two positions. The issue is not, therefore, whether we should observe the seventh-day Sabbath (for that is, biblically-speaking, a non-issue) but how we observe it.
For a fuller discussion on Sabbath-observance in the New Testament Church/Assembly, please see, The Sabbath Day: Saturday or Sunday? (New Covenant Press, Arvika, Sweden, 1999) or www.nccg.org/sabbath.
2. The High Priest and Melchizedek Priesthood (Heb.7-8). Before taking a closer examination of these two chapters, there are a number of translation issues from other passages that must first be settled. All of these bear heavily upon references made to the "Law" by Paul and others. Since the New Testament is to be understood as whole (as, indeed, with the whole Bible) and not as a series of isolated, culled texts forced together into a truncate puzzle that may promote some of the more "popular" theologies, it is important that we assemble a wide range of materials pertaining to the "Law issue".
(a) Did Yah'shua (Jesus) Fill or Fulfil Torah?
The common Greek word plerôsai means "to fill". At Matthew 5:17 most translations render it "to fulfill". The theological implications often drawn are that Yah'shua (Jesus) fulfilled all the prophecies of the Tanakh (Old Testament) pertaining to the Jews, so that none remain for them now; and that He kept Torah perfectly, so that no one need obey it today. But these conclusions do not follow logically, and in fact that contradict Yah'shua's (Jesus') immediately preceding statement that He did not come to abolish (or destroy) the Torah. More fundamental for translation, however, is the question of whether plerôsai in this verse should be rendered "to fulfill" at all. The view of Messianics like David H. Stern is that Yah'shua (Jesus) came to fill the Torah and the ethical pronouncements of the Prophets full with their complete meaning, so that everyone can know all that obedience entails. For this reason, the JNT says that Yah'shua (Jesus) came "not to abolish but to complete". In fact, this is the subject of the entire Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5-7). And Matthew 5:17, understood in this way, is its theme sentence. Interestingly, this understanding is concordant with Jewish tradition which says that when the Messiah comes, he will both explain obscure passages of Torah and actually change it.
(b) Does the Messiah Bring the Torah to an End, or is He its Goal?
At Romans 10:4 the KJV gives a translation typical of most versions: "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth". But the Greek telos, which gives us the English word "teleology", usually means "goal, purpose, consummation", not "termination". The Messiah did not bring the Torah to an end. Rather, as the JNT renders it, "the goal at which Torah aims is the Messiah, who offers righteousness to everyone who trusts". This is the point that Paul is making in Romans 9:30-10:13. For this reason the Greek word de at the beginning of Romans 10:6 is rendered as a continuative, "moreover," rather than the adversative, "but"; for the latter word would imply that there are two paths of righteousness - through deeds (i.e. obeying the Torah apart from faith, v.5) and through faith (vv.6-10). However, Paul's point throughout the passage, and indeed throughout Romans, is that for Jews and Gentiles alike there has never been more that one route to righteousness, namely, trusting God, so that the Torah is built on trusting Yahweh and from beginning to end has always required faith (Rom.1:16-17). For more on this, see Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1990).
(c) The New Testament Has Been Given as Torah
At Hebrews 8:6 most translations inform us that the New Covenant "has been enacted" on the basis of better promises. This would be an adequate translation were the subject matter Athenian legislation of Roman decrees. But the Greek word used here, nenomothetêtai, is a compound of nomos, which can mean "law" generally but in Hebrews always means Torah specifically, and tithêmi, a common word meaning "put" or "place". The only other appearance of nenomothetêtai in the New Testament is a few verses earlier, at 7:11, where all agree it refers to the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai, as do the related words nomothesia (Rom.9:4) and nomothetês (Jas.4:12). Therefore the JNT says that the New Covenant "has been given as Torah on the basis of better promises." This not only strengthens the theological contention that Torah remains in force, but makes the New Covenant given through Yah'shua (Jesus) Torah in the same sense as in the Sinaitic Covenant given through Moses.
(d) "Works of the Law" and "Under the Law": Is the Torah Legalistic?
The Greek phrases erga nomou and upo nomon were coined by Paul and used by him in three of his letters - Romans, Galatians and 1 Corinthians - each appears 10 times in the NT. They are usually translated "works of the law" and "under the law", respectively. This often causes the reader to infer that keeping Torah is bad, and that being within the framework of Torah observance is bad. The JNT, following the lead of C.E.B.Cranfield (International Critical Commentary: The Epistle to the Romans, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark Ltd., 1979, p.853), takes these phrases as referring not to the Torah itself but to man's legalistic perversion of it. Therefore erga nomou is rendered: "legalistic observance of Torah commands" and upo nomon, "in subjection to the system which results from perverting the Torah into legalism". The reader can then infer, correctly, that according to the NT teaching of Paul, legalism - whether Jewish, Christian, or other - is bad, but living according to Yahweh's Torah is good.
The Epistle to the Hebrews (which in the Hebrew clearly shows the original Pauline style, which is lost in the Greek Hebrews because that was rendered by a much more polished Greek translator than the other epistles), and in particular ch.7-8, contrast the New Covenant Melchizedek (Malchi-Zadokian) Priesthood with the Old Covenant Levitical (Zadokian). The names themselves are quite revealing. Believers in Hebrew are known as zadokim, meaning "the righteous ones" even as the Messiah Yah'shua (Jesus Christ) is known as the the Zadik, or "the Righteous One":
"But my righteous ones (zadokim) will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him" (Heb.10:38, NIV).
A zadokite, in both Old and New Testaments, is a person declared by Yahweh to be righteous. Previously, under the Old Covenant, an Israelites was declared righteous by faith in Yahweh which led him to receive the covering of the blood of animals (as mediated by the Aaronic / Levitical / Zadokian Priesthood) to be obedient to the commandments. (Notice that he was not saved by being obedient to Torah, which is legalistic perversion, but by his faith in Yahweh which led him to be obedient and to seek the mediation of the Zadokian Priesthood).
Similarly, under the New Covenant, a believer is made righteous (a zadik) by faith in Yahweh (as before) which leads him to receive the covering of the blood of atonement belonging to the intermediary Malchi-Zadok - King of Righteousness, Yah'shua the Messiah, which leads him to obey the commandments. As in the Old Covenant, believers are not saved by legalistic observance of New Covenant Torah, which is legalistic perversion, but by faith in Yahweh through the eternal High Priest Yah'shua (Jesus). By exercising this true faith, believers become the malchi-zadokim, the "kings of righteousness" through Christ, the King. As it is written of true believers:
""You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
And have made us kings and priests to our God; And we shall reign on the earth" (Rev 5:9-10, NKJV)
This "filling up" of Torah is therefore seen in the name-changes. The zadokim (righteous ones) become, through the filling up by the Malchi-Zadok, Yah'shua (Jesus), the malchizadokim (king-righteous ones). Notice also that believers are also priests, not of the old priesthood order, but the new one. All therefore becomes ministers of the Melchizedek Priesthood, a sharp contrast to the Old Covenants where only reserved members of the Levitical Tribe were eligible to serve by descent and fulfilment of certain practical criteria.
The issue of Hebrews 7:11, which was unattainable through the Zadokian system, is of immortal vs.. mortal, finite vs.. Infinite. What the Old Covenant could not provide, Yah'shua "filled up", bringing it to completion, so that our faith may also be perfected, not in temporary animal sacrifices, but in the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God.
There has been a change of priesthood (7:12), the former priesthood being brought to completion by the Messiah. Today's priesthood exists "not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructable life" (v.16, NIV). And "the former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless" (v.18).
But there has not been a change of ethical Torah nor a repudiation of a Decalogue (Ten Commandments). All that is changed is that aspect of the ceremonial Torah and Priesthood which utilised the blood of animals as a temporary covering and as a pointer of the "filled" Torah and the permanent covering of the Messiah. The writer of Hebrews is not saying that all the Torah has been abolished but that in the matter of the ceremonial law it has been reformed and that which was lacking was filled to make it complete!
Yes, the Old Covenant is now "obsolete" (v.13, NIV) or "antiquated" (HRV). Notice, however, that it had not actually disappeared but "will soon disappear" (ibid., NIV) or "is near to corruption" (HRV). As the Old Covenant "had regulations for worship and also and earthly sanctuary" (Heb.9:1, NIV) so the New Covenant has regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. Only the earthly sanctuary is no longer a temple of brick and stone but a temple of the flesh (1 Cor.6:9; Jn.2:21). The Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) no longer indwells a specially set apart building but in human bodies. But the fact it has been transferred to a more permanent structure (because the flesh will one day be resurrected) does not mean that all regulations for worship have ended. Not at all. They have simply been changed to adapt to the new structure. Temple-Torah is now Body-Torah. And that is why the New Testament contains many additional instructions/commandments as to how we are to worship the Most High in our tabernacles of flesh.
We know what the milk or elementary principles of the Gospel is because the writer of Hebrews tells us, so we don't need to debate that issue:
""For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection (cp. Mt.5:48), not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms (immersion - HRV), of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment" (Heb 5:12-6:3, NKJV).
If this is the milk Gospel, then what is the meat? For these are the things taught by most Protestants, though many omit even some of these from their doctrine and practice. And this being so, what then is the Word of Yahweh? "For everyone who partakes only of milk is UNSKILLED IN THE WORD OF RIGHTEOUSNESS (zadokim)". It means that they are not attaining perfection, as commanded by Yah'shua (Jesus) (Mt.5:48) because they refuse to "LEAVE the discussion of the ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES of Christ ... " And seek perfection. They would rather remain babies. Instead of seeking to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, which is a condition for entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and implies some sort of EFFORT (Mt.5:20), they choose to remain ignorant and spiritually stunted. Everywhere Yah'shua (Jesus) teaches that we are to go beyond what was revealed in the Old Covenant Torah to a Torah immensely greater (see, for example, Mt.5:21ff). Far from giving us freedom to do exactly what we want, the Messiah raises the standards and expectations of our Heavenly Father. Now we are even to love our enemies! Though we are certainly to move on, that does not mean abandoning the foundation of the original Torah - it means properly establishing it our lives so that we can build the next storey of righteousness.
So I would have to say that your contention that the New Covenant Melchizedek Priesthood "totally eliminated anything to do with any laws or ceremonies of the old Levitical priesthood" to be a half-truth. The types and shadows, and the ceremonies pertaining to these, such as animal sacrifice, are abolished because Messiah has fulfilled and replaced the need for these. But everything else remains, although on a higher spiritual plane. Torah is the foundation of our spiritual house. Remove it, and the structure eventually comes tumbling down, because its base is shifting sands. It is this lack of a firm foundation which has caused the Protestant churches to split ten thousand ways, and which is causing them to split further. Is this the fruit of the "freedom" in Christ which Protestants speak of? By throwing the baby out with the bath water - by rejecting the decaying and maggot-infested meat of Catholicism, they have created another error. Now the milk is going sour and they are wondering why. Church after church, and ministry after ministry, are being swallowed whole by the end-time deception. Why? Because they lack the guide rails of Torah to tell them whether they are on track or not - to tell them whether their faith is based on truth or is merely vain. The milk they bring the new-born to is mostly fine, but spiritual infants cannot remain in swaddling clothes for ever, nor be bound to the cradle. Such is not pleasing to Yahweh because it makes people unskilled in righteousness. And such is too great a risk to take:
"If the righteous one is scarcely saved, Where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?" (1 Peter 4:18, NKJV).
1. David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament, Introduction, JNT Publications, Clarksville, Maryland, 1989, pp. Xxii-xxv.
2. David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, ibid., 1992)
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