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  • Presbyterian Reformed Church

Larger Catechism #44: “How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?” Hebrews 5:6

The following sermon was preached by Dr. William Young at East Greenwich, RI on September 15, 1991


May it please the Lord to grant his indispensible aid as we would endeavour to consider the words found in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the fifth chapter, and the sixth verse: “As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec…”, particularly the quotation from the 110th Psalm, in the latter part of the verse, “Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec.”

A prophet represents God in speaking to man, while a priest represents man in dealing with God. Our Christ, as the Mediator between God and man, is not only a prophet but he is also a priest. Our Larger Catechism in the 44th question asks; “How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?” and it gives the answer; “Christ executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering himself a sacrifice without spot to God, to be a reconciliation for the sins of his people; and in making continual intercession for them.” Now our text declares that Christ is a priest. It indicates in the context that this text quoted from Psalm 110:4, “Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec,”, supports the doctrine that is stated in Hebrews 5:5 that Christ did not glorify himself to be made a high priest, but his priesthood was a divine appointment. It was that which was committed to him in his work as the Mediator between God and man.


In the second chapter of the same Epistle to the Hebrews, we read in greater detail with respect to Melchisedec as a type of Christ. The reference to Melchisedec particularly shows that Christ’s priesthood was of a superior order to that of the Levitical priesthood. Now, we may say a few words without going into many details about the question; Who was Melchisedec? We read the remarkable words in Hebrews 7:3, “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.” From this some have drawn the conclusion that this was no other than Christ himself appearing prior to his incarnation in the form of this one who was spoken of as the “King of righteousness and the King of Salem”.


It has been observed indeed that, Christ as God was without a mother and as man he was without a father. In this regard, it may be spoken of him. But, it is not so clear that it could be said with respect to Christ in any literal sense that he was without descent, or that as man he had neither beginning of days or end of life. We do have the narrative of the gospels which includes the genealogies of our Savior showing that he was descended from Adam and from Abraham and from David. I rather think that the mention of Melchisedec being without father and without mother signifies that there is no further explanation of him made in Scripture by the Spirit of God. In the few words that we have about Melchisedec in the 14th chapter of Genesis, the Spirit has maintained a deliberate silence with respect to Melchisedec in order that he might truly be a type of Christ. And, that he is a type of Christ, rather than being identified with the Person of Christ himself, would certainly seem to be indicated by the words that we have in Hebrews 7:3, “…but (he was) made like unto the Son of God”.


And, if Melchisedec was made like unto the Son of God, then he could not have been really identified with the Son of God. He could not be the very person of the Son of God, but rather he serves as a type, and as a type he sets forth certain aspects of Christ’s priesthood which are not set forth by the Levitical priesthood. And this is, I think, the real significance of the words that he is "without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life”. The Levitical priests had father and mother, they had descent – their descent was very important – they were priests precisely because they were descended from Levi, and the high priests were descendants of Aaron. Christ is here exalted particularly with regard to his priesthood in that he is represented by the figure of Melchisedec in opposition to the Levitical priesthood. Melchisedec is one of whom we are not told information regarding his origin and his background. We may do best then not to pry into matters which the Spirit of God has particularly seen fit to be silent with regard to.


Now, in connection with the great subject of the priesthood of Christ that we are concerned with this morning, we may say a few words. First, in regard to the reality of it; secondly, with regard to the acts of it; and thirdly, with regard to the objects of it. We read in the opening verse of the 5th chapter of Hebrews, “Every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God that he might offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins…” And it was true of not only the high priest, but it was true of every priest that they were taken from among men, and that they were ordered for things pertaining to God that they may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. And so, in this regard the priesthood and in particular the high priest served as types of Christ. For just exactly what Christ has done in executing the office of a priest is what we have stated in the opening verse of Hebrews the 5th chapter: “…he has offered gifts and sacrifices for sins”. Yes, he is the the unspeakable Gift of God; he is the Sacrifice that has been offered once and for all for sin.


We are not to suppose that this is simply a figure of speech that is applied to our Lord Jesus Christ, as though the sons of Levi, particularly the sons of Aaron in their various generations, were the real priests, and that only in a figurative or symbolical sense could Christ be compared to these real priests and be said to be a priest. No, it is just the reverse! It is the case that the Levitical priesthood was merely symbolical – they were typical – of the great High Priest who was to come in the fulness of time, even our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the great teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The type is not primary, but secondary in comparison with the Antitype, and it is upon the Antitype that the type is entirely dependent. So, that the priesthood of the Old Testament as ordained by divine appointment, was a representation of the Mediator who was to come, and who was to perform the office of the Priesthood in reality and in truth. So at Mount Sinai indeed, God appointed that the tribe of Levi should serve as priests; and he appointed this to be the case that the Levitical priesthood might be a type of Christ as taken from among men and as offering gifts and sacrifices for sins.


Now the Epistle to the Hebrews makes a contrast in various respects between the Levitical priesthood and Christ’s priesthood. And the figure of Melchisedec is introduced in order to indicate a number of respects in which Christ is superior to the sons of Levi. For one thing, Christ was not a priest as descended from Levi, and in this respect, Melchisedec serves as a representation of Christ. It was Melchisedec who was not descended from Levi, where we are told that he was without descent so far as the record of Holy Scripture is concerned. And Levi, of course, did not yet exist at the time of Melchisedec. We are told that Levi was in the loins of Abraham, and that as such he was blessed by Melchisedec, who was a great priest.


Now Christ, according to the genealogies that are given us, was lineally a descendant of Judah, and not a descendant of Levi, and his priesthood was not a priesthood that came through him, as the Levitical priesthood did by reason of physical descent from the patriarch Levi. So that we have first of all then, Melchisedec representing Christ as being a priest, not by reason of human descent, but because of an immediate appointment on the part of the most High God.


In the second place, Christ had no sins of his own for which to offer sacrifices. The Levitical priesthood not only was called upon to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people, but also for their own sins. This we have set forth in the Word of God, in the same Epistle to the Hebrews, in the seventh chapter, verses 26 and 27: “For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself.” So that our Savior, as being sinless, had no sins of his own, for which to offer up a sacrifice; he had only sins that were imputed to him. He had the sins of his people for whom he has made atonement. And in this he stands altogether distinct from the Levitical high priests, as well as the other priests who had sins of their own for which atonement had to be made.


The priesthood of Christ is one that is a permanent priesthood as distinct from the priesthood in which you have a succession of priests descending one from the other. The priesthood of the sons of Levi and particularly of the sons of Aaron in the high priesthood, was only temporary during the lifetime of the priest in question. But in the case of the Lord Jesus Christ, one has a priesthood that has not been terminated by the end of the individual’s mortal life. So we have it in verses 23 and 24 of Hebrews 7: “And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: But this man, because he continueth ever,” that is the the Lord Jesus Christ as the great High Priest, “because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood.” This perpetuity of Christ’s priesthood is confirmed by the divine oath. There was no oath to confirm the priesthood of the sons of Levi, but in Psalm 110:4 we have it stated with regard to Christ; “The Lord has sworn (an oath), and will not repent. Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec.” And in verses 20 and 21 of the same 7th chapter of Hebrews, we read: “And inasmuch as not without an oath he was made priest: (For those priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec)…”


The Levitical priests offered many sacrifices, whereas Christ offered one sacrifice and only one. He offered himself, both body and soul, and he offered himself once and for all. The Epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes this in various places as in the 9th chapter, verses 25 and 26: “Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with the blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” And, in the 10th chapter in the same epistle, we read at the beginning: “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.” And in verse 4 we are told that is was not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sin. And in verse 5, “Wherefore, when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me…” And again in verse 7, we have the willingness of Christ to offer himself as stated in Psalm 40:, “Then said I, Lo, I come; (in the volume of the book it is written of me), to do thy will, O God.”


Thus we have the Epistle to the Hebrews expressing the fact that Christ has offered himself particularly in his physical body once and for all. And, that he offered himself in his soul is set forth among other places in the 53rd of Isaiah in the 10th verse when he stated he would make his soul to be an offering for sin. Now this text that we have been quoting from the 10th of Hebrews also stresses the fact that Christ’s sacrifice was effectual in actually taking away sin. It was effectual to perfect forever those who are sanctified, as we have it Hebrews 10 and the 14th verse: “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified,” unlike the shadowy sacrifices that had been offered under the Old Testament, which could not take away sin.


We may observe that both the psalmists and prophets in the Old Testament stressed the fact that external sacrifices of bulls and of goats cannot secure the favor of God; cannot take away sin. We have eloquent expression of that in the portion of the 40th and the 50th psalms that we were singing from. And, we have in the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah and others the same great truth set forth even in the Old Testament, which is fully unfolded to us in the explanation of Christ’s perfect sacrifice, and in opposition to the merely typical and shadowy sacrifices that had previously been given. Well, from all of this we may draw up the grand conclusion that Christ’s priesthood is real. That it is in a perfectly genuine sense that Christ is said to be a priest. Yes, we may say that he is the Priest; the Mediator may be said, in the strictest sense, to be the only real priest.


Now, in the second place, we may speak of the work or acts of Christ as a Priest. “How did Christ execute the office of a priest?” is the great question. And there are two aspects to the work of Christ as a priest: there is the aspect of the offering of the sacrifice; and there is the aspect of the making of intercession. Now, with regard to the intercession of Christ there is a separate question in the Larger Catechism in connection with Christ’s exaltation, and that deals specifically with the subject of the intercession of the Mediator. And we will reserve that subject until that time, if the Lord is pleased to spare us and enable us so to speak. But we may say a few words about the grand subject of Christ’s offering himself once and for all as a sacrifice.


There is a statement that we have in our Shorter Catechism that asks the same question, which is not made explicit in the Larger Catechism, but is implied certainly in the language of the Larger Catechism, mainly that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice in order to satisfy the justice of God. And this, I believe, is definitely implicit in the saying that he once offered himself a sacrifice without spot to God to be a reconciliation for the sins of his people; and that in so doing Christ satisfied the divine justice. This is a most important teaching to observe.


Now, we may treat of Christ offering of himself as a sacrifice under two heads. That is because the sacrifice involves two elements: on the one hand, the element of obedience, and on the other hand, the element of suffering. Sometimes the old divines spoke of the active and the passive obedience of Christ in this respect. We must not misunderstand this. We must not suppose that the act of obedience of Christ is to be limited simply to his earlier life, and excludes his sufferings which were all contained simply under the head of Christ’s passive obedience. We know that the sufferings of Christ were not separated from his obedience to the commission that was given to him in the Council of Redemption. In Philippines 2:8, we are told that “he was obedient unto death, even unto the death of the cross”. So, that in his offering up himself as a sacrifice, he was actively obedient.


The sufferings of Christ are not limited to his sufferings in Gethsemane or on Calvary, but from the very beginning of his incarnation Christ was suffering that penalty which was visibly and undeniably the judgment of God against sin. As a matter of fact, so far as the active of obedience of Christ is concerned, even his resurrection is said by him to be included in the commission that he received from his Father. He says this in John 10:18; “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father”.


Well then, both obedience and suffering were necessary by the great Priest. Obedience was necessary because we had been bound by the fact that we as rational creatures are bound to obey the law of God. But this is a requirement that none of us has fulfilled. It was a requirement that none of us could fulfill since the Fall. And not only do we have the debt of obedience to the holy law of God, but we also had a debt of suffering. We had the obligation to pay the penalty for our sins after we had committed sin, and therefore it was necessary that the Great High Priest should in our room and stead, perform that which was required of us, both in the way of obedience and also in the way of suffering. Since we owe a debt of obedience to the moral law as rational creatures and the debt of suffering as sinners, Christ has paid our debt in both of these matters. He has obeyed and he has suffered in our room and in our stead.


And this fact of Christ’s substitutionary obedience and suffering is evident in the teaching of Scripture in various respects. It is interesting to look at the prepositions that are used in reference to the death of Christ. In the fifth of Romans in verses 6 and 8, we are told that God commended his love toward us in that Christ died for us. And when it is said Christ died for us, it does not mean simply that Christ died in order to benefit us, in order that we might have a certain advantages as the result of his death. But the force of that preposition “for”; that Christ died for us, is that he died in our room and in our stead. He died as our Substitute.


And that that’s the case in these passages is made perfectly clear in the words of the Savior himself as we have in Matthew, the 20th chapter and the 28th verse, and the parallel passage in Mark, in which he stated that the Son of man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. This particular statement, the preposition that is used, can only mean “in place of,” “in the room,” and “in the stead of.”


That Christ’s sacrifice for sin is a substitutionary sacrifice is certainly made plain by many Scriptures. The 53th chapter of Isaiah in a most eloquent way sets forth the fact that he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him and by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, and we have turned everyone to his own way and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. And so also in 2nd Corinthians, the fifth chapter at the 21st verse, one has the contrast that is made between the Savior who knew no sin of his own, but who was made sin for us, in order that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Nowhere is there a sharper statement of the imputation of the sins of the Lord’s people to the Savior on the one hand, and the imputation of his righteousness to believers on the other.


And also in Galatians 3:13 we read: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us…”; being made a curse in the room and in the stead of sinners, who were under the curse because of the statement at verse 10, “…for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them”. Now these are various passages are a few that stand out from among many that speak of the substitution of Christ in his sufferings for sinners.


That his obedience was also substitutionary is made very clear in the passage in the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, beginning at the 12th verse, where the transgression of Adam is spoken of, and the sad effects of Adam’s sin have had upon his posterity. This teaching is developed by way of contrast with the obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ providing the foundation for the righteousness and the eternal life of those who belong to Christ; so that his atoning work is substitutionary both with respect to his obedience, and also with respect to his sufferings.


Now we are not to make a perverse misapplication of Christ’s active obedience in the way in which the Antinomians do. They argue that since Christ has fulfilled the demands of the law and has perfectly obeyed in the room and in the stead of believers that now, according to this erroneous argument, believers now are supposed to have nothing more to do with the law. They are under no obligation to observe the commandments of the law as a rule of life. But one can think of this in terms of a parallel from the fact that Christ’s sufferings are substitutionary and as such, stand in the room and in the place of those which believers should have suffered. That this is the case does not exempt believers from suffering in the way in which they do in this life. But you see, the substitution both of Christ’s obedience and also of his sufferings, is in terms of a specific purpose. That is under the covenantal works man was expected to obey God in order to receive eternal life as a reward of his obedience. But now, since the fall, it is impossible for eternal life to be obtained in that fashion. Man cannot be justified by obedience to the works of the law, as the Epistle to the Romans sets forth in chapter three. The only justification, the only pardon of sins that there can be, and the only title to eternal life that there can be, must be because of the perfect righteousness of Christ and because of the perfect suffering of the penalty by him in the room and in the stead of the guilty. But while the substitution of the Savior performs this greatest of all works that is called upon in giving a title to eternal life, and in giving full pardon of sin to believers, it does not mean either that believers are exempt from the requirements of the law as a rule of life, or that believers will have no suffering in this present life or in death to undergo.


We do not have time to speak of the great subject of the necessity of the atoning work of Christ. This is involved to be sure in the fact that his obedience and sufferings were with a view to meeting the demands of the righteousness and the justice of God. And the satisfaction of the justice of God by the suffering which could only be accomplished, as we have previously seen, by One who was a divine Person. If our Savior, as the God-man, had not offered himself as a sacrifice for sin, God’s justice would forever have been in effect against us who had transgressed the holy law of God.


I want to say a few things finally about the objects of Christ’s priesthood. The effect of the work of Christ is the actual reconciliation of the people of God, so in Hebrews 2:17: “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” And that is not just to make it possible that they might be reconciled, but it is to make actual reconciliation for the sins of his people. Now Christ as a Priest has actually reconciled sinners to God. This leads to the great scriptural proof of particular redemption. Christ acts as Priest in the performance of that which he undertook in the Covenant of Redemption. In the eternal councils the Son of God undertook to obey and to suffer for those who were given unto him by the Father. In the fulness of time he laid down his life for the sheep. He is indeed truly named Jesus, because he saves his people from their sins. His sacrifice is of infinite value by reason of the fact that he is a divine Person and is sufficient to save countless universes of sinners such as we, but his design was to save a definite people. For that people he intercedes and his Father heareth him always. “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7:25. May the Lord grant his blessing. Amen.


This edition of the text combines the transcription of a recorded audio together with Dr. Young’s hand written sermon notes. Some editing was done for ease of publishing. Use of underlining and italics are the editor’s.~~~

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