Hebrews 7:12--Changed or Abolished?
Hebrews 7:12 says that there was a change of the law. It does not say that the law was abolished as you argue in your article, "The Law: The Misunderstood Covenant." How is this consistent with your article?
In regards to Hebrews 7:12, this is a question concerning the way we use language, the meaning of the Greek language underlying the English translations, and most importantly, the context.
First, we will examine the way we use language. When someone says they are going to change their oil, what do they mean by that? Do they mean that they are merely going to add something else to it? No. They mean that they are going to get rid of the old oil, and put in some new oil. That new oil can be a different brand, or a different grade. What is most significant is that the word "change" indicates the removal of one thing to put in another. Likewise, what does someone mean when they say they are going to change jobs? Does this indicate that they will retain their old employment in any fashion, or a complete abandonment of one job for the other? Many more examples could be given, but I think I have demonstrated the point. According to the way we use language, then, the fact that the author of Hebrews says that there is a changing of the law argues strongly in favor that the Mosaic Covenant has been abolished, being replaced by the New Covenant.
Secondly, concerning the meaning of the Greek, "change" is translated from metatithemi, which refers to a change in one's state. This word is used in Acts 2:20 when it is said, "The sun will be changed to darkness," and in James 4:9 when it is said, "Let your laughter be turned into crying." It often speaks of a complete change. In Hebrews 7:12 the author's point was that there was a radical change in the law.
One might argue that a radical change in the law does not mean the abolition of the law. That would be true, if the author was using "law" here to refer to the Law of Moses. It must be remembered that the Greek word nomos (law) is used in many ways in Scripture. Paul quoted from Psalms and Isaiah in Romans 3:10-18, yet he said that it was the Law that said these things (Romans 3:19). Sometimes the use of law is in reference to the entire Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-18; Romans 3:10-19; Isaiah 28:11 with I Corinthians 14:21; John 5:10 with Jeremiah 17:21). Sometimes it only refers to the Penteteuch (Luke 24:44; I Corinthians 14:34 with Genesis 3:16; I Chronicles 16:40). Sometimes it refers solely to the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1:1-5; 27:1-8; Joshua 8:30-35). Sometimes the reference is to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; 24:12). At other times it can refer to a human custom (II Samuel 7:19, where Hebrew word torah is translated "manner"). The New Testament also uses "law" in reference to the law of the mind (Romans 7:23), the law of sin and death (Romans 7:23; 8:2), the law of the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2), and the law of faith (Romans 3:27). The wide range of reference ascribed to "law" in the New Testament should make us keenly aware of the falacy of pigeon-holing every occurence of the word into a certain meaning or reference. As with all words, it must be defined by its context.
The most basic meaning of nomos is a principle, or governing rule of one's life. Louw-Nida's Greek Lexicon defines nomos as "a formalized rule (or set of rules) prescribing what people must do."1 It is used in this sense by the apostles in Acts 16:4: "They delivered to them the rules which they were to obey." The author's point, then, is that when the priesthood was changed, there was a necessity to also change the formalized rules by which the people lived by. We know that the formalized rules the Israelites lived by was the Law of Moses, so it was that law-system as a whole that had to be changed so that a different law-system by which people would live their lives could be implemented.
Lastly, the context reveals that the author's point was that the Law of Moses has been abolished, being superceded by the New Covenant. In order to fully understand Hebrews 7:12 we must briefly examine the full context in which in appears. This particular verse can only be understood in light of the author's argument in Hebrews 5:1--8:6, which stands as one literary unit.
Hebrews 5:1-10 serves to demonstrate that Jesus' call to the priesthood was equally as valid as the call of the Levitical priesthood, but was of another order (non-Aaronic, or non-Levitical). Hebrews 5:11-6:18 forms a parenthetical exhortation to continue in the New Covenant, and not go back to the Mosaic Covenant. Hebrews 6:19-20 resumes the discussion of the Melchisedecian priesthood of Christ. The passage serves to justify Jesus' non-Aaronic priesthood by demonstrating: 1. that the Aaronic priesthood was a covenantal priesthood connected only with the Mosaic Covenant, 2. and that the imperfect nature of that priesthood necessitated its replacement. Seeing that Jesus inaugurated a New Covenant, the priesthood changed from Aaronic to Melchisedecian (as Psalm 110:4 foretold), which was a change from an imperfect to a perfect priesthood.
The literary purpose of Hebrews 7 is to justify Jesus' priesthood, seeing that He was not from the tribe of Levi, from which the Levitical priesthood was derived (7:5-6, 11-14). The author demonstrated that Jesus need not be from the tribe of Levi to be a priest because the Levitical priesthood is inextricably connected with the Mosaic Covenant (7:11-12, 18-19, 28). Since Jesus abolished the Mosaic Covenant, the requirement of that covenant's priesthood has also been abolished (7:11-12, 18). With the establishment of the New Covenant the priesthood changed, as the Law itself foretold. The priesthood of the New Covenant is after the order of Melchisedec, of whom Jesus is the sole occupant (5:9-10, 7:26-28).
Not only is it possible for Jesus to be a priest, but Jesus' priesthood is superior to that of Levi. Whereas the Levitical priesthood was imperfect, Jesus' priesthood is perfect (7:22-28). The author uses this fact to argue for the changing of the covenants, because the Levitical priesthood was connected with the Law, which was also imperfect (7:11-12, 19).
Hebrews 7:1-10 recites Abraham's encounter with Melchisedec. The literary purpose for referencing the story was to demonstrate that the Levitical priesthood was not the pinnacle of God's plan. As the author made clear, that priesthood could not bring perfection (v. 11). Even the law foretold of a priest who would arise after Melchisedec's order, and not of Aaron's (Psalm 110:4). There would have been no need for another order of priests had the Aaronic order been the pinnacle of God's plan. Hebrews 8:6 clues us in to the point of chapters 5 and 7, concluding that Jesus' ministry is better than Levi's, and the covenant Jesus established is better than the Mosaic Covenant. The remainder of the eighth chapter, coupled with chapters 9-10, continue to demonstrate the superiority of the New Covenant over the Mosaic Covenant.
With that as a backdrop, let us now now look specifically at the immediate context of Hebrews 7:12. The author argued that the Aaronic priesthood was inextricably connected with the Law of Moses (v. 11). Because of this connection, when one is abolished, the other is also abolished with it. The author continued, "For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law" (v.12).. How was the priesthood changed? Was it simply a reorganization of the current system? Was it the changing of certain positions? No. The entire Aaronic priesthood was abolished and replaced with the Melchisedecian priesthood. Starting with this radical change of the priesthood the author argued that the law (the formalized rules by which the people govern their lives) must also be changed because of such an event. If the change of the priesthood was a complete replacement of one order for another, why would we believe that the change of the law only refers to a revamping of the Law of Moses?
Reading further into chapter seven the author stated, "For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof. For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God (Heb 7:18-19). The Greek word translated "disannulling" is athetesis, which means to set aside something, to refuse to recognize its validity, or the complete removal of something. The Law of Moses has been done away with because it was inferior to the New Covenant. It is only by the New Covenant that we can draw close to God. One cannot get a much clearer statement as to the relationship of the Mosaic Law to the New Covenant than this. What makes statement even more powerful is the fact that it appears a mere six verses after the statement in question, giving clarification to what was stated in verse twelve.
Also note Hebrews 8:6-13. It is said that Jesus has a more excellent ministry, and is the mediator of a better covenant than that of the Law of Moses (v. 6). That Jesus' covenant is different from the Law is evident when the author said, "For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second" (v. 7). The Mosaic Covenant was a weak covenant, which occasioned God's making of a New Covenant with the house of Israel and Judah (v. 8). This New Covenant is not comparable to the Mosaic Covenant:
Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more (vs. 9-12).
The author brings out the implications of this idea of a "new covenant" by saying, "In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away" (v. 13). The author had no concept that the New Covenant was a supplement to the Mosaic Covenant, or that it only changed parts of the Law. Rather, the Mosaic Covenant was an old covenant that was inferior to the New Covenant, and was to be superceded by it because the two covenants were not compatible.
Finally, In Hebrews 10:1-8 the author argued that the Law was inferior to Jesus' New Covenant because the sacrifices under the Mosaic Law could never take away sin or the guilt of the conscience. Jesus, however, became incarnated so that He could overcome this weakness of the Law. How did He do this? Verses 9-10 explain it by saying, "Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He takes away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." In order for Jesus to deal with the problem of sin and guilt He had to take away the first covenant (Mosaic Law). Only after the first covenant was abolished could the second covenant (New Covenant) be established, and our sin/guilt problem be dealt with. The two covenants could not exist simultaneously. The New Covenant had to replace ("He takes away") the Old Covenant. The force of verse nine is that in order to do the will of God, Jesus had to abolish the Mosaic Law and establish a better covenant in its place, based upon Christ's substitutionary death, rather than the death of animals that could not rectify the problem of sin and guilt. We are only sanctified when we follow after the will of God as wrought in the person of Christ, and follow after the New Covenant He enacted rather than the Mosaic Covenant, because the latter cannot rectify the problem of sin and guilt. It is only through the covenant that is enacted by the offering of Jesus' body once for all that we are sanctified (v. 10).
1. J.P. Louw and E.A. Nida, Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. (United Bible Societies: New York, 1988), as found in BibleWorks, LLC, 1998. <back>
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