Someone recently asked me what details the Scriptures give into the transition of the priesthood from Levi to Judah. It is abundantly clear from the book of Hebrews that there was such a transition; and on account of it Christ is now the eternal Priest who came with the once-for-all sacrifice. The writer of Hebrews expressly stated the transition when he wrote:
Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. For He of whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no man has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood. (Heb. 7:11-14)
So the question remains, when, exactly, did the transition occur?
Several years ago I was reading through the opening chapters of Luke, and noticed an interesting juxtaposition. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was the son of a Levitical priest. In fact, Zacharias was ministering in the Temple when the Angel came to announce the birth of John. The fact that Luke gives such a detailed account of Zacharias’ Levitical ministry leads to the conclusion that Zacharias’ tribal connection has significance for his son’s ministry. John was born six months prior to the One for whom he was to prepare the way. We might expect to find something of John’s Levitical fuction, but we are not told of any ministry that John had in the Temple. Instead we find John ministering in the desert, the place representing the exile and curse. The restoration of all things would begin with a “voice crying in the wilderness.” John was called to the higher ministry of preparing for the restoration of all things, by “preparing the way of the LORD.” There is one act that John performs that does shed light on the Levitical function–baptism. Baptism was an Old Covenant act, carried out by the Levites in the Temple. They were called to wash the utensils used in the ceremonial aspects of Temple worship. The writer of Hebrews makes this clear when he wrote:
Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience” concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings (lit. baptisms), and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation. (Heb. 9:6-10)
The “time of Reformation” spoke of in these verses is the coming of the Son of God into the world. John prepared the way for this act; and, it is interesting to find John carrying out a Levitical function–baptism. He does not come to baptize utensils used in the Temple. He came to baptize people with a baptism of repentance. What is all the more remarkable, is that we find him baptizing the Savior–an act symbolizing the need for purification. The One who needed no repentance, underwent a baptism of repentance as our representative, as the Sin-bearer of His people. It is altogether probable that the Priesthood changed at the baptism of Jesus. When John the Levite, baptized Jesus, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Spirit fell on Christ thereby anointing Him for His Messianic ministry. Part of that ministry was the Priesthood. The Christ (Messiah) was the anointed of the Lord–God’s Prophet, Priest and King. We cannot find it strange then to find the change of the priesthood occur at the baptism of Jesus. While a Levitical priesthood continued through days of Jesus and the apostles, we must conclude that it was void of all divine significance. In fact, it was those same priests that condemned Jesus to death. When He died on the cross, the Lord ended the sacrificial system, by Himself becoming the sacrifice for sin. The Priesthood had changed. Now we have an eternal High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God. “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”