The Last of the Levites

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.”

16 Responses

  1. Nick,

    This is a very helpful and interesting proposal. Have you seen this John the Baptist-Jesus transition described in any commentaries or theological works? Would be curious to know. If not, I think you should develop it more 🙂


  2. That was totally awesome! I don’t know where you stand in regard to eschatology (optimistic amil?) but this thesis leaves no room for ardent post-mill dating of “this age” and the “age to come” (i.e. A.D. 70). The Spirit came down to the Temple and went up in Ezekiel 10. He never came down again … until Lk 3! As you guys talked about on CtC regarding Pentecost, the judgment on unbelieving Israel-after-the-flesh began in Jesus ministry.
    Matthew’s paralleling of Jesus and Moses is helpful too, where the connections are made about deliverance through water and coming in from temptation in the desert. Thanks, Nick!

  3. Thanks brothers. I have not read this in any commentary or book, which should cause me to proceed with caution. I have thought about doing a doctorate on the Priesthood and this feature specifically. I’d love to know what other developments you all come up with.

    1. Lynda MacDonald

      Just would like to offer this: in my own research, I found that when Jesus returns the temple will be rebuilt and sacrifices will be restored…not for sin as not all sacrifices were for sin. We know in Hebrews 5:7-10 that Jesus is our High Priest from the old order of Malkizedek but in Ezekiel 44:15-16 we read ““But the Levitical priests, the sons of Zadok, who kept the charge of my sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from me, shall come near to me to minister to me. And they shall stand before me to offer me the fat and the blood, declares the Lord GOD.” and in Malachi 3:3-4, it reads “He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the LORD.and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.” and the cherry on the top of the cake.. Zechariah 6:12-13 12 “..and tell him, ‘Adonai-Tzva’ot says: “There is coming a man whose name is Tzemach [Sprout]. He will sprout up from his place and rebuild the temple of Adonai. 13 Yes, he will rebuild the temple of Adonai; and he will take up royal splendor, sitting and ruling from his throne. There will be a cohen before his throne; and they will accept each other’s advice in complete harmony.” It is impossible for there to NOT be a Levitical priesthood when Yeshua (Jesus) returns. It is a covenant promise to Aaron’s family through Phinias. And, God never breaks his promise. 🙂

  4. This is good Nick. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve also thought that the offices of priest and king are connected in the temple. The temple was built by the king. And its spritual ministry was administered by the priests. Likewise, Jesus is king in that his body (the temple) comes through (is built by) the kingly line (the line of Judah). And he is priest in that he ministers the Spirit that descended upon him to us.

    This can also be applied to the church by analogy. The church is described as the body of Christ. Just as the king built the temple (both the stone building and the body of Christ born of Mary), so also Jesus said he would build his church and the gates of He’ll would not prevail against it. Furthermore, just as the priests did their spiritual ministry in the Spirit indwelt temple and Jesus mediates his Spirit to us as our eternal high priest, so also we are indwelt by the Spirit. We are being fashioned into a kingdom of priests.

  5. Jay,

    Great thoughts! You’re right about the relationship between the King/Priest. It is interesting to note the way that Solomon built the Temple and the King’s Palace at the same time, right next to one another, out of the same materials. It is also interesting to consider the way that these two offices are joined together in Zachariah 6:13 in light of their Messianic fulfillment. I like your thoughts on the birth of Jesus, and the idea of his body being built through the Kingly line. Very interesting.

  6. Vickie Myers

    I was amazed and intrigued when you brought the subject of John the Baptist being a Levite during bible study, and this connection with the priesthood being transferred to the line of Judah through Christ. I have never heard this before, but it makes perfect sense. I hope to learn more!

  7. Julius

    This is a subject that I have been working on lately. While this thread started last year, I thought I would inquire just in case anyone was still considering the subject. It sounds like we are starting at the end of the question by limiting the consideration of priesthood to New Testament and I am wondering if anyone has researched out the anomalies of priesthood in the Old Testament. There are several places that describe only Aaron and his sons as those to possess the Levitical Priesthood such as 2 Chronicles 13:9-10 but there are many references of some not of this lineage performing acceptable sacrifices and others that are possessors of priesthood authority such as Melchizedek – obviously – and Elijah who is most likely not a Levite, Joshua who is of Ephraim, Samuel who is of Ephraim and probably others I have yet to find. How is it their efforts are acceptable if they do not possess some type of authority to do the things expressly forbidden to one not of the House of Levi?

  8. Pingback : A Biblical Theology of the Tribe of Judah - Feeding on Christ

  9. Nisperos

    Part of the significance of John the Baptist, the last of the OT prophets, being a Levite is that it was the Levites who anointed the Kings. (Samuel, for example, anointed Saul, and later David. Samuel’s father was, Elkanah, a Levite, descended from Kohath; the Kohathities, who were Levites,were living in several of the cities assigned to the tribe of Ephraim.) To be the Messiah King or Christ (both words mean anointed) Jesus had to be anointed. When Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, it is the Holy Spirit who does the anointing. Notice in the OT, the words which are used by Samuel when he anoints Saul and tells him that he will reign over the people of the Lord and save them from the hand of their enemies and later how the Spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon him. Similarly, when David is anointed, the Spirit of the Lord come mightily upon David.

    I do not see a transition of priesthood from Levi to Judah

  10. Nisperos

    Sorry, comment posted before I finished my thoughts…

    I do not see a transition from of priesthood from Levi to Judah when reading Hebrews in its entirety. Hebrews 7 speaks of Jesus as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, NOT according to the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priesthood was instituted only after the Golden Calf incident

  11. Nisperos

    A different priesthood does NOT require a transition. The Melchizedek priesthood is the original priesthood. Furthermore, the whole tribe of Israel, was originally intended to be priests (see Exodus 19:5-6); the Levitical priesthood was only a temporary accommodation. This is what it seems to be saying in Hebrews. Also, read 1 Peter 2:9.

  12. Nate

    Love it. I have heard this view in various conversations with preacher friends and I concur with it. The pieces fit. Jesus is baptized under the Levitical supervision of John, anointed by the lighting of the Holy Spirit upon his head and by the affirmation by the Father’s own voice that He was pleased, tried in the desert, immediately followed by the preaching of the Kingdom and miracles. Jesus did not have authority to do the works of the priest (declare healing of forgive sins) until the transference of the priesthood. John worked himself out of a job.
    For me, further weight is given to John’s functioning as a priest in that Pharisees came from Jerusalem, ready to submit to John’s ministry by being baptized, albeit that their motives were selfish. Nonetheless, they were ready to submit to the administration of John’s service to God, inferring that, at least in this function, they esteemed him as greater than themselves.
    A most excellent, if not inspired, entry, Nicholas. Thank you and God bless.

  13. Manuel

    Jesus is our High Priest, the question is when ? If it was before the cross the LAW was still in effect, only the new covenant with his blood on the cross could change it. His continual and everlasting Priesthood as stated in Hebrews could not be in effect until after his death on the cross. The covenant GOD had with the Levites could not be broken unless they broke GODs covenant with day and night , this did happen on the cross. Mathew, Mark, and Luke all say the sun refused to give its light for three hours. And then there is Hebrews 8:4 which states that if Jesus was on earth he wouldn’t even be a priest for there were already priest to offer up sacrifice’s.

  14. Willis Abshire

    Hebrews stated that in order for a new priesthood to began the old priesthood had to be done away with. Now we know God promised Phinehas an eternal covenant priesthood. So that has to be dealt with. Some statements earlier were very eye opening. I would like to add this for thought. I’ve read in Jewish traditions that a priest must be called, baptized and a blood sacrifice given. We know God called Jesus in the flesh, we know he was baptized and he was the blood sacrifice. What I found interesting was when Caiaphas asked Jesus if he was the Son of God. His answered angered Caiaphas and in Matthew 26:65 Then the high priest tore his clothing to show his horror and said, “Blasphemy! Why do we need other witnesses? You have all heard his blasphemy.” Leviticus 21:10 makes it clear that the High Priest must not tear his clothing and John the Baptist himself a Levite died. Does that end the priesthood and bring in a new one. But we still have the promise to Phinehas.

  15. Manuel

    According to Jesus Moses will judge the levites , this fulfills GODs promise to the priest. Phinehas received a blessing from GOD for his tribe, but a descendant by the same name in (1:samual) gets a curse. The curse was because he did not honor GOD or the sacrifice. The curse was he and his priestly descendants would not live full lives and possibly die by the sword, and that GOD would not honor priest that did not honor him. Later a descendant of Phinehas received a blessing. that only a priest from the line of Zadok could come near to him and offer up sacrifices.
    John{7:48} says that not one priest or leader believed that Jesus was Lord, this included the levites. This would go along with GODs covenant with the levites that stated they were his and he was there inheritance and they could not be sold into slavery, bought into slavery, or redeemed , they were his. This would not allow GOD to give a levite to Jesus, so therefore they could not know Jesus witch he alluded to several times in scripture.
    When Arron anointed and consecrated the priest he placed blood on the right earlobe and big toe , I believe this was to indicate Jesus on the cross and the time the priesthood changed.

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