The Levitical Covenant (Part 3): The Priestly Nature of the New Covenant

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In Part two I argued that the Levitical covenant (1) originates in Numbers 25, (2) reinforces the Mosaic covenant, and (3) parallels and anticipates the Davidic covenant. Each of these arguments focused on the Levitical covenant in its Old Testament context. Now, however, I want to show how the Levitical covenant is fulfilled in the new covenant. And more than that, the Levitical covenant actually plays a fundamental role in establishing the new covenant.

And so, in what follows, I will outline three ways the Levitical covenant is related to the new covenant. But first, it is necessary to see the priestly nature of the new covenant. For by seeing the priestly nature of the new covenant, it helps us to see why the Levitical covenant is so important—and why without it we miss the full glory of the new covenant.

The Priestly Nature of the New Covenant

The simplest way to see the priestly nature of the new covenant is to consider the promises of Jeremiah 31:31–34, cited fully in Hebrews 8:8–12. In at least four ways, the content of this covenant is priestly. Let me provide the text of Jeremiah 31:31–34 and then outline these four ways.

31  “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

  1. Jeremiah 31:31–32/Hebrews 8:8–9. The comparison with the Sinai covenant suggests that the new covenant is an improvement on the first covenant. In the covenant with Israel, God calls his people a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6). And now in the new covenant, he does the same. Staying in Hebrews, God’s new covenant saints are identified as sons (Heb. 12:1–17), royal heirs (Heb. 12:18–29), and priests (Heb. 13:1–21). Each of these attributes come through union with Christ, who is the true Son, priest, and king (Heb. 1:1–3). And the book of Hebrews is showing how the one true royal priest creates a family of royal priests.
  2. Jeremiah 31:33/Hebrews 8:10. At the time of the Old Testament, circumcision identified priests.[1] Equally, “baptism” marked out priests for service in the temple.[2] And in Israel, priests were always circumcised and washed by another before they could serve at the altar (Lev. 8:6). In the new covenant, the priestly nature of circumcision and baptism remains, only these priestly rites are now carried out by the high priest in heaven when he writes his law on the hearts of his people by the Spirit, which is also described as his baptism (1 Cor. 12:12–13). Indeed, just as the high priest washed with water his sons before they could serve as priests, Jesus does the same. In this new covenant, Jesus is creating a people with circumcised hearts who will love his law and serve faithfully as priests.
  3. Jeremiah 31:34a/Hebrews 8:11. In the old covenant, the law was written on tablets of stone (Exod. 31:18; 34:1) and every seven years the priests were to read the whole law (Deut. 31:9–13). In between those ceremonial readings, the priests and Levites were the designated teachers in Israel (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 33:9; Mal. 2:4–9). As we noted above, these priests often failed, leaving the nation ignorant of God. Many people of the covenant, therefore, did not “know the Lord” in a saving way. But in the new covenant, this blight would no longer last. In the new covenant, everyone will know the Lord savingly, because everyone is a true priest and able to instruct one another (Rom. 15:14).
  4. Jeremiah 31:34b/Hebrews 8:12. In Leviticus, the priests applied the blood of the sacrifice to the altar and announced forgiveness to the faithful Israelites (see Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, etc.). Because the blood was only that of bulls and goats, however, this was but a temporary pardon that could only cleanse the flesh (Heb. 9:13; 10:4). But now, because Christ, the high priest, has offered a better sacrifice, he had atonement full and forever (Hebrews 9). Thus, the new covenant can offer forgiveness, once and for all. For this reason, there is no need for another “new” covenant. For this covenant has been established by a priest who lives to bring redemption to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25; 9:14).
1. John Meade, “Circumcision of Flesh to Circumcision of Heart: The Typology of the Sign of the Abrahamic Covenant,” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies, ed. Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 130.

2. In a chapter connecting baptism and priesthood, Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation: A Biblical-Theological Study of Baptism (2009), 111, says it succinctly, “Baptism is a ceremonial rite of the sanctuary.”

In each of these four ways, we can see the priestly nature of the new covenant. Now admittedly, the priestly caste of the new covenant is directly related to the priestly caste of the old. After all, Jeremiah and Hebrews directly compare the Sinai covenant with the new covenant. That said, there are at least three others way to see the new covenant fulfilling the Levitical covenant itself—three elements that are easily missed when we misplace the priestly covenant with Levi.

First, the new covenant is an eternal covenant of peace.

In the Old Testament, the only place we find the words for “new covenant” is in Jeremiah 31:31. Yet, following the priestly sacrifice of the Suffering servant in Isaiah 53, Isaiah describes the new covenant as a “covenant of peace” (Isa. 54:10; cf. Ezek. 34:25; 37:26) and an “everlasting covenant” (Isa. 55:3; cf. Isa. 61:8). The significance of this language comes from Numbers 25, where God promises a “covenant of peace” to Phinehas (Num. 25:12) and a “perpetual priesthood” (Num. 25:13).[3] While the English word “perpetual” obscures the connection, the Hebrew word ôlām is used in both instances (Isa. 55:3; Num. 25:13). Accordingly, Isaiah employs language from the priestly covenant to describe the realities of the new covenant—realities that turn on the resurrection of a new priest who will then establish a new covenant.[4]

3. Daniel I. Block, Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2021), 212.

4. On the promise of God raising up a new priest (cp. 1 Sam. 2:35; Heb. 7:11, 15), see my “Resurrection and Priesthood: Christological Soundings from the Book of Hebrews,” SBJT 18.4 (Winter 2014): 89–114.

Yes, in the Old Testament the Mosaic covenant came first and the Levitical covenant came second, but prior to both was the Abrahamic covenant that emerged in the shadows of Melchizedek. In other words, even prior to the giving of the Law, God preached the gospel to Abraham (Gal. 3:8) and fashioned Abraham into a royal priest.[5] Indeed, Abraham was declared “righteous” like the king of righteousness himself in Genesis 15:6; he was promised royal heirs like the king of peace in Genesis 17:6, 16; and he became an obedient priest when he ascended Mount Moriah to offer up his son (cf. Deut. 33:8–9) at the very place where the temple of Solomon would one day be built (see 1 Chron. 3:1).

5. Schrock, The Royal Priesthood, 42–45.

Long story short, God’s priesthood was not just a secondary measure against sin; it was actually and always the means by which God would bring about the new covenant. As Peter Gentry observes about the Levitical covenant, as it is picked up by Jeremiah: “Jeremiah 33:22 says that the “seed” (i.e., descendants) of David and of the Levites will be countless, and the language used is that of the Abrahamic covenant—the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Thus the new covenant brings the promises of these other covenants to fulfillment.”[6]

6. Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd Edition. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 578.

Indeed, this is true in general. And, as we have seen from Numbers 25, it is true in particular. The new covenant is a covenant of everlasting peace. And yet, to fully understand where such peace comes from (Eph. 2:14–17; Heb. 13:20–21), it is necessary to see how the priesthood of Christ, a royal priesthood like Melchizedek, fulfills the Levitical covenant, so that the new covenant might be fulfilled too.

Second, the new covenant includes the formation of a new priesthood.

As noted in Part two, the priesthood did not fall from heaven fully formed. Instead, it developed over time, and this development includes the gift of the Levites to the priests to guard the house of God and to serve their brothers (Num. 3:1–8; 8:6–19; 18:6). Strikingly, the gift of the Levites to the priests is picked up in Psalm 68, when David speaks of the Lord ascending on high receiving gifts. Psalm 68:18 reads, “You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the Lord God may dwell there.”

Though many may miss the priestly connections in Psalm 68, Paul does not. For when he considers the ascension of Jesus Christ, which is the exaltation of Christ to his priestly throne, he cites Psalm 68:18 and applies it to the church (Eph. 4:8). As Gary Smith writes, Paul interprets the giving of gifts from Christ to the church by way of “remoulding . . . the thought of Psalm 68:18 on the basis of the Scriptural commentary in Numbers 8:6–19; 18:6 which the Psalmist used.” He continues,

The Levites are described as taken from among the sons of Israel and given as a gift to the sons of Israel. Paul takes his quote from the Psalm which he interprets historically, and applies analogously the thought of Numbers 8:19; 18:8 in the words of Psalm 68:18. Paul explains the gifts given to the church by using the example of the Levites who were given to Israel.[7]

7. Gary V. Smith, “Paul’s Use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 18, no. 3 (1975): 189.

Indeed, just as the priests received the gift of the Levites to fulfill their ministry, so too Jesus receives his gifts.[8] Only, Jesus does not simply receive the priests, he himself is the one, like Phinehas, who redeems them from their sins so that he can receive the ones he redeems. Indeed, Ephesians is a book that speaks of Christ enjoying the Psalm 110 privilege of sitting at God’s right hand, with all things under his feet (Eph. 1:22–23). Yet, as the great high priest, he also grants his saints resurrection life to sit with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:4–6). This too is a priestly occupation, as the saints join their Lord to serve in God’s house by way of the Holy Spirit. As Ephesians 2:11–22 indicates, this comes by a new covenantal arrangement and a new covenant temple. All of which fulfills the priestly promises of the Levitical covenant.

8.Space does not permit a discussion of the covenant of redemption (i.e., the pactum salutis), but this “giving” of the Levites to the priests serves, in my mind, as one bridge to connect the new covenant to the covenant of redemption, and to show how the progress of the covenants, in this case the Levitical covenant, is a means by which God is preparing the way for the covenant of redemption to be fulfilled in time, when the new covenant commences in the finished work of Christ.

Third, the new covenant empowers new covenant Levites to teach one another.

Returning to the one passage that names the “Covenant with Levi,” it is worth observing how the new covenant creates a people who truly have knowledge on their lips and the fear of God in their hearts. In Malachi 2, the prophet condemns the priests and Levites for failing to teach God’s covenant people. By contrast, Jesus, as the perfect priest, writes the law on the hearts of his people, just as the new covenant promises (Jer. 31:33). In this way, all the saints of God will be taught (Isa. 54:13; John 6:45), and because they fear God from the heart (Jer. 32:40), all will be able to teach.

To put it differently, the new covenant community, or a large portion of it, no longer stumbles in ignorance. Rather, as Paul says in Romans 15:14, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” Importantly, Paul’s confidence that the saints in Rome are able to instruct one another with all knowledge is set in the context of his priestly ministry (Rom. 15:16). In the New Testament, the saints of God offer sacrifices of praise like priests (Heb. 13:15; Eph. 5:20); they sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs like Levites (Eph. 5:19; Col 3:16b); they clothe themselves in holy garments (Col. 3:5–14); and they exhort and instruct one another in the truth (Col. 3:15–16)—just like the priests and the Levites were supposed to.

In short, what the priests were called to do in the Levitical covenant, the new covenant priests now do because of the finished work of the true high priest, Jesus Christ. In this way, the new covenant fulfills everything outlined in the Levitical covenant. And in reverse, the Levitical covenant, in its origins, intentions, and priestly actions, provides an important set of types and shadows that are realized in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and the priesthood he creates by his new covenant.

Putting the Work of Art Back on the Wall

In all of these ways, I believe the Levitical covenant is not a covenant to be ignored. Instead, like every other covenant in the Old Testament, it plays a critical role in prefiguring the priestly work of Christ and defining the everlasting covenant of peace.

In fact, I would even venture to say that once we have our eyes trained to see the Levitical covenant, we will see priestly reflections in the New Testament as often as we see kingly reflections. Unfortunately, for reasons known (e.g., the mistreatment of the priesthood by Julius Wellhausen and others) and unknown, our eyes are trained to see royal themes far above priestly themes in the New Testament. Yet, by recovering the Levitical priesthood, it lets us see the full panorama of Christ’s glory. And in the New Testament, which is already a sparkling art gallery of Christ, the Levitical covenant helps us to see other Rembrandt masterpieces. And thus, in seeing more of Christ, we become like him and the priestly people he has created us to be.

So, let’s get to work putting the Levitical covenant back in our biblical theology. And as I have attempted to show above, a progressive covenantal reading of the Bible provides the best presentation for this covenant to be restored. Thankfully, this covenant has not been stolen by thieves, but it has been roughly treated as a second-class covenant. By its Spirit-given light, however, we can see more of Christ and the priestly nature of his new covenant. So let’s dust this covenant off and put it back in the art gallery. For then we can better know and love God’s plan of redemption, which leads us to taste and see the priestly glory of Jesus Christ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • David Schrock

    David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.

David Schrock

David Schrock

David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.