It is not uncommon to hear people say that Hebrews teaches that the Mosaic commandments are weak and useless, and that Jesus enacted a better covenant that replaced the old laws of Moses. But is this the true message of Hebrews? A closer look at the letter reveals that the author does not dismiss the entire Torah in light Yeshua; instead, Hebrews shows how Jesus stands in for the priestly sacrifices that could no longer be made after the destruction of the Second Temple.
It’s true that Hebrews mentions a “change” in the Law of Moses: “For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also…. For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness. (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.” (Hebrews 7:12, 18–19 NASB)
These verses are often used to demonstrate that the Law was set aside as something obsolete. It’s simple, some say: Yeshua is a new priest who changes the Law! But we must clarify the context in which our author refers to the commandments. Here is a hint… Hebrews has some very specific priestly commandments in mind. If we miss or ignore this crucial context, we’re sure to misunderstand the writer’s meaning. The above passage of Hebrews does not discuss the validity or the usefulness of the Torah in general. These verses are only interested in the role of Messiah in relation to the levitical priesthood.
A look at the broader context is helpful. Hebrews 4 speaks of entering into God’s covenant-rest, God’s end-time Shabbat, the Lord’s presence. Chapter 5 asserts that Yeshua is a superior High Priest compared to the earthly priests, and chapter 6 compares Jesus with the royal priest Melchizedek. Finally, chapter 7 highlights how Melchizedek traditions relate to the teachings about the Messiah. Thus, Hebrews 4-7 does not deal with the entire Law of Moses, nor does it set up a dichotomy between Jesus and Torah. Rather, these chapters are focused on a discussion about priesthood, which constitutes only one part of Moses’ Law.
The rest of Hebrews also highlights concepts like priesthood and sacrifice. Chapter 8 explores the facets of Jesus’ priesthood and the New Covenant. Hebrews 9 and 10 proclaim the superiority of the New Covenant and outline the benefits of Yeshua’s sacrifice of his own body. All this priestly discussion does not question the Torah’s validity, but rather highlight Yeshua’s unique role as an eternal high priest.
So here’s the questions readers need to ask: “Which law is being changed in Hebrews 7:12?” and “Which commandments are weak in Hebrews 8:18?” Certainly not all of them! Instead, the writer of Hebrews is concerned with how Jesus relates to the commandments for Israel’s priests. When Hebrew says that Jesus “set aside” (ἀθέτησις; atheteisis) a former commandment (7:18) the command pertains to the priestly service. Hebrews mentions the “weakness” or “lack of perfection” (ἀσθενής, astheneis) in these commandments because the human priests are human and, therefore, imperfect (see Heb 10:1).
Moreover, it’s likely that Hebrews was written after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, which made the sacrifices no longer possible. Therefore, our letter writer is offering readers a way to ensure a continued atonement after the earthly Temple: as exalted heavenly high priest, Jesus offered himself as a “once for all” sacrifice for sin (cf. Heb 7:27; 9:26; 10:10). In this way, Jesus actually upholds the commands about sacrifice and atonement given to the Levites; though the priesthood’s cessation after 70 manifested its weakness and frailty, Yeshua strengthens and extends the longevity of the sacrificial system. Hebrews does not dismiss the Torah as obsolete or useless, but it does address a world without customary sacrifices and shows how Jesus serves as an everlasting high priest in heaven who makes atonement for all time.