How can Jesus Christ be a priest if He is of the non-priestly tribe of Judah?


by Shawn Brasseaux

Indeed, Levi is Israel’s priestly tribe, as stated in the Bible: “The priests the Levites… the priests the Levites… the priests the Levites” (Deuteronomy 17:9, 17:18, 18:1). High priest Aaron and his sons were descendants of Levi (Exodus 4:14), Levi being a son of Jacob (Genesis 29:34).

However, Jesus Christ is of the tribe of Judah. Joseph, His foster-father, comes from the following family: “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;… And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:2,16). Mary, Jesus’ mother, has this family tree: “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli,… Which was the son of Aminadab, which was the son of Aram, which was the son of Esrom, which was the son of Phares, which was the son of Juda, Which was the son of Jacob, which was the son of Isaac, which was the son of Abraham, which was the son of Thara, which was the son of Nachor,…” (Luke 3:23,33-34). There is no priestly tribe here, only “Juda/Judas” (Greek forms of the Hebrew “Judah”).

The New Testament Scriptures, especially the Book of Hebrews, nevertheless claim that Jesus Christ is a Priest, yea, a High Priest (Hebrews 2:17, Hebrews 3:1, Hebrews 4:14, et cetera). How can this be? Well, Hebrews already anticipated that question, and provided an answer to the discrepancy. Let us see what God Himself says about it.

We start in Hebrews chapter 7, verse 14: “[14] For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood. [15] And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest, [16] Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.” Moses wrote about priests of the tribe of Levi, yet his five Books (Genesis through Malachi) never said one word about Israel having a priest from the tribe of Judah. You are correct in your original claim. Christ’s priesthood, however, does not depend on Judah the man any more than Levi the man. He actually takes on the priesthood of a man from whom He is not biologically descended. We will see why momentarily.

Keep reading: “[17] For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. [18] For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof. [19] For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God. [20] And inasmuch as not without an oath he was made priest: [21] (For those priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec: ) [22] By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament. [23] And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: [24] But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood.”

Turning to Psalm 110:4, we compare: “The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Written about 1,000 years before Calvary’s cross, this is Father God speaking to Jesus Christ after His resurrection. Notice the absence of the Levitical priesthood. By Divine decree, Christ’s priesthood stems from a man by the name of Melchisedec, who was not a Jew (and who was thus neither of Levi nor of Judah). Christ did not presumptuously assume Melchisedec’s priesthood, or even naturally assume it; God Almighty supernaturally transferred it to Him!

As Hebrews just stated, the Levitical system was flawed in that its priests died because they were sinners. One priest perished and another took his place—that continued for over 1,500 years. In stark contrast, Melchisedec is described in Hebrews 7:1-3 in such a way as to show he had no predecessor or successor. As far as the Scripture is concerned, his priesthood appears briefly and then disappears just as quickly (see Genesis 14:18-24). He was born, but the Bible never provides details. He died, but the Bible never records it. He was a priest, and yet we read nothing about his ordination. There was no connection to the Mosaic Law, as it would be given over 400 years after him.

We continue in Hebrews chapter 7: “[25] Wherefore he [Jesus Christ] is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them. [26] For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; [27] Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself. [28] For the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore.” This is how the chapter ends, but let us go back up to earlier verses.

“[11] If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron? [12] For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. [13] For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar.” The Levitical (Aaronic) priesthood had its limitations—namely, it gained more members because death claimed the earlier ones. It had a definitive beginning (with Aaron) and it had successors. However, we know nothing about Melchisedec’s origin or progeny (God’s Word is silent). There is no record of his genealogy in Scripture. He evidently died functioning as a priest, and no one followed him in his priestly duties.

Verse 3 of Hebrews chapter 7 had said, “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.” Up until Psalm 110:4 (Messianic—about Jesus Christ), we were unaware of anyone following Melchisedec in his priesthood because nothing was said of him or his priesthood after Genesis chapter 14. With Hebrews chapter 7 entered into God’s Book, and with a completed Bible in hand, now we see Jesus Christ will be a priest of the order of Melchisedec. Melchisedec was a type, shadow, or preview of Christ. Christ’s priesthood is most similar to Melchisedec’s priesthood—and not at all like the Levitical or Aaronic priesthood. It involves one individual, not a group.

Melchisedec was “the priest of the most high God” (Genesis 14:18; cf. Hebrews 7:1). (“Melchizedek” is the Old Testament or Hebrew form; “Melchisedec” is the New Testament or Greek version.) This was centuries before Aaron was anointed as Israel’s first high priest in her religion of Judaism. Whoever Melchizedek was, he was not a Jew either. His priesthood is not limited to Israel (as Aaron’s was). There is nothing recorded about his birth or lineage (as Aaron’s was, as his sons’ was). We never read about Melchisedec’s death either. His ministry is not tied to the Mosaic Law or Old Covenant (as Aaron’s was). With Jesus Christ being of a priestly order separate from Aaron’s, Christ can function apart from the Old Covenant and apart from “Israel only.” Remember, God will make the New Covenant with Israel (Hebrews 8:8-13; Hebrews 10:15-17). His ministry will then go beyond Israel, as Gentiles will be converted once Israel herself is saved (see Isaiah 59:21–60:3 and Zechariah 8:20-23, for example).

Even if Christ were born of the priestly tribe of Levi, He could not function as Israel’s High Priest. The Book of Hebrews makes that case repeatedly. Overall, Jesus Christ is superior to Aaron (the first of the Levitical priests), for He is of an order—Melchisedec’s priesthood—that existed prior to Aaron. In like manner, the Lord Jesus Christ is better than angels (Hebrews chapters 1–2), better than Moses (chapter 3), and so on. The Book of Hebrews, as its name implies, is God’s Spirit moving Israel away from the spiritual immaturity she has long embraced in her religion of Judaism (see Hebrews 5:11–6:3). He is bringing her to His Son, Jesus Christ, whom the components of Judaism pictured and predicted. Israel is to see Jesus Christ as Messiah, King, Redeemer, and High Priest. There is something better than the Old Covenant, someone better than Moses, something better than the earthly Tabernacle/Temple, someone better than Aaron, someone better than angels, better promises, better sacrifices, a better hope, a better testament, a better way, and so on. It all focuses on the Lord Jesus Christ!!

Also see:
» Who wrote the Book of Hebrews?
» Does Hebrews 10:25 really teach we must attend church?
» Should we “plead the blood of Jesus?”