After discussing the moral and spiritual requirements for kings, Moses discusses the priests and how they differed from the other Israelites. Kingdom government was ruled by the king, but it was largely administered by the priests. Deut. 18:1 and 2 says,
1 The Levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel; they shall eat the Lord’s offerings by fire and His portion. 2 And they shall have no inheritance among their countrymen; the Lord is their inheritance, as He promised them.
The tribe of Levi was given no land inheritance when the Promised Land was divided among the twelve tribes. The tribe of Joseph, of course, had already split into two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, when Jacob adopted them as full sons. Hence, the original twelve tribes became thirteen in all. Yet the tribe of Levi was given the priesthood, and one of the requirements of priesthood was that they receive no land inheritance. And so the land was divided among the other twelve tribes in the days of Joshua.
Judah received the scepter, Joseph received the birthright, and Levi the priesthood. This division is reversed under Jesus Christ, who is the Heir of all things. In His first appearance, He came of the tribe of Judah to claim the scepter of David. But He also came as the High Priest, though not of Levi. Like David before Him, He was of the Order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:6), a priestly order that did not require Him to be of any particular genealogy.
Change of Priesthood
The change of priesthood is discussed in Heb. 7:12-17,
12 For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. 13 For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe [i.e., Judah], from which no one has officiated at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. 15 And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, 16 who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is witnessed of Him, “Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” [Quotation from Psalm 110:4]
When we apply the law of Moses to a New Covenant setting, we must acknowledge the change of priesthood from Levi to Melchizedek and account for the changes in the law that are set forth in the book of Hebrews. There are many today who teach that Christ shall soon come and take His place as High Priest in Jerusalem over a rebuilt temple with officiating priests of Levi. To that end, Jews have been recruited for training in animal sacrifices. Anyone whose name is Cohen, Kahn, Cahn, or some other derivative of the Hebrew word for “priest,” may be eligible for recruitment.
Judaism does not recognize the change of priesthood, of course, and so they are unaware that their plans would usurp the new order of priests that God has now entrusted as executors of His will. The Levitical order disqualified itself when it rejected the Messiah, and they will never retrieve that calling, for it has passed on to an immortal High Priest of a different order that will never come to an end.
Jesus will never preside over a Levitical priesthood, for He came first from Judah and will come again from Joseph. Neither appearance would qualify Him to be High Priest over a priestly order of Levi. In His first appearance, He reunited the priesthood with the scepter of Judah. In His second appearance, His robe is dipped in blood to identify Him with Joseph (Gen. 37:31). And so He must yet come to claim His birthright (1 Chron. 5:2). Between these two appearances, He reunites all that Jacob divided among his sons.
Passing the Scepter from Judah to Joseph
Jesus’ claim to the scepter as the King of Judah was never meant to be permanent, for Judah was given the scepter only “until Shiloh comes” (Gen. 49:10). This was a hidden reference to the revelation in the dreams of Joseph, in which he saw all of his brethren (including Judah) bow to him (Gen. 37:9). This literally occurred later after Joseph was made Prime Minister of Egypt and his brothers came to Egypt to buy food. But the prophecy had a greater fulfillment yet to come, for in Gen. 49:10 Jacob said to Judah,
10 The Scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him [Shiloh] shall be the obedience of the peoples.
In other words, the scepter was given to Judah only until “Shiloh” comes, and then the people will bow to him instead of Judah. Shiloh is prophetic of Christ’s second appearance as Joseph, when He who first came of Judah will come in a new manifestation as Joseph in order to qualify for the birthright. In this change, Christ’s rule will be extended from Judah to “Egypt,” i.e., the whole world, for Isaiah 54:5 says that the Holy One of Israel will be “called the God of all the earth.”
Judah, Joseph, and Levi
And so, when we study the priesthood, we must acknowledge the context seen in the big picture. The priesthood is just one of three elements and must be compared with the scepter and the birthright. Secondly, we must understand that the priesthood of Levi, like the scepter of Judah, was temporarily given to those tribes until Christ should come to receive it permanently. Levi was replaced by Melchizedek; Judah is soon to be replaced by Joseph.
Therefore, when Moses speaks of the inheritance of the Levitical priests in Deuteronomy 18, we acknowledge the change in the law set forth in the book of Hebrews. This shows that when we apply this law to the time of the New Covenant, the priestly inheritance no longer is given to Levi, but the Order of Melchizedek. This new order has no genealogical requirement, as Hebrews tells us, for the original Melchizedek came upon the scene in Genesis 14 with no recorded genealogy (Heb. 7:6).
This new priesthood, of which we are participants, does not require us to be of Levi, nor does our name have to be Cohen for us to qualify as priests of God who will reign with Him (Revelation 20:6). The priesthood and scepter are combined when priests reign with Christ, for Melchizedek is a King-Priest. All those of this priestly order, who acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Head of their order, are qualified to reign with Him, for they share in the scepter that belongs to Him.
This brings us back to Deuteronomy 18, which says that the priests “shall have no inheritance among their countrymen; the Lord is their inheritance, as He promised them.” This is the promise given today that has been transferred to the Order of Melchizedek.
The distinction under Moses between Levi and the rest of the tribes applies today in the distinction between the overcomers and the church. The overcomers are like the new priesthood, while the church (the citizens) have a different inheritance. For this reason, Rev. 21:7 says,
7 He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be His God, and he will be My son.
The true inheritance is not land, but life, or immortality. Land is a good inheritance, but one can only inherit land as long as one lives. Without immortality, land is a temporary inheritance. The Israelite tribes received a land inheritance as citizens of the Kingdom, and those foreigners who were with them also partook of the blessings of whatever tribe they joined. But the priests enjoyed a greater inheritance—not of land but God Himself. What does this mean?
The words of Moses must have been somewhat obscure and misunderstood in his time. There was little chance that the people truly understood the significance of having God as their inheritance. They would have seen it largely in terms of the portion of sacrifices and offerings given to them, along with whatever other distinction came with their priestly role. It took the New Covenant to unveil the full meaning of this inheritance, for we are told in many places that the inheritance is the Kingdom of God, the promises to Abraham, the Holy Spirit, and “eternal life.”
Eternal Life and Immortality
We could expound upon each aspect of this inheritance, but that would require too much detail. Most believers are familiar enough with Scripture to know something about each of these aspects of our inheritance. But one that is usually misunderstood is that of “eternal life,” which most equate with immortality. Immortality is the quality of life that refers to an endless life, or deathlessness. From a prophetic standpoint, this immortality is covered by the simple term “life,” which, in its purest meaning, is the full quality of life that God enjoys.
The idea of eternal life, however, adds the dimension of Time to that of immortality. The Hebrew word olam and the Greek word aionian are often translated “eternal” or “everlasting” in many Bible Translations. The Greek term aioian was used as the equivalent of olam when Hebrew-speaking people translated their thoughts into Greek.
Both terms referred to indefinite time, not eternity. In fact, the word olam comes from the Hebrew root word, alam, “to conceal, hide, be hidden, be concealed, be secret.” The word might refer to a short but unknown period of time, or an extended period of time. Hence, it is more properly translated an “age.” In certain cases it may also refer to an unending period of time, or “eternity.” The point is that the term claims ignorance, and so when men translate the term, they should not force it to mean “eternity” or any other time frame.
When the terms olam and aionian were used to describe life after resurrection, they were never meant to limit the time of immortality. Instead, it was meant to set forth a beginning point that is defined by resurrection. As John speaks of two resurrections in Revelation 20, the goal is to attain immortality in the first resurrection (20:4-6), rather than having to wait another thousand years for the general resurrection (20:12). To attain the first resurrection is to obtain life in (or during) THE AGE, that is, the great Messianic Age.
For example, we read in Luke 10:25,
25 And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
The Emphatic Diaglott renders the verse this way:
25 And behold, a certain lawyer stood up to try him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit aionian life?”
Young’s Literal Translation reads, “what, having done, life age-during shall I inherit?”
Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible, reads, “by doing what shall I inherit life age-abiding?”
The Greek reads, zoen aionian. The term aionian is the adjective form of aion, which means “an age or eon.” An age is an unspecified or indefinite period of time, but not necessarily an infinite period of time. The Greek word was employed to express the Hebrew concept of olam, which also meant an indefinite or unknown period of time.
For example, Jonah described his sojourn in the whale’s belly, saying in 2:6, “The earth with its bars was around me forever [olam], but Thou hast brought up my life from the pit.” How long was olam in this case? We are told in Jonah 1:17 that it was “three days and three nights.” The reason it was olam was because he did not know how long he would be in the whale’s belly. The time was hidden from him until his “resurrection.” In fact, the word olam comes from the Hebrew root word, alam, “to conceal, hide, be hidden, be concealed, be secret.”
The point is that both olam and its Greek equivalent, aionian, describe an age, that is, an indefinite time period. For this reason, Rotherham and Young translate “eternal life” as “life age-during” and “life age-abiding.” Wilson’s Diaglott avoids controversy by leaving it untranslated: “life aionian.”
Why this is this important? It is important because the lawyer testing Jesus wanted to know how to inherit immortal life in THE AGE, which was commonly understood to mean the Seventh Millennium, that is, the Sabbath Millennium. It was understood that the resurrection of the dead would occur at the start of that Age. John, however, modifies this common view by telling us of two resurrections, one at the start of the Millennium and one at the end. The first was a limited resurrection (believers only). The second included the rest of the dead—all who did not receive immortality earlier.
Jesus tells us in John 5:28, 29 that this general resurrection would include believers as well as unbelievers, and Paul bears witness to this in his testimony in Acts 24:14, 15. Hence, we understand that the first resurrection is limited to the overcomers, while the second will include the rest of the church along with all unbelievers. Of course, as Jesus says in John 5:29, the believers will then receive life (immortality), while the unbelievers will be judged. Yet they will receive whatever is due to them at the same time.
For a more complete study on this topic, see my book, The Purpose of Resurrection.
Getting back to our study of priesthood, once we understand that the priestly inheritance was God Himself, we may equate this with aionian life. Those who are “priests of God and Christ” who “reign with Him for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:6) are given immortality during THE AGE. This is a special blessing, because they will receive this “life” sooner than the rest of the church; and as Melchizedek priests, they will be given the scepter as well, so that they may rule the earth during that entire Age and beyond.
We see, then, that the distinction under Moses between Levi and the rest of the tribes finds a new application under the New Covenant. The change of priesthood from Levi to Melchizedek opens up the priesthood to all, regardless of genealogy, and also adds the scepter to their list of responsibilities. Being in Christ, they will also enjoy the birthright blessings when Christ returns as Joseph to claim that final portion of the inheritance that in time past had been divided among Jacob’s sons.