the weblog of Alan Knox

A reminder of our priesthood from Hebrews

Posted by on Apr 23, 2009 in discipleship, scripture | 12 comments

As most of my readers know, one of my favorite passages of Scripture is Hebrews 10:19-25:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean 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. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19-25 ESV)

One part of this passage is often difficult to interpret: “with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water”. Many commentators see a reference to baptism is this phrase, since the author talks of being washed with pure water.

However, there is another possibility.

This phrase is reminiscent of the cleansing and consecration rites of priests in the Old Testament. Consider these passages from Leviticus:

And Moses said to the congregation, “This is the thing that the LORD has commanded to be done.” And Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. (Leviticus 8:5-6 ESV)

Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it on Aaron and his garments, and also on his sons and his sons’ garments. So he consecrated Aaron and his garments, and his sons and his sons’ garments with him. (Leviticus 8:30 ESV)

If you read the the verses between what I quoted above, you’ll see that Moses also consecrated the altar and offered sacrifices. But these passages deal directly with the consecration (setting apart) of Aaron and his sons as priests.

Notice the difference: in the new old priesthood, the bodies are washed with water and the garments are sprinkled with blood. In the new priesthood, our hearts are sprinkled clean (probably by the blood mentioned in vs. 19), but it is still our bodies that are washed. However, in the new priesthood, our bodies are washed with “pure water”. This is a strange phrase, especially if we connect it to baptism. While some traditions have attached a cleansing power to the waters of baptism, we don’t find that attribute anywhere else in Scripture. Could there be another scriptural referent (besides baptism) for the “pure water”?

In fact, the phrase “pure water” (the Greek phrase, that is), shows up in one other passage in the Greek Bible. We find that phrase in the Greek translation of Ezekiel 36:

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water (“pure water”) on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:24-27 ESV)

Notice that according to Ezekiel, God will cleanse his people with “pure water” under the new covenant. This washing with pure water is associated with removing all uncleanness, replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh, reception of the Spirit of God, and righteous living. So, here we come to another difference between the old covenant priests and the new covenant priests: the old covenant priests are washed and sprinkled by man, while new covenant priests are washed and sprinkled by God himself.

Remember that this passage begins in vs. 19 by reminding the readers that they have access to the “Holiest” (which is not an earth-bound, man-made sanctuary, but a “heavenly sanctuary” in the presence of God – Hebrews 9:24). This access is by a new way, which is also a living way. This now makes more sense if the author of Hebrews is talking to priests – and he is. While the old covenant priests (high priest only) entered the man-made holiest place through a man-made curtain, the new covenant priest (all of them!) enter God’s presence (an even more “holiest” place) through a different curtain (vs. 22) – that is, through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – who is also our High Priest (vs. 21).

Our work as new covenant priest – consecrated by God himself through the work of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit – includes drawing near to God (vs. 22), holding fast to hope because of God’s faithfulness (vs. 23), and considering how to bring out the best in one another and acting on that consideration (vs. 24-25).


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 4-23-2009

    And it is so encouraging to read this with understanding of what the Father has done for us.

    It makes me think of what God says in Exodus 19:6 and Revelation 5:10 – it’s all part of His plan from beginning to end. This ties it all to His Kingdom.

    Thank you, Alan. God has definitely given you wisdom and a desire for wisdom in the area of “assembling” and the kingdom.

  2. 4-23-2009

    Very good.

    Can the water still not be a reference to baptism, though?

  3. 4-23-2009

    Beautiful Brother Alan! Simply beautiful!

  4. 4-23-2009


    I think follwing the thought from Hebrews 9 that this is exactly what the writer is saying. I also think this is what Jesus was telling Nicodemus (not the priest but being born of “water and spirit”) It has the same language though not a verbatim phrase.

    But I really think the priestly function is often overlooked and is exegeted more abstract and theoretical than an acutal priesthood. Many look at this as a metaphor though the writer is calling us an ACTUAL priesthood, just as Peter in 1 Peter 2. I think to deny that is to be biblically unfaithful and has only solidified the strucutral hierarchy that persists today. We now “enter in” on the behalf of one another though we all have something different to “offer” by the gifts given to us by Christ through the Spirit.

  5. 4-23-2009

    Obviously Hebrews is longer and deeper than Philippians, but like you were saying about Philippians the other day, it’s amazing how different Hebrews is when read as a whole and not in bits and pieces separately. In general (and it’s a big generality), the writer (to me) is making an overall point of the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old Covenant and of the Priesthood of Jesus over the Levitical priesthood. I believe your points about what the passage means are spot on!

    So many times I’ve seen people teaching from various passages from Hebrews, trying to make New Covenant principles from the Old Covenant passages that the writer brings up, rather than seeing that he was contrasting the old with the new, or using the old to show the superiority of the new.

    In many cases he is contrasting a physical/tangible ministry with a new spiritual reality. “Sprinkled with water,” “curtain,” etc, all represent the old physical way that is now replaced by the new spiritual reality: “Hearts sprinkled clean,” “bodies washed,” “His flesh,” etc. The old was the work of the Levite priests; The new is by the blood of Jesus. Along with what you say, our “work” is to hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” and to build one another up and stir one another, considering this wonderful hope.

    As to water baptism being represented here, I really don’t think it is. So much of what the writer is saying here is symbolic of a new spiritual reality. We don’t literally have a new physical heart, we don’t literally enter through the flesh of Jesus, etc. I don’t believe it’s literally physical water that’s being talked about here.

  6. 4-23-2009

    Joel B. What you describe is gnosticism, specifically dualism, the idea that spiritual and physical realities are not integrated realities but seperate ones. I think baptism is indeed one of the things implied here.

  7. 4-23-2009

    Hi Brian,

    What I’m saying is not gnosticism. What I’m saying is that in this particular passage, as I read it from Hebrews 1 onward, is differentiating types and shadows from the invisible spiritual reality. That might not clear up any disagreements we have on the passage (which is fine) but I’m definitely not talking gnosticism here. :)

  8. 4-23-2009

    Joel B.

    But invisible spiritual realities are bound to visible physical realities, sort of like the second person of the Blessed Trinity is incarnate in the man Jesus of Nazareth.

    I still think baptism is one valid option in this passage.

  9. 4-23-2009

    Bryan B.,

    I agree that this was all part of God’s plan.

    Brian B.,

    Many commentators believe that the “pure water” of Hebrews 10:22 refers to baptism. So, it certainly could be a reference to baptism. I don’t think baptism is the best reference.

    By the way… to what physical reality is God the Father and God the Spirit bound?

    Lawrence D,

    Thank you.


    Yes, I think we can find the NT idea of priesthood (for all believers) in several passages, including 1 Peter 2, which you mentioned.

    Notice Hebrews 13:15-16 also.


    Yes, exactly. There is a beautiful picture in Hebrews of how the new covenant is better than the old covenant. The idea of priesthood is just part of the image.


  10. 10-8-2009

    Mr Knox,
    I am trying to search your blog for any commentary on Hebrews 4 going into 5 – the section regarding priests. I’m stumbling over this section – it seems to give more value/power to this ‘role’ or ‘title’ or calling then the others on priests. I assume a different word is used than word used that is translated ‘elder’. I don’t even really know what I’m asking – but I read your series on elders and really related to it. and I’ve just been doing a lot of thinking/reflecting/studying on this role or priest/pastor and I’m confused. I don’t know if I am supposed to give as much ‘authority’ to my pastor as the church system I’m in gives him. Is he really ordained by God or just by man because of the ‘ordination’ he went through…. I don’t know. Just confused about a lot. Do you know the section I’m referring to in Hebrews? Thanks for anything you have to offer :)

  11. 10-8-2009

    forgot to check followup box

  12. 10-8-2009


    In Hebrews 5, the author is talking about the Jewish priestly system, not the Christian elder/pastor. In fact, the author compares the Jewish priests to Jesus and concludes that Jesus is a better priest. Then, in Hebrews 10:19-25, the author uses priestly language to describe our response to Jesus finished work on the cross. As Peter will also say, we are all priests now. There is no longer a separate priestly system for followers of Jesus.