Jun 26, 2016

The Duration of the Priestly Covenant

Tony Garland

Dr. Tony Garland

Q. I was wondering if you could kindly clarify for me the meaning of everlasting covenant with reference to the covenant God made with Phinehas in Numbers 25. I am aware that, based on Ezekiel 44, the sons of Zadok (descendants of Phinehas) will serve as priests in the millennial temple. However, in the eternal state, there will be no temple (and I suppose no priests). If the covenant is everlasting, why will it not be operational in the eternal state?

I would appreciate your insight in this regard.

A. Thanks for the perceptive question.

First, a bit of background. As you may know, the priestly covenant is perhaps the most-neglected and misunderstood of the major covenants found within Scripture.

As you observed, there is a connection between the promise given to Phinehas in Numbers 25 and the future ministry of his offspring—the sons of Zadok—in the millennial temple in Ezekiel 40-48. The priestly line-of-promise, originating with Levi and terminating with the sons of Zadok, is given in 1 Chr. 6:1-8. I've emphasized those individuals in the line of descent where specific promises were made: LEVI (Num. 8:14-16; Mal. 2:4) → Kohath → Amram → AARON (Ex. 18:8,19; 29:9) → Eleazar → PHINEHAS (Num. 25:6-8,11-13) → Abishua → Bukki → Uzzi → Zerahiah → Meraioth → Amariah → Ahitub → ZADOK (Eze. 40:46; 43:19; 44:15; 48:11).

This promise of an eternal priestly line out of Levi, through Aaron, Phinehas, and eventuating in Zadok is strongly emphasized by way of a formal covenant declared by God in the 33rd chapter of Jeremiah:

'Behold, the days are coming,' says the LORD, 'that I will perform that good thing which I have promised to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah: 'In those days and at that time I will cause to grow up to David A Branch of righteousness; He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth. In those days Judah will be saved, And Jerusalem will dwell safely. And this [is the name] by which she will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.' "For thus says the LORD: 'David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel; 'nor shall the priests, the Levites, lack a man to offer burnt offerings before Me, to kindle grain offerings, and to sacrifice continually.'" And the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, saying, "Thus says the LORD: 'If you can break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night, so that there will not be day and night in their season, 'then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and with the Levites, the priests, My ministers (Jer. 33:14-21, NKJV).

Many interpreters mistakenly posit fulfillment of the priestly portions of the above covenant in Jesus by ignoring or spiritualizing the requirement of Levitical descent. For example,

"The Levitical priesthood would likewise be heirs to a divine succession in overseeing the sacrificial system in the Jerusalem temple. Jesus, as Priest and King, fulfills both offices in the New Covenant" (Nelson Study Bible)


"This promise also has been not literally, but spiritually fulfilled, for in this sense only have the seed of David and the Levites been multiplied" (Albert Barnes).

However, we know this cannot be the case because Jesus is not a descendant of Levi:

Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. For He of whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no man has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood (Heb. 7:11-14, NKJV).

And if Jesus were of the line of Levi, then he would no longer qualify as the Messianic "son of David." One cannot have it both ways—either He qualifies as Messiah being born in the line of David (which He is), or He would have to be a Levite (which He is not).

Therefore, we derive a number of surprising results: 1) there is an eternal priestly covenant which originates in Levi; 2) Jesus cannot provide fulfillment of the priestly portion of the covenant mentioned by Jeremiah; 3) the promise to Levi is strongly emphasized and certified, by virtue of being co-mingled with the promise regarding the eternal throne of David. (I can't tell you how many times I had read and considered the Davidic aspects of this passage while failing to see the Levitical significance before I finally saw the dilemma of assuming Jesus fulfills both!)

Eternal Priesthood

The 'Eternal Priesthood'

Now, on to the specifics of your question.

As you surmise, there is "no temple" in the eternal state—at least not in the form of a building and priestly service by any descendants of Levi. But there is still a temple of sorts: "But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (Rev. 21:22). Nevertheless, we have no indication that any descendant of Phinehas is involved so how are we to understand the promise of an eternal priesthood originating with Levi and extending through Phinehas and Zadok?

I believe the key to answering this can be found by considering the Jeremiah passage where the Priestly Covenant in the line of Levi is co-mingled with the Davidic Covenant. The passage indicates 1) David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and 2) the Levites [shall never] lack a man to offer burnt offerings before Me...to sacrifice continually. So we have two eternal situations promised, one involving the Davidic throne, the other involving the Levitical priesthood. So we can broaden the question from the Levites to also include the kingly rule as follows: If the rule of Jesus on the throne of David comes to a close at the end of the millennial kingdom, how can Davidic rule upon said throne be considered eternal?

Paul sheds some light on this dilemma when discussing the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those [who are] Christ's at His coming. Then [comes] the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy [that] will be destroyed [is] death. For "He has put all things under His feet." But when He says "all things are put under [Him," it is] evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:22-28, NKJV).

Paul tells us that Christ will reign until a particular point in time. This corresponds with the end of all (competing) rule, authority, and power—and the destruction of death itself. I believe this corresponds with the close of Revelation 20—at the end of the millennial kingdom following the great white throne judgment, when "Death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:14) after which death is no more (Rev. 21:4). At this point, the earthly throne of David comes to an end and the rule of the Son is put under that of the Father. Thereafter, the rule of God continues, but rather than Jesus on the earthly throne of David, both Father and Son occupy a heavenly throne (Rev. 22:1).

In my view, this is akin to the change which takes place in the "eternal priesthood" involving descendants of Levi, Aaron, Phinehas, and Zadok. Following an extended period, this priestly service also comes to an end with the close of the millennium after which there is no longer a traditional temple: "But I saw no temple in it [the New Jerusalem]" (Rev. 21:22). Yet it also says, "the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple."

Forever Is a Long Time

This all points out something which Arnold Fruchtenbaum has long observed: the term everlasting, עוֹלָם [ʿôlām] does not always mean "forever and ever and ever" in the sense we most often take it. It can also mean "for an extended period—a very long time." The following passages illustrate this usage:

  • A servant could choose to stay with his master, in which case the master would pierce his ear with an awl and the servant would "serve him forever" (a long period of time, Ex. 21:6; Deu. 15:17).
  • Hannah dedicated the young Samuel to serve in the temple and "appear before the LORD and remain there forever" (1 Sam. 1:22).
  • Achish stated that David would be his "servant forever" (1 Sam. 27:12).
  • At the dedication of Solomon's Temple, God told Solomon, "now I have chosen and sanctified this house, that My name may be there forever" (2 Chr. 7:16).

In these representative passages, the Hebrew term עוֹלָם [ʿôlām] is used, but indicates an indefinite, long period of time but which clearly did not last until eternity.

It is my view that the promise of an eternal priesthood in the line of Levi is to be understood similarly to the eternal promise of a throne of David: both the earthly temple and Davidic throne "transition" (for lack of a better word) at the close of the millennial kingdom. Both the priestly service and kingly rule are subsumed into the co-reign of God the Father and the Lamb on a truly timeless heavenly throne as the temple which supersedes and effectively extends what went before.