4 For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; NKJV, ©1982
Since the verse states, “if he were on earth,” is the author implying that Jesus was never on earth?
At the time he wrote the epistle,1 the author acknowledged that Jesus Christ is “a great high priest passed through the heavens,”2 who “entered...heaven itself, now to appear in God’s presence for us”3 and “sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.”4 This he speaks of is the earlier ascension and present session of the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven.
He also acknowledges that the Lord Jesus Christ “was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death...so that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.”5 This he speaks of is the past incarnation and crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In chapter 5, the author wrote that Jesus Christ was “called by God a high priest after the order of Malki-Tzedek.”6 Since Jesus Christ was not descended from Levi (through Aaron), but rather Judah (through David),7 “of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning a priesthood,”8 then he would not even be a priest if he were on earth. That is, at the time the author wrote, there was already an existing Levitical priesthood that daily offered gifts and sacrifices in an existing Temple. Hence, if Christ were on earth, he could not be a priest. Yet, he is a high priest. Therefore, he must minister serve elsewhere other than on earth.
The design of this is, to show a reason why he was removed to heaven. The reason was, that on earth there were those who were set apart to that office, and that he, not being of the same tribe with them, could not officiate as priest. There was an order of men here on earth consecrated already to that office, and hence it was necessary that the Lord Jesus, in performing the functions of the office, should be removed to an other sphere.
A sacrificial priest Christ can only be, either in the earthly or the heavenly sanctuary; for a third, besides these two, there is not. The author now proves, Hebrews 8:4, that He cannot be a priest in the earthly sanctuary, whence it then follows of itself that He must be so in the heavenly one.
1 The epistle was written some time prior to 70 A.D., before the Romans destroyed the Temple. This is indicated by the present tense of ὄντων τῶν προσφερόντων, as well as λατρεύουσιν in 8:5, all indicative of Levitical priests serving in an existing temple (which would obviously be located in Jerusalem). Barnes (p. xii): “It was written while the Temple was still standing, and before Jerusalem was destroyed. This is evident from the whole structure of the epistle.”
2 Heb. 4:14. Lünemann:
“It can only signify [Piscator, Owen, Bengel, Tholuck, Stuart, al.]: who has passed through the heavens, sc. in order, exalted above the heavens (cf. Hebrews 7:26; Ephesians 4:10), to take His seat upon the throne of the Divine Majesty (i. 3, 13). Allusion to the high priest of the Old Covenant, who, in order to make atonement for the people, passed through the courts of the Temple, and through the Temple itself, into the Most Holy Place.
Barnes, Albert. Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the Epistle to the Hebrews. New York: Harper, 1857.
Lünemann, Georg Konrad Gottlieb. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, and to the Epistle to the Hebrews. Trans. Hunter, David; Evans, Maurice J. New York: Funk, 1885.
Just an added note:
The Levitical Priesthood serviced only the Nation of Israel, while Christ in the order of Melchizedek was a Priest to all, both the Nation of Israel and the gentile nations.