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.
Nigel J, I understand what you are saying. I just read that the verb that is used in this text is past tense; “were”. To me that means the writer of Hebrews is saying ‘ if He was on earth ( in the past) ...’ , implying that he was not on earth since he is talking about the past when the gospel accounts supposedly took place. If the writer wanted to express the present he would have used a word that would fit his meaning. A present tense word. ‘ if He was (present tense) on earth..’ and of course I am referring to the Greek.
"If Leo Messi were just an earthly talent, he would not be picked by FC Barcelona, for there are enough earthly talents playing in Barcelona". Did Messi never play in Barcelona, for he is not earthly talent and Barcelona is on earth? Of course not, for Messi definitely plays in Barcelona and even scored two goals against Atletico Madrid just three days ago, and one of them a real masterpiece goal.
Similarly, Jesus is the Heavenly Priest, yes, but how He could never been on earth when the same author, in the same epistle to Hebrews, affirms that He suffered and was killed shedding blood. Definitely, nobody sheds blood beyond earth, not in 1st century AD, for there were not spaceships back then for Jews or Romans to take Jesus up beyond the atmosphere and kill Him there :)
“If he WERE on earth..” WERE is in the Greek imperfect, meaning past tense. Therefore it seems to imply that the writer is saying if Jesus DID live on earth in the immediate past he would not be a priest. Indicating that he never was actually on earth but as Hebrews states over and over again that Jesus sacrificial death took place in a lower spiritual realm of spirits.