The author of Hebrews faced the problem of how to convince his readers to stay true to Christ. They were being tempted to return to Judaism and abandon their faith in Christ. The author had argued Christ's superiority to Moses and the fact that Christianity was the fulfillment of the promise for a better rest. His central and dominant argument was that Christ was a better priest than Judaism could provide.
The first reference to Christ as a priest came in Hebrews 2:17, but it is not until Hebrews 4:14 that the specific focus on Christ as our High Priest began. Hebrews 5:6, quoting Psalm 110:4, made the first reference to Christ's priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek. No development of the idea appears in Hebrews 5 and 6 though it is mentioned in Hebrews 5:10 and again in 6:20. The author turns his full attention to explaining what is meant by a priest according to the order of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7.
It is difficult to determine the exact outline the author of Hebrews had in mind as he composed Hebrews 7. However, there are at least three distinct sections in chapter 7. Hebrews 7:1-10 focuses on the person of Melchizedek and draws from the material in Genesis 14:17-20 as its scripture basis. Hebrews 7:11-25 turns the focus to Psalm 110:4 and applies it to Jesus. Finally, Hebrews 7:26-28 leaves the Old Testament references to Melchizedek and focuses specifically on Christ and creates a bridge to the treatment of Jesus as both priest and sacrifice that will be developed in Hebrews 8:1-10:18.
The fact that the author of Hebrews spends so many verses explaining the meaning of Jesus as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek is important. It implies that this is new teaching to the original readers. In fact, Hebrews is the only book in the entire New Testament so specifically describe Jesus as a priest. John 17 portrays Jesus in a priestly role, but the term "priest" is not used there nor is it used anywhere outside the book of Hebrews in connection with Jesus.
Further, this central section of Hebrews is the only place in the entire New Testament to refer to Melchizedek and to describe Jesus as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. The fact that no other New Testament author speaks in this way about Jesus means that we have no other points of view or explanations to help us understand this teaching. It may (or may not) mean that the author of Hebrews was presenting a new theological concept that had never before been revealed.
Melchizedek was mentioned as a historical person in Genesis 14. Psalm 110:4 makes reference to a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Those are the only Old Testament references to Melchizedek; the book of Hebrews contains the only New Testament references. However, Judaism in New Testament times also spoke of Melchizedek. Debates among different groups of Jews in the time of Christ continued through later centuries.
We do know that the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, were interested in Melchizedek since he is the subject of one of the scrolls. That scroll has been badly damaged so that many lines are not clear. However, Melchizedek is portrayed as an agent who acts for God in judgment and in the final destruction of sinners. Several verses from Isaiah, Leviticus, Psalms, and Deuteronomy are interpreted in light of the way Melchizedek will set those in bondage free at the end of time.
Some scholars believe that the Dead Sea Scrolls made Melchizedek identical to the archangel Michael. That view appears several hundred years later in Judaism, but there is no evidence that such an idea was in the mind of the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both Philo and Josephus, well-known Jewish writers from the first century, mention Melchizedek but they simply regard him as a righteous man. The writings of the Pharisees came in the third century after Christ. They believed Melchizedek was translated into heaven like Elijah and that he would return in the age of the Messiah.
The evidence shows that a variety of opinions about Melchizedek circulated during the time of the New Testament. Several "pet theories" seem to have been argued, but there is no material outside the New Testament that helps us understand how the author of Hebrews was thinking about Melchizedek. Other than the author of Hebrews first century Judaism was not thinking about Melchizedek in terms of a high priest.
William Lane suggests that by comparing Jesus with Melchizedek the author of Hebrews was able to accomplish two goals. He was able to argue that Jesus had been appointed as a high priest by God and that Jesus was a unique high priest because God had raised him from the dead (Lane, p. 102). Certainly the treatment of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7 is a unique and original work of both Bible interpretation and theological application.
The Historical Melchizedek - Hebrews 7:1-10
The author's reflections on Melchizedek as a historical person are built on the story of the encounter between Abraham and Melchizedek found in Genesis 14:17-20. The author identifies the basic Biblical data about Melchizedek as a priest-king in Hebrews 7:1-3. He expounds the greatness of Melchizedek when compared to Abraham and Abraham's descendant, Levi, in verses 4-10.
Verse 1 is an edition paraphrase from Genesis 14:18 and 20. Genesis 14 describes the invasion by four kings from the east of the Jordan River invading the Jordan Valley and the area around the Dead Sea. They defeated several cities, including Sodom, and carried off considerable plunder and a number of captives, including the nephew of Abraham, Lot. When a survivor escaped and reported the matter of Abraham he quickly formed a militia from his own servants and from his neighbors and set out in pursuit of the invading kings. Abraham caught the four kings near Damascus and in a surprise attack defeated them and recovered all the plunder and the captives. As he returned the king of Sodom met him offering to let him keep all the plunder if he would just return the captives.
In the middle of that story Melchizedek appears on the scene, served bread and wine, and pronounced a blessing on Abraham. At that point Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the plunder he had re-captured. At that point Melchizedek disappeared from the scene and the conversation with the king of Sodom was resumed.
Several goals are accomplished by verse 1 for the author of Hebrews. First, he quotes from Genesis 14:17-20 so that it is clear that he is drawing from the historical material found in Genesis. This is a shift from his earlier references to Melchizedek as mentioned in Psalm 110:4. However, our author only makes selective use of the Genesis 14 material. Melchizedek is first identified as king of Salem. The reference to Salem in Genesis 14:18 is usually identified as a reference to Jerusalem though some modern scholars believe that Shechem was the more probable location. The author of Hebrews showed no interest in identifying Salem with Jerusalem but he probably assumed that to be the meaning.
It is Melchizedek's role as king that was of greater interest to the author of Hebrews. The kings of Old Testament Israel had been strictly limited in the priestly functions that they could perform. (1 Samuel 13:12-13 provides an interesting example.) That Melchizedek was both king and priest would not have been unusual in the Ancient Middle East. Verse 2 shows further interest in the kingship of Melchizedek when it is noted that the Hebrew roots of Melchizedek mean "king of righteousness." Further, the word Salem resembles the Hebrew word shalom which means "peace." Thus the author of Hebrews can also conclude that Melchizedek, as king of Salem was "king of peace."
The comparison of Jesus to Melchizedek who was king of both righteousness and peace would have great potential for theological application, but the author of Hebrews made no effort to develop such ideas. The offering of bread and wine by the historical Melchizedek would provide an obvious connection to the Lord's Supper begun by Jesus. However, the author of Hebrews again showed no interest in developing that potential application and did not even mention the bread and wine.
The priestly actions of Melchizedek in blessing Abraham and in receiving the tithe from Abraham are mentioned in Hebrews 7:1. Both suggest the superiority of Melchizedek to Abraham and will be used in the argument of that superiority in verses 4-10. Bruce notes that the author of Hebrews was as interested in what was not said about Melchizedek as he was in what was said in Genesis 14:17-20 (Bruce, pp. 157, 159-160). Verse 3 illustrates that fact. It is an example of the Jewish method of typological interpretation.
The statement in verse 3 that Melchizedek had no father, mother, genealogy, beginning or ending of days is not a statement of literal fact. The author of Hebrews did not regard Melchizedek as some biological miracle or an angel. From the reference of Genesis 14:18 one would suppose that Melchizedek would "have belonged to a dynasty of priest-kings in which he had both predecessors and successors" (Bruce, p. 160). The author of Hebrews would have agreed with such a statement, but it is beside his point. Since Genesis 14:17-20 makes no mention of Melchizedek's lineage the author will deal with him as if he had no father, mother, or genealogy.
This kind of typological interpretation is mind-boggling to some modern thinkers, but it was typical of one of the ways Jews interpreted Scripture in the time of the New Testament. Thus, to his readers the author is making an impressive argument from Scripture. Of course, compared to the extensive genealogies that the Old Testament gives for the tribe of Levi and especially the family of Aaron, the lack of a genealogy for Melchizedek is very noticeable.
The point is clear: Melchizedek was a very unusual priest. He did not inherit his priesthood. It was given to him by appointment from God. That appointment is one point of comparison with Christ. Another is revealed in the words without beginning of days or ending of life. The Genesis account made no mention of the beginning or end of the priesthood of Melchizedek. His sudden appearance and disappearance gave an implication of eternality. The real point of the uniqueness of Melchizedek's priesthood is that it continues on forever.
It is also important for us to realize that the point of verse 3 is that Melchizedek resembles Christ in that he remains a priest forever. The writer of Hebrews did not think that Jesus had no real earthly father, mother, or genealogy. That view of Christ was called Docetism and it was early condemned as a heresy. What the author wants his readers to understand is that just as behind Christ's earthly credentials there stood an eternal relationship with the Father that had no beginning or ending, so also Melchizedek's lack of earthly credentials points to his eternal priesthood.
If Christ and Melchizedek "resemble" each other in the character of their priesthood the author's next step will be to argue for the superiority of Melchizedek over the priests of Judaism. If that can proved and if Christ is like Melchizedek, then Christ is superior to the priests provided by Judaism. The basis for the argument will be that Abraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek and was blessed by Melchizedek. For us to appreciate the power of this argument we need to remember the status that Abraham enjoyed within Judaism. He was the Father of the nation. He was a prince of God in the mind of his neighbors. God himself called Abraham his friend. Yet Abraham paid tithe to Melchizedek. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Melchizedek possessed a status greater than that of Abraham.
However, the author is not most interested in the relationship of Abraham and Melchizedek. His goal is to compare the priesthood of Christ with that of Judaism. Since he has already compared Christ to Melchizedek and shown Melchizedek to be superior to Abraham, the next step is to show that the priesthood of Judaism is comparable to Abraham (thus inferior to Melchizedek and thus inferior to Christ). The priesthood of Judaism is defined here in terms of the descendants of Levi. As priests they (like Melchizedek) receive tithes from the people, though the descendants of Levi are, in fact, brothers (related) to the people who pay the tithe to them. Thus there is some brotherly equality between the descendants of Levi (the Jewish priesthood) and all Jews because all are descendants of Abraham. This much is stated in verse 5.
The argument is re-developed in the following verses by bringing the issue of blessing into the picture, but the conclusion comes in verses 9-10. One could almost say that Levi (the one who receives tithes) has paid tithes through Abraham. Jewish culture believed that a person contained within himself all his descendants. In modern language, the genes and chromosomes of Levi were already there in Abraham, just waiting the unfolding conceptions that eventually lead to Levi's birth and then to the birth of his descendants (the Jewish priests).
Thus genetically Levi and his descendants the Jewish priests were all present in Genesis 14 inside Abraham paying tithe to Melchizedek. Thus Melchizedek has a greater priesthood than that of the Jewish priests because in the final analysis they paid tithe to Melchizedek and he blessed them. Since Christ was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek his superiority to the Jewish priests is proved.
The Meaning of Melchizedek As Priest - Hebrews 7:11-25
The purpose of arguing the greatness of Melchizedek was not magnify Melchizedek: it was to magnify Christ. Hebrews 7:11-25 turn the argument to that goal. The author will both argue that Jesus is a priest like Melchizedek and that Jesus is a priest not like the descendants of Levi - the Jewish priests.
Step One in the argument comes in verses 11-12. The very fact that Psalm 110:4 spoke of a priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek means that the Levitical system was deficient in the mind of God. The way the author states it is, if perfection were attainable through the Levitical priesthood what need would there be of another priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek.
The New Testament word for perfection means to be all that something can be, to fulfill the full purpose, or thus to be in process of reaching the goal for which it was created (see The English Term "Perfect"). The author's logic is very simple. If God's goals helping people could have been reached through the Levitical priests then God would have accomplished his goals that way. The very fact that God spoke in Psalm 110:4 of a priesthood on the pattern of Melchizedek instead of on the pattern of Aaron (descendant of Levi and first Jewish high priest) showed that God knew his goals could not be reached via the Levitical priests and a new order would be necessary. Since the whole structure of the Levitical priesthood was described in the Law of the Old Testament a new priesthood will require a new law. Thus the requirements for a priest in the Levitical system since they are explained in the Law will no longer be valid.
This sets up Step Two in the argument, contained in verses 13-14. The expression the things which were said refers back to Psalm 110:4. The prophecy that there would be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek was in fact spoken about Jesus as high priest according to our author. Jesus belonged to another tribe from which no one ever officiated as a priest at the altar. The author's awareness of and interest in the human genealogy of Jesus is now apparent. He knows that Jesus came from the tribe of Judah as a descendant of David. The Law of Moses said nothing about members of the tribe of Judah serving as priests. Thus Jesus and Jesus' priesthood are very different from Levi and the Jewish priests. Since Jesus lacked the basic requirement of the Law to be a priest, his priesthood must be based on an entirely different arrangement.
This leads immediately into Step Three of the argument in verses 15-17. The superiority of Jesus to the Jewish priesthood can be seen because Jesus is not a priest according to the Law of the Old Testament. Rather the basis of his priesthood is his resurrection to newness and endlessness of life according to verse 16. The actual wording in verse 16 states that Christ has come not according to the law of a commandment about flesh but according to the power of an indestructible life.
When the author speaks of an indestructible life he is not ignorant of Christ's death on the cross. The book of Hebrews is full of references to the cross and to Christ's death. However, death was not able to hold Jesus and the resurrection granted to Jesus a new quality of life - a life that would never end (see Romans 6:4-10). It was the new life that was given to Jesus as a result of the resurrection that was the indestructible life. And that life was the basis of his priesthood because Psalm 110:4 had declared, "You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek."
In the mind of the author of Hebrews the resurrection not only caused Jesus to be designated Son of God in power (Romans 1:4) but the resurrection also caused Jesus to be appointed a high priest forever. This means that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God (the position at the right hand had been stated in Psalm 110:1) to be always interceding for his followers.
Step Four in the argument is unfolded in verses 18-19. Verse 18 contains some of the strongest words of the New Testament placing the Old Testament in a lower or inferior position. Before one draws the conclusion that the Old Testament may be safely set aside one should remember the way this author has depended upon the Old Testament to establish the points of his argument. In Hebrews 8 he will quote Jeremiah 31:31-34 that speaks of the replacement of the old covenant with a new covenant. However, the new covenant will consist of writing the old law on human hearts. Jesus' statement in Matthew 5:17 that he had not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it should also be kept in mind. The idea of Romans 8:2-4 that those who walk by the Spirit will fulfill the righteous or holy requirements of the Law should also be remembered.
The former commandment that is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness was the legal basis by which one became a priest. In this context the weak and useless part of the Law was the requirement that an authentic high priest had to be descended from Aaron in the tribe of Levi. That portion of the Law failed to accomplish God's goal (it made nothing perfect) but the real intention of God was accomplished through Christ. That real intention was that we should draw near to God. It became a possibility by the death and resurrection of Jesus that made him (Jesus) that superior high priest. The resurrection of Jesus that was the basis of his superior priesthood also provides a better or superior hope.
The pastoral implications of the four step argument of the meaning of Christ's priesthood are then presented in Hebrews 7:20-25. The pivotal place of Psalm 110:4 is as important for these verses as it was for the preceding verses. The key word of Psalm 110:4 that speaks to the present is the word swore. Since God had sworn that subject of Psalm 110:4 would be a priest forever, Christ's priesthood is an expression of the unchangeable purpose of God. Our new relationship with God is not an afterthought, nor a passing thought with God. Christ's priesthood is effective for us and will remain both in effect and effective for us because God has sworn it. No oath like that of Psalm 110:4 undergirded the Levitical priests of Judaism. Thus Jesus was a better priest than they and there is greater assurance available from him than from Jewish priests.
The issue of Jesus' superiority to the priests of Judaism is not a significant life issue for us today. However, the superiority and reliability of Christ as the only authentic access that we have to God is still important. The language of God swearing an oath is not language we normally use. The idea that our new covenant relationship with God is guaranteed and effective is an ever relevant idea for us.
A second practical application of the superior priesthood of Jesus is that it provides an eternal and ultimate salvation. Under the arrangement set up by the Old Testament Law there were many priests, but each was temporary since each died. As a result there was constant disruption of the Jewish priesthood. From the perspective of our author there was no continuity in the priesthood of the descendants of Levi.
Since Jesus is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek his priesthood does not pass on. In other words it is permanent. As a result there is no disruption and no limitation to the kind of priestly intercession that Jesus is able to provide. As verse 25 states the salvation that he provides is complete and final. Some translate, "He is able to save absolutely." The Greek word is sometimes translated with a time reference. He is able to save for all time. Other times it is translated in terms of quality. He is able to save completely. There is no lack of the degree or the length of time to which Christ is able to save.
This word (panteles) is very similar in concept to the word used by Paul in I Thessalonians 5:23, "The God of peace sanctify you entirely (oloteles)." For those who come to God through Christ, he (Jesus) lives always to intercede them. The provision for complete salvation has been made through Christ. There is no area of our lives that can not be dealt with by our high priest because his priesthood has no interruptions and is complete. If there is any area of life in which we experience failure and sense that the redemptive power of God is not at work, it is because we have not brought ourselves and that problem to altar of our high priest, Jesus. As Lane so aptly states, "His responsibility is unceasing intercession; our responsibility is to approach God through him." (Lane, p. 111).
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.
First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 7:1-25. Look up the Scripture references that are given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. What is it that is significant about them?
2. Select a truth for which you believe there is a personal application for your life. Briefly describe the way it applies to you.
3. Write a brief prayer telling the Lord that with confidence you accept his role as your high priest and asking him to continue to represent you to the Father.
Second Day: Read Hebrews 7:1-28. Now focus in on Hebrews 7:26-28.
1. What characteristics of Christ are mentioned in verses 26-28?
2. In what way do verses 26-28 affirm the superiority of Christ?
3. How do verses 26-28 relate to the content and purpose of Hebrews 7:1-25?
Third Day: Read Hebrews 7:26-8:13. Focus your attention on Hebrews 8:1-5.
1. What characteristics of Christ are mentioned in Hebrews 8:1-3?
2. Where does the author see Jesus performing his ministry of intercession? What conclusion does the author draw from Exodus 25:40?
3. Read 1 Corinthians 3:16-18; 6:19-20, Ephesians 2:20-22, and 1 Peter 2:4-5. How do these passages reveal a common theme and teaching with Hebrews 8:1-5? How is Hebrews 8:1-5 different from these passages?
Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 8:1-13. Focus in on Hebrews 8:6-13.
1. How does the ministry of Jesus and his covenant compare with the ministry and covenant of the Old Testament? Why?
2. Why does the author of Hebrews argue that God found fault with the laws of the Old Testament?
3. What is meant when the author states that Jesus has obtained "a more excellent ministry?" Write a brief prayer asking Christ to help you take better advantage of his "more excellent ministry" in your own life.
Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 8:1-13. Again focus in on Hebrews 8:6-13.
1. Compare Hebrews 8:8-12 with Jeremiah 31:31-34. How similar are the two passages?
2. How is the "new covenant" defined in Hebrews 8:8-12? What results will come from the new covenant?
3. Read 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (especially verse 25) and 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 (especially verse 6). On the basis of these verses in what ways does the new covenant apply to you?
Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 8:1-9:5. Now turn your focus to Hebrews 9:1-5.
1. According to verse 4 the ark contained some manna and Aaron's rod. Read Exodus 16:31-35 and Numbers 17:1-10. What was the purpose of placing manna and Aaron's rod in the ark? Does that purpose have any application to you?
2. According to Exodus 25:17-22 and Hebrews 9:1-5, what was to have happened at the mercy seat? How does 1 Kings 8:8-13 illustrate the point?
3. Has Christ become your mercy seat? What does it mean if he has? If he has write a brief prayer of thanksgiving. If he has not consider writing a prayer of invitation for him to take that role in your life.