The story of Jesus and Melchizedek doesn’t begin here at the beginning of Hebrews 7; it goes all the way back to Genesis and the story of Abraham. Our author has mentioned earlier in the letter how all of this worked, beginning with a basic definition of what a priest actually is:
Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was.
While priesthood has all of the characteristics mentioned in these verses, Jesus (and Melchizedek) was no garden variety priest. Aaron’s descendants were born to the (Levitical) priesthood, but Jesus was born to the royal line of David; our author explains how Jesus could also become a priest:
In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.”
And he says in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”
Hebrews 5:5-6 (cf. Psalm 2:7; 110:4)
In Jesus’ case, He became a high priest in the Order of Melchizedek because His Father directly intervened. That is amazing enough, but as you can see, there is so much more to it:
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
So, there it is: Jesus, during His earthly ministry, demonstrated the role of a priest in His selfless devotion not only to God, but in the way that He interceded for Mankind- even to the extreme of going to the cross in which, He brought Himself as the superior sacrifice from the superior high priest to establish a superior Covenant based upon superior sacrifices.
This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.
The story of Melchizedek and Abraham is found in Genesis 14:17-20, and he isn’t mentioned again, except for an obscure reference in Psalm 110 that is only understood when it is quoted here in Hebrews 7. He came suddenly out of nowhere, and was gone just as quickly, and many scholars believe that Melchizedek is a pre-incarnation appearance of Christ (called a Christiophony). Clearly there are similarities between the two, but without more evidence, I’ll only say that he was a “type” of Christ.
Don’t go too fast in this passage; you don’t often come across a guy who is both king and priest, in fact that is not the Jewish model at all; only Jesus Himself comes to mind quickly for these two offices. Note also the similarity of names. Melchizedek is called “king of righteousness” and “king of peace” while Jesus is called “Righteous King” and “Prince of Peace.” He has no genealogy, no beginning of days or end of life… Very interesting. Here is a comparison chart for Melchizedek and Jesus:
|A King||A King|
|A High Priest||A High Priest|
|No beginning of days and without genealogy||No beginning of days and without genealogy (on his Father’s side)|
|Ministered bread and wine||Ministered bread and wine|
|Non Levite||Non Levite|
|King of Salem (King of Peace)||Prince of Peace (Is 9:6)|
|King of Righteousness||Righteous King (Is 9:7)|
|Greater than Abraham||Greater than Abraham|
Isn’t it interesting also that the author says that Melchizedek resembles the Son of God? I’m having a hard time thinking of another text that makes this kind of statement…
Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, from their fellow Israelites—even though they also are descended from Abraham. This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater. In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.
Up to this point in Hebrews, we have seen that Jesus is superior to the angels, and we have seen that Jesus is superior to Moses, but now we see that Melchizedek is superior to Abraham; in Jewish tradition, nobody is superior to Abraham! Yet when you consider the author’s evidence, it would seem that he has a valid point. Abraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek; this can also be rendered “tribute” which is always paid by the lesser to the greater. Under the Law, a tithe is paid to the Levites, the priests, and yet the father of all the Israelites paid a tithe to this Melchizedek centuries before the Law, and in a sense, Levi himself was involved in the payment, since his ancestor paid it.
The really amazing statement that the author makes in this section is this: In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living (7:8). I don’t mean to be overly simplistic, but you just don’t come across writing like this very often: who is this guy? It’s becoming easier to understand why many scholars have concluded that he must be Jesus pre-incarnation. Of course, the point was also made in verse 7 that the lesser is blessed by the greater. Clearly, Melchizedek is superior to Abraham, as mind-boggling as that must have been to a Jewish audience.
Before I wrap this up, I think we need to recognize here and now that this section is entirely intentional in the letter, for our author is building up to a massively important crescendo. As we continue, we will see that not only was Melchizedek greater than Abraham, but the Jesus is like Melchizedek, and as a result, He is also a high priest superior to the Levites, administering a covenant superior to the Law of Moses, and theologically speaking, that’s the ball game.
If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
In the last section, we got into the whole Melchizedek issue, and here, the author is applying it to our present situation in Christ. A careful reading of this text will begin to reveal an amazing aspect of the relationship between the Old and New Covenants, and we quickly discover why the Old Covenant is no more. To begin, verse 11 brings us a rhetorical question: If perfection could have been attained through the old priesthood, why do we need another? Simple enough… Let’s understand “perfection” for a minute here, since I think it might refer to something that many might not be thinking about right off. By “perfection” the author isn’t asking whether or not the Law could make a man perfect through His obedience to it; I’m sure you can recall Paul asking those kinds of questions. In this case, perfection is linked to the priesthood itself, and the priesthood represents the entire Old Covenant system of atonement for sins. Since that system cannot take sin away, it cannot bring about perfection. Jesus not only provided for forgiveness of sins, He took them away entirely.
Verse 12 brings up an interesting point in claiming that if the priesthood is changed, the Law must also be changed. This is because the Levitical priesthood (Order of Aaron) was created and established by the Law, and a new priesthood can only be established by doing something with the Law first. In the next verse, the author points out that the new high priest is from the tribe of Judah, and the old priests were from the tribe of Levi. According to the old Law, priests can only come from the tribe of Levi, while kings come from the tribe of Judah. Jesus came from Judah, the tribe of kings, and He was the heir to the throne of David. He is not eligible for priesthood under the Law of Moses… so something must give!
And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.
Enter Melchizedek; he is a priest, but he is not a Levite, so how can he become a priest? Think carefully now… a Levite is a priest because of a life force, in their case one of genetics and ancestry, but that life force is temporary, because they will die and need to pass the priestly office on to an heir. Contrast this with the life force by which Melchizedek is made a priest: Indestructible life. Which is better?
For it is declared:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”
The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
Again we have the quote from Psalm 110:4. Melchizedek is priest forever; indestructible life. In addition the old Law was set aside because it was “weak and useless”. An interesting note here is that the term “set aside” is a legal term. Even now, when a judge sets something aside, he rules that it is null and void, and has no effect.
When the author says that the “law made nothing perfect” you might well notice that the Law is being spoken of in the past tense because it is entirely over. Also, notice that “perfect” is being used in a different context than it was several verses back when it was applied only to the priesthood. Here we are talking about the entire context of the Law, not just atonement. Not only could the Law not take sin away, it made sin more evident than having no Law at all. For anyone who cares to notice, the Law makes imperfection obvious, so that we can easily see that Man is quite lost without a direct relationship with God. Melchizedek’s priesthood is a vast improvement over the Law of Moses, for it gives us this direct relationship.
And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him:
“The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
‘You are a priest forever.’”
Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.
Melchizedek became a high priest, not because he inherited it, but because God directly intervened in the process to appoint him… and He swore an oath that it should be so: Powerful stuff. Because of it Jesus is the guarantor of a better covenant, and that pretty much says it all.
Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.
I think these final verses are pretty obvious and no further words are necessary from me. We have arrived at the point where the superiority of Jesus as our high priest is obvious to all, and the author is moving on to a discussion of the New Covenant.