This week we’ll look at the author’s discussion of Melchizedek. It’s an argument he’s been alluding to since Hebrews 5:6. I mentioned last time that the author is delving into some deeper theological territory, and he chooses as his starting point Psalm 110. Look at the entire psalm (7 verses).
The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours. The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.
This is a psalm written by David. It is the same psalm quoted by Jesus in Luke 20:41-44, where he said “‘How can they say that the Christ is David’s son? For David himself says in the Book of Psalms, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?'”
This was Jesus’ way of arguing that the Messiah (sometimes referred to as the son of David) would be greater than David, which is why David calls him “Lord”. The author of Hebrews is making a similar point from the same text about Jesus, as the messiah, being superior to earthly priests. The psalm says that the messiah would be “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Now, Melchizedek appears very briefly in Genesis 14:17-20.
After his [Abram’s] return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
This is the only time Melchizedek is mentioned and the only thing we know about him. The author of Hebrew’s noticed, though, that there must be something unique about him that is worth looking at. Otherwise, why would David be inspired by the Holy Spirit to compare the messiah to him in Psalm 110? Now, let’s take a look at what Hebrews 7 says.
1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, 2 and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. 3 He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.
The author of Hebrews points out the meanings of Melchizedek’s name and position and also references the lack of information about his genealogy. Some have suggested that he’s a pre-incarnation appearance of Christ. I suppose that’s possible, but it’s not necessary to the point being made in Hebrews. It’s sufficient to say that Melchizedek can be thought of as a “type” or example of certain characteristics of Christ. The author continues:
4 See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! 5 And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. 6 But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. 8 In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. 9 One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, 10 for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
As we make our way through the author’s argument, we need to remember his main objective – establishing what a priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek” really means. This passage reveals the author’s first observation. Melchizedek’s priestly status supersedes that of the Levitical priests, which are the priests defined by God in the Torah. He says that those priests are all descended from Abraham, and yet they (through him) paid a tithe in reverence to this priest.
11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. 13 For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, 16 who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
The author’s second major point is that a priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek is necessary because the priesthood established by God through descendants of Aaron in the tribe of Levi are insufficient to accomplish lasting redemption and salvation. Every one of Aaron’s descendants who became priests have died. Jesus is not a Levite. He’s from the tribe of Judah. However, his priesthood lasts forever because he defeated death and lives forever. Related to this is the concept of a new covenant replacing an old covenant, as explained by the author here.
18 For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness 19 ( for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. 20 And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, 21 but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.’” 22 This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. 23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
The new covenant (which includes a high priest who intercedes for us) is superior to the old covenant because this high priest (Jesus) is able to continually intercede for us and his sacrifice is superior because he is sinless.
26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. 28 For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
The author continues with this line of reasoning in Chapter 8, and I’ll pick up with that next time. I want to point out, though, that another aspect of Melchizedek that is unique is that he was a king AND a priest. This also foreshadows the status of Jesus. Not only does he represent us before the throne of God (as our priest), he also sits on the throne (as king and creator). Jesus addressed this in Matthew 12:1-8.
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? [This is a reference to 1 Samuel 21:1-6] Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? [In other words, they work on the Sabbath because they’re supposed to, and therefore are excluded from the prohibition of working on the Sabbath.] I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Jesus clearly points out that he is a priest who also is equal to God (king) and is therefore “Lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus is superior!