|Jesus: Eternal High Priest of the Melchizedekan Order (Hebrews 7:1-28)
Jesus: Eternal High Priest of the Melchizedekan Order
Minister’s Summary: Jesus has a unique high priestly role in the present scheme of things. How shall we make sense of that against the Aaronic priesthood? How can Jesus be a high priest at all? Our writer/exhorter makes a clever argument for the superiority of the high priesthood of Jesus over all others by tracing it to “mysterious” Melchizedek.
While this section has some exegetical pitfalls and some difficult hermeneutical moves (Guthrie does as good a job as one can with these moves from an evangelical standpoint), the substantive point of the text is essential to the preacher’s Christology (understanding of Jesus). Essentially, the emphasis is on both the legitimacy and the permanence of the priesthood of Jesus. Both of these points are rooted in the typological relationship between Jesus and Melchizedek.
Jesus is a legitimate priest because he was not appointed as a Levitical, but Melchizedekan priest. God called him in the same way that Melchizedek was—outside of the Levitical genealogy and order. Indeed, this priesthood is superior to the Levitical because it is a priesthood that is independent of genealogy or ancestry. It is a priesthood that is rooted only in the call of God. The superiority of the Melchizedekan order is demonstrated by the tithe that Abraham paid to Melchizedek as a priest of God.
The permanence of the Jesus’ priesthood is eternal. He is a priest “forever.” There is no end to his priesthood because his priesthood is like that of the Melchizedekan order. There is no successor to Jesus, just as there was no successor to Melchizedek. In addition, the “forever” character of the priesthood of Jesus is rooted in his eternal nature as the Son of God. He is priest forever because he himself is “forever”—his eternal relationship with the Father means eternal redemption for us since he is our eternal priest.
Consequently, the two central points we should gain from this text (at least exegetically) is the superiority of the priesthood of Jesus over the Levitical priesthood and the eternal character of that priesthood. These two points serve a greater purpose, which will unfold in the argument contained in Hebrews 8:1-10:18. But they serve even at this juncture to point us to the eternal character of our redemption obtained by a uniquely appointed priest who transcends genealogies, ancestry and human families. The eternal Son of God is our eternal high priest.
1. Hebrews 7:1-10
Melchizedek is a rather obscure figure in the Old Testament. He is only mentioned twice, and our preacher quotes both texts (Genesis 14 and Psalm 110). This section is an exposition of Genesis 14 in terms of the implications of the relationship of Melchizedek to Abraham and his descendents, but it is also a typological analogy between Melchizedek and Jesus, the Son of God.
The typology is present in Hebrews 7:3 when the preacher asserts that Melchizedek is like the Son of God in that he is “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life.” While some have taken this to mean that Melchizedek descended out of heaven or that he was a divine theophany or even the appearance of the Son in a different form in the Old Testament, this is not the point. He is like the Son, but he is not the Son. We should not press this language beyond its intended point, and the point is the legitimacy of priesthood.
The preacher affirms the priesthood of Jesus, the Son of God but he has no lineage that legitimates that belief. The preacher uses Melchizedek as an example of a priest who is priest without lineage. Genesis 14 does not legitimize his priesthood by a lineage. Melchizedek appears in the narrative without a genealogical heritage. He appears in the text without father or mother. He is priest, not because of his lineage, but because he is called by God as priest. In this sense, he is like the priesthood of the Son. However, there is a further analogy since Melchizedek is also a king. He is a royal figure—he is a royal priest. This is also true of Jesus, though the preacher does not emphasize this point.
The language, then, of “without father or mother, etc.” is not about the eternal nature of Melchizedek as if he is a divine figure, but is about how he appears (and then disappears) in Scripture. He jumps into biblical history and then jumps back out—he appears without beginning or end. In this sense, his priesthood is permanent and forever because as far as the biblical record is concerned he appears as a priest and his priesthood remains unending because the text does not speak of its end.
However, Melchizedek also serves another significant point for the preacher. Hebrews 7:4-10 draws out the impact of his encounter with Abraham for the Levitical priesthood. Since Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek as a priest of God, so did Levi and the Aaronic priesthood.
The greater blessed the lesser and the lesser paid tithes to the greater! Melchizedek is greater than Abraham and the Levitical priesthood. This is an astounding statement, not simply because it reflects the superiority of Melchizedek over the Levitical order, but that it also affirms the greatness of Melchizedek over Abraham. That affirmation has “shock” value—how can anyone say that another person was greater than Abraham, the father of Israel and the exemplar of faith? Since Melchizedek points us to the Son of God and the Son is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, it means that the Son is greater than Abraham. He is not simply greater than Moses or Joshua, or the angels, but even Abraham!
Nevertheless, the point of application for the preacher is that the Melchizedek is greater than Levi and his descendents. Thus, the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the priesthood of Levi. The next section will explain why the one priesthood is greater than the other.
2. Hebrews 7:11-25
Two key words explain why Melchizedek’s priesthood is greater than Levi’s: (1) perfection and (2) eternality (“forever”). In this section, the preacher applies Psalm 110 to the situation.
The preacher introduces the notion of “perfection” in 7:11 and rounds out his argument in 7:19. The law could make nothing “perfect” and the priests themselves were not perfect (they were “weak;” cf. 7:28). But the priesthood of Melchizedek in the person of Jesus can perfect us (cf. 10:14) because Jesus himself was perfected through his suffering and work for us (7:28). The Levitical priesthood was weak and imperfect (and thus so was the law, cf. 7:18), and thus a change was needed. We needed the services of a perfect and eternal priest who could secure eternal redemption.
The perfection of the Son of God was won through his suffering. Suffering perfected him, as we have seen earlier in Hebrews. His priesthood was not easily won, but was tried and perfected through suffering. Rather than demonstrating weakness through sin, he was perfected in strength through suffering.
Hebrews 7:16 is a critical point. The priesthood of Jesus is not rooted in genealogy or human ancestry, but is rooted in the “power of an indestructible life.” It is the eternal life of the Son of God, or the resurrection life of the Son of God (which is an expression of that eternal life), which secures the eternality of the priesthood. He is a priest forever because he himself is forever (7:24)
The eternal character of his priesthood is also rooted in a divine oath. The oath is found in Psalm 110:4. God appointed him priest, and swore his permanence. God is faithful and he will keep his promise. He will not change his mind. The Son of God is a priest forever!
The consequence of this perfection and permanence is that we something “better” now than was true of earlier generations in history. We have a “better hope” (7:19) and a “better covenant” (7:22). Our hope is better because it is an eternal, permanent one, and the covenant is better because the redemption is eternal because an eternal priest secures it.
3. Hebrews 7:26-28.
This is the preacher’s summary of his argument. It is a climactic statement of the point and contains the fundamental contrasts between the Levitical priesthood and the priesthood of Jesus. Our high priest is different from the Levitical high priests. The contrast is strong. While the Levitical priests die, our high priest lives “exalted above the heaven.” While the Levitical high priest is sinful, our high priest is holy and sinless. While the Levitical high priest sacrifices not only for the sins of others but also for his own sins, our high priest sacrifices for the sins of others. While the Levitical high priest sacrifices day after day, our high priest sacrifices only once. While the Levitical high priest is weak, our high priest has been perfected. While the law appointed the Levitical high priest, our high priest was appointed by an oath that came after the law was given.
The central theological teaching of this text, which we must bring to bear in our own experience of Christianity, is the eternal priesthood of Jesus. His eternal priesthood means our eternal redemption. Somehow we need to translate this essential insight into something meaningful for our contemporary hearers.
The emphasis on “eternal” (or “forever”) is important in this section. The term aiwna (eon) occurs four times in Hebrews 7 (at verses 17, 21, 24, 28). Associated with that idea is the notion of permanence in Hebrews 7:24. Jesus has a permanent priesthood because he lives forever. This life means he continually lives to intercede—he is a permanent presence at the right hand of God for our sakes! Thus, he is able to save “completely.”
We have a high priest who continues to live, whose life is forever and whose priesthood is eternal. He is always present at the right hand of God as our priest. He is merciful and faithful as he intercedes for us. We do not have to remake or reappoint our priest every generation, but rather our high priest lives throughout all generations. We can be confident that he is always there. The eternal nature of our high priest as Son of God and his consequent eternal priesthood by the appointment of the Father means that our redemption is eternal and secure.
The Son is able to save—he saves completely because he lives forever. His life is indestructible and it is guaranteed by God’s own sworn oath. This kind of high priest “meets our need” (7:26).
Theologically, the application is the idea of a “better hope” for those who draw near to God. It is the hope of complete, eternal redemption (7:19, 25). God saves through Jesus, and he saves completely. There is no need for another priest, or another sacrifice. This is God’s covenantal relationship with humanity—it is found in Jesus. There is no other redemption and there is no other security. We can “draw near” to God through Jesus (7:19, 25).
Essentially, the “foreverness” of our salvation depends on the “foreverness” of the priesthood of Jesus that is, in turn, dependent upon the oath/faithfulness of God and the power of Jesus’ indestructible life (that is, the “foreverness” of God and Jesus).
This is a huge amount of material (28 verses), but the central point is clear: Jesus is a priest forever unlike those of the Levitical priesthood. Our teaching, I think, would want to draw out that point and understand its implications for the original audience and for our contemporary audience.
Contemporary readers are probably lost in the details of “priesthood” and its rituals. (We will have occasion to think more specifically about these rituals in Hebrews 9.) They seem too distant to us, especially those of us in a “free church” or non-liturgical tradition.
However, ritual shaped identity and grounded confidence as it pointed Israel to God and gave them access to God. [Thus, this is one of the reasons the preacher emphasizes the superiority of the priesthood of Jesus over the Levitical one.] This is the theological issue at stake for our application of this material—soteriology (salvation) and how the priesthood of Christ grounds our salvation and secures it. How do we access God? How do we draw near to God? With what assurance and confidence can we draw near to God?
Each teacher will have to decide how much emphasis to give Melchizedek, but let us be sure that we do not make him the focus. Melchizedek is only introduced to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood over the Levitical one and to testify to the “foreverness” (eternal) nature of Jesus’ priesthood. We can get easily sidetracked in discussions that might be interminable if we seek to figure out every hermeneutical or interpretative move the preacher makes here. Let’s focus on his point and reason for introducing Melchizedek in the first place.
I think the overriding concern is security and confidence in following Jesus. The security of Levitical ritual (or any ritual) is consoling. It is familiar. It is tradition. But the approach to God of a house church does not have the elaborate liturgical and priestly rituals that yield confidence and security. The preacher, then, calls us to dig deeper—he calls us to a level of maturity that recognizes our security in the priesthood of Christ rather than in formalized rituals.
Do we trust in our pedigree? Our rituals? Our traditions? Or, do we trust in the work of Christ for us. What is eternal? Our rituals? Our pedigree? Our traditions? What is eternal is the work of Christ because of his eternal life and the eternal oath God swore concerning him. Our eternal redemption is grounded in his eternal priesthood. This is our confidence and security. It is what enables perseverance in the face of trials. Maturity enables perseverance because maturity understands the proper ground of confidence and security.
With this point, I will follow a teaching outline something like this. First, I will talk about Melchizedek. I will introduce Genesis 14 and the story the preacher relates. But I will tell the story from the standpoint of how this “bursts” the bubble of an unhealthy confidence in Levitical ritual. Second, I will focus on the argument in the middle section of this text. I will stress the theological substance of the text and point the class to those texts that reflect that substance. Third, I will focus on the application of the theology to our context. Jesus is our focus, not our rituals. Rituals can offer identity, shape our life and give confidence, but only if our faith is rooted first in Jesus as God’s priest and those rituals do not undermine the work of Christ as priest.
Another approach would be to major on the topic of “Who is Jesus?” in this text? This would be more of a topical approach. You could ask the class to point out various descriptions. What identifiers are noted in Hebrews 7? What descriptions do we have of Jesus here? What is the significance of those identifiers and descriptions? Then, aware of the descriptions and where they are located in the text, the class can discuss the meaning and application of each of those descriptions for our context.
Ultimately, we want to bring our class to a faith in both the finished work of Christ (he was offered once for all for sin) and the ongoing work of Christ (he continues to intercede for us). It is this work which gives security and confidence. It is by this work that we “draw near” to God. It is this work which enables the perseverance of faith.
Essentially, Jesus has won salvation for us and continues to pray for us. He is an ever-present help in our struggles. He is the eternal one who has won eternal redemption for us and is eternally present before the Father interceding for us.