More on Melchizedek
In chapter 5, the writer introduced us to the idea that Jesus was a priest of a new order, not of the order of Aaron and Levi, but of the order of Melchizedek. Now in chapter 7, the writer expands on the idea of Jesus bringing in a new priestly order.
- Melchizedek – a copy
In the Hebrew mind, national existence and meaning was to be found in Abraham and the promises that God had made to him. These promises were the anchor on which the people could and should rely. The promises made to Abraham were not just about the nation of Israel: they were about how God would bring about his plans to restore mankind through this nation and the offspring (Jesus Christ) of the woman (Israel). It is to an event that took place in the life of Abraham that the writer takes his Hebrew readers: Abraham had just engaged in a fight! His nephew Lot had aligned himself with the people and sinful practices of the city of Sodom. A conflict between neighbouring cities had broken out and Lot and his family had been captured. Abraham raised his own army of 318 men and had won a battle which resulted in the release of Lot as well as the return of captives and loot taken from Sodom and the other defeated cities. It was after this victory that Abraham met Melchizedek.
Verse 1 and 2 summarises the facts of the interaction between Melchizedek and Abraham: 1). Melchizedek was a king, the king of Salem (Jerusalem). 2). Melchizedek was a priest of ‘God most high.’ No king was ever a priest in the history of Israel and when one (otherwise good) king attempted to fulfil some of the duties reserved for the priests, he instantly broke out in a visible skin condition (he quickly got the message and fled the temple!). 3). Abraham met Melchizedek in the afterglow of victory in battle. 4). Abraham gave a tenth of all his spoils of battle to Melchizedek. 5). Melchizedek means ‘king of righteousness.’ And 6). King of Salem means ‘king of peace.’
The writer now adds some surprising information about Melchizedek: ‘3 Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest for ever.’ How could Melchizedek be without father and mother? How could he lack a genealogy? How could he be without ‘beginning of days or end of life’? We are not told! I assume that we are not told because this is not important, but what is important is that Melchizedek resembled the son of God. The word translated resembled is in the original Greek, the verb aphomoioō (ἀφομοιόω). This word means to copy, to make like, to produce a facsimile. I remember when I started my first proper job in 1984, the company I worked for communicated with its international clients by Telex. Telex machines had a typewriter on which the message was written, the words were then translated into code via a paper tape with holes punched in it. The code was then transmitted via the telex network to the receiver of the message. The code was used as it was a condensed form of the words and thus used less expensive transmission time through the Telex network. Interestingly Telex operators were amongst the first to use abbreviated text (see if you can translate this! TKS F UR OFA WE R STILL WORKING ON UR PRICE N WIL ADV RESULT ASAP). This all changed shortly after I started work with the introduction of the fax machine. This new technology enabled a message to be typed out (or written) onto a sheet of paper, the paper was ‘read’ through the fax machine and a copy emerged on the fax machine of the recipient. The recipients received a copy of the original message, it was not the original, it was a copy, a facsimile. Melchizedek was a facsimile of Jesus. He was not Jesus but was a copy. This made Melchizedek a useful person with whom to teach the Hebrews about Jesus.
- More on Melchizedek
The relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek is explained in more detail in verses 4 to 10. The writer asks his readers to ‘just think how great he was (verse 4).’ The whole point here is that the Hebrews were being shown that their great nation, which was founded on promises God had made to their forefather Abraham, was less that Melchizedek (for reasons about to be explained), and Melchizedek was only a copy of the real thing: Jesus Christ! How come? The first thing the Hebrews should understand is that Abraham gave a tenth of the plunder to Melchizedek. We might ask why this is significant: the reason is that every Hebrew had to give 1/10th of their wealth to the Levites. In some ways this elevated the position of the Levites – even although they are just another of the 12 tribes. This giving of a tenth happened within the community of the Hebrews, but look says the writer, the great Abraham gave a tenth to someone outside of the community of Israel, and in return that person blessed Abraham – this makes this man, Melchizedek greater than Abraham: ‘without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater (verse 7).’ The Hebrews might say that Abraham might have given Melchizedek a tenth, but they certainly did not! But this was not true: ‘Levi who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, 10 because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.’ The customary tenth paid according to the law, was paid to men who would one day die, but the tenth that Abraham paid was made to one who lives. Whichever way you look at this, Melchizedek was greater than Abraham.
Melchizedek represents God’s new way, the New Covenant which is characterised by grace rather than law.
- The Old versus the New covenant
It seems that Hebrews was written primarily to encourage a generation of Hebrews who will go through tribulation. It encourages them to learn from past generations who have disobeyed corporately and have paid the consequences; banishment from the promised land. Obedience of the nation would ultimately bring about the return of the Messiah to take up his throne in Jerusalem. There seems also to be a second main idea in Hebrews which is an encouragement to fully embrace the New Covenant and not to fall back on the procedures and mind-set associated with the Old Covenant. When we’re under pressure there is a tendency to fall back into bad habits that we thought we’d freed ourselves from. Having embraced the New Covenant, the Hebrews were in danger of going back to the ways of the Old Covenant. Interestingly there are many similarities between the Old and New Covenants, and the writer uses many of these similarities to help and teach the Hebrews on the wonder of the New Covenant. Both covenants were concerned with God setting up a kingdom on earth with the Messiah as its king, both involved the divine presence, both required a high priest (as we are learning in this 7th chapter), both required a sacrifice and both recognised the sinfulness of mankind and the need for rescue. It is the differences however that are key; 1). Governing principle: the Old Covenant operated on the ‘do and you will live’ principle, whereas the New Covenant operates on the ‘believe and you will live’ principle. 2). The Old, could not change the internal problem of sin: the new brings a new heart. 3). The animal sacrifices of the Old could not remove sin, but the sacrifice of Jesus can and does remove sin. 4). Temporary priests were required in the Old Covenant, but a single, eternal priest is associated with the New Covenant. 5). The Old Covenant brought condemnation and death, but the New brings forgiveness and life and finally 6). The old failed to bring the Messiah to reign, the New Covenant in contrast will bring about the coming of the Messiah to set up his eternal kingdom.
The writer now explores some of these differences: remember his goal is to encourage perseverance during tribulation and to keep the Hebrews from returning to the inadequacies of the Old Covenant. The Levitical priesthood associated with the Old Covenant could not bring perfection and thus there was a need for a new priesthood, one of Melchizedek’s order rather than Aaron’s order. The word the writer uses for perfection is teleiósis (τελείωσις) which carries the idea of completion towards a goal. The Old Covenant could not permanently solve the problem of the condemned status of the sinner. All are affected by the sin of Adam: The Old Covenant was not able to bring closure to this problem. It could temporarily help, and allow fellowship of the people with God, but the people themselves remained unchanged. Because of this, change was needed, a new priesthood after the order of Melchizedek (verse 11).
So, a new priest is instituted. As we learned in chapter 5, under the terms of the Old Covenant the priest had to come from the tribe of Levi, but now we are introduced to a priest from an entirely different tribe, the tribe of Judah. This new priest is not bounded by his ancestry but is eternal: the writer once again quotes Psalm 110, ‘You are a priest for ever, in the order of Melchizedek.’ The regulations of the Old Covenant are now unequivocally set aside – because the Old Covenant was of no value and was weak. In what sense? Because it was incapable of making anything perfect. The word perfect in the original text is the verb teleioō (τελειόω) and speaks of carrying something through to a desired end – that desired end is fellowship with God – the very thing that Adam’s sin forfeited in the Garden of Eden. The law cannot accomplish this, but the New Covenant administered under the priest of the order of Melchizedek can.
- Levitical versus Melchizedekian priesthood
The role of a high priest was to bring two parties together. The Levitical priests did this, but were only able to accomplish this in a temporary and somewhat incomplete manner. The priests themselves were subject themselves to the death that the sin nature brings about: ‘death prevented them from continuing in office (verse 23b).’ In fact, in the history of the Levitical priesthood there were some dreadful priests who utterly failed to carry out their duties as set out in the law: the two sons of Eli misused the office of the priesthood for their own personal gain, they paid for this with their lives. In contrast ‘Jesus lives for ever, he has a permanent priesthood (verse 24).’ During the turbulent times in the British parliament just before the last general election some members of the governing party stepped across the house to join the opposition parties. They had been elected to represent the policies of the government but changed sides – the electorate were somewhat unimpressed with their unfaithfulness and most subsequently lost their seats. In contrast Jesus is permanent, he will not change sides. For all who come to God, through him he will always interceded.
The writer closes this chapter with a final comparison of the high priests who presided over the Old Covenant and Jesus who presides over the New Covenant. Jesus truly meets the need of sinners. The Old Covenant priests were sinners themselves, but Jesus is blameless and undefiled – he is not in the category of sinners and he is exalted above the heavens! If you were looking for a High Priest and compared Jesus’ CV with that of other high priests you would have no hesitation in appointing Jesus! So why go back to the Old ways! In contrast, the other high priests needed to deal with their own sins before they could deal with the sins of others – they were weak and subject to failure. These high priests had to repeatedly offer sacrifices ‘day after day,’ but Jesus sacrificed for sins once for all. The writer thus skilfully confronts the Hebrews with their tendency to fall back on old ways that were useless! In Jesus they had all that they could ever need. I wonder too if we too tend to fall back on old ways, perhaps church structures and belief systems or perhaps old sinful ways of living. Like the Hebrews, Jesus is all that we need!