These post-cross Hebrews still had the priesthood ingrained in their lives. So it’s not coincidental that every chapter that we’ve read so far reminded them that Jesus was their new High Priest. This chapter contrasts the priestly orders of Aaron and Melchizedek –and it distinguishes Jesus in that office.
In Hebrew tradition, the “order of succession” determines the relative importance of people who hold positions of authority. Specifically, the person who held the position first is considered superior to the ones who hold it after him. For example, Jacob (Israel) is a highly respected father of the Hebrews (the Israelites). But Jacob’s father, Isaac, is considered to be greater because he was the leader of the family before Jacob. And Isaac’s father, Abraham, is greater still. Abraham is revered as the first Hebrew –and therefore the greatest– for he responded to God’s call and so received the promises.
In the same way, the greatest Levitical priest was Aaron. He was the oldest of the tribe of Levi when God established that priesthood. Yet Genesis (in chapters 14 and 15) tells us that Abraham met another priest –Melchizedek. There he’s called “a priest of God Most High.” It’s the first mention of any priest of God.
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham as he was returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils,
was first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually. (Hebrews 7:1-3)
Melchizedek’s story inlisted nine kings (including the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah) who formed two warring groups, four kings against the other five. The winning side abducted Abraham’s nephew Lot, along with Lot’s family and possessions. Upon hearing the report, Abraham went to their rescue and slaughtered the abductors. Afterwards, Melchizedek came to Abraham; he brought bread, wine and a blessing. Once that blessing was given, God proclaimed His promises to Abraham.
Now observe how great this man was to whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth of the choicest spoils. And those indeed of the sons of Levi who receive the priest’s office have commandment in the Law to collect a tenth from the people, that is, from their brethren, although these are descended from Abraham.
But the one whose genealogy is not traced from them collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed the one who had the promises. But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater. In this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on.
And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him. (Hebrews 7:4-10)
Please allow me to belabor the obvious. Melchizedek was a priest long before Abraham’s great-grandson Levi was born –and that was long before Levi’s great-grandson Aaron was born. So, of course, Melchizedek was God’s priest before the Levitical Priesthood came into being.
The essence of this Hebrews passage is that Melchizedek was great in God’s eyes and he communicated God’s fondness for Abraham. In response, Abraham gave some of what he received in battle to acknowledge Melchizedek’s greatness. According to the order of succession, Abraham’s acknowledgment also made Melchizedek greater than Isaac, Jacob and Levi. Since Levi was the “father” of Aaron, then Melchizedek was greater than all the Levitical Priesthood. And since the Levitical Priesthood was over the Hebrews, Melchizedek was greater than them all.
The passage uses the absence of Melchizedek’s ancestry, birth and death to identify him with Jesus. We read that He was prophesied to be the High Priest of Melchizedek’s priesthood in chapter five. So the Hebrews were confronted with a choice. Either they could accept and acknowledge that Jesus was superior to the entire Levitical system –and leave those old ways behind. Or they could hang on to their old ways and deny that He superseded that system. There’s no middle ground.
Melchizedek is rich in symbolism –foretelling Jesus’ arrival and purpose.
Abraham had been busy in war, taking care of his family, trying to follow God’s leading –he wasn’t searching for Melchizedek. Yet, Melchizedek came to him.
That’s the way it was in the first century. The people had been grappling with being under Roman rule, being immersed in daily life and observing their religious traditions –they weren’t intentionally looking for their Messiah’s arrival when Jesus came to them.
Melchizedek brought bread and wine to Abraham in celebration of the victory over those who held Lot hostage. He declared God’s blessing upon Abraham by saying, “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” (Genesis 14:19-20).
When Jesus was eating the Passover meal with His disciples just before His crucifixion, He explained the meaning. The unleavened bread represented His body that was going to be broken and the wine represented His blood that would be poured out. Jesus brought the reality of what those symbols represented –He physically brought His body and His blood. Every previous Passover had been a shadow. This celebration was for the ultimate victory. Sin and death no longer have the power to hold people hostage.
Melchizedek’s relevance is contained in the meaning of his name: “first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace.”
When Isaiah prophesied about Jesus, he used the same descriptions. He would be the ultimate ruler who would attain divine righteousness and peace.
“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
There are a few Bible-words common to the New and Old Testaments that we’ve touched on but merit further rendering.
Although God promised Abraham that he would have many offspring and that they would live in a land of their own, the fruition of the promise was delayed for 430 years while their number increased and the time became right. (That was 400 years of slavery under various pharaohs plus 30 years earlier under Joseph.) Then God chose Moses to lead the people out of Egypt –and Moses’ brother Aaron to be the spokesperson.
The Hebrews crossed the Red Sea and came to Mount Sinai where God made an offer. “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” They responded with “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:5-8)
That’s when Moses received the details of the covenant. It began with the Ten Commandments. There were also rules about the fair treatment of slaves, personal property and injury, the Sabbath rest for the people and the land, the annual feasts and many others. It concluded with the insistence to conquer the land (Exodus 19-23).
Moses relayed all of it to the people so they would know what they were agreeing to. Then the promise –the covenant– was repeated once again. Not only did they verbally agree, each tribe made burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls to show their commitment. The blood was sprinkled on the altar, on the written covenant and on the people to make it binding (). This founded the people as God’s priesthood to the world.
Next, instructions for their ministry were given to Moses (Exodus 24-31). They identified Aaron and his sons to lead the priesthood. There were priestly procedures that stipulated the special clothing as visible signs of their authority. There were specifications for the tabernacle where Aaron’s work was to be done. And there were directions for carrying out his ceremonial duties. It culminated with the “sign of the Sabbath” which was to serve as a memorial of God’s yearning for mankind to enter His rest.
(The first five books, Genesis through Leviticus, became known as the Law. They give context to the Hebrews’ purpose and details of their ministry. Later Jesus expanded the term to encompass more of the Old Testament.)
Before the Law could be read to the people, there was the episode with the golden calf, the broken tablets and God angry enough to start all over with Moses –His only faithful servant. But Moses pleaded for his people and they acknowledged the seriousness of their rebellion. Then God emphasized that the covenant demanded that they –as His priests to the world– must be different from the surrounding people. He wrote the Ten Commandments on new tablets. And Moses read it all to them with his face still shining from His glory (Exodus 32-34).
God had them begin construction on their ministerial elements –the tabernacle and the priest’s garments. Once erected, His glory came down on the tabernacle (Exodus 35-40). The Law was replete with rules to live by, physical trappings and God’s visible presence. It was a vivid display of their guilt and His salvation.
We’ll see in the next few verses that the Law was bound to this priesthood alone.
Now if perfection was through the Levitical Priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron?
For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar.
For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life.
For it is attested of Him, “You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 7:11-17)
As the high priest, Aaron mediated between God and man –showing what was necessary to resolve the conflicts that were brought to light by the Law. To that end, Aaron conveyed God’s desires to the people. He wanted them to trust Him –without any reservations.
Those conflicts were the result of man’s nature. The Law proved to the people that they were unrighteous to their very core. Even the Ten Commandments –the fundamentals of their covenant– were a benchmark intended to show that death –eternal separation from God– was everyone’s final destination.
The high priest realized and acknowledged the people’s guilt. He pleaded for undeserved mercy and he made the necessary offerings and sacrifices. Those earthly offerings and sacrifices could never truly resolve the conflicts forming the schism between man and God. However, they were required to be religiously practiced as a reminder that no human efforts –not even those of the Levitical Priesthood– could ever restore a person to a state of purity.
The best that the Levitical Priesthood could provide was a ceremonial picture. It couldn’t bring back man’s righteousness as it was before the fall. So even if the people outwardly performed all that was required of them, God saw their untrusting hearts ( ).
Moses recounted the purpose of the Law when he was about to die –leaving Joshua to lead them into the land. He told them that their lives as a people would be a witness to the nations () and he concluded with their responsibilities as ambassadors.
It’s one thing to be an ambassador but it’s quite another to personally know God –to be saved. Moses told them how to find Him. “Seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29). That’s how becoming a believer has always been.
The passage above clearly states that the Priesthood and its Law are inseparable: “Now if perfection was through the Levitical Priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law)…” and “For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also” (Hebrews 7:11-12).
You can’t have one without the other. The Levitical Priesthood was founded on the Old Covenant (which included the Ten Commandments) –and their ministry was dictated in the Law.
And you can’t replace the one without also replacing the other. Jesus wasn’t merely a Levite who would continue that system. He became the High Priest by a New Covenant and His ministry is specified by a totally new law –not just updates or refinements to the Old.
Chapter five contrasts the ways that God communicated salvation. The Old Covenant (with its Law) used the commandments, animal sacrifices and rituals as demonstrations –all of which were foreshadows of things to come. They were performed by Aaron and his sons after him. But Jesus is the salvation that the Old could only hint about. His name means “Jehovah-saved,” or “the Lord’s Salvation.” He finished the task.
For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God. (Hebrews 7:18-19)
That Law –after it was lived out perfectly by God’s own Son– was set aside “because of its weakness and uselessness.” Although it did a fine job of condemning men and alluding to the new life they needed, it couldn’t make anyone acceptable to God. Something other than the Levitical Priesthood with its Law was necessary.
That brings us to the quote in the next section. Jesus’ birth –and it underscores Melchizedek’s importance. The psalm contains God’s announcement of the return to that briefly mentioned priesthood. His Son –the Messiah of Israel– was going to be its High Priest forever. To serve in that priesthood, a priest must have a life that is indestructible –one without beginning and without end.was written centuries before
And inasmuch as it was not without an oath (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but He with an oath through the One who said to Him, “The Lord has sworn And will not change His mind, 'You are a priest forever’”); so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. (Hebrews 7:20-22)
Verse twelve says that when the priesthood changed, the law also had to change. Unlike the Levitical Priesthood, Melchizedek’s Priesthood will never end. Jesus’ Father made an oath “You are a priest forever.” He is the living Guarantee –He is the final High Priest. (His priesthood’s law is the primary subject of the next few chapters.)
The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:23-25)
Intercession involved gifts, offerings and sacrifices (like the example of the leper noted in The Elementary Teachings about Jesus). Along with those from individuals, there were the required morning and evening sacrifices at the altar. The pungent odor of burnt flesh was always in the air –nagging at their consciences– to let them know that they were unrighteous and needed a permanent sacrifice to die in their place.
Then there was the Day of Atonement when the sins of the community were reckoned. That was the day that the books were balanced with all accounts settled. Before Jesus came, the Hebrews relied on the high priest to offer sacrifices on that day –first for himself and then for the people.
Even if that year’s sacrifices had been a sufficient payment for sin, successive years brought the births of more people –and the replacement of high priests as predecessors died. Those constant changes required a continuation of the sacrifices.
For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:26-28)
Jesus came after the Law was given so that He could be recognized as the One it proclaimed. No one else matched His description –“holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners.” As such, He was “exalted above the heavens” as the High Priest in the order of the eternal, supreme priesthood.