Hebrews Week 7
By Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Hebrews 7:1–28
I was blessed by the grace of birth to grow up in a neighbor-loving, God-loving home. Every evening we would gather as a family for prayer and Bible study to help us know and embrace God’s vision for daily living. Among the reminders constantly recited by my parents during these altar moments was that even our thoughts matter to God. Faithfulness isn’t just skin deep, for public viewing only. Mom and Dad cited Hebrews 4:12–13 to underscore their exhortation, pointing out from Scripture the role of God’s Word in penetrating our very soul to “judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions […] exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.” We learned early on from Scripture’s teaching that the entirety of our existence counts. Our inner life matters to God as much as our social activism. I’ll circle back to this idea in a bit.
Who is Melchizedek?
Hebrews is a strange read, as exemplified by the appeal to the obscure Old Testament figure of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17–20). To frustrate us further, we are made aware that this reference to Melchizedek underwrites the importance of the Son’s priestly mediation during the covenant community’s long journey toward the future Promised Land. Rarely does Scripture place so much theological weight on so sparse a biblical foundation. But we’ve already been put on alert that the living Lord’s current appointment as high priest in the Melchizedekian priesthood is “difficult to explain” (5:11) and requires mature minds to understand [see Author’s Note 1]. Indeed so!
We might all agree that the biblical story of Israel is severely clipped and often leaves the reader to fill in gaps or simply scratch her head before moving on. Melchizedek enters Scripture and abruptly leaves a couple verses later at a strategic moment in the story of Abraham. God has just chosen Abraham as the grandparent of an extended and mostly dysfunctional family through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The promises of nationhood and land that God makes to Abraham and Sarah order God’s plan of salvation. Scripture’s story is plotted by God’s fulfillment of those promises. For this reason, the opening sentence of the New Testament on which Scripture hinges places Jesus in Abraham’s family (Matthew 1:1), for whom He comes as “Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23) to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
But Melchizedek’s brief appearance supplies sufficient material for the Preacher to begin an expansive exposition of Jesus’s priestly role in salvation’s history. Although unmentioned in Hebrews, the Preacher would perhaps know that this is the only episode in Genesis that tells of a military campaign, which would explain why king Melchizedek of Salem receives Abraham as a conquering commander and throws him a ticker-tape parade through downtown Salem. Some scholars think that Salem is the early site of Jerusalem (cf. Hebrews 12:22), since Psalm 76:2 links the two, and Psalm 110:4 (cf. Hebrews 7:17, 21) names Melchizedek as King David’s prototype of Israel’s king-priest.
Given names and appointed places carry heavy theological weight in Scripture’s stories. These are never incidental properties in the plotline of salvation, since places and people’s names often function as theological markers that guide readers of God’s Word. For this reason, the Preacher argues from Scripture that the name “Melchizedek” means “king of righteousness” (7:2), and that “Salem” means “peace” (7:2) [see Author’s Note 2]. Alert readers will recall that Hebrews introduces God’s exalted Son as a lover of righteousness (1:9) whose kingship is forever (1:8). Later the letter claims that peace (or “the peaceful fruit of righteousness,” 12:11) is the goal of all those who go on to perfection in expectation of a heavenly future with their exalted Lord (see 12:14).
Even without commentary, then, the impress of Melchizedek’s biblical résumé (Hebrews 7:1–2) indicates that he is a prefiguration of God’s Son. This is made even clearer by what Scripture doesn’t mention: a genealogy (7:3). The Preacher interprets Scripture’s silence to signal Melchizedek’s divine nature, and thus his resemblance to Jesus’s eternal Sonship. Despite the minor role he performs in Scripture’s ancestral narrative, surely this Melchizedek must be counted as “great” (7:4) if his appearance in Scripture is received and read with Christ [see Author’s Note 3]! The rest of the chapter explains the nature of this greatness and what it may indicate about Christ’s priestly work that forges “a better hope” (7:19), though we won’t find out why it’s a better hope until chapter 12.
Melchizedekian Priesthood Greater Than Levitical Priesthood
The logical implication of Scripture’s claim to Melchizedek’s greatness is explained by the acts of Abraham’s tithe and Melchizedek’s blessing (Hebrews 7:5–10) [see Author’s Note 4]. The tithe given to priests from the Levitical tribe according to God’s law (cf. Numbers 18:21–32) is compared to the tithe received from Abraham (implying that the Levitical priesthood is Abraham’s descendant). This act suggests a pecking order of priests — Melchizedekian above Levitical — and also anticipates the Preacher’s claim that “there has to be a change in the Law” (Hebrews 7:12). The greatness of Melchizedek when compared to the Levite Aaron is only intensified by his second act: blessing Abraham. Again, the same logic of hierarchy is applied: the greater person blesses “the less important person” (7:7).
A second argument from Scripture, in this case from Psalm 110:4 (quoted in Hebrews 7:17, 21), contends that this change in Israel’s priesthood benefits God’s covenant people (7:22). The Preacher’s logic goes something like this: God would not have revealed another priesthood (i.e., Melchizedek) in Scripture (i.e., Psalm 110) if it would not have benefited God’s covenant people. If the goal of the community’s spiritual formation is to “go on unto perfection” (6:1; KJV), then perfection (however Hebrews understands this) is the measure of priestly competence. Scripture’s mention of a priesthood that succeeds the Levites, however, implies its imperfection — or rather, its incompletion (7:11). The priesthood requires an upgrade (7:12, 18–19). For example, the law stipulates that a priest’s credentials include his “physical descent” (7:16) from Levi’s tribe (cf. 7:13–14). But this legal requirement doesn’t square with the risen Lord who comes from Judah’s tribe (7:14) and whose life, as with Melchizedek’s, “can’t be destroyed” (7:16).
The summary of this complicated and creative argument in 7:18–19 concentrates the reader’s attention on the inability of the law to establish a priestly ministry that guides people to perfection (cf. Hebrews 6:1). This newly established priesthood of Melchizedek is a “better hope” (7:19) that paves a path toward a more certain future in which God’s people will approach the throne of grace through the exalted Christ’s priestly mediation (cf. 4:16; 10:22).
Jesus an Even Greater Priest
The Preacher recalls his earlier discussion on oath-making (see 6:13–18) to elaborate on the Psalmist’s reference to Melchizedek as a type of Davidic king-priest fully embodied in Jesus. The Preacher mentions that this oath both confirms Jesus’s priestly superiority and is “the guarantee of a better covenant” (7:22). This anticipates the letter’s next (and more controversial) argument from Scripture: the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31–34) requires a “change in the Law” (7:12) similar to that required by God’s institution of the Melchizedekian priesthood (see Hebrews 8:8–12). In fact, this new covenant requires a high priest just like Jesus who is made perfect through suffering (2:10; 4:15). Jesus’s suffering forms the priestly character that facilitates His ongoing pastoral ministry (see 7:26; cf. 2:17) [see Author’s Note 5], and His once-for-all-time self-sacrifice for humanity’s sins has redemptive results (7:27).
A somewhat surprising turn in the letter’s general argument from Scripture is added in 7:23. In the Preacher’s world, if an action is repeated multiple times with the same result, that is evidence of its incomplete or imperfect nature (cf. Hebrews 1:1). If the reader is puzzled by why God, who “will not change his mind” (7:21), changes the biblical law’s requirements for priesthood, then perhaps this additional comment offers the Preacher’s rejoinder. The change doesn’t delete the importance of Israel’s priesthood or its practices, but rather it upgrades a priesthood that comprised a steady rotation of many different high priests over a long span of time. A single priest whose human experience has sanctified Him into the perfect sanctifier (2:10–11), who is exalted and indestructible, and whose effective work is “once for all” time (7:27) has a zero chance of failing God and God’s people.
The Relevance of Melchizedek for Today
But our principal Lectio question remains: what practical value does Hebrews have for us today, especially its central claim that Jesus is our high priest in the order of Melchizedek? We face this sort of question every time we bump into a biblical text whose meaning is obscure to us. So first a reminder: reading Scripture requires us to universalize its ancient address. The Preacher’s first readers/listeners were Jewish Christian believers who struggled to understand the relevance of their Jewish legacy, but this isn’t our case today. Christians now have multiple backgrounds, both religious and secular.
Our struggle is to understand the relevance of our Christian faith and what resources we have at hand to forge a more perfect love for God and our neighbors, and to secure a reasonable hope for heaven. Read as Scripture and so addressed to us in the present tense, Hebrews draws us into the Old Testament story of Israel — especially its wilderness sojourn toward the Promised Land — as typological of Christian existence. We too live as nomads in a cultural wilderness of daily spiritual tests. We too need assurance that our trust in God’s exalted Son provides us with a superior vision for understanding and negotiating our world. As with biblical Israel, today’s Christians are a people in need of a priest who can mediate heaven’s saving grace. The role Hebrews assigns to a Spirit-led priesthood is a theological model for our present spiritual leaders, who use God’s salvation-creating power (i.e., grace) to ensure that we are people with a future.
The priesthood of Melchizedek is not configured by executive power but by “righteousness” and “peace” (7:2). Jesus, the order’s high priest, is characterized by a holiness honed by suffering and by a perfection forged by His obedience in the flesh to God’s Word. The result is a king-priest with the authority to lead and the empathy to care for us. The intended readers of Hebrews are wilderness Christians who are freed from sin but who constantly struggle with temptation and doubt on their journey to heaven. As with Israel before us, we have our rival gods who bid for our affection and intellectual affirmation, and so lay our faith commitments under siege. The spiritual testing believers encounter in our present cultural wilderness forces a hard choice: to keep our identity as Jesus-followers and grow in our relationship with Him to perfection, or to bail out in favor of the priests of secularism.
Hebrews, then, argues for an existential upgrade that makes the perfection of our life with God a real, even if challenging, possibility. The new push toward heaven is made possible by the present priestly ministry of the perfected and exalted Son. We are better able to pass the spiritual tests we face because the pastoral care provided by the priestly Son is effective.
But there is also a keen sense that the Preacher’s defense of the Son’s incarnation stops all intellectual arguments opposed to Christian faith. The incarnation is an apocalypse — a stunning, surprising, cosmic event that changes how we think about everything. It not only forces material changes in God’s legislation of Israel’s priesthood (7:12); it also forces changes in how we envision the real world, how we think about life, and what motivates us to go on to perfection. The truth of God, embodied in Jesus’s life and witnessed by His apostles, newly shapes our way of living and our way of thinking.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Why do you think the Preacher refers to an obscure story from Genesis to make his point? How does his exegesis serve his purpose? Does it preach?
- How does this exposition of Jesus’ High Priesthood “in the order of Melchizedek” offer hope to “wilderness Christians” like us in the twenty-first century? If you were going to preach or teach on this topic, how would go about “universalizing the ancient address” of this story and this interpretation?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.