Posts Tagged 'priesthood'

The Mystery of Melchizedek

He lived in the mists of antiquity. He was a king and a priest of God during a time when a great spiritual darkness shrouded the world; when mankind was worshiping gods created by the work of their hands and from the imaginations. The Bible describes Melchizedek as a priest without beginning and without end. He is mentioned very briefly only a couple of times in the Old Testament and discussed in one chapter in the New Testament. Yet he is important; he is such a key character in Scripture that he is compared to the Son of God.

Who was this enigmatic man? Where did he come from? Why is he so important? What can we learn from Melchizedek?

A brief encounter

We first read of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 –

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:18 – 20 | TNIV)

And that’s it. Abram’s chance meeting with Melchizedek came about in an odd way. The patriarch’s scurrilous nephew, Lot, had moved into the thoroughly godless and wicked city of Sodom and became enmeshed in its political life. After a group of Eastern kings defeated Sodom, they took Lot and other citizens captive and it was up to Father Abraham to rescue Lot and the others. Though he was not a military man or a man of violence whatsoever, Abraham led a highly successful campaign and rescued his wayward, troublesome nephew and the others.

On his way home, he passed by Salem, or as it later became known, Jerusalem, where he met Melchizedek, paid him a tithe and was blessed by this strange priest.

But just who was Melchizedek? He was the ruler of Salem, which became Jerusalem. Salem was a city-state, not a country, and in the ancient Near East these city-states dotted the landscape and many of them were ruled over by men who were referred to as “king.” These were not countries or kingdoms, just very large, often influential cities. Many of these city-states were ruled by men who functioned as both a king and a priest. Religion was very important back then and while the Israelites would distinguish between a king and a priest – the king descending from the line of Judah through David and the priests coming from the line of Levi through Aaron – the two offices were usually mixed together among the cities and nations that surrounded ancient Israel. Interestingly, Sumerian cities of the time were ruled by the ensis, priests who claimed to be representatives of the gods themselves and the Egyptians were ruled by men who had supposedly close ties to the various deities they worshipped.

But Melchizedek is an anachronism. It is said that he was a priest of El Elyon, or “the most high God.” El Elyon was one of the names of the God Abram worshipped and he saw in this priest of Salem a kindred spirit. They worshipped the one true God. That’s an amazing thing that even during those days of widespread idolatry and idol worship there were those few who worshipped the one true God who were not part of Abram’s family.

A New Testament teaching

We don’t read anything else of substance about Melchizedek until the writer to the Hebrews brings him up in Hebrews 6 –

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:19, 20 | TNIV)

That Jesus has become a high priest forever isn’t news. Many verses in the New Testament teach this. But that phrase, “in the order of Melchizedek” is a baffler to be sure. To understand that phrase, we need to understand the nature of this letter written to Hebrew Christians.

The writer of this letter is unknown to us. Some think it was Paul; perhaps it was. Whoever it was, his (or her) purpose was to show these Hebrew Christians how superior Jesus Christ and their new faith based on His divine teachings were over their former religion, Judaism. The author wasn’t dissing Judaism, but rather showing his readers that Christianity was better; that Judaism was a thing of the past; that the New Covenant was in every way superior to the Old Covenant. This involved demonstrating the superiority of Jesus over the priests of that Old Covenant.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:14, 15 | TNIV)

The readers of this letter were apparently beginning to wander away from the teachings of the apostles and the truth of the Gospel, back into their old faith of Judaism. Part of the teachings of Judaism involved complete dependence upon the priests. To discourage a return to that, the writer to the Hebrews had to prove that Jesus Christ was a new and improved priest. Why go back to the old priest who didn’t empathize with the people and their problems when they could enjoy the ministry of the new Priest who had gone through everything they were going through? That new priest is Jesus Christ! Not only that, this new priest isn’t ministering in a temple here on earth, but He is in Heaven, ministering before God. You can’t do better than that!

In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. ” During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:5 – 10 | TNIV)

Furthermore, this new priest was appointed by God Himself! He didn’t become a priest because that’s what His father did and His grandfather did. God the Father made Jesus the Son the last priest man would ever need. That in itself makes Jesus superior to any priest that came before Him or was practicing in the days of the Hebrews.

Part of the argument the writer to the Hebrews used in proving the superiority of Jesus over any priest, was declaring that He was a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” He took an obscure character from his ancient history to drive home the point that Jesus Christ was the last, best priest.

The greatness of Melchizedek

To prove the superiority of Jesus Christ, first the writer proves the greatness of Melchizedek. He already wrote that Jesus is a priest “like” Melchizedek, so it follows that he must show why he thought so highly of Melchizedek by rehashing the only thing anybody knows about him: His run in with Abram, or Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith. As far as the the writer to the Hebrews is concerned, Melchizedek was great and he himself was superior to any Jewish priest because the great patriarch paid him tithes and in return, Melchizedek blessed Abram. Further, there’s this observation:

Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. (Hebrews 7:3 | TNIV)

That verse makes Melchizedek sound all mysterious and supernatural, but he wasn’t. That phrase, “without father or mother,” was used in Greek literature mostly of orphans whose parentage was unknown, or for illegitimate children, or in referencing people from the lower classes or from unimportant, or questionable families. All that is being said here of Melchizedek is that we have no record of his family or of his lineage and that his priesthood – not his life – was without beginning or end. In other words, there was simply no account of him ever becoming a priest nor of his retirement. To the Jew who was obsessed with the very strict Levitical law, it was not possible for anybody to serve as a priest if he didn’t have priestly parents. But – and here’s his point – Moses himself in the book of Genesis called Melchizedek “the priest of the most high God” even though the man himself had zero credentials! Melchizedek had no official pedigree. In that respect, Melchizedek was similar to the Son of God, who was without the normal priestly pedigree. You should have noticed something significant here: It is Melchizedek being compared to Christ, not the other way around. The great earthly priest Melchizedek is “like” the heavenly priest Jesus Christ in three ways which will be emphasized in the verses to come:

• Jesus Christ’s priesthood is not a Levitical one. It’s better.
• Jesus Christ’s order of priesthood is far superior to the Levitical order.
• Jesus Christ’s priesthood will last forever; it will never end.

The tithe

Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, from their kindred—even though their kindred are descended from Abraham. This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. (Hebrews 7:4 – 6 | TNIV)

That’s a powerful paragraph that most of us don’t see as being powerful. But had you been a Hebrew reading it, it would have knocked your socks off. What’s being said here is truly profound. The tithe was a requirement of the Law. It was not voluntary. Add to that the fact that Levi himself was a descendant of Abraham, the tithe then is seen as a “family matter.” But Melchizedek was a complete outsider; he was not entitled to collect anything from Abram, so paying homage to Melchizedek in the form of a tithe was a sign of subservience on the patriarch’s part. Or to put it another way, Levi (earthly priests) can’t claim to be great because the tithes paid them are, (1) a matter of Law, not voluntary; (2) part of a family obligation, that is, people paid priests the tithe and the priest was a always a relative.

The blessing

So Abram honored Melchizedek by voluntarily paying him a tithe, something he was in no way obligated to do. But Melchizedek turned around a blessed Abram. The Old Testament blessing was a huge deal, even though it may not be to us. The older, the wiser, the highly respected always blessed the younger, the lesser. The fact that Melchizedek blessed Abram showed that the priest of Salem was in a superior position to that of the patriarch. The one receiving the blessing was always in the inferior position to the one giving the blessing, and in receiving the blessing, Abram was essentially testifying that he needed it – that he was in need of a blessing.

In paying tithes, Abram was paying homage, which was a religious act, and in receiving Melchizedek’s blessing, he was willfully putting himself in the position of beneficiary. Both of these events showed Melchizedek’s superiority over Abram.

Greater than Levi

But what does Abram have to do with the priests of Levi? Levi wasn’t even born yet!

In the one case, the tenth is collected by those who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor. (Hebrews 7:8 – 10 | TNIV)

How great was Melchizedek? Well, tithes are received by priests who will die. No earthly priest was eternal; they all died. The writer to the Hebrews isn’t saying that Melchizedek is eternal but that his memory is. That is, who remembers a priest after he has died? Sure, he collected the tithe during his years of service, but when he died another priest stepped in and the former priest was soon forgotten. That’s not the case with Melchizedek. Centuries after Abram paid tithes to him, he was still being talked about! It was as if he was eternal, in that sense. What’s more, Abram in paying tithes to Melchizedek was acting on behalf of all those who would descend from him, even Levi, from whom would come all the priests of Judaism. That’s quite an argument, bolstering the greatness of this man, Melchizedek.

Perfection finally in another Covenant

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. (Hebrews 7:11, 12 | TNIV)

The Jews firmly believed that their system of approaching God was as good as it gets. But the fact that another Priest came who was not of the Levitical priesthood proved that what they had was not all there was. A new Priest, not of Levi but of Judah, meant a change in the Law was necessary, hence the New Covenant. This new Priest, Jesus Christ, was appointed by God Himself, and He Himself sidestepped the rules of the Old Covenant, therefore His Priest would be administering this New, divinely given Covenant.

He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. For it is declared: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 7:13 – 17 | TNIV)

Beginning with the last verse first, the writer quotes from Psalm 110. The point of Psalm 110 is to give us some information about the Messiah, namely that the Messiah would be a Warrior King:

The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of your enemies.” Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Arrayed in holy splendor, your young men will come to you like dew from the morning’s womb. (Psalm 110:1 – 3 | TNIV)

But, at the same time, the promised Messiah would also be a priest:

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. “. (Psalm 110:4 | TNIV)

That verse is the climax of the whole psalm. God the Father has submitted Himself to an irrevocable oath that the Messiah is, or will be, a Priest. But – and here’s the big point – not a Levitical priest; He will be a “Melchizedek priest.”

That’s the whole emphasis of Hebrews 5 – 7: Jesus Christ is far superior to the ancient line of earthly priests. As royalty, He descended from the tribe of Judah:

For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. (Hebrews 7:14 | TNIV)

But as a priest, He did not come from Levi. He will be a priest like Melchizedek. This ancient priest was a priest of God yet he preceded Levi just as Christ is a Priest distinct from and superior to the Levites.

Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant. Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. (Hebrews 7:22 – 24 | TNIV)

You can see, I hope, how clever the writer to the Hebrews was. He took a historic person his readers would have been familiar with and used him as way to explain why Jesus Christ, the Messiah-Priest, is superior to the earthly priests they seemed to have been so loathe to give up.

We can also see how wonderfully the New Testament interprets and reveals the Old Testament, showing the relevance of obscure passages so that believers in the 21st century can see the integrity and majesty of God’s Word.

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