We will be studying a great portion of the text of Hebrews 7 in this lesson. There is often quite a bit of confusion in the mind of Bible readers as they read these verses – what does it mean? Who is Melchizedek? Was he a man or an angel or both? How is Christ a priest “of the order of Melchizedek?” Which organization is best, the pre-Law priesthood, the Levitical priesthood, or the priesthood of Christ?
First, let us come to an understanding that we need a priesthood in some form – what form that is will be discussed later. The word priest is defined clearly as one who represents another. One writer puts it well, “This calling of the priest as representative mediator of the people is intimated in the term priest, a root of which mans either to present oneself, or to present something or some one else. A priest would, therefore, be one who presents himself as a representative of another” (Bible Encyclopedia and Dictionary, Fausset). The word “priest” itself comes from the Hebrew words cohen, which means to draw near (inferring “to God”), and cahan, which means presenting something. The Greek word is hierosune (ierwsunh), which relates closely to the word for holy or sacred, only in the fact that a priest serves in the presence of something holier than himself. In the case of a Biblical priesthood, one comes before God to make supplication or penance for the sins of another, in every sense fulfilling the duties of these definitions. Thus is the role of our Lord Jesus Christ. Set in plain terms, He has been appointed the supreme high priest, to administer with justice and equity the wrath and salvation of God.
But the real question is how this applies to us. Why do we want Jesus Christ to be our high priest, if indeed He has been appointed to such an office? Before we get into the text of our lesson, please notice what is written in Hebrews 6:19-20, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both steadfast and sure, and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” It is in the words of this next chapter that the writer sets out to define for us, as Christians, in the simplest way possible, why Christ is and always will be the greatest high priest imaginable. Christ will always make intercession for us, the sinners that we are; He has offered his own blood in place of ours; He has so completely and profoundly surpassed the potential and value of every other priesthood that to deny Him would mean denying salvation itself. Indeed, we have a hope in Heaven, and that hope was altogether made perfect in the promise of Jesus Christ. “He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).
The writer of Hebrews sets to work proving, without any doubt and with the most potent evidence, that the high priesthood of Christ surpasses the administration of every Biblical organization before Him. This is accomplished by first explaining the priesthood of a king named Melchizedek, who we find is an type, or model, of Christ, a form that is comparable in structure and intent to the design of the Christian plan. Second, the writer establishes clearly that the temporary priesthood under the Old Covenant, that of the line of Aaron, was in every way subservient to the order of Melchizedek. Finally, it is with no doubt asserted that because Melchizedek was a priest higher than even Aaron, and because Christ is the fulfillment of the promises through the king of Salem, that Jesus Christ is the superior administrator of the Christian priesthood; that He is the high priest, set above every priest chosen from among man; and that He is perfect in every way, administering with all grace the hope of an indestructible life.
It is essential to the writer’s argument that he first prove the beneficence of the priesthood of a man named Melchizedek, unique in the Bible for a number of reasons. To understand the premise of our text in Hebrews 7, let us read the story found in Genesis 14:14-24. There are several characteristics that we can first learn from Melchizedek from this scripture, the first one being that he was a king unlike his contemporaries. While the king of Sodom sought the profit from Abram’s raid, viewing his relationship with the great patriarch as more of a business deal than a friendship, the king of Salem, Melchizedek, refused at first to accept any of the spoils, seeking only the safe return of his people. Notice how generous and kind he was toward Abram and his men (14:18) and also how grateful he was in his blessing (14:19-20). He was humble and reverent toward God – he obviously worshipped and served the same Almighty God as Abram – and gave Him the credit for the defeat of the evil kings. Few kings of that day, few people at all, still honored God in the way that Melchizedek does in these verses. His name, then, is entirely appropriate to his lifestyle. Melchizedek means literally “the king of righteousness” and the city of Salem means “peace.”
Let us examine our text in Hebrews 7:1-3. Realize first of all that the writer of Hebrews, most likely the apostle Paul, refers to Melchizedek as a real, historical figure, and not just a myth or fable. He also recounts the events in Genesis with extraordinary accuracy. This is one of the astounding things about the Bible; after thousands of years, and translated into Greek, the account of Melchizedek, mentioned only twice in the entire Old Testament, is remembered and valued by Paul in his letter to Christians. Even very minor or supposedly insignificant characters in the scriptures should carry tremendous meaning to us.
Take a close look at verse 3, “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days not end of life, but made like the Son of God he abides a priest perpetually.” Does this passage, then, teach that Melchizedek was some kind of angel or even Jesus Christ himself? Certainly it does not. To say that Melchizedek was anything more than a very special man with an awesome faith in God is to completely miss the point of his story. The verse does not teach of those falsehood, but simply admits that he came from a family without great or memorable heritage. He became a priest without having the genealogy to “certify” him – that is, he did not come from the Levites, who were intensely concerned with keeping track of genealogies. As for his perpetual priesthood, we can only speculate as to whether or not Melchizedek experienced death. Perhaps this verse teaches that he was taken up to heaven without bodily death, similar to the transformation of great men like Enoch or Elijah. Most likely, this interpretation is a stretch, and the verse simply means that his type, or class, of priesthood reigns on in the form of Christ, who never experienced a final death and rules at the right hand of God to this day.
Now continue reading in Hebrews 7:4-10. Right away, Paul encourages us to “observe how great this man was.” Again, this is proving that Melchizedek was, in fact, a man, and not anything more. He was not an angel, he was not Christ incarnate. Although he was a “great” man, possibly one of the greatest in the Bible, he was nothing more and nothing less than human. This should encourage us, though. Even a simple man, with no religious heritage and no priestly descendants, can become someone in the likeness of Christ (indeed, he is the acknowledged type of Christ Himself).
The argumentation of the writer moves toward an interesting and valuable lesson. Paul uses a tool of assertion known as necessary inference – a tool Christians use to justify why the Bible commands us to do or not do certain activities. The inference is this; because Abraham (Abram) paid tithes, or a tenth of all the spoils of his slaughter (7:6), to Melchizedek, he is embracing his subordination to the priest-king (7:7, “The lesser is blessed by the greater”). Because Levi, the namesake of the tribe from which priests were chosen, came through the lineage of Abraham (7:9-10), this meant that Levi and his descendants were also subservient and inferior to the king of Salem (7:9, “Through Abraham, even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes”). And because the priests of Levi indirectly paid tithes to this king, that makes his priesthood of a higher order than theirs.
The main point behind all of this is that Melchizedek is unique. He is unique from the evil kings of his age. He is unique in the sense that he lived as both a priest and a king at the same time. He is unique in that he had no descendants who carried on his class of high priesthood after him. He is unique from all other priests before or after him, save Christ himself, and he is unique in that he seems to appear on the spot in the story of the Bible and disappears almost as quickly. We only get a brief glimpse of the magnificent faith, hope, and righteousness of this high priest.
The writer now turns his discussion over to another type of priests, those who are called under the Old Covenant. These are they who lived after Aaron’s order, members of the tribe of Levi, and called by God as high priests – truly, no high priest of God was ever called by himself, but always by God’s choosing. It states in Hebrews 5:4, “And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was.” As was already proven by the words of the previous verses, this priesthood is obviously inferior to the high priesthood of Melchizedek. What further argumentation does Paul provide, and will this imperfect priesthood be replaced by the perfect one? Continue the reading in Hebrews 7:11-12. Paul is saying here that perfection cannot possibly come from the establishment of the Aaronic priesthood, or else why would God have ever made it clear that Melchizedek was both better than Aaron and the spiritual predecessor of the one and only absolutely perfect priest?
But there are a number of reasons why perfection cannot be the high priesthood of Aaron. A number of verses in the book of Hebrews clarify this truth. First of all, that priesthood was weak, as is obvious from verses like Hebrews 7:28 (“For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak”) and Hebrews 7:18, in which the Old Covenant is described as both “weak and useless.” These high priests were weak because they were weighed down by numerous sins, and had to offer a sacrifice first for their own atonement, and second for the atonement of the people (Hebrews 5:3, 9:7). Death also prevented these high priests from ever maintaining continuity in the ministration of the Law. Take a look at Hebrews 7:23, which says, “And the former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers, because they were prevented by death from continuing.” It is said that from the time the Law was given and Aaron was appointed the first high priest, 67 different men held the office until the time of Christ. From the time of Moses to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, 81 men held the office (New Testament Commentary On Hebrews, Milligan, 194).
The imperfection certainly did not stop there, either. “Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law). . .” (Hebrews 7:11). It is clear from this verse that if perfection and salvation could not be achieved through the priesthood, then perfection could not be achieved through the Law, which was contingent on the high priest for its administration. So, the very system underlying that high priesthood of Aaron was somewhat of a dead end (the Law could never “impart life” according to Galatians 3:21). Notice a few other passages, such as Hebrews 10:11, “And every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” The point is emphasized by what is stated in Hebrews 10:1-4. The high priests were commanded to sacrifice items which had no power to remove sins, but to simply suppress them for a year, until the Day of Atonement rolled around again and the same sacrifice was required. In every sense, the Old Covenant was useless and weak (7:18) when it came to the removal of sins – no human could obtain perfection by living under the Law. We should not be confused, though, and assume that the Law was a mistake made by God. While it is true that the Law was unable to impart salvation, it was certainly necessary to set up the coming of the perfect Law of faith and grace. As Galatians 3:21-25 puts it, the Law was created for us as a tutor to lead us to Christ. Though far from life-giving, it was necessary as a prerequisite to perfection. It is just as a bandage, which cannot repair a wound, but simply covers the wound until the appropriate time for stitches. Indeed, Christ came at the right time, when the world was absolutely ready for Him (Romans 5:6, “At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly,” Galatians 4:4, “When the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His son,” 1 Timothy 2:6, “Who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time,” Titus 1:3).
Beyond all of that, there was a physical requirement that limited who could become a high priest. Let us continue reading in Hebrews 7:13-14. A practical application of this verse is found in understanding the way silence is used. Like necessary inference, Christians use the silence of the scriptures to argue Biblical truth to apostates. Many believe that because certain activities are not expressly forbidden by the Bible, those activities are not necessarily condemned. But this verse clearly teaches that when God commands one thing, He is not required to list off everything we are not supposed to do. The command was for high priests to come from the tribe of Levi, yet it never said they couldn’t come from Judah. It is understood quite plainly by Paul that silence is not permissive.
With such a great weight of evidence, one would hardly assume that this high priesthood is the one that would lead us to salvation. God promises something better in Psalm 110:4, “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, ‘Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’”
It is at this point in his discourse that the writer finally brings all the pieces together and proves that the high priesthood of Christ is supreme, outlasting, outweighing, and far outshining the previous office, held by the descendents of Aaron. The first point that is made is that Christ must be of a different class of priest, or else He would have come from the tribe of Levi. “And this is clear still,” that is, the idea that Christ did not come from Levi is made much clearer if He is of the priesthood of Melchizedek, a man who was not only disqualified to hold the office of Jewish high priest because he was not a Levite, but disqualified entirely because he was a Gentile. Rhetorically, Paul reasons that if a priest were to come by the order of Melchizedek (7:15), then He would have to originate from some source other than Levi, and that His priesthood would not be based, in any way, on a physical (i.e., tribal or ethnic) requirement (7:16).
The point is made clearer still in the next set of indisputable facts. First of all, Christ is superior to the Aaronic priesthood because he is called after the order of Melchizedek, and it has already been proven in Hebrews 7:4-10 that the Levites, through their forefather Abram, paid tithes to Melchizedek. Any other priest like him would, logically, be deserving of the submission of the Jewish priests.
Continue reading in Hebrews 7:18-19, in which the Old Law, or former commandment, is described as being set aside in favor of something better. It is undeniably weak and useless in the process of saving souls – for reasons already proven in the previous section. The thing that replaces the Old Law is the New one, mediated by only one high priest for all time, Jesus Christ. “And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15).
Christ’s high priesthood is also not limited by the problems of the physical body, specifically in death. Though the physical high priests all died from those causes which so easily infirm the human frame, Christ conquered death by not only experiencing it, but escaping from it. He died once for all, but was raised from the grave, establishing Himself as the supreme high priest for all time. This is described most eloquently in Hebrews 7:23-25. Notice a few key phrases in this passage. “Because He abides forever, He holds His priesthood permanently” (7:24). There is a very practical application that we can make to this verse – it has already been shown that at the extinction of a high priesthood, there must of necessity be the change of a law (7:12). Since Christ’s priesthood will never become extinct, that means His law will always abide as the one and only standard of judgment (John 12:48). Any other Gospel, then, would simply be profanity in the eyes of our high priest. In order for the Book of Mormon to be true Christ would have to be dead! The same is true of any “gospel” that contradicts our Lord’s.
If that is not enough, then Paul continues the argumentation in 7:26-28, in which it is made obvious that Christ never needed to make a sacrifice for His own sins, like all men must do (for all men sin and fall short of the glory of God [Romans 5:12])). But He served as the ultimate sacrifice, offering Himself – the only perfect man to ever walk the face of the earth, the one and only begotten Son of God. No other priest could say the same thing! “For by one offering, He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). In Christ all people can be made free and holy. Follow along as I read Romans 6:22-23.
With all of this weight of evidence, what person would choose to reject such a high priest? There is no other place or person in all the world that can go before God personally, and continually (7:25), and make a plea for your soul – no celebrity, no religious leader or pope, no parent, child, politician – nobody has the power to stand in God’s presence but Christ alone.
Like the great King Melchizedek, Jesus is a priest and a king at the same time, ruling over us in a way that is unique among all the high priests who ever lived under the Old Law. Let us never get so caught up in the affairs of this life and this world that we forget how much we need Christ. And let us never become so arrogant that we assume we have ever done enough to pay Him back for all that He has freely given. He demands humble obedience from all of us (Hebrews 5:8-10).
“He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).