So, for a few weeks now I’ve included a refrain in each of my last few sermons that goes something like this, “I’m going to ignore the reference to Melchizedek in this verse because we’re going to deal with him in chapter 7.” Well, ignore no more; we have arrived at chapter 7. This morning, we’re going to begin to dive into this character named Melchizedek and what he has to do with the priesthood of Christ.
However, you’ll notice that I said that we will begin to dive into this character and his relation to Jesus’ priesthood. That is to say—and you probably noticed this in the bulletin—today is part 1 of a 2-part message that looks at Hebrews 7 and the Melchizedekian priesthood of Jesus. And that means that if you’re a college student for whom today is the last Sunday of the semester, I apologize. As much of a planner I am in terms of preaching schedules, I didn’t do this one quite right, and I apologize for that. Then again, you could always stay one more week! Or, you can always go online and listen to the sermon if after today you remain curious about this topic and want to see how this argument wraps up in Hebrews 7:11-28, which we’ll look at next week.
So, with my apology out of the way, let me set the stage for this text because it can feel like little more than an academic argument to us. In fact, that may be what you felt if you looked at the text this week. You may have thought, “Really? We’re going to spend the whole sermon examining a figure that appears a couple of times in the OT in order to show that Jesus is indeed a high priest, when that is something that I believe already.”
Well, if that’s your response, then no, we’re not going to spend a whole sermon on that topic but actually two whole sermons on that topic. Really, I’m cutting us off halfway through the argument this morning so that we can have two reasonably-length sermons on this well-connected argument that takes up all of Hebrews 7 rather than one really long sermon. I thought you’d prefer that. But, again, if we’re tempted to respond by thinking this argument may not be worth our time, then let me explain why it was so crucial for the author’s original hearers and then show why this is crucial for us as well.
Think for a second of the way the gospel would have sounded to the original recipients of the letter. We know that they were Jews by birth, which is why the letter is titled, “The Letter to the Hebrews.” This means that it is likely that their whole lives they’d grown up practicing the religious practices of the law of Moses. They’d made their sacrifices, looked to the priests for intercession, been circumcised as infants, and on and on. And they were anxiously looking for the Messiah, this one who’d been promised ever since Genesis 3 who would come and crush the head of the serpent, be David’s son, and bring God’s kingdom, reigning over the world forever.
Then, perhaps one of the apostles came along preaching that Jesus was raised from the dead, they believed, and a church started flourishing (Heb 2:3). But then hard days came. They were exposed to hard sufferings, were publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and some even had their property taken from them (Heb 10:32-34). And these difficulties jarred the group in their faith. Some even began walking away. Even some men and women whom they greatly admired began saying, “Let’s just go back to what we were doing before we believed in Jesus. Surely God was pleased with our sacrifices and worship at the temple. He prescribed it, after all. And really, I’ve began wondering about Jesus anyway. We’ve been teaching one another that he’s our great high priest, but that actually doesn’t work. The Lord told Moses in the law that priests could only come from the tribe of Levi, and Jesus is of the tribe of Judah. And even then only Aaron and his sons could be high priests, and Jesus isn’t descended from Aaron (Num 3:5-10). So, listen, guys, we’re suffering, and we may be suffering for what is altogether false anyway. Let’s just go back to the way things used to be.”
Now, you could imagine the pull of that moment if you were one of these early Jewish believers. Maybe you’re lying awake at night struggling, and the one thing you can’t shake was this argument that Jesus can’t really be a high priest anyway. You know he’s being called the lion of the tribe of Judah, and you know that no one from that tribe can be a priest. And so you wrestle, and doubt, and feel the pull.
That’s why the author of Hebrews began an argument in chapter 5 that he interrupted for a while but came back to in chapter 7 to argue that Jesus is a high priest in the order of Melchizedek. It’s not because he simply likes academic argument. It’s because he knows he’s in a war for the souls of these professing believers. So, after stopping his argument and issuing a severe because he knows they’re hardened, dull of hearing, and not inclined to hear him, he launches back into his argument about Jesus being a high priest in the order of Melchizedek. And what he shows in the verses we’re going to look at this morning is that this figure Melchizedek himself was superior to the Levitical priests, and consequently so is the order of priests that he establishes.
As we begin this argument, I want to note that there are only two places in the Old Testament where Melchizedek is even mentioned, and both of them are brief. One of is Psalm 110:4, in which David writes, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The author of Hebrews examines that text in 7:11-28, so we’ll look at that text in more detail next week. And the only other place Melchizedek is even mentioned is in Genesis 14:18-20.
So, let me set the context a bit. There was a big battle between some kings of a number of cities, and one side won the battle and one side lost. And on the winning side was the king of Chedorlaomer, and on the losing side was the king of Sodom. Now, you’ll remember that Abram (later named Abraham) had a nephew named Lot who lived in Sodom. Well, when his side lost the battle, the winning side took all of Sodom’s possessions and some captives, and one of those captives was Lot.
But then one of those captives escaped, and he came and told Abram about Lot being taken, so Abram decided to go get him. He took 318 of his men with him and went out and defeated the enemy king and all his people, and he brought back all the possessions and the captives, including Lot. Now here is where I want you to pay attention to the text.
As we would expect, the king of Sodom was very happy with Abram, so we read in Genesis 14:17, “After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).” And then skip down to verse 21, “And the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.’” And so the story continues. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? The King of Sodom comes out to meet Abram because he wants to thank him and pay him for his kind act of rescuing his people. And in that way, the story flows naturally from verse 17 to verse 21, doesn’t it? But what’s odd is that there is another little episode that kind of interrupts the flow of the narrative that is inserted right in the middle of this—verses 18-20.1
In those verses, we read, “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was a priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, ‘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!’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”
That’s it! That’s the only other mention of Melchizedek in the entire OT. He’s mentioned in Psalm 110:4 and then in these three verses of Genesis. But when you read OT narrative texts sometimes it’s the details that the author throws in that interrupt the narrative that are supposed to grab your attention.
Several years ago our family took a trip to Charleston to visit some friends, and we noticed that the road went straight, and then made a sharp curve to the left and back around to the right, and then it started going straight again. And the reason why is because right in the middle of where you think the street would continue there was a large church. And we were told by a tour guide that this was done intentionally, sending the message that you don’t need to ignore the church.
Well, I think the same thing is happening here. Moses throws in the Melchizedek story, interrupting his bigger story—throwing it right in the middle in a very odd and seeming disrupting fashion—because he is sending the message that what just happened with this figure Melchizedek is a big deal that’s not to be ignored. And years later the author of Hebrews sat down to write about Jesus’ high priesthood, and here’s where he starts. So, let’s dive into Hebrews 7:1-10 where we see the superiority of Melchizedek to the Levitical priests.
The Superiority of Melchizedek to the Levitical Priests
In these verses we’re looking at this morning, the author begins with an exposition of Genesis 14:18-20. He first gives a summary of the events that transpired, writing in 1-2a, “For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything.” We read the text a few seconds ago, so we’ve seen that. But then he begins to show how this figure serves as a type or foreshadowing of Jesus. Now, let me say something about this.
When we think of prophecy about Jesus from the OT we probably first think of direct, verbal prophecies. So, for example, Micah 5:2 says that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, and Jesus is born in Bethlehem. But those direct prophecies aren’t the only prophecies in the OT. In fact, the vast majority of prophecy about Jesus in the OT are indirect. On these occasions, the OT gives us pictures, types, shadows, and symbols of Jesus, what he will be like, and what he will do. So, for example, the sacrifices of animals in the OT were prophesying about what Jesus would do in an indirect way, right? Well, this figure Melchizedek is a foreshadowing or type of Christ as well. There are a number of unique things about him that show us what Jesus is like. The author of Hebrews will draw our attention to this in verse 3, noting that he “resembles” the Son of God.
Now, some have argued that Melchizedek was actually God the Son making an appearance prior to his incarnation. But I don’t think that’s the case because the author of Hebrews could’ve said that. In fact, he could have ended his argument right there, simply saying, “Of course Jesus is a priest. He was that priest from the OT named Melchizedek.” But that’s not what he says. He simply shows us that Melchizedek resembles Jesus. He prefigures and foreshadows the Son of God. He is a type of Jesus. And so the author of Hebrews begins to examine the many ways in which he typifies the Son.
He points out that Melchizedek’s name means “King of Righteousness,” writing, “He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness” (v. 2b). In Hebrew, mlk means “king” while sdk means “righteousness.” Therefore, as you put those two words together and throw in some vows to make it pronounceable (i.e. Melek + sedek = Melchizedek) you form a construct that means “King of Righteousness.” He also points out that he is the king of peace, writing, “ . . . and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace” (v. 2b). Now, again, this is looking to Hebrew where shalom means “peace.” Thus, being the king of Salem (i.e. shalom), he is the king of peace. So here is this individual who is the king of peace and his name means king of righteousness. That’s odd. But that is not where the similarities with Christ end. He also mentions, “He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever” (v. 3).
This isn’t to say that Melchizedek was literally never born or never died. The author is simply pointing out that there’s no account of his birth or death. And that’s odd in the book of Genesis where genealogies are all over the place. In fact, everybody who is anybody has their genealogy provided in this book. But here’s one who comes along and is so important and so impressive that Abraham pays him a tithe, and he blesses Abraham, but there’s no record at all of his birth, his death, or where in the world he came from. And the author of Hebrews wants us to see that in this way—without record of birth or death—he resembles the Son of God, for just as Melchizedek’s priesthood has no record of ending because of death, so the Son can continue as a priest eternally because he lives forever. Thus, in these first couple of verses he shows us how this strange individual typifies and points us to Jesus Christ.
Then, he continues by showing that Melchizedek was obviously superior to all the Levitical priests, but he does it in a way that we might not anticipate. He notes that Abraham paid him a tithe, writing, “See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham” (vv. 4-5).
Now, let’s take this argument a step at a time. First, it is true that the Levites, according to Numbers 18:21-32 did indeed collect a tithe from their brothers (i.e. the other tribes). They did not inherit land, but they did receive a tithe from the people. And the author is suggesting that this is an honorable role they had. They’re descended from Abraham, just like their brothers, but their brothers pay them a tithe, suggesting that they’re in a position of honor above their brothers.
But if that’s true, consider what honor is being shown to Melchizedek when Abraham—the father of all the Jews—pays him a tithe. The author writes, “But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises” (v. 6).
Not only that, but Melchizedek is said to bless Abraham in the text. Thus, the author notes, “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior” (v. 7). Now, hold on a second, we might say, “Is this beyond dispute?” Well, think about it when you read the OT. The Father or Grandfather would bless the son or grandson, never the other way around. Thus, the great Jacob blessed his sons and the sons of Joseph. In doing so, it was the greater one (the patriarch) blessing the lesser ones (his descendants). Now, think of this with regard to that Genesis 14:18-20 episode where Melchizedek blesses Abraham. Abraham is greater than the Levites (and all the priests who came from them), for he is their patriarch. But Melchizedek blesses Abraham, so he’s in a position of honor above Abraham. Do you see how this works?
But there’s more. This also means that Melchizedek is greater than the Levites. Now, this is basically already proven so far in the calculation we’ve seen (i.e. if Melchizedek is superior to Abraham, and if Abraham is superior to the Levites, then Melchizedek is superior to the Levites), but the author makes this point even more explicit. He notes in verse 8 that the Levites receive tithes as men who will die, but there’s no record of Melchizedek’s death. It is only testified of him that he lives. Thus, he is greater than them in that they die, but there’s no record of his death.
But we can say more. The author concludes, “One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him” (vv. 9-10). This argument is built upon the principle that one’s descendants genetically descend from their ancestors. Therefore, in one sense you can say that the Levites (since they came from Abraham, eventually) were actually in Abraham, and thus can be counted as paying tithes to Melchizedek. Therefore, Melchizedek is superior to the Levites (for he is in the honorable place of receiving tithes from them), and his priesthood is therefore superior to theirs.
And that’s where the argument ends for today. But let me do two things. First, let me point you to the question that the author of Hebrews raises in verse 11. He writes, “Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than the one named after the order of Aaron?”
Do you feel the weight of that question? The temptation for these Jewish believers is to think that Jesus can’t be the object of their saving faith because he doesn’t even qualify to be a priest. He’s not descended from Aaron. But the author of Hebrews is asking them to ask themselves why the Lord ever established another priesthood besides the one from Aaron if the priesthood descended from Aaron was good enough to save?
I mean, think about it. Melchizedek is a legitimate priest. He’s actually a priest-king. (It isn’t until later, with the coming of the law, that the king could not be a priest or carry out the priestly duties. This is actually what led to Saul’s downfall; he made a sacrifice, though he was simply a king.) Moreover, he’s not just any priest, he’s the priest of the Most High God who created heavens and earth. So, he’s a legitimate priest, and he’s not descended from Aaron. In fact, he’s around before Aaron even exists.
So why would God do this? Why would God establish an entire other order of priesthood tied to this figure that Moses makes sure we don’t miss in Genesis 14 by sticking his story—in a very interrupting way—right in the middle of the narrative about Abraham rescuing lot. It’s because God’s plan all along was to raise up a priest from another line who was superior to the priests from Aaron’s order and who could do what none of them could do—bring eternal salvation. If Aaron’s priesthood were enough for eternal salvation, then why would God establish another order? Do you feel the weight of that question for these Jewish believers? They have to stop and say, “Wait a minute. That’s a good question.” And the author is going to answer it in greater detail next week.
But let me make one other point before we go. What these Jewish believers needed to hear in order to press on and endure in the faith, despite what it was going to cost them, is that the gospel message was true. Everything the apostles had preached to them was true, and it was worth basing their lives on. And I want to say to you this morning that it’s true. It’s true that God the Son took on flesh, lived a perfect life, and died for rebellious sinners like you and me. It’s true that he rose from the dead. It’s true that we’re commanded to turn from sins, believe in him, and walk in obedient faith our whole life long. So if that’s true, let us examine ourselves and make sure that our lives—our priorities, habits, and desires—reflect that we really believe this is true. And if we do, then on the day when Jesus comes to judge all men, we will not regret banking our entire lives on the fact that Jesus really is who the Bible says he is and did what the Bible says he did. So, let us now profess our faith in him as we come to the table. Amen.
1 D. A. Carson was the first person I heard point out what an interruption this episode is in the text.