God made a promise to redeem sinners long before He ever revealed His Law to condemn them. While everything about the Law emphasizes our lack of righteousness and peace with our Creator, the promise actually ensures both. So even as God justly condemns sinners to death, He is also pointing them to the gracious promise of life He provides through faith in Jesus Christ.
The Letter to the Hebrews presents Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the oath the LORD swore to Abraham. He promised to bless the nations of the earth with salvation through Abraham’s descendant (Heb. 6:13-20; cf. Gen. 3:15; 22:15-19). Jesus is that Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:15-18) — the ultimate Son of promise — and His personal righteousness qualifies Him as our Great High Priest who reconciles us to the Father (2:10-3:6; 4:14-5:10).
Christ’s priesthood is in the order of Melchizedek, a contemporary of Abraham, and not that of the Levitical priesthood associated with the Mosaic Law. Unlike Aaron’s descendants, Melchizedek’s priesthood had nothing to do with his lineage. Because the Levitical priesthood was forever associated with the Law, which emphasized death, a genealogy was kept to identify them with sinful humanity. But the writer of this letter declares Jesus to be in the order of Melchizedek, whose priesthood reflects hope in the promise (6:18-20).
Melchizedek is a type of Christ. That is, he was similar to Jesus in that he was a righteous king. His righteousness was, like Abraham’s, imputed by faith in God’s promise (7:2a). But he was also a king of peace because of his ministry as a priest of God Most High, which taught people how to have peace with Him through faith in the promise (7:2b). Melchizedek has no recorded lineage, and so the order of his priesthood did not end. Rather, it continues in Jesus Christ the eternal, Great High Priest (7:3). Christ is the fulfillment of the type, being God’s only truly righteous Son through whom God’s children are brought to the Father (Heb. 5:1-10).
As Hebrews 7:4-10 will explain, Melchizedek was physically unrelated to Abraham and superior as a type of Christ. This makes his priesthood superior to the Levitical priesthood descended from Abraham. Since Christ’s ministry as High Priest is in Melchizedek’s order, His priesthood is likewise unrelated and superior to Aaron’s (5:4). That is to say, the promise of God fulfilled in Christ’s High priestly ministry is superior to the Law of God represented by the incomplete and ineffective ministry of the Levitical priesthood (7:11-10:18).
By explaining Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek in Genesis 14, the writer establishes Jesus Christ as the King and High Priest declared by God in Psalm 110. This proves that God’s promise is salvation by faith in Christ who alone provides the righteousness necessary to have eternal life with the Father (Jn. 17:3).
Melchizedek – Part II
Superior to Abraham (vv. 4-10)
The writer immediately calls us to “consider how great this man [Melchizedek] was” in relation to Abraham. Although his ministry was contemporaneous to the events of Abraham’s earthly sojourn, and both were righteous by faith in God’s promise, Melchizedek was great by virtue of his being a type of Christ. Abraham is great as the patriarch of Israel, but he was not a Messianic type.
This was reflected in the biblical record when “the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils” of battle to this priest of God Most high after returning from a victory over his nephew Lot’s captors. This was referred to in verse one as “the slaughter of the kings” (cf. Gen. 14:1-20). It was customary in ancient times to give a tithe to the representative of the deity viewed as responsible for the military victory. Abraham obviously recognized the king and priest of Salem as a legitimate representative of the true and living God. Since he blessed Abraham, Melchizedek likewise recognized God’s choice to establish heaven’s promise through Abraham (7:1).
The “tithes” of the Israelites to the Levitical priesthood also acknowledged them as God’s representatives. Although all Hebrews are the result of God’s promise to Abraham through Isaac and Jacob (Rom. 9:4-5), it was only the tribe of “Levi” that was chosen to “receive the priesthood.” The people were commanded to support their ministry, and the priests and Levites had a “commandment to receive tithes from the people according to the law, that is, from their brethren, though they have come from the loins of Abraham” (v. 5b; cf. Num. 18).
The key difference between the recognition of Melchizedek and the Levitical priests was that the latter only ministered “according to the law.” The Law given through Moses was of great significance, and the tribe of Levi was elevated above the rest only in the sense that they represented God’s Law to the nation. Yet the Law was not given until 430 years after the covenant of promise (Gal. 3:17). As noted earlier, God’s Law — its commands and ceremony — were intended only to condemn sin and point the way to the promised Savior. The promise was always to be viewed as superior.
And that is obviously the writer’s point as he compares Melchizedek’s superiority over even that of the Levitical priesthood. This man “whose genealogy is not derived from” the tribe of Levi nonetheless “received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises” (v. 6). That is, long before the Law — before Levi was even born — Abraham recognized Melchizedek as a superior representative of God’s redemptive promise; Melchizedek likewise recognized Abraham as the one through whom that promise was being initiated. The encounter between these two men clearly acknowledged the promise many generations in advance of the Law.
The Hebrews to whom this letter was written would certainly grapple with this concept. The Mosaic Law was central to their identity as a nation; it permeated their way of life. However, Judaism had elevated the Law as superior rather than the promise. They had come to seek righteousness in the Law instead of through faith in the Christ. With so many in this Hebrew congregation obviously on the fence regarding true faith in Jesus, it becomes vitally important for the writer to pursue this line of reason with them.
It is clear (“beyond all contradiction”) that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham, since “the lesser is blessed by the better” (v. 7). Verse eight further establishes this by identifying the Levitical priests as “mortal men” but Melchizedek (“he”) as one who “lives” — yet more emphasis on the Law as bringing death and the promise as brining life. Since the Levitical priesthood was still active at the time the letter was penned, it is said that they received “tithes” at that present time (“Here”). Melchizedek received them “there” (i.e. earlier in the historical record). Melchizedek’s received tithes first.
Although the Levitical priests received tithes, God never makes mention of the Christ being in their order. Rather, their priesthood had an obvious beginning and ending associated with the Law, but Melchizedek’s continued in Christ. In fact, “Even Levi, who receives tithes” (i.e. at that time), is considered to have “paid tithes through Abraham, so to speak” (v. 9). What does that mean?
Quite simply, the writer is saying that, since Abraham represented the entire nation, which was a part of God’s plan to bring the promise to fruition, it can be said that even Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek. As verse 10 concludes, Levi “was still in the loins of his father (Abraham) when Melchizedek met him.” This implies that all Hebrews paid him tithes. Since God views it that way, then even the readers of this letter paid tithes.
They had no logical choice than to recognize Melchizedek as superior to Abraham and, therefore, to the Levitical priesthood. It only stands to reason that the promise, which Melchizedek represented, is greater than the Law. So how could they not believe that Christ is the fulfillment of the promise?
The priesthood of Jesus Christ, like that of Melchizedek, is superior to the Levitical priesthood descended from Abraham. The promise came to Abraham (and therefore to the Hebrew nation) long before the Law. Therefore, God never intended to bring sinners to Himself by the Law (v. 11). God plainly justifies sinners by grace through faith in Christ, for Jesus provides the righteousness necessary to reconcile sinners to the Father.
The doctrine of Jesus’ priesthood being in the order of Melchizedek can be particularly confusing if we do not know our Old Testament Scriptures. But if we follow the writer’s logic as he reasons through what God reveals there, then we can essentially boil its teaching down to the superiority of the promise over the Law. Knowing this, we can be sure that God only saves sinners by faith in His Son whose life, death, and resurrection ensures the promise for us. We cannot possibly be righteous enough to earn peace with God, but Jesus has earned it for us if we will but trust in Him.
Do you believe God’s promise in Christ, or are you trying in vain to deliver yourself from the Law’s condemnation?
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