Beyond the Lectionary Text: Hebrews 7:1-22
by Kory Plockmeyer
Were it not for the book of Hebrews, Melchizedek would be little more than an interesting footnote in commentaries on the book of Genesis, a bewildering moment in the life of Abraham when this shadowy figure emerges briefly to bless Abraham, only to return to the realm of obscurity.
In Hebrews Melchizedek becomes much more than this. Hebrews takes the figure of Melchizedek and sees in him a priestly order older than the Levitical priesthood, a priestly order of which Jesus, born into the tribe of Judah, could be a part. Hebrews 7 functions as a lynchpin for one of the broad streams of thought in the book of Hebrews. Jesus is able to offer himself as sacrifice on our behalf as mediator of a new covenant because he is already a priest. Jesus is a priest because he belongs to the order of Melchizedek.
In my Reformed tradition, Jesus’ status as a priest in the order of Melchizedek serves as the important third anointing of Jesus – as Messiah (the anointed one), Jesus is anointed as prophet, priest, and king. As Christians, we share in Christ’s anointing and are also thus anointed as prophets, priests, and royalty.
It’s strange, in many ways, that such an important pillar of our understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross comes down to this rather obscure figure from the Old Testament.
Melchizedek first appears in Genesis 14, after Abraham has defeated Kedorlaomer, king of Elam. Melchizedek approaches Abraham with bread and wine and blesses him. In response, Abraham gives him a tenth of the spoils of his victory.
The next time we meet Melchizedek is in Psalm 110, when the Psalmist anticipates the coming Messiah, celebrating that the Lord has promised that the coming king will be “a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” This Psalm, even as it celebrates the king who will reign, is full of confusing imagery – verses 3 and 7 of the NIV both include the dreaded footnote: “The meaning of the Hebrew for this sentence is uncertain.”
So when the writer of Hebrews draws so heavily on the imagery of Melchizedek in chapter 7, we are understandably interested in who this figure may be. Speculation ranges on the identity of this person. Suggestions range from the archangel Michael to any other member of the angelic order to a pre-incarnate version of Jesus himself to Shem the son of Noah to a physical embodiment of the Holy Spirit.* About all that we can see for certain is that Melchizedek is a mysterious figure clearly associated with God and who has eschatological implications.
The challenge in preaching on these 22 verses of Hebrews 7 is the temptation to make the sermon about Melchizedek, rather than the priest in his order, the promised Messiah Jesus. Ultimately, whatever we can piece together about Melchizedek or speculate about his origins, the role that Melchizedek plays in Hebrews is to point toward the role that Jesus plays as our high priest: “Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant” (7:22).
I often find it helpful when preaching on Hebrews to take a step back from the dense argumentation and try to lay out a simple step-by-step flow of the argument. In chapter 7 it looks something like this: Melchizedek is a priest forever; Melchizedek received a tithe from Abraham, demonstrating that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham; because the Levitical priesthood is descended from Abraham, Melchizedek is also greater than this priesthood; because Jesus was raised from the dead, he too is “eligible” for the priesthood of Melchizedek; Jesus’ priesthood was guaranteed by God with an oath; therefore, because Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, and because he is priest by an oath of God, and because Melchizedek is greater than Abraham and his descendents (including the Levitical priesthood), Jesus is the high priest of a greater covenant.
Breaking down the argument like this allows us to see a couple of important details: the identity and status of Melchizedek is irrelevant, other than knowing that he is greater than Abraham. Similarly, the end result of this logical chain is that Jesus offers an alternative to the “weak and useless” system of the law (verse 18) as high priest of a “better covenant” (verse 22).
What really stands out about this argument is the pieces in the middle: Jesus’ “eligibility” for the priesthood of Melchizedek and the oath of God.
The idea of Jesus as our great high priest is often centered upon his death – as, indeed, it will be by the end of chapter 7. As the high priest in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice once and for all, “able to save completely” (7:25) as “one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (7:26) and who “does not need to offer sacrifices day after day… He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (7:27).
The logic of chapter 7 ensures that we cannot have the death of Jesus without his resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is what makes Jesus a priest in the first place, “not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life” (7:16). The key word in both quotations from Psalm 110 is “forever” – the eternal life of Jesus because of the resurrection.
The point toward which all of chapter 7 is heading is the priestly role of Jesus and the role that he plays as the high priest able to offer sacrifice, but getting there requires us to go through the resurrection.
In light of the resurrection, we celebrate the “better covenant” – the covenant not of works, for, as the writer of Hebrews points out, “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood… why was there still need for another priest to come?” (v. 11). The resurrection of Jesus Christ acted also as his anointing as priest. In light of Jesus’ anointing as priest, we celebrate the “once for all” nature of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Intertwined throughout this, then, is the reality that the law has been set aside. Our salvation depends not on our own ability to keep the law or on our ability to somehow make ourselves right with God, but on the resurrected king Jesus who gave himself for our sake.
While a sermon on this text rightly centers on the description of what it means that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, one would be remiss to pass over the opportunity to see the deeper connections between Jesus and Melchizedek. However we are to understand who Melchizedek was and is, we see both in the description of him found in Hebrews and in his actions in Genesis important connections to the person and work of Jesus. Most notably, he comes to Abraham offering bread, wine, and respite. Like Melchizedek, Jesus offers us bread, wine, and respite through his sacrifice.
*For an excellent introduction to the range of interpretations of Melchizedek, see Attridge’s commentary in the Hermeneia.
Verse 3 is a beautifully alliterative description of Melchizedek that should invite us to see further parallels with Jesus. While the 2011 NIV nicely captures this alliteration nicely with the anaphora of “without,” it misses the last one. Verse 3 could more literally read: “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning nor end of days, with similarity to the Son of God…” I transition to “with” instead of “without” recognizing that the first three repeat the alpha-privative (negating the adjective) and the last participle, aphomoiomenos is actually from the prefix apo-.
The words of the hymn “Before the Throne of God Above” fit particularly well with this passage. Several concepts resonate especially, highlighted in bold below:
Before the throne of God above, I have a strong and perfect plea, a great high priest whose name is Love, who ever lives and pleads for me. My name is graven on his hands, my name is written on his heart; I know that while in heaven he stands, no tongue can bid me thence depart, no tongue can bid me thence depart.
When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see him there, who made an end to all my sin. Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free; for God the Just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me, to look on him and pardon me.
Behold him there! The risen Lamb, my perfect spotless righteousness; the great unchangeable “I AM,” the King of glory and of grace! One with himself I cannot die, my soul is purchased by his blood; my life is hid with Christ on high, with Christ, my Savior and my God, with Christ my Savior and my God.
Rev. Kory Plockmeyer is the pastor of Westend Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.