I am reading through Hebrews in my devotions right now, one of my favorite books of the bible, and a book I would like to do further study on in the years to come. For the first several chapters I had avoided commentaries, but this weekend I hit chapter 7, an extremely difficult text, and finally gave in and turned for help to William Lane’s Hebrews: A Call to Commitment (Regent College Publishing, 1985). I found it extremely helpful and I want to share some of the insights I gathered.
My most basic question was, what’s up with Melchizedek? Why devote so much time to the comparison between the priestly office of Jesus and the priestly office of this obscure Old Testament figure, who only comes up in two very brief Old Testament texts (Genesis 14:17-24 and Psalm 110:4)?
Lane made a very compelling case that the comparison to Melchizedek serves to highlight the permanent and perpetual nature of Jesus’ priestly intercessory work for believers. The Levitical high priests were appointed according to genealogical succession from Aaron, in accordance with the stipulations of the Mosaic law (Exodus 40:15, Leviticus 6:22, 16:32, 21:21-22:6, Numbers 3:1-3). There was thus an established line of succession from Aaron to Eleazar, from Eleazar to Phinehas, and so on. Melchizedek, by contrast, is viewed by the author of Hebrews as a man “without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (7:3). He had no predecessors or successors, but received his priestly calling by the direct appointment of God. Thus the author of Hebrews denotes two distinct orders of priesthood – the “order of Melchizedek”, and “the order of Aaron” (7:11). The Aaronic priestly order is entered “on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent” (7:16), whereas the Melchizedekan priestly order is entered by the direct appointment of God; in the case of Jesus, this divine appointment happens at his resurrection from the dead into “the power of an indestructable life” (7:16; cf. Acts 2:33, Romans 1:4).
That it is the perpetual, continuing nature of Jesus’ priestly appointment that is in view with this comparison is evident from the frequency with which the author of Hebrews draws this conclusion in the course of his discussion. Note the italicized and emboldened words:
“You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (5:6)
“where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (6:20)
“(Melchizedek) 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” (7:3)
“you are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (7:17)
“but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,’You are a priest forever‘” (7:21)
“but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (7:24)
“since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25)
“for the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever” (7:28)
The practical and soteriological import of all of this is well summed up in 7:25: “consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
One final thought: I am not aware that any other passage of Scripture teaches the continuous intercessory priestly work of Christ as this passage in Hebrews 7 does. If that is indeed the case, then how important is it to dig deeply into these tough passages in Hebrews! Their difficulty is matched by their unique and weighty contribution to Christian theology.
I hope to post more on Hebrews as I continue my journey into chapter 8 and beyond.