The Nature of Melchizedek’s Priesthood

A better covenant

‘As Hebrews 7–10 explains, God brought in an enhanced version of his one eternal covenant with sinners (Heb 13:20)—a better covenant with better promises (Heb 8:6) based on a better sacrifice (Heb 9:23) offered by a better high priest in a better sanctuary (Heb 7:26–8:6; 8:11; 9:13–14), and guaranteeing a better hope than the former version of the covenant ever made explicit, that is, endless glory with God in “a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16; cf. v. 40).’ (Packer, Concise Theology)

7:1 Now this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him. 7:2 To him also Abraham apportioned a tithe of everything. His name first means king of righteousness, then king of Salem, that is, king of peace. 7:3 Without father, without mother, without genealogy, he has neither beginning of days nor end of life but is like the son of God, and he remains a priest for all time.

The theme of Jesus as a high priest ‘after the order of Melchisedek’ has been introduced in Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20.  ‘That theme is now fully developed as the writer comes to the heart of his message and begins to feed his readers the ‘solid food’ that promotes spiritual maturity (cf. Heb 5:11–14).’ (NBC)

Verses 1-10 refer back to the encounter between Abraham and Melchizedek recorded im Gen 14:18-20.  The remainder of the chapter picks up the Messianic prophesy of Psa 110:4, and applies it to Jesus.

‘After Abraham defeated a coalition of eastern kings led by Kedorlaomer, and rescued his kinsman Lot, Melchizedek met him. According to Genesis 14:18, Melchizedek is both king of Salem and priest of God Most High. In the LXX Salem transliterates the Hebrew place name Shālēm, which has been identified with Jerusalem, because Salem is included in it and Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek occurred at the King’s Valley, which was in Jerusalem. As priest of God Most High he is the first person to be called a ‘priest’ in the Old Testament, while the God whom he serves is the ‘Most High’, the God of Abraham (Gen. 14:22) and of Israel.12 This ascription emphasizes the transcendent dignity of God. The only priestly action recorded of Melchizedek is his blessing of Abraham in the name of God Most High when he met the patriarch (Gen. 14:19–20). The mention of this priestly activity is important for Hebrews’ argument about the superiority of Melchizedek over the Levitical priests (7:6–7). In recognition of his priesthood Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe of the plunder he had taken (Gen. 14:20).’ (O’Brien)

Our author’s appeal to this rather enigmatic figure shows us that the OT ‘is not simply a graphic account of God’s dealings with his covenant people over the centuries. Old Testament Scripture is essentially Christ-centred…It eagerly anticipates his coming, it describes his earthly ministry, vividly relates the precise circumstances and eternal benefits of his death for mankind, and looks beyond itself to the eventual fulfilment of its finest hopes. Its historical development, spiritual value and moral lessons are all fully appreciated by our author, but he comes to its arresting narratives as a man equipped by the Spirit of God to discern a further message. It is a book about Christ. The Son of God dominates the word of God in both Testaments. The marks of Christ are clearly impressed on all its pages for those who have the eye to see them.’ (BST)

In making typological use of this OT character, the author refers to five aspects: Melchizedek’s ‘status, authority, name, uniqueness and superiority.’ (BST)

Wiersbe notes the following things about Melchisedek: (a) he was both king and priest, v1; (b) ‘Melchisedek’ means ‘king of righteousness’ and ‘king of Salem (“shalom”) means ‘king of peace’; (c) he received tithes from Abraham; (d) Scripture is silent about his genealogy and progeny; (e) he blessed Abraham.

Even in name, Melchizedek ‘anticipated the Messiah’s reign of righteousness and peace (e.g. Is. 9:6–7; Heb. 1:8–9).’ (NBC)

Without genealogy – confirming that ‘the whole clause is about priestly qualification, not miraculous birth.’

The Genesis account does not record any of these details (normally so important for a major personage, and especially for priests = Ezra 2:61–63; Neh 7:63–65).  ‘He appears from nowhere and disappears without trace. He has no predecessors and no successors. Since the legitimacy of a man’s priesthood in the ancient world depended on such things, the silence of Scripture at this point is unusual.’ (NBC)

‘He required neither priestly ancestry nor succession to authorize his unique and unending priesthood which shows the unrestricted quality of his life. Consequently, Melchizedek foreshadows the priesthood of Christ at that point where it is most fundamentally different from the Levitical priesthood’. (Lane)

Like the Son of God – or, ‘made like the Son of God’ (O’Brien).  Either way, the subordination of Melchisedek to the Son of God (note the exalted title) is maintained.  It is not so much that Christ’s priesthood is modelled after Melchisedek’s, but that Melchisedek’s anticipates Christ’s.

He remains a priest forever– The expression here is eis to diēnekes, not eis ton aiōna, and means ‘without interruption’, rather than ‘for eternity’.

7:4 But see how great he must be, if Abraham the patriarch gave him a tithe of his plunder. 7:5 And those of the sons of Levi who receive the priestly office have authorization according to the law to collect a tithe from the people, that is, from their fellow countrymen, although they too are descendants of Abraham.
7:6 But Melchizedek who does not share their ancestry collected a tithe from Abraham and blessed the one who possessed the promise. 7:7 Now without dispute the inferior is blessed by the superior, 7:8 and in one case tithes are received by mortal men, while in the other by him who is affirmed to be alive.

Did not trance his descent from Levi – ‘His not being from this line prepares the ground for the arguments in vv. 11–19: there is a historical precedent for a priesthood outside the tribe of Levi. ‘The implication is that if the lack of a Levitical genealogy did not prevent Melchizedek from collecting a tithe from Abraham, it cannot disqualify Jesus from serving as a priest’. Indeed, this description of Melchizedek points the way forward to a promised priest who was descended from the non-priestly tribe of Judah.’ (O’Brien)

Blessed him – This is the one priestly function that is ascribed to Melchisedek.

7:9 And it could be said that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid a tithe through Abraham. 7:10 For he was still in his ancestor Abraham’s loins when Melchizedek met him.

‘Aaron and the tribe of Levi were “in the loins” of Abraham, yet unborn! So, when their father, Abraham, acknowledged the greatness of Melchizedek, the tribe of Levi was also involved. The Jewish people believe strongly in “racial solidarity,” and this is one example of it. The paying of the tithes involved not just the patriarch Abraham, but also the unborn generations in his loins.’ (Wiersbe)

Jesus and the Priesthood of Melchizedek

7:11 So if perfection had in fact been possible through the Levitical priesthood—for on that basis the people received the law—what further need would there have been for another priest to arise, said to be in the order of Melchizedek and not in Aaron’s order?

The author pinpoints the need for another, and superior priesthood: the former was imperfect.

‘The priesthood of Jesus was after the order of Melchizedek and as such is contrasted sharply with the Jewish priesthood which was after the order of Aaron. One was eternal and effective; the other temporary and imperfect, now set aside because of its weakness and uselessness.’ (BST)

‘Earlier passages have spoken of the hope of being crowned with glory and honour (Heb 2:5–10), entering God’s promised rest (Heb 4:9–10), and inheriting the blessing promised to Abraham and his heirs (Heb 6:7, 12). In the light of Heb 7:19, which asserts that the law made nothing perfect but in Jesus Christ a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God, it is suggested that the perfecting of believers ‘involves “qualifying” them to draw near to God or enabling them to enjoy the certainty of a new covenant relationship with God.… Christ’s sacrifice deals with the problem of sin in a way that the Levitical priesthood and the law of Moses could not’.’ (O’Brien, quoting Peterson)

7:12 For when the priesthood changes, a change in the law must come as well. 7:13 Yet the one these things are spoken about belongs to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever officiated at the altar. 7:14 For it is clear that our Lord is descended from Judah, yet Moses said nothing about priests in connection with that tribe. 7:15 And this is even clearer if another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, 7:16 who has become a priest not by a legal regulation about physical descent but by the power of an indestructible life.

Law here refers to the regulations governing priestly sacrifice.

‘Bruce points out that our author reached a conclusion similar to that of the apostle Paul, in relation to the law being a temporary provision until Christ came (Gal. 3:24). Although Paul thought of the law especially in terms of its raising men and women’s awareness of sin but believed that it could not achieve their justification before God, the author of Hebrews viewed the sacrificial cultus as the essence of the Mosaic law but realized that this too could never effectively remove sin. Both ‘in principle … are agreed that the law was a temporary dispensation of God, valid only until Christ came to inaugurate the age of perfection’.’ (O’Brien)

‘Since the priests received their authority from the Old Testament Law (Heb. 7:28), and since the priesthood has been changed, there has also been a change in that Law. The President of the United States cannot proclaim himself King of the United States because U.S. law makes no provision for a king. First, the law would have to be changed.  The Law of Moses made no provision for a priesthood from the tribe of Judah (Heb. 7:14). Since our High Priest is from the tribe of Judah, according to His human ancestry, then there must have been a change in Moses’ Law. There has been! The entire system of Old Testament Law has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ and has been taken out of the way (Col. 2:13–14). The believer has been set free from the Law (Gal. 5:1–6) and is dead to the Law (Rom. 7:1–4).’ (Wiersbe)

The law of Moses was silent on the possibility of priests being drawn from the tribe of Judah.  Jesus, being a priest, must therefore belong to a different order.  Verse 16 wil make it clear that his priesthood is not based on his ancestry but on his resurrection and exaltation.

What we have said is even more clear – That is, ‘it is even more obvious that the perfecting of believers, by which they could draw near to God, was not attained through the Aaronic priesthood because a different priest, one like Melchizedek, has in fact appeared.’ (O’Brien)

Bruce points out that our author reached a conclusion similar to that of the apostle Paul, in relation to the law being a temporary provision until Christ came (Gal. 3:24). Although Paul thought of the law especially in terms of its raising men and women’s awareness of sin but believed that it could not achieve their justification before God, the author of Hebrews viewed the sacrificial cultus as the essence of the Mosaic law but realized that this too could never effectively remove sin. Both ‘in principle … are agreed that the law was a temporary dispensation of God, valid only until Christ came to inaugurate the age of perfection’.

A regulation as to his ancestry – lit. ‘a law of a fleshly commandment.’  ‘The Law of the Aaronic priesthood had reference to descent from a particular tribe, to bodily conditions, to marriage, in a word to “flesh,” a word which expresses all that it mortal and perishable. A priesthood created and exercised under such a fleshen commandment can have no effects outside of the principle which regulates it; it can neve extend its influence into the region of spirit and life.’ (A.B. Davidson)

The power of an indestructible life – a reference to his resurrection and ascension.  Christ could only be a priest for ever (v17) if he lives for ever.  But since he died, rose again, and ascended to his Father’s right hand, he is able to exercise a perpetual priesthood.  Christ died as a man, but has indissoluble life as God. ‘And it is because this perpetual life is the inalienable possession of the Risen Christ that he is able freely to bestow it upon his people, Heb 7:25.’ (Wilson)

7:17 For here is the testimony about him: “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”
7:18 On the one hand a former command is set aside because it is weak and useless, 7:19 for the law made nothing perfect. On the other hand a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

The former regulation is the OT law relating to priesthood on the basis of ancestry.

Set aside – ‘According to Hebrews, ‘anyone who abrogates the law of Moses dies without pity on the basis of two or three witnesses’ (Heb 10:28). But because God gave the law, Hebrews assumes that he has the right to annul it.’ (O’Brien)

The law was weak and useless because the priests died and needed to be replaced and also needed to make sacrifices for their own sins as well as those of others.  It was ‘[unable] to perfect believers through the cleansing of their consciences so that they could confidently draw near to God.’ (O’Brien)

Hebrews has already spoken of the perfection of Jesus Christ (Heb 2:10; 5:9; 7:28); now it deals with the way in which his work perfects believers and qualifies them to ‘draw near to God’.

The better hope is the certainty of once-for-all cleansing from sin and of entering into, and continuing in, relationship with God.

‘This is not to suggest that faithful men and women in Old Testament times did not enjoy peace of conscience or a sense of God’s presence. The Psalter gives examples of those who knew the blessedness of transgressions forgiven (Psa 32:1–2), and who rejoiced ‘to be near God’ (Psa 73:28). The way of forgiveness, restoration, and access to the divine presence was always available to those who lived by faith. The author of Hebrews does not deny to those living under the old covenant the possibility of drawing near to God absolutely (Heb. 10:1; 11:6; 12:18–21). But this access was not effected through the Levitical ritual or the Aaronic priesthood.’ (O’Brien)

Introduced, referring to the new priesthood, contrasts with ‘set aside’ (v18), referring to the old.

‘Jewish opponents were likely to hurl angry questions at their Christian contemporaries, especially those who had come from a Jewish background. They would naturally insist on knowing precisely why Christ’s priesthood and sacrifice are considered superior to those found in Judaism and hallowed by constant use over many centuries. Our author now turns to this question: Why is Christ’s work unique?’ (BST)

We draw near to God – generally, in worship, and specifically, in prayer.

7:20 And since this was not done without a sworn affirmation—for the others have become priests without a sworn affirmation, 7:21 but Jesus did so with a sworn affirmation by the one who said to him, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever’ ”—7:22 accordingly Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.

Others became priests without any oath – They became so by divine command (Ex 28:1), but without an oath.

Brown (BST) recalls that ‘some readers had begun to feel wistful about the traditional and familiar religious ceremonials of Judaism and seriously questioned whether they had been right in abandoning it all when they became Christians. In this section the writer wants to assure them that in Christ they have what he has earlier described as ‘a better hope’ (Heb 7:19). Jesus exercises a ‘more excellent ministry’ than any Jewish priest. He mediates a far better covenant, far superior to the old ‘since it is enacted on better promises’ (Heb 8:6).’

A better covenant – The theme of ‘covenant’ will become prominent from this point forward.

‘Motivated by deep pastoral concern, the writer dreads the thought that some of the members of this church might go back to something inferior, temporary and partial, when in Christ there is ‘a better hope’, ‘a better covenant’, with ‘better promises’.’ (BSY)

7:23 And the others who became priests were numerous, because death prevented them from continuing in office, 7:24 but he holds his priesthood permanently since he lives forever. 7:25 So he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

He is able to save – ‘Earlier Hebrews has spoken of Christ as mightily able to help (Heb 2:18) and able to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15). This verb ‘to be able’ is often related to the powerful activity of Christ, and here it is used of his having the power to save. Nowhere in Hebrews does the verb denote a mere possibility.’ (O’Brien)

Completely – The principle thought here is ‘for ever’ (as confirmed by the context).  But this implies ‘completely’.

Those who come to God – ‘The idea of ‘approaching’, ‘drawing near’, or ‘coming’ to God is prominent in Hebrews (cf. Heb 4:16; 7:19; 10:1, 22; 11:6; 12:18, 22). Fundamentally, it expresses the idea of a relationship with God. The OT priesthood and sacrificial system only imperfectly provided for such a relationship, but Jesus is able to save completely those who relate to God through him.’ (NBC)

‘Men deceive themselves, who look to be saved by him, but take no care to come to God in holy worship by him.’ (Owen)

He always lives to intercede for them– See also Isa 53:12; Rom 8:33f. On Christ’s intercession during his earthly ministry, see Lk 22:32; Jn 17.

‘“Intercede” denotes, not a suppliant making an appeal to charity, but the intervening of one who has sovereign right and power to make requests and take action in another’s interest.’ (J.I. Packer, Growing in Christ)

‘The image of the heavenly intercessor is used to emphasize Christ’s willingness and ability to go on applying to us the benefits of his once-for-all sacrifice (cf. Heb 2:18; 4:14–16; 10:19–22). However, the image should not be pushed too far. Jesus sits at the right hand of God, claiming the fulfilment of the covenant promises for his children, not begging for their acceptance before the Father’s throne!’ (NBC)

Bruce quotes H.B. Swete: ‘Christ is not to be thought of ‘as an orante, standing ever before the Father with outstretched arms, like the figures in the mosaics of the catacombs, and with strong crying and tears pleading our cause in the presence of a reluctant God’ but as a throned Priest-King, asking what he will from a Father who always hears and grants his request.’ Bruce adds, ‘His once-completed self-offering is utterly acceptable and efficacious; his contact with the Father is immediate and unbroken; his priestly ministry on his people’s behalf is never-ending, and therefore the salvation which he secures to them is absolute.’

In the Levitical ritual on the Day of Atonement, recorded in Lev 16, the Priest said nothing. It was the sacrificial blood sprinkled on the mercy seat that ‘spoke’. So, we could suggest that Christ’s heavenly intercession is not to be conceived of as the saying of prayers at all, but as the presentation of himself as our High Priest before the Father, still bearing in his body the tangible evidences of his atoning work. It is this that speaks on our behalf.

‘The rabbis maintained that intercession on behalf of people was a ministry entrusted to the angels and especially to Michael the archangel. Here, yet again, Christ is portrayed as one who as priest exercises an intercessory role far superior to the angels in the Jewish tradition. He intercedes for us meaningfully for, unlike the angels, he has first-hand experience of our trials. He intercedes for us compassionately, for, unlike the angels, he knows exactly what we need. He intercedes for us effectively, for, unlike the angels, he has the power to meet our need.’ (BST)

‘He constantly presents the merits of his death as a reason why we should be saved. The precise mode, however, in which he makes intercession in heaven for his people is not revealed. The general meaning is, that he undertakes their cause, and assists them in overcoming their foes and in their endeavours to live a holy life. Comp. 1 Jn 2:1. He does in heaven whatever is necessary to obtain for us grace and strength; secures the aid which we need against our foes; and is the pledge or security for us that the law shall be honoured, and the justice and truth of God maintained, though we are saved. It is reasonable to presume that this is somehow by the presentation of the merits of his great sacrifice, and that that is the ground on which all this grace is obtained. As that is infinite, we need not fear that it will ever be exhausted.’ (Barnes)

‘Christ’s intercession in heaven is a kind and powerful remembrance of his people, and of all their concerns, managed with state and majesty; not as a suppliant at the footstool, but as a crowned prince on the throne, at the right hand of the Father’ (Traill).

‘Such a mediation makes all other mediators as unnecessary as they are unlawful (1 Tim 2:5).’ (Peter Lewis)

Intercession of Christ

Christs priestly office consists of these two parts, (1.) the offering up of himself as a sacrifice, and (2.) making continual intercession for us. When on earth he made intercession for his people (Luke 23:34; John 17:20; Heb. 5:7); but now he exercises this function of his priesthood in heaven, where he is said to appear in the presence of God for us (Heb. 9:12, 24). His advocacy with the Father for his people rests on the basis of his own all-perfect sacrifice. Thus he pleads for and obtains the fulfillment of all the promises of the everlasting covenant (1 John 2:1; John 17:24; Heb. 7:25). He can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, and is both a merciful and a faithful high priest (Heb. 2:17, 18; 4:15, 16). This intercession is an essential part of his mediatorial work. Through him we have access to the Father (John 14:6; Eph. 2:18; 3:12). The communion of his people with the Father will ever be sustained through him as mediatorial Priest (Ps. 110:4; Rev. 7:17). (Easton’s Bible Dictionary)

‘”Intercede” denotes, not a suppliant making an appeal to charity, but the intervening of one who has sovereign right and power to make requests and take action in another’s interest. It is truly said that our Lord’s presence and life in heaven as the enthroned priest-king, our propitiation, so to speak, in person, is itself his intercession: just for him to be there guarantees all grace to us, and glory too.’ (J.I. Packer, Growing in Christ)

7:26 For it is indeed fitting for us to have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separate from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 7:27 He has no need to do every day what those priests do, to offer sacrifices first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people, since he did this in offering himself once for all. 7:28 For the law appoints as high priests men subject to weakness, but the word of solemn affirmation that came after the law appoints a son made perfect forever.

Such a high priest meets our need – The original contains the notion of appropriateness; NRSV: “For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest.”

One who is holy, blameless and pure, set apart from sinners – Christ’s sinlessness is emphasised (cf. Heb 4:15) in order to explain why his sacrifice was perfect.

‘Christ lived a holy life; it was set apart completely for God’s work and so was fully pleasing to the Father. He lived a blameless life; it was completely guileless, never at any point disappointing as far as its moral perfection is concerned. He lived an unstained life; nothing remotely impure ever marred its sinless beauty. He lived a separated life; although he moved freely and lovingly among us, he was entirely given over to God’s will and so was in no sense compromised by his constant contact with sinners. He now lives an exalted life; he has passed through the heavens to the throne of God. It is God’s final seal of perfect approval; that beautiful life was fully acceptable to his Father and his saving sacrifice fully effective for us.’ (BST)

Once for all – This expression occurs repeatedly in this letter (Heb 9:12, 26; 10:2, 10).  In the context of the present verse, the primary meaning is, ‘one for all time.’  But we would not be wrong to add, ‘once for all people’.  Mark McAllister has suggested two sporting illustrations.  At the beginning of each football season, each team has to start all over again, and cannot carry over any points from the previous season, no matter how many were accrued.  But the work of Christ is good ‘for all time’.  When a team wins, its supporters are delighted, but those of the opposing team are, of course, disappointed.  But the work of Christ is a victory ‘for all people’.

The reasoning of Richard Rohr is muddled and misleading: ‘Jesus was precisely the “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27) sacrifice given to reveal the lie and absurdity of the very notion and necessity of “sacrificial” religion itself. Heroic sacrifices to earn God’s love are over! That’s much of the point of Hebrews 10 if you are willing to read it with new eyes. But we perpetuated such regressive and sacrificial patterns by making God the Father into the Chief Sacrificer, and Jesus into the necessary victim.’  But neither the present passage (nor any other) teaches any such thing.  Jesus did not repudiate the sacrifices that God himself had required: he fulfilled them.

Made perfect forever – This means that ‘all sacrifices had been consummated in the one Sacrifice, all priesthoods absorbed in the one Priest.  The offering had been made one for all: and, as there were no more victims, there could be no more priests.’ (J.B. Lightfoot)

‘Plurality of priests under the gospel overthrows the whole argument of the apostle in this place; and if we have yet priests that have infirmities, they are made by the law, and not by the gospel.’ (Owen)