Text: Hebrews 7
“This Melchizedek”. I’m trying to imagine a conversation you might have with a friend tomorrow. “How was your weekend?” you are asked. “Pretty good. Went to church yesterday evening.” “Oh yes? What was that all about?” “Melchizedek.” I’m really not sure where the conversation might go after that. Straight back to the Olympics, presumably.
The writer to the Hebrews seems to have had his own doubts about broaching the subject of Melchizedek. He’s been edging up to it for a while now. Back in ch 5 he gives Melchizedek a couple of quick mentions (v6,10). But then our author draws back and says, ‘We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn.’ But, finally, he does come back to the subject in the last verse of ch 6. You can almost hear him say, “Let’s go for it. Let’s do Melchizedek.”
But I’m still a bit nervous. After all, if the writer to the Hebrews found Melchizedek hard to explain, what chance do I have? But I do have a cunning plan. What I propose to do is not to drive headlong into this chapter, but rather to reverse into it, and see if we can park ourselves more comfortably that way. Here goes.
What is the most vitally important, and yet woefully neglected, question confronting each member of the human race, in every age, and on all parts of the globe? Hint: it is not a political, or economic, or social, or psychological, question. The question of questions is this: How can we, weak and fallen creatures that we are, find acceptance with a holy and sovereign God? This, I say, is the question of questions, the problem of problems, the dilemma of dilemmas. You can try to evade the question, by denying God altogether. You can try to work out your own answer the question, (we call those man-made solutions religions). You can try to forget all about the question by filling your life with amusements and other distractions. But every conscience knows, deep down, that it cannot rest until it makes its peace with God.
But the question of our acceptance with God is not only vitally important. It is also surpassingly difficult. You have heard about the so-called ‘new atheists’: people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Now they have a line of argument which is actually very interesting. It goes like this: ‘We don’t think there is a god. But even if there is, what makes you think that that such a stupendous being as he or she or it must be would care a jot about us? We are tiny specks of dust in a vast and forbidding universe. Surely, any self-respecting god would have better things to do than to bother about about us and our petty sins.’
There’s something in that, you know. I must confess I get a little concerned when I hear Christians talking glibly about the ‘love of God’, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. It is not obvious at all. To quote an old children’s hymn: ‘It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be.’
So important and yet so difficult is this business of reconciliation between God and humankind that it took an extraordinary move from God himself to achieve it. He sent a mediator: one who would act as a bridge over which we all might pass; one who would put things right between us and our Maker.
Now there is a word for one who acts in this way. That word is ‘priest’. And this entire section of this letter is devoted explaining the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
But this letter is addressed to Hebrew Christians; they were followers of Jesus Christ who had come from a Jewish background. And Judaism has plenty of priests, thankyou very much. Ever since the days of Moses and Aaron, we’ve had tabernacles and temples, altars and sacrifices, priests and high priests. What’s so special about the priesthood of Jesus?
“I’m glad you asked,” replies our writer. And in vv11-28 he sets out a series of striking contrasts between the Levitical priesthood and the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Priesthood of Jesus
|Many priests – ‘There have been many of those priests’, v23||One priest|
|Based on heredity – ‘Levitical priesthood’, v11||Based on merit – ‘not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life’, v16|
|Sinful – ‘offered sacrifices first for their own sins,’ v27||Sinless – ‘holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners’ v26|
|Sacrifices were repeated – ‘day after day,’ v27||‘He sacrificed once for all,’ v27|
|Offered animals||‘He offered himself,’ v27|
|Inadequate – ‘Weak and useless,’ v18||Effective – ‘he is able to save completely…he meets our need,’ v25f|
|Temporary – ‘Death prevented them from continuing in office,’ v23||Permanent – ‘A priest for ever’, v17; ‘Jesus lives for ever,’ v24|
|Not confirmed with an oath – ‘Others became priests without any oath’, v20||Confirmed with a solemn oath – ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind’, v20|
|Belonged to the old covenant||Inaugurates the new covenant – ‘Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant,’ v22|
|Set aside – ‘The former regulation is set aside’, v18||Introduced – ‘A better hope is introduced’, v19|
What we have with Jesus, then, is not simply an improvement on the old Levitical priesthood. We have, rather, an entirely different order of priesthood.
And yet it was by no means an after-thought on God’s part. It was not as if the Lord had said, “Well, the old priesthood isn’t working too well. Let’s try something different and see if that’s any better.” No: the model for this entirely different order of priesthood was there all along. And that’s where Melchizedek comes in.
Verses 1-10 take us back to the book of Genesis, ch 14. This records how, after Abraham had won a battle, Melchizedek came out and met him. His name, we are told, means ‘king of righteousness.’ He was king of Salem, and that means ‘peace’. Scripture ignores his family credentials: there is no mention either of his ancestors or his successors. What is more, in blessing Abraham and receiving tithes from him he showed himself to be greater than Abraham and therefore greater than all of Abraham’s descendents – including Aaron and the Levitical priests. So right there, in the very first book of the Bible, centuries before the time of Moses and Aaron, we find a model for a different and greater order of priesthood.
Fast-forward 1,000 years, and this is picked up in one of the most celebrated of all the Psalms. No OT passage is quoted more often than Psalm 110. And there you find a remarkable prophecy, in which King David declares to someone he calls “My Lord”: “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Fast-forward another thousand years, and the writer to the Hebrews confirms, “David was talking about the Christ.”
And even though he arrives at his conclusion in a way that seems strange to us today, that conclusion is just as relevant now as it was then.
We can have confidence to come to God ourselves. We have a great priest, a living bridge, a mediator. One of the most memorable moments of the opening ceremony of the Olympics was when HM The Queen turned round and greeted Daniel Craig: “Good evening, Mk Bond,” she said. And then allowed him to escort her to the stadium. How did they pull that one off? How did Danny Boyle and his team even get access to her, let alone persuade her to become a ‘Bond girl’ for the night? There must have been an intermediary, a go-between. And so there was. It was Edward Young. He is the Queen’s Deputy Private Secretary. But he has previously been an associate of Lord Coe. He was in a perfect position to bring the two sides – the Palace and the Olympics – together. How much more we can have confidence to come to God through the mediator whom God himself has provided, one who entirely meets our need. Through him we can come with confidence to God in penitence, knowing that our sins will be forgiven, in worship, believing that our Lord will be pleased to accept our humble adoration, and in prayer, trusting that our heavenly Father will hear and answer our petitions.
We can have confidence to commend Jesus to others. When Christians quote the words of Jesus, when he said: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except by me,” they are sometimes accused of arrogance. ‘How can we be so certain that we have the answer?’ As I was pondering this I glanced at the busy road that runs past our house. Cycles, motor-bikes, cars, vans and lorries fly past in both directions. However can you get across it safely? Shut your eyes and hope for the best? No: there’s a pedestrian crossing right there. If I said to you, “That pedestrian crossing is the only safe and effective way across this section of road,” you wouldn’t accuse me of arrogance, would you? You’d agree that I was telling you something sensible and truthful. In the same way, we can have confidence to commend Jesus as the only safe and effective way to God, just as the writer to the Hebrews did all those years ago. Nothing less than Jesus will suffice. Nothing more than Jesus is needed. Here we have the solution to the age-old problem that presses on every needy conscience. Here is the answer to the perennial question: ‘How can I approach God?’ We can commend Jesus with confidence.
For ‘he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.’
So, finally, back to tomorrow’s conversation with that friend, colleague, or family member: What was church all this evening? It wasn’t all about Melchizedek after all, was it? It was all about Jesus. Now that’s a conversation that might just lead somewhere.