NOTES on Hebrews
7:1-10 (click here for study)
Hebrews 6 ends with the wonderful promise that we have our hope anchored "firm and secure" "behind the curtain", where Jesus has gone on our behalf. "He has become a high priest forever in the order of Mechizedek." (v. 20)
Hebrews 7 begins an in-depth discussion of Jesus being a priest in the order of Melchizedek. According to Genesis 14:18, Melchizedek was king of Salem, and his story intersects Abraham's as Abraham returns from a battle.
Nine kings, including the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, were fighting each other after years of uneasiness between them. Four kings fought the other five, and the four kings prevailed. The five kings, including the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, fled, and the four kings scooped up all the goods from those cities. During the raid, the kings carried away Lot and all his belongings, because he was living in Sodom.
An escaped prisoner ran and told Abram that his nephew had been captured. Abram immediately mustered the 318 men trained for battle who lived in his household. They pursued the conquering kings, and they defeated them, retrieving Lot and his goods in the process.
When Abram returned from battle, "Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, 'Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.' Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything." (Gen. 14:18-20)
Salem was an ancient city that later became the city of Jerusalem. Melchizedek, it is thought, was priest/king of Salem in the tradition of early pagan priest/kings, but Melchizedek, apparently, had become a follower of the true God. He was unrelated to Abram, and nothing is said about his parentage or heredity. He is unique in that nothing is known of his life and he's not associated with God's chosen people, yet we know Abraham recognizes him as a spiritual leader because he pays tithe to him.
Melchizedek Priesthood Foretold
In 1000 BC, David conquered the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites. By conquering the city, David and his descendants became inheritors of the royal line of priest/kings who had descended from Melchizedek and who had ruled Jerusalem. David and his sons became the representatives of the rule of God and even assumed some authority over the priests and Levites, although they couldn't perform the duties of the high priests.
After David's victory over Jerusalem, he wrote Psalm 110 which is one of many Messianic prophecies in the Psalms. Psalm 110:4 says, "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: 'You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek." This verse acknowledges David's new role as king over Jerusalem and the inheritor of Melchizedek's priestly role as leader of that city. But it is more than a statement about David. It's a prophecy about David's descendants and an affirmation of God's promise to David that his descendants would sit a throne forever. This verse finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, the Son of David, who is the eternal king and a high "priest forever in the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 7:17, 21)
Midway between God's covenant with Abraham and its fulfillment in Jesus, God reaffirms that covenant by a promise to David, assuring him that the eternal priest/king would descend from him, a member of the decidedly non-priestly tribe of Judah.
In 519 BC, Zechariah was a prophet in Israel. The nation had returned from its exile in Babylon, and Zechariah was trying to encourage the Israelites to continue rebuilding the temple, the center of their society, the symbol of their covenant with God, and the seat of God's presence.
Zechariah received a vision that, for the first time, literally linked the priesthood with a royal coronation. In Zech. 6:9-15 he recounts his vision. The word of the Lord told him to take silver from three recently returned exiles and to make a crown from it. The Hebrew word for "crown" in this passage does not refer to the high priest's turban. It is a word for a crown of royalty.
Zechariah was to take the crown he fashioned and place it on the head of the high priest Joshua, and he was to tell Joshua: "This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. He it is who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.' "
This event is the first time in scripture that the high priest is also given the role of king. This priest's name, Joshua, is the Hebrew word for Jesus, and this priest foreshadows the royal priesthood of Jesus. Jesus did indeed "build the temple of the Lord"-he built the church, the living temple of God.
Jesus ultimately would be a priest/king in the order of Melchizedek. He would be unique. His parentage would be questioned. He would be eternal. And he would be greater than all the patriarchs.
Greater Than the Priests
The Israelite priests descended from Aaron of the tribe of Levi (Exodus 4:14). The rest of the tribe of Levi God gave to Aaron to serve the temple. The Levites were not originally to do the work of priests; they were to take care of tending the sanctuary and moving it when the nation had to move. (In later years, though, including the time of David's reign, Levites did perform some of the priest's duties.) One of their duties was to pitch their tents in areas that completely surrounded the tabernacle and provided a buffer between the people of Israel and the presence of God.
The Levites served an interesting symbolic function. God declared that all firstborn in the camp of Israel belonged to him, including the firstborn male livestock. When he killed the firstborn in Egypt, he declared in Numbers 3:13, he set apart every firstborn as his own. Instead of demanding that every Israelite woman's firstborn son should be given to God, however, he provided a way to redeem them. The Levites would be the symbolic firstborn.
"The Lord also said to Moses, 'I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine.' " (Numbers 3:11-13a)
The pagan nations around Israel sacrificed their firstborn children to Molech. God said something that seemed familiar to the Israelites who had so recently been slaves in a pagan nation. He declared that he claimed all firstborn for himself. They belonged to him. But he did not require their death. He did not even require them directly. He required their redemption, and those who redeemed them were to serve God all their lives.
The Levites were the symbolic firstborn, and as such they prefigured Christ. When Jesus was born, he was Mary's firstborn. (Luke 2:6,7)
In Romans 8:29 Paul also calls Jesus the firstborn: "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers."
In Colossians Paul elaborates further on Jesus' role as firstborn. "And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy." (Col 1:18)
And Hebrews 1:6 says, "And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, 'Let all God's angels worship him' "
As the firstborn, Jesus has supremacy over all creation. The angels worship him. He is the firstborn from the dead, assuring us that we, too, will have new life and will be resurrected. He is the firstborn among the living. He established the church; we who believe in him are his brothers and sisters, and through him we are brothers and sisters with each other as well.
Jesus is the beginning of all; he is the Creator, the Savior, the One who formed the church, the King, the eternal High Priest. He is the firstborn, the one whom God claims, and he is also the Redeemer who takes the place of those whose death God's law required.
While the Levites played an important role in the temple service of Israel, they played an even more important role as a shadow of Christ. They redeemed the Israelite firstborn, taking their place as a living sacrifice to God. They also shielded the Israelites from God's consuming glory by pitching their tents between the tabernacle and the camp of Israel. (Numbers 3:21-37) Their mediating position reflects Jesus' pre-Calvary protection of Israel; he himself shielded sinful people from God's glory, preserving them from death. His protective role was represented by the curtain veiling the Most Holy from all but the high priest. (Hebrews 10:20)
Greater than Levi
The author of Hebrews continues by demonstrating how Melchizedek was greater than Aaron and the Levites. He begins by recounting that the Levites who are priests are expected to collect tithes from their own brothers, their fellow Israelites. Even though their brothers are the chosen people, they still had to pay tithe to the Levites. Tithe was the Levites' inheritance. While the rest of Israel received their share of the land, the Levites had no land. Instead, Israel acknowledged the Levites' service to the nation by paying one-tenth of their income to support the priests and temple staff.
Melchizedek, however, was not a descendant of Levi. His calling was higher than a tribal inheritance. He was a priest BEFORE Levi was even born, and as a priest, he collected tithe from Abraham and blessed him. In a symbolic sense, verse 9 points out, Levi the tithe collector even paid tithe to Melchizedek because he was "still in the body of his ancestor."
Hebrews 7:7 points out that he who blesses someone has greater standing than he who receives the blessing. By blessing Abraham, Melchizedek was asserting his authority even over Abraham, the man of God's promise, the father of Israel's patriarchs.
The priesthood of Melchizedek is in every way superior to that of Aaron and the Levites. Melchizedek foreshadows Jesus. Jesus was not from the tribe of Levi. He became a priest by the sovereign appointment of God. The Levites became priests because of their physical inheritance. Jesus became a priest because of God's choice.
The Levites are dead. Their authority perished with them. Jesus, however, is alive. Descended from the tribe of Judah, not of Levi, Jesus has replaced the levitical priesthood with an eternal, living, once-for-all priesthood. He did not achieve his authority because of his birth. He received it as an act of God.
Jesus is greater than all the shadows that pointed to him. He is greater than the Levites. He is greater than Aaron and his sons. He is greater than Abraham. Jesus is God, and all of us are called to worship him.
God's Call to Us
God calls our allegiance away from every system of religion. No matter how pious, religion that depends upon tradition for its definition is a religion of works, not faith. The rituals of the Old Covenant temple service were in place so God's people would be reminded regularly that they were sinful in the eyes of God. The priests and sacrifices reminded them that a Redeemer was coming, that God would save them from sin and death and would give them peace and eternal life with Him.
Even though the Israelites' religious services were highly ritualized, the rituals were not the important element of their worship. Unless each Israelite acted from an internal confidence that the coming Redeemer would save and love him, the sacrifices and feasts had no meaning for him or her. Even for Israel, tradition did not define religion. Faith did.
Over and over Israel abandoned faith and amalgamated their worship with rituals from pagan religions. The problem with their apostasy was not that they were blurring the lines between pagan rituals and God's rituals. The problem was that they were abandoning faith in the God who had already saved them from slavery. He had already demonstrated his continuous presence in their midst. Apostate Israel was deciding for themselves how they wanted to worship. They picked and chose the rituals-pagan or Jewish-that they wanted to observe and created a religion based on their own rationalizing.
No longer was Israel worshiping God, even when they performed the traditional temple ceremonies. They were worshiping themselves by creating their own rules for worship. They abandoned faith in God and put it in themselves instead.
When Israel was apostatizing, they were observing a religion of works, not of faith.
Today we are not looking for our promised Redeemer; He has come! In Jesus we see the exact revelation of God. In him we have "everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness." (2 Peter 1:3)
Today we have a living Savior. Jesus has fulfilled every ritual and feast the Israelites celebrated. Today we worship by faith not in a coming Redeemer but in a risen and returning Redeemer. Because Jesus has come, our faith is based on more concrete understanding than was the Israelites'. Because Jesus has defeated sin and has restored us to intimacy with him through the indwelling Holy Spirit, we base our faith not just on promises but on the reality of Jesus. The word of God reveals the historic reality of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit confirms his love and sacrifice in our hearts.
The Hebrews who received this epistle were in much the same situation many of us are in. They had left the Old Covenant rituals in order to embrace the new reality that their Messiah was alive. The old ceremonies and observances no longer had any meaning because the reality to which they pointed, Jesus, had come and completed his mission of salvation. They were tempted, however, to continue observing many of those rituals because they were steeped in a tradition that declared the rituals to be the sign of obeying God. After all, God had given them those rituals, and an unchanging God would not retract his commands-would he?
Like many of us, the Hebrews were being tempted to miss the point. God was not retracting the Old Covenant symbols; he was giving his people a new reality that was the natural progression from the Old Covenant. Since Jesus had come, the reality of a Redeemer could be celebrated as an accomplished fact, not just as an act of faith. The old ceremonies and days and washings and offerings all kept Israel's eyes on their coming Messiah. For us to cling to those things today is to deny that our Messiah has come!
God calls us to look at Jesus and worship only him. He calls us to be willing to walk away from our traditions for his sake. God wants all of our hearts, and he wants to define for us how we worship him. He's asking us to set aside all our ideas of what rituals and observances we think we must do in order to "do the right thing". If we look at Jesus and allow his love to change our hearts, he will clearly show us how to honor him.
Jesus is alive, and he's eternally in the presence of the Father. He's also eternally with us when we accept him. Through Christ we are one with God and one with each other. The Holy Spirit brings that reality home to our hearts, and when we experience that new birth, we can never be the same again.
Accept Jesus' call to you. Give him all your rationalizing and interpretations of scripture. Let the Holy Spirit shed light in your heart and show you truth. Let Jesus give you his peace and rest in place of your arrogance. Let God sweep away your pride in a flood of his love.
Give Jesus your attachment to religion. Let him replace your traditions and beliefs with himself. Let him reveal himself to you through his word.
Let Jesus, your eternal High Priest, fill your heart and mind with the limitless love of God.
"May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it." (1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24)
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised February 15, 2001.