Hebrews 7:1–10 . . .
“Who Was and Is Melchizedek?”
Switching imagery again, from the inner sanctuary's holy of holies and its curtain, the author now returns to his discussion of Melchizedek's priesthood, which he'd mentioned in 5:6, and 10. Christ’s role as Great High Priest was evidently an issue or stumbling block for his audience. In order to prove the superiority of Christ’s priestly ministry, the author will compare him to Melchizedek and the Levitical priests, thereafter showing his superior service. The first point is that Melchizedek was a prototype of Christ (v. 1).
While Melchizedek was an exalted person — a king and a priest — the author was more interested in his priesthood, which he'll develop in vv. 2, 4–10. His superiority over Abraham is shown by the fact that Abraham offered tithes to him (v. 2). His lack of genealogy (v. 3) was suggestive of Christ’s eternal existence and continuing priesthood. Melchizedek’s greatness is expounded on in the remaining verses of today's passage, wherein we see and appreciate Abraham's response to Melchizedek and its implications.
This chapter begins a long, connected study of Melchizedek, whom the author had spoken of earlier in chpt. 5. The explanation that starts here will run through the early verses of chpt. 10, covering several other topics along the way. Over all, the point is that Jesus Christ, as the Great High Priest, is superior to Abraham and the Old Testament priests. The text develops, leading us to conclude: Melchizedek was a prototype of Christ; his priesthood was vastly superior to that of Aaron and his descendants.
A Man of Significant Title (7:1–3)
The opening references to Melchizedek confirm the importance of Jesus' priestly intercession during the people’s long journey to their promised land. But we’ve already been told that Christ’s current appointment as high priest in Melchizedek's priesthood is "hard to make clear" (5:11). Nevertheless, let our study make this clear.
Verse 1 links the author’s declarations to events recorded in Genesis 14:14–24 regarding the highly titled Melchizedek that proclaim him as "priest of the God Most High" (v. 18). Melchizedek is the figure who met with Abraham after rescuing his nephew Lot and family. In that encounter, Melchizedek gave Abraham a blessing along with bread and wine while Abraham honored Melchizedek with a tithe. Interestingly, the wicked king of Sodom, with whom Abraham refused to trade, was also at this meeting. The story proved Abraham's willingness to honor God while rejecting wickedness, whatever the cost.
Melchizedek the Priest
7 1This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, 2and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” 3Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever (7:1–3).
In the Bible, the names that people are given almost always carry heavy theological weight, especially in salvation's plot-line, since people’s names [and places] often act as theological markers in Scripture. The first point of emphasis here is Melchizedek's titles: He was "king of Salem" and "priest of God Most High" (v. 1). We need to appreciate how very significant were these two titles. Their meaning pointed to the Messiah.
Pastor/teacher/elder Bob Deffinbaugh writes this about this great man's titles: "Melchizedek is a compound word that comes from two Hebrew words; the first means 'king' while the second means 'righteousness.' And thus the author rightly indicates that Melchizedek means 'king of righteousness.' Next, we are told that Melchizedek was 'king of Salem' meaning 'the king of Peace.' . . . But in addition to this, we should recognize that Messiah, in Isaiah 9:6, is identified as the 'Prince of Peace.'”
What little we're told about Melchizedek’s biblical biography in vv. 1–2 demonstrates that he's a prefiguration of Father God’s Son. What Scripture doesn’t mention — his genealogy — alludes to Melchizedek's resemblance to the Son (v. 3). The author portrays Scripture’s silence as a sign of Melchizedek’s divine nature, thereby resembling Jesus' eternal Sonship.
The Greek phrase used here is a figure of speech "without father or mother or genealogy," wasn't meant to be taken literally. The writer simply implied that Melchizedek's lineage was unknown: he was agenealogētos, which suggested a person of unknown or obscure birth. This point is used symbolically by the author to parallel Jesus Christ and his eternity. This relates to the nature of the priesthood: Human priests come and go — they're born, they age, they die; their priesthood cannot continue forever. Melchizedek, who had no recorded beginning or end, serves as a metaphor for the priesthood that God promised: one without end; a priesthood that lasts forever. The point is, Jesus’ priesthood, like Melchizedek’s, was based solely on the call of God, not on heredity. Jesus and Melchizedek were both appointed as "priests of God Most High."
The Lesser Is Blessed by the Greater (vv. 4–10)
Regardless of the minor role he performs in Scripture’s ancestral portrayal, Melchizedek must be counted as "great" (v. 4) if his appearance in Scripture is associated with Christ! We'll now learn and appreciate the nature of this king and priest's greatness.
4Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! 5Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people — that is, from their fellow Israelites — even though they also are descended from Abraham. 6This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater. 8In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. 9One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, 10because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor (7:4–10).
Verse 4 reiterates the main point of today's text. Abraham recognized that Melchizedek was greater, as shown by Abraham's giving Melchizedek a tithe. As great as Abraham was, and as uniquely positioned as he was by God, he knew that this king-priest (Gen. 14:18) was someone he was obligated to honor in a submissive capacity. This begins a somewhat complex point the author has made over the remaining verses.
In vv. 5–10, we find the logical proof of Melchizedek’s greatness, which is explained by two acts: Abraham’s tithe and Melchizedek’s blessing. According to God’s law, the tithe given to priests from the tribe of Levi is compared to Abraham's tithe given to Melchizedek. This implies that the Melchizedekian priesthood is better than, greater than, and superior to the Levitical priesthood. Melchizedek's greatness, when compared to Aaron the Levite's greatness, is only strengthened by his second act: his blessing of Abraham, Israel's first patriarch. Herein we ought to see again the same pecking order: "And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater" (v. 7). See where else in "Hebrews" the word "greater" has been used.
Clearly, the author intended to prove that Melchizedek was "greater" than Abraham, since Abraham paid Melchizedek a tithe (v. 4). By extension, he was also a greater figure than the priests of the nation of Israel. Melchizedek received a tithe from Abraham, although Melchizedek came long before the Levitical priesthood and wasn't part of Abraham's family. This proves that Abraham was the lesser figure, and he was well aware of it. The priests of the Old Covenant also received tithes, but they did so from their fellow Israelites (v. 5), which was done under the priesthood of Aaron. Verse 6 continues this point that the tithe that Melchizedek received was more important than the tithes collected by the Levitical priests.
To capsulize the meaning and impact of these remaining verses, Pastor Deffinbaugh adds this: "So, our author wishes us to view Melchizedek as a kind of literary prototype of Messiah. Both were king and priest. Both appeared to have an eternal priesthood. Both were characterized by peace and righteousness. Both will carry out their ministry from Jerusalem. Now, the author wishes to draw some conclusions from Abram’s response to Melchizedek, as recorded in Gen. 14.
The author now focuses on Abraham’s response to Melchizedek. Specifically, he wishes to dwell on the fact that Abraham offered a tithe of the spoils to Melchizedek. He does not do this as a fund-raising device; he does this because of what his tithe revealed about the relationship of these two men. He does this to prove that Melchizedek and Jesus are vastly superior to Abraham and his future offspring, Aaron."
Verses 9 and 10 aim to make a clear yet symbolic point. In particular, v. 9 explicitly uses the Greek phrase hōs epos eipein, which literally mean "so to speak." The tithe, which was given by the lesser to the greater, was used to show beyond doubt that the Melchizedekian priesthood, as mentioned in prior verses, was greater than the Aaronic priesthood. This also establishes that Melchizedek was a greater figure than Abraham, since Abraham paid him a tithe. According to this logic, Abraham's tithe to him was even more important than the one collected by the priests from their fellow Israelites.
In v. 10, the author again uses a figure of speech to convey his closing concept. Like every priest who descended from him, Levi was figuratively "still in the body of his ancestor," Abraham, when Abraham honored Melchizedek with a tithe. In that sense, even the Levitical priests of Aaron's family could be said to have offered a tithe to a greater figure. Our author seems to reason that Aaron was in "Abraham’s loins" when he tithed to Melchizedek. Accordingly, Abraham and Aaron tithed Melchizedek, thereby acknowledging his superiority to them. Abraham, the lesser, was blessed by Melchizedek, the greater; and Abraham, the lesser, tithed Melchizedek, the greater. Finally, we'll see that the priesthood of Jesus — in the order of Melchizedek — is greater than that of Aaron.
Pastor Ray C Stedman wrote this about vv. 4–10: "This focus on Melchizedek in Hebrews was intended to bring out the deep-rooted superiority of the priesthood of Jesus over that of the Aaronic priesthood, who were Levi's descendants and had ministered in the tabernacle and temple throughout Jewish history. These verses argue this superiority further, that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, the great-grandfather of Levi, for four reasons:
1. Though the Levitical priests also received tithes from their Israelite brethren, their descent from Abraham marked their priesthood as less important than that of the one to whom Abraham tithed, namely Melchizedek (vv. 5–6).
2. Abraham was blessed by Melchizedek at the time of their encounter, as the lesser is normally blessed by the greater (v. 7).
3. All Levitical priests will die. But, as Psalm 110:4 states, the One who ministers in the order of Melchizedek lives forever (v. 8).
4. In some genetic sense, Levi, great-grandson of Abraham, actually also paid tithes to Melchizedek, since he was at the time a part of Abraham's reproductive system, which would produce Isaac, then Jacob and, ultimately, Levi (vv. 9–10). This line of argument may seem strange to our Western, individualistic mentality, but it reflects the more accurate realization of the links between generations, and the fact that we are governed more by our ancestry than we often believe."
At the time of the writing of this epistle to the Hebrews, more than 1,000 years had passed since David's declaration in Psalm 110:4. Because of this, the writer began to give more detail of Melchizedek and reveal how this historical Old Testament individual validates the priesthood of Jesus.
In conclusion, let's review the progression in the author's logic: Melchizedek was shown to be greater than Abraham in order to document that Melchizedek was greater than Levi, and in turn, greater than Aaron from whose lineage came the Levitical priests. From this line of logic, one can then deduce this: If Melchizedek is greater than Aaron, then Melchizedek's priesthood must also be greater than Aaron's priesthood. And in the final analysis, Messiah’s priesthood, since it was of the order of Melchizedek, must be greater than the Aaronic priesthood. For this reason, the dull of hearing (5:11) weren't ready for the author's line of logic.
Our author has shown us that the priesthood of Jesus is greater than the priesthood of Aaron because Melchizedek (God's scriptural example) blessed Abraham who was Aaron’s forefather, and because Abraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek. This summarizes the author's argument about Abraham and Melchizedek, setting up his next point about the priesthood held by Jesus Christ. It will answer the question raised in 7:11b: "Why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?" We'll answer that question in next week's study of 7:11–22.
- Q. 1 How did your understanding of Melchizedek expand after reading this commentary?
- Q. 2 How would you describe him to a believer? . . . To a nonbeliever?
- Q. 3 What's important about Melchizedek being "like the Son of God he remains a priest forever" (v. 3b)?
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— Listen to chapter 7, narrated by Max McLean.