1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him; 2 and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. 3 He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he abides a priest continually. 4 See how great he is! Abraham the patriarch gave him a tithe of the spoils. 5 And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brethren, though these also are descended from Abraham. 6 But this man who has not their genealogy received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. 8 Here tithes are received by mortal men; there, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. 9 One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, 10 for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. 11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for on it people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. 13 For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 This becomes more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, 16 who has become a priest, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is witnessed of him, “Thou are a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 18 On the one hand, a former commandment is declared invalid because of its weakness and uselessness 19 (for the law made nothing perfect), on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God
Psalm 110 is a psalm of David, and is considered to be one of the “messianic psalms,” psalms that speak of the coming Messiah, or anointed one (Christos in Greek, Christ, in English), that has been promised by God and will come through the line of David. Many of the messianic texts in the Old Testament speak of the Messiah as a king or ruler, who would bring salvation and righteousness to His people and sit on the David’s throne.
In this psalm, however, there is an unusual statement made by God to His Messiah in verse 4. This verse has already been quoted in Hebrews more than once: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.’” How was the Messiah to be a king from the line of David and yet also be a priest? This is the question to which our author now turns.
In the previous section to the one we are looking at today, the author focused on the significance of God adding an oath to His promises. In 6:11-12, he encouraged his readers to realize their “full assurance of hope to the end” by imitating those who “through faith and patience inherit the promises.” He then spoke of how God fed Abraham’s faith by swearing by Himself, since there is none higher by whom God can swear. When he turns to speak of God’s word of promise to them (and to us) he calls them “the heirs of the promise.” And he says that God wanted to feed their faith, as He had Abraham’s, by interposing an oath.
From the context, the author seems to be referring to this very verse in Psalm 110. When God promised His Messiah that he would be a priest forever and in the order of Melchizedek, it was founded on an oath that the Lord has sworn. And God does this, according to the author of Hebrews, so that we will know how faithful and sure He is to bring about the great salvation He has promised through His messiah. God staked his whole reputation on the fulfillment of this promise. He backed up his promise with all that he was, with his entire being, summed up in his own name.
Now the author turns His attention to the actual content of this line, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” In what way is the Messiah to be a priest? How is the order of Melchizedek connected to the priestly order of the tribe of Levi in Israel? Levi was the one who God appointed, along with his descendents, to hold the priestly office. If the Messiah is to fulfill somehow the priestly office, shouldn’t he be descended from Levi?
I know that these issues might seem a bit abstract and removed from our concerns today. But they are actually important and it is wonderful for our faith to see how the author very carefully reveals and explains how ALL of the Old Testament, God’s entire dealings with Israel, are brought to completion and fulfillment in His Son, Jesus, through whom God has spoken to us in these last days (1:1-4).
The readers of this letter, primarily of Jewish descent, were tempted to continue to practice the sacrificial system they knew from the Torah. Yes, they trusted that Jesus was the Messiah, but they were not completely sure all of what this meant. What all are we trusting Jesus for? What effect, if any, does following Jesus have on all that we have known and observed in our lives up until this point?
The author of this letter has already spoken several times of Jesus as our great and merciful high priest. He has alluded to the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and of the high priest’s calling to enter the Holy of Holies, into God’s presence, to mediate between God and man. In the section previous to this one, the author states that his readers now have a hope: a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek (6:19b-20). Clearly the author indicates here that Jesus fulfills the Day of Atonement and the office of the priesthood, “having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”
In order to show the connection between Jesus and Melchizedek, our author begins by referring to the time in Israel’s history, when Melchizedek “shows up” so to speak, recorded in the fourteenth chapter of Genesis. This is the only other time Melchizedek is mentioned in the Old Testament besides the already quoted reference to Psalm 110. Abram (this incident occurs before God changes his name to Abraham) is returning from rescuing his nephew, Lot, who was taken by his enemies, as part of the spoils of war.
Starting at v. 18, the text says, “Then 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 praise be to God Most High,
Who delivered your enemies into your hand’
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”
This is all that is said about Melchizedek. He suddenly appears on the scene and just as suddenly disappears. No other details about him are given. And then, interestingly enough, this mysterious figure is spoken of in the messianic psalm of David.
So let’s look at what the author tells his readers here about Melchizedek. First of all, he is a priest-king, something that was otherwise unknown in the history of Israel. These two offices were kept strictly separated. In fact, this is why the author is taking all of this time in his description of Jesus as our high priest. The question he is addressing for his readers is, “How could Jesus go behind the veil into the Holy of Holies if He was not a priest?”
The author demonstrates that in the account of Melchizedek, we find that he is ‘a fitting type of Christ’ (F.F. Bruce). His office and life foreshadow Christ’s coming and are fulfilled in Jesus’ high priesthood. His name and title tell us that he is king of righteousness and peace. He is presented without genealogy, and without reference to his birth or death, so having “neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he abides a priest continually.” We see how all that is said in this brief account (and what is not said) serve as signs that point to Jesus.
The author has already demonstrated the superiority of Jesus to angels and Moses. Now he turns his attention to Jesus’ superiority over and fulfillment of the Levitical priesthood. God had prepared for the high priesthood of Jesus before Levi was ever born!
After describing Melchizedek, the author argues for the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood. First of all, he blesses Abram and secondly Abram gives him a tenth of his goods as a tithe. Abram, the father of the nation of Israel, both receives the blessing and honors Melchizedek with a tithe. So Abram clearly recognizes Melchizeked as his superior. So, we must also, the logic goes.
But not only does Abram pay tithes to Melchizedek, there is a sense in which Levi himself, and all of his line, do as well. Abraham was the great-grandfather of Levi, so our author concludes, “One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.”
Having established the superiority of the priesthood of Melchizedek to the priesthood of Levi, the author now goes on to speak of how Jesus’ priesthood both supersedes and replaces Levi’s.
You’ll notice that our author connects the Levitical priesthood with the law. This is because they were connected together from the beginning. The Aaronic or Levitical priesthood was established by God through Moses. Aaron was Moses’ brother, who served with him through the plagues, the Exodus, and the wandering in the wilderness. God established the priesthood through his son, Levi. The law was originally given to support the priesthood (v.11). In establishing the priesthood, the tabernacle, and the sacrificial system, God graciously provides the way for Israel to be His people, to live out of a real relationship with the God who has come to dwell with them. The Mosaic law was given at the same time as the cultic system and was given to help the Israelites to live by faith in God within this relationship they enjoyed as a people.
This is why the author indicates in verse 12 that if a change in the priesthood has had to take place, then that means a change in the law. And there has been a change in the priesthood because Jesus is not descended from Levi, but Judah “and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” Jesus is a high priest that has arisen “in the likeness of Melchizedek", in fulfillment of the promise made by God to His Messiah in Psalm 110.
But unlike the Levitical priests, who received their office through descent, Jesus does not become a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” because he can trace His ancestry back to the king-priest of Salem. Instead, the author asserts, Jesus has become our great high priest, “by the power of an indestructible life.” Interesting phrase, isn’t it? Clearly the author is referring to Jesus overcoming death by His resurrection and ascension. It is because of who He is: the eternal Son, God Himself, and what He has done: becoming like us in every way, suffering death so as to taste death for everyone, that He has become a priest after the order of Melchizedek. Jesus is not only our great high priest, He is the messiah, the one who now reigns on the throne of David. He is the fulfillment of the king-priest, bringing together and fulfilling both of these offices in one person, Jesus the Son of God.
But why did there need to be a change in the priesthood and the law? What was it that Jesus was doing that would mean an end to what had come before? This is what the author begins to discuss in this passage, but continues to unfold in the following passages. The reason given here in v. 11, which everything else is developed from, is “if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood … what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek?”
The Greek word here translated perfection is teleiosis. It means completion, maturity—for something or someone to reach the fullness of their intended end or goal. This perfection or completion cannot be reached through the cultic system and the law that God had given the Israelites through Moses. If it could be, then there would not be the change that has been brought about by Jesus.
Before we go on, I think we need to take a moment to consider what perfection is. Often we think of this work primarily in terms of performance, as in doing a perfect job on a test or a task. In the Christian life, we are often tempted to think of moral perfection. To be perfect is to always behave in the right way.
But the Biblical understanding of perfection is greater than this. What has the author of Hebrews already told us about the goal or end that God has for us? We are to be crowned with glory and honor (2:7), brought as children to glory (2:10), brothers and sisters of Jesus (2:11b-12), delivered from the fear of death (2:15), share in a heavenly call (3:1), given a rest from God to enter into (4:11), and able to draw confidently to the very throne of grace for grace and mercy (4:16). To reach perfection Biblically is to live fully and completely in the relationship with God that He created us for.
And this perfect relationship could not be attained through the Levitical priesthood and the law. The author isn’t saying this as a negative criticism of these things. The kind of perfection God always had in mind, that of making us His true children—able to live in Him and He is us, was never meant to be attained through the cultic system and the Mosaic law. They were both signs, preparations that pointed to and were fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. Remember that the author begins this letter talking about the new thing God is doing in “these last days”, having spoken to us by His Son.
With the coming of Jesus, the former commandment has been fulfilled and so is declared invalid or set aside because it is weak and useless. The word that is here translated “useless” means ineffectual. It cannot, in other words, bring about our perfection as God’s children. But in is place, God has introduced, in and through Jesus, a better hope “through which we draw near to God.” God’s intention of relationship, to draw near to us and to draw us near to Himself, is now fulfilled in Jesus!
In the following passages, our author continues to brilliantly expound on what the fulfillment means and how it has come about.