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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Hebrews 7

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-28

Chapter 7

A PRIEST AFTER THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK (Hebrews 7:1-28)

We come now to a passage of such paramount importance for the writer to the Hebrews and in itself so difficult to understand that we must deal with it in a special way. Hebrews 6:1-20, (Hebrews 6:20), ended with the statement that Jesus had been made a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. This priesthood after the order of Melchizedek is the most characteristic thought of Hebrews. Behind it lie ways of thinking and of arguing and of using scripture which are quite strange to us and which we must yet try to understand. It will be best first to collect together all that the writer to the Hebrews has to say about the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek and to read that as a whole before we divide it into shorter passages to study in detail. We shall then try to understand what the writer to the Hebrews was getting at before we study this chapter in detail.

So then, we first collect the passages which deal with this idea. The first is Hebrews 5:1-10.

7:1-28 Every high priest who is chosen from among men, is appointed on men's behalf to deal with the things which concern God. His task is to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins, in that he himself is able to feel gently to the ignorant and to the wandering, because he himself wears the garment of human weakness. By reason of this very weakness it is incumbent upon him, just as he makes sacrifice for the people, so to make sacrifice for sins on his own behalf also. No one takes this honourable position to himself, but he is called by God to it, just as Aaron was. So it was not Christ who gave himself the glory of becoming high priest; but it was he who said to him:

"You are my beloved Son; today I have begotten you." "You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek."

In the days when he lived this human life of ours, he offered prayers and entreaties to him who was able to bring him safely through death, with strong crying and with tears. And when he had been heard because of his reverence, although he was a Son he teamed obedience from the sufferings through which he passed. When he had been made fully fit for his appointed task, he became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him, for he had been designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

The second passage, which deals with this idea is the whole of Hebrews 7:1-28. So then, first, let us set it down as a whole, remembering that the last verse of Hebrews 6:1-20 has already said that Jesus had become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.

Now this Melchizedek was King of Salem and priest of the most high God. He met Abraham when he was returning from the smiting of the kings and blessed him and set apart for him a tenth part of the spoils. In the first place, the interpretation of his own name means King of Righteousness and, in the second place, King of Salem means King of Peace. His father is never mentioned nor his mother; nor is there any record of his descent; there is no mention of the beginning of his days, nor any of the end of his life; he is exactly like the Son of God; and he remains a priest for ever.

Just see how great this man was--Abraham gave him the tenth part of the spoils of victory--and Abraham was no less than the founder of our nation. Now look at the difference--when the sons of Levi receive their priesthood, they receive an injunction laid down by the law to exact tithes from the people. That i& to say, they exact tithes from their own brothers, even although they are descendants of Abraham. But this man, whose descent is not traced from them at all, exacted tithes from Abraham and actually blessed the man who had received the promises. Beyond all argument, the lesser is blessed by the greater. Just so, in the one instance, it is a case of men who die receiving tithes; but in this instance it is the case of a man whom the evidence proves to live. Still further--if I may put it this way--through Abraham, Levi, too, the very man who receives the tithes, had tithes exacted from him, for he was in his father's body when Melchizedek met him.

If then the desired effect could have been achieved by the Levitical priesthood--for it was on the basis of that priesthood that the people became a people of the law--what further need was there to set up another priest and to call him a priest after the order of Melchizedek, and not to call him a priest after the order of Aaron? Once the priesthood was altered, of necessity there follows an alteration of the law too, for the person of whom the statements are made belongs to another tribe altogether, from which no one ever served at the altar. It is obvious that it was from Judah that our Lord sprang and, with regard to that tribe, Moses said nothing about priests. And certain things are still more abundantly clear--if a different priest is set up, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, a priest who became so, not according to the law of a mere human injunction but according to the power of a life that is indestructible--for the witness of scripture in regard to this is: "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek"--if all that is so, two things emerge. On the one hand there emerges the cancellation of the previous injunction because of its own weakness and uselessness (for the law never achieved the effect which it was designed to produce) and, on the other hand, them emerges the introduction of a better hope through which we can come near to God.

And inasmuch as it happened with an oath--for the Levitical priests are made priests without an oath but he with an oath, because scripture says of him: "The Lord swore and will not repent of it, 'You are a priest forever'"--in so far Jesus has become the surety of a better covenant. Further, of the Levitical priests more and more were made priests because they were prevented from continuing permanently by death, whereas he has a priesthood which will never pass away because he remains for ever. For that very reason it is in every possible way and for all time that he, who is for ever alive, can save those who come to God through him.

We needed such a high priest--one who is holy, one who has never hurt any man, one who is stainless, one who is different from sinners, one who has become higher than the heavens. He does not need, as the high priests do, daily first to offer sacrifices for his own sins and then thereafter for the sins of the people. For he did this once and for all when he offered himself. For the law appointed as high priests men subject to weakness; but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appointed one who is a Son who is fully equipped to carry out his office for ever.

These are the passages in which the writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus as a priest after the order of Melchizedek. Now let us see just what he is trying to say when he uses that conception.

We must begin by understanding the general position from which he starts. He starts with the basic idea that religion is access to God. It was to make that access to God possible that two things existed. First, the law. The basic idea of the law is that so long as a man faithfully observes its commandments he is in a position of friendship with God and the door to his presence is open to him. But men cannot keep the law and therefore their fellowship with God and their access to his presence are interrupted. It was exactly to deal with that situation of estrangement that the second thing existed, the priesthood and the whole sacrificial system. The Latin word for priest is pontifex which means a bridge-builder; the priest was a man whose function was to build a bridge between men and God by means of the sacrificial system. A man broke the law; his fellowship with God was interrupted and his access to God was barred; by the offering of the correct sacrifice that breach of the law was atoned for and so the fellowship was restored and the barrier removed.

That was the theory of the matter. But in practice life showed that that was precisely what the priesthood and the sacrificial system could not do. There was no escaping the human estrangement from God which followed sin; and the problem was that not all the efforts of the priesthood and not all the sacrifices could restore that lost relationship. It is therefore the argument of the writer to the Hebrews that what is needed is a new and a different priesthood and a new and effective sacrifice. He sees in Jesus Christ the only High Priest who can open the way to God; and he calls the priesthood of Jesus a priesthood after the order of Melchizedek.

He got that idea from two passages in the Old Testament. The first was Psalms 110:4 where it is written:

"The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, 'You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek'."

The second is Genesis 14:17-20 where the story of the original Melchizedek is told.

And the king of Sodom went out to meet him (Abram) at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God most High. And he blessed him and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, and blessed be God most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!" And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

The writer to the Hebrews is here doing what any skilled Jewish Rabbi might do and following the rabbinic method of interpretation. To understand that method we must understand two things.

(i) To the scholarly Jew any passage of scripture had four meanings to which he gave four different names: (a) First, there was Peshat (compare Hebrew #6584), which is the literal and factual meaning. (b) Second, there was Remaz, which is the suggested meaning. (c) Third, there was Derush (compare Hebrew #1875), which is the meaning arrived at after long and careful investigation. (d) Fourth, there was Sod, which is the allegorical or inner meaning. To the Jew the most important meaning by far was Sod, the inner meaning. He was not nearly so much interested in the factual meaning of a passage as in the allegorical and mystical meaning which could be extracted from it, even although it might have no connection whatever with the literal meaning. It was quite permissible, and in fact the regular practice, to take things right out of their context and read into them meanings which we would consider fantastic and quite unjustified. That is what the writer to the Hebrews is doing here.

(ii) Second, it is essential to note that the Jewish interpreters considered themselves completely justified in arguing not only from the utterances but also from the silences of scripture. An argument could be built, not only on what scripture said but also on what it did not say. In fact the writer to the Hebrews bases his argument in this passage at least as much on what scripture did not say about Melchizedek as on what it did.

Now let us see how the quality of the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek differs from the quality of the ordinary Aaronic priesthood.

(i) Melchizedek has no genealogy; he is without father and without mother (Hebrews 7:3). Note straight away that this is one of the arguments drawn from the silence of scripture which does not provide Melchizedek with any genealogy. This was unusual for two reasons. (a) It is the reverse of the habitual practice of Genesis. Genealogies are a feature of Genesis where long lists of a man's ancestors constantly occur. But Melchizedek arrives on the scene, as it were, from nowhere. (b) Far more important--it is the reverse of the rules which governed the Aaronic priesthood which depended entirely on descent. Under Jewish law a man could not under any circumstances become a priest unless he could produce a certificated pedigree going back to Aaron. Character and ability had nothing to do with it; the one essential was that pedigree. When the Jews came back to Jerusalem from exile certain priestly families could not produce their genealogical records and were therefore debarred from the priesthood for ever (Ezra 2:61-63; Nehemiah 7:63-65). On the other hand, if a man could produce a pedigree reaching back to Aaron, apart only from certain specified physical blemishes nothing on earth could stop him being a priest. Genealogy was literally everything.

So then, the first difference between the two priesthoods was this--the Aaronic priesthood depended on genealogical descent; the priesthood of Melchizedek depended on personal qualification alone. Melchizedek's priesthood was based on what he was, not on what he had inherited. As one scholar puts it--the difference was between a claim based on legality and a claim based on personality.

(ii) Hebrews 7:1-3 collects further qualities about Melchizedek. The name Melchizedek literally means King of righteousness. The word Salem (Hebrew #8004) means peace; therefore he was also King of Peace. We have seen that he has no genealogy. Again the writer to the Hebrews draws on the silence of scripture. We are told of no time when Melchizedek began or ended his priesthood; we are told of no time when he was born or died. Therefore he had no beginning and has no end; and his priesthood lasts for ever.

From this we gather five great qualities in the priesthood of Melchizedek. (a) It is a priesthood of righteousness. (b) It is a priesthood of peace. (c) It is a royal priesthood, for Melchizedek was a king. (d) It is personal and not inherited because he has no genealogy. (e) It is eternal, because he has no birth or death, and his priesthood has no beginning or end.

(iii) Supposing all this to be true, how can it be proved that the priesthood of Melchizedek is superior to the Aaronic? The Hebrews seizes on two points in the Genesis story about Melchizedek.

First, there is the saying that Abraham gave Melchizedek tithes of all. The priests also exact tithes; but there are two differences. The priests tithe their brethren, their fellow Jews; and they tithe them as a result of legal enactment. But Melchizedek tithed Abraham who had no racial connection with him whatsoever and was in fact the founder of the Jewish nation; further, he exacted the tithes not because the law gave him the right to do so but because of an unquestionable personal right. Obviously that set him far above the ordinary priesthood.

Second, there is the saying that Melchizedek blessed Abraham. It is always the superior who blesses the inferior; therefore Melchizedek was superior to Abraham although Abraham was the founder of the Jewish race and the unique recipient of the promises of God. That indeed gives Melchizedek a place than which none could be higher.

A. B. Bruce thus sums up the points in which Melchizedek was superior to the ordinary Levitical priesthood. (a) He tithed Abraham and was therefore superior to him. Abraham was one of the patriarchs; the patriarchs are superior to their descendants; therefore Melchizedek is greater than the descendants of Abraham; the ordinary priests are the descendants of Abraham; therefore Melchizedek is greater than they. (b) Melchizedek is greater than the sons of Levi because they exacted tithes by legal enactment but he did it as a right he personally possessed given to him by no man. (c) The Levites received tithes as mortal men; he received them as one who lives for ever (Hebrews 7:8). (d) Levi, to whom the Israelites paid tithes, may be said to have paid tithes to Melchizedek, because he was Abraham's grandson and was therefore in Abraham's body at the time Abraham paid tithes.

(iv) Hebrews 7:11 onwards shows wherein the superiority of the nets, priesthood lay.

(a) The very fact that a new priesthood was promised (Hebrews 7:11) shows that the old one was inadequate. If the old priesthood had fulfilled the function of bringing men to the presence of God there would have been no need for any other. Further, the introduction of the new priesthood was a revolution. According to the law, all priests must belong to the tribe of Levi; but Jesus was from the tribe of Judah. This shows that the whole old system was superseded. Something greater than the law had come.

(b) The new priesthood was for ever (Hebrews 7:15-19). Under the old system the priests died and there was no permanency; but now there had come a priest who lives for ever.

(c) The new priesthood was introduced by an oath of God Psalms 110:4 says: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind 'You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek'." Clearly God does not swear lightly. He never introduced the ordinary priesthood like that. This was something new.

(d) The new priest offered no sacrifice for himself (Hebrews 7:27). The ordinary priest always had to make sacrifice for his own sin before he could do so for the sins of the people. But Jesus Christ, the new High Priest, was sinless and needed no sacrifice for himself.

(e) The new priest did not need endlessly to repeat sacrifices (Hebrews 7:27). He made the one perfect sacrifice, which never needs to be made again because it has for ever opened the way to the presence of God.

We now sum up briefly the ideas in the mind of the writer to the Hebrews when he thinks of Jesus in terms of the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. To make it clearer we set out only the great salient ideas without the side-lines.

(i) Jesus is the High Priest, whose priesthood depends not on any genealogy but on himself alone.

(ii) Jesus is the High Priest who lives for ever.

(iii) Jesus is the High Priest who himself is sinless and never needs to offer any sacrifice for his own sin.

(iv) Jesus is the High Priest who in the offering of himself made the perfect sacrifice which once and for all opened the way to God. No more sacrifice need be made.

Having seen the general ideas in the mind of the writer to the Hebrews concerning Jesus as a priest after the order of Melchizedek, we now turn to this passage in detail and study it in sections.

The True King And The True Priest (Hebrews 7:1-3)

7:1-3 Now this Melchizedek was King of Salem and priest of the most high God. He met Abraham when he was returning from the smiting of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham set apart for him a tenth part of the spoils. In the first place, the interpretation of his own name means King of Righteousness and, in the second place, King of Salem means King of Peace. His father is never mentioned nor his mother; nor is there any record of his descent; there is no mention of the beginning of his days nor any of the end of his life; he is exactly like the Son of God; and he remains a priest for ever.

As we have seen, the two passages on which the writer to the Hebrews founds his argument are Psalms 110:4 and Genesis 14:18-20. In the old Genesis story Melchizedek is a strange and almost eerie figure. He arrives out of the blue; there is nothing about his life, his birth, his death or his descent. He simply arrives. He gives Abraham bread and wine which to us, reading the passage in the light of what we know, sounds so sacramental. He blesses Abraham. And then he vanishes from the stage of history with the same unexplained suddenness as he arrived. There is little wonder that in the mystery of this story the writer to the Hebrews found a symbol of Christ.

Melchizedek from his name was King of Righteousness and from his realm King of Peace. The order is at once significant and inevitable. Righteousness must always come before peace. Without righteousness there can be no such thing as peace. As Paul has it in Romans 5:1 : "Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God." As he has it again in Romans 14:17 : "The kingdom of God is...righteousness, peace and joy." The order is always the same--first righteousness and then peace.

It may well be said that all life is a search for peace, and also that men persist in looking for it in the wrong place.

(i) Men look for peace in escape. But the trouble about escape is that it is always necessary to return. A. J. Gossip draws a picture of a slatternly woman who lived in a slatternly house. She leaves her home one afternoon and goes to a cinema. For an hour or two she escapes into the glamour and the luxury of the world of the film--and then she must go back home. It is escape all right--but there is the inevitable return. W. M. Macgregor tells of an old woman who lived in a terrible slum in Edinburgh called the Pans. Every now and again she would grow disgusted with the surroundings in which she lived and would make a tour of her friends, extracting a penny or two from each. With the proceeds she would get helplessly drunk. When others remonstrated with her she would answer: "Do you grudge me my one chance to get out of the Pans with a sup of whisky?" Again it was escape--but she, too, had to return. It is always possible to find some kind of peace by the route of escape, but it is never a lasting peace. Dr. Johnson used to insist that a man should have a hobby, for he held that a man should have as many retreats for his mind as possible. But even there there is the necessity to return. Escape is not wrong; sometimes it is necessary if health and sanity are to be preserved; but it is always a palliative and never a cure.

(ii) There is the peace of evasion. Many a man seeks peace by refusing to face his problems--he pushes them into the back of his mind and seeks to draw down the blind on them. There are two things to be said about that. The first is that no one ever solved a problem by refusing to look at it. However much we evade it, it is still there. And problems are like diseases--the longer we refuse to face them the worse they get. We may well come to a stage when the disease is incurable and the problem insoluble. The second thing is maybe even more serious. Psychology tells us that there is a part of the mind which never stops thinking. With our conscious minds we may be evading a problem but our subconscious mind is teasing away at it. The thing is there like a piece of hidden shrapnel in the body; and it can ruin life. So far from bringing peace, evasion is most destructive of peace.

(iii) There is the way of compromise. It is possible to arrive at some kind of peace by arriving at some kind of compromise. It is in fact one of the commonest methods of the world. We can seek peace by toning down some principle or by an uneasy agreement in which neither party is fully satisfied. Kermit Eby says that we may compromise for long enough but the time comes when a man must stand up and be counted if be wants to sleep at nights. Compromise means the loose ends of things unsolved. Compromise, therefore, inevitably means tension, even if a more or less hidden tension; tension inevitably means a gnawing worry; and therefore compromise really is the enemy of peace.

(iv) There is the way of righteousness, or, to put it otherwise, the way of the will o God There is no real peace for any man until he has said: "Thy will be done." But once he has said that, peace floods his soul. It happened even to Jesus. He went into the Garden with a soul under such tension that he sweated blood. In the Garden he accepted God's will and came out at peace. To take the way of righteousness, to accept God's will is to remove the root of dispeace and find the way to lasting peace.

The writer to the Hebrews piles up words to show that Melchizedek has no descent. He does this to contrast the new priesthood of Jesus Christ with the old Aaronic priesthood. A Jew could not be a priest unless he could trace an unbroken descent from Aaron; but if he could trace such a descent nothing could stop him being a priest. If a priest married and his bride-to-be was the daughter of a priest, she must produce her pedigree for four generations back; if she was not the daughter of a priest, she must produce her pedigree for five generations back. It is the odd and almost incredible fact that the whole Jewish priesthood was founded on genealogy. Personal qualities did not enter into it at all. But Jesus Christ was the true priest, not because of what he inherited but because of what he was.

Some of the words Hebrews piles up here are amazing. He says that Jesus was without descent (agenealogetos, Greek #35). That is a word that, so far as we know, no Greek writer ever used before. It may well be that in his eagerness to stress the fact that Jesus' power did not depend on descent, he invented it. It is very likely a new word to describe a new thing. He says that Melchizedek was without father (apator, Greek #540) and without mother (ametor, Greek #282). These words are very interesting. They have certain uses in secular Greek. They are the regular description of waifs and strays and of people of low pedigree. They contemptuously dismiss a man as having no ancestry. More, apator (Greek #540) has a technical legal use in the contemporary Greek of the papyri. It is the word which is used on legal documents, especially on birth certificates, for father unknown and, therefore, illegitimate. So, for instance, there is a papyrus which speaks of--"Chairemon, apator (Greek #540), father unknown, whose mother is Thases." It is amazing that the writer to the Hebrews took words like this to stress his meaning. The Christian writers had a strange way of redeeming words as well as men and women. No phrase seemed too strong to the writer to the Hebrews to insist upon the fact that Jesus' authority was in himself and came from no man.

The Greatness Of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:4-10)

7:4-10 Just see how great this man was--Abraham gave him the tenth of the spoils of victory--and Abraham was no less than the founder of our nation. Now look at the difference--when the sons of Levi receive their priesthood, they receive an injunction laid down by the law to exact tithes from the people. That is to say, they exact tithes from their own brothers, even although they are descendants of Abraham. But this man, whose descent is not traced through them at all, exacted tithes from Abraham and actually blessed the man who had received the promises. Beyond all argument the lesser is blessed by the greater. Just so, in the one instance, it is the case of men who die receiving tithes; but in this instance, it is the case of a man whom the evidence proves to live. Still further, if I may put it this way, through Abraham Levi, too, the very man who receives the tithes, had tithes exacted from him, for he was in his father's body when Melchizedek met him.

The writer to the Hebrews is here concerned to prove the superiority of the Melchizedek priesthood to the ordinary. He proceeds on the matter of tithes, because Abraham had given to Melchizedek a tenth part of the spoils of his victory. The law of tithes is laid down in Numbers 18:20-21. There Aaron is told that the Levites will have no actual territory in the promised land laid down for them but that they are to receive a tenth part of everything for their services in the tabernacle. "And the Lord said to Aaron, 'You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them: I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel. To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they serve, their service in the tent of meeting.'"

So now in a series of contrasts the writer to the Hebrews works out the superiority of Melchizedek over the Levitical priests. He makes five different points. (i) The Levites receive tithes from the people and that is a right that only they enjoy. Melchizedek received tithes from Abraham although he was not a member of the tribe of Levi. It could be argued that while that put him on a level with the Levites, it does not prove that he was superior to them. So our writer adds four other points. (ii) The Levites tithe their brother Israelites; Melchizedek was not an Israelite but a stranger; and it was no ordinary Israelite from whom he received tithes but from no less a person than Abraham, the founder of the nation. (iii) It was due to a legal enactment that the Levites have the right to exact tithes; but Melchizedek received tithes for the sake of what he was personally. He had such personal greatness that he needed no legal enactment to entitle him to receive tithes. (iv) The Levites receive tithes as dying men; but Melchizedek lives for ever. (v) Finally he produces a curious argument for which he apologizes before he states it, Levi was a direct descendant of Abraham and the only man legally entitled to receive tithes. Now, if he was a direct descendant of Abraham it means that he was already in Abraham's body. Therefore when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, Levi also paid them, being included in Abraham's body, the final proof that Melchizedek was superior to him. It is an extremely odd argument but it was no doubt convincing enough to those to whom it was addressed.

Strangely enough, this argument enshrines the great truth that what a man does reacts on his descendants. If he commits some sin, he may transmit to his descendants either the tendency to that sin or some actual physical handicap because of it. If he builds up excellence of character, he transmits a fine inheritance to those who come after. Levi, on the argument of the writer to the Hebrews, was affected by what Abraham did. Therein, amidst the fantastics of the rabbinic argument, remains the truth that no man lives to himself but transmits something of himself to those who follow after.

The New Priest And The New Way (Hebrews 7:11-20)

7:11-20 If, then, the desired effect could have been achieved by the Levitical priesthood--for it was on the basis of it that the people became a people of the law--what further need was there to set up another priest, and to call him a priest after the order of Melchizedek, and not to call him a priest after the order of Aaron? Once the priesthood was altered, of necessity there follows an alteration of the law, too, for the person of whom the statements are made belongs to another tribe altogether, from which no one ever served at the altar. It is obvious that it was from Judah that our Lord sprang, and with regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. And certain things are still more abundantly clear--if a different priest is set up, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, a priest who has become so, not according to the law of a mere human injunction but according to the power of life that is indestructible--for the witness of scripture in regard to this is: "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek"--if all that is so, two things emerge. On the one hand, there emerges the cancellation of the previous injunction because of its own weakness and uselessness (for the law never achieved the effect it was designed to produce) and, on the other hand, there emerges the introduction of a better hope through which we can come near to God.

As we read this passage we have to remember the basic idea of religion which never leaves the mind of the writer to the Hebrews. To him religion is access to God's presence as friends, with nothing between us and him. The old Jewish religion was designed to produce that fellowship in two ways. First, by obedience to the law. Let a man obey the law and he was the friend of God. Second, it was recognised that such perfect obedience was out of the question for any man; and so the sacrificial system came in. When a man was guilty of a breach of the law, the requisite sacrifice was supposed to heal that breach. When the writer to the Hebrews says that the people became a people of the law on the basis of the Levitical priesthood, he means that without the Levitical sacrifices to atone for breaches of it, the law would have been completely impossible. But, in fact, the system of Levitical sacrifices had proved ineffective to restore the lost fellowship between God and man. So then a new priesthood was necessary, the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek.

He says that that priesthood differed from the old in that it was not dependent on merely human--fleshly is the word in the Greek--injunctions, but on the power of a life that is indestructible. What he means is this. Every single regulation that governed the old priesthood had to do with the priest's physical body. To be a priest he must be a pure descendant of Aaron. Even then there were one hundred and forty-two physical blemishes which might disqualify him; some of them are detailed in Leviticus 21:16-23. The ordination ceremony is outlined in Leviticus 8:1-36 . (i) He was bathed in water so that he would be ceremonially clean. (ii) He was clothed in the four priestly garments--the linen knee breeches, the long linen garment woven in one piece, the girdle round the breast, and the bonnet or turban. (iii) He was anointed with oil. (iv) He was touched on the tip of the right ear, his right thumb and his right great toe with the blood of certain sacrifices which had been made. Every single item in the ceremony affects the priest's body. Once he was ordained he had to observe so many washings with water, so many anointings with oil; he had to cut his hair in a certain way. From beginning to end the Jewish priesthood was dependent on physical things. Character, ability, personality had nothing to do with it. But the new priesthood was dependent on a life that is indestructible. Christ's priesthood depended not on physical things but on what he was in himself. Here was a revolution; it was no longer outward ceremonies and observances that made a priest but inward worth.

Further, there was another great change which had fundamental implications. The law was definite that all priests must belong to the tribe of Levi; they must be descendants of Aaron; but Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah. Therefore, the very fact that he was the supreme priest meant that the law was cancelled; it was wiped out. The word used for cancellation is athetesis (Greek #115); that is the word used for annulling a treaty, for abrogating a promise, for scoring a man's name off the register, for rendering a law or regulation inoperative. The whole paraphernalia of the ceremonial law was wiped out in the priesthood of Jesus.

Finally, Jesus can do what the old priesthood never could--he can give us access to God. How does he do that? What is it that keeps a man from having access to God? (i) There is fear. So long as a man is terrified of God he can never be at home with him. Jesus came to show men the infinite tender love of the God whose name is Father--and the awful fear is gone. We know now that God wants us to come home, not to punishment but to the welcome of his open arms. (ii) There is sin. Jesus on his Cross made the perfect sacrifice which atones for sin. Fear is gone; sin is conquered; the way to God is open to men.

The Greater Priesthood (Hebrews 7:21-25)

7:21-25 And in so far as it happened with an oath--for the Levitical priests are made priests without an oath, but he with an oath, because scripture says of him, "The Lord swore and will not repent of it, 'You are a priest for ever'"--in so far Jesus has become the surety of a better covenant. Further, of the Levitical priests mom and more were made priests because they were prevented from continuing permanently by death, whereas he has a priesthood which will never pass away, because he remains for ever. For that very reason, it is in every possible way and for all time that he who is for ever alive to make intercession for us can save those who come to God through him.

The writer to the Hebrews is still accumulating his proofs that the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek was superior to the Aaronic priesthood. In order to do this he brings forward two other proofs.

First, he stresses the fact that the institution of the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek was confirmed by the oath of God while the ordinary priesthood was not. The reference is to Psalms 110:4 : "The Lord hath sworn, and will not change his mind, 'You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.'" The very idea of God taking an oath is startling. Long ago Philo saw this. He pointed out that the only reason for taking an oath is because a man's bare word may be disbelieved; and the oath is to guarantee that his word is true. God never needs to do that because it is impossible that his word should ever be disbelieved. If, therefore, God ever confirms a statement by an oath, that statement must be of extraordinary importance. So then it is possible that the ordinary priesthood can pass away; but the priesthood of Jesus Christ can never pass away; because God has sworn an oath that it will last for ever.

Because this priesthood has been confirmed by an oath, Jesus is the surety of a better covenant. Let us remember that the function of the priest and of all religion is to open a way of access to God. Here we come upon the word covenant. We shall soon have to examine it in more detail. It is sufficient at the moment to say that a covenant is in essence an agreement between two people that if one faithfully performs certain undertakings, the other will respond in a certain way.

There was an ancient covenant between Israel and God that if the Israelites faithfully obeyed God's law, the way of access to his friendship would always be open to them. We see the nation entering into that covenant in Exodus 24:1-8. We see Moses taking the book of the law and reading it to the people; and we see the people responding with the words: "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient" (Exodus 24:7). The old agreement was based on obedience to the law; and the agreement could be kept open only when the priests kept on making sacrifice for every breach of the law.

Jesus is the surety of a new and a better covenant, a new kind of relationship between man and God. The difference is this--the old covenant was based on law and justice and obedience; the new covenant is based on love and on the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The old covenant was based on man's achievement; the new covenant is based on God's love.

What does the writer to the Hebrews mean by saying that Jesus is the surety (egguos, Greek #1450) of this new covenant? An egguos is one who gives security. It is used, for instance, of a person who guarantees someone else's overdraft at a bank; he is surety that the money will be paid. It is used for someone who goes bail for a prisoner; he guarantees that the prisoner will appear at the trial. The egguos (Greek #1450) is one who guarantees that some undertaking will be honoured.

So, then, what the writer to the Hebrews means is this. Someone might say: "How do you know that the old covenant is no longer operative? How do you know that access to God now depends, not on man's achievement of obedience but simply on the welcoming love of God?" The answer is: "Jesus Christ guarantees that it is so. He is the surety who promises that God's love will be forthcoming, if only we take him at his word." To put it in the simplest possible way--we must believe that when we look at Jesus in all his love we are seeing what God is like.

The writer to the Hebrews introduces a second proof of the superiority of the priesthood of Jesus. There was no permanency about the old priesthood. Those who were priests died and had to be replaced; but the priesthood of Jesus is for ever. The thing that matters in this passage is the overtones and implications of the almost untranslatable words the writer uses.

He says that the priesthood of Jesus is one that will never pass away (aparabatos, Greek #531). Aparabatos is a legal word. It means inviolable. A judge lays down that his decision must remain aparabatos (Greek #531), unalterable. It means non-transferable. It describes something which belongs to one person and cannot ever be transferred to anyone else. Galen. the medical writer, uses it to describe absolute scientific law which can never be violated, the principles on which the very universe is built and holds together. So then the writer to the Hebrews says that the priesthood of Jesus is something which can never be taken from him, is something that no one else can ever possess, is something that is as lasting as the laws which hold the universe together. Jesus is and will always remain the only way to God. The writer to the Hebrews uses another wonderful word about Jesus and says of him that he remains for ever (paramenein, Greek #3887). That verb has two characteristic flavours. First, it means to remain in office. No one can ever take the office of Jesus from him; to all eternity he remains the introducer of men to God. Second, it means to remain in the capacity of a servant. Gregory of Nazianzen provides in his will that his daughters will remain (paramenein, Greek #3887) with their mother so long as she is alive. They are to stay with her and be her help and support. The papyri talk of a girl who must remain (paramenein, Greek #3887) in a shop for three years in order to discharge by her work a debt that she cannot pay. There is a papyrus contract which says that a boy, who is being bound as an apprentice, must remain (paramenein, Greek #3887) with his master for as many days extra as he has played truant. When the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus remains for ever, there is wrapped up in that phrase the amazing thought that Jesus is for ever at the service of men. In eternity as he was in time Jesus exists to be of service to mankind. That is why he is the complete Saviour. On earth he served men and gave his life for them; in Heaven he still exists to make intercession for them. He is the priest for ever, the one who is for ever opening the door to the friendship of God and is for ever the great servant of mankind.

The High Priest We Need (Hebrews 7:26-28)

7:26-28 We needed such a high priest--one who is holy, one who never hurt any man, one who is stainless, one who is different from sinners, one who has become higher than the heavens. He does not need, as the high priests do, daily first to offer sacrifices for his own sins and thereafter for the sins of the people. For he did this once and for all when he offered himself. For the law appointed as high priests men subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appointed one who is a Son who is fully equipped to carry out his office for ever.

Still the writer to the Hebrews is filled with the thought of Jesus as high priest. He begins this passage by using a series of great words and phrases to describe him.

(i) He says that Jesus is holy, (hosios, Greek #3741). This word is used of Jesus in Acts 2:27 and Acts 13:35; it is used of the Lord in Revelation 15:4 and Revelation 16:5; it is used of the Christian bishop in Titus 1:8; it is used of the hands that a man must present to God in prayer in 1 Timothy 2:8. Behind it there is always one special idea. It always describes the man who faithfully does his duty to God. It describes a man, not so much as he appears before his fellow-men but as he appears before God. Hosios (Greek #3741) has in it the greatest of all goodnesses, the goodness which is pure in the sight of God.

(ii) He says that Jesus never hurt any man (akakos, Greek #172). Kakia (Greek #2549) is the Greek word for evil; and akakos (Greek #172) describes the man who is so cleansed of evil that there is nothing left in him but good. It describes a man in his effect upon his fellow-men. Sir Walter Scott claimed for himself as a writer that he never corrupted any man's morals or unsettled any man's faith. The man who is akakos (Greek #172) is so cleansed that his presence is like an antiseptic and in his heart there is nothing but the loving kindness of God.

(iii) He says that Jesus is stainless (amiantos, Greek #283). Amiantos describes the man who is absolutely free from any of the blemishes which might make it impossible for him to draw near to God. The blemished victim cannot be offered to God; the defiled man cannot approach him; but the one who is amiantos (Greek #283) is fit to enter into God's presence.

(iv) He says that Jesus is different from sinners. This phrase does not mean that Jesus was not really a man. He was different from sinners in that, although he underwent all a man's temptations, he conquered them all and emerged without sin. The difference between him and other men lies not in the fact that he was not fully man, but in the fact that he was manhood at its highest and its best.

(v) He says that Jesus was made higher than the heavens. In this phrase he is thinking of the exaltation of Jesus. if the last phrase stresses the perfection of his manhood, this one stresses the perfection of his godhead. He who was a man amongst men is also he who is exalted to the right hand of God.

The writer to the Hebrews now introduces another aspect in which the priesthood of Jesus is far superior to the Levitical. Before the High Priest could offer sacrifice for the sins of the people, he had first to offer sacrifice for his own sins, for he was a sinful man.

It is of the Day of Atonement that the writer is specially thinking. This was the great day when atonement was made for all the sins of the people, the day on which the High Priest performed his supreme function. Usually it was the only day in the year when he personally carried out the sacrifices. On ordinary days they were left to the subordinate priests but on the Day of Atonement the High Priest himself officiated.

The very first item on the ritual of that day was a sacrifice for the sins of the High Priest himself. He washed his hands and his feet; he put off his gorgeous robes; he clothed himself in spotless white linen. There was brought to him a bullock which he had purchased with his own money. He laid both hands on the bullock's head to transfer his sin to it; and thus he made confession: "Ah, Lord God, I have committed iniquity; I have transgressed; I have sinned, I and my house. 0 Lord, I beseech thee, cover over the sins and transgressions which I have committed, transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house."

The greatest of all the Levitical sacrifices began with a sacrifice for the sins of the High Priest. That was a sacrifice Jesus never needed to make, for he was without sin. The Levitical High Priest was a sinful man offering animal sacrifices for sinful people; Jesus was the sinless Son of God offering himself for the sin of all men. It was the law which had appointed the Levitical High Priest; it was the oath of God which gave Jesus his office; and because he was what he was, the sinless Son of God, he was equipped for his office as no human High Priest could ever be.

Now the writer to the Hebrews does what he so often does. He drops a marker to indicate the direction he is going to take. He says of Jesus that he offered himself. Two things were necessary in a sacrifice. There was the priest and there was the sacrifice. With long and intricate argument the writer to the Hebrews has proved that Jesus was the perfect High Priest; now he is going to move on to another thought. Not only was Jesus the perfect High Priest, he was also the perfect offering. Jesus alone could open the way to God because he was the perfect High Priest and he offered the one perfect sacrifice--himself.

There is much in this argument which for us is difficult to understand. It speaks and thinks in terms of ritual and ceremony long since forgotten; but one eternal thing remains. Man seeks the presence of God; his sin has erected a barrier between him and God but he is restless until he rests in God; and Jesus alone is the priest who can bring the offering that can open the way back to God for men.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 7:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/hebrews-7.html. 1956-1959.


Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, July 23rd, 2017
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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