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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

Hebrews 7


Hebrews 7:1-28. Resuming his argument, the writer proceeds to show that Jesus, belonging as He did to the order of Melchisedec, is superior to Aaron. In proving his point he first (1) treats of the priest king Melchisedec with reference to the history of Genesis (14), dwells upon his greatness (Hebrews 7:1-3), and on his superiority to Abraham, the ancestor and representative of Levi (Hebrews 7:4-10); he then (2) treats of the prediction (Psalms 110:0), wherein it is foretold that a perpetual priest is to arise who is to supersede the Aaronic priests because of their inefficiency; shows (3) that the greater solemnity of the institution of the priesthood of Christ proves its superiority to the priesthood of Levi (Hebrews 7:20-22); (4) its permanence (Hebrews 7:23-25); and (5) its adaptedness to our needs (Hebrews 7:26-28).

Here begin the things hard to be explained; not that the difficulty lies in the phrases used concerning Melchisedec, for these, however startling to us, were familiar modes of expression among the Jews, but that the Jews were slow to receive and apply the general teaching of the passage. The Jewish priesthood had the highest sanctions; it was the divinest part of the law. The government was originally a theocracy; the priest was the representative of the invisible King, His minister, and the mediator between the nation and Himself. The kingship came later. It originated partly in popular feeling, and was at first even displeasing to God. That the Messiah should be King, the Son of David, and the occupant of his throne, was generally allowed; but that He was to be priest also, that He was to set aside the ancient law, was something more difficult to believe. The cessation of the priesthood is indeed as great a mystery to the Jews as the destruction of the Temple, and is in their view even more irremediable. And yet One is to arise after the order of Melchisedec, and not after that of Aaron, and is to hold uninterrupted office in His Church.

Verses 1-2

Hebrews 7:1. For this Melchisedec . . . abideth a priest continually. And who is he? King of Salem, i.e Jerusalem, as is taught in the old tradition given in the Targums (see Gill); and in Josephus ( Antiq. i. 10, 2), the Salem of the 76th Psalm (Hebrews 7:3). The later tradition, though earlier than Jerome’s day, that it was a Salem in Samaria (John 3:23), is not probable. Nor only was he king of Salem, he was also Priest of the Most High God, the possessor of heaven and earth, a title intended to assert not only that He is God alone, but that Melchisedec was priest of the God not of a particular people, but of all nations; his priesthood belonged therefore to the primitive dispensation of religion, the early Catholicism of the first ages, and not to the temporary and typical economy of Judaism.

Who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and gave him, when at the summit of his earthly greatness, after he had overthrown four kings and delivered five, his priestly benediction (see Deuteronomy 21:5) a benediction which Abraham welcomed by paying the tithe which was of old offered to priests, that they might present it as a symbol of the consecration of all the gains of the offerer unto God. Abraham therefore acknowledged what the blessing implied, the reality and the greatness of his priesthood.

Nor less instructive is his name and the name of his city, and the very silence of the Scripture record on other questions. Melchisedec, his personal name, when interpreted, is significant of his character. He is king of Righteousness, he rules in righteousness, he maintains and diffuses righteousness.

And after that (in the next place) he is king of Peace, and ‘righteousness and peace’ are, as we know, the glory of the reign of the Messiah (Psalms 72:0). This reasoning rests upon a double principle. Names are in the Old Testament largely descriptive of character, and as God arranges all the developments of history, and sets up this king as a type of the Messiah, we may safely reason from him to the antitype, and gather lessons and proofs of God’s purpose and grace.

Verse 3

Hebrews 7:3. He is without father or mother, appearing out of the darkness without ancestors or successors; without pedigree either immediate or remote; owing his priesthood, therefore, and dignities to no connection with priests on his father’s side or even on his mother’s: his is a priesthood purely personal, and not to be traced to natural descent or hereditary claim. In contrast with this tenure of office was the tenure of the Levites; they held their priesthood only on condition that they could prove their descent from Levi; and so, after the captivity, those who could not prove this descent were not allowed to act as priests till God Himself gave counsel by Urim and Thummim (Ezra 2:62-63; Nehemiah 7:63-65).

Without beginning of days or end of life, unlike the Jewish priests therefore, who began their ministry at thirty and closed it at fifty, the high priest holding his office until he died.

But made like (in the respect named) unto the Son of God, abideth a priest continually. These words still refer to the history and not properly to the Psalm (Psalms 110:4), where it is said that Melchisedec was made like to Christ, and so, instead of ‘a priest for ever,’ the phrase of the Psalm, we have ‘ a priest continually,’ one whose office remains unbroken either at the beginning or at the close. Though this is the simplest and the natural interpretation of the words, some find a deeper meaning in them. The terms used are wide and sweeping, and while the Targums and Philo, and modern commentators, find no difficulty in the explanations given above of the phrases ‘without father or mother or genealogy,’ a deeper meaning is not without its attractions, especially when the words are applied to the great antitype Christ ‘Without father,’ it has been thought, may refer to the fact that Christ had no earthly father and no Divine mother (answering to His higher nature), while the later expressions, ‘without beginning of days or end of life,’ are descriptive, they think, of Him whose going forth are from everlasting, and who, though He died, conquered death, and has taken the nature He assumed into union with His essential eternity. What in the type means no record, meant in the antitype no existence. It may fairly be admitted that the phrases are finely chosen so as to be true of the type in some degree, and more profoundly true of our Lord; but beyond this it is unsafe to go. Origen regarded Melchisedec as the incarnation of an angel; Bleek thinks that the writer shared a supposed Jewish opinion that he was called into existence miraculously and miraculously withdrawn, then abiding a priest for ever. Others, ancient and modem, think he was the Son of God Himself an opinion untenable, inconsistent alike with the Psalm and with the entire teaching of this Epistle. The Jewish writers supposed him to have been Shem (see Gill), or Enoch, or Job. It is enough to say that he probably represents a royal worshipper of the true God, the head of his race, before as yet the primitive worship had become corrupt, and before there had arisen any need for selecting a particular family as the depositary and the guard of the Divine will. ... It is solemn and instructive to note how most of the false religions on earth and most of the corruptions of the time owe their power to men’s desire to have a human priest who may forgive them and plead for them, and even offer sacrifice for them. The doctrine is even more popular than the opposite extreme, forgiveness without sacrifice and without priest. All sacrifices are superseded, by the sacrifice of the cross, and all priesthoods by the priesthood of our Lord. The recognition of one priest is as essential to true religion as the recognition of one king.

Verse 4

Hebrews 7:4. Now consider (consider further, a slightly transitional particle) how great (applied to age, size, or, as here, to moral grandeur) this man was, to whom even Abraham the patriarch (the father of the tribe, of the whole race of Israel) gave the tenth out of the best of the spoils. The word rendered ‘spoils’ means properly that which lies at the top of a heap, ‘the finest of the wheat,’ and so of any spoils taken in war. It is questioned whether the tenth of the best of the spoil means the tenth of the best of the spoils, leaving what was of less value untithed, or a tenth of all the spoil, which tenth as given to God was to be the best part of the whole. The last is the true meaning (comp. Numbers 15:21), for it is already said that Abraham gave a tenth part of all (Hebrews 7:2). As was fitting, he gave to God the tenth, and that tenth the best.

Verse 5

Hebrews 7:5. And they verily (or, ‘indeed,’ as in Hebrews 7:8; or better, the emphatic ‘ and they,’ the Greek particle calling attention to the contrast between those mentioned in this verse and in the following) that are of the sons of Levi, when they (not who ) receive . . . have a commandment, etc. The meaning here is best learned from the facts. The Levites, the teachers of the Jewish people, received their portion of the land of promise in the form of a tithe of all the produce of the ground (Numbers 18:21-24); of this tithe, the priests properly so called received a tithe (Numbers 18:26-28): the priests’ share, therefore, was taken from their brethren’s share, and all from the people. This was the arrangement ‘according to the law.’

Verse 6

Hebrews 7:6. But he (Melchisedec) whose descent (pedigree) is not reckoned from them has never theless taken tithes of Abraham (when he contained in his own person both Levi and Israel). And not only did he receive tithes from the tithe-taking Levites, he hath also blessed him who has (who is the possessor of) the promises.

Verse 7

Hebrews 7:7. And beyond all contradiction (or without any contradiction), what gives a blessing is greater, (is raised above) what receives it. The neuter of the original seems used to express the universality of the statement, and to make the truth of it depend not on the person but on the act or relation itself; and the conclusion is that Melchisedec is greater than Abraham, the possessor of the promises, for he adds even to the blessings of him who for all men and by all men is so richly blessed. The exalted founder and head of the covenant people is inferior, even in the hour of his triumph, to the still more exalted and mysterious personage who is at once priest and king.

Verse 8

Hebrews 7:8. And here indeed (as in Hebrews 7:5, ‘indeed’ is useful only to make more clear the contrast of the following clause; an emphatic ‘ and here ’ would be better) refers not to the time of Melchisedec, though that is last spoken of, but to the time of the Levitical priesthood, which extends down to the writer’s own age.

Men that die (literally, ‘dying men’ they are who) receive tithes; but there ( i.e in the case of Melchisedec of which he is immediately speaking, but which as belonging to the past is more remote) he receiveth them, of whom It is witnessed that he liveth, i.e we read of him not as dying but as living. No ‘end of life’ is affirmed of him at all. This is spoken not of Melchisedec as man, but of the Melchisedec of the sacred narrative, who is made in this way like unto the eternal priest. As man he no doubt died, but as priest he did not belong to that order. Under the law the priesthood was temporary. Before the law the priest was priest as long as he lived, and so was perpetual (as at Rome the dictator for life was known as ‘Dictator perpetuus’); and as Christ lives for ever, so for ever He is able to make intercession for us.

Verse 9

Hebrews 7:9. And so to say (a phrase which, like ‘as it were,’ is used to moderate a strong expression or to qualify a statement that is not literally true; the other sense of the original, ‘in a word,’ ‘to speak briefly,’ is not appropriate here).

An obvious objection to the previous reasoning is that Abraham was not a priest. It was therefore not unnatural that he should pay tithes and receive the blessing. But the objection is answered by the fact that as Abraham had obtained the promise, he was the representative of all his descendants. Levi was in him, not physically and seminally merely, but representatively; and so Abraham on his own behalf and on theirs recognised a priesthood beyond the limits of the dispensation which belonged to his own line.

Verse 11

Hebrews 7:11. If therefore perfection was; better, ‘If again,’ or ‘Now if,’ a transitional particle indicating an argument bearing on the same subject (see Hebrews 9:1). ‘Was,’ not ‘were;’ the reasoning is not, ‘If there were perfection, there would be no need;’ but, ‘If there was perfection, there was no need.’ The Psalm tells us that in the person of the Messiah there was to arise a priest who did not belong to the order of Aaron, but to a different order; and this declaration implies that the priesthood of Aaron was not capable of securing the great end of a priesthood. What that end is has been largely discussed. Expiation, consecration, transformation of personal character, true permanent blessedness, each has had its advocates, and we may safely combine them all. If sinners are to be forgiven, forgiveness must be consistent with the Divine character and law; the conscience must be pacified and man made holy. That the Levitical priesthood did not effect these ends is proved at length later on; here the writer restricts himself to the one point, that after the first priesthood was instituted it was announced that its work was to pass into the hands of another order, an intimation of its insufficiency. The case is made clear by the parenthetic statement for on the ground of the Levitical priesthood (not ‘under it’) the people have received the law ( i.e not that the priesthood was first and the law afterwards, for the contrary is the fact, nor that the people were subject to a law that had reference to the priesthood). The law rested on the assumed existence of a ‘priesthood, all its precepts and requirements presupposing some such body;’ so that now, if the priesthood is removed, the economy itself is removed also. Under the Gospel, God appoints, as He foretold, a priest who does not answer to the description given of priests under the law a clear proof that He who first made the law has annulled it.

What need was there that there should arise (the usual word to describe one raised to dignities in his office, Acts 3:22; Acts 7:37) a different priest after the order of Melchisedec, and that he should be said to be not (or not be called) after the order of Aaron?

Verse 12

Hebrews 7:12. For the priesthood being changed. This is true of an institution that forms the foundation of the law in the sense just described (Hebrews 7:11). If Christ is made priest, the law is changed in its ceremonial and political arrangements, and even in the ethical relation of the people to God. They have another priest, and through the completeness of his work they have a freeness of access and a fulness of forgiveness which alters the very nature of their economy.

Verse 13

Hebrews 7:13. The writer now proves the completeness of the change of the priesthood.

For he of whom (not ‘to whom,’ Dr. J. Brown and others, the preposition being used to denote that to which a word or thing refers) these things (the words in Psalms 110:0) are said (see the end of Hebrews 7:11) hath partaken of (better than ‘pertaineth’), hath become a member of, a different tribe (the words describe an already existing fact, and intimate that he had joined the tribe), of which tribe no man hath ever (the full force of the corrected text) given attendance (the word means to bestow labour or attention upon anything, see 1 Timothy 4:13) at the altar.

Verse 14

Hebrews 7:14. For (the proof of the statement of Hebrews 7:13) it is evident (plain to all, an adjective found only in Paul, 1 Timothy 5:24; for proof that it is evident, see the passages in the margin above) that our Lord hath sprung as a branch out of the root of Jesse, a common rendering of the Hebrew word, Jeremiah 23:5, Zechariah 4:2; or as the sun or the star rises (Numbers 22:17; compare Isaiah 60:1 and Matthew 4:2). Both meanings of the word ‘hath sprung’ are scriptural. Christ is said to ‘spring up’ in both senses. Here the former is the more probable, as the language of Isaiah, chap, 11, seems to have been in the mind of the writer.

Out of Judah, with respect to which Hoses spake nothing concerning priests, nothing to imply that priests should arise out of that tribe.

Our Lord. This is the only place in Scripture where this name ‘Our Lord,’ now so familiar, is applied to Christ without the addition of His proper name Jesus, or His official name Christ. ‘The Lord’ is frequent.

Verses 15-17

Hebrews 7:15-17. The writer now touches another point of the argument.

And it is yet far more evident. What is more evident? That the law is changed? as De Wette and Bleek hold. Hardly; for this is not the main thought, but the imperfection of the priesthood (Hebrews 7:11). That imperfection has been proved by the change of priests, and that imperfection is made still more evident by the fact that a new priesthood is to arise after the similitude of Melchisedec (Hebrews 7:16), who hath been made (who hath become) priest not after what is a law of a carnal commandment i.e a rule of external ordinances (see Leviticus 21:17-24; Exodus 40:12-17), temporary and perishing but after what is the power (the priestly and kingly power, Romans 1:0) of an endless, an indissoluble life. We are bidden to conceive of His priesthood in this light, and not in the light of the qualities and temporary office of the priests under the Levitical law (Hebrews 7:17).

For it is testified of him, Thou art a priest for ever, the emphatic phrase.

Verses 18-19

Hebrews 7:18-19. These verses summarize the argument of the previous verses.

For what takes place is on the one hand an annulling of the former commandment (concerning the priesthood) on account of what in it was weak and unprofitable ( for the law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand [there is] a bringing in over the law of a better hope such a bringing in as supplies the deficiencies of the law and practically supersedes it.

By means of which hope we draw nigh to God. ‘What in it was weak’ is the expression the writer employs, not the wider expression, the weakness thereof. He simply calls attention to what in it has that quality. The law made nothing perfect; it finished nothing; it created hope, but failed to satisfy it; it awakened a consciousness of the need of an atonement, but provided no sacrifice; it set up the ideal of a holy life, but failed to give the strength needed to realize the ideal; it created longings for closer fellowship with God, but opened no way whereby we could draw nigh. ‘ We draw nigh,’ and not priests only. The access to God is free to all who believe. The Holy of Holies has still to the eye of flesh its veil; but Christ has entered for us, and so to the eye of faith it has no veil at all. The title and the fitness to enter there is the perfection which the law could never give. This note has been struck already (Hebrews 4:16, Hebrews 6:19); by and by it swells into a whole strain of impassioned argument (Hebrews 9:24, Hebrews 10:19-25).

Verses 20-22

Hebrews 7:20-22. A third argument is now introduced. The oath which God sware in making His Son Priest gives to His office higher sanctions.

And inasmuch as (it is) not without an oath; rather a simpler filling up of the omission than the Authorised Version, though ‘He was made (or came to be) priest’ better represents what is really a new argument.

Verse 21

Hebrews 7:21. ( For they, as we know, without an oath (literally, without the swearing of an oath as a solemn act) are made (have become and now are) priests; but he with an oath by him that saith, etc.).

Verse 22

Hebrews 7:22. Of so much better a covenant (or as in A. V., provided ‘a better covenant,’ which comes at the end of the verse, is made emphatic) hath Jesus become surety, i.e He has pledged Himself for the maintenance of it, and for the fulfilment of its promises. The covenant is the result of His death, and His presence above as Priest (Hebrews 6:20) and the glory and honour with which He is crowned (Hebrews 2:9) are a perpetual security for its continuance and completion.

Verses 23-25

Hebrews 7:23-25. A fourth argument for the superiority of Christ’s priesthood is that the priests under the law were continually removed by death, while Christ is undying. This argument has been touched upon before (Hebrews 7:8; Hebrews 7:16) in different connections. Here it is the personal contrast of the many who changed with the one who abides.

And they indeed have become and still are priests in great number, because they are being hindered by death from continuing (i.e ‘in their priesthood,’ not ‘in their life,’ which makes a poor tautological sense).

Verse 24

Hebrews 7:24. But he because of his abiding for ever ( i.e in His life, John 12:34) hath his priesthood unchangeable (‘inviolable’). The active sense of the word rendered ‘unchangeable’ (‘what does not pass over to another’) is very unusual, and therefore less likely; but either meaning makes a good, and nearly the same, sense. By some commentators the ‘abiding’ which is here affirmed of Christ is applied not to His life, but to His priesthood. If this meaning seem preferable, it needs then to be kept in mind that the ‘for ever’ of the Psalm relates to the priesthood of Christ, and answers to the ‘for ever’ of the arrangement with Melchisedec each of them having reference to the covenant to which they belong, and so not eternal in the case of Melchisedec, nor even in the case of Christ; for though the life of Christ is eternal, as are the effects of His priesthood, yet His exercise of that office will cease when all the glorious ends of it are completely answered in the eternal salvation of the redeemed, even as He will then deliver up the kingdom to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24). But the more natural reference of ‘for ever’ is to His life.

Verse 25

Hebrews 7:25. Whence, i.e from the fact that He lives it follows the particle being generally used to introduce something of deeper significance.

He is able also to save (in its completest sense, not from this evil or the other, but from all evil) to the uttermost (not to save for ever, but, as the word properly means (see Bleek), to completeness in every respect, and not chiefly with respect to duration) all that approach through him to God, ever living as he does, a fuller explanation of the ‘whence’ at the beginning of the verse, to undertake for them. The word rendered ‘undertake’ means primarily ‘to see’ or ‘meet in with a person on behalf of another,’ and so includes all that Christ does for us, either by His perpetual oblation in heaven, or by His mediation generally and kingship as Head over all. This mediation is of the very essence of the work of Christ so far as His priestly office is concerned, and is the ground of the triumphant outburst of St. Paul when he concludes that none can condemn, seeing that Christ who died is now risen, and is making continual intercession on our behalf. Its foundation of right is His atoning sacrifice; its central motive is the love He bears us; its method of procedure, the advocacy of our interests, and the intimation of His will that the blessings we need be bestowed; and its fruit the maintenance of our relation to God, and our perseverance in holiness.

Verses 26-28

Hebrews 7:26-28. The final argument for this superiority is the moral fitness of the whole arrangement (see Hebrews 2:10).

For such a high priest was for us befitting a high priest who was holy (giving to God the reverence and holy love that were due to Him), harmless (innocent, guileless, unsuspected in relation to all human duty between man and man), undefiled (free, therefore, from personal pollution, and from legal defilement, such as often interrupted the priestly office), separated from sinners pitying them, helping them, able to sympathize with them, dying for them, but not belonging to their class, apart from them as He was apart from sin itself (Hebrews 4:15, where a form of the same word is used), and made higher than the heavens a phrase found only here, though the sense is expressed elsewhere (chap. Hebrews 4:14: ‘having passed through the heavens;’ Ephesians 4:10: ‘far above the heavens’). It describes His higher authority, while implying that part of His work has been done on earth, and that for the rest it is essential that He should be at the right hand of God. And such a high priest and no other became us, who needs not daily to offer sacrifice for his own sins, as the high priest did on the Day of Atonement, and then for the sins of the people; but this (the offering for the sins of the people) he did once for all when he offered himself. This is the first mention in this Epistle of Christ ‘offering Himself;’ the truth is introduced again and again: once struck, the note sounds ever louder and louder. As the writer compares Christ with the Levitical high priests, and as these did not offer sacrifices daily, there has been much discussion on the ‘daily’ of this verse. The various solutions (that the high priest did offer incense daily: that the high priest might have taken part occasionally in the daily burnt-offerings; that ‘daily’ means on the day appointed the Day of Atonement which is elsewhere said to be every year ‘from days to days,’ Exodus 13:10, Heb. and LXX.; and that the high priest is regarded as doing what the ordinary priest did) are all unsatisfactory. Christ is now, and every day, in the Holy Place. If, therefore, He were a sinner, as the high priests of old were, He would need to offer for Himself each day, as the high priests offer, on the one day of every year when they appeared before God. But Christ, being completely free from all personal sin, had no need to offer except for others; and as He offered Himself once for all, His atonement has perpetual efficacy.

Verse 28

Hebrews 7:28. For the law appointed men (emphatic) high priests having infirmity; but the word of the oath (see Hebrews 7:21) which was after the law five hundred years later as given in prophecy, and one thousand five hundred later still when fulfilled in Christ [appointeth] one who is Son (see note on Hebrews 1:1), made perfect for evermore. ‘For evermore’ is in the emphatic place, and belongs to ‘made perfect.’ ‘Having infirmity’ belongs to ‘high priests;’ they were mortal, sinful men, and therefore were an inefficient priesthood; their expiations, their intercessions, their benedictions, all had the character of weakness, and as such they were not fit to meet our needs. ‘Perfected’ or ‘made perfect’ (not ‘consecrated’) ‘for evermore;’ it is the same word as is used in chap. Hebrews 2:10, ‘made perfect through suffering;’ and in Hebrews 5:9, ‘having been made perfect;’ and this condition is continuous and unchanging, forming a contrast to the condition of the priests of the Law.

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Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Hebrews 7". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". 1879-90.