RPM, Volume 16, Number 22, May 25 to May 31, 2014

The Great Melchizedek

Hebrews 7:1-10

By J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to the book of Hebrews 7. We’re in Hebrews 7, and I’d like, while you have your thumb at Hebrews 7, to turn back with me for just a moment to Hebrews 5. Because in Hebrews 5:6, the author of Hebrews quotes for us a passage from the Psalms. And, in fact, he goes back to Psalm 110:4 and in Hebrews 5:6 he says, "Thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek." So he introduces this quote about Melchizedek. And then if you’d look down a few verses, down to verse 9 and 10, we read, "Having been made perfect," speaking of Jesus Christ, "Having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation; being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek."

And at that point you’re expecting the author of Hebrews to launch into an explanation of how it is that Jesus is a priest, according to the order of Melchizedek. What does that mean? What is the order of Melchizedek? What is the priestly order of Melchizedek? Who was Melchizedek? What are the implications of Jesus being a priest according to the order of Melchizedek? But what happens is in verse 11 of chapter 5, the author enters into a series of warnings or admonitions that continue all the way to Hebrews 6:8. And not really until you get to Hebrews 6:13-20 does he move off of that subject of warning or admonition. From Hebrews 6:13-20, he gives an encouraging word of exhortation about our assurance. What are the grounds of our assurance of salvation? And not until we get to Hebrews 7:1 does he come back to this subject of Melchizedek. You see he hasn’t forgotten it anywhere along the line. He just has something very urgent to say to us as a congregation, and now as we get here to Hebrews 7:1 he comes right back to this theme of Melchizedek. So with Hebrews 5:6-10 fresh on your mind, let’s hear God’s holy word from Hebrews 7, beginning in verse 1.

Hebrews 7:1-10

Our Father, we do thank You for the truth of Your word and in this hard passage we ask that You would help us to understand what You are saying and what it means for us. We would desire to love you more and to praise You with a better understanding of Your plan, having studied Your word together. We ask Your help. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

You will notice that that theme of Melchizedek in Hebrews 5:6-10 is reintroduced at the very end of Hebrews 6. In Hebrews 6:19 and 20 we read: "This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus had entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." And that word of reintroduction of the scene of Jesus being according to the order of Melchizedek launches an entire chapter of treatment of that issue of Melchizedek.

Now you need to know, interestingly enough, that Melchizedek was a very important figure in all of the various forms of early Judaism. He was important in the Qumran sect, the Essenes. You remember we’ve said all along that we suspect that there were some Essenes bringing pressure to bear on this particular congregation. Perhaps they were Jewish Christians living in Palestine somewhere close to the Essenes of Qumran and the people who were part of that Essene community were attempting to influence some of these Jewish Christians with their own teaching. But we also know that Melchizedek was a very important figure to other Jews like Josephus and Philo.

Philo has reams of material meditating on Melchizedek. The rabbis wrote much about Melchizedek. In fact, Melchizedek was a rather problematic figure. Who was the greatest of the patriarchs, according to the rabbis? Abraham. But you have a problem when you turn to Genesis 14, because Abraham, the greatest of the patriarchs, is being blessed by someone else and that someone else is Melchizedek. And as the author of Hebrews points out in verse 7, without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater. So the passage clearly indicates that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham in some respect, even though Abraham had received the promises. And so the rabbis really wrestled with the issue of who is this Melchizedek and what do we do with this passage?

Now the author of Hebrews as he continues to go through this argument showing the superiority of Jesus Christ is introducing this theme of Melchizedek to do two or three things, I think, at the same time. For one thing he’s going to show how Jesus is superior to the priesthood of Aaron. He’s going to show how the ironic priesthood, that Levitical priesthood which had descended from the line of Aaron was not as great as Jesus. So that fits right in with the theme that we’ve already seen throughout the book. You remember the book starts with Jesus is greater than the angels. He’s superior to the angels and then we’ve Jesus superior to Moses and Jesus superior to Joshua. And now it’s going to be made clear that Jesus is superior to the Old Testament priesthood, the Levitical priesthood. His priesthood is a better priesthood. That’s going to be the whole argument of the next two chapters in the book of Hebrews. But also isn’t it interesting that parenthetically or incidentally it’s going to be shown that Jesus is superior to Abraham in this passage. And surely that would have been a claim that would have hit home to any Jewish Christian hearing this sermon. And so at least those two things are going to be stressed. The superiority of Jesus’ priesthood.

But in addition to that, this passage is also going to go a long way in explaining the change in the ceremonial law because as the old priesthood had been transcended by the new priesthood of Christ. But remember, because that priesthood of Christ was not descended from the old priesthood, so also the law of Christ was not the law of that old priesthood. And so in a flash the author of Hebrews is going to explain to you why all the ceremonial code is no longer relevant to Christians in their day-to-day practice because Jesus isn’t descended from the Levitical priesthood. And it was the Levitical priesthood that implemented the ceremonial law. Jesus is descended from a different priesthood. He is the successor, He is, in fact, the greater of those in the line of the priesthood of Melchizedek. All these things the author of Hebrews is going to teach us in this section.

This whole section reintroduces the Melchizedek theme, and at the end of chapter 6, the author of Hebrews explicitly brings up the subject of Christ as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. And I’d like to look with you at these first 10 verses of chapter 7 very briefly tonight and see if we can untangle some knots. Remember the author of Hebrews is telling us this as part of a larger argument that Jesus’ priesthood was better than the Old Testament priesthood. But in the process, he’s going to tell us a lot about Melchizedek, and we’ll see why in just a moment.

I. To understand the New Covenant we must understand the Old.

In the first three verses what we really have is a biography of Melchizedek. The author takes us right back to Genesis 14 and to the circumstance.

Do you remember when one of the kings of Canaan had come in and he had attacked several of the other kings of Canaan and in the process he captured Abraham’s nephew, Lot. And he carried them all off captive. And Abraham pursued this king and defeated him along the way and eventually took all his spoils of victory, recapturing his nephew, Lot. And on the way back to the land where Abraham and his people had been setting up their tents and grazing, he was met by two kings. One was the King of Sodom and one was the King of Salem, Melchizedek. He met the King of Salem before he met the King of Sodom. Perhaps you’ll turn with me back to Genesis 14 and see this story, because this is precisely what the author of Hebrews is pointing us to. Genesis 14:17:

"Then after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. And he (that is Melchizedek) blessed him (that is Abraham) and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand." And he (that is Abram) gave him (that is, Melchizedek) a tenth of all. And the King of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself.’ And Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ ‘I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshcol and Mamre; let them take their share.’"

And so Abraham faces these two kings. Two very different circumstances and it’s a very interesting passage and we’ll get to it eventually in our study of Genesis on Sunday nights. Just an advertisement for that for the future. So let’s go back and think about what the author of Hebrews brings to mind about this passage in the first three verses of Hebrews 7.

First of all he notes that Melchizedek was both a priest and a king. Now what has the author of Hebrews been arguing all along about the Lord Jesus Christ? That he was prophet, priest and king. We’ve seen that theme over and over so far in the book of Hebrews. And so by zeroing in on the fact that Melchizedek was both a priest and a king, and of course that was something that could not happen in Israel.

In Israel, by divine law, the kingship and the priesthood and the line of the prophets were all distinct. There was a reason for that. You remember when Saul attempted to blur the kingship and the priesthood? God punished Saul. Saul himself offered sacrifices like a priest and God punished Saul, partly by taking away the kingdom from him. And so in Israel the kingship and the priesthood were separate. But here in this person, Melchizedek, we see both a king and a priest. We also see that he went out to bless Abram on the occasion of Abram’s victory over the kings. Now we also see in Hebrews 7:1-3, that Abraham tithed the spoils of war to Melchizedek before returning the rest of the goods to the King of Sodom. I mean it’s not surprising, is it, in light of what you know is going to happen with Sodom later on that Abram will take nothing from the King of Sodom. He doesn’t want a sandal thong. In other words, he doesn’t want a shoelace from the King of Sodom. He wants it made clear that whatever he has was given to him by the Lord. He was not enriched by the King of Sodom.

But his response to Melchizedek is very different. Abram comes back with all these spoils of war. A tenth of the spoils he gives to Melchizedek as part of a sacrifice to the Lord. Basically a thank offering for the Lord protecting him and giving him victory. The rest of the spoils either went to feed the men, to reward a few of the men that had gone along with him, and the rest to go back to the King of Sodom. He gives everything back. He wants nothing else. So a tenth of it is given to the Lord, a little bit of it is given to the men who went along with him, Abram keeps nothing, and the rest is given back to the King of Sodom.

Now we also note here in Hebrews 7, at the end of verse 2, that Melchizedek was both a king of righteousness and a king of peace. And the author of Hebrews is simply playing on the meaning of Melchizedek’s name and the meaning of his title. His name was Melchizedek. The two parts of that word are king of righteousness, Zadok. You’ve heard of Zadok the priest. That comes from the same stem. Righteous. So he is the king, Melchi Zedek, of righteousness. But he’s also the king of peace. He is called the king of Salem. And where does Salem come from? The same part of the word that is in the word Jerusalem, and it comes from the Hebrew word Shalom, which means peace. So he’s the king of righteousness, and king of peace. And once again the author of Hebrews has been explaining to you that Jesus is the King of righteousness and the King of peace. And it strikes him that Abraham is here tithing to the one who is the King of righteousness and the King of peace. And unlike the Levites, it’s stressed in Hebrews 7:3, Melchizedek has no genealogy. You know, when you read Chronicles and when you read of the Pentateuch, you see all these priestly genealogies listed. Why? Because it was absolutely essential in order to keep the purity of the priestly line to demonstrate that you were descended from Aaron if you were going to be a Levitical priest. But here we are not given a genealogy of Melchizedek’s predecessors, and we’re not given a genealogy of Melchizedek’s successors. He appears out of nowhere on the scene of Biblical history, with no genealogy before or after. He is simply Melchizedek, the high priest of the most high God. Now what do we learn from that biographical section?

Let me just suggest two things that we learn. First of all we learn how important it is to have a high view of Scripture. Notice how the author of Hebrews keys in on even minute details of Scripture, and he draws particular lessons for us as believers. Every word of Scripture is given by inspiration, says the apostle Paul in II Timothy 3:16, and we can’t afford to ignore one of them. And it’s interesting that the author of Hebrews is even going to pay attention to what is not said about Melchizedek in this passage. We are not told about Melchizedek’s death and the author of Hebrews is going to make a lot about that. We’re not given a genealogy of Melchizedek and the author of Hebrews makes a lot about that as he interprets and explains this passage. And so this passage in and of itself reminds us of the importance of having a high view of Scripture.

If you go back to a passage like this and say, ‘Well, that’s just a legend.’ How much do you lose? According to the author of Hebrews, you lose a lot. And so we see the importance of a high view of Scripture. But we also see the importance, the practical importance of scriptural knowledge. The way that the author of Hebrews plans to bless you as he teaches you in this chapter is by calling to your remembrance a story that he expects all of his readers already to know. I’ll never forget when I was teaching a group of youngsters in St. Louis, Missouri, one Wednesday evening like this, except we were in the basement below the sanctuary while all of the adults were up there in the sanctuary. We did our Bible study downstairs in the day school area while they were up in the sanctuary doing their mid-week Bible study and prayer meeting. And these were intelligent kids. Many of them went them Christian schools, they had been reared in Christian homes and that church did have a history of Catechizing. But we also had a lot of other young people that had joined that young group that had not grown up in homes where the Bible was read or where the Catechism was memorized and who had not gone to Sunday Schools where the word of God and Bible stories had been preached and taught. And so I can’t even remember what my lesson was about, but somewhere in the middle of that lesson, I said, "You all remember the story of Samson and Delilah." And suddenly, I noticed that I was getting that "deer in the headlights" look. I mean, there was this uncomprehending look coming back from some very intelligent students like "Samson and who? I have no idea what you are talking about." And at that point I said, "You do know the story of Samson and Delilah?" And there were many, "No." So, I knew that that illustration was not going to hit home. So we had to stop in the middle of the lesson and tell the story of Samson and Delilah.

You ladies who teach Sunday School, you men who teach Sunday School, you folks who help with Vacation Bible School, it is never a waste of time to teach Bible stories. You would have saved this youth director a good 15 minutes telling that story. I could have gone on with my application if they had only been in your classes. So don’t you ever think that you are wasting time teaching God’s children Bible stories. It’s very important and the author of Hebrews can’t even begin to explain to you the significance of this passage until you know the passage itself. And so there is a very practical ramification of scriptural knowledge. We can’t appreciate how God’s truth impacts our lives, if we don’t know the content of God’s truth. If we don’t know the basic outline of the story, you can’t go on to get to the good stuff. So both of these lessons are things that we learned just from this little biographical section here in Hebrews 7:1-3.

II. There is a priesthood far superior to that of Aaron and the Levites.

But what about the rest of the verses? Let’s look at verses 4-7 very quickly because here the author of Hebrews gives 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 implications of this story that he’s just told about Melchizedek. First of all, in verse 4 the author of Hebrews tells us that Abram, the father of the chosen, the father of the faithful, tithes to Melchizedek. The point there is what? To stress the greatness of Melchizedek. How great must he have been that Abraham gave tithes to him?

Secondly, we see in verses 5 and 6 that the Levites collected tithes from their brethren who were descendants of Abraham. But Melchizedek collected tithes from Abram, and he was not Abram’s relative. Abram gave tithes to Melchizedek even though Melchizedek was not part of his genealogy. How great must Melchizedek have been. Again, the author of Hebrews is setting up a string of arguments to show how great Melchizedek was. Thirdly, we see in verse 7 the principle set forth that the one who receives tithes is greater than the one who is obligated to give them: "But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater." Abraham was called upon to give tithes to Melchizedek, and if Melchizedek was a type of Christ, then is this not a roundabout way of showing that Christ is even greater than Abraham? He’s superior to Abraham because Abraham had tithed to his type, Melchizedek, and Melchizedek wasn’t as great as the antitype, that is the fulfillment of the type who is Jesus Christ. So how great must Christ be? This is a roundabout way of pointing to the greatness of Christ.

Fourthly, in verse 8, we see that the Levites had a genealogy. The record of their birth and their death and those who were their descendants in the line of Levi were recorded in order that they could go on in the priesthood. But for Melchizedek there is no listing of his genealogy. He is in a sense an eternal priest. Now what is the author of Hebrews saying here? Is he saying that Melchizedek was actually a pre-New Testament manifestation of Christ or is he saying because there was no genealogy listed it is as if Melchizedek was an eternal priest because this story of him is eternally inscribed in God’s word? I don’t know the answer to that. People have argued for years about who Melchizedek was. Many of the ancient interpreters thought that Melchizedek was Shem.

Do you remember Shem, the first son of Noah? We are told in Genesis 11 that he lived 500 years after the flood, and there are many people who think that Melchizedek was Shem, the righteous line of Noah come to bless Abram, one of his distant descendants. But there have been many speculations. Some see this as a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ, the second person of the trinity. Others see Melchizedek as a human person about whom we have no genealogy, but who is a type of Christ.

I don’t know the answer. But I do know this. He is at least a type of Christ. At the very least Melchizedek is a foreshadowing of Christ the King and Priest.

Finally, the author of Hebrews in verses 9 and 10 points out the superiority of Christ’s priesthood because he says look, even the Levites paid tithes to Melchizedek. Now you scratch your head and you say, "There were no Levites around when Melchizedek was given money by Abram." And the answer is "Because, of course, there was no Isaac at the time that Abram tithed to Melchizedek." But the author of Hebrews is reminding us of a principle of covenantal solidarity. Abraham was the representative of the faithful, and in him all his descendants tithed to the Levites. That’s the argument of the author of Hebrews. It’s another way of showing the superiority of the priesthood of Melchizedek in which line Jesus stood.

What are the significances of this then for us? Just a few things that I would share. First of all, over and over the argument throughout the passage is that Jesus’ priesthood is superior to Aaron’s priesthood. Aaron’s priesthood descended from Abraham. Melchizedek’s priesthood did not, and Abraham had to tithe to Melchizedek. And by that argument the author of Hebrews shows that being in the priesthood of Melchizedek is superior to being in the Levitical priesthood and all of this is leading up to what comes in verse 11 of Hebrews 7. All of this is sort of the preface to the argument that the author is going to put forth in Hebrews 7, verses 11 to the end of the chapter. So it’s central that you get his point that Jesus Melchizedekian priesthood is superior to the priesthood of the Levites.

Secondly, we see the principle of covenantal solidarity. And you see this elsewhere in the New Testament. For instance, when Paul says in Romans 5, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all are made alive." As we are covenantally under the representation of Adam, we die. As we are covenantally under the representation of Christ, we are made alive. It’s the principle of a covenant representative who stands in our place and whose actions are significant for us. Maybe I should just close on this. I won’t even get to the last two. We can look at those the next time. But I’ll share a story that I’ve shared with some of you before. I was in a class where we were discussing the imputation of Adam’s sin once. The principle that Adam’s sin is credited to all of our accounts. And one of the students raised his hand, and he said, "Dr. Raymond, that’s not fair. I wasn’t even alive when Adam sinned. How could his sin be imputed to me?" And Dr. Raymond said, "Well, brother, let me ask you a question? Are you saved?" "Yes, sir." "Do you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation?" "Yes sir." "Do you believe that the Lord Jesus Christ righteousness was imputed to you in your justification?" "Yes, sir." "Well, brother were you alive when Jesus died and was raised." "No, sir." "Well, you say that his righteousness was imputed to you." "Yes, sir." "Yet you deny that Adam’s unrighteousness had been previously imputed to you." "Right." "So you’re saying that you don’t believe in the imputation of Adam’s sin because you weren’t alive, but you do believe in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, even though you weren’t alive?" "Right." "I don’t understand your problem, brother. It just seems to me that you just need to choose Christ and reject Adam and then everything is solved." And it’s really a true answer to that conundrum. The doctrine of imputation is a hard doctrine, but it simply sets forth the truth that we are covenantally represented either by Adam or by Christ. And if you don’t like having the sin of Adam imputed to you, well there’s an easy solution to that. You choose Christ. You choose Christ to be your federal representative; you choose Christ to be your covenantal representative, and then you have His righteousness imputed to you. We can’t go into any more of that tonight, but we’ll continue looking at that when we come back together next week and see Jesus, the great High Priest. Let’s look to the Lord in prayer.

Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word and we ask that You would build us up in it. For Christ’s sake. Amen.

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