Behold his greatness

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 7:1-10

Mysterious figure

The seventh chapter of the book of Hebrews features one of the most mysterious figures in the scriptures. He is mentioned only twice in the Old Testament, and rather fleetingly at that, in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110. The writer of Hebrews, however, sees fit to devote an entire chapter to him. It's a difficult study, because we're unfamiliar with the culture and history of the writer's audience, but well worth it for one reason: It will lead us to a greater appreciation of Jesus.
The writer stated in Hebrews 5:10-11 that he had much to say about Christ, particularly in connection with his prefigurement by Melchizedek. First, however, he prepared them to listen to this instruction by challenging their laziness (5:11, 6:12). Any laziness of ours, by the way, needs to be challenged as we approach Chapter 7. It is deep teaching that requires the application of mind and heart to the text. In Hebrews 7:1-10, the writer introduces the figure of Melchizedek, and in the rest of the chapter, 7:11-28, he explains the relationship between Melchizedek and Christ. All of it, of course, is for our benefit - that we might understand Jesus more clearly and appreciate him more fully.

The introductory remarks regarding Melchizedek are bracketed by the word "met" (7:1, 10). Melchizedek "met" Abraham. The climax concerns tithing that acknowledges the greatness of Melchizedek and, ultimately, Christ. The entire structure breaks down this way:

A Meeting - 7:1a
B Blessing - 7:1b
C Tithe - 7:2
C' Tithe - 7:4
B' Blessing - 7:6
A' Meeting - 7:10

In the first three verses, the writer shows that the story of Melchizedek is really the story of Jesus.

Echoes of Christ (7:1-3)

Hebrews 7:1-3:

(1) For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham as he was returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, (2) to whom also Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils, was first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace. (3) Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he abides a priest perpetually.

Beginning with the word "for," the writer begins explaining his cryptic and twice-repeated quote of Psalm 110:4 that Christ is a priest "according to the order of Melchizedek" (5:6, 10, 6:20). So, who was Melchizedek? He shows up in Genesis 14, after Abraham (then known as Abram) defeated Chedorlaomer and other kings and rescued Lot, his nephew. The text in Genesis 14:17-20 reads thus:

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 blessed him 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 gave him a tenth of all.

The only other reference to Melchizedek in the Old Testament is in Psalm 110:4, where David writes of the future Davidic king, whom the writer of Hebrews identifies as Christ:

"The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,
You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek."

Melchizedek was a king and priest whose priestly order was "forever," which is the main correspondence to Christ that the writer of Hebrews makes in Chapter 7. But there are other points of correspondence that the writer must intend for us to draw, though he doesn't draw them explicitly. The first and most obvious of these is that Melchizedek was both a king and a priest. He was a royal priest, just like Jesus. The blending of the offices of priest and king would have been a cultural stretch for most Jews of the first century, so the writer brings Melchizedek to the fore to show his readers that there is precedent in their own history that predates the official offices of priest and king in the nation of Israel.

Melchizedek was king of Salem, which is identified in Psalm 76:2 as Jerusalem, the city of David, the city of the king of Israel, who is, of course, Jesus (Matthew 27:37). Although he was not a Hebrew, Melchizedek, was a priest of the Most High God, a title that for Abraham indicated the same God who he worshiped (Genesis 14:22) and one which other biblical authors use to describe the supremacy of the one true God (Numbers 24:16; Daniel 7:25, 27; Mark 5:7; Acts 7:48, 16:17). In some way, Melchizedek, though he was outside the line of redemptive history, helped relate people to God.

Melchizedek met Abraham. Jesus meets us: "For the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). "You did not choose me, but I chose you ... " (John 15:16). Jesus seeks us, he chooses us - he takes the initiative. We long for someone to take initiative with us, assuming it's someone we want to be with. We long for someone we love and trust to show interest in us, to move toward us, to suggest getting together with us. Just as Melchizedek initiated with Abraham, Jesus initiates with us, the descendants of Abraham (Galatians 3:29).

Melchizedek met Abraham "as he was returning" from the slaughter of the kings that held Lot. This was an interesting time for Abraham to bump into this man. Abraham may have been basking in the glow of victory and feeling fairly confident in himself, but the blessing of this priest of the Most High God motivates him to part with a tenth of the choicest spoils of victory. For Abraham, the gesture was an act of worship in which he recognized the supremacy of God. Like Melchizedek, Jesus meets us in moments of victory and reminds us who deserves the glory: the Most High God, whom he represents as a priest. Often he meets us when we find victory not quite as satisfying as we thought it would be, but he also meets us in the thrill of victory with thoughts of thankfulness and praise.

Melchizedek "blessed" Abraham, and Jesus, quite obviously, blesses us. The Lord instructed Aaron, the first Israelite high priest, to bless the people with these words (Numbers 6:24-26):

 The Lord bless you, and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine on you
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance on you
And give you peace.

Obviously, in his atonement, Jesus fulfills this blessing.

In verse 2, the writer sees in the name of Melchizedek and in the name of his city indications of the kind of king he was. The name Melchizedek is a combination of the Hebrew words melek (king) and tzedeq (righteousness). Salem means peace. The identification of one who was king of righteousness and peace would ring messianic bells for the readers of Hebrews, resonating from passages like Isaiah 9:6-7, where it is said that the future Davidic king would bring about "peace" and "righteousness." Jesus, of course, gives us a righteous standing before God and peace with God, and he rules righteously (Hebrews 1:8), creating peace, or wellness. He is, in fact, reigning right now, being seated on his throne at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3, 13).

The writer then says something very strange about Melchizedek, something the text in Genesis does not say: He had no parents, genealogy, birth or death. His point is that, unlike other important figures in Genesis, none of these things was recorded about Melchizedek. The biblical account leaves no record of his parents, genealogy, birth or death. He just wanders onto the pages of Genesis for a few verses and wanders off. Jesus, in his incarnation, had a father (the Father), a mother and a recorded genealogy - a kingly genealogy, but not a priestly genealogy. Like Melchizedek, Jesus is qualified to be a priest without the expected ancestry.

All these connections the writer probably intends us to make. The connection that he makes for us is the everlasting nature of the respective priesthoods of Melchizedek and Jesus. The writer sees in the silence of the biblical record a correspondence to Jesus, the Son of God. Again, he links the office of king and priest, Son of God being a kingly title. What the scriptures record, or, more accurately, don't record about Melchizedek makes him like the Son of God: a priest perpetually. Surely and technically Melchizedek is not a perpetual priest, unless we are to see him as surviving in his priestly order as fulfilled by Jesus.

The writer has already said of the Son that his years "will not come to an end" (1:12). Jesus, being the king of righteousness and peace, and being eternal, brings in "everlasting righteousness" (Daniel 9:24), and the "everlasting covenant" that God makes with us through Jesus is a "covenant of peace" (Ezekiel 37:26). The writer will have much more to say about the everlasting nature of Christ's priesthood, but for now it's enough for us to note that Jesus not only relates us to God, he relates to God forever.

What all these connections tell us is that the story of Melchizedek, apart from Hebrews 7, is an unfinished story. Apart from Christ, Genesis 14 remains a mystery. Apart from Christ, Psalm 110 remains a mystery. The Author of the story intended it this way. He inspired Moses to record the story of Melchizedek in Genesis 14. Then he dropped a reference into David's mind, who dropped the reference, seemingly out of nowhere, into Psalm 110: " ... You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." Even the readers of the day probably responded, "Huh?" Why did God write the story this way, with hints and echoes? To show us that he carefully prepared every detail of the story in preparation for the climax: the coming of his Son. And now, we who are blessed to be born after the fact, can see in retrospect the awesome work of the Author. We puzzle over Genesis 14. We puzzle over Psalm 110. We puzzle over Hebrews 7. We dismiss it all. Then we puzzle and study and ponder, and we see how the story comes together - clearly, brilliantly - over 1,500 years of recorded biblical history. We gasp in awe. We are amazed that God would do something like that. And we come to this conclusion: The only reason this guy Melchizedek is written into the story is so that we - so that you, right now, where you sit, as you read this - can find the Son of God.

This is how God has written the story. Perhaps he has written the story of our lives in similar fashion. Have similar mysteries been written into your story? Are there chapters that made no sense at the time? Are there chapters that make no sense now? But do they hint at something more? Have there been hints and echoes, pangs and longings? Has Jesus, in cryptic and obscure ways, been written into your story so that some day, some way you would find him?

C.S. Lewis, an avowed atheist, was troubled when he noticed that the books he was enjoying the most were written by followers of Christ. "All books were beginning to turn against me," he wrote. G.K. Chesterton, he noted, "had more sense than all the other moderns put together." When Lewis read Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man," he said, "Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken." But Jesus had been written into his life, and Lewis later found him.
The story not only leads us to the Son, it tells us that he is superior to any other way of relating to God.

Superiority of Christ (7:4-10)

Hebrews 7:4-10:

(4) Now observe how great this man was to whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth of the choicest spoils. (5) And those indeed of the sons of Levi who receive the priest's office have commandment in the Law to collect a tenth from the people, that is, from their brethren, although these are descended from Abraham. (6) But the one whose genealogy is not traced from them collected a tenth from Abraham, and blessed the one who had the promises. (7) But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater. (8) And in this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on. (9) And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, (10) for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.

In the first three verses, the writer has set the stage for his exhortation to "observe" the greatness of Melchizedek. The word translated here "observe" contains within it the idea of "behold." He exhorts us to not only observe the greatness of Melchizedek but to appreciate it. The reason for us to do this, of course, is so that we might observe and appreciate Jesus. The greatness of Melchizedek, and of Jesus, is seen in his superiority to the normal Jewish priests who are descended from Levi. For the Jewish readers of Hebrews, the contrast in priesthoods is not simply an intriguing intellectual debate. They had joined the community of believers, but the familiar Old Testament forms were once again becoming tempting. The writer wants to show them, by virtue of his treatment of Melchizedek, that Jesus the priest is vastly superior to the formerly prescribed Levitical priests. His superiority to the Levitical priests is seen in the writer's treatment of the tithe that Abraham gave to Melchizedek.

In verse 4, the writer sets up his argument, noting that Abraham, the great patriarch, paid a tithe to Melchizedek, giving him a tenth of best goods obtained in his battle with the kings. It's a difficult-to-follow three-point argument, but it goes like this: In verses 5 through 7 the superiority of Melchizedek to the Levitical priests is evidenced by Abraham's acknowledgment of his greatness. In verse 8, the superiority of Melchizedek to the Levitical priests is acknowledged by the Genesis account. In verses 9 and 10, the superiority of Melchizedek to the Levitical priests is acknowledged by none other than Levi himself, from whom all other priests descended. The Mosaic law required "two or three witnesses" (Deuteronomy 19:15), and the writer of Hebrews provides three: Abraham, Genesis and Levi.

Long before the nation of Israel was formed and the Lord institutionalized the practice of tithing, Abraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek. In the Mosaic law, a tithe of the produce of the ground and of cattle was mandated (Leviticus 27:30, 32). The tithe supported the Levites and the Levitical priests (Numbers 18:21-28, 2 Chronicles 31:4-6), who inherited no land, unlike members of the other tribes.

In verse 5, the sons of Levi, his descendants who serve as priests, have commandment in the law to collect tithes from the people, their equals, who are called "brothers" and descendants of Abraham. In verse 6, Melchizedek has neither Levitical heritage nor Mosaic commandment (neither Levi nor Moses had been born yet!), yet he collected a tithe from Abraham the patriarch, who is superior to those who are called both brothers and Abrahamic descendants, those who give their tithes to the Levitical priests. The descendants of Levi "have commandment" to collect tithes from equals, but Abraham "had the promises," which are greater than any of the law's commandments, and still paid a tithe to Melchizedek. Also in verse 6, Melchizedek blessed the great Abraham, but the Levitical priests, by implication, are only able to bless brothers. Moreover, it should be clear, then, "without any dispute," that "the lesser" (Abraham) was blessed by "the greater" (Melchizedek) - that Melchizedek was greater than even the great Abraham, the patriarch, the one with the promises. The writer's point, then, in verses 5 through 7 is this: Because Melchizedek is greater than even the great Abraham, he is way greater than the Levitical priests.
The contrast between Levi and Melchizedek illustrates the greatness of Melchizedek in verse 8 as well, but the witness is not Abraham but the Genesis story itself. The Levitical priests are mortal men who serve during their lives and then die, but "it is witnessed" by the aforementioned Genesis story that Melchizedek "lives on" - that his priesthood is an everlasting one.

The writer's third and final witness to the superiority of Melchizedek to the Levitical priests is Levi himself, in verses 9 and 10. When Abraham paid the tithe to Melchizedek, Levi paid it also, "so to speak," because he was at that time "in the loins" of Abraham, unborn but destined to be one of Abraham's descendants. If Levi acknowledges that Melchizedek is a greater than he, surely Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priests, the sons of Levi.
How are we to relate this to our lives? So what if Jesus is superior to the Levitical priests? We probably don't care much about Jewish priests, anyway. What did they ever do for us? We are in no way tempted to choose them over Jesus. But we do have our priestly formulas, don't we? There are more comfortable ways of attempting to relate to God than going through Jesus: good works, church attendance, Bible study, quiet time, devotionals - all potentially valid enterprises. If they are void of Jesus, however, what good are they? If they become our priests, who in our concept keep the deity satisfied and at bay, they are worse than useless; they are worse than inferior; they are destructive. The witnesses speak to us - Abraham, Genesis, Levi. All of them proclaim the superiority of Jesus. All of them plead with us from the pages of the scriptures to acknowledge his greatness. Will we do it?

Larry Crabb tells this story: "An 84-year-old man wanted to speak with me after I preached at a Bible conference. I saw him waiting while I chatted with a group that had gathered. When the folks left, I quickly made my way over to this short, elderly man. He put both hands on my shoulders and told me a story: 'Dr. Crabb, I am an 84 years old. Five years ago my wife died after 51 years of a good marriage. I cannot express the pain that I feel every morning as I drink my coffee at the kitchen table alone. I have begged God to relieve the terrible loneliness that I feel. He has not answered my prayer. The ache in my heart has not gone away. But ... ' and here the gentleman paused an looked past me as he continued ' ... God has given me something far better than relief of my pain. Dr. Crabb, he has given me a glimpse of Christ. And it's worth it all. Whenever you preach, make much of Christ!' He turned and walked away." The writer of Hebrews in this passage makes much of Christ.

Only one command

In all of Hebrews 7:1-10, there is only one command. It is in verse 4: "Now observe how great this man was to whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth of the choicest spoils." Observe Melchizedek, as he points to Christ. As noted earlier, observing contains within it the idea of appreciating. Behold. That's the imperative, that's the message, of these 10 verses. Behold the greatness of Jesus.

- SCG, 10-19-97