22 October 2015

Hebrews 7:1-3, 15-17

“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” (v. 17)

Psalm: Psalm 115


For the people of Israel, priesthood depended on family. Only those descended from Moses' brother Aaron were priests (Exodus 28:1). Here, the writer to the Hebrews picks up on an alternative strand of Old Testament thinking which identifies a very few others as priests. This group is headed by Melchizedek, mentioned in passing at Genesis 14:17-20. This shadowy figure is named as both king and priest. His name means 'God's righteousness', and he is identified as 'king of Salem', both a name for Jerusalem and a form of the Hebrew word meaning 'peace'. And in a fascinating twist, he meets Abraham on his way back from battle and offers him bread and wine. The writer also quotes Psalm 110:4, drawn from a psalm addressed to Israel's kings. Here, the kings are named as 'priests', even though they were not descended from Aaron.

All this matters because it helps us understand who Jesus is. Nobody had ever claimed that he was descended from Aaron - his descent from David (Matthew 1:5) was a defining aspect of his identity. The writer to the Hebrews, however, locates him in this alternative priestly line, back through the kings of Israel to Melchizedek himself. Jesus is therefore priest and king, and this is affirmed further by other parallels between Jesus and Melchizedek. Both live the life of eternity (verse 3; cf John 1:1-2). Both are 'kings of peace' (see also Isaiah 9:6), and both offer bread and wine.

For the 21st-century reader, this may sound rather abstract. But for a 1st-century reader, it would have made much more sense, as there was considerable speculation about Melchizedek - he is mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in various other writings of the period. The writer to the Hebrews is making a claim for Jesus that would have been controversial at the time, but for those who accepted it, this would have carried huge weight.

Jesus, like the kings of Israel and like Melchizedek, is a priest - able to stand between God and the people to offer forgiveness of sins; able too to enter the Holy of Holies and make atonement for the people, as the high priest did. But the writer to the Hebrews goes on to raise the stakes even further. Jesus' priesthood is actually superior to the levitical priesthood, because it depends on 'indestructible life' rather than physical descent. For the Jewish Christians who were the primary audience for this letter, this would have mattered enormously. It may not seem so important to us - but we too need to be sure that God's offer of forgiveness is absolutely fulfilled through Jesus.

To Ponder

  • What does it mean for you to think of Jesus as 'king of peace'?
  • The Methodist Church understands itself as standing within 'the priesthood of all believers' (1 Peter 2:9). How does Hebrews' understanding of Jesus begin to help you make sense of this phrase?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.