I want to focus on the reason that I think this passage was written, and that is to give the Hebrews a confident hope. This is great news for us, and I’d like to suggest that by looking through the lens of the Jewish people for whom it was written, we are able to see that this is exceptionally great news.
I’d like to draw a comparison between our experience of a European spring and that of an Australian (me) visiting Europe in Spring. We lived in Munich for several years. The winter is so harsh, there are no leaves on the trees for seven months, everything looks dead and it is too cold to speak to people on the street. Eventually, spring would come; for a month or two, we’d be hunting for signs in the garden—cracked ice and snowdrops; and then suddenly the world would burst into colour and life. The Australian friends who turned up on long service leave in June/July would often comment, “It’s really beautiful here, isn’t it?” and initially there was a sense of injustice—that they hadn’t deserved this wonderful experience. But then I came to realise that although the Australian visitors had some appreciation of Munich, they couldn’t share our deep gratitude and appreciation for the colours, warmth and life that we experienced all the more because we had lived through those long winter months.
Hebrews 7 reminds me of this experience: we who are Gentile Christians are like the Australian day trippers who turn up after the life and death of Jesus, read this chapter and recognise that Jesus is great. However, for the Hebrew audience whom this letter addresses, who have a long history with God and a lived experience of the Levitical priesthood, the law and the sacrifices, this chapter means so much more. Therefore, if we are able to look at Jesus through the long lens of the Jewish nation, we can appreciate him all the more.
The chapter is basically as comparison between two priestly orders we find in the Old Testament: the Levitical priesthood, which refers to the normal priests of the law, and the priesthood of Melchizedek, mentioned in Psalm 110 and referring to Genesis 14. And as we see how much better the priesthood of Melchizedek is, we see that Jesus is a type of Melchizedek, but better still.
I’ve picked out five comparisons from the passage for us to think about:
The name: the Levitical priesthood was revered in Israel. However, Melchizedek’s name points to something greater. Melchizedek means “king of righteousness” and Salem means “king of peace”. While the Levitical priesthood sought to make the people of Israel right before God and bring them peace, it was not a perfect priesthood (v. 11). Melchizedek’s mighty name points us to Jesus as a type of Melchizedek, who brought in everlasting righteousness and peace to guilty men.
The office: we are told that the lesser person is blessed by the greater. Melchizedek blessed Abraham and Abraham tithed to Melchizedek—proving that Melchizedek’s priestly office was superior to the Levitical priesthood (which, at the time, was still residing in Abraham’s body—v. 5). Whereas the Levitical priesthood had ancestry, Melchizedek was “without father, without mother … having neither beginning nor end of life, but made like the Son of God”. And in verse 14, we see with Jesus that there had never been a priest from the line of Judah before. No-one from Judah had ever served at the altar, which demands an entire change of priesthood.
Jesus’ legitimacy as a priest: the Levitical priesthood was handed down from generation to generation, however, Melchizedek’s was appointed by God and sealed with an oath, which we see in Psalm 110:4. Unlike the Levitical priesthood, which rested on the authority of ancestry, Melchizedek’s authority rested on “the power of an indestructible life” (v. 16). Similarly, with Jesus, Hebrews 5:5 says, “for Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’”. Like Melchizedek, Jesus’ priesthood is appointed by God himself, and his priesthood is forever (v. 21).
The priest’s character: the Levitical priests were part of a sinful humanity, who needed to sacrifice for their own sins before they sacrificed for the sins of Israel (v. 27). Like Mechidadek, “priest of the Most High God” (v. 1), it is clear that Jesus is a very different type of priest: we are told in verse 26 that he is holy, pure, blameless, set apart from sinners and exalted above the heavens. Perfection for the Jews means you can enter safely into the presence of God. What joy to have a priest like this!
And finally, the sacrifice: unlike the Levites, who needed to offer sacrifices day after day for their sins and for those of the nations, Melchizedek’s priesthood had no end (v. 3). Similarly, in Jesus, his sacrifice was not only perfect, but eternal, complete, for all time, because, in verse 27 the author says “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself”.
When we look at the Levitical priesthood, we see a longing for righteousness and peace with God. At the same time, we see the problem of this priesthood who was entirely human, affected by sin and death, and unable to provide a perfect and lasting sacrifice for God’s people. In Melchizedek, we are presented with a much greater priesthood, and in Jesus, what we are looking at is a Melchizedekian priest who can do what the Levites could not. The Hebrews who were the audience of this letter had come under Jesus’ priesthood and could be confident in their hope for the first time in their history.
Spurgeon sums this up when he says, “we want a priest who lives throughout the ages forever to sustain his people and do for them all that they should need to have done for them until time is no more” (Spurgeon’s Verse Expositions of the Bible). That is what we have in Jesus.