The writer of this epistle was a hopeful man. He was not a sentimental, head-in-the-sand optimist, but he was faith-filled and therefore biblically hopeful. Though he was well aware of the hardships and the various storms faced by Christians, nevertheless his expectation was that Jesus as High Priest was forever settled in heaven and hence his hope of glory was sure and steadfast. The result was that his soul was well anchored here on earth. He desired this for his Christian readers as well.
It is this burden that motivated the writer to expound the truth revealed in Psalm 110 concerning the priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek.” This is essential to his argument that the high priestly ministry of Jesus is superior to the Aaronic priesthood. And why was this so important? Because these Jewish believers were tempted to look away from Christ—who is unseen—to the existing Levitical priesthood, which was very visible (especially as the priests went about their duties in the temple).
Yes, they were being tempted to apostasy (6:1–8). They were being tempted to depart from Christ and to return to the rituals of the old covenant. A lack of assurance concerning the person and work of Jesus was producing a loss of hope. And when this occurs then spiritual drifting and eventual spiritual damnation can be the outcome. And so, because of this concern, the author “genuinely desires to magnify Christ and do it in such a way as to help his contemporaries to understand the superiority of Christ’s priesthood when set alongside the Levitical priesthood.”1
As we have noted in our last several studies, life can be unsettling. This can occur in various ways: perhaps through relational breakdown, financial difficulties, misunderstandings by others that can lead to slander, persecution for our faith, and (perhaps most unsettling of all) a sense of failure in our spiritual growth. Whatever the cause, we can grow unsettled in our confidence in the gospel. Circumstances can unsettle our assurance of full and final salvation. This was certainly a pastoral concern of our writer, and so hope is a dominant them in this epistle.
The word “hope” occurs several times (3:6, 6:11, 18; 7:19; 10:23; 11:1), but the whole letter throbs with this concept of confident expectation. The writer wanted to help these believers to persevere fuelled by such hope.
Some of our “hopes” are temporary, and in many cases this is okay. For example, an athlete may have a hope to achieve a certain result, or a student may entertain the hope of achieving a certain percentage, or a parent may be hopeful that the Lord will heal a sick child, or a church may have hope concerning church growth. These can all be good and healthy hopes, but none of them is guaranteed. But the hope that our writer addresses is a certain and lasting hope. It is the hope of glory. It is the hope that the person who has repented of their sins and who has believed on Jesus Christ—because they have been born again (1 John 5:1)—will be fully and finally saved. This hope is certain; it is eternally secure because Jesus Christ is in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, and continues to make salvific intercession for everyone whom He ransomed. In other words, those who have been born again and thus justified by faith have a hope that is forever settled. Putting this into the context of our studies, the Christian’s hope is forever settled because Jesus Christ our High Priest is forever on duty. His priesthood is eternal.
In this study, we will see that the enigmatic Melchizedek points to the never-ending priesthood of Jesus. As we do so, may we come away with the assurance that the hope of our eternal salvation is forever settled.
In our day and age, the concept of a priest may seem archaic or even completely irrelevant. But the fact remains that you need a mediator with God, and the only acceptable, because the only God-appointed, Mediator is the Man Christ Jesus (see 5:1–6). As Raymond Brown helpfully comments, “Why is Christ’s [priestly] work unique? The relevance of his argument is not a first-century affair…. Like them, we are sinners, without strength, without hope and without God in the world.”2
This matter of the assurance of our eternal salvation is the most important issue we will ever grapple with. A failure to grasp this will result in living a life that is unsettled in a myriad of ways.
I have known people who have never managed to come to grips with their assurance in Christ. Some have displayed this in a persistent quest for some “secret key” to Christian living. Others have given into a sense of despondency, which has led (or at least can potentially lead) to complete denial of the faith. Others have manifested an aloofness from a the local church and have become increasingly characterised by a critical spirit.
My prayer is that no one reading this would be characterised by such. May you appropriate Christ as Mediator today. If you have, then may your appreciation of Him, your appetite for Him and your adoration of Him increase as you reflect on this passage.
Explanation of Melchizedek
There once lived a man in Abraham’s day (around 2000 BC) by the name of Melchizedek. What we know of this man historically is limited to a brief mention in Genesis 14:18–20. There he appears almost enigmatically. His name is mentioned again in Psalm 110:4 and we do not read of him again until the book of Hebrews (5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1–21).
The writer had begun to explain something of his significance as it related to Jesus (see 5:1–10) but he was compelled to first address their dullness of hearing (5:11). Before expounding the rich comparison between Jesus and Melchizedek (theologians call this “typology”) the writer secures their undivided attention before revealing for the first time in history this typology.
There is a sense in which he wanted to make sure that he was not about to cast his pearls before swine. He wanted to make sure that his readers were spiritually prepared for some wonderful revelation of the person and work of their Saviour, as illustrated by Melchizedek.
Who was this man, what do we know about him, and why is he so significant?
Before proceeding with our exposition we need to see why Melchizedek figures so importantly in the flow of the author’s argument. Leon Morris captures the divine purpose for the life of Melchizedek when he notes, “The author wants his readers to be in no doubt about the superiority of Christ to any other priests and sees the mysterious figure of Melchizedek as powerfully illustrating this superiority.”3 In other words, Melchizedek was a divinely designed and designated type of Jesus Christ, with particular reference to His priestly ministry.
A Biblical Type
Note that, outside of Genesis 14, the only Old Testament reference to Melchizedek is Psalm 110:4. In this one verse David, under inspiration, makes the connection between Melchizedek and Messiah.
This psalm is clearly a Messianic Psalm, which reveals the coronation and present rule and reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. It pictures Jesus enthroned in glory at the right hand of the Father, and it is in this context that we are informed that He is “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Now, when David wrote these inspired words (cf. 2 Samuel 23:1–2) this king-priest for the first time emerges as someone of great Messianic significance. But the people of God would have to wait another thousand years before the matter would be clear. The writer did not pull this comparison between Melchizedek out of thin air, but rather, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he connects the dots and makes these typological connections here in Hebrews 7.
It should not be missed that Melchizedek was “made like the Son of God” (v. 3). That is, Melchizedek was “made” to represent Jesus rather than the other way around. The antitype is the basis for the type. As Jones points out, “Something has been done to Melchizedek, so that he might resemble the Son of God.”4 God’s very Word established him as a type. “Melchizedek thus was the facsimile of which Christ is the reality.”5
The point that the writer is making is that the priesthood (priestly ministry) of Melchizedek is a type of the priesthood (priestly ministry) of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is seen by the absence of his genealogy, the absence of any mention of his death (indicating an ongoing priesthood, vv. 3, 8), the character revealed in His name and finally, and his logical preeminence over the forefather of the old covenant priesthood. In other words, the type of priestly order that characterised Melchizedek is fulfilled in the antitype, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is precisely such an order that characterises the continual priestly ministry of Jesus.
The writer’s explanation of the significance of Melchizedek as he relates to Jesus is indeed remarkable. What had been an enigma (Psalm 110:4) for a thousand years is about to be explained. The writer was thrilled to share this Spirit-inspired insight. But the thrill was a pastoral one. The writer desired to give further reason for the believers to be anchored in the hope that is the gospel of Jesus Christ with its sure and steadfast hope of glory. May the same experience be ours.
In Genesis 14, we have the record of an insurrection of some vassal states against Chedorlaomer king of Elam. In the ensuing battle that emerges, Lot (Abraham’s nephew) is captured, and so Abraham sets out with 318 of his well-trained servants to deliver him. Abraham experiences a major success. This man and his servants, having just routed some pretty serious adversaries, is greeted upon his return by two kings.
Sodom’s offers Abraham material compensation for his deed. Abraham rightly refuses. Sodom was a wicked and therefore unrighteous kingdom, and Abraham desired no compromise with such a culture. Though he lived in “their world,” he nevertheless refused to be of the world. His faith triumphed over the temporal pleasures of unrighteous prestige. He would not compromise his loyalty to the Most High God.
A Mysterious King
But there was another king who also greeted Abraham. His name was Melchizedek, king of Salem. Though some believe that this was a reference to Shechem, most likely rather Salem was the early city predating Jerusalem (Psalm 76:2).
Melchizedek met Abraham with bread and wine, most likely to honour him for his exploits, but also to refresh him and to renew his strength. Though I want to be careful here (because Hebrews does not mention this incident), it would seem that here we have a hint of the gracious redemptive work of Christ being prefigured. The king-priest offered to his servant a covenantal meal as a means of grace to both celebrate the victory experienced under the Most High God as well as to strengthen the servant of God further. It was perhaps a sacramental meal expressing fellowship with God.
King and Priest
This king was unique in that he was also a priest: “the priest of God Most High.”
This king-priest, on behalf of God Most High, pronounced a blessing on Abraham. And in response Abraham gave a tithe of all.
You may remember that, later, Israel as a nation made a distinct separation of these offices. Such a separation of powers served as a checks and balances for God’s nation. In fact, Saul got into big trouble because he conflated the two (1 Samuel 13), as was the case with Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:16–23). Perhaps the reason for this separation of powers was that no king was ever righteous enough to serve as priest. But apparently Melchizedek was. As Hughes, writes, “As king he is just, and as priest he justifies all who trust in his atoning sacrifice.”6
His name, as the writer of Hebrews informs us, means “king of righteousness” as well as “king of peace.” In this, man righteousness and peace kissed each other (Psalm 85:10). This was not by accident, and the writer of Hebrews seems to grasp this. His name was providentially chosen because, as we will soon see, God made this man to be a type of Jesus Christ—the one who establishes peace between God and sinners by giving to sinners the righteousness that God requires.
The Correct Order
We should pause here to note that these two concepts must be always presented in this order: Righteousness precedes peace. We are made right with God first and then (and only then) can we have peace with Him. Unfortunately, our world strives for peace with little or no thought to righteousness.
Jesus is characterised many times in Scripture as both our righteousness and our peace. Isaiah prophesied Messiah would be the Prince of Peace, and this was founded upon His rule which is “righteous” or “just” (9:6–7).
The New Testament makes this connection between righteousness and peace in the Person of Christ (see, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:21 with Ephesians 2:14).
The text in Genesis informs us that Melchizedek was the priest of “God Most High” (v. 18). The Hebrew phrase is El Elyon, and it was by this name that Abraham came to know the Lord. “‘God Most High’ was a common ascription emphasizing the transcendent dignity of God.”7
This title reveals God as the “Possessor of heaven and earth” (vv. 19, 22). He is the Creator and the sustainer of all because He owns all. He, quite literally, is “Lord of all.”
Later, the nation of Israel will come to know God as Yahweh (Jehovah), and this will become the unique covenantal name (see Exodus 6:3). This is important to tuck into the back of your mind, because at this stage in world history there was apparently a priest(hood) for all peoples. You will remember, of course, that at this point Abraham was not yet Jewish (Hebrew). He was in point of fact a Gentile (Romans 4:9–12).
The point I want to state, and then leave for now, is that Melchizedek’s priesthood was a universal one. He represented all peoples in that day who would come to God for righteousness and peace.
Without elaborating on this point, it is sufficient for our purposes to observe that the priesthood of Jesus is also universal in that He came to save His people who are amongst all peoples (Matthew 28:19–20).
It may be helpful to note at this point that Melchizedek appears in Genesis (the book of beginnings) apparently without a beginning! That is, there is no reference here to any genealogy. This was apparently very significant to the writer of Hebrews, for he says that Melchizedek was, “without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (v. 3). Lane notes, “The writer secures the maximum of meaning with a strict economy in expression. He presents a concise summary of points that neither have to be established nor explained.”8
The point emphasized is that Melchizedek was obviously appointed by God as a priest, just as Jesus was directly appointed to be so (5:1–6). It was not a matter of hereditary; he was a priest by virtue of divine appointment and innate worth. As Guthrie comments, “He stands mysteriously apart from all need to establish his genealogy.”9
Though Jesus had to be born in the line of Abraham and David to fulfil Scripture, nevertheless he was not qualified to be a priest by virtue of genealogy, for he was of the tribe of Judah rather than of the tribe of Levi. As MacArthur says, “Jesus Christ, though God’s own Son, was not qualified for the Levitical priesthood. Like Melchizedek, as far as his priesthood was concerned, He had no priestly genealogy and He needed none.”10
Again, the issue is that His priesthood is transcendently above the Aaronic priesthood, for He, as typified by Melchizedek, was directly appointed by God.
Now, some have conjectured from these words that Melchizedek was therefore some supra-human individual, perhaps an angel or even a Christophony. But that is to argue too much. Rather, the Lord so inspired His Scriptures that this deliberate silence is also inspired! That is, the Lord wanted to make a point two thousand years later, and so He deliberately made no mention either of Melchizedek’s birth, his lineage or death.
When nothing is recorded of the parentage of this man, it is not necessarily to be assumed that he had no parents but simply that the absence of the record is significant. What was true of Melchizedek simply as a matter of record was true of Christ in a fuller, more literal sense. So the silence of the Scripture points to an important theological truth.”11
Melchizedek was formed by God and the record of his life was inspired by God in such a way that he might be a type of the greater Melchizedek to come.
So we can conclude, even at this point, that the account in Genesis 14 was recorded to typify God’s eternal purpose to displace the Levitical priesthood with an eternal priest who exercises His priesthood continuously as well as universally. More on this later.
This brings us to the next observation.
Melchizedek’s preeminence was proven in that Abraham tithed to him—and he received it.
The writer makes much of the fact that Melchizedek blessed Abraham and that Abraham paid tithes to him. He does so to develop the logical point that “the lesser is blessed by the better.”
Under the Levitical law the priests received tithes from the people and they themselves paid tithes. But in this case Abraham—who was not under law—recognised the legitimate priesthood of Melchizedek as evidenced by his giving to him a tenth. “Abraham was under no such law to Melchizedek, and the payment of tithes to him was a tribute to his personal greatness.”12
Then note what happens as recorded in v. 6: Melchizedek “blessed him.”
Since Abraham was such a great man (see 6:13ff), how much greater must be the one who authorised a blessing on him? Marcus Dods puts it so well when he writes,
The point which the writer here brings out is that, although Abraham had the promises, and was therefore himself a fountain of blessing to mankind and the person on whom all succeeding generations depended for blessing, yet Melchizedek blessed him.13
In other words, Melchizedek was preeminent over Abraham and by extension—through corporate representation—over the priesthood that came from Abraham’s loins, namely the tribe of Levi (vv. 9–10).
Consider the Scene
To illustrate his preeminence, consider the context of the meeting between these two men.
Abraham must have been quite a man. Consider that, with 318 well-trained men, they defeated an alliance of some pretty serious peoples. As he came to town, all were probably praising him, and yet we see this mysterious man clearly in a position exalted above Abraham.
This was an important point to drive home, because the Hebrews had a tendency to idolise Abraham. The writer of this epistle has just provided Abraham as an example of one who through “faith and patience inherited the promises” (6:12–20). But lest they get the wrong idea, the appearance of Melchizedek serves as an important reminder that there was one greater than Abraham. And he himself would be eclipsed by one transcendently greater: Jesus the Son of God.
Richard Phillips highlights an important theological conclusion from this argument when he comments, “To renounce Christ, therefore, is to renounce all that the old covenant stood upon, the source from which even Abraham received his blessing.”14
The readers—and you and me—must take care how we respond to the gospel of Christ.
The writer makes his case that these Jewish Christians have Scriptural reason—every Scriptural assurance—for a strong consolation that their salvation is secure. The Scriptural testimony, for over two thousand years, gives the assurance of their hope of glory in Christ Jesus. Believers can stand on the Scriptures knowing that their hope is certain and firm because Jesus has entered “the Presence behind the veil … having become High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (6:19–20). In other words, He will continue to intercede for them, come the high water of trials or the fearful threats of hell. Yes, their hope is forever settled. Is yours?
Observations from Melchizedek
Now that we have done some of the spade work of expounding this passage, let us make some important observations.
The first is that, for the Christian, our hope was settled in history.
This entire matter of Melchizedek as a type of the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ is profoundly rich from a pastoral standpoint.
As you dwell upon the issues that we have noted, one is left with no other choice but to conclude that God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth so ordered history that the world would be prepared for His Son. In fact, God went so far as to make a man by the name of Melchizedek and to hide facts about his life so that Hebrew Christians could be comforted some two thousand years later. God so ordered the life of Melchizedek (and that of Abraham) so that about one thousand years later David, under inspiration, could make this connection for future generations.
The point that I am driving at is that the gospel is a message with a divinely ordained heritage; it is a fact that is rooted and grounded in history.
We are told by John that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). Our hope is not some modern, contemporary-contrived idea; it has a long history. In fact, it has an eternally long one (Ephesians 1:3–4; etc.). This is one very solid reason why our hope is “sure and steadfast” and therefore serves as an “anchor” for our soul.
When the world mocks our faith, when our contemporary postmodern culture tells us that we cannot know anything for sure, let us remember that God Most High has settled the matter once for all.
Further, let us be encouraged that our God is Lord of history. He shapes all according to His plan. This needs to be kept in mind as we study the Old Testament. That is, we need to look for Christ in every book of the old covenant, for it all points to Him. The Old Testament is not an outdated book but is as relevant today as it has always been. It is not merely a book of illustrations, but is rather a book in which we have the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so as we read our Old Testament, we need to do so looking for Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith.
Second, our hope is settled for our own history.
If the continual high priestly ministry of Jesus was settled by God before history, and then displayed and typified in history, should we not take encouragement that His ministry of intercession is dependable for our own history? This is the crux of the matter—in a very literal sense.
These Jewish Christians professed faith in Jesus Christ, the Nazarene who had been crucified. They claimed that He had risen. They claimed that He was the Passover Lamb slain for the nation(s). They claimed that indeed He was the High Priest who fulfilled the picture of the Day of Atonement. Connected to this was their claim that, when the veil was rent in two, Jesus had opened the way for access to God through Him rather than through the Levitical priesthood.
But these astounding claims were rejected by many of their ethnic brethren. And as we have seen time and again, this was causing them some real troubles. They were tempted to be unsettled. But the purpose of the author’s exposition of Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 was to help to settle them by getting them to look to Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith. Kent Hughes pastorally observes,
The implications for the Jewish church as it bobs on the ominous tides of the first century were readily apparent—an eternal Melchizedekian king/priest has both secured their righteousness and peace and now devotes continual prayer for the working out of both qualities in their lives. This means they will survive the tides.15
And, believer, so will you.
I may sound like a skipped CD, but there is nothing more important for us than to be reminded of the continual high priestly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. Though texts may vary, there is a sense in which every message preached needs to contain this gospel-centred theme of the intercessory ministry of Jesus.
We need this when all seems well, for we then need the reminder that we have no spiritual sufficiency of ourselves. We have no righteousness of our own that will put us in good standing with God.
We need this when all seems to be falling apart and our sins seem to choke our souls. It is at such times that we need to look away from ourselves and lay hold afresh of the one saves us from our sins.
We need this when a sceptical world mocks our faith. At such times we need to be settled that He who sits in heaven is doing His thing and that He scorns the scornful and helps His sheep.
Yes, in our own history, we need the assurance of a hope that is forever settled. Much in this world will be changing and temporary, but “a glorious high throne from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary” (Jeremiah 17:12).
Third, our hope is settled long after history.
We conclude with the important observation that not only was our hope settled long before history and in past and current history, but the Christian has the sure and steadfast hope that our hope is settle for long after history.
It is interesting to observe that, with all of our talk about hope, it is still true that hope for the believer is in fact a temporary condition of the heart and mind.
There is coming a day when there will no longer be any hope, for it will no longer be needed. Paul spoke of the virtues of faith, love and hope, and that the greatest of these is love. He reveals in 1 Corinthians 13 that hope and faith are temporary. He teaches the same thing in Romans 8 and in 2 Corinthians 5. One day, faith will become sight, and when we receive what we hope for then, by definition and by necessity, hope will cease to exist.
One day, the hope of glory will be ours in space-time history, and we will be in this glorious condition for all eternity. We will finally be saved to sin no more, and the entire cosmos, rather than opposing us in our pursuit of holiness, will join with us in our enjoyment of holiness. We will no longer awake each day to put on our spiritual armour to fight the world and the flesh and the devil. We will have no reason to hope for a better day, for in fact each day we will be in that better day!
But until then we carry on, our souls well-anchored in the hope of glory. And this glory is assured because Jesus is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. What a glorious historical truth. May this help us as we live our own histories until the day that history is no more.
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 126. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 130. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:65 ↩
- Hywel R. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 68. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 129. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 128. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 1:164. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 1:165. ↩
- Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 192. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Hebrews: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1983), 177. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:63. ↩
- Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:309. ↩
- Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Commentary, 4:310. ↩
- Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 229. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 190. ↩