Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Last week, we finished up Hebrews chapter 6
and focused on the theme of hope.
We were encouraged to put our hope in God,
the God who not only repeats His promises and swears by Himself to Abraham, but who also gives us His word, who has even become that word of assurance
for us in the flesh.
God not only gives us hope. In Jesus Christ, God IS our hope.
Today we move from a strong word of assurance
back to something the writer of this letter/sermon has been
wanting to talk about since the middle of chapter 5, (SLIDE #5)
Jesus’ work for us, Jesus’ relationship to us as our great high priest.
Something that is best understood, the writer insists, by appreciating
Jesus’ connection to a certain person, a figure found in the pages of the OT.
We may not have noticed but the author of Hebrews has brought up (SLIDE #6)
this person’s name three times already. The third time was at end of chapter 6:
If we were asked to name the most important people in the Old Testament,
it is not likely that Melchizedek’s name would be top on our list.
And this is for good reason for this. Truth be told,
if it were not for the book of Hebrews, Melchizedek would be
little more than an interesting footnote in Bible commentaries.
So, why should WE care about him? Who is this Melchizedek guy to us?
Well, as we’re about to learn Melchizedek is something of a mystery.
And in attempting to resolve the mystery behind that man,
the writer of Hebrews intends to teach us further about
the distinctiveness and superiority of Jesus. (SLIDES #7 – 11)
(SLIDE #12) Let’s talk about the mystery man named Melchizedek.
Besides what we read here, (SLIDE #13)
everything we know about Melchizedek comes from only two sources:
Genesis 14, a historical reference and Psalm 110, a prophetic reference.
Melchizedek first shows up in the middle of the story of Abraham.
As we were reminded last week, Abraham is one whom God appointed
and called to be the father or patriarch of a new people, Israel,
through whom the Lord promised to bless all the nations of the world.
(SLIDE #14) Abraham’s story goes from Genesis 12 to Genesis 25.
Chapter 12 is the start of Abraham’s journey of faith
in answering this call from God as Abraham leaves behind the home,
the country, and the life he has known and travels to place called Canaan.
As Abraham goes, following where the Lord is leading him,
we are told Abraham took his nephew Lot with him. (SLIDE #15)
After some time in Egypt, in chapter 13, Abraham and Lot split up.
They go their separate ways because they had both grown so wealthy
that the land couldn’t support their combined livestock.
So, Lot chooses to go to a place called Sodom,
while Abraham heads in the opposite direction.
Well, Sodom and the surrounding cities were under the rule of a coalition
of foreign kings led by the King of Elam, Chedorlaomer. (CHAN-DOR-LAY-OMER).
Chedorlaomer and his allies raid Sodom and plunder the city.
They carry off captives, including Abraham’s nephew, Lot. (SLIDE #16)
When Abraham gets word about this, he pursues and overpowers
Chedorlaomer and his forces, defeating them right outside of Damascus.
Abraham rescues his nephew Lot and the other captives
and brings back considerable spoils from his victory.
On the way back to the land where he and his people (SLIDE #17)
had been setting up their tents and grazing, Abraham is met by two kings:
the King of Sodom and the King of Salem, named Melchizedek.
The King of Salem, Melchizedek, who we are told is a priest of the God Most High, brings out bread and wine and subsequently blesses Abraham.
In response, Abraham gives a tenth (tithe) of all the spoils of his victory
to (through) Melchizedek – as an offering of thanksgiving to God
for protecting Abraham and giving him the victory.
After making a small provision to feed and reward the men
who went with him to rescue Lot, Abraham returns the rest of
the spoils of his victory – what he took in battle – back to the King of Sodom.
And just like that, after his appearance seemingly out of nowhere,
this strange figure named Melchizedek, disappears from the pages of Genesis just as suddenly and as mysteriously as he first came on the scene.
Melchizedek remains completely absent from the biblical story (SLIDE #18)
until centuries later as his name is briefly mentioned once again in Psalm 110.
Psalm 110, authored by King David, prophetically looks ahead to
David’s ultimate successor, the promised Messiah of his people
and the Savior of all the world.
In this Messianic psalm, David celebrates the anticipated Messiah,
who will judge the nations and reign over all creation will be
“a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” Nothing more is said about this.
This cryptic reference, this passing nod to Melchizedek is thrown out
without any further explanation as to what this means.
And this only serves to fuel the mystery of Melchizedek all the more.
You see, even before his mention in Psalm 110, (SLIDE #19)
Jewish thinkers and scholars were puzzled about Melchizedek.
The rabbis meditated, debated, and wrote much about Melchizedek
– perceiving him as a rather problematic figure.
After all, within Judaism, who was the greatest of all the patriarchs,
the patient zero of God’s promise to all the nations?
Abraham, the Father of all Israel. But there’s a problem.
Abraham, the greatest of them all, THE conduit of the Lord’s blessing to the world,
is blessed by SOMEONE ELSE and that someone else is Melchizedek.
And as the author of Hebrews points out here in verse 7,
this clearly indicates, even though Abraham had received the promises of God,
Melchizedek was greater than Abraham.
Therefore, the rabbis wrestled with the issue of “Who is this Melchizedek guy?”
Melchizedek’s name later popping up in Psalm 110 of all places
only adds to the confusion.
With Psalm 110, now rabbis had to wrestle with how this inexplicable figure named Melchizedek related to the coming Messiah.
This head scratching did not diminish for Jews who came to believe & follow Jesus.
Most early Christians realized Jesus as the Messiah was
the One of whom David spoke of in this psalm.
The lingering question is still that reference to Melchizedek.
What did it mean to speak of Jesus as a priest
according to the order of Melchizedek?
This is the mystery, the writer of Hebrews, seeks to resolve.
But how the writer attempts to solve this mystery is
not what we would expect as Western, modern readers of the Bible.
What the writer is doing here is Jewish method
of biblical interpretation known as midrash. (SLIDE #20)
Midrash, first practiced by Jewish rabbis, is seeking to understand
the revelation and meaning of God’s word not just in terms of
what is explicitly said through the words of the text
but also, through what is communicated behind the words, beyond the words
or what we might call “reading between the lines.” (SLIDE #21)
Reading between the lines is about noticing what is not being said
or rather what is being communicated by not being directly spoken.
For example, if a friend changes the subject when you attempt to talk to him or her
about a recent fight you had, then you ought to read their non-response
as communicating he or she might not be ready to talk about it.
What is left out in a conversation can be as important as what is included.
Similarly, in biblical interpretation, midrash operates
out of making an argument from silence – making a conclusion
based on what is not said as well as what is expressed.
Because we are unfamiliar with this form of biblical interpretation
and since it might therefore be somehow suspect to us, we ought to recognize
Jesus Himself does this ALL the time in the Gospels. Here’s a quick example:
Jesus declares,“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
(SLIDE #22) Jesus here reinterprets the traditional understanding of
the Sabbath by pointing to a story about David.
Jesus recalls how David, out of hunger and need,
ate the Bread in the Bread of Presence which only the priests could eat.
David does something that appears to break the Law
but from the silence of that encounter (i.e. David is not rebuked or accused of wronging),
Jesus reveals a different way of understanding laws of God like the Sabbath
from being a rigid rule without any flexibility or accommodation
to being a rule of life given for the benefit of humanity
and therefore, adaptable in certain situations.
This is the same thing the writer of Hebrews is doing here.
More than investigating the historical Melchizedek, he is using Genesis 14,
– the silences, the things unsaid, the mystery of Melchizedek – as a way of helping us to better understand the distinctiveness of Jesus’ role as our great high priest.
In other words, what follows isn’t so much about resolving
who Melchizedek actually was, as it is to make clear exactly who Jesus is.
So, what do we learn from this passage? (SLIDE #23)
First, Melchizedek is observed to have been both a king AND a priest.
This is an unusual combination. Why?
Because the Law, which was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai centuries
after this event, established the priesthood and the kingship as
two distinct, mutually exclusive offices of leadership in Israel.
There was a clear division between the kings and the priests of Israel.
Priests were strictly from the line of Levi. Kings were strictly from the line of Judah.
Therefore, a king couldn’t be a priest as well.
We might remember when Saul attempted to blur
the kingship and the priesthood and God was not pleased.
It became was one of many reasons, why Saul lost his crown as the King of Israel.
Solomon fell into similar trouble during his tenure as king as well.
But Melchizedek was of a different order altogether
– able to serve as both a king and a priest. (SLIDE #24)
The author specifically muses on what Melchizedek’s name means.
Melech in Hebrew means “king.” Zedek in Hebrew means “righteousness or justice.”
So, Melchizedek is the king of righteousness.
But it also is noted that he’s from Salem
– that is, what would be later known as Jerusalem.
He’s the king of Salem – a variation on the Hebrew word, shalom, which means peace.
So, Melchizedek is the king of righteousness and peace.
The order is significant: righteousness comes before peace.
A king cannot have true peace in his kingdom
unless both he and his kingdom are righteous. Sin brings discord and strife. Righteousness is the foundation for peace.
Jesus is known as, called, the King of Righteousness.
Christ not only imparts righteousness to others; He is righteous in His very being.
For though Jesus was tempted in every way like we are,
Jesus never sinned, nor could any guilt be found in Him.
Jesus is the King of Righteousness in that He is righteousness but also in that
in his reign as King, Jesus wages war against the unjust and the wicked.
Jesus is equally the King of peace.
Among all that live under His lordship, Jesus brings peace
– peace between us and God, peace with ourselves, and peace with each other.
Jesus does not lay aside His righteousness to bring us this peace.
No, God in Christ brings peace by carrying the burden of our sin,
the weight of human injustice, the full extent of the evil that people do,
upon His righteousness.
As Paul writes in Romans 3, Jesus is both just and the justifier of humanity.
The point is, Jesus, by his lineage in relation to Israel,
coming from the kingly tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi,
could not be a priest according to the Law.
But like Melchizedek, Jesus isn’t just any priest or any king. (SLIDE #25)
Being of a different order altogether – the order of Melchizedek, Jesus is both.
Jesus is the One who is both our King and our Priest.
For these two offices to be combined reveals the superiority of
the work of Christ to the old, the former way of doing things in Israel.
The writer of Hebrews further highlights the uniqueness of Melchizedek: (SLIDE #26)
“He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.”
The Bible does not record Melchizedek’s genealogy at all.
Therefore, we do not know where he came from or who came from him.
In the Levitical priesthood, this would be a problem because lineage was everything.
Being a priest in Israel was totally dependent on your family line.
All priests came from the tribe of Levi. No one else need apply.
If you could not establish your heritage, you were excluded from the priesthood.
From the silence of Genesis 14,
which does not mention a priestly genealogy for Melchizedek,
which does not mention when Melchizedek started or ended serving as a priest.
Melchizedek is clearly an outlier – of an altogether different order.
“Having neither beginning of days nor end of life”
seems to be saying Melchizedek is eternal. But that’s not the case.
This is not a suggestion of immortality but rather again
using the example of Melchizedek as a seemingly timeless, ongoing character, arguing from silence that the order of Melchizedek is a permanent, higher fixture,
the writer is reinforcing the distinctiveness of Jesus as our great high priest.
Jesus’ priesthood does not depend on being born into a priestly family.
Unlike the Levitical priests who always died and had to be replaced,
Jesus’ priesthood likewise continues uninterrupted. It is eternal. It is better.
In the remainder of this passage, the writer offers two more observations.
(SLIDE #27) Melchizedek was revealed to be greater than Abraham.
Abraham is the patriarch of the entire nation of Israel,
the Father of God’s promise of blessing to all the nations of the world.
Therefore, for Abraham to be submissive to Melchizedek
– to accept the blessing of Melchizedek and to give a tithe to him,
indicates Abraham’s deference to Melchizedek
– that Abraham recognizes Melchizedek’s priesthood to be from God
– long before the official priesthood is established among Israel through Aaron.
(SLIDE #28) But wait, there’s more. If Abraham is representative of the entire nation
of Israel and Abraham submitted to Melchizedek, then everyone flowing
from the line of Abraham also is in subordination to Melchizedek.
And this includes the Levitical priesthood.
The order of Melchizedek is superior to the way of the Levitical priests.
Remember, the main point of all this is not really about Melchizedek.
The author of Hebrews is arguing whatever we can piece together
about Melchizedek or speculate about his origins,
it’s not about Melchizedek but the role that Melchizedek plays
in helping us to understand the role that Jesus plays in our lives.
But to be clear, it’s not that Melchizedek sets the pattern and Jesus follows it.
(SLIDE #29) Notice how the writer in verse 3 intentionally says, Melchizedek
“resembles the Son of God,” and not the Son of God resembles Melchizedek.
Rather, the record about Melchizedek has been so arranged by the Holy Spirit that it brings out certain truths, that apply far more fully to Jesus
than they do to Melchizedek.
The point is the qualities seen in Melchizedek
– righteousness, peace, timelessness, a better order – point forward to
the role and nature of Jesus as our true and perpetual great High priest.
So what? (SLIDE #30)
What we believe about Jesus Christ makes a big difference. It’s everything.
Let us remember…
Under the continued threat of persecution
and already having faced suffering and loss for following Jesus,
the Jewish Christians to whom this letter was first written
are being tempted to abandon their faith in Christ and return to Judaism.
In the face of public pressure & out of a desire not to experience more hardship,
they were rationalizing going back to what they knew.
The Jewish religion was a good system offering
a solid moral foundation for how they should live.
Those were the rituals they grew up with, and they seemed to work just fine. Maybe they should just go back to the way things were.
Maybe they could just add Jesus to what they were believing & practicing before.
This community was failing to grasp how Jesus is superior
to everything that came before and everything that will come next.
They were struggling to understand, to accept that Jesus is superior,
Jesus is the fulfillment of everything they had been looking for.
The writer of Hebrews has just demonstrated how Genesis 14
reveals that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham.
And if David in Psalm 110 later prophesies the Messiah will be
after the order of Melchizedek, then it follows that
the Messiah is greater than Abraham, that Jesus is greater than Abraham.
This is a statement, a revelation that would have hit home
to any Jewish Christian hearing this message.
If anyone can be greater than Abraham, then perhaps Jesus’ claims
in the Gospel of John to be greater than all who came before him,
maybe the writer of Hebrew’s thematic argument that Jesus is simply the best
are not as audacious and exclusivist as they seem.
Because what it definitively communicates is that the old way of doing things,
the Law, has been eclipsed, fulfilled by the Gospel, the grace of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, there is no going back. There is no combining the old and the new.
This is no Jesus added to something else.
Anything else but Jesus is going back to something that has past,
something that has run its course, a way of living that is
both inferior and ineffective.
This community was being asked to answer once again,
what is THE essential question of the Christian faith.
It is the answer to the question first and forever spoken from Jesus’ lips,
when he turned to the Twelve, as He turns to every single person (SLIDE #31)
who encounters Him – including us and asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
Like the community to whom this letter was first written,
what we believe about Jesus Christ makes a big difference.
That question has an objectively true answer.
Our eternal destiny hinges on our response to that question. What’s ours?
This may all seem obvious but let us be assured, it is not.
It is not a given as we see from the example of the community
to whom this letter was first written.
That it is perceived as debatable, contestable,
is becoming increasingly evidenced by how professed faith in Jesus
is being played out in public – even among the highest leaders in our land.
Jesus is our Lord and Savior, our King of Righteousness and our great High Priest.
Lots of people are just fine with half of who Jesus is
– the priestly part, as our Savior.
Many of us are perfectly willing to let Jesus intercede for us, forgive us,
and even clean up our mess. Sure, Jesus can save us. We’re fine with that.
But Jesus reigning over us? Jesus as our Lord and our Savior? Not so fast.
Who is Jesus to tell me to love my enemies?
Who is Jesus to tell me not to return an eye for an eye?
Who is Jesus to tell me to forgive as I have been forgiven?
Who is Jesus to tell me to bless those who persecute us?
Who is Jesus to tell me to be merciful as God is merciful?
Who is Jesus to tell me to care for the least of these?
Who is Jesus to tell me not to announce, to boast and brag of my good deeds with trumpets, to not seek to be honored by others for all the good I do?
We make Jesus to be less than He is – all that Christ reveals Himself to be
– when what Jesus said, taught, modeled and commanded us,
– when how Jesus has empowered us through the Holy Spirit to live,
become optional — when it is convenient, when it is expedient,
or only applicable when I decide to agree with Jesus.
If Jesus is not just our Savior but our Lord,
then what Jesus specifically, clearly, and unequivocally
told us and showed us how to do –
not just believing in grace but living graciously day by day,
not just talking about love but practically, tangible loving each other,
not claiming any right to vengeance but peacefully protesting
even as we trust God to reconcile all that is wrong,
if Jesus is not just our Savior but our Lord, our great High Priest & our King of Kings,
then NO ONE can opt out of following His way, representing the Truth
that He is, and/or abiding in the everlasting Life He extends to us.
If we sacrifice this, if honoring, respecting, and following Jesus above all others
is negotiable in any way for us as Christians, then we need to recognize
we may think we know who Jesus is, but we definitely aren’t following Him.
If Jesus is able to be co-opted or compromised by our preferences, our politics, life’s pressures or anything else rivaling for our attention and allegiance,
then Jesus might be our friend, Jesus might be our inspiration,
Jesus might be our role model, but Jesus isn’t our King or our great High Priest.
Why? Because we aren’t embracing Jesus on His terms.
We are trying to fit Jesus into our terms.
We won’t end up following Jesus because we’ll be too busy going our own way.
Christ doesn’t just want to do a work FOR you.
Christ seeks to do work both IN and THROUGH you.
And that none of that work can happen unless
Jesus doesn’t just save us but Christ reigns in and through our lives.
For when we perceive and embrace Jesus as our King of Righteousness
and our Priest of Peace, we open ourselves up, through the Spirit of Christ,
to being grown in living rightly & learning how make & share peace with others.
Following Jesus is not about perfection; it is about direction.
It is not about being perfect; it is about offering our lives
as living sacrifices to our Great High Priest.
It is seeking in everything we say and do to bring glory and honor to our King.
It is through our allegiance and obedience,
our submission and our service being made perfect
by an altogether different order, the Way, the Truth and the Life of Jesus.
What at first glance may read as a technical, bizarre, and perhaps irrelevant discussion about an obscure figure from centuries ago named Melchizedek,
is in fact, the gateway for us more fully appreciate who Jesus is,
and what Christ has done and continues to do for us.
The first step of faith forward is always the same – each and every day – recognizing Jesus is of an altogether different order from any and every other path of spiritual enlightenment, way of salvation, & means of human flourishing.
Jesus is simply the best.
Jesus is the fulfillment of everything good and right that we are looking for,
that all creation needs – forever and ever and ever. Amen.