by Chris Ritter
“Better”… “Greater”… “Perfect.”
These are some of the words you will see sprinkled all through the New Testament Book of Hebrews. It is both a look at Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament and an explanation of why the covenant brought by Jesus supersedes all that came before. For the Jewish Christians who first read Hebrews, it makes the point (magnificently) that the Hebrew scriptures anticipated and even longed for the final revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus is not to be treated as a mere addition to their old way of life. He is the bringer of a new, better, and necessary testament.
We are tackling today a major section that spans from 4:14 through the end of Chapter Seven. As preachers are wont to do, Hebrews takes a detour. We covered that side road last week as we explored the admonition to spiritual growth and progress… going from milk to meat. It is time now to get back on the main highway. We have seen that Jesus is higher than the angels, greater than Moses and takes us to a better Promised Land. This next section celebrates Jesus as our Greater High Priest:
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.Hebrews 4
Having mentioned the priesthood in Chapter One, the preacher now turns to a sustained argument about the high priesthood of Jesus. The Latin word for priest is pontifex, meaning “bridge-builder.” Priests connect God to people and the people to God, just like our new I-74 Bridge will connect Illinois with Iowa as it spans the Mighty Mississippi.
He opens with some powerful and poetic language about the High Priest of the New Covenant. He has “passed through the heavens.” This points to his rescue mission that involved coming to earth, walking among us, going to the cross, rising from the dead, and being ascended to the Father. When my kids were growing up, there was a song they loved to sing at church camp and Vacation Bible School:
He came from Heaven to Earth, to show the way.
From the earth to the Cross, my debt to pay.
From the cross to the grave, from the grave to the skies.
Lord, I lift your name on high.
Jesus has passed through the heavens to complete a grand epoch of salvation for us.
Our High Priest is the Son of God. This is a reference to Christ’s divinity. The I-74 Bridge must have anchor points in both Illinois and Iowa. Jesus is anchored in both his complete divinity and his complete humanity. In his humanity, he was tempted… in every way you and I have been tempted, yet without sin. And the fact that Jesus knows what it is like to have sore feet, compassion fatigue, and to be harassed by the devil makes him uniquely empathetic to our human condition.
This is another way of saying “Jesus understands.” Our human struggles, temptations, and frailties are relatable to him. He is a sympathetic high priest. This is Gospel.
For our part, we are called to “hold fast our confession” (4:14). What is our Confession? Jesus Christ is Lord. The priesthood of Jesus inspired us to press on, no matter the cost. In him, we have “confidence before God” (v. 16). We are invited to come boldly before the throne of God’s grace based on the work of our Great High Priest. We will find mercy and grace in our times of need. This High Priesthood of Jesus encourages us in our prayers.
Begging the Question?
For a Jewish audience, there is an obvious objection to the claim that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is our High Priest. Under the Covenant on Moses, priests must be from the tribe of Levi and high priests must be descended from Moses’ brother, Aaron. There is a whole book, Leviticus, that provides excruciating detail about the work and requirements of the priesthood. Jesus, as the Royal Messiah, was born into the tribe of Judah and in the lineage of King David.
How is it that Jesus can be our High Priest?
Well, behind every story is a deeper story. If you study the U.S. Constitution, it is good to know that the concepts there did not appear out of the ether. No, the constitution was preceded by Articles of Confederation. There were the Federalist Papers that made the case for our form of government. You can go back further to the Declaration of Independence. Go back even further, if you like, to the Mayflower Compact and the Magna Carta in England.
To explore the priesthood of Jesus, Hebrews goes back to the very first priest mentioned in Scripture… all the way back to Genesis 14 in the days of Abraham. These are the very roots of faith. Abraham is today claimed by three major world religions as their father, but for the Jewish people he was the original Hebrew and the father of them all.
The Abraham Saga
God calls Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeans and tells him to leave his home and family and go to a land that he will show him. God leads him to a new land and makes covenant with him. He promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars.
Abram’s nephew, Lot, sort of tags along and becomes a source of trouble. Both these men grow very wealthy in herds and livestock and their workers start to fight with one another over grazing land. Abram says to Lot, “We need to social distance from one another. This is a big, rich land. You choose whichever direction you want to go. And I will go the opposite direction.” Lot chose the fertile grazing lands around the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Maybe you have heard of these places.)
These were the old, old days and kings typically ruled only over one city and its surrounding territory. This means there were dozens of kings in the small area we now think of as Israel. There was no end of political intrigue, alliances, and small-scale warfare. Once four kings got together to attack five other kings and their territories. In this ensuing battle the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah were conquered. Lot and his family were swept up in the pillaging and were taken captive along with their possessions.
A servant managed to escape to inform Abraham that he closest relative was in trouble. Abraham mustered 318 of his able-bodied men to carry out a daring night raid that chased off the invaders and rescued Lot. There was also a huge amount of loot recovered.
The King of Sodom showed up to express his gratitude to Abraham. He assumed his possessions will be kept by the victor and only asked for his people to be returned to him. Abraham did not want anyone to say that he got rich off someone else’s stuff. The King of Sodom was given back all that he lost.
But an unexpected person also showed up on the scene. He is a king, but not one of the nine kings involved in the battle.
18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
20 And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.Genesis 14
What I read to you is the entire narration involving Melchizedek. That’s it! Three verses. What does a person only warranting three verses in the Old Testament warrant three CHAPTERS in the New Testament?
Part of the answer is that Melchizedek later gets associated with the coming Messiah. Psalm 110 is one of the messianic Psalms of David:
4 The Lord has swornPsalm 110
and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”
Although a king, the Messiah will also be a priest something like Melchizedek. Those two passages are the only Old Testament mentions of this mysterious figure… a brief cameo at best. But sometimes movies have a brief scene that sets us up for the sequel. Movie nerds will analyze every detail of the scene for clues. We don’t get much about Melchizedek but what we do get is tantalizing.
Evidence of a Higher Priesthood
Melchizedek is described as the priest of God Most High. His name means something like “King of Righteousness.” He is King of Salem. Most people relate this to the later Jerusalem. Salem means “Peace.” So Melchizedek is the King of Righteousness and the King of Peace. These are words we might include in a hymn about Jesus.
The Old Testament loves “begats.” Lineage and genealogy are extremely important and that is why we get endless lists of ancestors in the Bible. Melchizedek has not begats! We don’t know where he comes from or who might have come after him. We have no birth or death narratives for him. It is almost like he is hanging out there in time and space… eternal.
Hebrews doesn’t mention his gifts of bread and wine, but the Christ imagery is heavy and multi-layered. The royal priest blesses Abraham and is response Abraham gives a tithe (tenth) of his spoils. Hebrews makes the point that the lesser man is blessed by the greater. And the greater received tithes from the lesser.
The Jewish people understood history in a unique way. When they told the story of their people, they included themselves in those events. For instance, a psalm might say, “When WE travelled through the Red Sea.” The events happened hundreds of years before the psalmist was born. But, in a sense, he/she was there, too, inside the ancestors. Figuratively speaking, they were inside their ancestors and so they were there.
Have you ever seen those Russian Nesting Dolls? One fits right inside the other. When Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, Isaac was inside him, Jacob, Joseph, Levi, Moses, and Aaron. In a sense, the entire Aaronic Priesthood yet inside of Abraham tithed to Melchizedek and received blessing from him.
Some have asked, “Was Melchizedek Jesus showing up in the Old Testament?” It is not necessary to believe that in order to embrace what Hebrews is saying. It is enough to believe the he is a pre-figuring, a type, an anticipation of Jesus.
The Fact that Psalm 110 speaks of the Messiah as “a Priest Forever After the Order of Melchizedek” reveals the need for a Higher Priesthood after a Higher Order. If the Aaronic priesthood was enough, a greater priesthood would not be prophesied.
“This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life.”Hebrews 7:15, 16
The Doctor is In
Our High Priest is a Priest of a Higher Order. This priest is necessary because the former Law “made nothing perfect” (vs. 19). Perfect is a big word in Hebrews. It means here “complete.” The priesthood of Aaron and his descendants was temporary and incomplete. It was transitory. For instance, the Old Testament priests had a mandatory retirement at age fifty. (Wait a minute! I am fifty! That must be why I have started getting mail from AARP.)
But Jesus continues in office. He is our priest forever.
24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Consequently he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God though him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”Hebrews 7:24
Notice the present, active language concerning the priesthood of Jesus. He sticks with us, he sanctifies us, is growing us, and. perfecting us. Our High Priest, Jesus, sits simultaneously in the three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King… for us and for our salvation.
The Old Testament priests served for a while and then handed the people off to others. Jesus doesn’t hand us off. He is committed to seeing his work of salvation through in our lives. As Paul told the Philippians, “He who began a good work in your will be faithful to complete it.” (Phil. 1:6)
Because of his deep commitment to our salvation, our High Priest is able to “save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.” The goal of Jesus’ priestly ministry is to restore our fellowship with God. That means his saving work in our lives is in the present.
This has to do with how you talk with your kids on Tuesday morning and how you respond to challenges at work on Thursday afternoon. Jesus is interceding for us with the Father. Blessings and strength are flowing to us. Grace is being imparted.
This dates me, but there used to be signs up at doctor’s offices back in the day when doctors sometimes travelled about to see patients. It read, “The Doctor is In.” Hebrews is telling us that our doctor is in. Our high priest is currently hearing confessions, currently praying for us, currently offering his blessings, currently cheering us on in our discipleship. Jesus Christ is working for your good today. He is saving you, blessing you, and imparting his peace.
Our High Priest loves to see you more free, more at liberty, more sanctified to God’s purpose, and more confident in grace. Earthly priests are fallible. Our priest is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the Heavens.” (7:26)
The other priests offered up daily sacrifices, for their own sins and the sins of others. The blood of bulls and goats, though required, could never really take away sins and produce the needed change. Our High Priest: “his own self He offered up once and for all.”
In Hebrews we see the difference between flawed and perfect, temporary and eternal, insufficient and abundantly enough. Because we have a better connector, we have a better connection.
When I read through what Hebrews has to say about the priesthood of Jesus, I boil it down to one significant truth: Jesus is enough for your soul. Your way is watched. Your weaknesses are understood. Your sanctification is underway. Jesus is praying for you, connecting you. He has offered sacrifice supplying all the grace you will ever need to become what God made you to be. He is empowering you today to walk in fellowship with God.
Jesus is our Melchizedek. The doctor is in.