Letter to Hebrews

There was intense pressure for First Century Christian Jews to return to Judaism. They were harassed, jibed, persecuted, martyred, and ostracized for abandoning Judaism and following this Jesus of Nazareth. Many of them succumbed to this increasing pressure and simply found it easier to return to Judaism with its physical Temple, sacrifices, priesthood and holy city, which were all tangible evidences of God’s supposedly eternal covenant with Israel. After all, if God had really done away with the Old Covenant, then why was He still working through the Temple, the sacrifices, the Levitical priesthood, and the holy city of Jerusalem? These essential elements of Judaism and the Old Covenant still remained after Christ, so obviously He was not the Messiah, and therefore Christianity was not the true way to God, argued the First Century Jewish authorities.

Skeptics also said that Jesus could not be a priest, because he was from the House of David and not from the tribe of Levi, and then from the clan of Aaron, which was the requirement.
Levitical priesthood is more correctly known as the ‘Aaronic’ priesthood because only Levites who were descendents of Aaron could be priests. Tithing was (and is) an acknowledgement of superiority and honor. Within Israel, all Israelites paid tithes to the tribe of Levi; then all Levites paid tithes to the descendents of Aaron (priests).

The author of the Letter to Hebrews is in Rome, but it is not clear who he is. Some scholars think Paul, others think Barabbas. Anyway, whoever he is he is frustrated with the Christian Jews back home and their doubts and he is quite blunt about it. Here is what he says:
"There is a great deal that we should like to say about this high priesthood, but it is not easy to explain to you since you seem so slow to grasp spiritual truth and have become in a settled state of laziness, yes, of stupidity, in your apprehension of the same.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the Word of righteousness, for he is a babe.
But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil."

He is also saddened by the condition of his readers who by this time “ought to be teachers,” but because of the their indifference they need someone to teach them as if they were starting all over again. They can’t handle solid food; they need to be nursed!

Oy vey. You can feel the anger and frustration of the writer as he tells his readers that they are lazy, stupid and need to grow up.

Then the author uses Melchizedek to illustrate the doctrine of the sacrificial priesthood as established by Jesus. The author begins, “Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins”

He then compares and contrasts the priesthood of Melchizedek with that of Aaron, the Levitical Priesthood: The priesthood of Aaron was based on his ancestry from Abraham. The priests following Aaron were of his family, the House of Levi, and appointed priests because of their heredity. Also, these priests offered the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.

In contrast to the Levitical Priesthood is the Priesthood of Jesus, which Melchizedek foreshadows. First, Melchizedek has no genealogy in the Old Testament, and his priesthood is not based on heredity. Jesus, like Melchizedek, is a priest by divine appointment and His priesthood does not depend upon hereditary ties.

Second, Abraham recognized the priest-king Melchizedek by receiving his blessing and offering him tithes. An act of such humility signified that the priesthood which would descend from Abraham is of lesser stature than that of Melchizedek. This act also foretold that the Levitical Priesthood would be replaced by the greater, perfect, and royal priesthood of Christ.

Third, Melchizedek offered bread and wine in thanksgiving to God, prefiguring what Jesus did at the Last Supper.

Finally, Melchizedek was not a priest of the Old Covenant. Jesus, as a priest, offered the perfect sacrifice for sin and made the new, perfect, and everlasting covenant with His own blood. In all, the Letter to the Hebrews elaborates upon the historical Melchizedek and weaves an image which foreshadows Christ, who would fulfill the Old Testament covenant and priesthood.

When Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek he was in effect representing the Aaronic Priests and submitting them to Melchizedek’s superiority.

Melchizedek blessed Abraham! The writer to the Hebrews is showing that Melchizedek was superior not only to the Levitical priests, but to Abraham himself.

Relevant passages from Hebrews to our Melchizedek webpage:

Hebrews 5:4-10
4 No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was.
5 So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father. "
6 And he says in another place, "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek."
7 During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered
9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him
10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 6:19-20
19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain,
20 where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 7:1-17
1 This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him,
2 and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means "king of righteousness"; then also, "king of Salem" means "king of peace."
3 Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.
9 One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham,
10 because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.
11 If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come--one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?
12 For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.
13 He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar.
14 For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
15 And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears,
16 one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.
17 For it is declared: "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek."

Willem van Osnabrugge
November 19, 2011
Put together from many religious sites, with some of my own comments woven in.