The New Testament often quotes the Old Testament. One of the most commonly quoted verses is Psalm 110:1: "The Lord says to my Lord: `Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" The Gospels tell us that Jesus quoted this verse as a scripture about the Messiah.
If we read further in this psalm, we will come to verse 4, which has a thought found nowhere else in the Old Testament. This Lord is to be a priest—not a Levitical priest, but a different kind of priest.
The book of Hebrews tells us that this verse of the psalm is also about Jesus. It briefly mentions this in chapter 5, and then again at the end of chapter 6, telling us that Jesus "has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek." Chapter 7 then explains this in more detail.
A priest without genealogy
It begins with a quick summary of the story in Genesis 14: "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, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything" (Heb. 7:1-2).
First, the unusual name is explained. The Hebrew word melek means king, and tsedek means righteousness, so his name is explained as meaning "king of righteousness." And since shalom means peace, he was also the "king of peace" (v. 2). These titles are significant because Melchizedek prefigures Jesus Christ.
Then we are told that Melchizedek was "without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever" (v. 3).
From the grammar, it is not clear whether Melchizedek is like the Son in every respect, or just in being a perpetual priest. We know that Jesus had a Father, a mother, a genealogy, a birth and a death, so he was different in these respects. Scripture does not say that Melchizedek was the Son of God—just that he was "like" the Son. Hebrews 1:1-2 implies that the Son of God did not speak to the patriarchs.
However, Melchizedek had no parents that are mentioned in Scripture. His position as priest did not depend on his parents or his genealogy (unlike the Levitical priests). His priesthood was a different kind, a different order. Similarly, Scripture says nothing about his birth or death (unlike the patriarchs, who are carefully chronicled). He did not create a dynasty of priests, each dying and passing the priesthood to a son.
We might say today that he came out of nowhere, and then disappeared. Nevertheless, he remains known as a priest even today. "He remains a priest forever ... is declared to be living" (vv. 3, 8). (A similar thought may be in Luke 20:37-38—the patriarchs are among "the living.") This mysterious Melchizedek is the prototype of Jesus Christ.
Psalm 110 predicted that the Lord would be a priest in the same way: not according to genealogy, but by special appointment. This order of priests was significant in several ways: 1) it was more important than the Levitical priesthood, 2) it implied that the Levitical priesthood was temporary and 3) the new order was permanent.
Greater than Levi
Although little is known about Melchizedek, we can discern that he was very important. Abraham gave him 10 percent of the spoils of war (v. 4). The old covenant required the Israelites to give 10 percent to the Levites, but Abraham gave 10 percent to Melchizedek even though Melchizedek was not a Levite (vs. 5-6). He was getting priestly honors before Levi was even born.
From this, the author constructs a hypothetical argument: "One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor" (vs. 9-10). The author knows that Levi didn't actually pay tithes to Melchizedek, but in a figure of speech he did. The point is that Abraham is greater than Levi, since Abraham is Levi's ancestor, and Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, since Abraham paid tithes to him, so Melchizedek is greater than Levi.
Verses 6-7 emphasize Melchizedek's greatness: He not only received a tithe, he also blessed Abraham. "And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater." Abraham is the lesser person—but the real point of comparison being made is with Levi.
Since Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, he is also greater than Levi, and—most important for the book of Hebrews—his priesthood is more important than the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priests die, but Jesus has been made a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, a priesthood that is more important for our salvation.
New priesthood implies a new law
Now the author observes that "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?" (v. 11).
Note in the middle of verse 11 that the law was given on the basis of the priesthood. The law was designed with the Levitical priesthood in mind—the law and the priesthood went together. But neither the law nor the priests could bring people to perfection. That is why Psalm 110 spoke of another priesthood.
The descendants of Aaron would be replaced by a better priesthood, a better priest—and that has enormous consequences: "For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law" (v. 12). What law is changed? The law that said only Levites could be priests. Which law said that? The old covenant. This will become more clear later in this chapter, and in the next few chapters.
But first, the author wants to make certain basic facts clear. "He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe" (v. 13). We are speaking about Jesus, of whom it is said that he is a priest after the order of Melchizedek—but Jesus was not a Levite. He belonged to the tribe of Judah, and no one from that tribe was ever a priest, and Moses did not authorize anyone from Judah to be a priest (v. 14).
"And what we have said"—that is, that the law has been changed—"is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 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" (vs. 15-16).
Jesus was appointed as priest not by a law that focused on genealogy, but because he lives forever at God's right hand. From this fact alone, we can see that the Law of Moses is no longer in force.
"The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God" (vs. 18-19). The law that restricted the priesthood to Levites was ineffective.
How much was "set aside"? Certainly, it was the regulation restricting the priesthood. But no one expected that restriction to produce perfection, anyway. There is more involved than just one regulation. It is "the law" as a whole that is under discussion here. The law of Moses did not have the power to make anyone perfect. The best that the old covenant could offer was not good enough.
Instead of the law, we are given a better hope, and since we have something better than the law, we are now able to draw near to God in a way that was not possible under the law of Moses.
Guaranteed by an oath
The author then uses a small detail from Psalm 110 to emphasize the importance of Jesus' appointment as priest. God himself makes an oath to appoint Jesus as high priest (v. 20). The descendants of Aaron became priests without any oath, but Jesus became priest by a special oath.
The old covenant was given by God, but here is a new word from God—not just an oath but also a promise of permanence: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: `You are a priest forever' " (v. 21). The old priesthood is obsolete. The old regulation was set aside. A new and better hope is given to bring people to a perfection that the law could not give.
"Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant" (v. 22). Here the word covenant is used for the first time in this letter, almost casually. It will be picked up again in the next three chapters for more detailed comment, but even here it is implied to be a replacement for the inferior, ineffective law of Moses. The discussion is not just about a minor priestly regulation but a covenant, which includes many laws.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2002. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
The author then contrasts the mortality of the Levitical priests with the immortality of Jesus Christ: "Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood" (vs. 23-24). So the fact that there were many Levitical priests is actually an illustration of their weakness, not of their effectiveness. The genealogy that validated them also testified to the weakness of the entire system. Each high priest held office only temporarily, and the entire priesthood itself was temporary.
In contrast, because Jesus lives forever, he will forever continue to be our High Priest, because his priesthood is effective in bringing us to perfection: "Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them" (v. 25).
"Such a high priest meets our need," the author says (v. 26). Jesus is exactly what we need. He was human, so he knows our needs (2:14-18), and he is now in heaven, in power, so he can effectively intercede for us. We can therefore be confident that we can approach God through him (4:14-16). He gives us access to God in a way that the Levitical priests could only symbolize.