Priestly Profiles: Our Great High Priest

Reading, or listening to, the portion of Scripture that we know as chapters 4 and 5 of Hebrews must have been a confusing experience for the Jewish believers to whom it was first written. Their need of a high priest was no news to them – their upbringing left them in no doubt of the importance of a mediator who could represent them before the throne of God. It is likely that the ministry of the high priest loomed large in their minds as one of the great privileges of Judaism upon which they had turned their backs. So far, they could follow the writer without difficulty. But his introduction of “Jesus the Son of God” as their “great high priest” was a different matter. Immediately, their mind must have filled with objections: How could the writer so cavalierly disregard the requirements of the law? How could Jesus, from the tribe of Judah, be a priest?

The writer is aware of these questions and, in 5:6 and 5:10, he introduces the answer to their objections in two quotations from Psalm 110.[1] Christ’s priesthood is not an anomaly or an aberration. Rather, it follows an established scriptural prototype – He is “an high priest after the order of Melchisedec” (5:6; 6:20).[2] And Melchisedec, notwithstanding the brief and enigmatic nature of his appearance in the pages of Genesis, turns out to be crucially important for our understanding of Christ’s priesthood, so much so that the writer has “many things to say” about him (5:11).[3] The importance of these “many things” is underscored by the fact that the writer breaks off to rebuke his readers for their failure to make spiritual progress and their lack of readiness to digest and assimilate the material that he is about to set before them.[4] That rebuke runs from 5:11 to the end of chapter 6, where the closing phrase – “an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec” – closes the parenthesis, allowing the argument of 5:10 to resume at the start of chapter 7.

That chapter lists the features of the Melchisedec priesthood that differentiate it from, and make it superior to, the Aaronic. Before embarking on this, however, the writer provides a summary of the Genesis account of Melchisedec, highlighting a number of crucial elements. He emphasises his kingly status (the word “king” appears four times in verses 1-3), his blessing of Abraham, his reception of a tithe from Abraham, and the fact that, so far as the record of Scripture is concerned, Melchisedec is “without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually” (7:3). Each of these points is developed in the passage that follows, though not in the order in which they are introduced here.

The first items that the author takes up are Melchisedec’s blessing of Abraham and Abraham’s giving of tithes to Melchisedec. These two facts are used by the writer to demonstrate the superiority of the Melchisedec priesthood to the Aaronic. Abraham gave Melchisedec “the tenth [part] of his spoils” (v4), and this demonstrated not only his own recognition of Melchisedec’s superiority, but of Levi, who “was yet in the loins of his father” (v10) when he offered tribute, and thus of all his offspring, including Aaron and all the priestly family. At the same time as Abraham was paying tithes, Melchisedec blessed Abraham. His power to bestow a blessing on Abraham also demonstrated his superiority for “without all contradiction the less is blessed of the better” (v7).

The writer then picks up on Melchisedec’s kingship. This addresses the fact that the Lord Jesus came from the tribe of Judah “of which no man gave attendance at the altar … [and] Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood” (vv13-14). This was not an insignificant issue. As the sad story of King Uzziah recorded in 2 Chronicles 26 makes clear, Israel’s polity, unlike that of many surrounding nations, was marked by a firm distinction between the function of the king and the priest.[5] Had it not been for the record of Melchisedec it might well have seemed impossible that they could ever be united in one person, but the “king of Salem, priest of the most high God” (Heb 7:1) demonstrates the possibility of a royal priest “after the similitude of Melchisedec” (v15). In this connection, the writer draws from the other Old Testament reference to Melchisedec: “The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Psa 110:4). The fact that Christ’s priesthood involved an oath while Aaron’s did not (Heb 7:21) is further evidence of the superiority of His Melchisedec-style priesthood, but it also indicates that there has been a change in the legal basis of His priesthood, “for the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (v12). This change represents the “disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof” (v18), and the bringing in of “a better testament” (v22). Thus, Christ’s priesthood is “not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life” (v16).

Finally, the writer returns to the fact that Scripture does not record Melchisedec’s genealogy, birth or death. The omission of these details from the inspired record means that Melchisedec is “made like unto the Son of God” (v3). This does not mean, as some have suggested, that he is a Christophany, an appearance of the preincarnate Christ. Rather, the Holy Spirit, in a most wonderful way, has superintended the record of his appearance in Genesis so that, centuries later, he can be taken up, under the guidance of that same Spirit and used as a picture of the One who, “because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood” (v24). In this, He stands in marked contrast to the “many priests” of the Aaronic order, who “were not suffered to continue by reason of death” (v23). The tenure of Aaron and of his sons was terminated by death. There was a limit to their power to help men and women; for a few decades they might provide some assistance, but then another priest had to take over. How different our high priest who, “because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (vv24-25).

“For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, who has been made perfect forever” (v28 LSB). These words bring to a triumphant conclusion the argument of Hebrews 7. Any qualms the readers might have harboured about the legitimacy of Christ’s priesthood have been addressed. With a masterly use of Old Testament revelation, the writer has demonstrated not just the validity of Christ’s priesthood but its superiority too. But while Hebrews 7 explains why Christ is a high priest, it does not explain how He exercises that high priestly ministry. For that, we look to Aaron, not to Melchisedec. “Beyond Hebrews 7 there is no further mention of Melchisedec. Jesus resembles Melchisedec in certain ways, but the outworking of His priesthood, which is the focus of discussion in Hebrews 7:23-10:21, parallels most closely that of the Aaronic high priests.”[6] Christ is a high priest after the order of Melchisedec, but after the pattern of Aaron, and it is to elements of that pattern that the writer will turn in the chapters that follow.

[1] See, on the use of Psalm 110 in Hebrews, Jared Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews (The Library of New Testament Studies, 537) (London: T&T Clark, 2015), especially on Hebrews 7, pp. 66-97.

[2] The word taxis, translated as “order” in these passages, literally means “type” or “class.” The idea is not so much that Melchisedec inaugurated a new order of priesthood, as Aaron did. Rather, it is that he serves as a model or prototype of the high priesthood of Christ. See, inter alia, L.D. Hurst, The Epistle to the Hebrews: Its Background of Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 58, and Dae-I Kang, “The Royal Components of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7,” Perichoresis, 10:1 (2012), p. 104.

[3] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

[4] This is not, perhaps, a strategy that one would commend to a contemporary preacher. However, we can learn a good deal from the writer of this epistle in his awareness of where his audience is and his attempts to bring them to where they need to be. We hear a good deal more about the first of these than of the second, but both are essential if God’s people are to “go on to perfection” (6:1).

[5] See Kang, “Royal Components,” 97-98.

[6] T. Desmond Alexander, Face to Face with God: A Biblical Theology of Christ as Priest and Mediator (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 94. To say that the focus shifts from Melchisedec at 7:23 seems mistaken; as suggested above, the argument of vv23-28 is closely linked with the earlier part of the chapter.