< October 25, 2009 >

Commentary on Hebrews 7:23-28

 

How can this text from Hebrews, an obscure writing in thought and language, compete with the gospel for this Sunday on Jesus' healing of blind Bartimaeus, the one who follows Jesus "on the way" of the cross (10:46-52)?

Or what if you choose to preach on the Reformation texts also assigned for this Sunday? How can you turn your back on the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34, the "mighty fortress" of Psalm 46, Paul at his best in the justification/righteousness text of Romans 3:19-28, or the "Son makes you free" text in John 8:31-36?

Given this rich choice of texts, why are you even entertaining the thought of tackling this Hebrews text? This most likely is not a household text you have previously conquered or even been interested in. Besides you don't have time to look up any information on this enigmatic priest-king Melchizedek. You could do a google search on this strange, mysterious, little-known figure, and find a few sentences for your own curiosity, but you really don't have time to develop a full-blown exegesis of this text.

For your convenience, here are two paragraphs on Melchizedek from Wikipedia on-line together with some material from the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary:
"Melchizedek is an enigmatic figure twice mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament. Melchizedek is mentioned as the King of Salem, and priest of God Most High, in the time of the biblical patriarch Abram. He brought out bread and wine, blessed Abram, and received tithes from him, Genesis 14:18-20. Reference is made to him in Psalm 110:4 where the victorious ruler is declared to be "priest forever after the order of Melchizedek."

"In the New Testament, references to Melchizedek appear only in the Epistle to the Hebrews (end I century CE). Jesus the Christ is there identified as a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek quoting from Psalm 110:4, and so Jesus plays the role of High Priest once and for all. Abraham's transfer of goods to Melchizedek is seen to imply that Melchizedek is superior to Abraham, in that Abraham is tithing to him. Thus, Melchizedek's (Jesus') priesthood is superior to the Aaronic priesthood, and the Temple in Jerusalem is now unnecessary" (Wikipedia on Melchizedek).

The name Melchizedek occurs nine times in the New Testament and only in Hebrews: (5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1, 10, 11, 15, 17, 21). In these nine occurrences before our text in 7:23-28, the point is being made is that if Melchizedek is regarded as the ideal priest-king, he is "a supernatural figure whose miraculous origin and indestructible life foreshadow the eternity of the Son of God" (HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, page 672).

Jesus' identity in Hebrews portrays Melchizedek as a forerunner of Jesus and his preistly office. The argument that precedes our text in Hebrews is to show that if Melchizedek is "without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever" (7:3). Because there were many priests as descendants of the Aaronic priesthood, all of whom ended in death, Jesus' priesthood is superior as "he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever" (7:24).

The verse that immdiately precedes the gospel text for this Sunday from Mark 10:46-52, relates directly to the theme of our text from Hebrews: "For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom (Greek: lutron) for many" (Mark 10:45). From Martin Luther's exegetical insight to let scripture interpret scripture, this theme verse from Mark is beautifully exegeted in Hebrews: "Consequently he (Jesus) is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (7:25). Jesus is the high priest whose life, death and resurrection has made the perfect and complete "ransom for many."

In God's purpose of creation and redemption, "it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens" (7:26). The language of priesthood stretches our understanding beyond comprehension. Only in God's eyes could such a one atone for our sins in a way that is holy, blameless and undefiled. Jesus has entered once for all into the holy of holies to make atonement "for many."

Exalted at the right hand of the "Most High God" (7:1), Jesus is the exalted Lord whom we confess in the Philippian hymn: "Therefore God has highly exalted him (Jesus) and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess, 'Jesus Christ is Lord,' to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11).

Jesus is unlike "other high priests." In Jesus we have one who "has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself" (7:27).

I don't know how you are doing with this text, but I am overwhelmed with the wealth of these six verses within the context of Hebrews. The author is a theological genius and a masterful artist using language to open up the incredible wealth of Jesus' role as a high priest, an image that is uniquely this author's contribution to the richness of christology present in the New Testament.

Jesus offered himself. What more can one say when we are presenting an understanding of Jesus' gift for the freedom and redemption of all humankind. There is nothing more we can say but to stand in awe of the way in which God's Son has come to us in such a personal way. Jesus puts to rest all our attempts at self-justification and atonement for our wrongs and alienation from God and one another.

At this point the author summarizes and brings the circle together. The author began with the unfulfillment of the law through the transient priest of the Aaronic order, all of whom ended in death and incompleteness. In contrast, the author has proclaimed one who fulfills the priestly role with completeness and perfection. "For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness" (7:28). In God's Son, Jesus Christ, we meet a God who holds faithfulness in perfection and "appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever" (7:28).