Hebrews 7:1-3 – The Priesthood of Melchizedek

One of the more tantalizing problems in Hebrews is the identification of Jesus as a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Since the author of Hebrews is making the argument that Jesus is the ideal High Priest, someone might object that Jesus cannot be the High Priest since he is not from the tribe of Levi. No one from Judah could be selected as a priest, let alone a high priest. In order to solve this problem, Hebrews will identify Jesus as a priest in a different line, one that is superior to the tribe of Levi or the lines of Aaron and Zadok.

melchizedek2In the Hebrew Bible, Melchizedek is identified as both a priest and king of the city of Salem (Gen 14). After Abram rescues Lot from Mesopotamian invaders he is met by Melchizedek. He is simply identified as a “priest of God Most High” (כֹהֵ֖ן לְאֵ֥ל עֶלְיֽוֹן). He brings both bread and wine and blesses Abram, who gives the priest a tithe from the plunder.

He is mentioned a second time in Psalm 110, perhaps the most cited messianic Psalm in the New Testament. What is important for our reading of Heb 7 is that the Psalm connects the Davidic ruler to “the priesthood of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek was the priest-king of Jerusalem years before David captured the city and established it as his capitol. It is possible that David took over the title of “priest-king” of Jerusalem when he captured the Jebusite city. The kings of Judah could therefore be considered priests “in the order of Melchizedek.”

There were a number of interpretations of Melchizedek current in the first century, perhaps explaining why the author of Hebrews used this rather obscure character as an analogy for Jesus.  The Dead Sea scrolls make Melchizedek into a paradigm for the righteous remnant, awaiting the return of the Messiah.  He functions very much like Michael in Dan 12.  He is a defender of Israel who will return to punish those who opposed the righteous remnant. The Targum Jonathan argued that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah.  In the genealogies of Genesis, Shem would outlived Abraham by 35 years.  The Jews sought to find a way to explain the great Abraham giving honor to Melchizedek, they did this by making him one of Abraham’s great ancestors. The philosopher Philo described Melchizedek as the “divine logos,” not God but God’s representative in this world

The reason for all this speculation is that there is not much said in Gen 14 about who Melchizedek.  That he worships the God Most High and was the king of Salem, presumably Jerusalem is remarkable. But how can the “line of Melchizedek” superior to Levitical priesthood?

The tithe that Abram gave to Melchizedek is used as a “proof” that Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood. In the Genesis 14 story it is unusual that Abram would tithe any of the plunder, although it was common for a portion of plunder to be given to the priesthood in ancient near eastern cultures. The writer of Hebrews draws out a further point from of the story:  since the Levitical priests are present in Abram, their ancestor, the Levitical Priests paid the tithe to Melchizedek themselves.

This is a fascinating albeit odd interpretation drawn from the Hebrew Bible. Reading only Genesis 14, one would never imagine that there was an “order of Melchizedek,” nor that the Messiah would be a priest like Melchizedek. But this is not Western, modern exegesis, but a style of reading the Hebrew Bible that would have “worked” in synagogues in the first century.  How “literally” should we take this “line of Melchizedek”?  Or is the writer using exegetical techniques that modern readers have (rightly) left behind?

Acts 4 – Peter Speaks to the High Priest

In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested and brought before the high priest and some of his associates. In the previous two chapters Luke has described the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and just after that time.  He and the twelve seem to have gone regularly to the temple for prayer and worship. While they were there, they had opportunity to preach Jesus as the messiah and the gospel of the risen and ascended Jesus to groups of religiously minded Jews who were also in the Temple for prayer and worship.

Peter and John DoreIn both cases God does a miracle which demonstrates that the messianic age has begun (the descent of the Holy Spirit and the healing of a lame man), and in both cases Peter’s sermon is based solidly on messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible.  Both sermons show that Jesus was the messiah, and that while he was crucified in ignorance, that ignorance will no longer be overlooked, judgment is coming. In each case they have great success with thousands of people believing that Jesus is the messiah and that he will return soon to establish his kingdom.  As Ben Witherington comments, it is in this chapter that we “see the beginnings of the power struggle for the hearts of the Jewish people.” (Acts, 189).

Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit as he addressed the meeting. That Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit is an indication that Luke sees this speech in the tradition of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  Luke is presenting Peter as giving a prophetic speech like Isaiah or Jeremiah, directly to the leadership of the Jewish people, calling even the High Priest to repent of the sin of killing the Messiah.

The words which follow are therefore a prophetic speech of condemnation, which amazes the listeners.  But it is not Peter’s skills as an orator which is important, but that the words come through the Holy Spirit.   In fact, Luke uses this phrase in a number of places in his gospel and in Acts before a prophetic speech.*  In each case, the target of the speech is Jewish; 9:17 refers to Paul receiving the Spirit, 11:24 refers to Barnabas as a man “full of the Spirit.”

Peter asks if the healing of a lame man is a good deed or not.  If this is an act of kindness, then it must come from God.  The obvious answer seems to be yes, it is a good deed from God.  If they agree it is a good deed from God, then they have a problem:  Peter states the man was healed by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the one put to death by this very council only two months before!

The last line of his defense is a classic statement of the gospel: “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”  This is a strong statement of total dedication to Jesus Christ.  There is no possibility of religious pluralism, Jesus is in fact the only way, truth and life.  If humans (these people before Peter or any human) expect to be right with God, they can only do it through the name of Jesus. This is really an outgrowth of the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him on his right hand (Marshall, Acts, 100). The name of Jesus is now the highest authority possible, so that Paul can say in Phil 2 that at the name of Jesus every knew will bow.

There is a remarkable boldness in this statement, but from the modern perspective of religious pluralism.  The boldness is that Peter is saying this to a group of highly religious Jews who thought that they were the ones who held the right way to salvation. If you wanted to be right with God, you had to come to them and hear their interpretation of the Law and participate in worship only in the Temple, which they control.

Peter is saying that salvation now comes through Jesus, not the Temple.  Little wonder why these men were shocked at Peter’s boldness!

*See Luke 1:15, 1:41, 1:67; 4:1, Acts 2:4, 4:31, 6:3-5, 7:55, 9:17, 11:24, and 13:9.