A Universal Priesthood – Hebrews 7

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One of the special things about scripture is that it testifies against the special interests on its writers. The scripture does this consistently, in no greater way than in recording through the early Jewish apostles how Christ died, the innocent condemned, who was just.

The incident with Melchizedek is another stunning example. As the author of Hebrews stated, in the Genesis record is a man who is greater than the father of Israel, Abraham. He represents a priesthood that is greater than Levi. This was apparent at least since Genesis was written. The author of Hebrews didn’t need to point this out.

The Psalms also, that claim the son of David would come as a priest in the order of Melchizedek, by virtue of an oath of God, and not by the Torah, was an admission in the heart of scripture that Israel’s own priesthood was limited and would one day become defunct. Here is a testimony in their own writings against their own national interests.

We also see the character of Abraham, and this is a very important point for the author of Hebrews. Abraham had more substantial promises from God than any man. Yet he was humble enough to recognize God’s work in another man. He recognized this man’s calling as greater than his own. Since the man we are talking about was a gentile from Canaan, Abraham’s humility was remarkable. The letter of Hebrews was calling for the same humility in regard to Jewish and gentile relationships in its own day.

When Abraham returned from the slaughter of the kings, the scripture says that Melchizedek came out to meet him. He came out with bread and wine. As a priest, bread and wine would not only have meant sustenance, but it would have represented Elohim’s pledge to his entire creation. Melchizedek did not make a sacrifice. He does not shed blood. However, the bread and wine would come to represent Elohim giving his life in Christ to redeem the cosmos.

Melchizedek stands outside Israel. Israel, as God’s vehicle to bring redemption to humanity, are themselves embroiled within the human fall and predicament. Melchizedek is not. By name he is king of righteousness and he comes from Salem, in Canaan, which means king of peace. The author of Hebrews claims this is significant, meaning that peace comes from righteousness, which is merciful justice towards the weak and outsider. This is the point Hebrews is making about the new family of God in his day, Jews and gentiles bringing peace to the cosmos through their mutual care.

Melchizedek stands distinct from Israel’s national polity. He stands outside the normal human situation of law/ retribution, blood sacrifice, war and tribalism, present in every human nation. This is why Christ, when he came, also stood outside these matters, rejecting them in his message, though he fulfilled the law. As a priest redeeming the nations, he could not come from the fallen polity of those nations, as Joshua and David did. And Christ could not be a priest in the order of Israel’s priesthood, that is, in Levi, because that priesthood presided over a nation in war. Melchizedek and Christ were people of peace.

All nations had a priesthood that represented their nation. The nation’s priesthood affirmed their tribal identity and separated them from other nations and people. Paul called this part of the “principalities and powers” that kept our world divided, and said Christ came to demolish these.

But Melchizedek represented a priesthood that was universal. Even Levi, in Abraham’s loins, paid tithes to and received blessing from Melchizedek. This is affirming a priesthood more senior than Levi and shows that the priesthood that saves Israel also saves the world, their gentile enemies and neighbours. So, if they reject their neighbour, and recoil to Levi for salvation, they are left in their faith of law/ retribution, sacrifice, war and tribal conflicts, rather than grace. They are left to consume each other in the hardness of their unhealed hearts.

The narrative of Hebrews doesn’t mean that Melchizedek was a preincarnate appearance of Christ. The mention that the Genesis text says nothing of his ancestry was significant in this case. The scriptures go to pains to detail the ancestry of its priests, so to leave out the ancestry of Melchizedek means that he represents all humanity, not a tribal lineage. That is, Melchizedek was a type, a forerunner of one who was to come, Christ. He was appointed by God a priest of the cosmos, not tied to a tribal cause, to prefigure Christ and his redemption of the world.

His priesthood is a priesthood of peace, not of tribalism. His priesthood doesn’t have a lineage, because it doesn’t depend on human fallibilities for its eternal surety. It stands rather on God’s own personal presence in Christ, in his death and resurrection.

And so, God gave us an eternal priest who is not corrupt like our human priests and doesn’t become tainted like the priesthood of Jerusalem when the author was writing. Therefore, the grace the priest is ministering doesn’t lose its confidence in the eyes of the community, and this reduces the need to take matters in our own hands, enacting violence against our neighbour to restore what we humans call justice. And because this high priest is like Melchizedek, sent from God on behalf of the whole cosmos, this grace extends beyond our tribe to all humanity made in God’s image, restoring peace to our relationships with others. This is the renewed cosmos the priest achieves.

The role of the priesthood is to minister peace, reconciliation between parties, to take away the acts of retribution which escalate, disturb and even destroy our communities. This is what Christ has done, in our conscience with God, and in our relationships with each other. The priest, who speaks on the behalf of God, says, “I have forgiven you, forgive one another.” He restores quiet to our souls. This is an essential thing in own life, in our cultures and nations. This is the priest’s role, which was achieved on the cross and his forgiveness continues to speak on our behalf in his resurrection in heavenly power. The priest’s role is peacebuilding, and this is our role in the world as his royal priesthood.

The scriptures of Israel testify that Israel must accept their gentile neighbour, for them to enter God’s purpose of salvation for the world. I f they do not do this, they will miss out on the efficacy of their eternal priest in their hearts, transforming them into God’s children. Israel’s scriptures testify against their own tribal interests but lead them to participate in God’s eternal redemption in Christ.

Of course, what the scriptures say to Israel, they say to us too. Our heart is also transformed by our high priest, as we receive and reconcile with our neighbours, the poor, foreigners and enemies through the gospel message.

The point of Hebrews 7 isn’t that because we have a better high priest, we can treat other people as inferior. Rather, the point is our high priest calls us to see his universal reach over all humanity, and to serve and suffer for all people, outside our tribal or cultic sector, just as he did for us when we were outside. This is the bread and wine Melchizedek shared, the passion of Christ for the world. We also give ourselves, as his followers, to share his passion with all others.

Levi officiated under a retributive law system, inherited from pagan human cultures, where sacrifices were required to appease the gods. This was our basic “theology” since the Garden, where we fled from God in fear.  But Christ did not offer himself at Levi’s altar. His offering wasn’t for the gods, or even for God. God didn’t need appeasement. But Christ did offer himself in love for us, to overcome the dominating gods of fear and violence that ruled in our hearts through self-condemnation. His offering was to restore us. This gives us the lead as followers of Christ, bringing restorative justice to the world, not punitive justice, which feeds into the cycle of violence.