From Outside the System

The One Year® Chronological Bible, NKJV (Tyndale, 2013), December 18

The Book of Hebrews addressed a largely Jewish-background audience. The writer seeks to demonstrate the superiority of Christ over the Levitical system established by Moses. The system, though weak in operation, presented God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness, and the way of redemption—the shedding of the blood of the innocent on behalf of the guilty.

Abraham meets Melchizedek, the “priest of God Most High,” after he returns from defeating the five kings who take the people of Sodom, including Lot, captive (Gen. 14:18-20). No genealogy is provided. All that we know is that Melchizedek feared God and represented him on earth.

Melchizedek’s priesthood preceded the Levitical system by over 600 years. Further, Abraham’s predecessors were idol worshipers (“Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods,” Josh. 24:2). Monotheism (the worship of one god) was rare in the ancient world. Therefore, Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek after God makes a covenant with him is significant. Melchizedek blesses Abram and, in turn, Abram offers him a tithe of all that he possesses.

The writer of Hebrews refers to Melchizedek as the “king of righteousness” and “the king of peace” (Heb. 7:2) and uses Melchizedek to validate the priesthood of Christ. Just as Melchizedek precedes Abraham and the Levitical priesthood established under Moses, so Jesus enters the story as the High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (7:17, 21). He bypasses the weak and inadequate (priests were sinners and the blood of animals could not remove the stain of sin) priesthood and sacrificial system.

Jesus, though the High Priest, was not a Levite. He was from outside of the levitical priesthood, in the likeness of Melchizedek. He was “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (7:26-27). Jesus—man’s perfect representative and God’s perfect substitution—“annull[ed] the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness” (7:18) and “has become a surety of a better covenant” (7:22), “for the law appoints as high priest men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever” (7:28).

The example of Melchizedek reveals a number of significant truths regarding atonement:

  • The Levitical system was temporary and inadequate. It revealed God’s holiness and man’s need of redemption, but it could not save man. It simply pointed to a coming redeemer who would fulfill every promise and picture of redemption from the garden of Eden to John the Baptist’s declaration regarding Christ, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).
  • Abraham’s faith in the promises of God preceded the Levitical law.
  • Jesus the High Priest came through the tribe of Judah, not from the tribe of Levites, as Jacob foretold in his blessing on Judah, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes” (Gen. 49:10).

Question from today’s chronological Bible reading (Heb. 4:14-7:28):
The writer of Hebrews uses an illustration from nature to teach about spiritual growth in 6:1-12. What role does cultivation play in bearing fruit? How does that transfer into the arena of spiritual growth?