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The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 7

By Thomas Charles Edwards


      THE ALLEGORY OF MELCHIZEDEK.

      HEBREWS vii. 1-28 (R.V.).

      "For this Melchizedek, King of Salem, priest of God Most High, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him, to whom also Abraham divided a tenth part of all (being first, by interpretation, King of righteousness, and then also King of Salem, which is, King of peace; without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like unto the Son of God), abideth a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was, unto whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth out of the chief spoils. And they indeed of the sons of Levi that receive the priest's office have commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law, that is, of their brethren, though these have come out of the loins of Abraham: but he whose genealogy is not counted from them hath taken tithes of Abraham, and hath blessed him that hath the promises. But without any dispute the less is blessed of the better. And here men that die receive tithes; but there one, of whom it is witnessed that he liveth. And, so to say, through Abraham even Levi, who receiveth tithes, hath paid tithes; for he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchizedek met him. Now if there was perfection through the Levitical priesthood (for under it hath the people received the Law), what further need was there that another Priest should arise after the order of Melchizedek, and not be reckoned after the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. For He of Whom these things are said belongeth to another tribe, from which no man hath given attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord hath sprung out of Judah; as to which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priests. And what we say is yet more abundantly evident, if after the likeness of Melchizedek there ariseth another Priest, Who hath been made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life: for it is witnessed of Him,

      Thou art a Priest for ever
      After the order of Melchizedek.

      For there is a disannulling of a foregoing commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and a bringing in thereupon of a better hope, through which we draw nigh unto God. And inasmuch as it is not without the taking of an oath (for they indeed have been made priests without an oath; but He with an oath by Him that saith of Him,

      The Lord sware and will not repent Himself,
      Thou art a Priest for ever);

      by so much also hath Jesus become the Surety of a better covenant. And they indeed have been made priests many in number, because that by death they are hindered from continuing: but He, because He abideth for ever, hath His priesthood unchangeable. Wherefore also He is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near unto God through Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them. For such a High-priest became us, holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; Who needeth not daily, like those high-priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people: for this He did once for all, when He offered up Himself. For the Law appointeth men high-priests, having infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was after the Law, appointeth a Son, perfected for evermore."

      Jesus has entered heaven as our Forerunner, in virtue of His eternal priesthood. The endless duration and heavenly power of His priesthood is the "hard saying" which the Hebrew Christians would not easily receive, inasmuch as it involves the setting aside of the old covenant. But it rests on the words of the inspired Psalmist. Once already an inference has been drawn from the Psalmist's prophecy. The meaning of the Sabbath rest has not been exhausted in the Sabbath of Judaism; for David, so long after the time of Moses, speaks of another and better day. Similarly in the seventh chapter the Apostle finds an argument in the mysterious words of the Psalm, "The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek."[117]

      The words are remarkable because they imply that in the heart of Judaism there lurked a yearning for another and different kind of priesthood from that of Aaron's order. It may be compared to the strange intrusion now and again of other gods than the deities of Olympus into the religion of the Greeks, either by the introduction of a new deity or by way of return to a condition of things that existed before the young gods of the court of Zeus began to hold sway. But, to add to the mysterious character of the Psalm, it gives utterance to a desire for another King also, Who should be greater than a mere son of David: "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool." Yet the Psalmist is David himself, and Christ silenced the Pharisees by asking them to explain the paradox: "If David then call Him Lord, how is He his Son?"[118] Delitzsch observes "that in no other psalm does David distinguish between himself and Messiah;" that is, in all his other predictions Messiah is David himself idealised, but in this Psalm He is David's Lord as well as his Son. The Psalmist desires a better priesthood and a better kingship.

      These aspirations are alien to the nature of Judaism. The Mosaic dispensation pointed indeed to a coming priest, and the Jews might expect Messiah to be a King. But the Priest would be the antitype of Aaron, and the King would be only the Son of David. The Psalm speaks of a Priest after the order, not of Aaron, but of Melchizedek, and of a King Who would be David's Lord. To increase the difficulty, the Priest and the King would be one and the same Person.

      Yet the Psalmist's mysterious conception comes to the surface now and again. In the Book of Zechariah the Lord commands the prophet to set crowns upon the head of Joshua the high-priest, and proclamation is made "that he shall be a priest upon his throne."[119] The Maccabaean princes are invested with priestly garments. Philo[120] has actually anticipated the Apostle in his reference to the union of the priesthood and kingship in the person of Melchizedek. We need not hesitate to say that the Apostle borrows his allegory from Philo, and finds his conception of the Priest-King in the religious insight of the profounder men, or at least in their earnest groping for better things. All this notwithstanding, his use of the allegory is original and most felicitous. He adds an idea, fraught with consequences to his argument. For the central thought of the passage is the endless duration of the priesthood of Melchizedek. The Priest-King is Priest for ever.

      We have spoken of Melchizedek's story as an allegory, not to insinuate doubt of its historical truth, but because it cannot be intended by the Apostle to have direct inferential force. It is an instance of the allegorical interpretation of Old Testament events, similar to what we constantly find in Philo, and once at least in St. Paul. Allegorical use of history has just as much force as a parable drawn from nature, and comes just as near a demonstration as the types, if it is so used by an inspired prophet in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. This is precisely the difference between our author and Philo. The latter invents allegories and lets his fancy run wild in weaving new coincidences, which Scripture does not even suggest. But the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews keeps strictly within the lines of the Psalm. We must also bear in mind that the story of Melchizedek sets forth a feature of Christ's priesthood which cannot be figured by a type of the ordinary form. Philo infers from the history of Melchizedek the sovereignty of God. The Psalmist and the Apostle teach from it the eternal duration of Christ's priesthood. But how can any type represent such a truth? How can the fleeting shadow symbolise the notion of abiding substance? The type by its very nature is transitory. That Christ is Priest for ever can be symbolically taught only by negations, by the absence of a beginning and of an end, in some such way as the hieroglyphics represent eternity by a line turning back upon itself. In this negative fashion, Melchizedek has been assimilated to the Son of God. His history was intentionally so related by God's Spirit that the sacred writer's silence even is significant. For Melchizedek suddenly appears on the scene, and as suddenly vanishes, never to return. Hitherto in the Bible story every man's descent is carefully noted, from the sons of Adam to Noah, from Noah down to Abraham. Now, however, for the first time, a man stands before us of whose genealogy and birth nothing is said. Even his death is not mentioned. What is known of him wonderfully helps the allegorical significance of the intentional silence of Scripture. He is king and priest, and the one act of his life is to bestow his priestly benediction on the heir of the promises. No more appropriate or more striking symbol of Christ's priesthood can be imagined.

      His name even is symbolical. He is "King of righteousness." By a happy coincidence, the name of his city is no less expressive of the truth to be represented. He is King of Salem, which means "King of peace." The two notions of righteousness and peace combined make up the idea of priesthood. Righteousness without peace punishes the transgressor. Peace without righteousness condones the transgression. The kingship of Melchizedek, it appears, involves that he is priest.

      This king-priest is a monotheist, though he is not of the family of Abraham. He is even priest of the Most High God, though he is outside the pale of the priesthood afterwards founded in the line of Aaron. Judaism, therefore, enjoys no monopoly of truth. As St. Paul argues that the promise is independent of the Law, because it was given four hundred years before, so our author hints at the existence of a priesthood distinct from the Levitical. What existed before Aaron may also survive him.

      Further, these two men, Melchizedek and Abraham, were mutually drawn each to the other by the force of their common piety. Melchizedek went out to meet Abraham on his return from the slaughter of the kings, apparently not because he was indebted to him for his life and the safety of his city (for the kings had gone their way as far as Dan after pillaging the Cities of the Plain), but because he felt a strong impulse to bestow his blessing on the man of faith. He met him, not as king, but as priest. Would it be too fanciful to conjecture that Abraham had that mysterious power, which some men possess and some do not, of attracting to himself and becoming a centre, around which others almost unconsciously gather? It is suggested by his entire history. Whether it was so or not, Melchizedek blessed him, and Abraham accepted the blessing, and acknowledged its priestly character by giving him the priest's portion, the tenth of the best spoils. How great must this man have been, who blessed even Abraham, and to whom Abraham, the patriarch, paid even the tenth! But the less is blessed of the greater. In Abraham the Levitical priesthood itself may be said to acknowledge the superiority of Melchizedek.[121]

      Wherein lay his greatness? He was not in the priestly line. Neither do we read that he was appointed of God. Yet no man taketh this honour unto himself. God had made him king and priest by conferring upon him the gift of innate spiritual greatness. He was one of nature's kings, born to rule, not because he was his father's son, but because he had a great soul. It is not in record that he bequeathed to his race a great idea. He created no school, and had no following. So seldom is mention made of him in the Old Testament, that the Psalmist's passing reference to his name attracts the Apostle's special notice. He became a priest in virtue of what he was as man. His authority as king sprang from character.

      Such men appear on earth now and again. But they are never accounted for. All we can say of them is that they have neither father nor mother nor genealogy. They resemble those who are born of the Spirit, of whom we know neither whence they come nor whither they go. It is only from the greatest one among these kings and priests of men that the veil is lifted. In Him we see the Son of God. In Christ we recognise the ideal greatness of sheer personality, and we at once say of all the others, as the Apostle says of Melchizedek, that they have been "made like," not unto ancestors or predecessors, but unto Him Who is Himself like His Divine Father.

      Such priests remain priests for ever. They live on by the vitality of their priesthood. They have no beginning of days or end of life. They have never been set apart with outward ritual to an official distinction, marked by days and years. Their acts are not ceremonial, and wait not on the calendar. They bless men, and the blessing abides. They pray, and the prayer dies not. If their prayer lives for ever, can we suppose that they themselves pass away? The king-priest is heir of immortality, whoever else may perish. He at least has the power of an endless life. If he dies in the flesh, he lives on in the spirit. An eternal heaven must be found or made for such men with God.

      Now this is the gist and kernel of the Apostle's beautiful allegory. The argument points to the Son of God, and leads up to the conception of His eternal priesthood in the sanctuary of heaven. Let us see how the parable is interpreted and applied.

      That Jesus is a great High-priest has been proved by argument after argument from the beginning of the Epistle. But this is not enough to show that the priesthood after the order of Aaron has passed away. The Hebrew Christians may still maintain that the Messiah perfected the Aaronic priesthood and added to it the glory of kingship. Transference of the priesthood must be proved; and it is symbolised in the history of Melchizedek. But transference of the priesthood involves much more than what has hitherto been mentioned. It implies, not merely that the priesthood after the order of Aaron has come to an end, but that the entire dispensation of law, the old covenant, is replaced by a new covenant and a better one, inasmuch as the Law was erected on the foundation[122] of the priesthood. It was a religious economy. The fundamental conceptions of the religion were guilt and forgiveness.[123] The essential fact of the dispensation was sacrifice offered for the sinner to God by a priest. The priesthood was the article of a standing or a falling Church under the Old Testament. Change of the priesthood of itself abrogates the covenant.

      What, then, is the truth in this matter? Has the priesthood been transferred? Let the story of Melchizedek, interpreted by the inspired Psalmist, supply the answer.

      First, Jesus sprang from the royal tribe of Judah, not from the sacerdotal tribe of Levi. The Apostle intentionally uses a term[124] that glances at the prophet Zechariah's prediction concerning Him Who shall arise as the dawn, and be a Priest upon His throne. We shall, therefore, entitle Him "Lord," and say that "our Lord" has risen out of Judah.[125] He is Lord and King by right of birth. But this circumstance, that He belongs to the tribe of Judah, hints, to say the least, at a transference of the priesthood. For Moses said nothing of this tribe in reference to priests, however great it became in its kings. The kingship of our Lord is foreshadowed in Melchizedek.

      Second, it is still more evident that the Aaronic priesthood has been set aside if we recall another feature in the allegory of Melchizedek. For Jesus is like Melchizedek as Priest, not as King only. The priesthood of Melchizedek sprang from the man's inherent greatness. How much more is it true of Jesus Christ that His greatness is personal! He became what He is, not by force of law, which could create only an external, carnal commandment, but by innate power, in virtue of which He will live on and His life will be indestructible.[126] The commandment that constituted Aaron priest has not indeed been violently abrogated; but it has been thrust aside in consequence of its own inner feebleness and uselessness.[127] That it has been weak and unprofitable to men is evident from the inability of the Law, as a system erected upon that priesthood, to satisfy conscience.[128] Yet this carnal, decayed priesthood was permitted to linger on and work itself out. The better hope, through which we do actually come near unto God, did not forcibly put an end to it, but was super-added.[129] Christ never formally abolished the old covenant. We cannot date its extinction. We must not say that it ceased to exist when the Supper was instituted, or when the true Passover was slain, or when the Spirit descended. The Epistle to the Hebrews is intended to awaken men to the fact that it is gone. They can hardly realise that it is dead. It has been lost, like the light of a star, in the spreading "dawn" of day. The sun of that eternal day is the infinitely great personality of Jesus Christ, born a crownless King; crowned at His death, but with thorns. Yet what mighty power He has wielded! The Galilaean has conquered. Since He has passed through the heavens from the eyes of men, thousands in every age have been ready to die for Him. Even to-day the Christianity of the greatest part of His followers consists more in profound loyalty to a personal King than in any intellectual comprehension of the Teacher's dogmatic system. Such kingly power cannot perish. Untouched by the downfall of kingdoms and the revolutions of thought, such a King will sit upon His moral throne from age to age, yesterday and to-day the same, and for ever.

      Third, the entire system or covenant based on the Aaronic priesthood has passed away and given place to a better covenant,--better in proportion to the firmer foundation on which the priesthood of Jesus rests.[130] Beyond question, the promises of God were steadfast. But men could not realise the glorious hope of their fulfilment, and that for two reasons. First, difficult conditions were imposed on fallible men. The worshipper might transgress in many points of ritual. His mediator, the priest, might err where error would be fatal to the result. Worshipper and priest, if they were thoughtful and pious men, would be haunted with the dread of having done wrong they knew not how or where, and be filled with dark forebodings. Confidence, especially full assurance, was not to be thought of. Second, Christ found it necessary to urge His disciples to believe in God. The misery of distrusting God Himself exists. Men think that He is such as they are; and, as they do not believe in themselves, their faith in God is a reed shaken by the wind. These wants were not adequately met by the old covenant. The conditions imposed perplexed men, and the revelation of God's moral character and Fatherhood was not sufficiently clear to remove distrust. The Apostle directs attention to the strange absence of any swearing of an oath on the part of God when He instituted the Aaronic priesthood, or on the part of the priest at his consecration. Yet the kingship was confirmed by oath to David. In the new covenant, on the other hand, all such fears may be dismissed. For the only condition imposed is faith. In order to make faith easy and inspire men with courage, God appoints a Surety[131] for Himself. He offers His Son as Hostage, and thus guarantees the fulfilment of His promise. As the Man Jesus, the Son of God was delivered into the hands of men. "Of the better covenant Jesus is the Surety." This will explain a word in the sixth chapter, which we were compelled at the time to put aside. For it is there said that God "mediated" with an oath.[132] We now understand that this means the appointment of Christ to be Surety of the fulfilment of God's promises. The old covenant could offer no guarantee. It is true that it was ordained in the hands of a mediator. But it is also true that the mediator was no surety, inasmuch as those priests were made without an oath. Christ has been made Priest with an oath. Therefore He is, as Jesus, the Surety of a better covenant. In what respects the covenant is better, the Apostle will soon tell us. For the present, we only know that the foundation is stronger in proportion as the oath of God reveals more fully His sincerity and love, and renders it an easier thing for men laden with guilt to trust the promise.

      Before we dismiss the subject, it may be well to remind the reader that this mention of a Surety by our author is the locus classicus of the Federalist school of divines. Cocceius and his followers present the whole range of theological doctrines under the form of covenant. They explain the words "Surety of a better covenant" to mean that Christ is appointed by God to be a Surety on behalf of men, not on behalf of God. The course of thought in the passage is, we think, decisive against this interpretation. At the same time, we readily admit that their doctrine is a just theological inference from the passage. If God swears that His gracious purposes will be fulfilled and ordains Jesus to be His Surety to men, and if also the fulfilment of the Divine promise depends on the fulfilment of certain conditions on the part of men, the oath of God will involve His enabling men to fulfil those conditions, and the Surety will become in eventual fact a Surety on behalf of men. But this is only an inference. It is not the meaning of the Apostle's words, who only speaks of the Surety on the part of God. The validity of the inference now mentioned depends on other considerations extraneous to this passage. With those considerations, therefore, we have at present nothing to do.

      Fourth, the climax of the argument is reached when the Apostle infers the endless duration of Christ's one priesthood.[133] The number of men who had been successively high-priests of the old covenant increased from age to age. Dying one after another, they were prevented from continuing as high-priests. But Melchizedek had no successor; and the Jews themselves admitted that the Christ would abide for ever. The ascending argument of the Apostle proves that He ever liveth, and has, therefore, an immutable priesthood. For, first, He is of the royal tribe, and the oath of God to David guarantees that of his kingdom there shall be no end. Again, in the greatness of His personality, He is endowed with the power of an endless life. Moreover, as Priest He has been established in His office by oath. He is, therefore, Priest for ever.

      A question suggests itself. Why is the endless life of one high-priest more effective than a succession, conceivably an endless succession, of high-priests? The eternal priesthood involves two distinct, but mutually dependent, conceptions,--power to save and intercession. In the case of any man, to live for ever means power. Even the body of our humiliation will be raised in power. Can the spirit, therefore, in the risen life, its own native home, be subject to weakness? What, then, shall we say of the risen and glorified Christ? The difference between Him and the high-priests of earth is like the difference between the body that is raised and the body that dies. In Aaron priesthood is sown in corruption, dishonour, weakness; in Christ priesthood is raised in incorruption, in glory, in power. In Aaron it is sown a natural priesthood; in Christ it is raised a spiritual priesthood. It must be that the High-priest in heaven has power to save continually and completely. Whenever help is needed, He is living. But He ever lives that He may intercede.[134] Apart from intercession on behalf of men, His power is not moral. It has no greatness or joy, or meaning. Intercession is the moral content of His powerful existence. Whenever help is needed, He is living, and is mighty[135] to save from sin, to rescue from death, to deliver from its fear.

      To prove that Christ's eternal priesthood involves power and intercession is the purpose of the next verses.[136] Such a High-priest, powerful to save and ever living to intercede, is the only One befitting us, who are at once helpless and guilty. The Apostle triumphantly unfolds the glory of this conception of a high-priest. He means Christ. But he is too triumphant to name Him. "Such a high-priest befits us." The power of His heavenly life implies the highest development of moral condition. He will address God with holy reverence.[137] He will succour men without a tinge of malice,[138] which is but another way of saying that He wishes them well from the depth of His heart. He must not be sullied by a spot of moral defilement[139] (for purity only can face God or love men). He must be set apart for His lofty function from the sinners for whom He intercedes. He must enter the true holiest place and stand in awful solitariness above the heavens of worlds and angels in the immediate presence of God. Further, He must not be under the necessity of leaving the holiest place to renew His sacrifice, as the high-priests of the old covenant had need to offer, through the priests, new sacrifices every day through the year for themselves and for the people--yea, for themselves first, then for the people--before they dared re-enter within the veil.[140] For Christ offered Himself. Such a sacrifice, once offered, was sufficient for ever.

      To sum up.[141] The Law appoints men high-priests; the word, which God has spoken unto us in His Son, appoints the Son Himself High-priest. The Law appoints men high-priests in their weakness; the word appoints the Son in His final and complete attainment of all perfection. But the Law will yield to the word. For the word, which had gone before the Law in the promise made to Abraham, was not superseded by the Law, but came also after it in the stronger form of an oath, of which the old covenant knew nothing.

      FOOTNOTES:

      [117] Ps. cx. 4.
      [118] Matt. xxii. 45.
      [119] Zech. vi. 11, 13.
      [120] SS. Legg. Alleg., iii. (vol. i., p. 103. Mang.).
      [121] Chap. vii. 6-10.
      [122] =ep' autes= (vii. 11).
      [123] Cf. chap. vi. 1.
      [124] =Anatetalken=. Cf. Zech. vi. 12. =Anatole=, dawn. The citation, as usual, is from the Septuagint.
      [125] Chap. vii. 14.
      [126] Chap. vii. 16.
      [127] =athetesis=, a setting aside (chap. vii. 18).
      [128] =ouden eteleiosen= (vii. 19).
      [129] =epeisagoge=.
      [130] Chap. vii. 20-22.
      [131] =engyos=.
      [132] =emesiteusen= (vi. 17)
      [133] Chap. vii. 23-25.
      [134] Chap. vii. 25.
      [135] =dynatai=, the emphatic word in the passage.
      [136] Chap. vii. 26.
      [137] =hosios=.
      [138] =akakos=.
      [139] =amiantos=.
      [140] Chap. vii. 27.
      [141] Chap. vii. 28.

Back to Thomas Charles Edwards index.

See Also:
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Preface
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 1
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 2
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 3
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 4
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 5
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 6
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 7
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 8
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 9
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 10
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 11
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 12
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 13
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 14
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 15
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 16

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