Today, in our Western secular culture, some of the themes from the book of Hebrews, seem to be far from our cultural imagination: temple, covenant, kings, priests, blood sacrifice, atonement, clean/unclean distinctions. Those things are vestiges of an ancient barbaric civilization that are pretty much irrelevant to how we live our lives today.
Which is of course not true. While the secular culture likes to think it’s moved on from these so-called barbaric practices, these categories are still meaningful categories in modernity. They’re just not as obvious to see.
For instance, take the concept of sacrifice. We are still very much a culture that honors the idea of sacrifice, but we usually understand this as a national/political concept. The soldier who sacrifices his life on behalf of a grateful nation.
Or, perhaps a not-so-obvious one—take the concept of ritual purity and clean/unclean distinctions. Our culture today draws very clear lines of distinction between clean and unclean, but we use different language. We use language like “right side of history.” If you’re on the “right side of history” you are “clean.” If you’re not, you’re unclean.
C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery.” The present is seen as “pure” and any other time in history is seen as unclean or “backward.”
The next time some celebrity says something stupid, just watch them go through the ritual cleansing of apologizing and talking about how they will “do the work” of educating themselves, listening, and learning so as not to transgress culture’s purity codes.
It’s easy to pick on culture, but we in the church face a similar problem. We too, can think of the OT sacrificial system, Levitical purity codes as irrelevant. We see them as obsolete. And if we’re not careful, this affects how we read the Bible. We disconnect the OT from the NT. As Trace mentioned last week, we believe all of Scripture is God-breathed.
This is important for us to keep in mind because this morning we are in Hebrews 7 and we will look at the Levitical priesthood and this curious figure, Melchizedek. And as we’ll see, far from being irrelevant or obsolete, these things point forward to Christ. They help us see the main thing. They help us see what’s real and what matters most.
Here’s what’s really real: The living Triune God desires relationship with us. Jesus makes that possible. The center of God’s redemptive work in history is the cross of Christ—his atoning sacrifice through which we are reconciled and brought near to God.
Last week, Trace talked about our hope—a hope anchored in the person and work of Christ. Our hope is anchored in the priestly work of Christ, who brings us into God’s presence.
As I mentioned, today we are in chapter 7, which deals with this mysterious figure, Melchizedek and how Christ’s priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood. But before we address some of these details, let me tell you the main point of my sermon. It’s both the main point and the point of application.
In previous weeks, we’ve heard different warnings: pay attention; don’t drift; don’t harden your heart; don’t quit; hold fast…
Today’s main point is likewise simple: draw near. This comes from vs 25: “Consequently, he [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
The main point of my sermon is this: As you draw near to Christ, you can have confidence that you are fully and forever saved.
The application: draw near to Christ… this is not a one-time action, but ongoing, continuous action.
Rather than going verse by verse through chapter 7, I want to highlight two main ideas from chapter 7: (1) The Order of Melchizedek (2) The Superior Priesthood of Jesus
(1) The Order of Melchizedek
Jesus is our great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, and this is better than the Levitical priesthood.
In order for us to understand how Jesus’ priesthood is better, we have to understand what being a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” is all about. Who is Melchizedek?
In vs 1-10, the author of Hebrews reminds us of who Melchizedek is and begins to explain his significance. What we discover is that Melchizedek is there to instruct us about Jesus.
Apart from here in Hebrews, Melchizedek only appears in the Bible in two other places. The first is Genesis 14:17-20. He disappears from the storyline of Scripture until he suddenly shows up again in Psalm 110:4. And the only place he appears in the NT is here in Hebrews.
This is fascinating. How could such a seemingly insignificant figure play such a crucial role in instructing us about Jesus? This highlights the God-breathed nature of Scripture. We could not have grasped this truth apart from God revealing it to us in Scripture. The Holy Spirit inspired the author of Hebrews to reveal to us the depths of God’s word.
Many scholars think Hebrews is a sermon in the form of a letter. And so, here in vs 1-10, we have the author of Hebrews exegeting (interpreting) Genesis 14:17-20.
Let me remind you of the context in Genesis 14, where Melchizedek first appears. Abraham and his nephew Lot have separated. Abraham settles in the land of Canaan. Lot settled near the city of Sodom. And in this region during this time, various kings were at war with each other.
Four eastern kings went to war with five Caananite kings. Lot gets caught up in this and becomes a prisoner of war (POW).
Abraham gets intel about the situation and leads a search a rescue mission with 300 men to go and rescue Lot and his kinsmen. This is like an OT Seal Team Six. This victory signals God’s blessing on his people. The first of many times God would deliver his people against impossible odds.
And it is at this moment when Melchizedek first appears. Abraham returns from battle, and he is met by Melchizedek, who is identified as the king of Salem (that is, Jerusalem). Melchizedek brings out bread and wine to celebrate (This of course, foreshadowing the Lord’s supper). He is also identified as priest of God Most High.
And Melchizedek blesses Abraham saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed by God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
In return, Abraham blesses Melchizedek by giving him a tenth of everything. And that’s it. After that brief cameo, Melchizedek doesn’t appear until Psalm 110:4—a psalm about a priest-king who will serve as a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.
Now, throughout church history, some have interpreted the appearance of Melchizedek in Genesis to be a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ, what is called a Christophany (an appearance of Christ).
But I don’t think this is the case. I think Melchizedek was a real person. He was a real king… the king of Salem (Jerusalem). He existed in time and space. I think the writer of Hebrews also thought he was a real person, not a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ.
In vs 1-3, the author of Hebrews seeks to explain in more detail what was left unsaid about Melchizedek in Genesis: “For this, Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.”
Rather than being a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus, the writer of Hebrews sees Melchizedek as a “type” of Christ.
In verse 3, the author of Hebrews doesn’t say Melchizedek was the Son of God… but he was like the Son of God. He resembled him.
This type of interpretation of Scripture is called typology. Typology is a way of reading Scripture that identifies patterns of promise and fulfillment.
The “type” is the initial promise. The “antitype” is the fulfillment.
Typology is different than allegory. Usually when someone is reading the Bible allegorically, they mean they are reading it symbolically, metaphorically, or “spiritually.”
For example, an allegorical understanding of the resurrection of Jesus does not depend on the belief in a real, historical resurrection. It just means some sort of “spiritual transformation.”
That’s not typology. Typology is rooted in history and real events. The Bible is full of typological patterns that ultimately show that God is in control, directing the world according to his sovereign purposes.
One of the most significant examples of typology in Scripture is Adam. Romans 5:14 says Adam was a “type” or pattern of the one who was to come. Jesus is known as the second Adam. Where the first Adam as humanity’s representative fell short, Jesus- the second Adam was faithful.
Melchizedek was a type of priest-king. Jesus is the antitype, the fulfillment of that promise of a better priest-king.
That Melchizedek is a priest-king is significant. No other figure besides Jesus is identified as a priest-king. In the OT Law, which comes after Melchizedek, the office of priest and king were separate. Kings came from the line of Judah. Priests came from the tribe of Levi. No single person was able to hold both offices simultaneously.
Melchizedek is a type pointing to a future priest-king. The promise of something that will find its fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus is our mediator (priest) and ruler (king).
The writer of Hebrews explains the significance of Melchizedek’s name in vs 2. His name literally means righteous king. He anticipates Jesus, who is our righteous king who rules a kingdom that cannot be shaken.
Now, in vs 3 it says Melchizedek was without mother or father or genealogy. And it is for that reason some have thought this must be a pre-incarnate Christ. But the writer is not saying that Melchizedek was not a human being. He’s acknowledging the significance of Genesis’ silence on Melchizedek’s genealogy.
Why is this significant? Well, according to Mosaic Law, you could not serve as a priest unless you were had the right genealogical qualifications. You had to prove your genealogy.
It’s like a hereditary monarchy. Even if someone were to marry into the royal family, you’re never going to be King or Queen. You don’t have the right genealogical qualifications.
The point of the silence in Genesis concerning Melchizedek’s genealogy is that, like Melchizedek, Jesus’ priesthood is not established on the basis of his genealogy. Instead, it points to Jesus’ eternal priesthood as the Son of God.
Vs 16 says Jesus became a priest, “not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life.” Jesus is appointed our great high priest because he conquered death.
The other priests had to prove their genealogy and as mere mortal men, their priesthood ended with their death. In contrast, Jesus conquered death. Thus, his priesthood lasts forever. He is the eternal Son of God. He had no beginning and has no end. He has defeated death by the power of his resurrection.
To review the first main idea, the significance of a Melchizedekian priesthood is that it represents a promise of a future priest-king who would continue as a priest forever. Another Melchizedekian priest is coming. The author of Hebrews identifies this priest-king as Jesus, the Son of God.
Melchizedek represents a different kind of priest and a better priest than the Levitical priesthood.
Now that we understand what a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” is, we should ask, how is it superior to the Levitical priesthood?
This is the second main idea in chapter 7.
(2) The Superior Priesthood of Jesus
The first hint that Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood comes in vs 4-10. I won’t read this section, but here’s the summary.
The greater person blesses the lesser. Melchizedek is the greater. Abraham is the lesser. Abraham, the father of Israel, gives a tenth of everything to the greater—Melchizedek.
The priesthood in the OT is derived from the Levites. The Lord set them apart as ones who would serve and minister to the people of Israel.
The Levites were instructed by God to collect tithes from the rest of Israel. Then, within that tribe, they were to give a tenth to those who served as priests.
Melchizedek was not an Israelite. Yet, he received a tithe from Abraham. The author then suggests that the Levites in a sense also paid a tithe “through Abraham.”
And so the point is, if the Levitical priesthood paid a tithe to Melchizedek, then that means the Levitical priesthood was acknowledging the existence of a superior priesthood.
How is Jesus’ Melchizedekian priesthood better?
Well, in vs 11-28, the author identifies a number of ways Jesus’ priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood. I’ll just summarize the argument. It’s pretty straightforward.
The OT priests died, and their work was temporary.
Jesus defeated death and lives forever, meaning the effectiveness of his atoning sacrifice lasts forever!
In addition, the OT priests had to offer sacrifices for their own sins and the sins of the people. In contrast, Jesus as the sinless Son of God, did not have to offer a sacrifice for his own sins. He offered himself as a “once for all” sacrifice to deal definitively and finally with sin.
It’s interesting that the author says the Levitical priesthood was weak and useless. Weak and ineffective.
Vs 18-19: “For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.”
What does it mean that the Levitical priesthood was weak and ineffective?
It does not mean that the priesthood established by the Law was evil. It means that God designed it to be temporary.
The Law could not accomplish final and full forgiveness of sin. It simply highlighted our need for true atonement.
The OT sacrificial system did not provide full and decisive forgiveness of sin. Atonement was provided, but this had to be repeated on behalf of the people, day after day, year after year.
Jesus is the guarantor of a better covenant (vs 22). We have a better hope in Jesus than the hope that the Levitical priesthood offered.
So, for Jesus to represent the perfection of the Law means that he represents the fulfillment of the Law’s requirements. The Law doesn’t truly and finally forgive sins. The Law doesn’t transform our hearts. We need a new covenant where God will write his Law on our hearts.
The Levitical priesthood served a temporary purpose until Jesus would come to provide the once for all sacrifice needed for true atonement.
And it is because of his sacrifice that we are able to truly draw near to God.
This is where I want to emphasize today. So let me remind you of the main point and our point of application.
Draw near. As you draw near to Christ, you can have confidence that you are forever and fully saved.
Vs 25: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
Let’s break this down a little bit.
The first phrase is “he is able to save.”
The word “able” comes from the root word dunamai, which is where we get our English word “dynamite.”
Jesus is able to save. Jesus is the eternal son of God who upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb 1:3). The same power that raised Jesus from the grave is powerfully at work in our lives to bring about transformation and redemption (Ephesians 1:18-20).
The Levitical priests are dead. If you’re dead, you don’t have any power. You’re dead. But because of Jesus’ resurrection, he has power to save.
Then we should ask, to save from what?
Sin, death, and eternal damnation.
Those aren’t just Sunday school answers… as if they’re irrelevant to our lives. This is fundamental to our existence. Apart from Christ’s atoning death, we cannot draw near to God.
In Ephesians Paul says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” (Eph 2:4-5).
If that sounds too much like an intellectual answer or a Sunday school answer, here’s what this means concretely.
It means I am saved from a life of misery. I’m saved from a life of regret. The great deception of sin is that it doesn’t want you to think that it’s miserable. But it always is.
When I choose to put the interests of Elizabeth ahead of my own, I have joy, fulfillment, satisfaction. When I’m selfish, unkind, and hurtful, it’s miserable. It’s not worth it.
“Jesus is able to save to the uttermost.”
What does the author mean by “to the uttermost?”
It means Jesus is able to save fully and forever. He is able to save completely, at all times.
He is able to save fully and completely, not partially.
Again, here’s what this means practically. It means Jesus wants your whole heart.
There was a time in my life when I believed intellectually that God forgave all my sins. But I did not believe this functionally, day to day. And so I hid parts of my heart from God, thinking I was not worthy of forgiveness or thinking I could cover up my sin myself.
That was foolish. Thanks be to God you can’t outrun him.
Some of you might be approaching God like this. You’ve invited a guest into your house, but you’ve only allowed them access into the entryway. You did a frantic cleaning of the house before they showed up and you crammed stuff into another room and you shut the door. And you think, everything is neat and in order.
When you do this, you think you’ve effectively kept God at a distance out of self-protection. Because to be fully known is scary. You think he will only accept part of you. You’ve got to get your act together before God sees what you’re all about.
But the truth of the matter is that God already sees you and knows you fully because he loves you. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. And the Bible tells us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
So don’t waste your time playing a stupid game.
“He is able to save to the uttermost, those who draw near to God through him.”
The verb tense for “draw near” to God denotes ongoing continuous action.
This is not a one-time event. But it is something that we do continually. Daily. Hour by hour. It’s a direction of the heart. This involves orienting your mind, your thoughts, your loves, toward him.
Sometimes we do not draw near to God because of shame. Shame keeps us in hiding. It is a powerful emotion.
The beauty of the gospel is that Christ bore our shame as he hung naked on a cross. His blood covers us and enables us to enter the blessedness of relationship with God. We are able to draw near to God through Christ.
Our application this morning is for us to draw near. Perhaps you need to repent. And repentance is not a bad thing. Now, it can be painful, because it is painful to acknowledge that we’ve been in the wrong or that you’ve hurt someone else. But in reality, repentance is a doorway to enjoying greater freedom.
Repentance is how we draw near to God. It’s turning away from sin and turning toward God.
This morning, if you’re far from God or feel your heart drifting from God, take the liberating step of repentance and enjoy the fullness and joy of life in the Spirit. Turn away from sin and draw near to God by turning toward him.
Let me pray for us.
Father of mercies, we confess that we have sinned against you. By your Holy Spirit, come and work repentance into our hearts. Help us to see you as you are: with outstretched arms, a loving heart, and power to save. Help us to see Jesus, the friend of sinners, and to follow him more faithfully. As we have received him, so strengthen us to walk in him, depend on him, commune with him, and be conformed to him. Give us an experience of your grace that makes us bold for others, that we might joyfully tell our friends and neighbors of your saving mercy. Amen.