Hebrews is the only New Testament book that expressly identifies Jesus as high priest. Indeed, Jesus’ high priesthood is at the forefront of the author’s concerns. It is situated at the center of the book, taking up a substantial amount of space (Heb 4:14–10:22). The author focuses so much on the priesthood because he is writing to encourage the addressed Christians who were in danger of apostatizing and turning back to Judaism. The cult held a primal place in first century Judaism, and consequently it is at this point most of all that the author seeks to demonstrate the superiority of Christ over the old order.
In this connection, Hebrews makes much of the figure of Melchizedek. The author focuses on this relatively obscure Old Testament character both to validate Jesus’s priesthood and to establish its supremacy over the Levitical order. The author recognizes that it may seem strange to call Jesus a high priest, since Jesus descended from Judah, and “in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (7:14). The author references the “law of the physical command” (7:16), recalling the Old Testament stipulation that only Levites can serve as priests. The author argues that Jesus is not a priest of the Levitical order, but that his priesthood is other than and superior to the Levitical order. He has been made a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (5:10, 6:20, 7:17).
His argument is typological: the priesthood of Melchizedek is a shadow of and pointer to the sort of priesthood that Jesus would have. Most fundamentally, it is Melchizedek’s priesthood that is like Jesus’, not the other way around. Both statements are true, of course, and the author says the latter (7:15) as well as the former (7:3); however, the former statement emphasizes Jesus’ priesthood as the ultimate and main reality, the antitype and not just a type of something else. When the author states that Melchizedek, “resembling the Son of God … continues a priest forever” (7:3), he is not arguing that the historical Melchizedek described in Genesis 14 lives forever and has an eternal priesthood. He is arguing that the canonical text of Genesis 14 itself leaves gaps of information with regard to this mysterious character, and that the gaps themselves typify—prefigure, point toward—Christ. The omission of a genealogy does not indicate that Melchizedek himself was eternal, but the omission of the genealogy does typify the Son’s eternality. The use of the participle “resembling” in 7:3 is significant: it is only inasmuch as Melchizedek resembles the Son that he is said to continue forever.
Unlike the Levitical priesthood, Jesus’ Melchizedekian priesthood is eternal. This is the author’s main argument for why the Melchizedekian priesthood is superior to the Levitical order. The author returns to the concept of eternality more than any other in his discussion of Melchizedek. He repeatedly quotes Psalm 110:4, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (5:6; 6:20; 7:3, 17, 21). Due to his Melchizedekian priesthood, Jesus has become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (5:9). Melchizedek, resembling the Son of God, “continues a priest forever” (7:3). Jesus has become high priest “by the power of an indestructible life” (7:16). “He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (7:24). The main upshot of the author’s Melchizedek argument is that Jesus’ priesthood is eternal.
The author further underscores the supremacy of the Melchizedekian priesthood over the Aaronic priesthood by showing how it flanks it on either side. On the one hand, the Melchizedekian priesthood predates the Levitical priesthood. Melchizedek received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises (7:6). When Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, he did so as the father of Israel and as the progenitor of the Levitical order (7:9–10). The Levitical order is thus seen to be inferior to Melchizedek’s priesthood (7:7). Before the Levitical order existed, it was already subservient.
On the other hand, the Melchizedekian priesthood comes after the Levitical priesthood as well. “If perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood,” the author asks, “what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?” (7:11). Psalm 110:4 comes after the institution of the Levitical priesthood, and in it God gives an oath concerning the coming Messiah to the effect that he would be a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Timing matters for the author of Hebrews: “For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever” (7:28). If the oath had come before the Levitical priesthood, the objection could be raised that perhaps the Levitical priesthood was sufficient after all and the oath is now invalid. But the placement of the oath after the law of Aaronic descent clearly demonstrates the latter’s inadequacy. It is as though the Levitical priesthood had a trial run and was found wanting.
The Melchizedekian priesthood thus comes before and after the Levitical priesthood, surrounding it on all sides, exposing its inadequacy, inferiority, and temporality. The author effectively encloses the Levitical priesthood in a parentheses between the typological promise in the person of Melchizedek at the front end and the fulfillment of that promise in the Messiah at the back end. Unlike the Levitical priesthood that has become outdated, Jesus’s Melchizedekian priesthood stands firm forever. This is good news for us, as the author points out: “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 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” (7:23–25). Because Christ is our eternal priest, he is our eternal Savior.
This is a literal translation of the Greek phrase νόμον ἐντολῆς σαρκίνης. Though it is a bit clunky, it retains the specific use of νόμος in this verse, which could affect how one understands νόμος in 7:12, 19.
Schreiner, Hebrews, 219, lists Exod 28:1, 3–4, 41; 29:9, 30, 44; 30:30; 31:10; 40:13–15.
Gavin Ortlund, “Resurrected as Messiah: The Risen Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King,” JETS 54.4 (2011), 755, concurs: “The point of the Aaron-Melchizedek contrast is “to establish the permanence of Jesus’ priestly ministry.”
The author follows the same tactic when discussing the “rest” theme in chapter four. The promise to enter God’s rest is present before Joshua in God’s rest on the seventh day of creation (Heb 4:3–4) and it also comes after Joshua in the words of David spoken “so long afterwards” (4:7), emphasizing in a twofold way how the rest Joshua gave was not ultimate.