In These Last Days-Jesus The Messiah:The High Priest We Confess (Chapter 4)

The High Priest Whom We Confess (Part One)

We turn now to the second major division of this epistle in which the writer urges us to fix our thoughts on “Jesus, the Great Priest we confess.” Due to the volume of the material in this epistle about Jesus’ priesthood, we will divide our treatment of it into two chapters. In the first, we will concern ourselves with the fundamental characteristics of priestly ministry and with the contrasts between the priestly orders of Aaron and Melchizedek. In the second, we will focus on Christ’s priestly dignity and ministry itself.

The aspect of our study on which we will focus in this chapter is, for the most part, contrastive. Given the nature of typology, there are necessarily areas in which Jesus’ priesthood corresponds to the priesthood of the old covenant. Yet, this epistle primarily emphasizes the dissimilarities between the priestly orders of Aaron and Melchizedek. The author intends to show the vast superiority of Jesus’ priesthood in Melchizedek’s order to that of Aaron and the Levitical priests. This epistle sets Jesus forth as “better” than all the messengers and mediators of the old covenant. Yet, we must be careful that we do not misunderstand the author’s meaning. He does not mean that the prophets, priests, and kings of the old covenant continue to be prophets, priests, and kings, but Jesus is superior to them, i.e., they are good, but He is better. If we understand him this way, we have totally missed his meaning. We can only understand his teaching if we understand, with him, the nature of biblical typology. Not only is the antitype always “better” than the type. It also supersedes the type. When our author argues that Jesus, a priest in the order of Melchizedek, is better than the priests of the Levitical order, he does not mean that both continue in existence but one is superior to the other. He means that Jesus has replaced Aaron and his sons as the priest of God’s people. When he argues that the new covenant is a “better covenant” than the old, he intends for us to understand that the new covenant has replaced the old covenant. In reality, it was not possible for these Hebrews to return to the old covenant system. The only thing that remained of Judaism was the empty shell of an outmoded religion that was totally void of divine sanction.

The Nature of Priestly Ministry

The author begins his argument in Hebrews four by showing that Jesus, our Great Priest, has done for new covenant believers what none of the priests of the old covenant could do. Yet, that which He has done for us is exactly what a priest is intended to do for those whom he represents. Through the redemption He has accomplished, He now invites and enables believers to approach confidently the Sovereign of the universe, knowing that He will receive us (4:14-16). The writer then assures us that our priest is not unfeeling and uncaring. No, He is able to sympathize with us, since He, being a true human being, has felt all that we feel (4:15).

He continues this line of thought in the opening verses of Hebrews five. Here he describes the fundamental qualities and duties of every high priest. In this part of his argument, he shows the similarities between Jesus’ priesthood and the Levitical priesthood.

Chosen from among Men
The first essential characteristic of one who holds the office of high priest is that he be taken from among men, i.e., human beings. Since the function of a high priest is to represent human beings, he must be a human being. He is to act on their behalf in matters related to God. His chief duty was to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin. The author wants us to understand that the priest’s duty was not to mediate disputes between human beings, but to represent men before God. Therefore, his work involved the offering of gifts and sacrifices for sin.

Appointed by God

Integral to the author’s argument is the fact that no priest entered the high priest’s office on his own initiative; God appointed him to it (5:1). God appointed to office every true priest of Aaron’s order. Jesus was no different. God appointed Him to be an everlasting priest with greater dignity than all the priests of the old covenant system. This will become clear as our author unfolds his argument in his exposition of Psalm 110. This he begins to do in Hebrews 5:5-6 but, having interrupted himself with a parenthetical warning, does not complete it until chapter seven. He writes,

5:4No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. 5So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him,
“You are my Son;
Today I have become your Father.”
6And he says in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”

In citing these two Old Testament references together, the author underscores that the Messiah is both king and priest in one person. The Son whom God has exalted to the throne is also the eternal priest who pleads our cause before God.


Another indispensable requirement for one who functions as a priest is that he be able to sympathize with those whom he represents. Our author refers to this requirement in verses two and three of this chapter. Concerning this necessary ability in those who function in the priesthood he writes, “He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his sins as well as for those of the people.” Yet, in this passage, unlike 4:15, his focus is not merely on the ability of the high priest to sympathize. Here he concentrates on the need of mere human priests to offer sacrifice for their own sinful weaknesses. Still, we need to appreciate that Jesus’ sinlessness in sharing our human weaknesses makes Him no less sensitive to our feelings and failings. Philip Hughes writes, “That Christ did not share in our sinfulness does not in any degree invalidate this fellow feeling for us and with us in our weakness. The common ground with us was that of his fellow humanity which was subject to temptation or testing.” (P. Hughes, Commentary on Hebrews, p.177).


As mentioned above, the function of the High Priest is to act on behalf of those whom he is chosen to represent. Since those whom he represents are sinners who need to be reconciled to a holy God, his work necessarily involves the offering of gifts and sacrifices for sins. Thus, the High Priest approaches God with a sacrifice intended to stay His wrath against sinners.

Jesus, A Better Priest

Jesus’ superiority over the priests of the Levitical system is due primarily to the superiority of the priestly order in which He functions to the Aaronic order. There is an integral relationship between the nature of His priesthood and the covenant that He mediates. The writer makes it plain that if He were on earth, the law would forbid His intrusion into the priesthood (7:13-14; 8:3-4). The very fact that Jesus is able to function as our Great Priest shows that He must be a priest of a different order and provides convincing evidence that God has abrogated the old covenant. Having established this fact, our author then shows that Jesus is a better priest, who mediates a better covenant, offers a better sacrifice in a better sanctuary, and perfects better worshippers.

Who was Melchizedek?

There has been a great deal of speculation concerning the identity and significance of Melchizedek. Though it might be interesting to examine the history of such speculation concerning Melchizedek, it is beyond the scope and purpose of this study to do so (If the reader is interested in such an investigation see: Bruce Demarest. A History of Interpretation of Hebrews 7,1-10 from the Reformation to the Present. Tübingin: J.C.B Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1976., and Philip E. Hughes. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. reprint, 1990, pp.237-45). We will approach this study on the presupposition that Melchizedek was an historic person who stood as a type of Christ, the King-Priest of the new covenant.

There are only two Old Testament references to Melchizedek. The first, Genesis 14:17-20, records Abraham’s historic encounter with him as the former returned from rescuing his nephew, Lot. The second, Psalm 110:4, predicts that the Messiah will be a regal priest after the order of Melchizedek. All that we know about Melchizedek and the nature of His priestly order is what we read in these passages that form the basis for our author’s argument in Hebrews 7.

Apart from the Messianic prediction of Psalm 110, it is unlikely that either we or the author of this epistle would have (apart from the Spirit’s guidance) taken much notice of this man Melchizedek. He appears briefly in the Genesis narrative, then vanishes, never to be seen or heard from again. The only information that we receive about him is that he was the king of Salem, a priest of God Most High, who, having brought out bread and wine, blessed Abraham and received from him a tenth of everything he had taken in battle. Some, e.g., James Moffatt,(Moffatt. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. ICC. Edinburgh), 1924, p. 90ff)have advanced the view that our author engaged in fanciful allegory in bringing what he did out of this historic account. Yet, the reality is that our author has simply expounded the clear Messianic prediction of Psalm 110. He has not read anything back into the Old Testament Scriptures. He has merely recognized truths that God had already revealed.

Exposition of Hebrews Seven

The argument of Hebrews seven is simply an exposition of the three facets of the Messianic prediction in Psalm 110:4. Though our author does not follow the Psalmist’s order, and there is some overlap in his treatment of these statements, we can outline his argument as follows:

1. The LORD has sworn and will not change His mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (7:1-15).

2. The LORD has sworn and will not change His mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (7:16, 23-25).

3. The LORD has sworn and will not change His mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (7:17-22). Verses 26-28 draw a sharp contrast between the priests that the law appoints and the Priest that God appoints with an oath.

In expounding each of these statements, our author shows that Christ, as a priest after the order of Melchizedek, is superior to the Levitical priests. He is superior to them because the priestly order to which He belongs is superior to theirs. His priesthood is better than theirs because, unlike theirs, His priesthood lasts forever. His priesthood is better than theirs because His appointment to office was attended by the solemnity of God’s oath. God never promised that the priestly order of Aaron would endure forever. Both the priestly practice of the individual priests within that order and the order itself were limited in duration. God intended that priestly order, which was integrally related to the old covenant, to last only as long as the Law (Mosaic covenant) lasted. Our author argues cogently that God’s stated intention to establish the Messiah as a priest of a different order clearly signalled the eventual termination of the Levitical priesthood (7:11-16).

A Priest of a Better Order

Our author’s first concern is to describe the characteristics of the Melchizedekian priestly order. His is not primarily interested in expounding the implications of the Genesis narrative. He merely does so to explain the phrase “a priest after the order of Melchizedek.” It is important to recognize that in drawing conclusions from the Genesis narrative, he does so, not by considering Melchizedek the man, but Melchizedek the priest. Thus, when he asserts that Melchizedek was “without father, without mother, without descent [pedigree] having neither beginning of days nor end of life,” he is describing the nature of his priestly order (If Melchizedek were being presented as a type of Jesus, the man, then the typical correspondences would fail. Though Jesus had no human father, He did have a mother. Melchizedek had “neither father nor mother.” Jesus’ genealogy is set forth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Melchizedek was “without genealogy.” Jesus, as to His humanity, had beginning of life. Melchizedek had “neither beginning of days nor end of life.” Where, then, is the typical correspondence?

If, on the other hand, someone should argue that it is in the eternal, divine nature of the Messiah that our author finds a typical correspondence to Melchizedek, they would create another difficulty. What would such an contention have to do with our author’s line of argument? It is plain that his purpose is to show, not only that Jesus is a priest who is superior to Aaron and his sons, but also how it is possible for Jesus to be a priest at all. This has nothing to do with His deity. The question is, “How can one who is born in the tribe of Judah officiate as a priest?” He does not answer that such things make no difference because the Messiah is the eternal God. Though that is quite true as an ontological affirmation concerning the person of the Messiah, it completely misses the point. Our author has consistently argued that our Great Priest is a true man who learned obedience through the things that He suffered. He is one who feels with us because He has been put to the test just like we are. It is this man who has suffered for us. It is this man who has ascended into heaven and entered the heavenly holy place. It is He who now appears in the presence of God for us. It is He who is coming again in power and great glory. How is it that this man can act as our priest if He is without the credentials prescribed by Mosaic legislation? This is the question that our author answers. It is neither Jesus’ humanity nor His deity to which Melchizedek corresponds typically. It is His priestly ministry that is in question). He is not merely arguing from the silence of the Genesis narrative concerning his birth, death, parentage, etc. that as a man, Melchizedek was a type of Him who is without beginning of days or end of life.(Many have supposed that our author argues from the silence of the Genesis narrative concerning the birth and death of Melchizedek that the Holy Spirit intended, by this silence, to indicate that he was a type of Christ who, as eternal God, was truly “without beginning of days or end of life.” I agree with John Brown that to argue that “it is testified of him that he lives” merely from the fact that we have no account of his death “. . .savors more of rabbinical trifling than anything else.” Hebrews p. 333.) He has no interest, at this point, in pursuing an ontological argument concerning the person of the Messiah. He concerns himself instead with the nature of Jesus’ priesthood. John Brown, in his usual perceptive manner, has identified this as the key to understanding this otherwise difficult verse. He wrote, “The key to the true meaning of the passage is to be found in the peculiar view the Apostle is here taking of Melchisedec. He is speaking of him as a priest; and as a priest he is said to have had no father, or mother, or genealogy. The last statement is explanatory of the two former (italics mine).(J. Brown. Hebrews, p.327).

To show that Jesus is a Priest of a better order, our author first describes the ways in which Melchizedek’s order is superior to Aaron’s. He then recites the ways in which Abraham, the patriarch, acknowledged this superiority. Finally, he argues that the Levitical priesthood must have been inferior, since the prophecy of Psalm 110:4 predicted that God was going to replace it. We will now consider each of these factors individually.

Characteristics of the Melchizedekian Order

No Pedigree Needed

When our author refers to Melchizedek as “without father, without mother,” he indicates that the priestly order to which he belonged required no pedigree. A priest’s parentage was of no importance. This is clearly in contrast to the requirements of the Mosaic legislation concerning qualifications for the priesthood. Under the Levitical system a person could not function in the priestly ministry unless he could show that he belonged to the tribe of Levi. Remember that those priests who returned from the captivity were not able to officiate as priests until they could prove their priestly pedigree. Of them we read in Ezra 2:62-63; Neh. 7:64-65,

These searched for their family records, but could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor, therefore, ordered them not to eat any of the most sacred food until there should be a priest ministering with the Urim and Thummim. (See also Num. 16:39).

There are at least two reasons why this is important to the argument at hand. First, it indicates that the dignity of the priests of this order was not personal, but one conferred on them by the Law (Old Covenant). Their right to receive tithes and grant priestly blessings was a power conferred on them by legal decree (Heb. 7:5). Melchizedek, on the other hand, possessed a dignity that was both inherent and personal. His priesthood was unencumbered by the requirements of Mosaic legislation.

Not only does the law confer this dignity, however. It also defines its boundaries and delimits the area of its validity. Precedence it gives, but only over fellow Israelites who like the priests themselves are “descended from the loins of Abraham”. This is why the designation of Abraham as “patriach”[sic] (verse 4) is so pointed. The whole complex of Law-Priesthood-tithes is designed to work, and does work, within the boundaries of Abraham’s people. But the entire scheme is relativised by the spectacle of Abraham (the father of them all, no less!) giving tithes to one who stood completely outside the system. And this, not on the basis of legal obligation, but out of his free recognition of one who stood superior to himself [italics mine]. Herein lies the greatness of Melchizedek. . . he is one who stands quite above the entire structure of Law and Priesthood, dependent on neither legal nor levitical descent and yet acknowledged as superior by none other than Father Abraham. (Graham Hughes. Hebrews and Hermeneutics, p. 16.).

There is a second reason why this is important. If Jesus’ fitness to act as our High Priest were dependent on proper pedigree as required by the law, He would be totally disqualified. If the Mosaic covenant and the Levitical system that accompanied it were still in force, Jesus could not possibly be our Great High Priest.

7:12For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law. 13He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. 14For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests (Heb 7:12-14).

Yet, His lack of priestly pedigree presents no problem. The priestly order in which He officiates depends not on ancestral regulations, but on personal dignity, derived from the power of an indestructible life (7:16).

No Term Limitations

The second characteristic of Melchizedek’s priestly order to which our author calls our attention is its lack of term limitations. Melchizedek, as a priest, was “without beginning of days or end of life.” This does not mean that Melchizedek, as a type of Christ, continues to be a priest for eternity. It means that his priesthood is coextensive with his life. As long as he lived, he continued to function as a priest. John Brown wrote, “The meaning is “Melchisedec continued a priest during the whole of his life. He did not, like the Levitical priests, at an appointed period cease to minister; while he continued to live he continued to minister.””(Brown, Hebrews, p. 328). Notice the contrast between Melchizedek and the Levitical priests on whose ministry the Mosaic legislation placed strict temporal limitations. The age limit for those ministering in the tabernacle is repeated several times in the fourth chapter of Numbers. The regulation was as follows, “Count all the men from thirty to fifty years of age who come to serve in the work of the tent of meeting” (Num 4:2, 23, 30, 35, 39, 43, 47). As priests these men from the tribe of Levi had a beginning of days and an end of life. No such limitations were placed on Melchizedek.

No National Limitations

A third characteristic of Melchizedek’s priestly order is that it was not limited to one nation. Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High who functioned outside Israel’s national boundaries. In fact, he was a priest long before God ever established Israel as a nation. His order of priesthood antedates and supersedes the Levitical priesthood. It was not limited to one nation, but is universal in scope. Jesus, as a priest in Melchizedek’s order, represents people of every nation. He intercedes for all who come to God by Him.

Abraham’s Acknowledgement of Melchizedek’s superiority

Our author begins this section of his argument by calling us to consider how great this man Melchizedek was. Then, he substantiates his assertion of Melchizedek’s greatness by citing the details of Abraham’s interaction with him. He argues his case by first affirming Abraham’s greatness and importance in relation to his posterity–”the patriarch Abraham.” Then he shows that Abraham, from whom Levi and his sons descended, received blessing from and paid tithes to Melchizedek. In both actions, Abraham, who is greater than those who descended from him, is shown to be inferior to Melchizedek (7:4-10).

Abraham’s Greatness

Our author sets Abraham’s greatness before us when he refers to him as “the patriarch Abraham.” The word “patriarch” (ruling father) was a title used in the Bible of only a few men. It occurs only four times in the New Testament Scriptures (Acts 2:29; 7:8,9; Heb 7:4). In each case, the writers used it of men who stood as princes or rulers of their families. Our author used it of Abraham who was the progenitor of the entire nation (Heb 7:4). Stephen used it to refer to the twelve sons of Israel who stood at the head of their respective tribes (Acts 7:8-9). Also, Peter used it of David who stood at the head of Israel’s royal family (Acts 2:29). Abraham stands at the head of Israel’s family tree. He is the patriarch of the patriarchs. It seemed inconceivable to the Jews that anyone could have been greater than father Abraham. When they confronted Jesus about His claims they asked, “You are not greater than our father Abraham, are you” (John 8:53)?

Yet, the true greatness of Abraham went beyond the fact that he was the physical progenitor of the entire nation. It consisted in his position as the covenant head of the nation. The author of this epistle describes him as “him who had the promises” (7:6). Later (v. 10), when he tells us that “Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor,” he has more than natural generation in mind. He was thinking of the fact that Abraham acted as a representative for all the heirs of the covenant promises in him. John Owen expressed the thought this way, “Abraham [was] acting as a covenanter in the name of his posterity.” (Owen, Hebrews, p.387.) Along the same line, John Brown made the following penetrating comment,

To him [Abraham] the promises of the peculiar privileges to be bestowed on his posterity were given. He was as it were, not the fountain indeed, but the reservoir from which they flowed out to his posterity. Every religious privilege they enjoyed, they enjoyed because they were his posterity. In his person there was concentrated all the sacred dignity which belonged to the peculiar people of God. Whatever was venerable and holy about the Israelites, or the system under which they were placed, was essentially to be found in their patriarch.

(Brown, Hebrews, p. 329.)

Abraham, both as the natural progenitor of the nation of Israel and as the covenant head and representative of all the heirs of the covenant promises, was greater than all his posterity.

Melchizedek’s Superiority

Before we consider how Abraham acknowledged Melchizedek’s superiority to himself, we should consider Melchizedek’s inferiority to Christ. Melchizedek was only a type, a model of the great priest who was to come. One of the plain principles governing the study of biblical typology is that the type is always inferior to the fulfillment (antitype). Our author’s argument runs like this: Christ (the antitype) is superior to Melchizedek (the antitype), who is superior to Abraham, who is superior to all his posterity, including Levi and his sons. Therefore, Christ, our Great Priest, is superior to all the priests of the Levitical order.

Our author argues that, by two acts, Abraham acknowledged Melchizedek’s superiority. He gave him a tenth of the spoils of battle and received his priestly blessing. In receiving Melchizedek’s priestly blessing, Abraham acknowledged his inferiority to this priest of God Most High, since “. . .without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater” (7:7). Had Abraham been superior to Melchizedek, he would have pronounced the blessing rather than receiving it.

That Abraham paid a tenth to Melchizedek illustrates his acknowledgement of the latter’s superiority in at least two ways. First, the act of paying a tithe to Melchizedek was, in itself, an acknowledgement of his spiritual superiority. People never pay religious homage to those whom they perceive to be inferior to them in sacred dignity. Besides this, Abraham, as far as we can tell, paid voluntary homage to Melchizedek, simply because he perceived his superior dignity as a priest of God Most High. By contrast, the priests of the Levitical order received tithes because the law required it. Our author writes, “Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people–that is, their brothers–even though their brothers are descended from Abraham” (v. 5). The Israelites paid tithes to these priests not because they perceived in them an inherent dignity and superiority, but because the law required it.


Thus far we have learned that all the essential characteristics of one who functions in the priestly ministry are found in Jesus, our Great High Priest. He has been chosen from men and appointed by God to be a sympathetic representative for all who come to God by Him. In this respect, He is like the priests of the Levitical order. Yet, as the great antitypical priest to which they pointed, He is infinitely superior to them. One reason for this superiority is that He belongs to a superior priestly order. He is a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” His qualifications for the priestly ministry rest not on ancestral pedigree but on His essential dignity. Unlike the priests of the Levitical system, the duration of His ministry is not limited by age or death. He is a priest as long as He lives. Finally, His ministry, unlike theirs, is not confined to the covenant nation, Israel. He is a universal priest who is able to save completely all who come to God by Him.


1 Response to “In These Last Days-Jesus The Messiah:The High Priest We Confess (Chapter 4)”

  1. August 3, 2013 at 3:07 pm

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