Among the New Testament writers, only the author of Hebrews refers to Jesus as High Priest. It is a bit of an ironic thing, considering the role the high priests played in Jesus’ crucifixion. At one point, the author picks out Melchizedek—an allusion you’d be forgiven for missing. Melchizedek is a relatively minor character in Abraham’s larger story, mentioned only in a few verses of the Old Testament: Genesis 14:18–20 and Psalm 110:4. He was, best we can tell, a royal priest in the city that would become Jerusalem. He was king and priest of the place that would become Israel’s capital long after his encounter with Abraham.
The author of Hebrews also includes some information about Melchizedek’s genealogy—or lack thereof—which, being beyond the Old Testament account, the author apparently garnered from extra-biblical resources now lost to history. To this the author adds a strange argument about Melchizedek being superior even to Levi, the father of Israel’s priesthood.
What in the world is the purpose of this passage? Buried in the regalia of ancient, religious ritual, through intricate and antiquated modes of thought, we are shown the superiority of the great High Priest, whom God has set in the eternal sanctuary to serve humanity forever.
That is to say, Jesus is a royal High Priest, but not at all like the high priests the audience of Hebrews knows. To what could Jesus be compared? He is likened unto that mysterious character Melchizedek, to whom Abraham bowed and offered tithes. And so Melchizedek and the whole of the Old Testament Law, prophets, and writings point to this Jesus.
Jesus is greater than Abraham. Jesus is greater than the priests, even Levi. Jesus is greater than Moses. Jesus is even greater than Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews wants us to know that if Abraham had encountered Jesus, Abraham would have bowed to Him just as he bowed to Melchizedek. Jesus is the King of righteousness, the King of peace, the High Priest forever without end, the Son of God, the only One worthy of our everything.
In this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate Jesus coming to us in Bethlehem to the songs of angels and the awe of shepherds, may we consider just how great Jesus is. If encountering Melchizedek led Abraham to offer a tenth of his plunder, how much more should an encounter with Jesus, the One who has come and is coming again, lead us to pour out our all in worship of our royal High Priest? Let us do just that this Advent season.
Hebrews 7:1-10 (NIV):
1 This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, 2 and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” 3 Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.
4 Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! 5 Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, from their fellow Israelites—even though they also are descended from Abraham. 6 This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater. 8 In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. 9 One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, 10 because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.