The Pass of Melchizedek

Below is the is text from the sermon I preached this past Sunday at Mosaic. The text for the sermon was Hebrews 7:11-28. You can also click below for the audio of it.

Kris asked me a few weeks ago to speak today, and he told me he wanted me to keep us going in the book of Hebrews. So when I asked him where exactly that would land us for this week—what passage I was going to be preaching out of—I discovered that Hebrews 7 was up today. My sermon for today would have to address this mysterious priest known as Melchizedek. This is precisely the point in the book of Hebrews where I think anyone who’s like me and who’s actually reading and actually interested in what the Bible is saying begins to pull out their hair:

“Jesus is a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek? What in the world? What is the Bible going on about now?”

So as I began thinking about how I wanted to approach these few fleeting minutes that I get to stand in front of you and talk about the Bible, I began to get really burdened about the best way to approach it. And I finally settled on writing out my thoughts. I don’t normally do this for Sunday mornings, but I wanted to make sure that I got everything out that I think needs to be said—because we could easily spend a hours upon hours exploring the subtly and detail that’s been packed into this section of Hebrews. I figure, if I stick to a manuscript, I’ll be at peace knowing that I’m going everything I need to, and you’ll hopefully be at peace knowing that this is going somewhere.

So without any further ado, let’s jump straight into our passage:

(Read Hebrew 7:11-28)

Let’s pray: Father, in your infinite wisdom you have given us these ancient writings as the witness of who you are; who we are; as well as where the world, where our lives and where history are headed. Everyday we hear much of our culture quietly tells us in a million ways that everything worth experiencing or knowing in life should come to us quick and easy—with little or no struggle or suffering. But while the words of a passage like this challenge our culture, but they can also easily overwhelm and confuse us. So many of us are desperate to really, truly hear from you today but we’re pretty sure that whatever the Bible is saying here about Melchizedek isn’t going to be relevant to the blood, tears, sweat, and struggle of our lives. Grant us the humility and patience in the way we approach Scripture (and all the other areas of our lives!) so that we can hear your voice. May we never become so preoccupied with how we think you should speak to us that we actually miss your sweet whisper in what you’ve already said—even when it seems irrelevant, technical or alien at first glance. Thank you for your Spirit who is present with us even now in this place. Your Spirit who guides us into knowledge of truth and into lives of wholeness and hope. We bless you, Father, and praise you through the name of your resurrected Son, Jesus—our brother and King. Amen.

Alright. Now, what in the world are we going to do with this? The Bible is really interesting because we can read some passages and they can make us feel like we’re snuggling up to something cozy, safe and familiar. Other passages from this Book, however, absolutely baffle us.

I mean, we just read through eighteen verses but (let’s be honest) most of it said flew right over our heads. The author is talking about the Levites and the law; priesthoods, ancestries and oaths; Aaron, Moses, Melchizedek and Jesus somewhere in the middle of it all. How does any of this connect? And what does any of it mean?

And who really cares? Can’t we just go back to more familiar passages? The story of the Prodigal Son feels like a warm blanket—this feels a treadmill. Or some kind of math problem: Levites plus Priesthood multiplied by Melchizedek equals… JESUS?

So as we dive in, I would just give us encouragement that this is indeed an extraordinarily difficult passage. The author Hebrews even says so. Chapter five is where he actually first mentioned Melchizedek:

8 Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

But as soon as he’s mentioned this, he immediately writes:

11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk not solid food!

So the author here wants to emphasize something—he’s got “much to say about this” but he knows that it’s going to be stretching for people to hear. But although it’s going to be tough to swallow, he insists that they (and we too!) have got to learn to move beyond milk and toward solid food.

Make no mistake, chapter seven is the beginning of the climax of Hebrews—this is the real substance (the solid food) of what he’s wanting to say in his entire letter. What he first mentions in chapter five begins to seriously unpack here in chapter seven will continue to grow, blossom and bloom until all the way through chapter ten—until we are almost blinded by the dazzling, too-good-to-be-true hope of what he’s saying.

Does anyone in here need hope today? Real and solid hope? Hope that will stick to your stomach and you can carry with you? Because that’s what the author here is pointing us toward. This is about hope.

Then we find Melchizedek mentioned again at the end of chapter six (the passage that Kris preached on last week). He’s getting back to what he started by talking about God making “a promise” and “an oath.” The point of these two things—promises made to Abraham and an oath from God in the psalms—the writer again wants to emphasize is our hope. Here’s the end of chapter six:

18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20 where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.

I want to emphasize that the author of Hebrews isn’t taking us through this thick underbrush of Melchizedek for no reason. He’s not trying to impress us with his knowledge of trivial Bible detours. He’s taking through this thick trail because he’s our guide taking us up a an absolutely incredible mountain of hope—and this is the path.

Life is often extraordinarily difficult. The economy is in the toilet… the diagnosis just came in… the bills are piling up… this addiction seems to be unshakeable… the family is falling apart… it’s ruined and it’s my fault… I’m absolutely all alone… To say nothing of accidents, disease, genocide, famine, injustice, violence, decay and death—death that is coming for each and every one of us. Hear me on this—we’re not trying to escape the real world when we gather here together and talk about a passage like this. The original readers of this letter were facing suffering and we face suffering too. What we’re trying to do when we gather together, when we sing, when open the Scripture is to figure out whether there’s a reason to hope.

And, brothers and sisters, let me tell you that there’s every reason to hope.

In fact, we might call Hebrews 7-10 the Mount Everest of Hope in the Bible. The climb is incredibly difficult, but anyone who’s been to the top will say that there’s nothing else like it. You can’t get any higher. The author has set his face up the snow-capped peaks of hope at the top of this mountain—and he beckons us to follow. He wants to show us the breath-taking, heart-stopping view from the top. If we’re looking for an “anchor of hope,” if we want to be “greatly encouraged,” the only way up the mountain is the Pass of Melchizedek.

Now we didn’t read the first ten verses of the chapter seven, but it’s there, in those words, that we begin setting out up this mountain of hope. You can just by glancing through those verses that the author is invoking the name of a mysterious figure from the Old Testament. We’ve already been talking about him so let’s all say his name together: “Melchizedek.”

To let you know what the path looks like, we need to talk about three things: Who is this priest named Melchizedek?, What do priests do?, and finally What does this have to do with Jesus?

First, Melchizedek. This slippery fellow appears for just a split-second in the Old Testament so even if you’re looking for him, he’s going to be really easy to miss. He appears for the span of only three verses in a story from Genesis 14. In Genesis 14 we find Abram (who is later called Abraham) coming out this kind of epic battle of regional kings. Abram is tired and war-weary… but then the king of a place called Salem comes out to meet him after the battle and to bring him food and drink. This king’s name is Melchizedek.

But Genesis also tells points out that this King of Salem (by the way, that’s probably what was later called Jeru-salem), this king was also Priest of God. A king and a priest. And this Priest-King takes it on himself to bless Abram. In Genesis 12, God had just made “a promise” to Abram that he would be blessed and that the world would be blessed through him—and then we turn around two chapters later and this mysterious Priest-King is blessing him. All that happens in three verses (14:18-20).

And then Melchizedek vanishes. He’s gone as quick as he comes. No genealogy. No recorded birth. No recorded death. No mention of how he became a priest of God. In contrast to the genealogies, origin stories and recorded deaths that fill the rest of Genesis, it’s almost like this guy is just a permanent fixture in of story: “Oh yeah, then Melchizedek showed up.”

And over the centuries, people who read this seriously and careful began to have all kinds of interesting speculation about this fellow. Was he some kind of divine or semi-divine figure? Maybe an angel? After all, the Bible never told us whether or not he died… for all we know, he could still be around.

Or is this guy just a guy? Just a man? Just a great priest? Or maybe that story is just evidence, some thought, that even before the nation of Israel was created—before Isaac, Jacob or any of the twelve tribes were even around—God had established a priesthood for himself in Jeru-salem? Maybe he’s just a great priest of God before there was ever even a people of God.

We don’t have to get too deep into the speculation, I just want to point out that the audience originally reading this would have known something about this. I can say “Superman” to all of you, and even if you’ve never read comics or watched movies about him, you know something about him. Same thing—everyone knew something about this mysterious priest-king who just shows up in the Bible out of the blue and then never seems to die.

The only place that we can catch a whiff of this interesting mythology is in Psalm 110. It’s actually a rather important psalm, because it’s the most quoted Old Testament passage in the entire New Testament: “The LORD says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” Over and over in the New Testament, we find everyone talking about a coming king—this lord, small L—whom God himself asks to next to his right hand: Jesus debates the religious leaders in the temple about it. The early sermons in the book of Acts keep insisting that this Lord is Jesus. Paul over and over in his letters takes it for granted: Jesus is at God’s right hand.

The author of Hebrews, however, decides to tackle the other part of psalm. You see, the psalm continues and says, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” Whoa! Melchizedek is back with a vengeance! He’s managed to worm his way into the most often-quoted prophecy about the coming Messiah—about the coming King.

Most of the writers of the New Testament choose to emphasize the first part of that prophecy. Over and over we hear them saying that Jesus—that crucified rabbi from Nazareth—is the King who was to come. The King has finally come. Not only that, he’s going to reign forever because he was resurrected from the dead and can’t die again. That’s the drumbeat pounded over and over by the New Testament:

Jesus is at God’s right hand. Jesus is King forever. Jesus is Lord.

Hebrews, however, wants to emphasize something different about Jesus to us here. He’s not disagreeing that Jesus is the King (big K). Remember the beginning of the letter in chapter one: “about the Son [God] says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.’” But he wants us to remember something more! God swore oath in Psalm 110 that this coming King is also going to be the Priest (big P).

So this means brings us to the second question, we need to talk about priests. What do they do?

Centuries after war-weary Abram was blessed by Melchizedek, God used a man named Moses to rescue Abraham’s descendants from slavery and organize them into his people for the world. At a mountain named Sinai, God announces that Israel was to be a kingdom of priests in the world—they would be the bridge between God and rest of the world. God’s plan has always been to bring blessing, forgiveness and healing to his corrupted, rebellious and suffering Creation, and he wants to do it though humanity. So this was, after all, the role of priests—and specifically the high priest—to be God’s bridge.

God established Israel as his bridge to world. But the plan gets more specific than just that. Within Israel (the kingdom of priests), he chose one tribe (the Levites) to be his bridge to the Israelites. The Levites were set apart as the priestly tribe. You could only be a priest if you’re a Levite. And within that tribe—it gets even more specific—there was one particular priest who was God’s high priest—the ultimate symbolic bridge between God and all the rest of humanity.

The high priest was the supreme bridge for the all Levites, who are the bridge for all the Israelites, who are called to be the bridge for the entire world. Talk about a weighty position. And Moses’ brother Aaron got first crack at.

Are you with me? Does anyone need a thermal blanket? Maybe some oxygen? I know the air might be getting thin and you might be getting frostbite as we’re climbing. But we’ve talked about Melchizedek and about priests and we’re just about to start catching some of the view from chapter seven—because Hebrews is interested in getting us to asking what does this have to do with Jesus?

Short answer: everything.

The first ten verses of chapter seven is the author’s way of showing how amazing this priest-king Melchizedek was—out of obscurity, this guy blesses Abram and Abram paid tithes to him. This was long before Moses, Aaron, the Levites, any of it. He’s reflecting that Psalm 110 saying that the coming King (Jesus) being “in the order of Melchizedek,” means that it’s far far greater than being “in the order of Levi or Aaron.”

And this fits with the theme we’ve been finding over and over in the book of Hebrews: we need to fix our eyes on Jesus because he is superior to absolutely everything. Truly divine and superior to angels in chapter one, the truly supreme human being in chapter two, superior to Moses and Joshua in chapters three and four—and as we begin to climb this Everest of Hope we realize that he’s superior to the priesthood, the covenant of Sinai, and the all sacrifices.

If we take this book, if we take Scripture, seriously as our witness to what’s going on in our broken, busted and bleeding world then our Hope is finally coming into view.In the midst of all our struggle and suffering, we’ve been found by a Living Bridge to the peace, healing and forgiveness of God… and his name is Jesus.

Verses 11-14 pose the question, then, why God have promised a coming priest similar to Melchizedek if he already had the Levites as his bridge? The answer—to use the language that we’ll eventually find at the top of the mountain at the beginning of chapter ten—these priests were just a “shadow” of what God was planning. It doesn’t matter that Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (Israel’s tribe of kings) and not the tribe of Levi (Israel’s tribe of priests) because Jesus is a priest like Melchizedek.

You know how Melchizedek seemed like a permanent fixture? Jesus actually is that permanent fixture. But he’s the full package who does have genealogy, does have an origin, and even has a death certificate. But he’s this man has been resurrected from the dead and can’t be touched by death now. Whoever Melchizedek was (which we shouldn’t get distracted by) he was just a shadow of the startling reality that we’re now confronted with in the empty tomb. I mean, just listen to verses 15-16:

15 And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16 one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.

BOOM! Can you hear the swagger in that? “On the basis of the power of an indestructible life.” You can take that to the bank. He’s been dead and it didn’t stick—he ain’t dying again.

It’s almost embarrassing how badly suffering and temptation, death and the devil have been defeated by this high priest. Jesus is the Supreme High Priest, the True Bridge between humanity and God. God’s plan to bless, forgive and re-embrace the world has come to completion (it’s finally become “perfect,” verse 11) in God becoming a faithful Israelite who became the entire world’s high priest. We finally have a high priest—who knows precisely what it’s like to be weak, tempted, suffering and fully human (2:17-18, 4:15) and can bring us close to God. And verses 23-25 just continue pour it on thick:

23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Do you hear that? Jesus is this indestructible, bullet-proof priest who can’t be stopped—with “the power of an indestructible life” he is “able to save completely those who come to God through him because he always lives to intercede for them” and we might also add leap tall buildings in a single bound. Superman eat your heart out, you ain’t got nothin’ on this guy. And the center of the Christian faith is that this is actually, literally, objectively, historically true: “We do have such a high priest,” Hebrews 8 will begin. He knows what our suffering is like, he offered himself as the spotless sacrifice for the world’s rebellion, he lives forever, he cannot be stopped, he always intercedes, he saves completely, and he invites us into his embrace, he’s a bullet-proof priest forever in the order of Melchizedek—can I get an amen?

Do you see the view? This is where we’ve got to camp for the week, but this isn’t even the top! We have to wait for chapter 10 for that. But from here, we can see that a staggering landscape of hope opening wide before us. Oh so often in our lives we root whether we’re safe and secure, whether we’re going to make it, whether our lives can be put back together, whether we actually and truly loved—we base our entire existence on flimsy, crumbling things.

Weeks and days and hours pass by and we bounce our attention from hobbies and careers to relationships and pleasure to religion and morality—we’re trying to figure out the lie of the land. Trying to catch a view of what life is all about? Is the landscape of reality ultimately jagged and barren, defined supremely by suffering, pain and death?

The view is beautiful from here because the cross that stands at the top of this mountain—this Everest of Hope. The cross stands at the center of the Christian faith. And the cross doesn’t deny our suffering—in fact it kind of promises suffering. It doesn’t shrink away from pain, it actually transforms it. The cross stares unblinking into all the despair of the world and all the despair of our lives and proclaims the infinite hope of a high priest in the order Melchizedek.

We’ve been led up to this majestic view, and now I’ll echo the encouragement and warnings of the book of Hebrews—don’t ignore it. Don’t close your eyes to it. Don’t harden your heart against it. Don’t run back down the mountain. And don’t despair scrapes, scars and suffering. I know the pain we carry in here is painfully real, but the view from here says that it doesn’t define the world.

The self-giving love of God-made-man does.

Our indestructible bridge, our bullet-proof priest—the real man, Jesus, who is alive right now, ruling the world and delighted to bring you to God—he wants us to view the world from from his nail-scarred embrace—every moment, every decision, every second of every day. He wants you to embrace both him and his faithful suffering and in return receive love, forgiveness, restoration, and life eternal. When our lives begin to be colored and completely understood as entering into the suffering, death and ultimately resurrection of Jesus, then the jagged rocks of pain, suffering and death become a lot more bearable—and will even by used to teach us, to humble us, and to redeem us. And we’ll begin to glimpse the vast, beautiful sun-lit world of our crucified God who is making all things new.

The view from here—if we take the Pass of Melchizedek and begin to trust that it’s true—means that world is bigger and more beautiful than I think any of us dare to dream. As long as we embrace this priest—despite how anything else may seem—we’ve got everything we need, we’re right where God wants us, and we’re going to okay.

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