|Abraham Meets Melchizedek (Mosaic in Basilica di San Marco)|
5 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,“You are my Son,today I have begotten you”;
6 as he says also in another place,“You are a priest forever,according to the order of Melchizedek.”
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Priests were ubiquitous in the ancient religious world. Every nation and tribe had priests who were tasked with mediating the divine-human relationship. As Paul noted regarding the Athenians, they were extremely religious with idols to just about every god under the sun, including an altar to the “unknown god” (Acts 17:22-24). This priestly work often included offering sacrifices, sometimes to appease the gods and at others to give thanks for the blessings provided to the people. Every religion and deity had its own requirements. What was true more broadly was true of the Jewish people. Jewish life, at least theoretically, centered on the Temple (though many, perhaps a majority of Jews, lived far from Jerusalem, and so they found other ways to connect with what was centered in Jerusalem). Thus, the Jews had priests who mediated that divine-human relationship, with the priestly responsibilities spelled out for the most part in the Torah (especially the Book of Leviticus). Since Christianity is rooted in Judaism, it should not surprise us that early Christians envisioned Jesus taking on a priestly role. The tricky thing was that Jesus was not of priestly descent, and Judaism was pretty explicit about who could be a priest and who could not. Jesus didn’t fit the bill. So how might Jesus be a priest while not being of the priestly line? The answer to the question is found here in the Book of Hebrews.
We’ve already encountered a reference to Jesus’ priestly role in the previous lectionary reading from Hebrews 4:12-16. In that reading, we’re told that “we have a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.” Jesus, acting as our high priest can “sympathize with our weaknesses,” because just like us he has been tested. Though tested, he did not sin. Therefore, he provides the way for us to go boldly before the throne of God and receive grace and mercy. Our reading for the week picks up where we left off the week before. In this passage, the author (we do not know the identity of the author or the recipients of the book) takes us deeper into a conversation about what it means for Jesus to be our high priest.
As we will see, according to the Book of Hebrews Jesus is a “priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” This is the answer to the question of how Jesus can be our high priest despite not having the expected pedigree for a priest within Judaism. Before we get to Jesus’ priesthood, we must first understand the nature and roles that describe and define the Jewish priesthood. The first thing to note is that high priests are chosen from among humans. As such they are “put in charge of things pertaining to God,” acting on behalf of the people of God.
The first responsibility given to the priests is offering gifts to God and making sacrifices for sins. This is important because as we move further into Hebrews, it is Jesus’ role in dealing with our sins that takes center stage. Here, we’re focused on the Aaronic priesthood. These priests can deal “gently with the ignorant and wayward since he himself is subject to weakness. Now, remember that Jesus, acting as a priest, can sympathize with our weaknesses, but unlike this priest, he doesn’t sin. Because this priest is liable to sin, he must offer sacrifices on his own behalf. It’s important to note here that the sacrifices did their job. They brought things back into balance. The problem is that they have to be repeated regularly. It’s a bit like medicine I take. If I stop taking it, I’ll go back to where I was. So, the priests offer the sacrifices regularly. But what if there was a sacrifice that was offered once and for all. It would be like taking a pill that solved my problem once and for all.
We have a contrast between the normal priestly duty and the one taken up by Jesus. In addition to that information, we are reminded that one doesn’t decide to become a priest of one’s own accord. This is not just any job. It is open only to those whom God has called. This is what happened with Aaron and his descendants. God appointed Aaron as high priest and gave to his tribe (Levites) responsibility for the religious life of the people. In time, according to the Old Testament records, the political authority would be given to another family, that is, until the monarchy fell with the Babylonian captivity. In Second Temple Judaism, the priesthood took on more political authority, especially during the Maccabean period.
Of course, the Gospels trace Jesus’ ancestry back to Judah, by way of David (thus marking his kingly role). Not being of the Aaronic or Levitical line, Jesus didn’t have a natural path to becoming a priest. So, if he were to serve in this position, he would need to claim a different kind of priesthood from that of Aaron, which was tied to the Jerusalem Temple (before 70 CE). With that in mind, Hebrews offers a different path that draws on references to a mysterious figure who appears only briefly in Genesis and one of the Psalms.
Before we get to that priestly line, we need to hear again the word about vocation. Hebrews notes that “Jesus didn’t glorify himself in becoming a high priest.” Instead, it was the one (God) who sent him who glorifies him. Thus, Hebrews wants to make sure we understand that the priestly status is a high one. Therefore, a person has to be appointed/called, just as Aaron was.
Hebrews tells us how Jesus was called to the priesthood. In making the case for this unique form of priesthood that has similarities to the Aaronic priesthood, but is different, the author quotes first from Psalm 2:7: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Heb. 5:5). In other words, he has divine status. Taking note of the divine acknowledgment of Jesus’ status as Son of God, the author continues by quoting from Psalm 110:4. That passage declares of Jesus: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Who is Melchizedek? He is the mysterious priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem), who comes out and meets Abraham after a military victory and to whom Abraham offers tithes in gratitude for the victory (Gen. 14:17-21). We should note that this priesthood is older, according to the biblical story, than the Aaronic priesthood. Thus, in the mind of the author, it is superior. Though not mentioned by the author, by connecting Jesus’ priesthood to Melchizedek, we are told that Jesus is both king and priest (as was true of the mysterious Melchizedek).
While the author affirms Jesus’ divine status as Son of God, the author also affirms Jesus’ humanity, inviting us to reflect on the “days of his flesh” when he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). Here is a reminder that Jesus did his priestly work from the cross, where he offered prayers to the one who could save him from death but chose not to do so. That is because he learned obedience amid suffering. This is a difficult passage to deal with because it suggests that God subjected the Son to suffering. Even if the Son freely chose to accept the assignment, was it necessary for him to suffer on the cross to be made perfect and achieve salvation for those who obey God? To the author, the answer is yes, and it undergirds his calling as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. In other words, the offering made by the priest holding the Melchizedek order is to offer himself (once and for all) to reconcile God and humanity. As such, Jesus holds the distinction of being our high priest, not for a moment, but forever!