Summary: The priesthood and kingship of Melchizedek and Christ.
Sermon for 20 Pentecost Yr B, 22/10/2006
Based on Heb 5:1-10
By Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Melchizedek and Christ”
The Bible is not always easy to understand. Some passages sound rather foreign to contemporary people. The world then and the world today seem so different. Today’s second lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews may very well be one such passage for us. It is a portion of scripture set in the larger context of chapters four to seven, where the author makes a case for Jesus as the most superior high priest of all. The author and the original audience were most likely Jewish Christians, since the references are often to the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish priestly tradition and sacrificial system. In order to understand today’s passage, we need to remember at least four other passages, which are either directly or indirectly quoted by the author, they are: Genesis 14:17-20, Psalm 2:7-8, Psalm 110:4, and Hebrews 7. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at our passage.
The writer begins by making the point that every high priest is a human being, and functions as a mediator or representative of the people. The sense of being in solidarity with the people is important while offering gifts and sacrifices for sins. The priest is a bridge-builder between God and humans—that is the literal meaning of the Latin word for priest, pontifex.
The author says a priest “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.” This is the case because the priest too is weak and sinful, like everyone else. One principle in life is that we are most likely to identify with and trust in those who are most like us. For example, Lutherans identify with and trust other Lutherans; recovering alcoholics or drug addicts are most likely to identify with and trust other recovering alcoholics or drug addicts; and so on. In the Jewish priestly tradition and sacrificial system; the people would be most likely to turn to and trust in a priest who had compassion on them and understood their sins and weaknesses because the priest suffered from similar sins and weaknesses.
The writer then goes on to say that one does not take on the priesthood by themselves, rather, “only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” This is very true of the public ministry, even to this day. Those who do not have a call from God do not tend to last very long in ministry; they are like a square peg in a round hole. Those who view their work in ministry only as a job or a career in which to advance and become rich and famous are not often very happy campers, nor do they always succeed in reaching such goals. Those called into the ministry often find value and worth in their work even after retirement. I’ve spoken with many retired pastors who still love to do pulpit supply preaching, short term interim ministry, and pastoral visitation. They continue to give of themselves by faithful service to the Lord and his Church. As Dr. William Barclay once said: “A (person) ought to be able to look back and say, not, “I chose this work,” but rather, “God chose me and gave me this work to do.”1.
After the author speaks of the levitical priesthood in this way, they go on in verses five to ten to lay out the nature of Christ’s priesthood. In verse five, the writer tells us that it was God the Father who appointed Jesus to the priesthood. The author does this by quoting from Psalm 2:7, which was originally likely an enthronement Psalm of Israel’s king, and later came to be regarded as a Messianic Psalm, since these words were also spoken at the time of Christ’s baptism to confirm his public ministry as the Messiah.
Then, in verse six, the writer adds to the legitimacy of Christ’s role as both a priest and a king by quoting from Psalm 110:4, saying: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek. Now the name Melchizedek literally means righteous king. The original Melchizedek goes back to Genesis 14:17-20. In this passage, we learn that Abraham has just come back from a military victory, and he meets up with Melchizedek, who is described as both King of Salem, that is short for Jerusalem, as well as being a priest. Melchizedek is a rather strange and mysterious figure—we have no record in the Bible of his ancestry, birth or death, he preceded the Levitical priests, and, in the Dead Sea scrolls, he is referred to as a heavenly judge. In the Genesis passage, he shared bread and wine with Abraham, and he is described as “priest of God Most High.” Abraham accepts his authority over him by receiving a blessing through him and then Melchizedek blessed God for delivering Abraham’s enemies into his hand. In response, and as a further sign of accepting Melchizedek’s authority, Abraham “gave him one tenth of everything.” The promise that Christ shall be “a priest forever” is a reference to Christ’s divinity, and thus his superiority over all other priests.