“In the same way, Christ did not exalt himself to become a high priest, but God who said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father,’ also says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever had someone make an obscure reference? I’m a big nerd with a head full of fairly useless trivia. I’m sure I make them all the time. The thing is, though, if you’re the one making the obscure reference, it’s probably not obscure to you. But obscure references are a pain in the neck. They’re a pain to the one making them because you have to stop while you’re making a point to explain them. Why can’t everyone simply have a broader grasp of…everything? They’re a pain to the one hearing them because they don’t understand them. Why not find some clearer way to communicate that everyone understands instead of being a smarty-pants know-it-all? Well, the author of Hebrews makes an obscure reference here at the beginning of chapter 5 and doesn’t explain it until chapter 7. Rather than making you wait in confused suspense, let’s unpack it right quick this morning.
When Abraham and his nephew, Lot, got settled in the land to which God had sent them from Ur, and they began to both become wealthier and wealthier, they began to run into a problem of resources. The land they were trying to inhabit together was not sufficient to support both of their flocks, and it was starting to cause conflict between their respective sheepherders. The solution they worked out between them was to amicably part ways. Abraham took Lot to the top of a mountain from which they could see the whole region and gave him the first choice of land. Lot ultimately headed in the direction of Sodom and Gomorrah whose land was rich and fertile…and where there was a little more culture and excitement that captured the young man’s attention.
Unfortunately for Lot, by leaving the wilderness and settling for civilization, he found himself in the middle of and ultimately the victim of geopolitical wranglings. A coalition of five kings united to conquer and divide up the land where Lot had made his home. When Abraham heard about Lot’s being captured, he marshalled his own forces and set out to rescue him. In a truly exciting tale (which was put wonderfully to music in a piece by composer David Holsinger called, Abram’s Pursuit), Abraham tracks down this five-king army, defeats them entirely, and rescues Lot and all his possessions. You can find this whole story in Genesis 14.
On his way back home, Abraham came across Melchizedek, the “king of Salem,” who is also identified as a “priest to God most high,” and whose name means “king of righteousness.” Melchizedek speaks a word of blessing over Abraham who in return gives him a tithe of his spoils of victory. The whole episode is given exactly four verses’ worth of attention and Melchizedek disappears into history. He would be completely lost too except that one of Abraham’s more famous descendants, King David, writes a song a few hundred years later that would eventually become known to us as Psalm 110 in which he prophetically describes the coming Messiah as “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” Because it’s a psalm and because Melchizedek only merited a single mention in the whole of the rest of the Scriptures, we don’t have any context as to why David chose this particular phrase beyond “God inspired him to write it” which, honestly, feels like a bit of a cop out in this case.
Based on these two fleeting mentions, the author of Hebrews grabs hold of this truly obscure reference to draw an illustration for how his audience can understand Jesus’ priestly position. Like I said, he goes on in chapter 7 to unpack this reference in more detail. We’ll spend more time on that when we get there, but it’s an interesting reference for him to use as it doesn’t have any real historical context. Rather, he uses the lack of historical context to do a bit of interpretive jujitsu in order to give his audience something a bit more concrete to wrap their minds around.
The reason for all of this is that critics in his day were no doubt quick to point out that Jesus didn’t have any of the right kinds of pedigree to really be considered a priest. There had never been any other priests like the author of Hebrews was trying to argue He was. Thankfully, though, there was this obscure character named Melchizedek to whom he could point and say, “Nope, you’re wrong. The Scriptures clearly refer to him as a priest to God most high in spite of the fact that he definitely didn’t have any of the pedigree you are demanding. Melchizedek was called a priest to God most high before any of the requirements for the priesthood were given by Moses in the Law. If he could be called a priest to God most high, then Jesus can be called a priest to God most high as well.”
As for what this all means for us…nothing, really. We have talked about before and will yet talk more about Jesus’ role as high priest and what that means for us, but there isn’t any particularly deep meaning here. I just wanted you to understand what you are reading a bit more fully than perhaps you did before. Hopefully, this isn’t an obscure reference for you anymore. Happy Thursday to you!