Melchizedek is a fascinating character, appearing briefly in Genesis to greet Abraham, then mentioned in the Psalms and in Jewish writing between the testaments as a mysterious figure. The writer here uses him at some length, really to establish one thing; there is a priesthood which exists before that instituted under Moses, limited to the tribe of Levi. He has to demonstrate that Jesus can be a priest, as he is descended from the tribe of David rather than of Levi. He goes further, though, to suggest that Jesus is in the tradition of Melchizedek, a greater priesthood than that of the Old Testament.
In Paul, we haven’t seen much reflection on priesthood, sacrifice and the Temple. Here it comes centre stage, perhaps the reason for the traditional title of ‘Hebrews’.
My suspicion that the writer is not actually writing to Hebrews, though, comes from the next section, beginning with chapter 8.
For one thing, the image of the parallel earthly and heavenly sanctuaries seems more influenced by Greek philosophical ideas of types and forms than by traditional Jewish ways of thinking. That’s one of the reasons why I’m fascinated by this book, as it seems to bring together two different worlds of thought in a way perhaps closer to John than the first three gospels and Paul.
A second reason for my suspicion is that the writer refers throughout this passage to the shrine and Tabernacle as set out in the Books of Moses, without any reference to the Temple which was actually the place of worship and sacrifice during the first 2/3 of the first century. It seems to me that this is being written by someone who’s read the beginning of the Old Testament and either doesn’t know about or has chosen to ignore the fact that things have changed since Moses – and who perhaps expects his readers to shape their ideas of Jewish worship by what was originally set out rather than by what has happened in more recent experience. In other words, this feels to me more like something written for devout Gentiles who have read the Books of Moses than it does like a document for Christians from a deeply Jewish worshipping background.
Whether or not I’m right about that (probably not, as most good scholars seem to have other ideas!) the key theme stands. Jesus is a greater priest than any known before, and stands to offer his own sacrifice of himself at the heavenly altar of which any earthly place of worship can only ever be an image and representation. Because of this, his sacrifice of himself achieves something never before possible – the taking away of sin and guilt. Where the sacrifices of the old priesthood could stick a plaster on the wounds of human life, the sacrifice of Jesus offers a radical surgery and a full cure.
Oh – and he’ll be back! (9:28)