Sermon preached on Hebrews 7:1-10 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/29/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Tithes Through Abraham”
We made it to some more “meat” of Scripture today. If you remember back in chapter 5, Hebrews started to talk about Melchizedek. The book then interrupted itself to say that it had more to say about Melchizedek but wasn’t sure the people were ready for such solid food; that they seemed to have regressed to spiritual infancy and be in need of the “milk” of God’s Word instead. Yet, after that exhortation toward spiritual maturity, he nonetheless proceeds to give them more of this substantive teaching about Melchizedek. That is what we get to begin studying today and will continue to study as we work through chapter 7.
Specifically then today, we’ll be comparing priesthoods. So, far, Hebrews has been showing us how Jesus is better than so many things that have come before to God’s people. We’ve seen Jesus as the bringer of better revelation. We’ve seen Jesus greater than angels. We’ve seen Jesus as greater than Moses. We’ve seen Jesus as bringing a greater rest than Joshua brought God’s people. We’ve been told that Jesus brings greater access to God for us, as the Great High Priest. And that’s where we took that pause to talk about spiritual maturity. But now he revisits that to continue to develop how great of high priest Jesus is. Yet, we could imagine that some might think it strange to talk about Jesus being a priest when under the old covenant, the priests came through the tribe of Levi, not Jesus’ tribe which was the tribe of Judah. Hebrews begins to address that here with another one of these comparisons. But today’s passage doesn’t explicitly make the point that Jesus’s priesthood is better than the Levitical priesthood, though that’s true. This passage first makes the point that Melchizedek’s priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood. Of course, as Hebrews does begin to state today, Melchizedek was typological of Jesus Christ. And so, Jesus’s priesthood is ultimately better than the Levitical Priesthood. But today we start with the comparison of Melchizedek with the Levites; and to do that we’ll also need to talk about Father Abraham, as our passage does.
Let’s begin then with Abraham. To make the point that Melchizedek as priest was a priesthood greater than the Levitical priesthood, he starts by showing how Melchizedek as priest ranked over Abraham. We rightly think so highly of Abraham and his relationship with God. But when this Gentile believer of the one true God interacts with Abraham, it is Melchizedek who stands as a priest between God and Abraham, and not the other way around. This is what it says in verse 4, “Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils.” Even the patriarch Abraham! Later, in verse 6, this high view of Abraham is again noted when it says that this Melchizedek blessed him who had the promises, referring to Abraham. And so here it reminds us of the greatness of Abraham. As patriarch of the promises, he is the one God entered into a special covenant with back in Genesis 12. God promised several things in that Abrahamic covenant. He promised that Abraham’s offspring would be blessed and made into a great nation and given a great land of rest. Abraham believed God’s promises and the bible says that his faith was the kind of faith all God’s people have; a faith that justifies because it’s a faith that looks in trust to all God’s gracious promises. Abraham is such a central figure of the Christian faith, that we are told in the New Testament that if those physically descended from Abraham don’t share his faith, then they don’t share in the promises given to Abraham. Likewise, we are told that as Christians, even if we don’t physically descend from Abraham, we are counted nonetheless as his children, if we share in his faith. Abraham is seen as the Father of Faith in Scripture! Similarly, Scripture calls Abraham the friend of God in 2 Chronicles 20:7, and a prince of God in Genesis 23:5. Some amazing things are said of Abraham!
And then we have the background that’s referenced here with Abraham and Melchizedek. When Abraham tithes to Melchizedek and receives his blessing, it’s in Genesis 14 after an amazing military operation where Abraham successfully rescues his nephew Lot from four pagan kings. Basically, Genesis 14 records a huge battle in Canaan with four kings go up against five other kings and in the process Sodom is captured and Lot along with it. Well, when Abraham learns of this, he assembles his own militia of only 318 men, and plans a daring, successful operation that defeats the coalition of four kings, rescues Lot, and even comes back with a bunch of spoils of war. Think of how amazing that is! That sounds like it could be straight out of some blockbuster film of some amazing, against all odds, rescue of a comrade. Yet, we know how Abraham could have such an amazing victory. God was with him.
And so, it was at the height and context of this military victory that on his way back from the battle that Abraham meets Melchizedek and is blessed by him. Then Abraham gives him a tithe of the military spoils he just won from these four kings. Hebrews is very clear here that these two actions show that Melchizedek was the superior of Abraham. Verse 4 makes that point in terms of the tithing, that even someone as great as Abraham would give a tithe to Melchizedek. Verse 7 makes this point in terms of the blessing, that it is beyond argument that the greater blesses the lesser. This interchange where Melchizedek blesses Abraham and in response Abraham tithes to Melchizedek is a double confirmation of this fact: Melchizedek was a superior to Abraham.
What an amazing thought then about Abraham. It’s this mighty man of God, Abraham, who held such position and title before the Lord, who was such a fountain head of our faith, and was so used of God, that recognized his religious superior when he encountered Melchizedek. Let’s then turn now in our second point to consider more about this Melchizedek. Verse 1 tells us that he was a king of a place called Salem. Interestingly, Psalm 76:2 equates this place of Salem with Jerusalem. So, Melchizedek was king of Jerusalem long before David would be King of Jerusalem. Then in verse 2, Hebrews gives us some Hebrew translation. Salem means “peace.” And his name Melchizedek is a compound word literally meaning king of righteousness. So, he too has these high credentials as a king of peace and righteousness, and it seems they were accurate descriptions of him.
Then verse 3 gets pretty interesting. Hebrews makes the point that there is no record of his father, mother, or genealogy, nor of his birth nor death. There is a somewhat similarly sounding point at the end of verse 8 that says that he lives. Some have taken Hebrews to be asserting this about Melchizedek in a literal, biological sense; that he did not have actual parents, that he was not physically born, nor did he physically die. Thus, they speculated that he must have been some angel or maybe even an appearing of Christ prior to the incarnation. Of course the text doesn’t tell us that. Actually, what the text does tell us, would rule out the possibility of this being a Christophany. Verse 3 says he is “like” the Son of God. For Melchizedek to be like the Son of God means he is not the Son of God. There is a similarity he has toward the Son of God, Jesus Christ. But he is not identical. We call this typology. Melchizedek is a type of the Christ to come.
So then, as to the reference of him not having parentage or genealogy recorded, what we should recognize is that this is making a point ultimately about his priesthood. There is no pedigree offered in Genesis for his priesthood. Under the future Levitical priesthood, such pedigree is paramount for confirming the legitimacy of someone to a priesthood. It’s for such a reason that King Uzziah got in trouble in 2 Chronicles 26:18 when he tried to the job of the Levitical priests, he was confronted by the priests with a genealogical argument – he wasn’t of the sons of Aaron the Levite. Well, for the Levitical priesthood, genealogy was very important. But Hebrews shows that there was a priesthood all the way back in Genesis 14 that didn’t rely upon genealogy. Melchizedek was a priest and specifically a priest of the one true God, of God Most High! This Melchizedekian priesthood didn’t require a predecessor nor did it require a successor. At least in term of the literary presentation of it in Genesis, none of that was spoken of. Yet, there he was, a priest of God.
Similarly, when verse 3 speaks of him continuing forever as a priest and in verse 8 that “he lives” we should recognize that this doesn’t necessarily mean that he was some supernatural being. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Melchizedek didn’t grow old as a human and die. Remember, how Abraham grew old and died, but Jesus could still say in Mark 12:27 that Abraham yet lives. So, Hebrews here is using Psalm 110:4 to help interpret Genesis 14. Psalm 110:4, speaking of the kind of priest the Messiah would be, said that it would in some way be like Melchizedek, saying to the Messiah, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews understands this to be saying something about both the Christ and Melchizedek. Melchizedek, in a certain way, continues in his office as a priest in perpetuity. There is no record in Scripture of his office ending or of him passing the work on to a successor. Rather, it says that the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ would be in someway like Melchizedek’s perpetual priesthood. This is in contrast to the Levitical priesthood. The mortality of the Levites is mentioned in verse 8; they are mortal men. That will be explained as we read on in Hebrews to mention how they can’t continue in their priesthood because they get old and die. In fact, the Torah even says that they are to retire from their service when they reach the age of fifty. So, technically, even before death, their priestly service would end. But not with the order of Melchizedek. His priestly service continues. Let me give you analogy to help you understand. The analogy is you. Christians today are said to be priests right now. But when we die, we will yet live. And in glory we will still be priests. Our priesthood is modeled more after the Melchizedekian order than the Levitical order. We like Melchizedek, and more so like Christ, have entered into a perpetual priesthood. Hebrews says that Melchizedek never lost his priesthood, and praise God neither will we!
I would note there is a hint in the wording here to this, that distinguishes between Melchizedek and Jesus in this regard. As we keep going in this chapter in our future sermons, we’ll see four times where Jesus is described as having a forever priesthood, verses 17, 21, 24, 28. The grammar is a very specific phrase in each of those occurrence, involving a three-word construction. In verse 3, with Melchizedek we have that same three-word construction, but the final word is different. Regarding Jesus, it’s the Greek word aiona where get the English word eon and it means “eternity” or “forever”. But for Melchizedek it’s the Greek word dienekes which is a relatively softer word, and means “perpetuity” especially in the sense of an ongoing office. But I think the contrast is important to recognize because it shows what Hebrews is doing here. It’s using really strong language to describe Melchizedek to begin to point you to Christ who embraces this language in an even fuller way. The record of Melchizedek shows us a priest who is presented as not depending on a genealogical predecessor nor needing to pass on the role to a descendant successor, but rather he has an ongoing, perpetual priesthood. Melchizedek embodies this, but Jesus Christ embodies it more so, in a more grand and glorious way, as Hebrews will continue to demonstrate for us. Melchizedek is a type of Christ, but Jesus is always greater than the type!
If any of this seems hard to understand about the identity of Melchizedek, let me remind you that chapter 5 warned us that it would be harder to understand. So, take your time to meditate on this and further digest these truths. But for now, let’s turn in our third point to see more about the contrast with the sons of Levi and I believe that will further help us to see why he described Melchizedek in these terms. Because on the one hand the language about Melchizedek points to the greater Christ, but in contrast, it looks back upon the sons of Levi to contrast with them. In other words, today’s passage is especially making the point that the Levitical priests were under Melchizedek in terms of status. We made the point earlier that Melchizedek was the superior to Abraham, but that point is being made not so much to put Abraham in his right place, but to put the Levites in their right place.
You see, if there were any at that time, or today, that thought we should go back to having the Levites do their old covenant priestly roles, they are mistaken. Similarly, if there are any who would doubt the credentials of Jesus as our Great High Priest because he was of the tribe of Judah, and not Levi, then they are mistaken. Similarly, if there are any who would think Jesus is of a lesser priesthood because his priesthood isn’t of the Levitical order, they would again be wrong. Today’s passage gets us there by first contrasting the priesthood of Melchizedek with the priesthood of the Levites.
So, look with me starting at verses 5 and 6. There we see the basis for the Levitical priesthood. It tells us the reason why can they collect tithes; it is because the law gives them that command. We could also acknowledge that the same goes for their ability to bless the people. Verse 5 acknowledges that God invested them with this service, and that for their brethren; they bless and collect the tithes from their family members, the other children of Israel. We can understand how the Levites’ authority comes from the law, but it would be too easy to think that the Mosaic law and covenant is the highest authority when its comes to true religion. But in comparison, in verse 6, we see the point that there was a priest of the one true God long before the law ever came into existence. This priest was of such a status, that even though they weren’t of the same family line, Melchizedek could receive tithes from Abraham. And so, the point is that true religion was never bound up entirely in that law given at Mt. Sinai. True priesthood is not dependent on Mt. Sinai.
This point is further made by verse 6 mentioning that Melchizedek blessed Abraham who had the promises. The contrast of the law given to Moses versus the promises given to Abraham comes into view here. This should remind you of how Paul dealt with a similar notion in Galatians 3, that the law which came at Mt. Sinai 430 years after God gave Abraham the promises, doesn’t trump the promises. The promises made by God long before the law stand above the law in terms of greatness and priority. Likewise, Melchizedek served as a priest apart from the law to the one that God had given these promises, long before the Mosaic law. The point is that Melchizedek’s priesthood, which came first and not based on the law, stands above the Levites’ priesthood which came later and was based on the law.
This point of the lesser status of the Levitical priesthood is sealed in verses 9-10. Not only did Abraham tithe to Melchizedek far before Levi was born and far before the law ever came, but Levi himself in a sense tithed to Melchizedek through Abraham. The idea behind this is the complement of verse 7. If the lesser is blessed by the better, so too the better receives tithes from the lesser. The superior blesses the inferior in status; the inferior in status gives tithes to the superior. That’s the principle at work here. Verses 9-10 say that Levi basically tithed to Melchizedek. Thus, again, we see the point that the Levitical priesthood is subservient to the Melchizedekian priesthood. And thus, as we’ll see more in future sermons, the Levitical priesthood is subservient to Christ’s priesthood.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, let me offer some application to us today. We said that if you are in Christ, you are child of Abraham. That means, spiritually speaking, we are like Levi in this passage. We are represented by Abraham our father, when he interacted like this with Melchizedek. If Levi can be said to have tithed to Melchizedek, through his lineage from Abraham, then surely the reverse is true too. Levi was also blessed by Melchizedek, while he was still in the loins of Abraham. So too, all of us Christians today. We who now have become spiritual children of Abraham are partakers on Melchizedek’s blessing. More so, we have become partakers of the blessing of the one who is greater than Melchizedek, the one he represented, Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest. As it says in Ephesians 1:3, we have received every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus. Be encouraged in the great gospel of Jesus Christ again today. Those who have trusted in Christ by faith are greatly blessed. We are blessed by the ultimate king of peace and righteousness, who works within us his peace and righteousness!
So then, my closing exhortation would then be this. Having received such blessing in Christ, I urge you to consider how giving back a tithe to Jesus is a fitting starting point in a response of gratitude and praise. I was speaking with someone who belongs to a larger church and they were noting how their church has really struggled financially as of late. There has been a noticeable drop off in tithing among the next generation of church members. There is need to communicate the biblical and historic principle of tithing as an act of worship and gratitude to God. Often it is asked if tithing is still relevant for us now that we are in the new covenant. That question comes from acknowledging that the principle of tithing is expressly commanded by the Mosaic Law and would seem to be part of the ceremonial laws. Given that in general the ceremonial laws have found fulfillment in Christ, people wonder if that means we are no longer obligated to tithe. Well, this passage reminds us that despite tithing being something done under the Mosaic law, it’s practice greatly predates the law. The practice of tithing is greatly commended to us again today, even by how this passage deals with it. Following the principle today even of the greater versus the lesser, how could we feel good about giving a tithe to Melchizedek and something lesser to the priest who is greater than Melchizedek? Let us be cheerful givers of all the mighty spoils of our labors today. Let us recognize that is an ongoing act of worship and service to God to give unto him. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.