An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The chief design of the apostle in this chapter was not to declare the nature of Christ’s priesthood, nor to describe the exercise thereof; instead, he dwells upon the excellency of it. The nature of Christ’s sacerdotal office had been treated of in the first half of Hebrews chapter 5 and is dealt with again, at length, in Hebrews chapter 9. But here he occupies us with the great dignity of it. His reason for so doing was to display the immeasurable superiority of Christianity’s High Priest over that of Judaism’s, and that, that the faith of the Hebrews might be established and their hearts drawn out in love and worship to Him. Unless the scope of the apostle’s theme in this chapter be clearly apprehended, it is well-nigh impossible to appreciate and understand the details of his argument.
The proof for the excellency of Christ’s priesthood is drawn from the Old Testament. In His written Word God had given hints of an alteration from the Levitical priesthood, and the introduction of another more efficacious and glorious. It is true that those hints were of such a character that their signification could not be perceived at the time, for it is "the glory of God to conceal a thing" (Prov. 25:2), and this (in part) that His creatures may be taught their complete dependency upon Him, and that He may have the honor of revealing what they by mere searching cannot find out. He has chosen to make known His counsels gradually, so that "the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day" (Prov. 4:18).
As "life and immortality", so all spiritual truth, was brought to light by the Gospel (2 Tim. 1:10). Much truth was enfolded in the prophecies, promises, and institutions of the Old Testament, yet in such a way as that it was in a great measure incomprehensible until God’s time came to unfold them (1 Pet. 1:10,11). The great secret of the manifold wisdom of God was hidden in Himself from the beginning of the world (Eph. 3:9, 10), yet not so absolutely so, that no intimation of it had been given. But it had been given in such a way in the Scriptures that much was obscure to the understanding of the saints in all generations till it was interpreted and displayed by the Gospel. More than once we read of Israel’s chief seer and singer speaking of inclining his ear unto a "parable" and opening his "dark saying" upon the harp (Ps. 49:4, 78:2). In sharp contrast therefrom, in the New Testament dispensation, "the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth" (1 John 2:8).
In consequence of the fuller revelation which God has made to us through the Gospel, all the glorious evidences of His grace which now appear unto us in the Old Testament Scriptures, is in consequence of a reflection of light upon them from the New Testament. This it is which supplies the key to our present Epistle. In Luke 24:27, we read of how Christ began at Moses and the prophets, expounding unto the two disciples who were journeying to Emmaus, "the things concerning Himself", while in verse 45 we are told that He "opened the understanding" of the eleven "that they might understand the Scriptures". It has been thought by some (and we deem it quite probable) that in this very Hebrews’ Epistle the Holy Spirit has recorded for our instruction and joy the very things which the risen Savior communicated to those two favored disciples. Whether this be the case or no, certain it is that the leading design of the Spirit in this Epistle is to give us light on many Old Testament mysteries by means of the fuller revelation which God has now made by and through Jesus Christ.
A notable illustration and example of this principle appears in the case of Melchizedek, the priest-king. That strange and striking individual is first introduced to us in the sacred narrative in Genesis 14. Then a single verbal reference is made to him again in the 110th Psalm, and nothing more is said of him in the Old Testament. Therefore we need not be surprised that the Jews appear to have given little or no consideration to him. It is not until he is contemplated in the light of the New Testament that we are able to discern in him an eminent type of Christ. This we sought to examine in our last article, all that we now emphasize is that the chief points which the apostle dwells upon are that Melchizedek had neither predecessor nor successor in his sacred office. Melchizedek did not belong to a line of priests as did Eleazar, Eli, etc. It was in this respect, more especially, that he was "made like unto the Son of God", our great High Priest.
The various appellations under which our Lord is referred to in this Epistle call for due attention. They are not used at haphazard, but with precision and design. In Hebrews 2:9 it is "Jesus" that faith beholds—the humiliated but now glorified Savior. In Hebrews 3:6 it is "Christ", the Anointed One, who is over God’s house. But in Hebrews 7:3, it is "the Son of God", as High Priest, unto whom Melchizedek was made a similitude. The Spirit here jealously guards the honor of Him whom it is His office and delight to glorify. He hereby intimates to the Hebrews that though Melchizedek were such an excellent person, yet he was infinitely beneath Him whom he represented. The typical person was but man; the antitype, Divine! Furthermore, one who was more than mortal was required in order to fulfill that which Melchizedek foreshadowed: he who should be capable of discharging an always-living, constant-abiding, uninterrupted priesthood, must be "the Son of God"!
In the first three verses of Hebrews 7 the apostle mentions those details in which Melchizedek resembled the great and glorious Priest of Christianity; in verses 4-10 he applies the type unto his immediate purpose and design. Having affirmed that Christ, the promised Messiah, was a Priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 6:20), and having given a description of the person and office of that typical character from the inspired narrative of Moses (Gen. 14:), he now dwells upon various details in the type in order to establish the argument which he has in hand. That which the apostle particularly designed to prove, was that a more excellent priesthood than that of Aaron’s, having been introduced according to the purpose and promise of God, it necessarily followed that the ceremonies and institutions connected with it had now been abolished.
"Now consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils" (verse 4). The apostle here calls upon the Hebrews to attentively mark and seriously ponder the official dignity of this ancient servant of God. The word "man" has been supplied by the translators, and should have been placed in italics. In the Greek it is simply "now consider how great this", i.e. royal priest. Think of how great he "must have been", seems preferable to "was". His exalted rank appears from the fact that none other than Abraham, the father and head of Israel, had shown him deference.
The force of the apostle’s reasoning here is easily perceived. To give tithes to another who is the servant of God is a token of official respect, it is the recognition and acknowledgement of his superior status. The value of such official tokens is measured by the dignity and rank of the person making them. Now Abraham was a person of very high dignity, both naturally and spiritually. Naturally he was the founder of the Jewish nation; spiritually he was the "father" of all believers (Rom. 4). In his person was concentrated all the sacred dignity belonging to the people of God. How "great" then must be Melchizedek, seeing that Abraham himself owned his official superiority! And therefore how "great" must be that order of priesthood to which he belonged!
That upon which the Jews insisted as their chief and fundamental privilege, and which they were unwilling to forego, was the greatness of their ancestors, considered as the high favorites of God. They so gloried in Abraham and their being his children, that they opposed this to the person and doctrine of Christ Himself (John 8:33, 53). With regard to official dignity, they looked upon Aaron and his successors as to be preferred above all the world. Whilst they clung to such fleshly honors, the Gospel of Christ, which addressed them as lost sinners, could not be but distasteful to them. To disabuse their minds, to demonstrate that those in whom they trusted came far short in dignity, honor, and greatness, of the true High Priest, the apostle presses upon them the eminence of him who was a type of Christ, and shows that the greatest of all their ancestors paid obeisance to him.
Three proofs of the eminence of Melchizedek are found in the verse before us. First, in the nomination of the person that was subject unto him: "even Abraham". Second, in the dignity of Abraham; "the patriarch". Third, in that Abraham gave him a tenth of the spoils. Abraham was not only the root and stock of the Israelitish people, but he was the one who first received the promise of the covenant (Gen. 15:18); therefore they esteemed him next unto God Himself. A "patriarch" is a father, prince or ruler of a family. The sons of Jacob are thus denominated (Acts 7:8, 9), for the twelve tribes descended from them. None else is termed a "patriarch" except David (Acts 2:29), and he, because the royal family came from his loins. But David and Jacob’s sons, all sprang from Abraham, thus was he, pre-eminently, "the patriarch". Yet great as Abraham was, Melchizedek was still greater, for he was "priest of the most high God", and as such the father of the faithful owned him.
Let us not miss the practical lesson which the above facts teach us. Therein we learn of what true "greatness" consists. The Christian is to measure things by a different standard from that which worldlings employ. They look upon those who occupy prominent social and political positions as being the eminent of the earth. The vulgar mind esteems the wealthy and opulent as those who are most to be envied. But the anointed eye sees things in another light: the fashion of this world passeth away. Death levels all distinctions. Presidents and millionaires, kings and queens, are no more than the poorest beggar when their bodies are reduced to lifeless clay. And what of their souls? Ah, what concern have such after eternal interests? Learn, my reader, that true "greatness" consists in the favor of God and our nearness to Him. The meanest of His saints have been made "kings and priests unto God" (Rev. 1:6).
Ere leaving this verse, a few words need to be said upon the subject of tithing. There are few things on which many of the Lord’s people are more astray than the matter of giving to His cause and work. Are our offerings to be regulated by sentiment and impulse, or by principle and conscience? That is only another way of asking, Does God leave us to the promptings of gratitude and generosity, or has He definitely specified His mind and stated what portion of His gifts to us are due Him in return? Surely He has not left this important point undefined. He has given us His Word to be a lamp unto our feet, and therefore He cannot have left us in darkness concerning any obligation or privilege that pertains to our dealings with Him.
At a very early date the Lord made it known that a definite portion of the saints’ income should be devoted to Him who is the Giver of all. There was a period of twenty-five centuries from Adam until the time that God gave the law to Israel at Sinai, but it is a great mistake to suppose that His people were, at that time, without a definite communication from Him upon their several duties. A careful study of the book of Genesis reveals clear traces of a primitive revelation, which seems to have centered about these things: the offering of sacrifices to God, the observance of the Sabbath, and the giving of tithes. While we cannot today place our finger upon any positive enactment or command of God for any of those three things in those early days, nevertheless, from what is recorded we are compelled to assume that such must have been given.
No one can point to a "thus saith the Lord" requiring Noah to offer a sacrifice to Him, nor can we assign chapter and verse giving a command for the saints to tithe ere the law was given; yet is it impossible to account for either without presupposing a revelation of God’s mind on those points. The fact that Abraham did give a tithe or tenth to Melchizedek, intimates that he acted in accordance with God’s will. So too the words of Jacob in Genesis 28:22 suggests the same thing. This principle of recognizing God’s ownership and owning His goodness, was later incorporated into the Mosaic law: Leviticus 27:30. Finally, it is taken note of here in Hebrews 7, and in the humble judgment of the writer the passage which is before us presents an argument which admits of no refutation. Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, and Abraham is the father of all that believe (Rom. 4; Galatians 3). He is the pattern man of faith. He is the outstanding exemplar of the stranger and pilgrim on earth whose Home is in Heaven. Melchizedek is the type of Christ. If then Abraham gave the tithe to Melchizedek, most assuredly every Christian should give tithes to Christ, our great High Priest.
"And verily they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood, have a commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law, that is, of their brethren, though they come out of the loins of Abraham; But he whose descent is not counted from them received tithes of Abraham, and blessed him that had the promises" (verses 5, 6). In these verses the apostle strengthens the argument drawn from the important facts presented in verse 4, while at the same time he anticipates and obviates any counter argument which might be advanced against him. His argument consists of two parts: Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek, Abraham was blest by him. In response, the Jews might reply, That does not establish the superiority of Melchizedek over the Levitical order, for the Aaronic priesthood also received tithes. To this the apostle answers by pointing out that Aaron’s sons were all descended from Abraham, and therefore they, in their progenitor, paid tithes to the royal priest of Jerusalem, and by so doing owned his pre-eminence. Let us amplify this analysis.
In verse 5 the apostle acknowledges that God had granted the Levitical priests the right to receive tithes from His people (Num. 18:21-24), and thus they were set above all other Israelites; nevertheless, they too had "come out of the loins of Abraham", and inasmuch as he had given a tenth to a priest of another order, his descendants were therefore inferior to that priest. Moreover, the Levites had "received" the priestly office, and accepted tithes by command "according to the law". Thus, the Aaronic priesthood was wholly derived in its functions and privileges. But not so Melchizedek’s. He was under no law. He was "king", as well as priest, and therefore belonged to a superior order. In this also he was a type of Christ, who, by virtue of His Divine nature, has authority in Himself, to receive and to bless. The words "take tithes... of their brethren" finds its counterpart in 1 Corinthians 9:11-14. The Aaronic priesthood was not supported by a tax levied on the idolatrous Canaanites, but by the gifts of the Lord’s people!
The manner in which the apostle expresses himself in verse 5 deserves our closest notice, his language plainly intimating that his eye was on the high sovereignty of God. Observe that he did not simply say, "the priests have a commandment to take tithes", but "they that are of the sons of Levi". God distributed dignity and bestowed office in His Church (Acts 7:38) as it pleased Him. Not all the posterity of Abraham were set apart to receive tithes, and not all who belonged to the tribe of Levi; but only the family of Aaron was called to the priesthood. This appointment of His imperial will God required all to submit to: Numbers 16:9,10. It was something new to Israel to see the whole tribe of Levi taken into peculiar (official) nearness to Jehovah; yet to it they submitted. But when the "priests" were taken out of the tribe of Levi and exalted above all, some rebelled: Numbers 16:1-3, etc.
The same principle holds good today. It is true, blessedly true, and God forbid that we should say a word to weaken it, that all believers enjoy equal nearness to God, that every one of them belongs to that "holy priesthood" who are to "offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:5). Nevertheless, all believers are not called by God to occupy the same position of ministerial honor, all are not called to be preachers of His Gospel or teachers of His Word (James 3:1). God calls and equips whom He pleases to engage in His public service, and bids the rank and the of His people "obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves" (Heb. 13:17). Yet, sad to say, in some circles the sin of Korah is repeated. They demand an ecclesiastical socialism, where any and all are allowed to speak. They "heap to themselves teachers" (2 Tim. 4:3). This ought not to be.
In verse 6 the apostle repeats the same thing he had said in verse 2. The Levitical priesthood received tithes from those descended from Abraham, and that was an evidence of official dignity conferred upon them by God’s appointment. But Melchizedek received tithes of Abraham himself, which not only manifested his superiority to Aaron but to him from whom Aaron sprang. The apostle’s insisting on this so particularly shows how difficult a matter it is to dispossess the minds of men of things which they have long held and in which they boast. The Jews clung tenaciously to their descent from Abraham, in fact rested upon it for salvation. Much patience is required in order to deal faithfully but lovingly with those in error. "In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves" (2 Tim. 2:25) is a needed word for every teacher.
Melchizedek not only received tithes from Abraham, but he actually pronounced blessing upon him, which was a further evidence of his official superiority to the patriarch. To make this detail the more emphatic, the apostle stresses the dignity of Abraham, for the more glorious he was, the more illustrious the dignity of the one qualified to pronounce a benediction upon him. Thus Abraham is here referred to as he who "had the promises". He was the first of the Israelitish race with whom God made the covenant of life. It was no ordinary honor which Jehovah conferred upon the father of the faithful. As the immediate result of his receiving the promises, Abraham "saw" the Day of Christ (John 8:56). Yet great as was the privilege and honor bestowed upon Abraham it did not hinder him from showing subjection to Melchizedek, God’s vicegerent.
There is an important practical lesson for us in verse 6. The one who had received the "promises" of God was now blest! Ah, we may have the promises of God stored in our minds and at our tongue’s end, but unless we also have the blessing of God, what do they avail us? Moreover, it is particularly, the blessing of Christ (typified by Melchizedek) which makes the promises of God effectual to us. Christ is Himself the great subject of the promises (2 Cor. 1:20), and the whole blessing of them comes forth from Him alone (Eph. 1:3). In Him, from Him, and by Him, are all blessings to be obtained. Apart from Christ all are under the curse. "And without all contradiction the less is blessed of the better" (verse 7). This verse summarizes the argument contained in verses 4-6. "These words are plainly to be understood with limitations. It does not follow that, because a priest under the law blessed the king, he was in a civil capacity the king’s superior, any more than that a Christian minister instructing or even reproving a man of high civil rank who is a member of the church of which he is pastor, is civilly his superior. The apostle’s argument is: The person who accepts of priestly benediction from an individual acknowledges his spiritual superiority, just as the highest authority in the land, if he were becoming a member of a voluntary Christian society, would acknowledge that its pastor was ‘over him in the Lord’" (John Brown).
"Let us first know what the word blessed means here. It means indeed a solemn praying, by which he who is invested with some high and public honor, recommends to God men in private stations and under his ministry. Another way of blessing is when we pray for one another, which is commonly done by all the godly. But this blessing mentioned by the apostle was a symbol of greater authority. Thus Isaac blessed his son Jacob, and Jacob himself blessed his grandsons (Gen. 27:30, 48:15). This was not done mutually, for the son could not do like the father; but a higher authority was required for such a blessing as this. And this appears more evident still from Numbers 6:23, where a command is given to the priest to bless the people, and then a promise is immediately added, that they would be blessed whom they blessed. It hence appears that the blessing of the priest depended on this,—that it was not so much man’s blessing as that of God. For as the priest in offering sacrifices represented Christ, so in blessing the people he was nothing more than a minister and legate of the supreme God" (John Calvin).
The application of the principles expressed by the above writers to the case in hand is apparent. The blessing of the priest in Old Testament times (type of Christ’s blessing His people now), though pronounced as the minister of God, was an evidence of high honor of the one uttering it. Though Abraham was more eminent than any of his descendants, yet he himself was indebted to the royal priest of Jerusalem.
"And here men that die receive tithes; but there he of whom it is witnessed that he liveth" (verse 8). Here the apostle advances a further argument to support his demonstration of the inferiority of the Aaronic order of priesthood to the Melchizedekean: the "here" referring to the former, the "there" to the latter as stated in Genesis 14. The point singled out for notice is that, the Levitical order of office was but temporary, not so of that priest who blest Abraham. "The type is described as having no end; the order of priesthood which it represents is therefore eternal" (Calvin). The Scripture makes no mention of the death of Melchizedek when it relates that tithes were paid to him; so the authority of his priesthood is limited to no time, but on the contrary there is given an intimation of perpetuity.
Some have stumbled over the statement here made about Melchizedek: "it is witnessed that he liveth". These words have been appealed to in proof that he was a superhuman being. But if this statement be interpreted in the light of its context, there is no difficulty. It was not absolutely and personally that Melchizedek still lived, but typically and as a representation of Christ. Scripture frequently attributes to the type what is found alone in the and-type. Thus, the paschal lamb was expressly called God’s passover (Ex. 12:11), when in reality it was only a pledge and token thereof. So the emblems on the Lord’s table are denominated the body and blood of Christ, because they represent such. The blessedness of this detail will come before us, D.V., in the later verses.
"And as I may so say, Levi also, who receiveth tithes, paid tithes in Abraham. For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchizedek met him" (verses 9, 10). In these verses the apostle meets the last objection which a carping Jew could make upon the subject. Against what the apostle had been saying, it might be advanced: Granting that Abraham himself paid tithes to Melchizedek, it does not follow that Melchizedek was superior to all Abraham’s descendants. Abraham was, in some sense, a priest (Gen. 12:7), yet he was not so by virtue of any office which God had instituted in His Church. But in the days of Moses, Jehovah did institute an order and office of priesthood in the family of Aaron, and were not they, by Divine appointment, superior, because superceding the earlier order of Melchizedek? This the apostle makes reply to.
Many find it difficult to follow his line of thought, and that, because they are so ill-acquainted with the most important truth of headship and representation. Let us quote here from F.S. Sampson, "Abraham was truly the covenant-head of his posterity in the line of Isaac and Jacob, in whose descendants the promises made to him were fulfilled. It was in virtue of this covenant with Abraham, that the Jews inherited their distinguished privileges as a nation. It was the transaction with Abraham which brought them into the relation of a ‘peculiar people’ to Jehovah; and hence, in his patriarchal character and acts, he stood forth as the representative or federal head of the nation, so far as all the promises, privileges, and institutions of the Judaical were concerned. He was both their natural progenitor and their covenant-head, by the appointment of God. We must remember that He was concerned, through His providence and promises, in all this business. Therefore, when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek as a priest of the most High God, and received a blessing from him, it was a historical fact intentionally introduced by God’s providence, with a view to its becoming a feature of the type (so to speak) which Melchizedek, in his history and functions, was foreordained to present, of the supreme and eternal High Priest. This providential incident prefigured and represented, by the Divine intention, the supremacy of the antitype; and in it Abraham acknowledged the official superiority of the type, not only over himself, but over his posterity then in his loins, represented by and acting in him".
The principle of federal representation lies at the very base of all God’s dealings with men, as a careful study of Romans 5:12-19 and 1 Corinthians 15:45-47 reveals. Adam stood for and transacted on the behalf of the whole human race, so that what he did, they legally did; hence his sin, guilt and death, are imputed to all his posterity, and God deals with them accordingly. So too Christ stood for and transacted on the behalf of all His seed, so that what He did, they legally did; hence, His meeting the demands of the law, His death and resurrection-life, are imputed to all who believe on Him. In like manner, Abraham stood for and transacted on the behalf of all his posterity, so that God’s covenanting with him, is to be regarded as His covenanting with them also. Proof of this is found in the title here (and nowhere else) given to Abraham, viz., "the patriarch" (verse 4), which means, head or father of a people.
Thus the apostle here brings to a head his argument by pointing out that, virtually and representatively (not personally and actually), Levi himself had paid tithes to Melchizedek. We repeat, that Abraham in Genesis is not to be considered only as a private individual, but also as the head and representative of all his children. When Abraham gave tithes he did so not only in his own name, but also in that of all his descendants. Abraham had been called of God and separated to His service as the head of His elect people. There was more than a natural relation between him and his descendants. Jehovah promised to be a God unto him and to his seed after him, and therefore Abraham covenanted with God in the name of and as the representative of his seed. What God gave unto Abraham He gave unto his children, but he received the grant of it as the representative of his children, who, four hundred years later, took possession of it.
The typical teaching of Genesis 14 is exceedingly rich, but difficult to apprehend through lack of familiarity with the leading principles which interpret it. In Melchizedek’s blessing of Abraham, we have a foreshadowing of Christ, as our great High Priest, blessing the whole election of grace (Luke 24:50). In Abraham’s owning Melchizedek as priest of the most high God by giving him tithes, we have prefigured the subjection to Christ of all His believing people. It lay outside the apostle’s scope to fully expound this type in Hebrews 7 (cf. Hebrews 9:5). Here he practically confines himself to a single point, viz., showing that the High Priest of Christianity far exceeded in honor and glory that of Judaism’s. His argument in verses 9, 10 is to the effect that Melchizedek had been as much and as truly honored by Abraham as though the whole Levitical priesthood had personally done him homage.
The all-important and inexpressibly blessed truth for us to lay hold of is that in verses 9, 10 we have an illustration of the most soul-satisfying truth revealed in Holy Writ. Just as Levi was "in Abraham", not only seminally but representatively, so every one of God’s children was "in Christ" when He wrought out that glorious work which has honored and pleased God high above everything else. When the death-sentence of the law fell upon Christ, it fell upon the believer, so that he can unhesitatingly say, "I was crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20). So too when Christ arose in triumph from the tomb, all His people shared His victory (Eph. 2:5, 6). When He ascended on high, they ascended too. Let all Christian readers pray earnestly that God may be pleased to reveal to them the meaning, blessedness, and fullness of those words "In Christ".