Hebrews 4.1-10, Psalm 91.9-end & Mark 10.35-45 (Proper 24, 2021)
The author of the letter to the Hebrews says about Jesus, “You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 5.6 and 5.10)
If you don’t know who Melchizedek was, then you might be wondering why this is so important that it gets mentioned not once, but twice. To find out more we have to go all the way back to Genesis 14, where we discover that Melchizedek was the king of Salem and priest of El Elyon (or ‘most high God’). When Abram returned from defeating king Chedorlaomer, he met Melchizedek who came out to greet him carrying bread and wine.
Melchizedek went on to say, “‘Blessed be Abram by God most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand’. And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.” (Genesis 14.18-20)
So, next question: why does the author of Hebrews frame Jesus in this order of priesthood?
Well, during the Exodus, the priesthood was given solely into the hands of one tribe, that of Levi, beginning with Moses’ older brother, Aaron (Exodus 28). But from the genealogies found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we know Jesus was not a Levite. Both Gospels trace the line of Joseph to Judah (Luke 3.23-38 & Matthew 1.1-16).
So not a levitical priest. But given that Melchizedek was not a Levite either, being earlier in history than the Exodus, and yet was able to bless Abram, we are shown a different path to being a priest.
Again, you might say, ‘why does any of this matter?!’
And I answer that question with another question: what did a priest do in the Old Testament?
If you look at the role of the levitical priests, they were in the Temple serving God in the Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle. Only the High Priest could enter behind the Temple curtain once a year on the Day of Atonement, and there he would offer sacrifices for all the people, including himself.
At the feast of Pesach or Passover, the Paschal Lambs were slaughtered to remember the Exodus when the Angel of Death killed the first born of every family in Egypt, but passed over the houses of the Israelites who had smeared the blood of a sacrificed lamb on the door lintels (Exodus 12.1-28).
And it kept having to be done because the atoning sacrifices couldn’t make up for the failings of the people.
However you don’t see me splashing blood on the altar or asking you to bring a lamb to be sacrificed. And that’s because everything changes with Jesus, our great High Priest.
Despite not being a levitical priest, Jesus, the Son of God, did what no-one else could do. He died on the cross and made there “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of of the whole world.” (BCP Holy Communion service)
Jesus gathered up all the strands and brought them together. He is both priest, offering the sacrifice, and the sacrifice, the Lamb of God.
This is why our Holy Communion service is so important. Jesus commanded us to do this (and that carries weight in its own right) because the words that are said here are vitally important. We are reminded of what Jesus has done for us, but it is more than just a memory. Through anamnesis, rather than a passive memory, we enter into the Paschal mystery as Christ’s sacrifice is made present here and now. It is not a repeat or an echo, because Jesus’ sacrifice is complete and eternal.
So we gather around the Lord’s table, with bread and wine, where our great High Priest, Jesus Christ confirmed the sacrifice of his body and blood, which was given for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
And we are shown afresh how Jesus was not a random person who popped up by chance. No, the threads which weave through scripture, liturgy and history come together in Jesus, and in him we receive the Good News of freedom from sin and death. Thanks be to God that Jesus ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10.45)
(Artwork: ‘Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek’ by Dieric Bouts the Elder, 1464–1467)