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“The Greatest”

Hebrews 7:1-28
Bob DeGray
January 13, 2002

Key Sentence

The greatest priest made the greatest sacrifice to meet the greatest need.


I. A great high priest. (Hebrews 7:1-10)
II. An even greater high priest. (Hebrews 7:11-22)
III. The high priest we need. (Hebrews 7:23-28)


        In our country some appointed positions carry more real power than elected offices. Take for example the President’s Chief of Staff. It’s a powerful position because the Chief of Staff to a large extent controls access to the President. As Terry Sullivan recently wrote. "The chief of staff plays a central role in the White House. He organizes the confluence of forces around the president and extends the president's reach." Though President Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, has a relatively low profile, some previous chiefs of staff have gained recognition and occasionally notoriety through their influential control of access to the man in the Oval Office.

        A chief of staff is in some ways the political equivalent to an Old Testament chief priest. The chief priest had great influence because, in theory at least, he was the only one who could provide access to God. The problem was that all priests were unworthy of that trust, unsuited to the position. As sinful people they fell short of the holiness that would have allowed them free access to God’s presence and influence before his throne. But in Hebrews 7 we meet a chief priest with none of these limitations. We meet a high priest greater than any other. We’ll learn this morning that the greatest priest has offered the greatest sacrifice to meet the greatest need.

I. A great high priest. (Hebrews 7:1-10)

        We’re looking at a whole chapter today, so I’ll ask you to turn immediately to Hebrews 7 and follow along as I read verses 1 to 10: This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, 2and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means "king of righteousness"; then also, "king of Salem" means "king of peace." 3Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever. 4Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! 5Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people--that is, their brothers--even though their brothers are descended from Abraham. 6This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater. 8In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. 9One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, 10because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.

        Abraham had a noteworthy encounter with a mysterious priest named Melchizedek, The incident occurred in Genesis 13, where Abraham, with 318 armed men, rescued his nephew Lot from the armies of four kings, and recovered all the plunder those kings had taken. When Abraham returned to his home, he must have been a hero.

        Can’t you see him proudly astride his camel, covered with the dirt and grime of battle, leading his 318 proud men, followed by the captives and all the plunder? Yet it was at this moment of success that Abraham humbled himself before this shadowy priest-king, Melchizedek of Salem. Genesis says “Then Melchizedek, king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High who delivered your enemies into your hand.’”

        This is the only historical Old Testament reference to Melchizedek. He appears this once, and except for a prophecy in the Psalms, never again. Yet for a major part of Hebrews 7 he’s the point of comparison. What does our author see in Melchizedek? Well, for starters, he sees that his titles foreshadow Christ. Melchizedek was a foreign king, possibly the king of Jerusalem a thousand years before David. Jesus, of course, is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”. Like Melchizedek, Jesus is the king of righteousness - that’s what Melchizedek means, and it’s true of Jesus: he is the righteous one who will reign with righteousness and justice forever. Finally, Melchizedek’s other title, king of Salem means king of peace and we know that Jesus is the prince of peace, that he himself is our peace. Why is Melchizedek important? Because at the very least he foreshadows Christ’s character as king.

        But there’s more, isn’t there? He also foreshadows Christ’s qualifications as priest. Verse 3 “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life.” Were all these things literally true of Melchizedek? Not necessarily. It may simply be that the Bible is silent on these matters: the Jews believed something not said in Scripture never happened. On the other hand, it could be that this priest-king did appear out of nowhere, minister, and disappear again, without birth, death or family. If so, Melchizedek could be a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ, as many have argued. I don’t think you can prove it, but I do think there’s credible evidence.

        Of course Jesus did have a human genealogy, a human mother, even a presumed human father, and a known birthplace. But the author recognizes that these were only the human side of his existence. It was as God that he had no human father, no human mother, no genealogy. Because he existed before anything he had no beginning, and he will have no end except eternity. Jesus is the only one these words can apply to: every other living thing is created, with a beginning, and if God so chooses, an end. But Jesus is the uncreated creator who was and is and is to be. So Melchizedek, at a minimum, foreshadows Christ in these things, if he was not in fact, Christ.
        A priest like this is superior to the ordinary priests from the tribe of Levi. The first proof of this superiority is that Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of the plunder. It’s true the Law specified that the descendants of Levi would collect tithes from the rest of the descendants of Abraham. But Melchizedek wasn’t descended from Levi. He received a tithe not because the Law said, but due to something intrinsic in himself.

        Again, though Abraham was the greatest of the patriarchs, Melchizedek blessed him - and as the author says, it is inevitably the greater person who blesses the lesser. So Melchizedek must have been greater than Abraham. And if that’s true, verses 9 and 10 say, he must also have been greater than the Levite priests, because they were the far off descendants of Abraham. They usually received the tithes, but Abraham paid the tithes on their behalf to Melchizedek.

        I find myself more and more suspicious that Melchizedek was a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ, similar to those seen elsewhere Scripture. It’s never said outright, so we can’t be dogmatic. I’ll tell you one thing that makes me think he is Christ: nowhere in this letter is Jesus said to be superior to Melchizedek. Like Melchizedek yes, but superior, no. Yet from chapter 1 on Christ is said to be superior to everything and everyone: creation, angels, men, Moses, Joshua. It’s strange that the author doesn’t specifically say ‘Jesus is superior to Melchizedek.’ But if Jesus and Melchizedek are the same person, that explains it, and adds force to what is being said.

II. An even greater high priest. (Hebrews 7:11-22)

        So Melchizedek is a great high priest. Jesus is a great high priest, and it has already been implied that a high priest like Jesus, or like Melchizedek is superior to a priest from the line of Levi. That comparison is drawn out in verses 11 to 22. 11If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come--one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law. 13He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. 14For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 17For it is declared: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek." 18The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19(for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. 20And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, 21but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: 'You are a priest forever.' " 22Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.

        The author argues that the old Levitical priesthood was insufficient and replaced because it couldn’t bring people to perfection. The word perfection in verse 11 has the general meaning of maturity or completeness. But as used ten times by the author of Hebrews it has a more focused meaning of being made right with God. You can substitute that phrase for this word in most of Hebrews and find that it makes sense. This makes it analogous to Paul’s word righteousness or justification. The old Levitical priesthood, offering the old sacrifices could not justify anyone before God.

        Therefore, the author says, there was a need for a new kind of priest, offering a new kind of sacrifice under a new kind of law. This new priesthood would be completely different than the old, with a priest of the same kind as Melchizedek - that is a priest like Jesus. The author has clearly shifted his attention from Melchizedek to Jesus, saying “He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah.” The new priesthood is not from the old tribe of Levi, nor is it Melchizedek per se, because he was a foreigner. This new priesthood belongs to the Lion of the tribe of Judah: to Jesus our Lord.

        Jesus is a priest and has a priesthood which is not like that of the Levites, but it is like the priesthood of Melchizedek in several ways. First, it is based not on his genealogy but on his person. The Levites became priests only because they were born into a certain family. They were priests due to an external regulation - Jesus was a priest because of an inward reality. They were priests who perished - sinful men who suffered death like all others. He was a priest with an indestructible life. Though Jesus did die, and though his death was an essential part of his priestly work, yet he can still be described as indestructible because death could not hold him. His high priestly office continues because he has risen from the dead. This, if nothing else, makes him immensely superior to the mortal priests of Aaron’s line.

        But Jesus is also like Melchizedek in that his priesthood was established by an oath from God. We saw last week that God swore on oath that he would bless Abraham and his descendants, thus giving double assurance of the truth of his promises. Now our author cites the only other Scripture where God swears by an oath, Psalm 110:4 “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’ This is also the only other mention of Melchizedek. A thousand years after the Genesis incident, King David prophecies that the Messiah will be both King and God, and then adds in Verse 4 that this God-king is an eternal priest, attested by an eternal oath from God who will not change his mind. It is on the basis of this Psalm that the readers of Hebrews can be confident of the Messiah’s priesthood and have an idea of what it is like - like Melchizedek’s.

        As a result of all this, the author says we have a better hope, verse 18, in a better covenant, verse 22. The old covenant was not the long term solution because it was ‘weak and useless’. Donald Guthrie explains: “Although the law performed a valuable function, its essential weakness was that it could not give life and vitality. In fact its function was not to provide strength but to provide a standard by which man could measure his own moral status.” Thus it is ‘useless’: not without value, but inadequate to do what people hoped it would do, to give them righteousness before God. He says that the Law made nothing perfect. It measures righteousness but does not provide it, just as a thermometer measures temperature but doesn’t make anything hot.

        On the other hand, though the law is inadequate, there is something which makes people righteous, a better hope through which we draw near to God. We said last week that we have a sure and certain hope of God’s promised blessing, hope which is an anchor for our souls. Who anchored it there behind the curtain of the temple, where only the high priest can go? It wasn’t a Levitical high priest, it was Jesus. We have a better, greater hope because of a better, greater, high priest. And in this hope we know we can be made righteous, cleansed and perfected so that we can stand blameless and without fault in the presence of a holy God - we ourselves can have access to God through the ministry of Jesus, the great high priest.

        In the same way, from this great, this greatest priest we receive the greatest covenant. The old covenant was inadequate, not to show righteousness, but to lay hold of it. The new covenant through this new priest offers righteousness. Verse 22 “Because of this oath Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.” The old covenant wasn’t bad - it had and has many useful functions. But the sacrifices of sinful priests offering the blood of bulls and goats could only provide a picture of atonement, a faith-focus in which those who trusted God could find assurance of forgiveness. It took a better covenant and a better priest to offer a sacrifice that really paid for sins. In Jesus we have a high priest who can guarantee righteousness and access to God.

III. The high priest we need. (Hebrews 7:23-28)

        This is the point of the last verses: In Jesus the greatest priest offers the greatest sacrifice to meet the greatest need. Verse 23: Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. 26Such a high priest meets our need--one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

        As we near the chapter’s end we’re still comparing Jesus, the greatest priest, with the Levitical priests. There are several more ways in which Jesus is greatest and therefore able to meet our great need. The Levites, like all other men except Jesus, have a mortality problem. When they die their priesthood ends and someone else has to take up their task. That’s why there were so many priests - because they were always dying off. But Jesus, because he has risen from the dead, lives forever. No one else is needed to take up the high priesthood - he has it as a permanent office.
        This permanent priesthood has a tremendous consequence: he is able to save completely those who come to God through him. The word used for completely implies both total and permanent. It means absolute, entire, and eternal salvation.

        Moreover, it implies that salvation is completely of him, entirely ruling out any works or merit on our part. He saves us from the lowest pit and elevates us to the highest heaven: we don’t do anything on our own. He offers complete salvation. We come to God through him and no other way. Notice that the emphasis is on access to God. A holy God can only be approached by those who have been saved by Jesus, cleansed, made righteous, made perfect. Through him all of us are invited to come and dwell in the very presence of God himself. Have you accepted that invitation?

        Furthermore Jesus provides eternal intercession - he always lives to intercede for us. This literally means that he speaks to the Father on our behalf. Not that the Father is either deaf or forgetful - having to ask Jesus ‘did you save that one’ or ‘what was that he said.’ No, there is no defect in the Father, but in the mystery of the Trinity the Son rejoices to stand before the Father’s throne and invite us time after time to enter the place of holiness through him. At the same time he proclaims us in that eternal moment saved through him and he is the channel through which our prayers reach the Father with merit. He intercedes for all who come to God through Him.

        Jesus is the greatest high priest who offered the greatest sacrifice to meet the greatest need. Verse 26: “Such a high priest meets our need.” The Levites couldn’t do it: they had neither the life nor the power nor the purity nor the position to meet the deep needs of sinful people. But Jesus is fully qualified to meet our need: he is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners and exalted above the heavens. Listen to that list again - it’s great, meaningful praise. ‘Jesus you are holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners and exalted above the heavens.’ Who else can make those claims? Certainly no man, no woman who lived before Jesus, no man, no woman who has lived since Jesus. Not even this Melchizedek, unless he was Jesus, could make these claims.

        In his sinlessness and purity Jesus is uniquely qualified to be our high priest - and even more, to be the sacrifice that he himself offered. Here at the end of the chapter the author makes a key transition from talking about the priest to talking about the sacrifices the priest offers. Jesus, he tells us, offered a uniquely great sacrifice. The Levites had to offer sacrifices every day - often dozens or hundreds. Yet all they could do was provide a faith picture for those who found atonement in Jesus.

        Also, since they themselves were sinful, these priests had to first offer sacrifices for themselves, and then for the sins of the people. But our holy, blameless, pure high priest did not have to offer sacrifices for himself - he had no sin to be atoned for. Instead, end of verse 27, ‘he sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.’ What a great thought, an incredible truth which captures the essence of the Good News. As High Priest Jesus did offer a sacrifice - once. He offered it for others, he offered it for us so that our sins could be atoned for and we could be made righteous. He offered it once-and-for-all - literally - once for everybody and once for all time. And what was the sacrifice he offered? Himself.

        This is the greatest sacrifice ever made. Instead of bulls and goats repeated for the whole course of your lifetime this was one sacrificial lamb to pay the price for all your sins, one incomparable death to purchase your salvation. It’s the greatest sacrifice, and it meets the greatest need. Under the Old Covenant, and in all the religions of the world, sinful men tried and tried to reach a holy God. But they couldn’t - access to God was denied by their sinfulness and by the weakness and uselessness of what they were doing.

        Yet the world’s pagan religions were right in one thing: payment was required for sin. Atonement was needed. Through God’s revelation the Jews had a clearer picture. They could see how sacrifice and atonement were linked, could see how the High Priest went before God on their behalf. And some believed. The response God called for from the Jews was a heart-faith that the atonement pictured in the sacrifices would be made real by the mercy of God and through his plan. But only in Jesus was a sacrifice made that could actually make the needed payment. He offered up himself to redeem those he loved.

        The greatest priest made the greatest payment to meet the greatest need. And because of the power of his indestructible life, he defeated death and rose to a new and perfect life in which he continues in the role of High Priest - not offering sacrifice, because that has been done once and for all, but making intercession, and bringing into the very presence of the Father all who call on Him, all who trust him, all who believe.

        We have, over the years, heard dozens of stories of people who have sacrificed themselves for others. From the little boy who thought he was giving his life when he gave the blood transfusion to his sister to Father Maxmillian Kolbe, who gave himself as a substitute for others in a German concentration camp. All of these are worthy examples of personal sacrifice, but my problem with them in this context is that they’re not big enough. The need caused by human sin, and the sacrifice to meet that need and the high priest who performed it are so far beyond anything in our daily experience that to compare it to these things almost makes it smaller. That’s why our author keeps saying “No, it’s not this Levitical sacrifice, these sinful high priests, the blood of bulls and goats.” It’s far, far greater than that.

        The only thing I can think of to compare to is this. Maybe you’ve seen a movie that has ended with a close-up or even a freeze-frame of some person going on with their lives - some normal scene. Well, the individual examples of sacrifice, whether it is a lamb on the altar of a priest or a father who gives himself for a son, a soldier for a squad, a citizen for his people, those individual examples are at the level, the scale of normal life - admirable but not of cosmic significance. But in some of these movies the end will include the camera gradually panning back to show more of the scene, or the city, or the country, or conceivably the whole world.

        The sacrifice of Christ is of that scale. If you pan back from everything in human history and get a long enough and wide enough perspective then the sacrifice of Christ might come into focus, looming as the dominant event in all of space and all of time. Picture a cross suspended over the universe, or a lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing with it’s four feet on the four corners of eternity. That’s the magnitude of the high priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus.

        “Such a high priest meets our need--one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 25Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”