A great deal of time and energy is often spent to discover if possible who Melchizedek was. But the important thing about this important character is not who he was or is, but what he was or is. Can it be that by looking at the tree we have been unable to see the woods? All we know about Melchizedek historically is contained in Genesis 14:18-20 and Psalms 110:4. Then we have the statement by Josephus, whose history here was largely a Jewish tradition, that he was a descendant not far removed from one of the sons of Noah, a powerful chieftain or head of a tribe among the Canaanites.' The Jewish Targums held that he was Shem. Various opinions have been expressed, but evidently the Holy Spirit was not concerned with telling us who he was, but did mention him for some other purpose that we might learn what he represented and how it should affect us. We are told very clearly that he was a type of Christ, and in this sphere we should examine the topic. In doing so, we must not forget that Jesus is our elder brother and one with us. "In taking our nature, the Saviour has bound Himself to humanity by a tie that is never to be broken." 2 Hence, what affects Him affects us, and applies to us as well, for we too are designated priests after His order (see I Peter 2:5-9).
If the context is noted carefully in the book of Hebrews, one will observe that the Melchizedek priesthood, of whose order Christ was, is contrasted with the Levitical priesthood. It is the significance of this contrast that we must observe. The contrast is between the ways the priests of the two different orders were chosen, as well as the contrast of character. Let us note first these two points in the Levitical priesthood.
Because of the condition of the people and the national status of the theocracy, God chose one family, Aaron, from one tribe, Levi, to perpetuate the priesthood. To become a priest of this order one had to be able to prove genealogically that he was a direct descendant from Aaron, and hence eligible for the priesthood. (The Hebrew word for priest is kohen, or kahn, and it was probably to retain the genealogical status that many Jews took this term as their name and have retained it to this day.) Therefore, among the descendants of Aaron a close genealogical record was kept so that the lineage might be traced back through the parents to the beginning. See Josephus Life i.l. Their life's profession depended on this record. In New Testament times it depended also on their wealth, as in those times this office was sold to the highest bidder among the descendants, and so the priesthood was changed frequently. Yet the law stated that the priests and Levites were to serve from thirty years of age until they became fifty.' Thus there was prescribed a definite beginning and ending of their days of service, with a maximum of twenty years.
This Levitical priesthood in New Testament times had been seriously corrupted, so that to the Jews a gentle and compassionate priest was a novelty. Arrogancy, pride, and an overbearing attitude were their common traits. Jesus, although from the lion tribe, was a lamb in character. John said, "Behold the Lamb of God." Thus to the Jewish leaders He was a "stumblingblock," a "rock of offence."
Now Christ was a priest, not after the order of Levi, but after the order of Melchizedek. The name corresponds with His character. It is made up of two Hebrew words, Melek (king) and Sedek (righteousness). Thus He is King of righteousness, a priest after this order. A priest after the order of Levi could serve only if he could prove his recorded genealogical record, which was kept of the descendants of Levi, and particularly of the house of Aaron. The Syriac Peshitta text, speaking of Melchizedek, reads (and thus gives no doubt the right sense of Hebrews 7:3), "Of whom neither the father nor mother are recorded in the genealogies." His priesthood was dependent, not on genealogy, but on character. He was priest by his own right, and it was not necessary to know what his lineage was. He was chosen by God, and no doubt by the people as well, not because of who his ancestors were or where he came from, but for what he was.
Certain verses in Scripture speak louder than others to us. Among such is Hebrews 5:8, which describes with tremendous meaning Christ's preparation that made Him eligible as a priest after the order of Melchizedek. If we, too, are to be priests after this order, then perhaps we can learn a lesson of what is required of us from this difficult statement.
Having given us a little hint in the first verses of Hebrews 5 as to one mysterious phase of Christ's relationship to the Father as son, and to us as priest, the writer of this epistle suggests something further in verses 11 and 12. Here he states that there are many other things hard to be uttered that he would like to say, but they were incapable of receiving or understanding them. These were probably some of the things that Peter found hard to understand (see 2 Peter 3:16). This is similar to Christ's statement to His disciples as found in John 16:12, where He says, "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now." This is one of the saddest statements that Jesus made. What a pity that although Christ stood ready to give information concerning the great truths of salvation, they were unable to bear it Are we any more able and willing today? No doubt many of these things were revealed to Paul, and he was here attempting to pass on to the Hebrews and to us some of these great mysteries.
Let us note carefully Hebrews 9:7-9 and the points emphasized. In verse 7 he definitely refers to Christ's experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. He offered up prayers and supplications with strong cries and tears unto One who was able to save Him from death, yet He did not save Him. One can, with mind's eye and ear, from this description, see the tears streaming down His cheeks and hear the heartrending cries as our Saviour goes through His supreme struggle with self. Will God save Him from death? Will Jesus give up and save Himself? Or will He conquer the temptation of self-preservation? This was the great struggle. This was what was qualifying Him to be a priest after the order of Melchizedek, as referred to in verse 2. He suffered; He prayed with fervor and anguish such as no one had ever known before, not even Jacob at the river Jabbok. He was weighing humanity—you and me and all the world—against His very self. Which should it be?
Here is a lesson for us. We, too, must weigh the good of the cause and the world against ourselves. By placing Himself in a position where by His trials He learned subjection of self and obedience, He went far beyond what had been done by the priests in the ancient dispensation. He sensed the full meaning. Salvation of others meant to Him separation from His Father forever. He "could not see through the portals of the tomb."'
"The humanity of the Son of God trembled in that trying hour. . . . The awful moment had come—that moment which was to decide the destiny of the world. The fate of humanity trembled in the balance. Christ might even now refuse to drink the cup apportioned to guilty man. It was not yet too late. He might wipe the bloody sweat from His brow, and leave man to perish in his iniquity. . . . The words fall tremblingly from the pale lips of Jesus, '0 My Father, if this cup may not pass away from Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done.' " 5
"He was heard in that He feared." More correctly, "by reason of circumspection." By reason of His godly life His prayer was heard. Yet He did not press His entreaty beyond measure. Three times He had prayed that the cup might pass from Him, and now seeing fully what it would mean to us if He should not go through with it, laying self completely aside in this great struggle, He said, "Thy will be done." This was the obedience He learned. His prayer was not granted, but it was answered. He was strengthened to go through that experience for which He had prayed for a release that was not granted. Then when He had made the decision an angel was dispatched from heaven, not to take the cup from His hand, but to strengthen and sustain Him as He drank it. He had learned obedience by the things He suffered, that is, from this garden experience of suffering. Now notice the result. He was made perfect as a son and became the author of salvation to them that obey Him (v. 9). To us He has said in another place, "I have given you an example."
"I am the way, the truth, and the life." '
Now what is there in this for us? The Scripture says, "yet learned he obedience." We cannot say He had been disobedient before. If He were, then He would not be a perfect example. Then what does the apostle mean when he says, "Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience"? A son by right should be obedient, and Jesus as a son of the Father had been obedient. But we are told that He "learned obedience by the things which he suffered." His former obedience prepared Him for the experience of suffering through which He was to enter into a new type of obedience not formerly attained, i.e., the obedience to which this Scripture refers, "even the death of the cross," which was really the second death, or the obliteration of self. As our Saviour, He was to feel "the anguish which the sinner will feel when mercy shall no longer plead for the guilty race." It was a matter of self-preservation, or being willing to lose self forever, to be nothing, to sink into oblivion that others might live. "The Saviour could not see through the portals of the tomb. Hope did not present to Him His coming forth from the grave a conqueror, or tell Him of the Father's acceptance of the sacrifice." ° He went beyond the call of duty, and in taking this step He learned through His suffering the greatest lesson possible in obedience. This was the great struggle, the final stage of complete self-surrender. And having learned that, He was now accepted by the Father as a perfect son, the demonstration of that acceptance being attested by His resurrection (see John 20:17).
Now, what does this experience of His have for us? Much, especially when we realize that we, too, are to be sons of God, and priests after the order of Melchizedek, a royal priesthood. Hebrews 5:11 says, "Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing." The difficulty experienced by the author of Hebrews lies in the spiritual condition of the people to whom he was writing. The original word for "dull" is a combination of two Greek words, one meaning "no," and the other "to push," hence, "no push." The use of the perfect tense for "are," or rather, "become," indicates they had not always been in that condition. The perfect tense speaks of a process completed in past time having present results. A suggested translation reads as follows: "Concerning which (teaching, namely, that the Lord Jesus is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek) there is much that we can say; yet when it comes to the saying of it, one finds it difficult to explain, because you are become those who are in a settled state of sluggishness, yes, of stupidity in your apprehension of the same." This sounds almost like a Laodicean state. Could this be part of our Laodicean condition?
The word "perfect" in verse 9 comes from a word meaning "the bringing of a person or thing to the goal fixed by God; the bringing of an object to a state of completeness appropriate to its proposed condition, whatever that might be." God has a goal fixed for us, and we are to attain to that goal as sons of God and priests of the Melchizedek order (1 Peter 2:9). Christ's struggle with self-preservation is our struggle. He conquered and became obedient unto death and selflessness. He reduced Himself to nothing, to obliteration, as illustrated by the kernel of wheat in John 12:24. We, too, must have our Gethsemane to learn this final lesson, the final stage of giving up self completely. And in that experience we, too, will be heard and strengthened. But we cannot be perfected until we go through our Gethsemane. This is our great need today. With this need filled, what a power the remnant church would bel If all the officers of the church were of God's choosing, there would be no striving to obtain or preserve our positions. Once we had learned that great lesson of self-surrender, no power on earth could stop our work. This is our challenge. "Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered."
Will we give up and save ourselves, or will we conquer self and learn obedience? Will we be priests after the order of Melchizedek, or after the order of Levi? This is our question today. To solve it means Christ's soon return. To leave it unsolved means further delay.
1 Flavius Josephus Antiquities of the Jews I.10.
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 25.
3 Num. 4:3, 23, 30, 35, 39, 43, 47.
4 White, op. cit., p. 753.
5Ibid., P. 690.
6 John 13:15.
7 John 14:6.
8 Philippians 2:8.
9 White, op. cit., p. 753.