Saturday, May 8, 2010

Hebrews 7 - Jesus and Melchizedek

The following sermon, from March 2010, offers a reading of Hebrews 7. I first describe a kind of interpretation strategy from the Rabbis' teaching about how to read the Torah, and then I use that as a possible explanation of what the author of Hebrews might have been doing. My motivation was to try to appreciate the style of argument of Hebrews. Some ancient styles of argument seem not to make "logical" sense to modern ears, but the reason is not that the ancients weren't as smart or logical as we are. I hope this sermon helps readers to appreciate a sophisticated style of ancient argument. Blessings, Matthew


"God bless you brothers and sisters."

In this morning's sermon we will be studying Hebrews 6.19-7.19 and hopefully seeing why we can have confidence that the priesthood of Jesus is superior to the priesthood of the law, as the writer claims in the end of chapter 4 and in chapter 5.

Hebrews, we remember, is a sermon to Jewish Christians spread throughout the Roman Empire at the first dawn of Christianity, when Jews and Gentiles were still figuring out what it meant to follow Christ faithfully and whether the requirements of following Christ were really worth it. And because of the ambiguities and trials involved in learning to follow Christ and the recent memory of their old ways of life, many Christians in this early period were led astray by false teaching or tempted to return to the security of their Jewish ways. This is the situation for the audience of the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a sermon to Jewish Christians who were facing pressure and maybe even entertaining the idea of abandoning faith in Christ. The preacher is encouraging them that faith in Christ is far superior to the law.

Let's begin by reading the passage for today.

I. Comments on rhetoric and argument

Before we get into analysis of the passage today, do you mind if we take a brief detour to talk about rhetoric and style of argument? It's important throughout the book because the shape of the form really affects the content of the content. But I think it's especially important in chapter 7, and I think it would be worth starting with a few notes on the argument style.

I.1 The Jewishness of this book

As you read Hebrews, if you know anything about the Old Testament at all, you probably recognize that, hey, this has got to be a writer who is very familiar with Jewish backgrounds and theology and he must be writing to folks who are also familiar with these things. First of all, he's quoting the Old Testament all over the place - which to him, remember, was the whole Bible since there was no New Testament at that point. Second, the whole issue here in Hebrews is comparing traditional forms of Mosaic worship - the law, the priesthood, sacrifices - to worshiping Jesus as the Christ.

I.2 History of Talmudic Rules

As I was studying for the exhortation this morning I learned a bit about Jewish, and specifically "talmudic," hermeneutics. The Talmud is a record of what the Jewish Rabbis said about Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. In the Talmud, as part of the Rabbis' teaching, there are rules for how one was supposed to interpret the Bible, and specifically the Torah. Very specific rules to help sort out what are valid and what are invalid interpretations. Now the Talmud wasn't fully collected and put together in writing until sometime 6th century-ish AD, but the content is much older, existing in the form of oral teaching. These rules for interpreting the Bible can be traced to at least the 3rd century, and Hebrews was probably, well we don't really know, late first, early second century? So it's not unreasonable to think that the writer and audiences of the letter Hebrews would have been familiar with what would eventually become Talmudic teaching about how to interpret the Bible.

I.3 Syncretic argument and a fortiori

Throughout the letter the preacher has often used a "syncretic" kind of argument. The Greek word (kritikos) for "judgement" and the preposition "with". With syncresis-style rhetoric you take two things and compare them to one another to show how they are similar and then, based on similarities, you can show how one is better than another. So we saw in 1.1-2 and 2.2-3, 3.2-6. More broadly, the writer compares the Israelite's rest to the church's, the levitical high priest to Christ's priesthood and so on. This comparative arguing, specifically, is arguing a fortiori or "from the stronger". For example, if I come home and find that all the chocolates are gone and I know that my wife was the only one home, I'm going to think she ate the chocolates. But how much more if I see chocolate all over her face! (That's never happened by the way.) Similarly, servant - Son; Moses - Jesus in chapter 3.

I.4 Talmudic rule of qal wa chomer

Given the author's background, his audience and the subject matter (Jewish worship), it makes sense that Hebrews should use a correspondingly Jewish style of argument. In addition to this generic rhetorical syncresis-strategy, here in chapter 7 the writer uses a specific kind of a fortiori argument, one of the Talmudic rules for interpreting the Bible, called in Hebrew "qal wa chomer", or in English "simple to complex." The rule for a qal wa chomer argument is that the conclusion must be contained in the premise. For example, if someone who is 6ft tall can walk beneath a certain doorway, then how much more can someone who is 5ft tall walk beneath the same doorway. This is very important for the passage.

II. Finally, we are ready to dig into chapter 7.

II.1. Chapter 7.1ff: The story of Genesis 14

Lot, kings, gathering army, brings back spoils, tithe to Melchizedek, priest of God most high. Who is this guy Melchizedek? Everybody has a genealogy, but not Melchizedek. And so, as far as we know him, he is without birth and death. Comes out of nowhere and disappears into the same. And yet Abraham - the receiver of the oath! - is blessed by this person, and Abraham gives him a tithe.

II.2. Superiority of Melchizedekian priesthood.

II.2.a. Something greater than Aaron

Abraham recognizes Melchizedek's greatness over him. Vv 4, 6. Now, a fortiori, Melchizedek has to be greater than Abraham because of the direction of blessing. And, more specifically, qal wa chomer, the entire Levitical priesthood submits to the superiority of the Melchizedekian priesthood because of vv 9-10! So the argument then, so far, is that there is something greater than the Levitical priesthood.

II.2.b. Superiority of Melchizedek

What makes it specifically Melchizedek that is greater? The obvious answer is that it was Melchizedek who blessed Abraham. But, look at what the preacher points out that makes Melchizedek so special: vs 8, 3. He lives, and as living he is a priest forever! So, (1) there is something greater than the Levitical priesthood, and (2) what is greater is an eternal priest, one who exceeds our limited capabilities and the hopes and dreams we could ever have for our own abilities to be priests for ourselves and atone for our own sins and the sins of our people. He who does this eternally certainly must be greater than we who do this only a little bit and never sufficiently! It is this one who, after the order of Melchizedek, is "King of righteousness and of peace."

II.3. Jesus as conclusion of a "qal wa chomer"

II.3.a. The coming of a second Melchizedek

What reason is there to think that a second Melchizedek would come? Vs 11. The conclusion is contained in the premise, remember. The preacher wants us to see, he's arguing, that Melchizedek actually foreshadows the Messiah. If Abraham, and by extension Levi, submitted to the priesthood of Melchizedek, then this means Levi's priesthood was inferior to Melchizedek's. Moreover, as I just explained, Melchizedek's priesthood is the best possible because it is eternal. But, Levi's priesthood is put into place after Melchizedek's, which must mean that another, greater priesthood will supercede and fulfill our weak one - a priesthood like Melchizedek. The preacher argues to his Jewish audience: "Hey, our worship, our priesthood, our sacrifice are weak and imperfect; they are not eternal. But we know that there is a better priesthood." Of course Melch himself was not a redeemer-Messiah, but he was the contrast which shows us who think we are so powerful and self-sufficient - WE'RE NOT! Melchizedek's superiority over Levi and Levi's coming after Melchizedek implies the coming of a second Melchizedek, qal wa chomer.

II.3.b. This second Melchizedek as Jesus

Yes, there's a priest coming one like Melch, but what reason do we have for believing it was Jesus? We have the same two reasons that made Melchizedek so great to begin with. (1) Jesus does not come from the Levitical line. He is of the tribe of Judah, the kingly tribe of Israel, noting the connecting to Melchizedek being a king-priest. (2) But if that weren't enough, a fortiori "it is even more obvious" (vs 15) that Jesus must be a Melchizedek-ian priest because of the evidence of his indestructible life! He is a priest forever!

II.4. Summary

So, (vs 18) by ancestry, Melchizedek and Jesus show the weakness of the Levitical priesthood, and, by his eternal life, Jesus gives us an incomparably better hope. By comparing the system of the law to Jesus' own priesthood, we have found that the hope offered through Jesus is incomparably greater. This is the argument of Hebrews 7 to vs 19.

III. Superiority of obedience to Christ

Remember that the issue in Hebrews is worship as obedience. What kind of worship is necessary for salvation? The law requires sacrifice and perpetual priestly intercession. But Jesus is our eternal priest; therefore our sacrifices are not necessary. What, then, is necessary? Well, what can we learn from Christ's own example? 5.7-10 and 10.5ff. The preacher is encouraging his readers, you don't need to go back to what is familiar to you and to trusting your acts of sacrifice. Obedience is greater than sacrifice. Have faith, be faithful.

No comments:

Post a Comment