preached at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Baton Rouge on the Fifth Sunday of Lent 2018
Please pray with me.
May my heart’s affection, my mind’s attention, and my soul’s submission be to you, oh Lord, my Savior and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The law has changed. The covenant is new. The biblical priesthood is changed forever. Our sins, our failings, our faults, our transgressions—against you who will bring a charge? Against whom have you sinned? Who will remember your sins? Memory is one of the more fascinating components of life on earth. Why do we remember what we remember? Why do we forget some things? What do we do when we forget the things we want to remember and remember the things we want to forget? This is in large part the summation of the Christian faith: who remembers what and what then is done with it? One of the more important components of observing our penitential seasons, like Lent, is that we would be a people full of memory: we would remember, like David in Psalm 51, the depths of our transgressions; we would remember, like the prophet Jeremiah, both the old and the new covenant; we would remember, like John in his Gospel, the words and obedience of Jesus Christ; and we would remember, like the author of Hebrews, that we have a great high priest, serving at the eternal altar of God the Father.
Please turn in your Bible with me to Hebrews 4:14 (give them time to turn there). I would like to read again for us today’s passage, Hebrews 4:14-5:10 (read it).
Principles. (8-10 paragraphs with quotes and commentary)
Today’s lectionary readings are a beautiful tapestry of ideas, doctrines, and truths we cannot miss, and they are bound together in the ideas we see here in Hebrews. Before we consider the particular text in Hebrews, consider the major ideas strewn throughout our readings: transgression, mercy, love, cleansing, sin, sacrifices, broken and contrite heart, broken covenant, renewed covenant, remembering our sins no more, and that’s only from Psalm 51 and our Jeremiah reading. Turn then to our New Testament readings and we find the same. We indeed find much more.
All throughout the book of Hebrews, we find strong language that was sure to have upset the faithful Levites of Christ’s day. Here Hebrews chapter 7, verse 12:
Heb 7:12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.
In ancient Jewish culture, to make a claim that the law has changed, Levitical priesthood is no longer valid, and then to continue by prying open the reasons why this is so would be a sure invitation for trouble. Like with any of our hearts and minds, the claims of the bible would have been thick against hard, faithful Jews, yet rewarding toward humble, faithful Jews. To understand this, let us look for a moment at Hebrews 7:11-13 and we will find the foundation of our argument in the verses that surround Hebrews 7:12.
Heb 7:11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?
Heb 7:12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.
Heb 7:13 For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar.
The ‘order of Melchizedek’, which was a different priestly order than that of the Levites, is a mysterious order that is mentioned only four times in the entire bible outside of these verses and our reading from Hebrews today. Three out of those four are found in Hebrews, and the other is found in Psalm 110. So, who is this Melchizedek? What is his order? And why does he pose a threat to ancient priests as well as our own imaginations as 21st century Christians. The only other place in the bible where we find mention of Melchizedek is in Genesis chapter fourteen. Before this section, we find no reference to him. After this section, every reference points back to this same section in Genesis. Therefore, the end of Genesis fourteen is the introduction of this character and the only section of the bible we can come to know him most directly.
What we see in Genesis 14 is two-fold. First, there is a direct line from Melchizedek to the old Abrahamic covenant, including all who would follow in his footsteps, especially Levi and his descendants. Second, we are often guided to look at the meaning of the name Melchizedek and the meaning of the words that are associated with him. The name ‘Melchizedek’ means ‘king of righteousness,’ and ‘Salem’, which is the city he is king of, is derived from the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’, which means ‘peace’. The biblical commentator Matthew Henry gives a helpful and ordered overview of Melchizedek,
“Melchisedec was a king, and so is the Lord Jesus - a king of God's anointing; the government is laid upon his shoulders, and he rules over all for the good of his people. (2.) That he was king of righteousness: his name signifies the righteous king. Jesus Christ is a rightful and a righteous king - rightful in his title, righteous in his government. He is the Lord our righteousness; he has fulfilled all righteousness, and brought in an everlasting righteousness, and he loves righteousness and righteous persons, and hates iniquity. (3.) He was king of Salem, that is, king of peace; first king of righteousness, and after that king of peace. So is our Lord Jesus; he by his righteousness made peace, the fruit of righteousness is peace. Christ speaks peace, creates peace, is our peace-maker. (4.) He was priest of the most high God, qualified and anointed in an extraordinary manner to be his priest among the Gentiles. So is the Lord Jesus; he is the priest of the most high God, and the Gentiles must come to God by him; it is only through his priesthood that we can obtain reconciliation and remission of sin. (5.) He was without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, Heb_7:3. This must not be understood according to the letter; but the scripture has chosen to set him forth as an extraordinary person, without giving us his genealogy, that he might be a fitter type of Christ, who as man was without father, as God without mother; whose priesthood is without descent, did not descend to him from another, nor from him to another, but is personal and perpetual. (6.) That he met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him. The incident is recorded Gen_14:18, etc. He brought forth bread and wine to refresh Abraham and his servants when they were weary; he gave as a king, and blessed as a priest. Thus our Lord Jesus meets his people in their spiritual conflicts, refreshes them, renews their strength, and blesses them. (7.) That Abraham gave him a tenth part of all (Heb_7:2), that is, as the apostle explains it, of all the spoils; and this Abraham did as an expression of his gratitude for what Melchisedec had done for him, or as a testimony of his homage and subjection to him as a king, or as an offering vowed and dedicated to God, to be presented by his priest. And thus are we obliged to make all possible returns of love and gratitude to the Lord Jesus for all the rich and royal favours we receive from him, to pay our homage and subjection to him as our King, and to put all our offerings into his hands, to be presented by him to the Father in the incense of his own sacrifice. (8.) That this Melchisedec was made like unto the Son of God, and abideth a priest continually. He bore the image of God in his piety and authority, and stands upon record as an immortal high priest; the ancient type of him who is the eternal and only-begotten of the Father, who abideth a priest for ever. (38)
So, if this Melchizedek, king of Salem, is such an important type for the coming Christ, why do we have so little information about him? We find the answer in the Hebrew verses we read earlier, chapter 7, verse 13
“For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar.”
It was important for the figure of Christ that his post was exceptional; for surely he is by all uses of the term exceptional. He could not have come by the Levitical system because it was the Levitical priesthood that was perpetuating sinful men into temporary posts. Christ was not to be a temporary priest, a temporary king, or a temporary prophet. He was to fulfill the post fully and completely by his life and works. Therefore, he could not descend from a corrupt order. His order must be of a new oath; one that is suited for him; one whose altar has never been served. For it was this very altar that the Son of Man was to come and die. It was this very altar that would hold the blood of God. It was this very altar that was to be as holy as its priest, to serve as the worshiper’s place of standing in the presence of God. Therefore, no other priest could have been in this line. It was reserved for the beauty of our Lord. It was reserved for worship under a new covenant.
In our liturgy we will move next from the preaching of the Word to the administration of the Eucharist. We need not be afraid of a word like eucharist, for it simply means good gift. And in so being a Greek word, it points us back to our Christian heritage. We also ought to consider anew every symbol, image, and action of this table. The priest will serve at the altar so that our hearts and minds would see the great high priest, eternally ordained at the right hand of the Father. The sacrifice of bread and wine will be given so that our hearts and minds would behold our great high sacrifice, eternally remembering and forgiving our sins at the right hand of the Father. The Agnus Dei will be recited so that our hearts and minds would indeed see the lamb of God, slain once for all, now seated at the right hand of the Father. Here the new covenant is tasted so that we would be his people.
Now hear, as we close our time, a poem titled “The Mediator.”
I have destroyed myself,
my name is defiled,
the powers of my soul are degraded;
I am vile, miserable, strengthless,
but my hope is in thee.
If ever I am saved it will be by goodness undeserved and astonishing,
not by mercy alone but by abundant mercy,
not by grace alone but by exceeding riches of grace;
And such thou has revealed, promised, exemplified
in thoughts of peace, not of evil.
Thou hast devised means
to rescue me from sin’s perdition,
to restore me to happiness, honour, safety.
I bless thee for the everlasting covenant,
for the appointment of a mediator.
I rejoice that he failed not, nor was discouraged,
but accomplished the work thou gavest him to do;
and said on the cross, ‘It is finished.’
I exult in the thought that
thy justice is satisfied,
thy truth established,
thy law magnified,
and a foundation is laid for my hope.
I look to a present and personal interest in Christ and say,
Surely he has borne my griefs, carried my sorrows,
won my peace, healed my soul.
Justified by his blood I am saved by his life,
Glorifying in his cross I bow to his scepter,
Having his Spirit I possess his mind.
Lord, grant that my religion may not be occasional and partial
but universal, influential, effective,
and may I always continue in thy words as well as thy works,
so that I may reach my end in peace.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.