What About Melchizedek?: the Third Sunday of Lent

Hebrews 4:14-5:10; Mark 8:27-9:1; Genesis 14; Isaiah 53; Psalm 44/45

Hebrews 4:14-5:6, our epistle reading for Sunday (with the verses surrounding this passage) concerns not only Great Lent, but the Easter and Ascension triumph that follows. It begins with the victorious portrait of the One who has passed into the highest heavens, on our behalf. Here we find a summary of the astonishing Christology of the message to the Hebrews, where Jesus is described both as the Creator, and the One who suffers and “learns obedience.” We are in the realm of mystery.

Our appointed verses concentrate upon the Archetypical Sufferer, whose sacrifice we meditate upon on this holy day of the cross. Yet, in the immediate context, Hebrews links and contrasts Jesus with the Old Testament priests, and with the strange figure of Melchizedek, the priest-king who blesses the patriarch Abraham in Genesis 14. There is also a connection and contrast with the OT priesthood in general. Like the Aaronic priest, Jesus is vulnerable—and so can sympathize; yet He has no need to offer sacrifice for his own sins. The earthly priest has no right to elevate himself to his office; Jesus could have claimed such rights (cf. Philippians 2:5-11), but instead relies upon God to exalt Him. High Priest forever, He has entered into the Holiest place, and not simply into an earthly temple. Here is the passage:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”; as he says also in another place, “Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek.”

We are given Melchizedek as an OT example of goodness and mystery; but Jesus is even more awe-inspiring, and eternal—as the Scriptures tell us, He is “high priest forever!” There may have been some mystical Jewish rabbis who honored Melchizedek at the time when the NT was written, and who speculated that he was actually an angel, rather than human. But Melchizedek’s role has long faded into the pages of Genesis, so that we remember him mostly through the book of Hebrews; Jesus, on the other hand, is “the same yesterday, today and forever.” Melchizedek bursts upon the story in Genesis with no pedigree—we have no idea of his genealogy! And so he symbolizes one without father or mother; but Jesus has always been one with the heavenly Father. Melchizedek comes bearing earthly wine and bread—but Jesus gives us Himself for nourishment. His name means “My king is righteousness” and the place with which he is associated, Salem, is probably Jerusalem, and sounds like the Hebrew word for peace, “Shalom.” Our greatest High Priest, however, is righteousness and peace itself, and will bring us into the New Jerusalem, which will last forever.

Very early in the book of Hebrews Jesus is commended to us as God. He is higher than the angels, greater than Moses, more honorable than Melchizedek—and we must worship! In Hebrews 1:8, God the Father, referring to the Old Testament Psalm, calls the Son, “O God!” (Though some contemporary versions interpret this differently, this is the most natural reading of the Hebrew Psalm 45:6, and the clear reading of LXX 44:6, which we Orthodox have received.) Similarly, the promise that God gives in Hebrews is far higher than that which the Hebrews received. If we are reading through the letter to the Hebrews, then, when we arrive at chapters four and five, we know about this glorious one who yet “sympathizes with our weaknesses.” And so, on this third Sunday of Great Lent, we are led to explore the amazing humility of the One who suffered beyond all measure and meditate upon this as a pattern for our own self-giving. We stress one pole of the great paradox about our Lord’s identity: he was (and remains) utterly human, and so knows our weaknesses. Indeed, the drama is even greater if we read on for a few more verses, learning about what happened in the “days of his flesh” when he suffered:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Son though he was, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Heb 5:7-10)

This is quite shocking! Even though he was “Son”—the unique Messiah, and the only eternal Son of God—he prayed, and he learned obedience. This insight into Christ’s “learning obedience” for our sake particularly surprising in the light of the introduction to the letter to the Hebrews. There, in consonance with our creed, we hear about this One who is the “very stamp” of God’s nature, who preserves the cosmos, and who has taken on the Name above all names (1:1-4).

This paradox of Jesus’ full and complete humanity and divinity helps us through some questions of translation. Some translations speak about Jesus in 5:8 as only “a son.” I think that we can be sure that these are wrong, and that we should translate this without the indefinite article—“Son though He was.” “Though Son of God,” this happens to him! And so, of course, suffering comes our way as well, for we are not greater than God’s only Son. “A servant is not greater than his Master!” Why does God allow such things—why not just teach us gently? The book of Hebrews responds, Jesus Himself supplicated, cried out, humbled Himself before the Father, learned, and was made perfect through suffering. Clearly, suffering and humility are not simply casualties of our existence, but are being used by God to bring about incalculable good. “He trampled down death by death!”

Of course, it would be masochistic and diabolical to seek out suffering, or downplay the suffering of others. We cannot EXPLAIN or MINIMIZE suffering, evil and death: but God has and will use even these dark places to bring about light and life! Here we must tread carefully, but there is a reason why the day on which we commemorate our Lord’s death is called “Holy” or “Good” Friday. Like a master artist, God takes the blot that we have put on the page, and made it the centerpiece of a great tableau.

The themes of the passage are wonderfully linked to other luminous passages in the New Testament. Here we find encouragement to pour out petition and intercession, for Christ did—to the point of sweat and tears. We may not understand the mystery of prayer, but because we are brothers and sisters with His Son, we are qualified to bring our concerns before God. He is tender of heart, and “able to save” from death! Prayer is bound up with our solidarity in Christ. Just as we have fallen with our first parents, so now, as brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11, 14), our lives are now linked with the one who has gone before—to cry out, to suffer, to die, to rise again, and to be glorified. This theme may be a very difficult one for our age of individualism. Without it, however, we cannot understand either how the gospel is good news, or how we are meant to enjoy God. God cares for each one of us personally: but He places us within a large family as we “go on to maturity” (6:1). It is not just rescue from death and punishment for which we hope, but actual glory (John 17:10; 2 Cor 5:21, Romans 5:2; Rev. 21-22) This is a promise for each of us, and all of us together!

It is helpful to read this passage alongside Isaiah 53 and our Gospel reading at the end of Mark 8. In this gospel passage, Jesus shows how He is the ultimate fulfillment of the Servant who will suffer for others, but then be satisfied with his travail (Isaiah 53). The glorious One is the One who suffers and dies for us! Here we re-learn what Jesus taught Peter before the transfiguration, that the Son of Man must suffer, and that we, too, must take up our cross if we hope to follow Him into glory (Mark 8:27-9:1). It is not enough to acknowledge His Messiahship (as Peter has!), nor even His divinity (as Orthodox Christians do!) We must press through to marvel over the outpouring of God’s love on the cross, for us. No rabbinic exegete of Isaiah could have understood this expression of the Holy God, but Jesus himself taught that the glorious One was also the humble, suffering, dying One, bringing together the Suffering Servant figure of Isaiah with that of the ascending and triumphant Son of Man (Daniel 7). And so, on the cross, Jesus’ words underscore the heartbreaking mystery: He cries out both “I Am” (John 18:6) and “I thirst” (19:28). He possesses the very name of the LORD, the I AM who made heavens and earth, and sea; yet He thirsts for our sake. And though the other gospels have Him quote from the first verse of Psalm 22 (“Why have you forsaken me?”) the gospel of John declares His final word to be “It is finished” (“God has done it!”, cf. Psalm 22:31b).

God has done it, provided us a way through, that we may see suffering as now full of meaning, so that we rise from our sins and death, and finally ascend in glory with Him. We are called, then, to “hold fast to our confession,” at the beginning of our reading from the epistle. And the faithfulness and victory of Jesus, our oldest Brother and our Lord, is our warrant and our encouragement. On this day opposites collide, bringing an unexpected conclusion. The story of the tender God-Man who is “made perfect” breaks through our apathy, our fearfulness, or our weakness, and turns our eyes upwards: for there He has gone before us, preparing a place, and constantly intercedes for us in glory. Leading us in these praises are our mothers and fathers who have trod His path more faithfully than we. Let us hear the exhortation of St. Gregory of Palamas, whom we remembered last Sunday:

Inclining our hearts, as well as bending our knees, come, “let us worship,” with David the psalmist and the prophet, “at the place where His feet stood”, where His all-embracing hands were outspread and His life-giving body was stretched out for our sake. As we reverence and greet the Cross with faith, let us draw and keep the abundant sanctification flowing from it. Then, at the sublimely glorious future advent of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, as we see him come in glory, we shall rejoice and skip for joy unceasingly, having attained to a place on His right hand and heard the promised joyful words and blessing, to the glory of the Son of God crucified in the flesh for us” (Homily 11, “On the Precious and Life-giving Cross”).

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