See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them receive tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
Last week’s article started a study of the book of Hebrew’s discussion in chapter 7 of the Old Testament priest Melchizedek, after whose order the high priesthood of Jesus was compared (Hebrews 5:9-10; 6:20). Both a king and a priest, Melchizedek blessed Abraham, who paid tithes to him (Genesis 14:18-20). As my last article pointed out, Hebrew’s mention of Melchizedek being “without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (v. 3) was God’s way of pointing out to the first century Jewish Christians that Melchizedek’s priesthood was not dependent on genealogy as was the Levitical priesthood of the Law of Moses. In that way, Melchizedek “resembled the Son of God” (v. 3) because Jesus’ priesthood likewise was not dependent upon being a descendent of Levi.
In today’s Bible passage, we see God through the Hebrew writer praising Melchizedek, the man “to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils!” (v. 4). Abraham paid a tenth of his possessions to Melchizedek, just as Abraham’s descendants through the eleven sons of his grandson Jacob – the nation of Israel – would be commanded by the Law of Moses centuries later to pay a tenth of their possessions to the Levitical priesthood, the descendants of Abraham’s twelfth great-grandson, Levi (v. 5; cf. Numbers 18:21, 26; 2 Chronicles 31:4-5).
Yet there were differences too. Melchizedek, described as “this man who does not have his descent from” Abraham’s descendent Levi, both received tithes from Abraham and also blessed him, the very one whom God reminds us had “received the promises” (v. 6; cf. Romans 4:13-25; Galatians 3:29; Hebrews 11:8-19; Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1ff; 17:1ff; 22:17-18). As Hebrews points out, blessings are only given by those who are superior to those who are inferior to them (v. 7). Thus, Melchizedek was superior to Abraham. This would have undoubtedly raised the eyebrows of the first-century Jewish Christians who first read Hebrews. Abraham was the patriarch of all patriarchs to them, the one to whom they proudly traced their lineage (cf. Luke 3:8; John 8:39). Yet this little-known priest, mentioned only in a couple of verses in the entire Old Testament, was said to be better than Abraham!
Then Hebrews points out that “in the one case, tithes are received by mortal men…” (v. 8a). “The one case” refers back to verse 5’s mention of the Levitical priesthood of the Law of Moses who were commanded to have tithes from their Jewish brethren paid to them. They are called “mortal men” because their service as priests ended when they died. Yet concerning Melchizedek – “the other case,” the one to whom the Levitical priests’ ancestor Abraham paid tithes – there is no record in the Old Testament of Melchizedek’s birth or death or genealogy as Hebrews figuratively pointed out earlier (v. 3). In that way, from a figurative standpoint he “continues a priest forever” (v. 3). This is why Hebrews says that “he lives.” Thus, we see another way Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priests of the Mosaic law. God really brought this point home in the next verses when he pointed out that a case could be made that even Levi himself, the titular ancestor of the Levitical priesthood of Mosaic law, paid tithes to Abraham from the standpoint that, being Abraham’s descendant himself, he was “still in the loins of his ancestor” when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek (vs. 9-10).
Jesus is “a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (6:20). Melchizedek was superior to both Abraham and Levi, the founder of the Levitical priesthood. Thus, Jesus is superior to them as well. Lord willing, we’ll continue examining chapter 7 next week to see more of how this is so.