Saturday, July 26, 2008

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Jesus' Melchizedekan Priesthood: Hebrews 7

For a class I took on the book of Hebrews I wrote a research paper on the topic of Jesus and Melchizedek. I have pasted the paper to this post. Although it may be a bit more difficult to read than a Reader's Digest article, it is doable. I encourage everyone to read it. I really do see Hebrews 7 as one of the most encouraging chapters in the entire Bible. If you decide to read it keep a Bible next to you so that you might be able to follow along. Enjoy!



Many consider Hebrews’ discourse regarding Melchizedek to be overly complicated—a topic reserved for the intellectual elite. However, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews expressed frustration at the recipients of his letter, considering their inability to assimilate the truths concerning Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood to be a mark of pitiable spiritual immaturity (Heb. 5:11-14). If the rebuke resounding from the pen of the author of Hebrews was not amiss, and it is the present author’s contention that it was not, modern day Christians are in need of a similar rebuke. Surprisingly, the author of Hebrews did not go about fixing their problem by offering crash courses on the high priesthood of Jesus Christ, rather he stretched them by unreservedly throwing them into the thick of Christ’s Melchizedekan priesthood (Heb 6:13; 7:1-28). In this essay, the present author will argue that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews leans heavily upon the Old Testament to prove the insufficiency of the Aaronic priesthood, and thus the necessity of a change of law to allow for a priest of a different kind, “according to the order of Melchizedek,” who might bring about that which the Aaronic priests could not.

Melchizedek in the Old Testament

Interestingly, appearances of Melchizedek in the Biblical record are rather sparse. In fact, the author of Hebrews has much more to say about Melchizedek than the rest of Scripture combined. The only other passages which mention Melchizedek are Genesis 14:18-20 and Psalm 110:4. The following discussion on these two passages will not be exhaustive, but rather will focus on what is necessary for a correct understanding of Hebrews’ discourse regarding Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood

Genesis 14:18-20

Genesis 14:18 identifies Melchizedek as both a king and a priest. J. G. Vos aptly states, “Thus, this man combined in his own person the two offices of kingship and priesthood—something unknown among the Israelites, where these two divine institutions were always kept distinct and separate.”[1] The name Melchizedek literally means “my king is just.”[2] He is specifically identified as the king of “Salem,” which is usually associated with Jerusalem.[3] Second, he is called “priest of the Most High God.” Although “Most High God” (El Elyon) was associated with the supreme God of the Canaanites, Kenneth A. Matthews is correct in asserting that “As a Canaanite king Melchizedek acknowledged the God of the patriarch as the one true God by using the El-language that he knew.”[4]

Melchizedek appears on the scene as Abraham is returning home from defeating Chedorlaomer, King of Elam. Abraham attacked Chedorlaomer in order free his nephew, Lot, who had been taken as a prisoner of war while fighting on behalf of the nation of Sodom. The king of Sodom threw a welcome-home party in the Valley of Shavez for the sake of retrieving everything that Abraham won back from Chedorlaomer.[5] Melchizedek is found among those praising Abraham for his mighty feat in the Valley of Shavez. Genesis 14:18-20 mentions four things that Melchizedek did upon meeting Abraham in the valley: he “brought out bread and wine” (14:19),[6] blessed Abraham (14:19), blessed God (14:19),[7] and received a tenth of the booty Abraham gathered from battle (14:20). Because Melchizedek received a tenth of the spoils, scholars have suggested that he must have been “the principle king of the region.”[8] In essence, Melchizedek disappears from the narrative almost as fast as he appears.

Psalm 110:4

Psalm 110 was penned by David and has been widely accepted as being a psalm looking forward to the coming Messiah.[9] As can be seen by the first three verses of the chapter, Psalm 110 is written to King David. In essence, the Lord promises military victory to David. Strangely enough, although the covenant which the Israelites were under at this time only allowed those of the tribe of Levi to become priests,[10] the Lord swore on oath to the king that “You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4). The significance of this oath regarding Melchizedek is quite clear: the only figure in the biblical record up to this point that fulfilled the full-fledged duties of both king and priest was Melchizedek. Thus, the Lord swore on oath of one who would fulfill both the priestly office in a similar way to that of Levi and the kingly office in a similar way to that of David. One of the distinctives of this priest-king’s priesthood is that it will last “forever.”

Hebrews’ Use of Melchizedekan Passages

Before threshing out the details of Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood from Hebrews, it will be profitable to make three different generalizations regarding Hebrew’s usage of the Old Testament Melchizedekan passages. First, as can be seen from the section above, the Old Testament does not have much to say about Melchizedek. Ironically, it is precisely because of this that the author of Hebrews has much to say about him. F. F. Bruce points out that the author “finds as much significance in what is not said about Melchizedek as he does in what is said about him.”[11] A great deal of the author’s discourse is built upon an argument from silence. Although arguments from silence may be taboo in modern scholarship, D. A. Carson helpfully points out that silence can be remarkably informative where there should be noise.[12] He explains that for Genesis to omit information regarding the birth, death, and lineage of a character of such prestige—so much prestige, in fact, that he conferred a blessing upon the great patriarch, Abraham—to appear in a book which connects all of the important characters to a genealogy, is silence which speaks volumes.[13] It is a silence which should cause the casual reader to pause and consider what must be inferred in light of such a great omission.

On another note, George Guthrie suggests that the author of Hebrews uses the Rabbinic hermeneutical technique, verbal analogy.[14] Verbal analogy “refers to an interpreter’s utilization of one passage to explain another in light of a term or phrase the two have in common.”[15] In other words, verbal analogy is much akin to the modern day hermeneutical tool, “Scripture Interprets Scripture.” Guthrie argues that the author’s argument in Hebrews 7 is the result of interpreting Genesis 14:18-20 in light of Psalm 110:4: “with use of the words ‘forever’ (eis ton aiona), Scripture associates eternality with a Melchizedekan-type priesthood… When our author reads the Genesis passage in this light, the lack of reference to Melchizedek’s heritage and death makes sense.”[16] Guthrie’s observation is useful against those who surmise that the author of Hebrews was exegetically careless, or that he was sold out to mindless allegorical interpretations. Guthrie concludes, “Thus, the author of Hebrews interprets Genesis 14:17-20 contextually rather than grasping facts from thin air, but the context, in this case, is the broader context of Scripture.”[17]

Lastly, the author interprets the pertinent Melchizedekan passages typologically. Grant R. Osborne correctly states, “Hermeneutical principles in Hebrews must begin with typology. In one sense this permeates the whole book.”[18] Some, including the early Gnostics, have postulated that Melchizedek was a preincarnate appearance of Jesus. However, such an assertion overlooks the all-important phrase in 7:3 which suggests that Melchizedek was “made like the Son of God” (emphasis mine). In other words, “Melchizedek, for the author, is a type of Christ; he pictures imperfectly what will be realized in Jesus, the antitype.”[19] Guthrie says, “Melchizedek is not the Son of God but is ‘like the Son of God’ in that he ‘remains a priest forever’ (7:3) in the perspective of Scripture.”[20] Douglas McCready summarizes Hebrew’s typological teaching regarding Melchizedek: “The entire Melchizedek typology in Hebrews based Jesus’ qualification to be the priest of God’s new covenant on his eternal existence (Heb 7:24).”[21] The eternal priesthood promised to David in Psalm 110:4 finds its fulfillment in the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ.

The Need For Jesus’ Melchizedekan Priesthood

The Lord did not swear on oath about an eternal priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” because he simply wanted to add to what the Levitical priests were already doing. Rather, the establishment of a priesthood of a whole other order was a necessity. The author of Hebrews, in 7:18, says that “there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness” (emphasis mine). “The former commandment refers in particular to the legislation whereby the Levitical priesthood and its succession were regulated.”[22]

The Old Covenant Levitical priesthood was “weak and useless” primarily in the sense of 7:11, it could not bring about “perfection.” The word “perfection” has less to do with moral perfection than with “reaching a goal or fulfilling a function.”[23] Guthrie correctly suggests that, in light of the context, the Levitical priesthood was imperfect in the sense that it could not effectively establish “an eternal relationship” between God and people.[24] The author of Hebrews provides many reasons why the Levitical priesthood was incapable of bringing this end about, however only one is centrally pertinent to the author’s discussion regarding Jesus priesthood in the order of Melchizedek: the fact that Levitical priests were “prevented by death from continuing” their high priestly ministry (7:23).

The purpose of the priesthood was to make the needed provisions so that defiled men could draw near to a holy God. Without the proper sacrifices there could be no access to God. Thus, death was no mere bump in the road—it was an avalanche blocking men from God. So long as those who mediated between God and man were “prevented by death from continuing,” eternal salvation simply could not be attained. This is not to suggest that the Old Covenant sacrificial system was bad in any sense of the word. Guthrie helpfully explains: “Hebrews 7:11-28 really confronts us with two paradigms of relating to God, one that has anticipated but has now been replaced by the other, because by nature it was unable to arrive at God’s ultimate aim.”[25] Thus, the inevitability of death was a glaring problem which plagued the Levitical priesthood. Bruce states, “In generation after generation the high priest died and his office passed to another, until in all (so Josephus reckons) eighty-three high priests officiated from Aaron to the fall of the Second Temple in A.D. 70.”[26]

The Character of Jesus’ Melchizedekan Priesthood

There are three things, at least according to Letter to the Hebrews, that characterize Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood. Because the author of Hebrews was calling his recipients away from the pull of Judaism unto the superior hope of Christ, he primarily explains Christ’s priesthood by comparing it to that of the Old Covenant. All three of these characteristics of Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood have to do with it’s superiority over/against the Aaronic priesthood.

First of all, Jesus not only fulfilled the basic requirement of becoming a high priest by “being called by God” (5:5-6), but he surpassed the basic requirement by being sworn in by God on oath: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, you are a priest forever” (7:21). David R. Worley says, “Within the author’s syncrisis (comparison) in 7:20-22, the presence of an oath for Jesus’ priesthood is in stark contrast to the absence of such an oath for the Levitical priesthood.”[27] While the Levitical priesthood was established on the basis of a command (Ex. 29:35), Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood was established on the basis of something much more binding than a command, an oath.[28] Worley explains the significance of God’s oath: “What God’s oath does is to assure the reader that he will not awake tomorrow and find that while he slept God decided to change priests. No: ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind.’ Jesus will be priest forever.”[29] Hebrews 6:18 is the central text concerning the reliability of God’s oath concerning Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood. After all, 6:17-18 points to the trustworthiness and unchangeable nature of God’s oath.

Interestingly, Guthrie suggests that the “two unchangeable things” in 6:18, rather than referring to God’s promise and God’s oath,[30] refers to the fact that “Jesus is of the order of Melchizedek and that he has been declared by God as an eternal high priest.” Although Guthrie’s position is not standard, it fits the context much better. The whole purpose of this section is to show the superiority of Christ’s priestly ministry by calling attention to its unchangeable, eternal nature. Here we see that the unchangeable nature of Christ’s high priestly ministry is sure and solid because the one who cannot lie has sworn on oath that it will last forever.

Second, in 7:1-10 (primarily 7:4-10) the author expounds upon two different things explicitly mentioned in Genesis 14:18-20 regarding Melchizedek’s meeting with Abraham: (1) the fact that Abraham gave a tenth of all of the plunder to Melchizedek as a tithe and (2) that Melchizedek blessed Abraham. The author brought these two features of the Genesis passage to the fore so that he might prove Melchizedek’s superiority over Abraham and thus his posterity, for the purpose of establishing the superiority of the order of Melchizedek over/against the order of Aaron. Hughes explains,

The purpose is to demonstrate how great Melchizedek is in comparison with Abraham—a superiority that is especially startling in view of the fact that Abraham is himself the patriarch, that is, the ancestral founder of the Hebrew people, the one to whom the covenant promises concerning his posterity had been given by God, and therefore the possessor of a position of primacy in the long history of the Jews. The great boast of the Jews was that they were the descendents of Abraham, the friend of God and the recipient of the promise… But here is someone in their own Scriptures who is manifestly Abraham’s superior.[31]

Surely, if Melchizedek is seen to be greater than Abraham, he is, without equivocation, greater than Abraham’s posterity (i.e., those still in his loins, 7:10). The first observation made by the author is that Abraham gave one tenth of the spoils of war as a tithe to Melchizedek. The principle which drives the author’s argument is that “the person who receives tithes is superior to the person who pays them.”[32] Numbers 18:21-32 establishes the Levites as those among the Israelites who are to collect the tithes.[33] This specific function of the tribe of Levi “set them apart as unique among the people of Israel.”[34] And yet, it is almost as if, the Levites were paying tithes to Melchizedek through their father Abraham (7:9-10). Bruce explains the author’s logic on this point:

Levi was Abraham’s great-grandson, and was yet unborn when Abraham met Melchizedek; but an ancestor is regarded in biblical thought as containing within himself all his descendents. That Levi may be thought of thus as paying tithes to Melchizedek is an afterthought to what has already been said about the significance of this particular payment of tithes; lest it should be criticized as farfetched, our author qualifies it with the phrase “one might almost say.[35]

The author also calls attention to the fact that Melchizedek blessed Abraham (and thus his descendents still in his loins). Guthrie suggests that 7:7 “is not… a maxim that assumes only superiors give blessings.”[36] He continues, “Not only do subordinates give blessings throughout the Old Testament, but in Genesis 14:17-20 Melchizedek blesses God immediately after he blesses Abraham!”[37] His conclusion is that the author of Hebrews is not here arguing for the superiority of Melchizedek on the basis of the blessing conferred upon Abraham and his posterity, but rather on the basis of receiving Abraham’s tithe. Thus, Guthrie suggests that, here in 7:6-7, the author “parenthetically proclaims… the superiority of Melchizedek in connection with the blessing offered by him.”[38]

Lastly, and most preeminently, the author establishes the superiority of Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood on the basis of his eternal nature. As already noted above, Levitical priests were “prevented by death from continuing in office” (7:23). The eternal nature of Christ and his high priestly ministry is set in stark contrast against those of a more feeble order. Worley correctly identifies Psalm 110:4 as the author’s key Old Testament text in proving Jesus’ superior high-priestly ministry.

Without Ps 110:4 there would be no chapter 7 in Hebrews. The commissive utterance in the Psalm suggests the two main considerations of the chapter: the greatness of Melchizedek (who resembles the son of God, 7:3-4) and Jesus, a priest forever (7:3, 17, 20, 28). These twin considerations in turn are magnified and elevated by frequent comparisons to the inferior Levitical priesthood. But what is highlighted above all in these comparisons is the permanence of Jesus’ priesthood (7:8, 24).[39]

The author first seeks to prove the high priestly ministry of Christ by interpreting the Genesis narrative in light of Psalm 110:4. In 7:3 the author is in no way suggesting that Melchizedek is some sort of a demi-god or super-human not susceptible to death. Hughes helpfully explains:

The description without father or mother or genealogy, accordingly, should not be taken literalistically to mean that Melchizedek had no parents or family, nor does the statement that he had neither beginning of days nor end of life intend us to understand him as an eternally existent being who experienced neither birth nor death. The point is that these assertions apply positively to Christ, not to Melchizedek. The significance of the biblical silence is that it makes Melchizedek out as a type who in these respects resembles the Son of God, who alone exists everlastingly, from eternity to eternity. Surrounded by this silence, Melchizedek is the figure, but Christ is the reality.[40]

Much the same argument is made in 7:8 where Melchizedek is set in contrast to Levitical priests as one who, unlike them, “is declared to be living.” The point is that, in the Biblical record, “no mention is made of his death, not because he did not die, but because he symbolizes a priesthood that abides eternally.”[41]

Interestingly, Jerome H. Neyrey postulates that the way in which the author of Hebrews details Christ’s eternal nature is much akin to the way Hellenistic philosophers describe what they deem to be a true God. Neyrey explains, “Unmistakably, the author of Hebrews intends his readers to understand the figure described in 7:3 as a true deity, completely in accord with the topoi which describe true gods as fully eternal, uncreated or ungenerated in the past, and imperishable in the future.”[42] Whether or not the author of Hebrews was heavily borrowing concepts from the Greek philosophical world in order to suggest that Jesus is God here in 7:3 is not all that clear from the text. After all, whether the language used parallels that of Hellenistic philosophers or not, the author’s words in chapter 7 are crucial to his overall point. Nevertheless, Neyrey correctly calls attention to the fact that “the author of Hebrews seems considerably more interested in Jesus’ imperishability and eternity in the future than he is in his eternity in the past.”[43] This is a point of utmost importance considering the fact that the author’s purpose is to prove the superiority of the priestly ministry of Christ over/against that of the Levitical order—the crucial flaw with Levitical priests was that they were “prevented by death from continuing.”

In 7:16 the author gets to the heart of the reason why the Levitical priesthood was so insufficient in its function: namely, insufficient qualifications. The main qualification, on the one hand, which needed to be met in order to be a priest in the order of Aaron, was to be born in the tribe of Levi. Christ’s priesthood, on the other hand, set the bar much higher. Being born into the right tribe was simply too low of a standard for a priest in the order of Melchizedek; rather the base line qualification to be a priest in this order is possession of “an indestructible life.” Bruce comments, “Like everything else in the Levitical regime, the Aaronic order of priesthood was marked by transience; it stands thus in contrast to the permanence and effectiveness of the priestly office of Christ.”[44]

Implications of Jesus’ Melchizedekan Priesthood

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews draws out three main implications regarding Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood. First, in 7:12 the author asserts that a change of priesthood necessitates a change of law. Carson correctly suggests that the logic of 7:11-19 is entirely dependent upon the information in the parenthesis of 7:11.[45] In other words, it is the knowledge that the law was given on the basis of the Levitical priestly system that leads one to the conclusion that if there is a change in the priesthood, there must of necessity be a change of the law. Simply put, the law is so thoroughly shot through with regulations, ceremonial procedures, and the like which all pertain to the priestly system that to make a change in the priestly system requires a change in the basic foundations of the law itself. Such a change of priesthood was necessary because the Levitical system would not allow for the only one who possessed “the power of an indestructible life” to offer sacrifices. The only one who possessed such a “power,” Jesus Christ, belonged to the tribe of Judah—“and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (7:14). Thus, in order for an eternal priest in the order of Melchizedek, as opposed to a mortal priest in the order of Aaron, to arise, the whole foundation of the law must be changed.

Tom Wright helpfully points out that the necessity for a change does not, in any sense, call attention to the fact that the law was a bad thing; rather, he suggests that the author “is contrasting something… good with something better.”[46] In fact, both the law and its priestly system were a success. Truly, the law adequately bore witness to Christ. The purpose of the law and its priestly system was never to bring about “perfection” in the first place. Rather, it was to be preparatory for something much greater. Guthrie says, “Progression may be seen in the relationship between Jesus and the Levitical priests. God has not started over—he has brought to perfection, in the sense of arriving at a desired goal, to that which was anticipated but unachievable in the Levitical priesthood.”[47]

Secondly, Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood guarantee’s an eternal salvation. This is the author’s most central point in his discourse regarding Jesus’ high-priestly ministry. Everything said about Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood finds its climax in 7:22-28. The major point is that since God has sworn on oath (and it is impossible for him to lie, 6:18) that Jesus’ priesthood will last forever (7:21), Jesus can eternally intercede for those who receive him (7:24-25). This is why Worley is correct when he says that without Psalm 110:4 there would be no Hebrews 7.[48]

It is precisely because Jesus is able to eternally intercede for his people that he “has become the guarantee of a better covenant” (7:22). Wright is accurate in communicating the concept of covenant in relational terms. He says,

Psalm 110 reports God swearing on oath that the Messiah, the coming king, will indeed be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, not for awhile but for ever. And this, as the next three chapters will go on to explain, is the basis of the claim that in Jesus the covenant itself, the marriage bond between God and his people, has been renewed.[49]

The eternal nature of Christ’s priesthood is set in contrast to the temporal (yea, hopelessly temporal) nature of the Levitical priesthood, in order to prove the completeness of salvation mediated by Christ over/against the inadequate ministry of the levitical priests. Because Christ’s ministry is eternally effective, men can eternally relate with God—their sins never interfere because Christ always lives to make intercession (7:25). Thus, Guthrie gets at the heart of this passage when he says,

Hebrews 7:11-28 really confronts us with two paradigms of relating with God, one that has anticipated but has now been replaced by the other, because by nature it was unable to arrive at God’s ultimate aim. So the question posed by this passage is, ‘Who provides a superior basis for relating to God?[50]

In conclusion, Christ’s Melchizedekan priesthood is greater than the priesthood of Aaron because it can, in light of its eternal nature, win eternal gifts.

Relevance for Original Recipients

The author of Hebrews did not expound upon Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood for the mere sake of indoctrinating his audience. Rather, the reason he put so much thought and work into such a seemingly complex instruction was because they were in need of finding great reason to cling to Christ as the preeminent priest. The Letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish believers who were toying with the idea of going back into their native religion, Judaism, for the sake of avoiding the reproach of bearing the name of Christ.[51] The author set forth to dissuade them from such an action by proving the superiority of everything associated with Christ against the backdrop of the limited, temporal nature of everything associated with Judaism. In essence, they were looking to the Levitical system for something that it could not give, a lasting relationship with God. Worley summarizes the author’s intent for his original audience,

“Tired people can keep on going if there is hope for rest… For some the hope was failing and so was their endurance. The author decides upon a rather stunning, novel approach to encourage endurance: He will tell them how great a high priest we have. His rhetorical quiver is not lacking as he shoots his arrows, through teaching this primary consideration, admonishing them throughout the letter, and using syncrisis extensively as a way of magnifying the greatness of Jesus’ priesthood.[52]

It is a knowledge of Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood that will be effective to make them stand strong against the pressures of persecution, because it is Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood which guarantee’s their eternal salvation. Thus, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:19-20)


The author of Hebrews leans primarily upon Psalm 110:4 to prove the eternal nature of Jesus’ high priestly ministry. It was the author’s intent to not merely show the efficacy of Jesus’ priestly work, but to package it in such a way to demonstrate both the folly of clinging to the Levitical priestly system and the reasonableness of clinging to Christ. While Melchizedek was neither a super-human nor a demi-god, the absence of details regarding him in Genesis 14:18-20, read in the light of Psalm 110:4, provide the author of Hebrews an excellent illustration of the eternal nature of Christ’s new covenant priesthood. The most crucial point in all that it said about Jesus’ Melchizedekan priesthood is that it provides those trusting in Jesus an eternal way of relating with God.

[1] J. G. Vos, Genesis (Pittsburg: Crown and Covenant Publisher, 2006), 226.

[2] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), 409.

[3] Vos, Genesis, 226.

[4] Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2005), 64.

[5] Hamilton, Genesis, 408.

[6] This is most likely a reference to hospitality rather than to a priestly duty. He was merely providing refreshments to a weary warrior after battle. Matthews, Genesis, 149.

[7] Matthews suggests that “To bless God means to recognize goodness as shown in the bestowal of divine benefits to his subjects.” Ibid. 150.

[8] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 47.

[9] Robert Davidson, The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998) 363.

[10] Surely, David did fulfill certain priestly functions (2 Sam 6:14, 17-18), however David was not a priest-king; rather he was a king who irregularly performed priestly duties.

[11] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), 157.

[12] D. A. Carson, “Hard Texts: Why Does Hebrews Cite the Old Testament Like That?”; available from; Internet; accessed 16 June 2008.

[13] Ibid.

[14] George Guthrie, Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 255.

[15] Ibid., 25.

[16] Ibid., 256.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 340. Typology refers to “the recognition of a correspondence between New and Old Testament events, based on a conviction of the unchanging character of the principles of God’s working.” R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 40.

[19] Harold S. Songer, “A Superior Priesthood: Hebrews 4:14-7:27” Review and Expositor 82, no. 3 (1985): 355.

[20] Guthrie, Hebrews, 257.

[21] Douglas McCready, He Came Down from Heaven (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2005), 131.

[22] Philip E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 264.

[23] Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 371.

[24] Guthrie, Hebrews, 266. Hebrews 7:19 solidifies Guthrie’s statement: “(for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.”

[25] Guthrie, Hebrews, 271.

[26] Bruce, Hebrews, 172.

[27] David R. Worley, “Fleeing Two Immutable Things, God’s Oath-Taking and Oath-Witnessing,” Restoration Quarterly 36, no. 4 (1994): 231.

[28] Ellingworth, Hebrews, 384-85.

[29] Worley, “Fleeing Two Immutable Things,” 232.

[30] This is the standard position on this passage. It is held by Bruce, Hughes, Ellingworth, and many others. Bruce, Hebrews, 154; Ellingworth, Hebrews, 342; Hughes, Hebrews, 223.

[31] Hughes, Hebrews, 251.

[32] Ibid.

[33] In one sense, therefore, the order of Melchizedek predated the law in much the same way that the Abrahamic promise predated the law (Gal 3:17).

[34] Guthrie, Hebrews, 254.

[35] Bruce, Hebrews, 164.

[36] Guthrie, Hebrews, 254.

[37] Ibid., 254-55.

[38] Ibid., 255.

[39] Worley, “Fleeing Two Immutable Things, 232.

[40] Hughes, Hebrews, 248.

[41] Ibid., 253.

[42] Jerome H. Neyrey, “‘Without beginning of days nor end of life’ (Hebrews 7:3),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1991): 440, 54. The “figure” Neyrey is speaking of is Christ and not Melchizedek. He clarifies, “That predication… is directed not to Melchizedek, but to Jesus. The author of Hebrews inflated the character of Melchizedek in 7:3 beyond anything found in Scripture or Midrash, so as to make comparable statements about Jesus, who is unquestionably acclaimed a divine figure in Hebrews.”

[43] Ibid., 452.

[44] Bruce, Hebrews, 169.

[45] Carson, “Hard Texts”.

[46] Tom Wright, Hebrews for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 76.

[47] Guthrie, Hebrews, 166.

[48] After all, it is in Psalm 110:4 that God’s oath concerning an eternal priesthood is found.

[49] Wright, Hebrews, 79, 182.

[50] Guthrie, Hebrews, 271.

[51] Ibid., 19-22.

[52] Worley, Restoration Quarterly, 235.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Theological Help Please!!!!

Kristal and I have run into a theological conundrum regarding James. Last Sunday at church while we were taking communion Kristal leaned over chuckling and whispered into my ear, "What in the world are we going to do in the future when, if James becomes a Christian--How is he going to take communion?" For the uninformed: Our son, James, cannot eat through his mouth.
Are we going to administer it to him through his g-tube? Are there any theological issues with this (those who hold to transubstantiation are not allowed to answer)? I wonder if they make special communion blenders for those who have eating challenges. Unblended crackers would certainly clog his tube.

Maybe his eating issues will cause a change in the way that communion is done from this time forward. I can see it now....

500 years from now...

Little Joey: "Mom, why does communion come in a syringe?"

Mommy: "You know Joey, that's a good question. I guess that's just the way things have always been done. You will have to ask Pastor Jackleg after the service."
Pastors will distort all sorts of texts to prove their form of administering the Lord's supper:
500 years from now...

Pastor Jackleg: "Turn in your bibles to Matthew 26:26-27. In this passage Matthew says that Jesus "broke" the bread. Everyone knows that the Greek word for "break" (clao) does not mean to break but to "grind in a blender." Yes my friends, that's right, Jesus invented the blender. There are actually people out there who don't grind their communion. They are heretics!"
Good going James!

As you can tell... we need instruction.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hebrews 6:1-8: Commentary Search Project

I took a class on the Letter to the Hebrews during the first part of this summer. I had to do a commentary search project on a highly debatable passage in Hebrews. I chose (unoriginally) Hebrews 6:1-8. I will paste my paper to this post. You will want to have a Bible next to you as you read--it will help you follow along. If you want to study the meaning and implications of the warning passages in Hebrews (and the 6:1-8 is one of them) further I suggest reading "Perseverance and Assurance: A Survey and a Proposal" by Thomas R. Schreiner. Schreiner's article is excellent. You will not waste your time by reading it. You can access it by clicking here. This is one of the most debated passages in the New Testament. Enjoy!

Hebrews 6:1-8: A Commentary Survey


Hebrews 6:1-8 is one of the most controversial passages in the entire Bible. This section of scripture is not controversial only because of its difficulty, but also because it has to do with paradigm-shifting concepts. George Guthrie suggests that the only way one can objectively deal with this passage is if their primary concern is a passion for truth as opposed to hearing an echo of already held convictions.[1] In this (short) essay the author will survey how three different commentators (F. F. Bruce, George H. Guthrie, and Philip E. Hughes) have dealt with this controversial passage. Although all three of the commentators adequately handle the text in view, Guthrie’s approach, while not being perfect, is much more hermeneutically sound than that of Bruce and Hughes.

Hebrews 6:1-3

The author, in Hebrews 6:1-2, exhorts his hearers to do something about the spiritual immaturity unveiled in 5:11-14. Bruce finds irony in the author’s progression from 5:11-14 to 6:1-3. Considering the fact that he has just told his hearers that they cannot handle the food that he thinks would be helpful for them, one would think that he would condescend to what they are accustomed to. But he doesn’t. Bruce explains: “their particular condition of immaturity is such that only an appreciation of what is involved in Christ’s high priesthood will cure it.”[2] Hughes and Guthrie point out the fact that the verb for “let us press on” is passive. The passive suggests “that it is not a matter of learners being carried forward by their instructor, but of both being carried forward together by God.”[3]

Both Hughes and Guthrie point out that the author has no intention of leaving the elementary teachings behind as if they were dispensable. Rather, he wants to build upon the foundation set by the “elementary teachings.”[4] In 6:2a, the author identifies what he means by “elementary teachings” by laying forth a non-comprehensive list of things considered “elementary.” Bruce asserts that the each of the teachings listed in 6:1b-2 “acquires a new significance in a Christian context; but the impression we get is that existing Jewish beliefs and practices were used as a foundation on which to build Christian truth.”[5] Because of this, Bruce focuses much attention on the Old Testament (and other pre-Christian writings) as he explains what the author of Hebrews meant by each of the things mentioned in the list.[6] Guthrie, holding to much the same position, quotes Donald Hagner:

this may suggest that the readers were attempting somehow to remain within Judaism by emphasizing items held in common between Judaism and Christianity. They may have been trying to survive a minimal Christianity in order to avoid alienating their Jewish friends or relatives.[7]

On the other hand, Hughes pointedly says,

It would no doubt be attractive, and ease some of the exegetical problems of the passage, if the readers are being encouraged to abandon beliefs that are distinctly Jewish rather than Christian, but it is impossible to believe that ‘the elementary doctrines of Christ’… can be anything but specifically Christian doctrines, as the tenor of the immediate context seems to require.[8]

Hughes ultimately considers the “elementary teachings” to be “the first simple presentation of the gospel message” in Acts 2.[9] Although he is correct in identifying these teachings as Christian teachings, only a cursory reading of the Old Testament would be enough to establish the fact that these teachings are scattered throughout the Old Testament as well. Thus, Bruce and Guthrie’s position holds much more weight. After all, their point is not to say that that the New Testament has no influence on how these teachings ought to be interpreted. Rather, their emphasis is on the fact that these teachings are foundational, in their own respective ways, for both Judaism and Christianity.

All three commentators agree that, although the six teachings listed can be organized into 3 separate pairs,[10] it is “best to interpret the word ‘instruction’ as in apposition to ‘foundation.’ When read in this manner, teachings ‘about baptisms, the laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment’ fill out the content of the foundation of repentance and faith.”[11] While Bruce deals with “repentance from dead works and faith in God” in a general sense,[12] Hughes and Guthrie suggest that these two refer to the negative (repentance) and positive (faith) steps of conversion.[13] Either way, both are to be a consistent mark of the Christian life.

After wading through a mass of historical interpretations regarding what the author of Hebrews means by “ablutions,” Hughes states, “our author is referring here to instruction regarding washings and baptisms, but quite naturally, with particular respect to Christian baptism, by which all others are surpassed and replaced.”[14] Both Guthrie and Bruce object to this emphasis because the author speaks of “baptisms” (plural) and not “baptism” (singular).[15] On another note, Bruce highly suggests that the plural usage, “baptisms,” might be a reference to the Hippolytean Apostolic Tradition.[16] Hughes disagrees with this, naming it a “supposition built upon a supposition.”[17] Guthrie takes a much more preferable approach. Rather than postulating guesses without a point of reference, he remains uncommitted to any one particular view (he merely offers suggestions). After all, the text does not provide any clues which aid the reader in nailing to exact precision what he is referring to.

Although Bruce and Guthrie suggest that the “laying on of hands” refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit and empowerment for ministry,[18] Hughes helpfully adds to this list the ministry of healing by pointing to Mark 6:5, Luke 4:40, and Acts 28:8. While Bruce emphasizes the Old Testament in his discussion of the last two “instructions” in 6:2, both Guthrie and Hughes generalize the last “two ‘instructions’ into a similar category: “‘resurrection of the dead’ and ‘eternal judgment’ provide theological cornerstones related to the end of the age.”[19] Guthrie suggests that the author, in 6:3, expresses his confidence in the original hearers—he optimistically states that they are going to, in essence, press on to maturity.[20] Hughes helpfully sees a connection between 6:3 here and the passive verb “let us press on” (6:1): “It is God who enables us to make progress toward the maturity of those who are well instructed in the deep truths of the faith, but always, as our author repeatedly emphasizes, in conjunction with our own earnest effort and application.”[21]

Hebrews 6:4-6

Guthrie’s commentary on these three verses is, by far, much more helpful than Bruce or Hughes’. One of the most crucial aspects of biblical interpretation is identifying the genre of the passage under inspection. Interestingly, only Guthrie consciously factors the literary genre of the passage into his interpretation of it. He correctly identifies the genre to be exhortation: “Of course, theology underlies the author’s hortatory material in Hebrews, but the primary purpose of 6:4-12 is to motivate to action rather than to offer theological instruction.”[22]

Guthrie also points to the fact that the author uses “ambiguous phrases (such as ‘once been enlightened,’ ‘tasted the heavenly gift,’ etc.)” without defining them.[23] This does not mean that it is a waste of time to attempt an accurate understanding of these ambiguous phrases, but it does mean that the questions asked of this text must not primarily be theological. Guthrie suggests that the reader ask the following two questions: “‘In what way did the author intend this particular passage to challenge his hearers to change their attitudes and actions?’ and ‘What are the dynamics here that could be misinterpreted if we do not keep the ‘hortatory factor’ in view?’”[24]

All three of the commentators in view agree that the author is laying forth a real warning, and thus the recipients are in real danger.[25] They all hold to what Guthrie identifies as the “phenomenological unbeliever view.”[26] Hughes states, “The danger of apostasy, it must be emphasized, is real, not imaginary; otherwise this epistle with its high-sounding admonitions must be dismissed as trifling, worthless, and ridiculous.”[27] At the same time, however, all three of the commentators assert that this warning in no way calls into question the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. They all call attention to the fact that those who “fall away” were never truly converted in the first place.[28] Bruce explains the warning by saying:

he is stating a practical truth that has verified itself repeatedly in the experience of the church. Those who have shared the covenant privileges of the people of God, and then deliberately renounced them, are the most difficult persons of all to reclaim for the faith.[29]

Guthrie states, “the author places the term translated ‘impossible’ (adynaton) first in the passage for emphasis.”[30] The author then lists six things that characterize those who are in danger of the “irremediable” effects of apostasy.[31] First, the author describes those in danger of apostasy as having “once been enlightened.” Although Hughes and Bruce strongly suggest that the author is, at least in part, referring to baptism,[32] the author simply does not detail what enlightenment entails. Thus, it may be best to, with Guthrie, consider it as reference “to their initial exposure to the gospel or early instruction to Christian doctrine.”[33]

Guthrie and Hughes prefer a metaphorical meaning behind the word “taste.” For example, Guthrie asserts that “tasted” means “to experience something.”[34] Thus the original recipients have “experienced the heavenly gift.” With this rendering of “taste,” “the heavenly gift” most likely does not refer, even in part, to the Eucharist as Bruce suggests.[35] Rather, it refers to, as both Hughes and Guthrie point out, “the blessing of God surrounding salvation.”[36] All three of the commentators approach this differently: (1) Bruce, using Simon Magus in Acts 8:9, suggests that this refers to those who had hands laid on them but were not truly converted;[37] (2) Guthrie takes a much safer approach by merely defining the word “companions”: ‘to have a close association with’ or ‘participate in’”;[38] (3) Hughes suggests that it refers to the bestowal of the gifts of the Spirit evidenced in 1 Cor 12:4.[39] Although Guthrie’s approach may seem too easy for its own good, simply defining the terms while remaining open to the possible interpretations is best.

The author once again uses the word “tasted” but this time in regard to the “goodness of God’s word and the powers of the age to come.” Guthrie points to the fact that, in the book of Hebrews, “the Word of God and his power are closely linked.”[40] They, just like those in the Exodus generation, had received the word of God, witnessed supernatural miracles, and yet failed to enter the “Promised Land” because of unbelief. Ultimately, this passage points back to 2:3-4: they have received the word of Christ which was “testified” to them by supernatural miracle-signs.

“At the climax of this string of participles comes the clause ‘if they fall away.’”[41] Hughes identifies this act of falling away not as a passive action, but “a deliberate and calculated renunciation of the good he has known.”[42] Bruce explains: “to say that they cannot be brought back to repentance so long as they persist in their renunciation of Christ would be a truism hardly worth putting into words.”[43] Ultimately, those who have turned from the grace of Christ unto a life of renouncing and shaming his name disqualify themselves from being recipients of his grace (having turned from embracing Christ to crucifying him “to themselves” and putting “Him to open shame”). After all, “there is nowhere else to go for repentance once one has rejected Christ.”[44] They are in danger of rejecting their only hope of salvation (Acts 4:12). Hughes unhelpfully places much emphasis on baptism: “verses 4 through 6 describe the irremediable state of those who, having publicly confessed allegiance to Christ in baptism, subsequently turn their backs on the gospel and thereby renounce their baptism and all that is implied in it.”[45] Surely, baptism should be a part of the equation, but there is not sufficient evidence to postulate that it is central to the passage.

Hebrews 6:7-8

The author concludes his exhortation by using an agricultural metaphor. Guthrie points out the fact that this passage is characteristic of “widely used wisdom form in both biblical and extrabiblical literature, which depicts the blessing associated with fruitfulness over against the curse associated with barrenness.”[46] Thus, although the agricultural metaphor points to spiritual realities, it does not directly refer to the spiritual realities.[47] Although Guthrie and Hughes point to Genesis 3:17-18 as they deal with this text, the author of Hebrews is most notably must be referring to Isaiah’s vineyard song (Isa 5:1-7). In Isaiah 5, the Lord speaks of himself as a vintner who has, in essence, pampered his vineyard, Israel. However, in spite of his gracious and meticulous care of his vineyard it has produced nothing but thorns and rotten fruit. Because of its failure to produce good fruit, God promised to come upon the vineyard in judgment. Hughes explains the parallel:

“the man who has been brought within the sphere of the blessings of the gospel so graciously showered on mankind by Almighty God and has publicly professed faith in Christ crucified and associated himself with the company of the redeemed, and whose life then produces the baneful crop of ‘thorns and thistles… invites not the blessing but the curse of God upon himself.[48]


While Hughes’ commentary dealt much more in the realm of historical theology, his exegesis was not as hermeneutically informed as Guthrie’s; While Bruce’s commentary had it’s high points (and especially in regard to his emphasis on the Old Testament in 6:1-2), Guthrie’s commentary evidenced not only a faithful explanation of the text, but also an entire philosophy of hermeneutics which protects one from over-theologizing the text. Each commentator essentially ended up with the same conclusions in regard to the larger aspects of the text (for example, they all held to the phenomenological unbeliever view, suggested that the warning issued is not hypothetical, etc.). Without a doubt, each commentator made their own unique contributions to the passages in view. However, Guthrie’s general approach proved to be much more sensitive to principles of biblical interpretation. Surely, sifting through the possibilities of what each phrase refers to is not purposeless activity (in fact, it is necessary activity), however one must remember that the author may not have had an eye on specific realities, but on general, over-arching concepts.

End Notes:

[1] George Guthrie, Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 223-24.

[2] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 138.

[3] Guthrie, Hebrews, 204.

[4] Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 194-96; Guthrie, Hebrews, 204-05.

[5] Bruce, Hebrews, 139.

[6] Ibid.,139-143. For example, he refers to the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas in his discussion on “repentance from dead works,” Gen 15 and Hab 2:4 in his discussion on “faith in God,” Num. 19 and Ezek. 36 in his discussion on “ablutions,” Num 27 in his discussion on “laying on of hands,” Isa 26 and Dan 12 in his discussion on “resurrection of the dead,” and Dan 7:9-14 in his discussion on “eternal judgment.”

[7] Guthrie, Hebrews, 205.

[8] Hughes, Hebrews, 195.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bruce, Hebrews, 138-39; Guthrie, Hebrews, 205; Hughes, Hebrews, 196.

[11] Guthrie, Hebrews, 205.

[12] Bruce, Hebrews, 139-41. Bruce suggests that “repentance from dead works” are “works which issue in death because they are evil.”

[13] Guthrie, Hebrews, 205; Hughes, Hebrews, 196-97.

[14] Ibid., 202.

[15] Bruce, Hebrews, 141; Guthrie, Hebrews, 205.

[16] Bruce, Hebrews, 142.

[17] Hughes, Hebrews, 200.

[18] Bruce, Hebrews, 142-43; Guthrie, Hebrews, 205.

[19] Guthrie, Hebrews, 206.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Hughes, Hebrews, 206.

[22] Guthrie, Hebrews, 224.

[23] Ibid., 223.

[24] Ibid., 224.

[25] Bruce, Hebrews, 144-45; Guthrie, Hebrews, 230; Hughes, Hebrews, 206, 212.

[26] Guthrie, Hebrews, 230-31.

[27] Hughes, Hebrews, 206.

[28] Bruce, Hebrews, 144; Guthrie, Hebrews, 231; Hughes, Hebrews, 222.

[29] Bruce, Hebrews, 144.

[30] Guthrie, Hebrews, 218.

[31] Bruce, Hebrews, 144.

[32] Ibid., 145-46; Hughes, Hebrews, 208-09.

[33] Guthrie, Hebrews, 218.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Bruce, Hebrews, 146.

[36] Guthrie, Hebrews, 218; Hughes, Hebrews, 209.

[37] Bruce, Hebrews, 146-47.

[38] Guthrie, Hebrews, 218-19.

[39] Hughes, Hebrews, 210.

[40] Guthrie, Hebrews, 219.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Hughes, Hebrews, 216.

[43] Ibid., 149.

[44] Guthrie, Hebrews, 220.

[45] Hughes, Hebrews, 221.

[46] Guthrie, Hebrews, 224.

[47] Ibid

Hughes, Hebrews, 222-23.