SECOND READING HEBREWS 5:1-10 / GOSPEL MARK 10:35-45
Well there’s that name again: “Melchizedek.” Even those who are fairly good at dwelling in their bibles as much as possible are only likely to come across it on rare occasion. And when it happens to me I always have to think about who he really is.
“Isn’t that some early priestly guy who no one really seems to know much about, but who is nevertheless listed as somehow being at the beginning of the priestly lineage of the Hebrews and even Jesus Christ himself?”
“Yep. He sure is.”
“Well that seems mildly important.”
And it is. So here’s a little theological and historical background that will hopefully frame things up as to the origin, meaning and person of this “Royal Priest” – who some see as the very author of our faith himself.
Melchizedek is a king and priest who appears in the Book of Genesis. The name means “King of Righteousness” – which is meant to echo both kingly and priestly functions. He is, in fact, the first individual to be given the title of “Priest” in the Hebrew Bible.
In the King James Version, the Book of Psalms names Melchizedek as being representative of the “priestly line” – through which a future king of Israel (of the Davidic lineage) would be ultimately ordained. Some scholars suggest that this “term,” as referenced in the Psalm, was actually intended to be treated more as an improper noun, and thus should have been translated as “rightful king” rather than being left as the proper name, “Melchizedek” and some modern translations actually have it printed that way.
Christians, of course, believe that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of in the Psalm 110 as “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek” and therefore Jesus plays the role of the king-priest fully, finally and once and for all.
But the writer of Hebrews goes deeper and unpacks a lot of the “why” of this – saying that Jesus is considered a priest “in the order of Melchizedek” because, like Melchizedek, he was NOT a descendant of Aaron, and thus would not have qualified for the Jewish priesthood under the old Law of Moses. (The key word there being “LAW.”)
So the writer is suggesting a clear need to change from the priesthood of the Levites (think again LAW!) to the original priesthood of Melchizedek that predated the law and was not directly tied to the giving of it. (Think now God’s original LOVE.) Pretty cool, huh?
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews lists the following reasons for why the priesthood of Melchizedek is superior to the Aaronic priesthood: (Think Law now subjugated to LOVE.)
- Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek; Since Aaron was in Abraham’s loins then, it was as if the Aaronic priesthood were paying tithes to Melchizedek. (Heb. 7:4-10)
- The one who blesses is always greater than the one being blessed. Thus, Melchizedek was greater than Abraham. As Levi was yet in the loins of Abraham, it follows that Melchizedek is greater than Levi. (Heb. 7:7-10)
- If the priesthood of Aaron were effective, God would not have called a new priest in a different order in Psalm 110. (Heb. 7:11) THAT Seems clear enough!
- The basis of the Aaronic priesthood was ancestry; the basis of the priesthood of Melchizedek is everlasting life. That is, there is no interruption due to a priest’s death. (Heb. 7:8,15-16,23-25)
- Christ, being sinless, does not need a sacrifice for his own sins. (Heb. 7:26-27)
- The priesthood of Melchizedek is more effective because it required a single sacrifice once and for all (Jesus), while the Levitical priesthood made endless sacrifices. (Heb. 7:27)
- The Aaronic priest served in an earthly copy and shadow of the heavenly Temple, which Jesus actually serves in. (Heb. 8:5)
Still with me? Probably not – but hang in there – this part is almost over and the basics of this are important to understand because it establishes that the covenant of Jesus is superior to the covenant that the old Levitical priesthood was under.
Some Christians hold that Melchizedek was a sort of “type of Christ,” and others actually hold that Melchizedek as referenced in the Old Testament was indeed Christ himself. Reasons provided include that Melchizedek’s name means “King of Righteousness” according to the author of Hebrews, and that being king of “Shalem” makes Melchizedek the “King of Peace.”
Hebrews 7:3 states, “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he (Melchizedek) remains a priest forever.”
It is also often noted that Melchizedek gave Abraham bread and wine, which some Christians consider symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice to confirm a covenant.
OK – so there it is – did I manage to completely shake up the foundational understandings of your faith this morning?! But regardless of how we might interpret the early and later references to this “Royal Priest of Righteousness” the greater meaning is clear: Jesus was chosen by God as the one through whom salvation would be offered to every man and women who has ever been – and ever will be.
And while these scriptures may do their best to make sense of the workings of it all (a sort of unpacking of the holy whispers behind everything that lead to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection) the real message is Jesus HIMSELF offered as salvation IT-SELF – and the writer of Hebrews goes to great lengths to show WHY that makes sense in both the context of the ancient law and the remarkably mysterious and wondrous new gift of Love that God has given.
Having accomplished this, the writer of the epistle then focuses on HOW Jesus has done it – saying: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . .”
So Jesus the Son of God – The High Priest of Righteousness – as clearly spelled out through both history and the scriptures was with God before the beginning and beyond the ending. And given ALL of that . . . what was he CALLED to?
Obedience through suffering – that he might become salvation ITSELF for all who will in turn be obedient to HIM!
Well that’s not exactly what anyone was expecting back then – and frankly, it offers up the same question that most of us struggle with now: This calling of Christ to have to suffer for OUR sins (do we really need that? YES! WE DO!) Followed by the equally disturbing idea that it is only through our own suffering (the literal dying of ourselves to the world!) that any of us can receive salvation (HIM!) in return.
“Really?” says Joe Average, I Can Supply All My Own Needs, American. “I mean surely there’s an easier way to spiritual enlightenment?!
And if the church were even half as honest as it once was in speaking the Gospel it would say “NO! There isn’t!” As Frederick Buechner once said, “Owing to modern medicine – epidurals and the like – childbirth can occasionally be relatively painless . . . Rebirth? Never!”
And he’s right. It isn’t! Because we have a whole lot more baggage and wrong minded garbage to burn away than any of us care to admit – and we would far rather cling to our good old comfortable familiar ways than trust in a God whose promises seem far too unsure and costly.
“Surely I can somehow EARN this thing,” we think. “If I can just do all of the ‘right things’ listed in the bible that seem to apply to me (think LAW again) then certainly God will honor that and I can be in right relationship with Him”
And we wouldn’t be alone in this thought – because, that’s exactly what the disciples were pretty much thinking as well – and at one point a couple of them (James and John to be specific) tried it out – and Jesus’ answer is more than just a little surprising.
Here now the Word of the Lord as it comes to us from the Gospel of Mark 10:35-45:
“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Hmm . . .) And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
The grass withers and the flower fades but the word of the Lord endures forever.
Well aside from James and John’s sudden boldness, the surprising thing about this passage (that I think most of us miss) is that the two of them wind up receiving something they didn’t even ask for! And they probably should have seen it coming – because when Jesus answers a question with a question of his own, very challenging sparks almost always seem to fly.
“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” And they of course reply, “Well yes, we are able.” And Jesus immediately grants them their desire. “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized . . .”
Well, you have to wonder whether they really knew what they had just received – for the cup that Jesus is made to drink (that they just declared able and ready to drink) is the slow deep cup of suffering that almost always comes before the wild and mysterious baptism of the Spirit.
And James and John of course, receive both – suffering greatly in this world – and also in their own deaths – but not before also fully receiving the great gift of the baptism of the Spirit that Jesus had promised would come.
But also note Jesus’ response to their original question (whether they could sit on his left or right hand in his glory) was that it was not His to give – but rather “for those for whom it has been prepared.”
“The bigger picture in eternity,” he seems to be saying, “is very much up to the Father.” Perhaps he reminded them as well that not even he knows the day when he will come again in Glory. (P)
And then finally Jesus gives them the lesson that they ALL need to hear – by interrupting their argument about status that this whole scenario has produced and telling them: “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”
Well, there it is again: “My calling is a call to suffer and to serve – and likewise your calling is to do and be the same.” Which begs the question: “What did you think you were being called to?”
“Some unique status? A particular kind of service? Doing traditional or maybe even non-traditional things so that a majority of the people around you are happy? Doing good works for the sake of good works – earning your way to a “good name?”
Truthfully, I want you to just go . . . Yes – just GO. Into the world, with a willingness to use whatever gifts you think you might have and with the trust that you will discover even more, that you never knew you did.
And wherever and whenever something or someone puts themselves before you – some circumstance of need, or poverty of spirit – I want you to engage – to see what’s REALLY there – and then to respond with all that you are as the Holy Spirit guides both your heart and your mind. Don’t worry – your body will follow.
And in the midst of it all never forget to tell the story of who I am – which is, of course, now that you too have been baptized, is something of the story of who you are . . . with all its great suffering that has led to all of its great glory. Remember me in the world – and know that I will remember you in the Kingdom.” (P)
Is it true? Is Jesus the only one? The Way, The Truth, The Life? I am here to tell you he is – always has been – and always will be. It’s the greatest and only Truth really.
So imagine that – as Pilot stood between Jesus and the growing crowd that gathered to condemn him, and asked his fatal question “What is truth?” – the ultimate and only answer – was standing right before him.
He stands there still.
He is waiting for us all.
– Stuart Revercomb