33. Melchizedek?

Meditations in Hebrews 6/7:      33.  Melchizedek?

Heb 6:20, 7:1-2   He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.”

We finished the previous study with those words, “He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”  and so now arrive at the writer’s explanation of this reference to a high priest who he has already referred to twice (5:6, 5:10) before these present verses.

The Rabbinic style: Because the approach we find here is probably alien to that which most of us are used to, we again need to refer to the rabbinic style of teaching found among Jewish teachers of that day. They used four approaches to handling Scripture. The first was to work on the basis that the text has a literal, plain meaning that the author wants to convey. (that is always our starting point). But second, they would use an approach best described as considering a word, phrase or other element in the text hinting at a truth not conveyed by the plain meaning.  The third approach searches for an allegorical sense within a verse or verses. There was also a fourth approach that involved numerical values of Hebrew letters but that need not concern us here. Bear this in mind in what follows.

Abraham & Melchizedek:  We find the story of Abraham encountering Melchizedek in Gen 14:18-20 and the writer makes the point that he was both a king AND a priest: This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything.” (v.1,2) He goes on to explain, “First, his name means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” (v.2b) But then the writer uses the hinting-allegorical approaches because that is all we know about Melchizedek and so he interprets that to imply something else, something quite significant: “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.” (v.3) In the account we are told nothing of this king-priest’s background, or indeed his end and so in the account at least he appears as a priest without beginning or end, just like Jesus.

But then he picks up on the fact that Abraham gave him a tenth of his goods which is what the Law required for the Levites: “Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people–that is, their brothers–even though their brothers are descended from Abraham.” (v.4,5) Note the emphasis – the ‘patriarch Abraham’. Abraham was considered a major character in Israel’s history as a ‘friend of God ‘ (2 Chron 20:7,  Isa 41:8, Jas 2:23) and clearly the father of the nation (Isa 51:2) so he is pointing out his greatness, yet he gave a tithe to Melchizedek: “This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises.” (v.6)

Strange elements:  So, he concludes, there is something strange in all thatFirst, Abraham was Levi’s great grandfather and so perhaps could be considered an earlier member of the priestly caste, yet he gave the tithe to the other (which he will expand on in a few verses time). Second, Abraham had received all the blessings of God (Gen 12) which would, you might suppose, make him greater but he treats Melchizedek as greater. Third, Melchizedek had blessed Abraham, which seems the wrong way round because, “without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater.” (v.7). Yet, he adds, there is a fourth strange thing: “In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living.” (v.8) and he stretches this rabbinic approach even further: “One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.” (v.9,10) i.e. because Abraham is Levi’s great grandfather it is almost like saying the Levitical priesthood paid a tithe to this other priesthood.

(The Message version puts it in an interesting way: Ultimately you could even say that since Levi descended from Abraham, who paid tithes to Melchizedek, when we pay tithes to the priestly tribe of Levi they end up with Melchizedek.”)+

Recap:  Now the argument carries on with even more complexity so I think we’ll stop there and simply recap what is already an unusual line of arguing for us:

  1. Melchizedek was both a king and a priest.
  2. When Abraham met him, Melchizedek blessed him and Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of all of his plunder.
  3. If you think of Abraham, as Levi’s great grandfather, it is like he is an early representative of the Levitical priesthood.
  4. The fact that the ‘representative’ of the Levitical priesthood was blessed by the other priest and then gave that other priest a tithe, suggests that the other priest is superior to the representative of the Levitical priesthood.
  5. We know already that the writer has referred to Jesus as a priest after the order of Melchizedek and so we conclude that the writer is making the fairly complex point that Jesus is superior to Abraham.
  6. The question will shortly be asked, why was there a need for another priesthood, and the answer will be that that the Levitical priesthood couldn’t get people into a good place with God, but we’ll wait to the next study to open that up.

Remember, it is all about showing Jesus to be the most superior person in the Jewish culture and history. That is what this is all about.

26. Jesus is there for us

Meditations in Hebrews 4:    26.  Jesus is there for us

Heb 4:14   Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, (or gone into heaven) Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.

Jesus, the high priest: And so we come to the third reference to Jesus as our high priest. The first was, he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God.” (2:17) and the second was even more brief, “Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” (3:10) The first pointed out his means of identifying with us taking human form and the second simply noted that in this role Jesus is the core of our confession.

Now again the writer returns to this idea as a means of both challenging and reassuring us. “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” (v.14) Note he isn’t expounding on the actual role or activity of the high priest – that will come later – but simply on his humanity and divinity.

The Heavenly High Priest: This high priest, the writer says, has “gone through the heavens” or, as the alternative shows, “gone into heaven”. I quite like the “through the heavens” for it reminds us of the human body that ascended up into the clouds (the heavens) and disappeared as he returned to heaven (Acts 1:9).  The ascension is very much a picture where the human is transformed before the very eyes of the disciples, into a miraculous – flying – Son of God returning home. “Gone into heaven” simply reminds us of the end product but thus puts the emphasis on where he now is – as against where he was previously, with us – with full access to the Father and (implied) able to speak up on our behalf: “we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1)

Encouragement/Exhortation: It is because of this assurance that the writer exhorts us, “Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”  i.e. Jesus is doing his part on our behalf, speaking up for us to the Father and sending his Holy Spirit to help us, very well, let us make sure we play our part in this as well.  That is what he is doing here. It is yet another of these warnings or exhortations to play our part in holding on to our faith and the reason or encouragement we are given to do that is that Jesus is rooting for us in heaven and is there with all the resources we need.

The Humanity of Jesus: To help us grasp the wonder of this he reminds us yet again that it is the human Jesus who is now in heaven at his Father’s right hand speaking up for us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.” (v.15) This high priest, this representative of ours, isn’t cold-hearted and uncomprehending about what we are like, he is not like some stern headmaster who has no feelings, he is not like some callous judge who cares not what happens to us, one way or another.

Oh no, Jesus has been here, lived the life, knows what it is like, knows what it is like to get tired and weary, knows what it is like to be hungry or thirsty, no doubt knows what it is like to go without sleep, knows what it is like to have people against you. Oh yes, in all these ways Jesus has been here and lived the life. Indeed, just like us, he has been through temptations, so he knows what it is like to have the enemy come against you with suggestion after suggestion of how to live another sort of life. Oh yes, he knows the pressure of temptations, the pressure to give way – but he didn’t give way, he didn’t sin. That is the one big different between him and us, but the truth nevertheless remains, he knows and understands all that we have gone through and are going through.

Again, see how this is an encouragement to conform to the exhortation to hold firmly to our faith. We can do this because, as I said earlier, Jesus is rooting for us, a Jesus who knows what it is like to live down here on this Fallen World, and he knows the sort of weaknesses we suffer and he sympathizes and understands and is for us!

The Throne of Grace: So, with all that he gives us a further gentle exhortation: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (v.16) That’s where Jesus is, on a “throne of grace”. His throne, his rule, is a rule of grace which, in this context means warm, loving acceptance and provision. He is there for us with everything we need.

First of all this “throne of grace” is a source of his mercy which simply means loving acceptance based, not on what we deserve or have earned but, simply on his good will towards us. Mercy involves loving understanding and forgiveness and a desire to bless us and restore us. That all flows out of God’s love for us.

But this “throne of grace” is also a place where there is an endless supply of his grace “to help us in our time of need”, i.e. it is his unlimited resources to provide absolutely everything we need in life to help us cope in this Fallen World. This “time of need” encompasses all those times when you and I find ourselves stretched, times when it all seems to be going wrong, times when people appear against us, times when we seem to have got it wrong. These are not times when God stands there laughing or deriding us for our weakness or condemning us for our folly; these are  times when Jesus feels with us (sympathizes and empathizes) and is there for us, not to push us down but to lift us up, not to condemn us but to encourage us. This IS the truth, this is why you and I can, with the readers of this letter, “hold firmly to the faith we profess”, because he is there to help us. All we have to do is “approach the throne of grace with confidence.”   Do it.

35. Caiaphas

People who met Jesus : 35 :  Caiaphas

Jn 18:24 Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest.

Luke merely mentions Caiaphas as an historical marker for John the Baptist, as we saw in the previous meditation. Mark doesn’t mention him. Matthew gives him a couple of references, but it is left to John to give most detail.

Matthew shows us that Caiaphas was involved right from the start in plotting Jesus’ death: Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.” (Mt 26:3-5) The plotting starts in a meeting called by the Jewish leaders, which is held in the palace of Caiaphas; it obviously has his blessing.

John adds detail to that particular meeting: “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (Jn 11:47-50) There John shows us that Caiaphas was there in the midst of this meeting and came right out with it – it is better for one man to die than the nation rebels and is destroyed by Rome (implied). Older versions say, instead of ‘it is better’, ‘it is more expedient’. Expediency is what politics often works with, and that has little to do with the truth!

When it comes to the arrest and trial Matthew records, “Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled…… The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.” (Mt 26:57,59,60) which is exactly true but he misses out on the fact that they first took Jesus to Annas. Thus John records, “They bound him and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it would be good if one man died for the people,” (Jn 18:12-14) to set the record straight.

Matthew gave a good coverage of Jesus’ interrogation by the high priest (see Mt 26:57-66) and so John doesn’t bother to cover it. He simply provides the link, “Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor.(Jn 18:28) We might consider why these two reporters cover what they cover. Matthew seems to cover the basics of the situation but John wrote a lot later and was also known by the high priest (see Jn 18:15,16) and had access to the palace, possibly with family connections, and would have picked up some of the detail from insiders there.

So, we are left with a picture of the high priest in office, equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury in England, the senior post leader of Judaism, living in a palace and being part of the plot to destroy this itinerant preacher who looks like he could upset the political balance between Israel and Rome. Thus he must go!

We saw in the previous meditation how Annas was involved as ‘the power behind the throne’, the older man ousted from his position but now exercising influence even though not officially the high priest in place. But now we see Caiaphas, who is high priest in place, planning to act against Jesus even before he has arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover. This is not a casual, off-the-cuff, attack on Jesus, but a premeditated carefully thought out scheme. This is a politician at a most senior level acting “for the good of the country” as he sees it. The only problem is that he is also the most senior religious figure and, we would expect, should be the best example of God’s representative on earth. So there you have it: the man who should be the best example of God’s representative on earth, acting against God and plotting to destroy God’s Son. How wrong can you get!

We mentioned the dangers of institutionalism in the previous meditation, so we don’t need to touch it again here, even though it applies. The bigger message or warning here is, how easy it is to get it wrong. This man in power, the most powerful man in Judaism was almost certainly most sincere and utterly convinced he was acting for the good of Israel. Well he was, and for the whole world, but in a way quite different to the way he thought. He was acting as the priest who had to sacrifice the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29), the Passover lamb to avert the judgment of God and take the sins of the world – but he didn’t know that that was what he was doing. He was doing it for a completely different reason. He was doing what he thought was right to protect Israel, but only God can protect Israel, only God can protect the church and the moment we start working in the same way that the world works, we will have gone wrong.

The weapons we use are spiritual, not material or political. We may engage in politics and have some influence in the world, but it will only be true influence if we are doing it at the leading of God. Indeed, in whatever we do, we will only have true influence if we are doing it at the leading of God. There was one thing about this supposed man of God at the top of Judaism – he couldn’t hear God. If he had he wouldn’t have had the Son of God killed. He would have had to leave that to someone else, someone else who was listening to the enemy.

Now isn’t that terrible – this man obviously listened to the enemy who wanted Jesus stopped. Fortunately the enemy didn’t realise what God was planning by allowing His Son to die on the Cross, but it was an enemy action. When Peter, on the day of Pentecost, described what happened he declared, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) This was an act of “wicked men” who with wrong motivation sought the death of the Son of God – and Caiaphas headed them up. What a warning to those of us in positions of power!

34. Annas

People who met Jesus : 34 :  Annas

Jn 18:12-13 Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.

We now move to consider dark times and those involved in them. Yes, these are people who met Jesus but not in good circumstances. The first mention of Annas in the Gospels is in Luke as an historical marker for John the Baptist: during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” (Lk 3:2) Caiaphas was the official high priest and he was son-in-law of Annas who had been deposed by the Romans in AD15, yet it was supposed by the Jews that the high priesthood was supposed to be held for life. Thus it is that we find both of these men being referred to as the High Priest. The position was that of the highest religious leader and was very powerful.

It is significant that the arresting party took Jesus first to Annas for the old man was obviously the ‘power behind the throne’. Annas is going to present the first line of questioning in this dubious series of events. Throughout the preceding week Jesus had been in Jerusalem teaching and healing and had clearly received opposition from each of the religious groupings including the priests, those who attended the Temple in Jerusalem as officials of Judaism. He had clearly upset the religious establishment. It had been after the raising of Lazarus that it had come to a head: Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (Jn 11:47,48) ‘Our place’ that they referred to was, of course, the Temple. They feared that Jesus’ activity would stir up the people to revolt and, in the brutal suppression that would follow, the Temple would be destroyed. Of course that is exactly what happened in AD70.

Annas sees his role as protecting Judaism – by whatever means. He therefore heads up the first inquisition: “Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.” When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded. “If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest.” (Jn 18:19-24)

He demands that Jesus tell him what he has been teaching the people, for he is looking for an excuse to condemn Jesus for false teaching, but Jesus will have none of it: I have been teaching openly and you know it and you know what I have been saying and you know there is nothing to criticise (implied). One of the other officials resorts to violence and then Jesus is sent to Caiaphas. Later on it is clear that Annas is included in the all-embracing language of condemnation: “Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.” (Mt 27:1,2)

What is so terrible about this is that this is THE classic example of institutional religion standing against God! Whenever we institutionalize religion we create man-centred and man-focused religion that at times actually opposes God. False religion had often reared its head in Israel and it still did. This lifeless orthodoxy was a poor representation of the life of God and yet, I am sure, if you had questioned these leaders they would have been totally sincere – and yet sincerely wrong! The apostle Paul was a similar example of a sincere man but who was sincerely wrong until he met the risen Christ. When it comes to institutional religion the word ‘expediency’ enters the vocabulary as we’ll see in the next meditation. Religious leaders who are also political have to consider what is expedient for the protection of the institution, not what is the will of God. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why religion should never be institutionalized!

In this man’s hands was terrible power. He could have ended this fiasco then and there and released Jesus, but he is driven by fear that his precious institution will be harmed and he cannot let that happen. As we just suggested, the will of God doesn’t come into it – because he believes protecting the institution is the will of God and so Jesus (the Son of God) must die. How terrible! This must surely have been THE worst misjudgment of history, yet God knew that this is how it would work out so that His Son could be sacrificed for the sins of the world.

What happened to Annas?  Well he was still there in Acts: Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest’s family.” (Acts 4:6). There were a number of men abusing their positions of power at this time. This was one of them. God’s word has a number of warnings against those who misused their authority. Annas should have heeded those warnings. May any of us in such positions, similarly be warned.