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OUR GREAT MELCHIZEDEK
There is a symmetrical dignity all its own in the seventh chapter of the Hebrews. I recollect listening, now many years ago, to a characteristic exposition of it by the late beloved and venerated Edward Hoare, in a well-known drawing-room at Cromer—a "Bible Reading" full alike of mental stimulus and spiritual force. He remarked, among many other things, that the chapter might be described as a sermon, divided under three headings, on the text of Psalm cx. 4. This division and its significance he proceeded to develope. The chapter opens with a preamble, a statement of the unique phenomena which surround, in the narrative of Genesis, the name and person of Melchizedek. Then, starting from the presupposition, to whose truth the Lord Himself is so abundantly a witness, that the Old Testament is alive everywhere with intimations of the Christ, and24 remembering that in the Psalm in question a mysterious import is explicitly assigned to Melchizedek, the Writer proceeds to his discourse. Its theme is the primacy of the priesthood embodied in Melchizedek over that represented by Aaron, and the bearing of this on the glory of Him who is proclaimed a priest for ever after Melchizedek's order. This theme is presented under headings, somewhat as follows. First (verses 4-14), the one priesthood is greater than the other in order. Abraham, bearing the whole Aaronic hierarchy potentially within him, defers to Melchizedek as to his greater. Hence, among other inferences, the sacred Personage who is a priest for ever after Melchizedek's order, wholly independent of Levitical limits, must dominate and must supersede the order of the sons of Aaron with their inferior status and with their transitory lives. Secondly (verses 15-19), the one priesthood is greater than the other in respect of the finality, the permanence, the everlastingness, of the greater Priest and of His office. He is what He is "for ever, on the scale of the power of indissoluble life."44 By the Rev. James Burkitt, in The Golden Altar: an Exposition of Hebrews xiii. 10, 11. As such, He is the Priest not of an introductory and transient "commandment" but of that "better hope" which (ver. 19) has at last "made perfect" the purpose and the promise, fulfilled the intention of eternal mercy,25 and brought us, the people of this great covenant, absolutely nigh to God. Thirdly (verses 20, 21), this second aspect of the supremacy of the greater Priesthood is emphasized and solemnized by one further reference to Psalm cx. 4. There the Eternal, looking upon the mysterious Partner of His throne, is heard not to promise only but to vow, with an oath unalterable as Himself, that the Priesthood of "His Fellow" shall be everlasting. No such solemnity of affirmation attended Aaron's investiture. There is something greater here, and more immediately Divine. The "covenant" (ver. 22) committed to the administration of One thus sealed with the oath of Heaven must indeed be "better," and cannot but be final; the goal of the eternal purpose.
Then (verses 23-28) the discourse passes into what we may call its epilogue. The thought recurs to the sublime contrast between the pathetic numerousness of the successors of Aaron, "not suffered to continue by reason of death," and the singleness, the "unsuccessional" identity for ever, of the true Melchizedek, who abides eternally. And then, moving to its end, the argument glows and brightens into an "application" to the human heart. We have in Jesus (the Name has now already been pronounced, ver. 22) a Friend, an Intercessor, infinitely and for ever competent to save us, His true Israel. We26 have in Him a High Priest supreme in every attribute of holiness and power, and qualified for His work of intercession by that sacrifice of Himself which is at once solitary and all-sufficient. Behold then the contrast and the conclusion. To a great Dispensation, the preparatory, succeeds a greater, the greatest, the other's end and crown. To the "weak" mortal priesthood of the law, never warranted by the vow of God to abide always in possession, succeeds One who is Priest, and King, and Son, sealed for His office by the irrevocable vow, "consecrated for evermore."
Such on the whole, as I recall it, was the exposition of my venerable friend, in 1887. Each new reading of the chapter seems to me to bear out the substantial accuracy of it; indeed the symmetry and order of the chapter make it almost inevitable that some such line should be taken by the explanation. Thus then it lies before us. It is filled in all its parts with Jesus Christ, in His character of the true Melchizedek, our final, everlasting, perfect, supreme, Divine High Priest.
This simple treatise is not the place for critical discussions. I do not attempt a formal vindication of the mystical and Messianic reference of Psalm cx. All I can do here, and perhaps all I should do, is to affirm solemnly my27 belief in it, at the feet of Christ. I am perfectly aware that now, within the Church, and by men unquestionably Christian as well as learned, our Lord's own interpretation of that Psalm,55 By the Rev. James Burkitt, in The Golden Altar: an Exposition of Hebrews xiii. 10, 11. involving as it does His assertion of its Davidic authorship, is treated as quite open to criticism and disproof. One such scholar does not hesitate to say that, if the majority of modern experts are right as to the non-Davidic authorship, and he seems to think that they are, "our Lord's argument breaks down." All I would remark upon such utterances, coming from men who all the while sincerely adore Christ as their Lord and God, is that they must surely open the way towards conceptions of His whole teaching which make for the ruin of faith. For the question is not at all whether our Redeemer consented to submit to limits in His conscious human knowledge; I for one hold that He assuredly did so. It is whether He consented to that sort of limitation which alone, in respect of imperfection of knowledge, is the real peril of a teacher, and which is his fatal peril—the ignorance of his own ignorance, and a consequent claim to teach where he does not know. In human schools the betrayal of that sort of ignorance is a deathblow to confidence, not only in some special utterance, but in the teacher, for it strikes at28 his claim not to knowledge so much as to wisdom, to balance and insight of thought. I venture to say that recent drifts of speculation shew how rapidly the conception of a fallible Christ developes towards that of a wholly imperfect and untrustworthy Christ. And, looking again at the vast phenomenon of the Portrait in the Gospels, I hold that the line of thought which offers by very far the least difficulty, not to faith only but to reason, is that which relies absolutely on His affirmations wherever He is pleased actually to affirm.
So thinking, I take His exposition of Psalm cx. as for me final. And that exposition guarantees at once a typical mystery latent in Gen. xiv. and the rightness of its development in the passage here before us.
But now, what "message" has our chapter for us, in view of the needs of our own time?
First, as to its sacerdotal doctrine. It throws a broad illumination on the grand finality and uniqueness of the mediatorial priesthood of our Lord, the Son of God. It puts into the most vivid possible contrast the age of "the law" and that of Christ as to the priestly conception and institution. Somehow, under the law, there was a need for priests who were "men, having infirmity." For certain grave purposes (not for all, by any means, even in that legal period) it29 was the will of God that they should stand between His Israel and Him. But the argument of this chapter, unless it elaborately veils its true self in clouds, goes directly to shew that such properly mediatorial functions, in the age of Christ, are for ever withdrawn from "men, having infirmity." Where they stood of old, one after another, sacrificing, interceding, going in behind the veil, permitted to draw nearer to God, in an official sanctity, than their brethren, there now stands Another, sublime, supreme, alone. He is Man indeed, but He is not "man having infirmity." He is higher than the heavens, while He is one with us. And now our one secret for a complete approach to God is to come to God "through Him." And this, unless the chapter is an elaborate semblance of what it is not, means nothing if it does not mean that between the Church, and between the soul, and the Lord Jesus Christ, there is to come absolutely nothing mediatorial. As little as the Jew, for ceremonial purposes, needed an intermediary in dealing with his mortal priest so little do we, for the whole needs of our being, need an intermediary in dealing with our eternal Priest.
In the age of Christ, no office can for one moment put one "man having infirmity" nearer to God than another, if this chapter means what30 it says. Mediatorial priesthood, a very different thing from commissioned pastorate, has no place in apostolic Christianity, with the vast exception of its sublime and solitary place in the Person of our most blessed Lord.
Then further, the chapter, far from giving us merely the cold gift (as it would be if this were all) of a negative certainty against unlawful human claims, gives us, as its true, its inmost message, a glorious positive. It gives us the certainty that, for every human heart which asks for God, this wonderful Christ, personal, eternal, human, Divine, is quite immediately accessible. The hands of need and trust have but to be lifted, and they hold Him. And He is the Son. In Him we have the Father. We do indeed "draw nigh to God through Him."
Therefore we will do it. The thousand confusions of our time shall only make this Divine simplicity the more precious to us. We will at once and continually take Jesus Christ for granted in all the fulness and splendour of His High-priesthood after the order of Melchizedek. That Priesthood is for ever what it is; it is as new and young to-day in its virtue as if the oath had but to-day been spoken, and He had but to-day sat down at the right hand.
Happy we if we use Him thus. He blesses31 those who do so with blessings which they cannot analyse, but which they know. Many years ago a Christian lady, daughter of a saintly Non-conformist pastor in the west of Dorset, told me how, in a then distant time, her father had striven to teach a sick man, a young gipsy in a wandering camp, to read, and to come to Christ. The camp moved after a while, and the young man, dying of consumption, took a Bible with him. Time rolled on, and one day a gray-haired gipsy came to the minister's door; it was the youth's father, with the news of his son's happy death, and with his Bible. "Sir, I cannot read a word; but he was always reading it, and he marked what he liked with a stick from the fire. And he said you would find one place marked with two lines; it was everything to my poor lad." The leaves were turned, and the stick was found to have scored two lines at the side of Heb. vii. 25: "He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing that He ever liveth to make intercession for them."
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