A Friend in High Places
When we moved to Kentucky back in 1990, we had trouble getting our girls enrolled in school. The school year had already started and the two grade schools closest to where we lived were full so neither one wanted more students. The excuse used to keep them out was their shot records. Before we moved there, we made sure our doctor in Illinois gave the girls all the shots they would need for school but when I presented their records to the schools in Kentucky, they would not accept them. The law said that all shots had to be certified by a doctor licensed in the commonwealth of Kentucky and, since they did not want more children in their schools anyway, this was the loophole they used to keep them out. This was ok by the girls but not ok by me.
I argued and I yelled at the school officials because we could not get shots again since they had just had them but they would not budge until one day when I was venting my frustration to some people at church. One of the people that heard of our plight was Carolyn Moulder who had been in the health care profession for years and before her retirement had worked at the schools. She made one phone call and all of a sudden, the records I had were acceptable and the girls were enrolled the next day. It’s nice to have a friend in high places.
We are in the middle of a sermon series looking at Old Testament stories that foreshadow, or give an early glimpse of Jesus to us. Today’s story is one of the most obvious and has been understood for centuries, even before Jesus was born, to be about the Messiah. It is the story of Melchizedek.
Melchizedek was an interesting character in many ways. He was a priest of God before the priest system was established in Israel. Abraham gave him a tithe before God told the people to tithe. And a whole theology (or belief system about God) developed around him.
The Biblical account of Melchizedek actually leaves a lot of questions unanswered but the mystery surrounding this man just increases the prophetic nature of the story. Genesis 14:18-20 is where you find the surprisingly brief account about the extraordinary man Melchizedek. If you recall your Bible history you will remember that God called Abram and he left his home in Ur and settled in Canaan. During a famine, Abram went to Egypt where he prospered and became very wealthy and strong. Returning to Canaan, he heard that his nephew Lot had been kidnapped by an invading army. Abram organized a nighttime raid and they rescued Lot and brought him back home. Our text opens when Abram returned from this rescue and was greeted by Melchizedek.
Follow along as I read Genesis 14:18-20: 18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20 And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
As I said, here was a priest before the priesthood had been established in Israel. Obviously, Abram understood that he was a man of God – that’s why he sought his blessing. By the way, Salem is the location of Jerusalem. So that city has long been a place associated with worshipping God.
The purpose of a priest has always been to be our intercessor to God. He is the one who can approach the throne of the Almighty and when he intervenes on our behalf, God listens. Today we might call that having a friend in high places.
So, to begin, let’s first take a few minutes to look at...
I. THE HIGH PRIEST THEOLOGY
As Americans, we prefer our leaders to be accessible and to be like us. In the United States, we have the right to have our voices heard; we expect government to respond to our needs and if they don’t we will kick them out of office. The truth is that beyond any cries of politicians being liberal or conservative what we always really look for is one with a populist streak – One who is working for the people.
I love that in government but it can make us miss some of the majesty, power, and authority of God. We cannot simply walk into God’s throne room and shoot the breeze with the Almighty Creator of the Universe. We are not worthy to be in his presence much less having any right to ask him for anything. The Old Testament suggests that no man has ever seen the face of God and lived which suggests awesomeness well beyond the ordinary and a powerful God that we are unable to approach. However, God wants us to share in His presence even though we are unclean sinners. Therefore, he devised a method that forgives our sins (sacrifice) and set up intercessors (or priests) to approach him on our behalf.
The Jewish priesthood “officially” began by the command of God. Exodus 28:1 says, 1 "Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests.
God chose descendants from the tribe of Levi, like Aaron and his sons, to serve as priests. It wasn’t a career that just anyone could enter and even if you were a Levite you weren’t necessarily a priest because too many priests would be a problem. In Luke 1 we are told that John the Baptist’s father was a priest but only served for a few months at a time and then his division of priests would take time off while another group served. And not letting all Levites become priests was considerate of God as well. Think of Hermie in the TV Christmas special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” - he was an elf who wanted to be a dentist instead of a toymaker but because he was born an elf he had no choice and was miserable and a misfit. God doesn’t want us to be miserable therefore not all Levites were priests.
Usually, the first born son of a Levite family was set apart to be a priest but the first born could pass his birthright on to another and change careers. You see, God was the real one who chose the priests and if you weren’t chosen, you did not serve. This was important because a faithful Jew would always consult his or her priest before making any major decision and obviously it would be better to talk with someone chosen for the job instead of somebody just collecting a paycheck.
From the priesthood then, one was chosen to serve as the high priest. The high priest had many responsibilities in Judah. They were medical advisors and judges; they pronounced blessings and presided over the various feasts and holidays; they collected the tithe, and before Rome took over they had the power to declare war and make peace.
But the most important function of the high priest was on the Day of Atonement. During this holiday, he would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple and sprinkle the Mercy Seat with blood. This was the way the high priest atoned (or made amends) for his own sins, the sins of his family, and the sins of all Israel. When God accepted this sacrifice, the people would be reconciled with God and their sins would be forgiven. It is the image Hebrews 6 refers to at the end of that chapter when it talks about Jesus entering the inner sanctuary behind the curtain. It was an image of the high priest going to receive forgiveness for our sins.
It was also understood that only the high priest could offer this sacrifice. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies. Therefore, the high priest had to have a high degree of purity before he could perform this all important task. If he did not, his sins would be held against all of Israel. So very clearly and symbolically, in the form of the high priest, everyone could have access to God. Their sins would be forgiven and God would love and protect his people.
By Jesus’ day, however, the system had become very corrupt. The office of high priest had become political with Rome choosing, based on favors or bribes, who would serve as high priest. As a result, sometimes there was more than one high priest and instead of being a lifetime commitment, as it was in the Old Testament, it became temporary – something you did until you made Rome mad or someone came along with a bigger bribe for the office.
The resulting confusion can be seen in the gospel of John. Chapter 11, verse 49 tells us: Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year... Do you see the irony? A high priest was supposed to serve for life. John seems to be sarcastic here knowing that Caiaphas’ father-in-law, Annas, had been high priest until Rome replaced him. And adding to the confusion, later in John 18:22 we are told Annas questioned Jesus and when someone did not like Jesus’ answer he struck him in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded. Apparently, Annas was still considered to be the high priest by some.
So it was very apparent to any sensitive and traditional Jew that the priest system had a problem and may not be the best way to have an intercessor to God. Even without the corruption of the office the idea of having to repeatedly offer a sacrifice was repetitive and a burden. The system God gave for the forgiveness of sins was intentionally flawed so that he could show a better way. A widespread belief had grown up by the time of Jesus that God would give them another type of high priest. They were looking for a high priest that was not subject to Rome, as theirs were, or handicapped because of his own sin.
And from this desire, there developed…
II. THE MELCHIZEDEK THEOLOGY
The belief that Melchizedek was a better type of priest than the Jewish system was not unique to the early Christians – many Jews felt the same way. The book of Hebrews 7:1-10 simply defines this existing theology (or belief system). Beginning with verse 1 we read:
1 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, 2 and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means "king of righteousness"; then also, "king of Salem" means "king of peace." 3Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.
4 Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! 5 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. 6 This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater. 8In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. 9 One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, 10 because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.
Melchizedek was a different kind of priest. Not only was he a priest but he was also the king of Salem. Now, the priesthood established in the Old Testament was not to be a political office and the priest could not be king. Yet here is Melchizedek being both, kind of like Jesus who is our priest and king.
Melchizedek also was a priest before the Jewish priesthood officially began and wasn’t from the Levite family. In fact, he was a priest before any of Abraham’s children were born and way before Israel became a nation. Jesus also was not from the tribe of Levi yet he is acknowledged as our priest.
Did Abraham know Melchizedek before this? We don’t know but we do know that Abraham acknowledged him as a legitimate priest. And how did Abraham know to give him 10%? This was before the law about tithing was ever mentioned. The only other reference to Melchizedek is found in Psalms 110, which is generally acknowledged as a psalm about the coming Messiah:
4 The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek."
Who you were was very important to the Hebrews. Tracing your ancestry was more than an idle past time - it defined who you were, what you could do, and even dictated how you lived. That is one reason why the Bible is so full of those long lists of family histories. But Melchizedek’s family history is completely lost to us. We do not know how he received his call or what his relationship to God was. We do not even have a record of when he died or where he is buried.
In spite of all those unanswered questions, there was no question that Melchizedek was a priest. This was a fact accepted and believed by every God-fearing Israelite. But he was a very mysterious priest and this mystery gave way to some interesting theology.
You see, since no one knows when he was born or when he died, maybe he never was born and never did die. If that is so, he must be some kind of eternal being, like God. Of course, no Jew in his right mind would ever suggest that he was God but maybe he was an early appearance of the long awaited Messiah. Maybe he was the Son of God.
Everyone knew that the priesthood was ineffective so they thought that maybe God would send someone who could override the inadequacies of the system. The people were very open to the idea that maybe someone from outside the corrupted system could show them the way. Maybe someone who was untainted, like Melchizedek. Now, some say Melchizedek actually was Jesus but I don’t think so. Rather, I think Melchizedek was like Jesus inasmuch as his mysterious appearance and unknown time of death makes it appear as if he is a priest forever. Since we know very little about Melchizedek – his sins, his life story - Melchizedek represents a better way – a priesthood untainted by sin and a priesthood that lasts forever.
So all that leads to...
III. THE SUPERIOR THEOLOGY
Hebrews 7:11-28 interprets Melchizedek for us and shows us how he represents Christ in the Old Testament. Beginning with verse 11 we read: 11 If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come--one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law. 13 He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16 one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is declared: "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek."
18 The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19 (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
20 And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, 21 but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: `You are a priest forever.' "22Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.
23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
26 Such a high priest meets our need--one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.
This is such an important concept but it is a concept we have forgotten. Jesus did not come to teach us about morals even though he did. He did not come to be our friend even though he is. Jesus came to permanently erase our sins. He came to be our priest.
Alexander Campbell, the founder of what would become known as the Restoration Movement of which our church is a part, despised the clergy system. He considered it to be the biggest blight on Christianity. In many ways he was right: When we set up our preachers to be the holy men, when we depend on ministers to take care of our religious experiences, when we expect ordained clergy to take care of church matters, when we elevate men to the office of priest, we are guilty of replacing our true High Priest with an inferior system.
What can wash away my sin? Not the preacher. What can make me whole again? Not the pastor. What’s our hope and peace? What’s our righteousness? Certainly it is not the paid minister.
We have been given a priest who can and will intercede for us to God and that priest isn’t me. We have been given one that we can lean on, that we can trust, that we can obey, and that we can follow and it is not any preacher, no matter how good they are or how much we love them. Look at it this way: Why settle for a faulty, inept and poor example when we can have the best high priest? Why settle when we can have a friend in high places who will intercede for us?
This morning, we have a friend in the highest place of all. Jesus is right next to God and he not only paid for our sins with his blood but he will constantly plead our case and fight for us. That’s the kind of high priest I want. How about you?