On to Maturity
“Every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised … Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on” (Hebrews 5:13,14, 6:1).
Hebrews chapter six, in which Paul itemizes the fundamental issues of our faith, is actually a parenthesis to his ongoing argument. Paul has been explaining that the ministry of Jesus is higher than the ministry of the Law covenant, and supersedes it. Thus, the Hebrew brethren should move forward from the age of types and shadows, to the age of the true ministry of the Gospel Age which is a fulfillment of those earlier things.
Paul then pauses his argument for a moment. He senses that the details he is speaking of may tax the minds of his Hebrew readers, not because they are too deep to discern, but because many had not exercised their minds in this direction. So Paul interrupts his subject for a time, to exhort us all to have a deeper understanding of the scriptures. By this means we can better appreciate the new hopes of the Gospel Age, brought to us by Christ.
Paul’s immediate subject surrounding Hebrews six is Melchisedec. His point is that Christ has become a priest like Melchisedec, whose priesthood is superior to that of Aaron. Thus, there has been a change in the priesthood from Aaron to Melchisedec. But since the Law Covenant was so intertwined with the service of Aaron and his sons, such a fundamental shift necessarily implies a change of the law. “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (Hebrews 7:12).
The Great Issue
Paul lived at a time of transition from the Jewish Age to the Gospel Age, from the age of Law, obligation, and bondage, to the age of Grace, emancipation, and freedom brought by the free gift of Jesus’ life. Paul was thrilled with the vision, and the prospects. But to free the mind of his fellows from the hold of the law — the “everlasting” covenant with its “perpetual” statutes and “everlasting” priesthood (Leviticus 24:8,9, Exodus 40:15, Numbers 25:13) — was a struggle which would endure throughout his ministry.1 The issue comes up again and again in Paul’s epistles. Here are some examples.
(1) The Hebrew word underlying the words “everlasting” and “perpetual” is olam, Strong’s number 5769, “properly, concealed, i.e. the vanishing point.” It means for a long time, but not necessarily lasting forever as our English words suggest.
● “If the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory … but even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart” (2 Corinthians 3:9,15).
● “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? … we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise … not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. Stand fast, therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 4:21,28,31, 5:1).
● “Let no man therefore judge you … in respect of an holyday … new moon or … sabbath days” (Colossians 2:16). This issue is nowhere more specifically addressed than in the book of Hebrews. In the opening chapter Paul argues for the superiority of Christ to the angels. This seems an odd issue to discuss, until we observe the point Paul is leading to in chapter 2. “Therefore … if the word spoken by angels was stedfast … How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord” (Hebrews 2:1-3). The word spoken by angels was the Law, as Paul’s Hebrew audience well knew (see Acts 7:53, Galatians 3: 19). Paul is laying the groundwork for his point that the Law had been superseded by the Gospel.
In chapter 3, Paul contrasts Moses, the servant, through whom God gave the Law to Israel, with Christ the son (verses 5,6). He shows in chapter 4 that neither Moses nor his successor, Joshua (Hebrews 4:8), gave Israel the true rest which awaits us in Christ. While we “labor therefore to enter into that rest” accessible through Christ, we are assisted by our great high priest (Hebrews 4:11). We are thus introduced to the priesthood of Christ, and this is the subject of chapters 5 through 7. On this area we narrow our focus for this article.
The Melchisedec Discussion
Chapter 5 blends with the end of chapter 4, where Paul mentioned the sympathetic nature of our priest to our needs and frailties. He is a great high priest “passed through the heavens” (NASB), one who “was in all points tempted like as we.” Thus, we are urged to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
That a priest should be sympathetic is neither unusual nor unexpected. As Paul remarks in the opening verses of chapter 5, “every high priest taken from among men” should “have compassion on the ignorant,” for the priests themselves are men who also are “compassed with infirmity.” The great difference is in the glory and majesty of our heavenly high priest, who can do so much more for us than any earthly priest. “Being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). Clearly, this great priest is superior and grander in every way than the men who served as successors to Aaron.
It is not that Jesus is a better priest of the kind that preceded him. Jesus, after all, was from the tribe of Judah, rather than the priestly tribe of Levi. “Our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning the priesthood” (Hebrews 7:14). Jesus has an altogether different priesthood. He was indeed called of God, like Aaron was (Hebrews 5:4), but “called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec” (5:10), something quite different. That Jesus has this kind of priesthood is clear, because Psalm 110:4 specifically predicted of Jesus, “thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec” (Hebrews 5:6).
Paul now has several points to make about Melchisedec in contrast to Aaron. But he pauses, concerned that his audience, through lack of diligence in close spiritual reasoning, is unprepared for the arguments to follow. Paul digresses to mildly chide the brethren for their lack, and exhorts them to advance their spiritual faculties. He gradually turns the discussion back to his subject by mentioning Melchisedec in the last verse of chapter 6, and with chapter 7, he is back on track with the Melchisedec discussion. Indeed, one could jump from Hebrews 5:10 directly to Hebrews 7:1 and not miss a beat in the central argument.
Let Us Not Miss the Apostolic Counsel
Let us also pause to receive Paul’s counsel. “Of whom [Melchisedec] we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:1114, compare 1 Corinthians 3:1, 2).
The word “dull” is from the Greek word nothros, the same word later rendered slothful (Hebrews 6:12). The concern is not about ability, but about application. The brethren had not given diligence to grapple with the deeper issues of faith. A similar affliction rests on the Christian world today, and the brethren are also at peril here. Some long-time brethren may be under-achievers in their familiarity with the scriptures, and may be overtaken by more earnest younger ones.
We may distinguish two elements here in advancing our understanding. One is simple familiarity with the scriptures. This can be attained by reading the Bible in at least sufficient depth to be aware of the various books, what the purpose and point of each book is, and how it relates to the other books. But beyond familiarity lies practice in tracing scriptural arguments and reasoning. Even some of keen and capable minds may fail to exercise them deeply on the treasured words from the heavenly courts.
If this is so with us, let us appraise the cause and overcome it. Do we lack the time from other pressing duties? Then let us trim our duties where possible, redeeming the time, remembering Paul’s counsel to Timothy that “no man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life” (2 Timothy 2:4). Do we lack the interest? If this is “in consequence of a lack of zeal for the Lord and a spirit of worldliness” (F257), we need to refocus from earthly to spiritual values. Perhaps earthly entertainments have dulled our spiritual appetites.
A deficiency here will affect not only our own spiritual sharpness, it will influence our associates also. When we go to class, or to a convention, let us go prepared with a point or two to share with the brethren, or a question to focus our spiritual energies. If our conversations are filled with earthly affairs, there is room for improvement. If we have no appetite for the spiritual food, we are spiritually ill.
Every advance of the church through the age was heralded by the silver trumpets of truth blown by the priests (Numbers 10:2,8, Revelation 8:2). Those dull of hearing or interest in the breaking issues and truths coming due, miss the benefit. Shall we who have heard the blast of the seventh trump now grow dim in our interest, and lose the edge of our eagerness? Shall we rest upon our attainments? Will the truth grow old and we lose our fervor for it? Or will we be energetic, stimulated, and anxious to pursue the gems of truth which are before us?
The Melchisedec Discussion Resumed
When Paul returned to his subject in chapter 7, he reminded the Hebrews who Melchisedec was, and how he was a good figure of Jesus. Both his name and his office were symbolic of Jesus (Hebrews 7:2). He was without record of pedigree, for he was above the need for tracing his roots, such as Levites required to do. There was no record of the end of his life, as there was with Aaron, a picture of the continuing life and priesthood of Jesus. Paul then makes five arguments for the superiority of Melchisedec over the priesthood of Aaron.
(1) The Levitical priests, who received tithes from their countrymen, paid tithes to Melchisedec while in the loins of their father Abraham. This puts Melchisedec in the greater position. Further, Abraham was blessed by Melchisedec, and “without all contradiction, the less is blessed of the better” (verses 4-10).
(2) If perfection were to be attained by the Levitical priesthood, why would the scripture (Psalm 110:4) speak of another priesthood arising later? It implies a discontinuance of the Aaronic priesthood by something superior to come later (verses 11-19).
(3) The promise of the Melchisedec priesthood in Psalm 110:4 was sealed with an oath, unlike the inferior priesthood of Aaron. “By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better covenant” than the old one associated with the old priesthood (verses 20-22).
(4) The old office was held in turn by many high priests “because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death.” But Jesus, on the other hand, “hath an unchangeable priesthood … he ever liveth to make intercession” for the saints (verses 23-25).
(5) Our priest, who is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” had no need to offer sacrifice for his own sins, like the sinful men who were high priests of old, “for the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity, but the word of the oath … maketh the Son” who is above such need, and is “consecrated for evermore” (verses 26-28). In all of these particulars the Melchisedec priesthood is superior to the old priests who “serve unto the example and shadow” of the greater priesthood. Jesus has “obtained a more excellent ministry.” The old covenant, so intertwined with the old priesthood, “decayeth and waxeth old” (Hebrews 8:5,6,13).