The Greater Context of Hebrews 6
Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.—Hebrews 6:1, 2
Hebrews chapter 6, in which Paul itemizes the fundamental issues of our faith, is actually a parenthesis to his ongoing argument. In this article we will examine the flow of thought into which this chapter is intruded, and for the cause for the interruption.
Paul’s immediate subject surrounding Hebrews 6 is Melchisedec. His immediate point is 3 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, a supersedure from Aaron to Melchisedec. But as the whole of the Law Covenant was so intertwined with the service of Aaron and his sons, such a fundamental shift necessarily implies a change of the whole law. “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (Heb. 7:12).
The Great Issue
Paul lived at a time of transition from one age to the next, from the Jewish to the Gospel, from the age of Law, obligation, and bondage to the age of Grace, emancipation and freedom brought by the free gift of our dear Lord’s life. How Paul thrilled with this vision and thrilled at the prospects. But to break the mind of his fellows from the hold of the law—the “everlasting” covenant with its “everlasting” priesthood and “perpetual” statutes (Lev. 24:8, 9; Num. 25:13) was a struggle which would endure throughout his ministry. The issue comes up again and again in Paul’s epistles.
“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 4:21-5:1
“Let no man judge you therefore . . . in respect of an holy day . . . new moon or . . . sabbath days.”—Colossians 2:16
This issue is no where more specifically addressed than in the book of Hebrews. In the opening chapter Paul argues of 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 steadfast . . . how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord” (Heb. 2:1-3). The word spoken by angels was the Law, as Paul’s Hebrew audience well knew (see Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19). Paul is laying the groundwork for the point that the Law had been surpassed by the Gospel.
In chapter 3 Paul contrasts Moses the servant (who gave the Law) with Christ the son (vs. 5, 6), and shows in chapter 4 that neither Moses nor his successor Joshua (Heb. 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. We are therefore introduced to the priesthood of Christ, and this is the subject of chapters 5 to 7. On this subject we narrow our focus for this article.
The Melchisedec Discussion
Chapter 5 blends with the end of chapter 4 where Paul mentions the sympathetic nature of our priest to our needs and frailties. He is a great high priest “passed into the heavens,” one who “was in all points tempted like as we,” and 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: (Heb. 4:14-16).
That a priest should be sympathetic is of itself neither unusual nor unexpected. As Paul remarks in the opening verse of chapter 5, “every high priest taken from among men” should “have compassion on the ignorant,” for the priests themselves are men who 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 (Heb. 5:9). Clearly this great priest is superior and grander in every way than the men who served in Aaron’s succession. It is not that Jesus is a better priest of the sort 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. He was indeed called of God, like Aaron (Heb. 5:4), but “called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec” (5:10), something quite different. This is unambiguous, because as Psalm 110:4 specifically predicted of Jesus, “thou art a priest after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 5:6).
Paul now has several point 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. It is this concern which causes of the interruption of his discussion. At this point Paul digresses to mildly chide the brethren for their lack and exhort 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 of 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, yet 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 unskillful 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” (Heb. 5:11-14; compare 1 Cor. 3:1, 2).
The word “dull” is from the Greek word nothros. The same word is later rendered “slothful” (Heb. 6:12). Clearly the brethren had not given due diligence to grapple with the deeper issues of faith. A similar affliction rests on the Christian world today and the brethren are a peril here also. It cannot fail to engage our notice that some of long years’ association with the brethren are considerable under-achievers in their familiarity with the scriptures, sometimes being rapidly overtaken by younger ones more earnest. Yet still beyond familiarity lies skill in tracing scriptural arguments and reasoning. Even some of keen and capable minds 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 pressing duties? Then let us trim our duties where possible, redeeming the time, remembering Paul’s counsel to Timothy, “no man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life” (2 Tim. 2:4). Do we lack interest? If this is “in consequence of a lack of zeal for the Lord and a spirit of worldliness,” we need to refocus from earthly to spiritual values. Perhaps earthly entertainments have dulled our spiritual appetites.
A deficiency here will not only affect our own spiritual sharpness, it will influence our associates as well. When we go to class, or to a convention, let us go 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 (Num. 10:2, 8; Rev. 8:2), and those dull of hearing and dull of interest in the breaking issues and truths coming due missed 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 for the fresh beauties of the Lord’s word? Shall we rest upon our attainments and grow slothful? Will the truth grow old and we lose our fervor for it? Or even retrograde and imbibe some old tenets of dark-age theology? Or will we rather be energetic, stimulated, and anxious to pursue the gems of truth which lie still before us?
The Melchisedec Discussion Resumed
When Paul returns to the subject in chapter 7 he reminds the Hebrews who Melchisedec was, and that he was without a record of pedigree (he was above the need for tracing his roots, like the Levites) or end of life (a picture of the continuing 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. Clearly this puts Melchisedec in the greater position. Further, Abraham was blessed by Melchisedec, and “without all contradiction, the less is blessed of the better” (vs. 4-10).
(2) If perfection was 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 former in deference to something superior (vs. 11-19).
(3) The promise of the Melchisedec priesthood in Psalm 110:4 was sealed with an oath, unlike the inferior priesthood of Aaron, and thus “by so much was Jesus made a surety of a better covenant” than the old one associated with the old priesthood. (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 (vs. 23-25).
(5) Our priest, who is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” had no need, like the sinful men who were high priests of old, to offer sacrifice for his own sins, “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” (vs. 26-28).
In all of these particulars the Melchisedec is shown vastly superior to the old priests, who “serve unto the example and shadow” of the greater realities. Jesus has indeed “obtained a more excellent ministry,” and the old covenant so intertwined with the old priesthood “decayeth and waxeth old” (Heb. 8:5, 6, 13).