Earlier this week, I took a bus to work. I rode buses often in Latin America, but here in the States, they don’t often go where I want to be–so when I discovered a bus that runs by the church office where I now work, I decided to give it a try. Riding that bus got me thinking about trains (another means of public trans, right?), and thinking about trains brought to mind how sometimes they get sidetracked, which then got me to this week’s section of Hebrews.
Because in Hebrews 7, our writer pulls off on a spur to pause for some reflections. Remember: the route he’s following has to do with ‘teachings about Christ’ (6:1), and this takes him across all sorts of terrain. For instance, on account of his examination of Christ’s priestly function, the author dips into Old Testament accounts of Melchizedek, a rather shadowy character when we first meet him during an encounter with Abraham.
For this writer, Melchizedek explains how Jesus can function as a priest–which was important, since Jesus did not come from Levi’s line. But Melchizedek serves other purposes, too. Given the way this figure was obviously connected to God, we find in Melchizedek’s story another indication that God had a place for ‘outsiders’–that is, those who were not Abraham’s progeny. It’s not a novel or particularly rare idea–OT prophets raised it, and New Testament writers make much of how the Gospel is for all people, and not just a particular race or class.
Then there is the matter of Abraham’s offering given to Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:7-8). When Hebrews’ author explains that Levi paid the tenth through Abraham, he is telling us that some stories run very long indeed, and that acts have repercussions that sound after many generations.
Perhaps the most surprising lesson from Melchizedek, though, is how our writer uses this figure to explain that the law can be superseded. The former regulation is set aside, he tells us, and we recall Paul’s teaching on this matter, as well as that of Jesus. It’s hard to overemphasize how odd this would have sounded to people steeped in the importance of the law–and yet, if this writer’s claim were baseless, Jesus’ work would have had little bearing on human affairs.
Having pulled off for a few moments, however, our author seems eager to return to his main track, and so he resumes talk of Jesus’ priestly function, which itself is part of a larger picture–a picture he will develop more completely in the next section.