- Locate the Passage
The longest doctrinal section of the epistle begins with Hebrews 7 and concludes at 10:18. In 7:1–28, the author carefully explains the relationship between Jesus and Melchizedek, which was introduced in 5:10 just before the lengthy warning passage of 5:11–6:8, and which was reintroduced in 6:20.
- Determine the Structure of the Passage
Hebrews 7 is composed of three major discourse sections: 1–10, 11–22, and 23–28.
Section one contains two paragraphs: 1–3 and 4–10. The section is demarcated by inclusio with the repetition of the statement that Melchizedek met Abraham in vv. 1 and 10. These ten verses are also given cohesion by the use of chiasm where “meeting,” “blessing” and “tithe” (all in vv. 1–2) are mentioned in inverted order in vv. 4, 6, and 10.
- Exegete the Passage
The author’s goal in Hebrews 7 is to establish the nature of Jesus’ priesthood and prove biblically and theologically that it is superior to the Levitical order. Jesus is compared to Melchizedek and the Levitical priesthood in order to demonstrate His superiority. The author’s reasoning is based on a key biblical text, Ps 110, which was understood messianically in Jesus’ day.
Given there are three times as many references to the giving of the tithe as there is to the “blessings,” the author’s focus is not so much on the blessing as on the giving of the tithe by Abraham. In this way the author establishes the superiority of Melchizedek to Abraham and prepares the way to argue for the superiority of the priestly order of Melchizedek (which according to Ps 110:4 is a type of Christ), over against the Levitical order.
The construction in Greek at the beginning of vv. 5 and 6 ties them together in the sense of “on the one hand” (5), “on the other hand” (6). Verse 5 functions as an explanatory statement giving the ground or reason for the collection of the tithe by the Levites. The ground for such an action is the Mosaic law, specifically given in Num 18:21–24.
Semantically, the information in v. 6 is more prominent than v. 5.
In v. 7, the author parenthetically draws the lesser-greater distinction by pointing out that “without doubt” the lesser person, Abraham, is blessed by the greater, Melchizedek.
7:8 New information is added to the argument in v. 8 with the assertion that the collection of the tithe under Mosaic law was made by Levitical priests who die. However, in the case of Melchizedek, the tithe is collected by one “who is declared to be living.”
7:9–10 The section is concluded in vv. 9–10, a single sentence in Greek. The idiomatic expression translated “one might even say” in v. 9 leads to the author’s concluding point in the comparison of Melchizedek and Levi with respect to the tithe.
The author has now completed his purpose in Heb 7:4–10 by showing why the Melchizedekian priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood. From his own exegetical treatment of Gen 14:17–20, the author has made his case for the superiority of the Melchizedekian priesthood over the Levitical priesthood because the Levites paid tithes to Melchizedek while still in the “loins” of Abraham. In one fell theological swoop, the author subordinates the entire Levitical priesthood to Melchizedek.
Building on this point, the author will shift the focus of the argument from Melchizedek to the Levitical priests in Heb 7:11–19, and from there he will make the shift to Christ in Heb 7:20–28.
In this section, the author develops the topic of Jesus as the high priest after the order of Melchizedek. This is accomplished primarily by the semantic feature of contrast where the Levitical priesthood is contrasted with that of Melchizedek and Christ. The author builds the case for the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood based on its temporality and consequent inability to bring perfection.
7:11 Verse 11 serves to introduce the topic of the Levitical priesthood contrasted with the Melchizedekian priesthood, as both are mentioned specifically.
7:12 Verse 12 is introduced by the subordinating conjunction gar in Greek and continues the line of argument concerning the change in priesthood begun in v. 11. The author’s statement that there has occurred a change in the law will not be further explained until v. 16–ff. The point of this verse is to state the fact that a change in the priesthood by necessity causes a change “of law.”
7:13 Verse 13 is introduced by gar, which functions to state the grounds for the comment in v. 11 that a new and different kind of priest is needed.
Verses 13–14 further explain why there must be a change in the law. The law prescribed that all priests must be from the tribe of Levi. If there is another priesthood, which supersedes the Levitical, then there must be a change in the law, otherwise the new priesthood would be in violation of the law. Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah, not Levi.
Verse 14 continues the sentence begun in v. 13 and is semantically parallel to it.
In vv. 13–14, a negative contrast is made by the author: Jesus is not from the tribe of Levi. Now in vv. 15–16 the author proceeds to compare Jesus positively to Melchizedek.
Verse 16 continues the sentence begun in v. 15 with a relative clause having the phrase “different priest” as its antecedent. Again, as in v. 15, the verse is descriptive of Jesus without naming him. Here we are informed Jesus has become a priest not on the basis of any legal requirement concerning his ancestry, but rather on the basis of the “power of an indestructible life.”
The author now supports his argument with a direct quotation of Ps 110:4 in v. 17, the key Old Testament text in the entire chapter.
Verses 18–19 comprise the final sentence of Heb 7:11–19. It is introduced by gar in Greek, signaling a continuation of the argument by providing the grounds for the change in the priesthood and law. Here we learn that the former regulation from the Mosaic law, concerning priestly descent, has been completely cancelled or annulled.
7:20–21 In this third sub-section, the author continues his argument building upon Ps 110:4, but from here forward, the focus is no longer on Melchizedek, but Christ, as is evidenced by the fact that the author drops the name Melchizedek when he references Ps 110:4. The kai (“and”) in v. 20 signals a new sentence and also the beginning of a new sub-unit. The Greek phrase that begins this verse would literally be translated “in accordance with as much as” but smoothed out in English would read “to the degree that,” or “to the same degree.”
Verse 22 is important in the text with the mention of the name Jesus, and the first occurrence of the key term “covenant,” which will be developed in Hebrews 8.
7:23 The next two verses are structured along the lines of “on the one hand . . . on the other hand . . .” for the purpose of contrast between the Levitical priesthood, whose priests served for a limited period of time and then died, and the eternal priesthood of Christ.
7:24 Verse 24 is straightforward in its meaning, asserting Jesus has a permanent, perpetual, unchanging priesthood because “he lives forever.”
7:25 In v. 25, the author draws a conclusion from the preceding two verses concerning Jesus’ ability to save totally, completely, and forever those who approach God through the priestly ministry of the Son.
7:26 The final sub-paragraph of Hebrews 7 begins with v. 26 and is introduced by gar “for,” which is often left untranslated. The use of gar connected with the use of “such” to describe the high priest we have in Jesus likely refers both to what has been said in the immediately preceding verses and to what follows here and in v. 27.
Verse 26 has led to the main point, which the author now drives home to his readers in v. 27.
Verse 28 serves two purposes: to explain why there is a difference between Christ and the Levitical priests in terms of their priestly work of sacrifice and to summarize the preceding argument.
See Neva Miller, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Analytical and Exegetical Handbook, 192 – ff.; J. Harold Greenlee, Hebrews: An Exegetical Summary, 224-ff.; and David L. Allen, Hebrews, 406-34, for more detailed exegetical and semantic analysis of the text.
- Let the structure of the text drive the structure of the sermon
A. 7:1-10 The Melchizedekian priesthood is superior to the Levitical Priesthood.
B. 7:11-19 The Levitical Priesthood is temporary and inferior.
I. 7:20-28 Christ is superior to the Levitical Priesthood.
Verses 20-28 comprise the most dominant material semantically, with verse 25 functioning as the key verse.