Melchizedek Priesthood in Hebrews

Richard Lloyd Anderson

Hebrews powerfully contrasts the "high priest taken from among men" (Heb. 5:1) with Christ as the "high priest" over the Church (Heb. 5:5). Commentaries extol the Lord as the only high priest, but that is contradictory on its face, since he is "called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec" (Heb. 5:10). This phrase comes from Psalm 110, and Paul applies "the order of Melchizedek" to Christ a half-dozen times in his discussion. If named after Melchizedek, this priesthood is obviously not unique to Christ—at least one mortal and one divine being held it. Many Protestants see priesthood as part of the Mosaic era, now superseded by the covenant of grace. But the "everlasting covenant" made with Abraham before Moses (Gen. 17:7-19) also contained "the covenant of an everlasting priesthood" (Num. 25:13; also Ex. 40:15). Although Moses referred to ancient Israel as a "kingdom of priests" (Ex. 19:6), Peter applied Moses' phrases to the Early Church: "a royal priesthood, an holy nation" (1 Pet. 2:9). And this was not a metaphor, for Christ's revelation to John speaks of the faithful as "priests of God and of Christ" in eternity (Rev. 20:6). Christ's true church had his priesthood.

Since Paul uses Jewish comparisons to reconvert the Hebrews, the Christian priesthood is not discussed directly. In Paul's day there was one Jewish high priest at a time, appointed by civil authority for a term or replaced at death (Heb. 7:23). Those released still had the name, though not the presiding office (Acts 4:6). Early Church sources sometimes use priest and high priest for Christian local and general authorities. Except in the book of Revelation, the New Testament does not use these terms of Christian priesthood. Whether or not the Early Church had the full range of priesthood offices, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 list more than are found in the traditional churches. The major source for priesthood ordination by the laying on of hands is quite naturally in the only detailed administrative letter of the New Testament. There Paul directs Timothy to appoint bishops and deacons but to "lay hands suddenly on no man" (1 Tim. 5:22). Obviously, he was to receive God's revelation before choosing, just as Hebrews indicates.

Paul introduces Christ's priesthood with the core principle of how true priesthood is obtained: no man takes "this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron" (Heb. 5:4). That early time preceded the political domination of the high priest's office. Paul's bridge arches from Aaron to Christ, reinforced by the same method of delegation of authority. Modern revelation gives the proper name of the higher priesthood: "the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God" (D&C 107:3). This means that Christ is the source of appointments; God gave his Son authority before the Creation. Aaron is a parallel for Christ, and Aaron is a specific model for priesthood delegation to men. Aaron was called by revelation, since God told Moses to appoint Aaron and his sons to the "priest's office" (Ex. 28:1); then Moses used the physical ceremony of consecration by anointing, which was anciently associated with the laying on of hands (Ex. 28:41), and Josephus added that the people "acquiesced in the divine selection." 14 This procedure was soon duplicated when Joshua succeeded Moses as the Prophet to Israel. God spoke to Moses, commanding the appointment of "Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit"; but to give authority Moses "laid his hands upon him," which was done "before all the congregation," strongly suggesting their approval (Num. 27:18-23).

Since he used Aaron's example, Paul considered Moses' ordinations relevant to New Testament priesthood. One sees why, as the three steps of Moses were repeated by the apostles as they ordained others. Readers of Acts remember that the Twelve had a problem concerning fair distribution of daily food for the Greek widows of Jerusalem. Partly because sympathetic men were required for this task, the apostles delegated the nomination of welfare supervisors to "brethren," probably those of Gentile background. Yet the apostles retained supervision, for these seven assistants were brought to the Twelve, who "prayed and laid their hands upon them" (Acts 6:6, RSV, NEB, JB, NIV). Common consent also appears and is implied for the full proceedings: "The saying pleased the whole multitude" (Acts 6:5). Thus being "called of God, as was Aaron" (Heb. 5:4) was an operating reality in both testaments, despite the Protestant theory of "priesthood of the believers." Three steps are regularly discernible: the revealed call, group approval, and the laying on of hands.

What does Paul mean by "the priesthood being changed"? (Heb. 7:12.) Delegating authority was not changed. The methods of delegation were not changed. But a higher priesthood was given. Here Paul's purpose structured what he wrote. The Hebrew converts were impressed by the Old Testament, so Paul talked of Christ's priesthood because that was prophetically documented: "Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek" (Ps. 110:4). Since Acts and the letters mention many priesthood offices, priesthood is not solely possessed by Christ. But Paul's argument is simple—if the Levitical Priesthood is superseded by the Melchizedek Priesthood, the ceremonies of the Levitical Priesthood are also superseded (Heb. 7:11). But what is Melchizedek Priesthood? Hebrews poses problems that scholars admit cannot be answered without more information. And now a new Dead Sea Scroll fragment makes it harder to argue that Melchizedek Priesthood is limited to Christ, for Melchizedek appears as a prominent latter-day figure, Elijah-like, with a continuing role in ushering in the day of "good tidings . . . unto Zion" (Isa. 52:7). But he is not alone; Satan, called Belial (2 Cor. 6:15), will be opposed by him and those in "his lot": "the heritage of Melchizedek . . . who will restore them. . . . And he will proclaim release . . . for all sons of [light and] men [of the l]ot of Mel[chi]zedek . . . a year of good favor for Melchize[dek] . . . and the holy ones of God for a re[ig]n of judgment. . . . And Melchizedek shall exact the ven[ge]ance of the jud[g]ments of God [from the hand of Be]lial and from the hand(s) of all [the spirits of] his [lot]." 15

Who was Melchizedek, and why was a priesthood named after him? His sole historical mention brings Abraham to pay tithes to him as one of greater status. Melchizedek is the "king of Salem . . . priest of the most high God" (Gen. 14:18). Philo, Paul's Jewish contemporary, called Melchizedek "the high priest (megas hiereus) of the most high God." 16 These brief references in Genesis and Psalms 110 "are sufficient to indicate that he is a figure of unusual significance." 17 The growing literature about Melchizedek proves both his importance and the frustration of researchers on not knowing more. A recent study concluded after nearly two hundred pages: "We are no closer than when we began to knowing anything of real substance about a historical figure named Melchizedek." 18 So light can be shed only by new discovery or new revelation. And Latter-day Saints offer what no one else does—new information on the person and the priesthood of Melchizedek.

Joseph Smith added a major source in translating the Book of Mormon, which gave Jewish traditions on Melchizedek, who lived in a wicked generation but "exercised mighty faith" and "did preach repentance unto his people" (Alma 13:18). This is like Noah, who appears only as an inspired ark-builder in Genesis, but Peter knew enough about him to call him a "preacher of righteousness" (2 Pet. 2:5). Through his preaching Melchizedek "did establish peace in the land in his days" (Alma 13:18). 19 When Joseph Smith made his inspired review of Genesis, he added more striking information. Melchizedek showed his great faith "when a child" through miracles: "And thus, having been approved of God, he was ordained an high priest after the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch, it being after the order of the Son of God; which order came, not by man, nor the will of man; neither by father nor mother; neither by beginning of days nor end of years; but of God" (Gen. 14:27-28,JST . And the Joseph Smith Translation continues with the miraculous signs that followed this high ancient priesthood. Such revealed background explains the modern revelation on the name of the priesthood; Melchizedek substitutes for the name of the divine Christ "because Melchizedek was such a great high priest" ( D&C 107:2). This was the priesthood of the favored patriarchs. Melchizedek "received it through the lineage of his fathers," going back to Abel, who "received the priesthood by the commandments of God, by the hand of his father Adam" (D&C 84:14, 16).

Was Melchizedek "without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life"? (Heb. 7:3.) In a variety of places Joseph Smith applies this phrase not to the person of Melchizedek, but to his priesthood: "For this Melchizedek was ordained a priest after the order of the Son of God, which order was without . . . descent" (Heb. 7:3,JST . The commentaries uniformly explain Hebrews' phrases as a mere symbolic argument from Genesis, where no antecedents or successors of Melchizedek are given. 20 But Paul's words are too striking to be set aside: like the Son of God, Melchizedek "remains a priest forever" ( Heb. 7:3, NAB, NEB, JB). Of course, the point is to lead up to Christ's eternal priesthood, but what does the Melchizedek analogy mean? Hebrews speaks of an eternal priesthood for Melchizedek. The only sure definitions are descriptions of how they apply. Christ's eternal priesthood continued after death when he visited and preached to the spirits in prison (1 Pet. 3:18-20). But the Early Church believed the same about its priesthood holders, as shown by the respected work from the brother of the Roman bishop mid-second century: "These apostles and teachers, who preached the name of the Son of God, having fallen asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to those who had fallen asleep before them." 21 Christ's servants also had delegated authority to be used in eternity. Most discussions of Hebrews 7 are too abstract, for they do not start from the reality that the Early Church possessed offices that were not of the Levitical or Aaronic Priesthood. "The priesthood being changed" (Heb. 7:12) was a fact for Christ's Church as well as for Christ.

Since Latter-day Saints testify of the return of the lost Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods, they will naturally draw fire from the religious establishment. Modern priesthood does not come from debatable scriptural interpretation, but from the physical appearances of John the Baptist, restoring the lesser Aaronic Priesthood, and then from Peter, James, and John, restoring the Melchizedek Priesthood. 22 Slashing tracts tell us that the Church cannot have Aaronic Priesthood because Paul said it had been "changed" (Heb. 7:12). But Paul's argument is based on the irrelevance of the sacrificial temple, as explained in Hebrews' following chapters. Aaronic sacrificial functions were changed, but in the Restoration, God assigned practical functions and basic ordinances to this priesthood—indeed changed, but continuing, fulfilling the "everlasting priesthood" promises to Aaron's house.

The attacking tracts also tell us that Latter-day Saints cannot have Melchizedek Priesthood because Paul speaks of the "unchangeable priesthood" of Christ (Heb. 7:24). With superficial learning, they claim that the adjective aparabatos here means "untransferrable." In this theory, Christ could not delegate to others. Thayer's very inadequate Greek lexicon did take that position in 1889. Yet the recent committee translations all give the idea of Christ holding a "permanent" or "perpetual," not "untransferrable," priesthood. The evidence solidly sustains this position. Ancient papyri provide "a very strong case against the rendering 'not transferable.'" 23 As far as ancient literature, Hebrews 7:24 is often "interpreted without a successor," but that meaning "is found nowhere else" and "rather has the sense permanent, unchangeable." 24 These are the clear views of the standard tools on word meanings, with no dissenting minority. Careful readers might have known that, since Paul is never far from his Psalms text that Christ is a "priest for ever" (Heb. 7:21), meaning that he will never lose his priesthood. Thus, "continually" (Heb. 7:3) and "forever" (Heb. 7:28, NKJB) give the same thought as the "unchangeable priesthood" (Heb. 7:24). Interpreters restrict Melchizedek Priesthood to Christ, but Paul does not. And Hebrews 7 fits the clear system in Acts and in Paul's letters describing priesthood authority transferred by the laying on of hands. The Bible is deeply consistent with a restored Melchizedek Priesthood.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul