“The Lord has sworn an oath and He shall not repent: ‘Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech.’ ” This passage, from Psalm 109, is applied by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews to Our Lord Jesus Christ. Why, we may ask, was the priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ said to pertain to the order of priesthood of a mere man? It was in order to show His Jewish audience that Christ’s priesthood is superior to that of Aaron, which was enshrined in the Law of Moses, that St. Paul seeks to prove that God had foreshadowed it in the priesthood of Melchisedech.
This man is introduced in the 14th chapter of Genesis as greeting the patriarch Abraham upon the latter’s return from a triumphant victory over several local kings. Melchisedech offers a sacrifice of bread and wine in thanksgiving for this victory, blesses Abraham, and then receives from him a tithe of the spoils of the war. It is this man’s priesthood, even more than Aaron’s, that serves most as a model of Our Lord’s own priesthood.
Before being able to understand how the order of Melchisedech is superior to that of Aaron, we need to grasp a little better the nature of the priesthood under the Old Law. As is clear, this sacred order is named after Aaron who, like his brother Moses, was a member of the tribe of Levi. When Moses was chosen by Almighty God to be His representative before the Jews, he was told to consecrate Aaron and his sons as priests.
In his capacity as high priest, Aaron was to oversee the worship of God and to officiate at the most solemn of the Jewish religious celebrations. In particular, he alone was to enter into the Holy of Holies once a year to offer a sacrifice of propitiation for the sins of the whole people. In this rite, he carried the blood of an animal in order to pay for the sins of the Jewish nation.
This priesthood, unlike our Catholic priesthood, was hereditary. In other words, only the descendants of Aaron were eligible to be priests. The high priesthood in particular was normally reserved to the eldest son of each previous high priest. The lineage of high priests—and the Aaronic priesthood in general—was zealously guarded for much of the history of Israel so as to prevent anyone who was not a descendant of Aaron from serving the altar. The priesthood of Aaron lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, at which point it was impossible for them to offer the sacrifices of the Old Law.
For a time, therefore, the priesthood of the New Law existed simultaneously with the priesthood of the Old Law. St. Paul takes this for granted in his letter to the Hebrews, where he notes that priests still offer gifts according to the Mosaic law. It was for this reason that he had to explain that the priesthood of the Old Law was incomplete and incapable of leading men to perfection. Furthermore, he had to show that the priesthood of the New Law, exercised by Jesus Christ, was not only superior to the order of Aaron, but also that it was not a spurious innovation.
Thus, he appeals to the authority of the Psalmist, who presents the Lord promising His Chosen One to be a priest of the order of Melchisedech. St. Paul points out to us that this only makes sense if the priesthood of Aaron were somehow imperfect and fit to be replaced. As a result, he shows us several ways in which the priesthood of Aaron was deficient while indicating how the priesthood of Melchisedech manifested the perfection of the priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thus, he explains that the priesthood of the Old Law was dedicated to a “law of a carnal commandment” (Heb. 7:16). St. Thomas, in explaining this passage, tells us that St. Paul has in mind the fact that the Old Testament consisted in nothing more than outward ceremonies which were not intended to purify the souls of men. In effect, it was possible to observe the various ceremonial requirements of the Law without at all acquiring the spirit which was meant to animate it. This spirit is best exemplified by the behavior of the Pharisees and chief priests at the time of Our Lord, who “strained a gnat and swallowed a camel.” That is to say, they were zealous in the fulfillment of the ceremonial details of the Law while wholly neglecting the pursuit of justice in a spirit of equanimity. Thus, for example, they regularly blamed Our Lord for healing men on the Sabbath. They were so fixed on the carnal fulfillment of the law as to lose all sense of proportion.
This is further illustrated by the fact that men who fulfilled their religious obligations demanded by the Law were rewarded with temporal prosperity. The spirit of the Old Testament in this regard is best summarized by the Patriarch Jacob, who, while fleeing from his brother Esau, prayed thus to God: “If God will be with me and will guard me in the way, if He will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, if I shall return prosperously to my father’s house, then He will be a God to me” (Gen. 28:20-1). While we should readily believe that Jacob would not have apostatized if God had not showered him with wealth, his statement captures the underlying attitude of the Jews, who sought to serve God in order to enjoy prosperity in this life. God catered to this spirit in framing the Old Law and its priesthood in such a manner as to confer peace and material welfare to those who observed it faithfully.
However, we should note that the priesthood of Aaron could not obtain anything more for man, since it was capable only of offering the lives of animals to God. The destruction of such creatures was not sufficient to remove the principal obstacle to the attainment of eternal beatitude: namely, the infinite offenses which man had committed against God. St. Paul tells us that “it is impossible for sins to be taken away by the blood of oxen and goats” (Heb. 10:4). The Apostle of the Gentiles then informs us that it was for this very reason that Christ, when He entered this world, addressed His Father with these words: “Holocausts for sin did not please you. Then said I: behold, I come. In the head of the book it is written of me that I should do your will, O God” (Heb. 10:6-7). Since the victims offered under the Old Law were ineffectual at healing the souls of men, the priesthood dedicated to offering them was likewise useless.
This weakness of the priesthood of the Old Law is further revealed by the fact that it was exercised by mortal men. St. Paul states that the “priests [of the Old Law] were numerous, since they were prevented by death from continuing always in their ministry” (Heb. 7:23). Those who approached God were finite and limited and thus could only obtain finite and limited blessings from God. (As an aside, it can be noted that this criticism does not apply to the Catholic priesthood for the simple, though profound, reason that they merely participate in the eternal priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and act in His person.) It was for this reason that the priesthood which Aaron received had to be passed on to his children.
After having shown the deficiencies of the Aaronic priesthood, St. Paul manifests to his audience the ways in which the order of Melchisedech foreshadowed the way the priesthood of Our Lord would remedy them. In the first place, St. Paul tells us that Melchisedech has neither father nor mother, nor any genealogy, nor beginning of days nor end of life (Heb. 7:3). In other words, Melchisedech is—in a manner of speaking—eternal and so, consequently, is his priesthood. In this, St. Paul argues that he is made conformable to the Son of God, which means that timeless quality of Melchisedech’s person as presented in the Book of Genesis is in fact a symbol of the eternal person of the Word of God. Since Christ can never die, the offering which He makes to His Father on our behalf can never cease. As a result, St. Paul concludes that “Christ, since He remains forever, exercises an eternal priesthood. Thus, He always lives to make intercession for us.”
Not only is Christ’s priesthood eternal, but the oblation which He offers is more perfect. Indeed, there is no real comparison between the two testaments in this regard. St. Paul reminds us that “Christ enters into the Holy of Holies not with blood of goats or cows, but with His own blood” (Heb. 9:12). While St. Paul does not touch on the direct correlation between Christ’s oblation and Melchisedech’s, any Catholic familiar with the history cannot but see in sacrifice of bread and wine offered by Melchisedech a foreshadowing of the Blessed Sacrament, in which Christ’s Precious Body and Blood are offered continually under the appearances of bread and wine. The Blood which Christ presents eternally to His Almighty Father suffices to wash away all sin of men and bring them to their perfection.
But what is this perfection? What is the goal of the sacrifice of the New Law, of the priesthood of the order of Melchisedech? Here we find that St. Paul, in a very subtle manner, teaches us that—unlike the priesthood of Aaron, which was ordered to the acquisition of temporal goods—the priesthood of Melchisedech to which Christ was raised was meant to obtain for men eternal life. For Christ was appointed “not according to the law of a carnal mandate, but according to the power of unending life” (Heb. 7:16). This is indicated earlier when St. Paul observes that Melchisedech was the king of justice (as St. Paul interprets his name) as well as of peace (Salem, the town he ruled).
What exactly does St. Paul mean here? Since the priesthood is necessarily tied to a particular way of life, it is clear that the priesthood of Melchisedech is designed to make men citizens of his kingdom, to lead them to become partakers of true justice and peace. Here we do not merely mean a human justice or peace, but that to which the Psalmist aspires in Psalm 71: “Let the mountains receive peace for the people and the hills justice.” And again, “In [the king’s] days shall arise justice and an abundance of peace until the moon shall be taken away.” It is a perfect peace and justice which will know no end; that is to say, a peace and justice which will be known to the citizens of the New Jerusalem, where no evildoers can be present and where God will be the light and solace to all those who drew near to Christ, as we see in the last chapters of the Apocalypse.
Indeed, the fruits of Christ’s priesthood are all joy and blessedness. St. Paul happily drew forth these precious jewels in his efforts to instruct the Jewish Christians that the priesthood of Aaron, though venerable, was clearly imperfect and destined to be abandoned. This had forced him to draw their attention to the fact that the Christ Jesus had from of old been prophesied to be a priest according to the order of Melchisedech and, subsequently, to highlight the priestly qualities foreshadowed in that ancient and mysterious figure. The eternity of His priesthood, the purity of His oblation, and the spiritual blessings which He procured are all illustrated in this King of Salem, who, as St. Paul tells the Jewish Christians, “was assimilated to the Son of God.”