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Bible openThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Hebrews 7:4-10

4 See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! 5 And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers,[a] though these also are descended from Abraham.6 But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, 10 for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.

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Last week’s post offered a lengthy explanation of the importance of Melchizedek and his universal priesthood, not only to Abraham but to us today.

Melchizedek’s priesthood pre-dated that of the Jewish people. Abraham, at that point, had not yet received God’s promises to him, but this encounter with Melchizedek began their fulfilment.

The unknown author of Hebrews, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was in the beginning points of his dissertation on Melchizedek being a higher priest than those of Jews, as his priesthood was for all who feared God. The author developed this argument, point by point, weighing heavily on the notion of universal priesthood. Melchizedek was a ‘type’ of Christ, yet not Christ himself. Christ, however, fulfilled God’s will of becoming the great and eternal High Priest for all — including Gentiles.

Furthermore, Melchizedek was also the ‘king of peace’ (Hebrews 7:2), because he was from Salem (which means ‘peace’, probably Jerusalem). Christ is the Prince of Peace: yesterday, today and forever.

We will see how this dissertation on Melchizedek develops in the coming weeks.

John MacArthur summarises the Holy Spirit’s reasoning as follows (emphases mine below):

Now, in this argument, the Holy Spirit shows that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham because He wants to show that he was greater than Aaron and Levi. Now, the point being that Abraham was better than Aaron and Levi. Therefore, if Melchizedek was better than Abraham, he was also better than Aaron and Levi. If he’s better than Aaron and Levi, he’s the mediator of a better covenant, and you ought to turn from Judaism and come to Christ. Do you see the argument?

Last week’s verses covered Abraham’s one-off tithe to Melchizedek: one-tenth of his spoils in battle with a neighbouring king. Those were not cast-offs, either, but the very best of the spoils.

Melchizedek blessed Abraham (verse 6), the man to whom God made promises that continue to be fulfilled today through descendants of Jew and Gentile alike. Abraham is our father in faith.

Considering that Abraham made a tithe to Melchizedek and received his blessing, undoubtedly, Abraham was the inferior of the two men (verse 7).

Matthew Henry says that it was Melchizedek’s:

place and privilege to bless Abraham; and it is an uncontested maxim that the less is blessed of the greater, Hebrews 7:7. He who gives the blessing is greater than he who receives it;

Therefore, in comparing Christ and Melchizedek in their universal priesthood, we can conclude that Christ is superior to the Jewish priests:

and therefore Christ, the antitype of Melchisedec, the meriter and Mediator of all blessings to the children of men, must be greater than all the priests of the order of Aaron.

The author states that in verse 8, as John MacArthur explains the ongoing priesthood in the order of Melchizedek. Even though Melchizedek died, the universal order of priesthood continues and is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever:

Look at verse 8, “And here men that die receive tithes” – you know, Melchizedek was of an eternal priesthood in the type; Christ is an eternal Priest, and if we tithe to priests that die, “but where he receiveth them, of whom it is witnessed that he liveth.” In other words, to be able to exact tithes in a dying kind of priesthood is one thing; how much greater Melchizedek had no death. And so, Jesus Christ is a Priest who is alive forever more. “He receiveth them, of whom it is witnessed He liveth.”

And so, He is a greater priest because He’s a living priest; not a dying one. All men are dying men. The idea that it says in verse 8, “Here men that die” is the – the Greek is “here dying men receive tithes, but this is one who is alive forever more.”

Verses 9 and 10 are interesting, because the author of Hebrews posits that, figuratively, even the Jewish priests paid tithes to Melchizedek through their ancestor Abraham. Therefore, Melchizedek was greater than the Jewish priests. And if Jesus is greater than Melchizedek, it was time for the audience, the Hebrews, to believe that Christ is the eternal Great High Priest.

MacArthur breaks down the Jewish thinking for us:

And then comes this interesting argument in verse 9, “And as I may say” – in other words, he kid of apologizes for the strangeness of the argument; nevertheless it’s valid – “And as I may say so, “Levi also, who receiveth tithes, paid tithes in Abraham. For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchizedek met him.” The only one argument that would be left would be this: a Jew would say, “Now wait a minute. Now let me think this thing through. Melchizedek, yes, Abraham paid him tithes, but Abraham was no priest. Right? Therefore, the Levites were priests, and maybe they were greater than Abraham. And maybe if Abraham had been a priest, he wouldn’t have done that, and maybe the Levites wouldn’t have done it.”

And so He says, “Levi also, who receives tithes, paid them in the loins of Abraham.” Now, this is an interesting argument, and you’ve got to understand the Jewish mind. The Jews viewed heredity in a realistic manner. Levi was in the loins of Abraham since he was to descend from Abraham. When Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, it was as if the entire Levitical priesthood had acknowledged his superiority. And so, that answers the last objection.

Melchizedek, then, is better than Aaron. Now this is a powerful point to the Jewish mind. And in a sense I apologize to you and to me even, because without a Jewish frame of reference, this is difficult for us to understand. But Melchizedek was of a better priesthood. Jesus came after the order of Melchizedek.

Even though Genesis 14:18-20 is the one primary mention of Melchizedek, it had to appear in Scripture to show that a) there were men of God among the Gentiles and b) that Jesus would fulfil a pattern of priesthood that God established through Melchizedek. If that example of universal priesthood were not in Scripture, the Jews would have rejected any arguments about it:

Don’t you see that He couldn’t just invent a new priesthood without a historical precedent or they wouldn’t have bought it?

The argument for the superiority of this universal priesthood unfolds further next week.

In the meantime, Hebrews has many answers to the question, ‘What makes Jesus and Christianity so special?’ We can learn much from what was written to the early Jewish converts.

Next time — Hebrews 7:11-14

Bible oldThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Hebrews 7:1-3

The Priestly Order of Melchizedek

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.

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In last week’s reading the author of Hebrews began discussing spiritual meat, rather than milk, by introducing Abraham’s unwavering faith in God.

In today’s passage, he brings into scope the meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek.

Melchizedek is mentioned in prayers of consecration during the Communion service in Catholic and Anglican (including Episcopal) churches, using a phraseology similar to Hebrews 6:20 in describing Christ (emphases mine below):

20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

Given Melchizedek’s importance, the Old Testament has very little history on the man himself.

We have three lines from Genesis 14, where he appears after Abraham won the war against various kings, which included the liberation of his nephew Lot and the recovery of Lot’s possessions:

18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said,

Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Possessor[a] of heaven and earth;
20 and blessed be God Most High,
    who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

There is another mention in Psalm 110:4:

The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
    after the order of Melchizedek.”

The Book of Hebrews has the most to say about Melchizedek. He foreshadowed Christ, and Christ’s priesthood surpasses his.

The notion of priesthood and Melchizedek all gets quite complicated — but nonetheless fascinating — as we shall see from John MacArthur’s sermon below.

To begin with, I will look at a more general explanation from Matthew Henry after discussing the verses themselves.

The author of Hebrews reminds his Jewish audience of Melchizedek’s blessing of Abraham (verse 1).

In return, Abraham recognised Melchizedek’s stature as both king and priest (verse 2). As such, Abraham gave Melchizedek one-tenth of his spoils won in battle. These were not the middling spoils, but the very best. Abraham understood that Melchizedek’s name meant ‘king of righteousness’ and ‘king of Salem’, meaning ‘king of peace’.

The author of Hebrews says that we know nothing more about Melchizedek in Scripture (verse 3) — or history, for that matter. That said, he was a very important person in terms of universal priesthood. God chose Melchizedek for his character, not his lineage. Jewish priests were chosen from their tribe, e.g. Levites, or lineage.

The author says that this brief mention of Melchizedek’s priesthood should serve as a timeless example of what serving God should be, like the priesthood of Jesus Christ, whose eternal priesthood surpasses that of Melchizedek’s temporal one.

Excerpted below is Matthew Henry’s explanation:

(1.) Melchisedec was a king, and so is the Lord Jesus–a king of God’s anointing; the government is laid upon his shoulders, and he rules over all for the good of his people. (2.) That he was king of righteousness: his name signifies the righteous king. Jesus Christ is a rightful and a righteous king–rightful in his title, righteous in his government. He is the Lord our righteousness; he has fulfilled all righteousness, and brought in an everlasting righteousness, and he loves righteousness and righteous persons, and hates iniquity. (3.) He was king of Salem, that is, king of peace; first king of righteousness, and after that king of peace. So is our Lord Jesus; he by his righteousness made peace, the fruit of righteousness is peace. Christ speaks peace, creates peace, is our peace-maker. (4.) He was priest of the most high God, qualified and anointed in an extraordinary manner to be his priest among the Gentiles. So is the Lord Jesus; he is the priest of the most high God, and the Gentiles must come to God by him; it is only through his priesthood that we can obtain reconciliation and remission of sin. (5.) He was without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, Hebrews 7:3. This must not be understood according to the letter; but the scripture has chosen to set him forth as an extraordinary person, without giving us his genealogy … (6.) That he met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him … Thus our Lord Jesus meets his people in their spiritual conflicts, refreshes them, renews their strength, and blesses them. (7.) That Abraham gave him a tenth part of all (Hebrews 7:2) … as an expression of his gratitude for what Melchisedec had done for him, or as a testimony of his homage and subjection to him as a king, or as an offering vowed and dedicated to God, to be presented by his priest. And thus are we obliged to make all possible returns of love and gratitude to the Lord Jesus for all the rich and royal favours we receive from him, to pay our homage and subjection to him as our King, and to put all our offerings into his hands, to be presented by him to the Father in the incense of his own sacrifice. (8.) That this Melchisedec was made like unto the Son of God, and abideth a priest continually. He bore the image of God in his piety and authority, and stands upon record as an immortal high priest; the ancient type of him who is the eternal and only-begotten of the Father, who abideth a priest for ever.

John MacArthur has much more on the subject.

First, Melchizedek is a symbol — a type — representing Christ:

Now, there’s much in the Scripture that comes under the category of typology. There are many theological terms that we use in Bible study and in Bible teaching. One of them is typology. Whenever we talk about a type, we mean an Old Testament picture of the person and work of Christ. For example, in the Old Testament we read about a brazen serpent being lifted up, and all who looked upon the serpent were healed from the snake bites. And then we hear in John chapter 3 that that is a picture of Jesus Christ. And it says, “As the Son of Man was lifted – as the serpent was lifted up, so shall the Son of Man be lifted up, and those who look on Him in faith shall be healed from sin.”

We read in the Old Testament about lambs being slain, and then we hear the words of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God” in reference to Jesus Christ. There are many pictures in the Old Testament of Christ. We call these types, and Christ is the antitype or the fulfillment of that type

But as we come to Hebrews chapter 7, we meet another Old Testament type. Now, keep in mind that types are always frail illustrations at best. A lamb rates no comparison with the Lamb of God realistically. Nor does a serpent of brass rate a relationship to Jesus Christ realistically. They are merely humble pictures meant to give us insight from an illustrative point of view. And we say at the same time that Melchizedek in no way deserves an equality with Jesus Christ. But he does serve as a very interesting picture of Christ

The author of Hebrews begins a long dissertation on Melchizedek because the priesthood was — and still is — very important to the Jewish faith.

To a certain extent, it is also central to Christianity, because a priest, or minister, is seen by many believers to be the bridge between laypeople and Jesus as well as God. Note the word ‘pontifex’ below, which Catholicism uses to describe the Pope:

And the Latin word for priest is pontifex, taken apart and it means bridge builder. The priest was the one who built the bridge from man to God. And to the Jew, the priesthood was really very, very important. To them, you see, religion was access to God. And since they couldn’t go directly to God, they had to go through a mediator, and the priests were designed to be mediators.

The high priests offered the main Jewish sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. The high priest was the only person allowed into the Holy of Holies, and, even then, he could only stay there for a moment because he himself was not worthy.

Recall that, after the Crucifixion, the curtain shielding the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem was rent in two, meaning that Jesus — not a human high priest — is our only Mediator and Advocate with God the Father. Jesus Christ offered the true, final, sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world. The author of Hebrews wants his audience to understand this by beginning with a discussion of Melchizedek.

In God’s covenant with the Jews, priesthood was based on hereditary lines:

This was how God designed it, that certain men would be called out, set apart, sons of Aaron and Levi, to minister as priests. And they would build bridges between men and God according to God’s specifications.

Sacrifices went on and on for centuries. Then, Jesus sacrificed Himself for countless sins of Jew and Gentile alike, ending the Old Covenant and instituting a New Covenant:

And what they did, they had to do over and over and over again. And finally, a great, glorious priest has come along.

Now, you see, to the Jew this is very important, because he knows of no way to get yourself connected with God apart from a priest. And so, the Holy Spirit says, “Christ is that perfect priest. Not only does He fit the qualifications of a priest, but he supersedes any qualifications of any priest you’ve ever seen. He’s far beyond.”

Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest, forever and ever:

Now, here the Holy Spirit introduces the priesthood of Christ and says, “We have such a Great High Priest. We have a Great High Priest. You don’t need the priests of Judaism anymore. You don’t need the old system. There is a Great High Priest. There is a bridge builder whose bridge stays, whose bridge remains. And once you cross that bridge, you’ll remain eternally in the fellowship of God. There is such a bridge builder, and it is Jesus Christ.

Note that the author of Hebrews discusses Melchizedek because he was a priest of the Most High God, the creator of all. Melchizedek was not a Jewish priest, because God had not created the Jewish priestly system at that point. The Jews referred to the God who made the Old Covenant with them as Jehovah. Both names refer to the same God, but the Most High God referred to the God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews whereas Jehovah refers to the God of the Jewish covenant.

MacArthur compares and contrasts Melchizedek’s universal priesthood — a foretelling of Christ’s — with Aaron’s priesthood, which was strictly for the Jewish nation. Furthermore, Melchizedek was a king. However, no Jewish priest was a king himself, nor was he a bringer of permanent righteousness and peace with God:

Now, Aaron’s priesthood was national to begin with. In other words, it was strictly Judaistic. The particulars that were under Aaron were priests of Israel. Secondly, the priests were subject to the kings in a measure. They were not kings themselves; they were subjects in a kingdom. Thirdly, Aaron’s priesthood offered no permanent righteousness and peace, only that continual, continual, continual sacrificing. Nothing ever permanent. It never established a permanent righteousness for a man nor permanent peace with God. That peace and that righteous was shattered every time they sinned. Constant repetition.

Fourthly, Aaron’s priesthood was hereditary. It didn’t matter how good of a guy you were, if you were born in the right family, you were automatically a priest no matter what you were. Now, that poses some problems, obviously. Fifthly, it was a timed priesthood. They only existed in it from the year – from the age of about 25 to 50 and it was over. It was limited by time.

So, Aaron’s priesthood was a national one, subject to kings, no permanent righteousness and peace, hereditary, and limited by time. Now, this is very important for us to understand because Melchizedek’s priesthood supersedes Aaron’s at every single point. Therefore, says the Holy Spirit, Christ is a better priest than Aaron.

The author of Hebrews is positing a question in his audience’s collective mind. Do they want to follow a Jewish priestly system or do they want to follow a high priest who is also a king of righteousness and peace in the same way that Melchizedek was? There is only one high priest who can satisfy that criteria and that is Jesus Christ.

Looking at Melchizedek’s priesthood, we find that:

Melchizedek’s priesthood was universal. It was not national; it was universal.

At this point, MacArthur explains the difference between the Jewish names ‘the Most High God’ and ‘Jehovah’:

In relation to Israel, God took the name of Jehovah … God’s name is I Am. Right? YHWH in the Hebrew. But no Jew would say the name of God. And so, since the Jews didn’t want to say the name Jehovah, they took the consonants of Jehovah and the vowels out of Adonai, which means Lord, and stuck them together and got Yehowah which is Jehovah. So, Jehovah’s not really the name of God; it’s only that name which Israel came up with in an effort not to say YHWH and yet express who they wanted to express. So, it’s a combination word, Jehovah, and it deals strictly with Israel. And watch this, Aaron’s priests were priests of Jehovah. You remember that all the line of Aaron, the Levite line of Aaron, were – and incidentally, within the line of the Levites, you still had to be a son of Aaron. But all of those who came from Aaron were priests only of Jehovah. That is they were related to God only in connection with Israel. They couldn’t run over here and minister of there and here and everywhere else. They were tied to Israel’s economy.

But watch this. It does not say that Melchizedek was the priest of Jehovah; it says he was the priest of – what? – the Most High God. Now, that is a universal name for God, El Elyon, and it reaches everywhere and everything in heaven and earth. It is the universal name of God that includes Jew and Gentile. Far broader than the Jewish term Jehovah.

So, whereas Aaron’s priesthood related just to Israel, Melchizedek’s was broader than that and related to all men. Now, when the Holy Spirit says Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, do you see the significance? The significance is this: Jesus is not just the Messiah of Israel but of the world. So, it is very important to establish Melchizedek’s priesthood as universal if you’re going to say Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Now, you see the Jew – in the Jewish mind there had to be a historical reason for everything or a historical foundation. And so, God chooses Melchizedek as His perfect foundation to teach this truth. There have been priests who’ve been broader than Israel before; there’s no reason to believe there can’t be some more. And there is one, Jesus Christ. So, it transcends Israel.

MacArthur’s version of the Bible makes this clearer; Abraham used both names for God:

Now, Abraham understood this concept, because in Genesis 14:22, he said, in response to Melchizedek, “I have lifted up my hand unto Jehovah” – and then he said – comma – “God Most High.” So, he understood Jehovah in the covenant relationship; he also underst[oo]d Jehovah in the sense that He was God of everything.

The name Most High God appears elsewhere in the Bible:

In Daniel, for example, where the first great king of the Gentiles, Nebuchadnezzar is brought through seven years of humbling until he finally acknowledges the facts of God, he says this. He knew that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men. Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “The Most High doeth according to His will in heaven and in earth.” And here was a Gentile acknowledging the Most High. That’s a term that has reference to Gentiles. That’s a broad term for God.

And you’ll remember that even the demons, when our Lord cast them out, cried, “What have we to do with Thee, Jesus, Thou Son of the Most High God?” And they again used the universal term for God.

Jesus has made a promise to Christians involving the Most High God:

Jesus says for those of us who come into His relationship, He promised that we shall be called the sons of the Most High. And so, the term “the Most High” is then a universal name for God in the sense of His universal rule and character as it involves all men. And this means that Melchizedek’s priesthood is not limited to a nation. He is not just priest of Jehovah; he is priest of the Most High God, El Elyon, Possessor of heaven and earth, above all national and above all dispensational distinction.

MacArthur then examines kingship, which Melchizedek and Jesus Christ have in common:

Secondly, Aaron’s priesthood was subject to royalty; Melchizedek’s was royalty. Notice verse 1, “For this Melchizedek” – what’s the next word? – “king of Salem.” Four times it says he was king. In verse 2, it says King of righteousness, King of Salem, which is, “King of peace.” Four times in two verses, it tells us this man was a king, royal priesthood. Melchizedek’s was royal. This is something totally foreign to the Aaronic priests. This is totally foreign to the Levitical priests in Israel. There was never that combination. Israel’s priests were never king and priest. That was unknown in Israel. No priest was royal. But oh, my, what a perfect blend it is. What an absolutely perfect blend that the true Priest, the Great Priest, the glorious Priest Jesus Christ should be that blend of priest and king so that He not only takes men to God, but He rules men for God.

Listen to Zechariah 6:13, “Even He shall build the temple of the Lord; and He shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon His throne” – there He is as a King – “and He shall be a priest upon His throne.” Now, that is an unheard of concept. And yet it is prophesied in Zechariah so clearly. Jesus was to be a priest, but a priest on a throne, a royal priesthood.

Now on to the identity of Salem, about which there is broad agreement but not 100% certainty. Most experts believe it is Jerusalem, but other theories suggest Shalem in the land of Canaan and Salim, where John the Baptist performed many baptisms.

Jerusalem sounds the most reasonable place for Salem when you read MacArthur’s reasoning:

… likely that’s an ancient name for Jerusalem. Jerusalem also had the name Jebus – J-E-B-U-S. The Jebusites occupied Jerusalem initially. But it may have also, at the time of Melchizedek, had the name of Salem. And so, Melchizedek could well have been an ancient king of Jerusalem. And I think that has the best evidence. The city that was the hometown of God. There’s a most wonderful statement about that in Psalm 132. I’ll take a minute to read you two verses there, Psalm 132:13, “For the Lord hath chosen Zion” – that’s Jerusalem – “He hath desired it for His habitation. This is My rest forever; here will I dwell, for I have desired it.” You didn’t know God had a hometown, did you. His hometown is Jerusalem.

And it seems to me that it would be very likely that God would have had His priest in His hometown even pre-Abraham. And so, Jerusalem had a king long before David, and a king appointed by God; and a priest long before Aaron, and a priest appointed by God. Melchizedek was king and priest of Jerusalem. Now, this is important. The Jews always felt that God dwelt with them, and that was about it; that God was exclusively theirs, and there could never be another priesthood, and there could never be another covenant. And so, when Christianity came along and says, “Here’s another covenant; here’s another priesthood,” they said, “No, it can’t be.”

Now watch this – beautiful, beautiful argument by the Spirit. “Look,” He says. “There was another priest, and there was another covenant before you existed. Why can’t there be one after?”

Ultimately:

The whole world didn’t begin with Judaism. There was something going on before God worked that way; there can be something going on after He’s finished or temporarily finished working that one. Oh, this is so important. It leaves room for the new covenant. For if God dealt differently before, why can’t He deal differently again? He didn’t need to work through the nation Israel before Abraham. Why can’t He work another way if He wants to in this economy? That’s the point.

If He had a royal priest one time, why can’t He have another one? And He does. And who is He? Jesus Christ. Something no Jewish priest ever conceived.

There is one more aspect of this to explore which is ‘righteousness’ and ‘peace’. Peace, says MacArthur, is not temporal world peace but peace with God. And we can have peace with God only if we are righteous. Therefore, righteousness must come before peace. And, if you study Scripture, you will see that ‘righteousness’ precedes ‘peace’ in every passage with the two words.

MacArthur says:

There was no permanent righteousness, and there was no permanent peace in Aaron’s priesthood. Ah, but Melchizedek’s priesthood was a priesthood of righteousness and peace. Notice verse 2, “First” – and we’ll skip the first phrase, come back to it later, “First being by interpretation King of righteousness” – and that’s a translation of Melchizedek; that’s what his name means: King of righteousness – “and after that also King of Salem, which is King of peace” – Salem, from Shalom, which means peace. His name is righteousness; his city is peace. He is a perfect combination of righteousness and peace.

Now, don’t you know that that’s exactly what all priests attempt to accomplish? What is righteousness? Righteousness is holiness. And righteousness is demanded before you can ever be at peace with God. Right? God hates sin. Therefore, if you’re a sinner, you and God are not at peace. Right? God fights against His enemies. Did you know that? God fights against His enemies. And if a man is not righteous, then he’s not at peace with God. But if a man is righteous in the eyes of God, then he’s not at war with God; he’s at peace with God. Right?

Now, Romans chapter 3, the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ gave us His righteousness, and therefore, it says in chapter 5, we have peace with God.

You say, “Well, how do you get righteous?”

When the righteousness of Christ is given to you by faith in Him. Christ’s righteousness becomes yours; you’re immediately at peace with God. He sees you covered by the blood of Christ. Every priest wanted to make a man righteous that he might be at peace with God, but they couldn’t do it. The blood of bulls and goats didn’t do it; they had to do it over and over, and it only lasted as long as a man didn’t sin. But here He says Melchizedek’s very name was righteousness, and his city was peace, emphasizing that his was a kingdom and his was a priesthood of righteousness and peace. Is that typical of Jesus Christ? Does Jesus Christ provide a permanent righteousness? Absolutely.

What happens to a sinner after he comes to Jesus Christ, invites Him into his life and then sins? What happens? Does he have to go back and ask Jesus to come in again? No. His righteousness covers him forever. What happens once you you’ve made peace with God? All of a sudden do you turn into God’s enemy again, and He’s going to destroy you? No. No. Jesus Christ secures righteousness and peace on a permanent basis.

The historical Melchizedek was probably a very righteous man and a very peaceful king. But the Holy Spirit is not here dealing with the personal characteristics of Melchizedek; He’s only dealing with Melchizedek as a type of Christ. And He says that He was first righteousness and then peace. And may I say they always come in that order; there’s no peace with God unless there’s righteousness. The Bible says the Lord is our righteousness. Righteousness comes first, then peace.

I will leave it at that.

Who could imagine a 4,300+ word post discussing three verses? I had not anticipated it.

Yet, does this make you more elated to be a Christian? Does it make you more eager and willing to spread the Good News? I hope it does!

More on Melchizedek will follow, all being well.

Next time — Hebrews 7:4-10

Bible ancient-futurenetThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Hebrews 6:13-20

The Certainty of God’s Promise

13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham,[a] having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

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Last week’s reading concluded the author’s warnings to the Hebrews about apostasy.

Now the author of Hebrews gets into the spiritual ‘meat’, rather than ‘milk’.

The author needs to examine the main personalities of the Bible important to the Jewish audience in order to persuade them that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of God’s covenants with humanity.

The author begins by saying that God swore to Himself that he would bless and multiply Abraham and his descendants (verses 13, 14).

John MacArthur explains this divine oath, which was unconditional upon Abraham himself (emphases mine):

… the Abrahamic covenant wasn’t even made with Abraham; it was made between God and Himself. Therefore, it is an unconditional covenant. God is simply saying, “Abraham, go to sleep while I make a covenant with Myself.” God promised Himself, on the basis of His own purpose, that this is what He would do, and Abraham had nothing to do with it. He just happened to be the vehicle. You see? God sealed a covenant in a human way with Himself.

And so, we say, then, that the Abrahamic covenant wasn’t made between God and Abraham; it was made between God and God.

You say, “What are you driving at this for?”

Because I want you to see that the whole design of God, in calling Abraham, really had nothing to do with Abraham. God didn’t owe Abraham anything; God owed Himself the fulfillment of His own plan. Do you see? And so, He chose to cut the fresh channel, beginning with Abraham, and He made that vow with Himself.

The author explains that when we make an oath, it is always made on something greater than ourselves (verse 16). Logically, no being is greater than God, so God made that oath upon Himself.

Now, Abraham had a blind faith in the Lord. The Lord fulfilled his faith and patience by granting him those blessings (verse 15).

MacArthur summarises Abraham’s remarkable story in Genesis. Remember that he was a pagan, as was his family:

Abraham was a pagan. Abraham lived in a city known as Ur, with his father Terah. Terah was a descendant of Shem, one of the sons of Noah. And Abraham’s father was a pagan, worshipping false gods. He settled in a place called Ur, which is between the Tigris and the Euphrates in that area called Mesopotamia, one of the ancient cities of the Chaldeans.

And God all of a sudden came to him in Genesis chapter 12 and said, “All right, Abraham, pack up; you’re leaving. Get everything you’ve got and get out. I’m going to take you to a place where I want you to go.”

Now, that’s a fairly big issue. Packing up his whole tribe, of which he was chieftain, and moving them all out, all the way over to a place called Canaan. He finally did, and settled in a place called Haran. When he got to Haran, he received another promise. The reiteration of the promise that God would bless him and multiply his seed and give him a great nation and so forth and so on, that through his seed all of the families of the earth would be blessed. This is repeated to him in Genesis 12, Genesis 13, Genesis 15, Genesis 17, Genesis 18, Genesis 22. Over and over and over and over and over God says to him, “Here’s My promise; here’s My promise; here’s My promise,” and Abraham believed it. He really believed God.

Abraham and his descendants lived in tents for generations, but they had great faith in God:

… clear as far on down the line as Isaac and Jacob, they’re still dwelling in tents in a land that really wasn’t their own; just kind of temporary there.

Abraham was an elderly man when God chose him. His wife Sarah was beyond childbearing age. They had no heir, but God promised him that he would have generations of descendants, which continue to this day:

What did He say? He said this, “Surely” – Abraham – “blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying will multiply thee.” I’m going to bless you and multiply your seed. That was His promise to Abraham. Did He keep it? Do you want to know that there are right now in this world today, 1972, in June, at least 14 million of the seed of Abraham still roaming the world? You better believe He kept it.

Not only that, there are multiplied millions around the world who are Abraham’s seed by faith. God kept His promise to Abraham. It was tough for a while. It didn’t look too good. He said, “You’re going to have a whole great nation, as numbers the sand of the sea and the stars of the heaven.” And Abraham looked at Sarah and said, “Well, you got to start with one, and we don’t even have that.” And it didn’t look real good, but he believed God. He hung in there. And he tried to help God a little bit, and got over there with Hagar and produced Ishmael, but God just used that as a punishment. Ishmael fathered the Arabs, who have been nothing but trouble for the Jews ever since.

But he believed God, the Bible says, and he stayed with it. It wasn’t easy; look at verse 15, “And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained” – what? – “the promise.” He hung in there. He believed God. He threw his whole life on God. He said, “God, I’m just going to trust you. Here I go,” and he fell over, and God caught him and gave him the promise. And it looked like impossibility.

God told Abraham to sacrifice his only — and long-awaited — son Isaac, which he was prepared to do, because he had such faith in Him:

He took little Isaac, after he was born, and he got up on that mountain, and he had that knife lifted in the air, and it was all over. Isaac dies, that’s it. The promise is gone. And yet, he raised that arm to slay Isaac, and God stayed his hand. But he went that far because that’s how much he believed God. That’s faith.

And on the way up the mountain, he said to Isaac – they were going with a lot of sticks and no sacrifice. He said to Isaac, “God will provide a sacrifice.” I think deep down in his heart he believed that God would. And finally, when he was up there, he may have been going like this, and his eye landed on that ram in a thicket. God did provide. He believed God. You can trust God, friend. You may find yourself running all the way to the extremity, but you can believe God for even that. He has never failed, and He never will.

Consider the early chapters of Genesis documenting heinous sins of pride and depravity. Then, God chooses Abraham to be the progenitor of a people. Christians are also Abraham’s heirs, via faith in the one true God:

The horrible sinfulness of men was reached in a climax at Babel, when in idolatrous, devilish worship, they attempted to build a ziggurat, or an idol really what it was, to their own manufactured worship. And God scattered them all over the world. But it became imperative to God that He had to recover man, obviously. And as the plan unfolded, God knew that he had to take drastic steps to do it. It was as if there was a flowing river and a great landslide had blocked the river, and God had to cut a fresh channel.

Now, He designed to cut that fresh channel by picking out a certain nation or a certain people and using them as His channel around the landslide of sin that had inundated the world. Now, that fresh channel was cut first of all through Abraham. And from Abraham’s loins were to come the whole nation of Israel, which has always been God’s channel. Right? Jesus said in John chapter 4, “Salvation is of” – what? – “the Jews.” And what he meant is not that the Jews are the only ones that can be saved, but the channel is the Jews. Jesus came through the line of Judah through the Jews. And so, God began to cut the channel through Abraham. And Abraham really was only a spectator to the plan of God.

It really is amazing, especially when God told Abraham that he would have as many descendants as stars in the sky and what would happen to them. This was right in the beginning, with the first animal sacrifice of Abraham’s that symbolised the covenant between them (Genesis 15):

Verse 9, “And he said unto him, ‘Okay, take Me a heifer of three years old, a she goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’” Now, He tells Abraham to go get a menagerie, gather all these animals. And he gets all these animals, and ropes them all up, and hauls them all over there to wherever God was.

And verse 10, “And he took unto Him all these, and divided them in the midst.” Now, that doesn’t mean that he said, “Okay, let’s see, she goat over here, ram over here.” That means that he whacked them down the middle with a sword. He cut them in half. And he laid one half over here and one half over there. It says, “and had one – each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not.” Obviously you divide a bird, and all you’ve got are a lot of feathers. So, put a dead turtle dove on one side, and a dead pigeon on the other side, and then halves of all these other three animals. You say, “What’s going on? This is kind of a messy thing.” Well, it is.

And then in verse 11, which is always interesting, it says, “And when the fowls came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away.” And I can imagine he’s getting impatient, as he’s standing there with his stick, beating off the birds, waiting for God to do whatever He’s going to do, see. And he’s got these bloody animals lying around on the ground.

You say, “Well, what happened then?”

Well, verse 12, “When the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram” – God gave him a little divine anesthetic and put him out – “and, lo, a horror of great darkness fell upon him.” He just blacked out, see?

“And He said unto Abram, ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a sojourner in the land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years’” And here He prophesies the Egyptian captivity. But notice in verse 15 – verse 16, “‘But in the fourth generation they shall come here again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full. And it shall come to pass –’” and so forth and so on. Well, let’s read verse 17, “And it came to pass, that when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace and a burning lamp passed between those pieces. In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying” – verse 18 – “‘Unto thy seed have I given this land.’” Part of the Abrahamic covenant was the gift of the land.

This is how sacrifices worked in Abraham’s time. God signified the promise with him in a way he could understand, although, ultimately, by causing Abraham to pass out, He made the covenant with Himself:

There was a very, very interesting custom in Abraham’s day and continued some time after Abraham. Whenever two people made a covenant, they sealed it with blood. And the way they did it was they took an animal, and they cut the animal in half, laying a piece on each side, and together they walked between the blood pieces, simply passing between the two pieces. That signified that they had made a covenant in blood to keep their promise. It could be a deal for land; it could be some kind of a trade; it could be anything. But they cut an animal; put one piece here, one piece there. And the two who were covenanting would go between the pieces, sealing the covenant with each other. And there would be witnesses to see it.

You want to know something? If God and Abraham – and we believe that God is represented by the furnace and the lamp – if God and Abraham had gone through, that would have meant that God made a covenant with Abraham. You want to know something? God knocked Abraham out, and He went through by Himself.

You say, “What does that mean?”

That means the Abrahamic covenant wasn’t even made with Abraham; it was made between God and Himself.

God made an oath as a guarantee (verse 16) of His unchanging purpose (verse 17). Therefore, it is impossible for God to lie and, as such, we can have ultimate confidence in Him (verse 18):

So, Abraham was secure because of the person of God. He can’t lie. He can’t back out of His promises. You can trust God. And God will never fail because He has no capacity for failure in His nature.

The author of Hebrews chooses to discuss Abraham because he wants all of his audience to truly believe and affirm that Jesus Christ is the ultimate and sufficient fulfilment of God’s covenants:

If God says, “You’re safe with me,” then you better be safe with Him, or His word is worth nothing. If His word is worth nothing, then He’s worth nothing. So, the character of God is at stake in the question of security. Can you give your life to God? Take Him at His word? Can He keep you from falling? Can He finish the work He begins in your life? Will He lose you at some point along the line? Is there real security with God? Abraham believed there was. The Bible says there is

And to those Hebrew readers who were unsaved but who believed it and who had listened to it and heard the whole thing and seeing some of the miracles, and they were afraid to let go of Judaism; they were afraid to cast themselves on the Messiah for fear it might not work, to them the Holy Spirit says, “Come on, you can trust God. He says it’ll work.” God can’t lie.

God’s unchanging nature means that our hope in Him through a belief in Jesus Christ should be a ‘sure and steadfast anchor’ for our souls (verse 19). Jesus has entered the Holy of Holies — ‘the inner place behind the curtain’ — for us. He is a high priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek, the first high priest (verse 20).

MacArthur explains those verses:

You say, “What is that hope that is set before us?”

Well, listen to what I think it is just quickly. 1 Timothy 1:1 says this – I love it – “The Lord Jesus Christ, who is our” – what? – “hope.” What is that hope set before us? It’s none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Then in Colossians chapter 1, it says that that hope is the Gospel and all that’s involved in salvation. That’s all He’s saying. He’s saying, “There’s salvation. If you’re ever going to know if God can be trusted, if you’re ever going to know whether He’s worth His word, you’re going to have to run to Jesus Christ, embrace the Gospel, and then God’ll give you that strong confidence to know He can hang on.” You can trust God. And the only way you’ll ever know it is if you flee to Him and embrace Jesus Christ.

God gave Abraham the security of His person and His purpose and His pledge. And He gives it to you. One other thing, and this is the glorious conclusion, His Priest. To the New Testament covenant, God added yet another pledge and another security, Jesus Christ. Look at verse 19, oh this is beautiful language. We could spend weeks just talking about this. “Which hope” – that is Christ and all the salvation that’s in Him – “we have as an anchor of the soul” – beautiful words – “both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; where the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus” – we’ll stop there.

You say, “That’s kind of tangled up; I’m not sure I get that.”

Well, let me tell you what it’s saying. He’s saying we have one other security, beloved, we’ve got an anchor. We’ve got an anchor for our soul. Your soul, when you come to God, isn’t drifting anymore; it’s anchored.

You say, “Well, where is my soul anchored?”

It says right there the anchor is sure and steadfast, and it’s inside the veil.

You say, “What veil? What does that mean?”

You remember, if you know anything about the Old Testament, what it means. In the temple, the most sacred place was called the Holy of Holies. Right? And in the Holy of Holies, the ark of the covenant, the glory of God. And only once a year, on the day of atonement, the high priest could go in there. Right? And he had to get in and get out fast. He couldn’t linger there. That was the place where God dwelt. And the high priest could go in there; no man could go in there. That was the stay-away thing. Nobody went near that.

But our Great High Priest Jesus Christ performed the perfect sacrifice, and He entered into the heavenly Holy of Holies. And when He went in there, He didn’t just stand around and leave, the Bible says He went in and – did what? – sat down. Jesus finished the job. The veil was ripped open, and He left, as the writer of Hebrews says, “A new and living way into the presence of God.” Oh, fantastic.

Jesus opened the way, and when I put my faith in Him, I throw my anchor, and it goes clear to heaven, and it anchors to Him within the veil of the Holy of Holies. That’s security, my friend. That’s security. I’m tied to Jesus within the veil. Nothing can ever violate that. Oh, what a security. You think anybody can go in there and cut that rope? I’m anchored to Jesus Christ inside the veil in God’s presence. That’s security.

Jesus Christ the forerunner went in, verse 20, and He was a new kind of High Priest like Melchizedek, and we’ll get into that next time. He went in there, and when I put my faith in Him, I threw my anchor; it went in the veil, and He holds it in His hand, and He’ll never let go. And I’m anchored to Jesus Christ. Oh, what a fantastic thought.

You say, “Well, how long are you anchored there?”

Catch it, oh, it’s good, verse 20, “Where the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made a High Priest” – for how long? – “forever.” Forever. There never was such a high priest like that. Forever. I’m anchored to God forever.

My dear friend, our security is in the person of God, the purpose of God, the pledge of God, and the Priest of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. He loses none of His own. Read it yourself in the Gospel of John chapter 6, “He loses none of His own.” Can you trust God?

I really believe that if more churches had a lecture series on the Book of Hebrews, Christians would get more deeply involved with their faith.

I have read this book four times, and now I am reading it again. Each time, I understand something new — and glorious. It makes me so happy and grateful for Jesus, our Great High Priest.

More on Melchizedek — and Abraham — will follow.

Next time — Hebrews 7:1-3

What follows are the readings for the Second Sunday in Lent for Year B in the three-year Lectionary.

These come from the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, a handy online reference for Sunday readings.

Themes are God’s covenant with Abraham, God’s infinite love, faith through grace and salvation via a belief in Christ Jesus. Emphases mine below.

The Old Testament reading recounts God’s renaming of Abram and Sarai, promising that Abraham would be the father of many nations. At that time, the couple were elderly and Sarah was barren:

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.

17:2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”

17:3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,

17:4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.

17:5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.

17:6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.

17:7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

17:15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.

17:16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

The Psalm exhorts the twelve tribes of Israel — Jacob’s offspring — to glorify the Lord, who is faithful to His people:

Psalm 22:23-31

22:23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

22:24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

22:25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.

22:26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!

22:27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

22:28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.

22:29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.

22:30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,

22:31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

In the Epistle, Paul explains that God’s covenant with Abraham was based not on legalism but on faith, similarly our salvation through a belief in Jesus Christ:

Romans 4:13-25

4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

4:14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.

4:15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

4:16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us,

4:17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) –in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

4:18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.”

4:19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.

4:20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,

4:21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

4:22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

4:23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone,

4:24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,

4:25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Clergy have the choice of two readings from Mark’s Gospel, the second of which is the Transfiguration. It is useful to contemplate the two together, for reasons which follow.

The last verse in this first Gospel reading is particularly important to remember:

Mark 8:31-38

8:31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

8:32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

8:33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

8:34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

8:35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

8:36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

8:37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

8:38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

The story of the Transfiguration features each year during Lent. Jesus took His leading apostles to witness what was a ‘terrifying’ experience for them. A New Covenant was being made with the world:

Mark 9:2-9

9:2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,

9:3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

9:4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

9:5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

9:6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

9:7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

9:8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9:9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Ligonier Ministries has a concise and excellent explanation of the two readings, ‘The Mount of Transformation’. Excerpts follow:

Peter and the other disciples found it difficult to believe that Jesus would have to suffer and die, and they were no doubt troubled by our Lord’s teaching that true discipleship involves suffering (Mark 8:31–38). They needed encouragement that all was proceeding exactly as God had planned and that suffering for Christ’s sake would be worthwhile. In the transfiguration, they received such encouragement and assurance.

The account of Jesus’ transfiguration is so familiar that we must be careful not to miss the significance of the details. It occurred on a high mountain (9:2), which recalls Moses’ meeting with God high up on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:20). The disciples, on the Mount of Transfiguration, were participating in an event that marked a key transition in the history of the Lord’s people. At Sinai, the mediator of the old covenant—Moses—was established; on the Mount of Transfiguration, the mediator of the new covenant—Jesus Christ was revealed and confirmed

Peter, James, and John saw the purity and deity of our Savior on that occasion, which would strengthen their faith over the course of the rest of their lives (2 Peter 1:16–18).

Reading the coming Sunday’s Scripture in advance of the church service often reinforces the messages we are meant to understand.

The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 7:2b-8

“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.

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Before we come to today’s reading, it is worthwhile recapping Acts 6, which is part of the three-year Lectionary readings for St Stephen’s feast day. He was the first martyr.

Because the first Pentecost took place during the Jewish feast of the first harvest, Jews from all over the ancient world had gathered in Jerusalem.

Among them were many new converts, including Jews from Greece, the Hellenists (Acts 6:1). The Hellenists complained that their newly converted widows were receiving less in charity than the widows of Jerusalem and surrounds. Whether this was a sound complaint, we do not know. However, the Apostles decided that keeping track of charity and collecting funds for the new Church would limit the time they spent teaching and healing.

Therefore, they instituted deacons to take on the charity work — to ‘serve tables’ (Acts 6:2). The word ‘deacon’ is not used as such in Acts 6, but this essentially was what the position involved. Matthew Henry tells us that the Greek words for serving tables are

diakonein trapezais–to be deacons to the tables, Acts 6:2.

The Twelve directed all the disciples — which now included several thousands of converts — to name seven men who were (Acts 6:3):

of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom …

Henry explains:

These must be, First, Of honest report, men free from scandal, that were looked upon by their neighbours as men of integrity, and faithful men, well attested, as men that might be trusted, not under a blemish for any vice, but, on the contrary, well spoken of for every thing that is virtuous and praiseworthy; martyroumenous–men that can produce good testimonials concerning their conversation. Note, Those that are employed in any office in the church ought to be men of honest report, of a blameless, nay, of an admirable character, which is requisite not only to the credit of their office, but to the due discharge of it. Secondly, They must be full of the Holy Ghost, must be filled with those gifts and graces of the Holy Ghost which were necessary to the right management of this trust. They must not only be honest men, but they must be men of ability and men of courage; such as were to be made judges in Israel (Exodus 18:21), able men, fearing God; men of truth, and hating covetousness; and hereby appearing to be full of the Holy Ghost. Thirdly, They must be full of wisdom. It was not enough that they were honest, good men, but they must be discreet, judicious men, that could not be imposed upon, and would order things for the best, and with consideration: full of the Holy Ghost, and wisdom, that is, of the Holy Ghost as a Spirit of wisdom. We find the word of wisdom given by the Spirit, as distinct form the word of knowledge by the same Spirit, 1 Corinthians 12:8. Those must be full of wisdom who are entrusted with public money, that it may be disposed of, not only with fidelity, but with frugality.

Henry says that the seven men chosen were not among the disciples at the first Pentecost but those who had converted and received the Holy Spirit afterwards. Furthermore, their names were Greek, implying they were Hellenists (Acts 6:5). Perhaps this was a better way of ensuring charity was distributed equally to Hebrew and Hellenist alike.

Henry tells us more about these men:

Nicolas, it is plain, was one of them, for he was a proselyte of Antioch; and some think the manner of expression intimates that they were all proselytes of Jerusalem, as he was of Antioch. The first named is Stephen, the glory of these septemviri, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost; he had a strong faith in the doctrine of Christ, and was full of it above most; full of fidelity, full of courage (so some), for he was full of the Holy Ghost, of his gifts and graces. He was an extraordinary man, and excelled in every thing that was good; his name signifies a crown. Philip is put next, because he, having used this office of a deacon well, thereby obtained a good degree, and was afterwards ordained to the office of an evangelist, a companion and assistant to the apostles, for so he is expressly called, Acts 21:8. Compare Ephesians 4:11. And his preaching and baptizing (which we read of Acts 8:12) were certainly not as a deacon (for it is plain that that office was serving tables, in opposition to the ministry of the word), but as an evangelist; and, when he was preferred to that office, we have reason to think he quitted this office, as incompatible with that. As for Stephen, nothing we find done by him proves him to be a preacher of the gospel; for he only disputes in the schools, and pleads for his life at the bar, Acts 6:9,7:2. The last named is Nicolas, who, some say, afterwards degenerated (as the Judas among these seven) and was the founder of the sect of the Nicolaitans which we read of (Revelation 2:6,15), and which Christ there says, once and again, was a thing he hated. But some of the ancients clear him from this charge, and tell us that, though that vile impure sect denominated themselves from him, yet it was unjustly, and because he only insisted much upon it that those that had wives should be as though they had none, thence they wickedly inferred that those that had wives should have them in common, which therefore Tertullian, when he speaks of the community of goods, particularly excepts: Omnia indiscreta apud nos, præter uxores–All things are common among us, except our wives.–Apol. cap, 39.

The Apostles prayerfully laid their hands on this group of seven men (Acts 6:6), which also included (Acts 6:5):

Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas …

Thus ordained, the first deacons went about their duties.

Stephen was filled with such grace and faith that he performed (Acts 6:8):

great wonders and signs among the people.

Henry tells us that wonders and signs were not restricted to the Apostles:

It is not strange that Stephen, though he was not a preacher by office, did these great wonders, for we find that these were distinct gifts of the Spirit, and divided severally, for to one was given the working of miracles, and to another prophecy, 1 Corinthians 12:10,11. And these signs followed not only those that preached, but those that believed. Mark 16:17.

A group of devout Jews from abroad — Greece, Asia Minor and freemen (freed slaves) from Rome — took issue with Stephen’s actions (Acts 6:9). However, he responded with such divinely inspired wisdom that they had nothing more to say. So, they took their hostility further and made up lies about him, saying he had blasphemed Moses and God (Acts 6:11). Having cooked up a lie, they then used it to agitate the scribes and elders in the temple (Acts 6:12), which produced the desired result. Stephen was brought up before the council at the temple. Acts 6:15:

15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

This brings us to Acts 7, which begins with the high priest asking Stephen to explain himself.

John MacArthur tells us about the charges of blasphemy levelled against Stephen:

He had been charged with blasphemy against God, Moses, the law and the Temple, the most sacred things in the mind of any Jew. And he had to answer the charge. But he knew what he believed, and he knew why he believed it. And he answered it. And I think it’s important to notice that he answered the charge with Scripture. He defended the faith not in vagaries of philosophy, not in logic, but in verbal testimony to the Scripture. And he even quotes it repeatedly verbatim, which shows something of what he must’ve known about Scripture.

Historical Jewish tradition says that the great rabban Gamaliel — from last week’s post on Acts 5:33-42 — trained Stephen in Scripture. Gamaliel certainly taught St Paul and he might well have taught Barnabas also.

Stephen’s speech is a magnificent lesson in apologetics, a defence of the Christian faith, not being sorry for it, as apology generally means today.

Before we look at it in more detail, MacArthur posits that Stephen’s ministry to the Hellenists was a means of moving the thrust of the new Church along and out of Jerusalem:

It was now time for operation number two, which was Judea and Samaria, moving out from Jerusalem. Now, Stephen became the key to this thrust, for many reasons. In the first place, they needed to get better organized in order to step out. The church was falling into some internal problems because they weren’t structured right, so in chapter 6 they got organized. They chose seven Spirit-filled men to handle the business of the church so the apostles could be free to preach and to pray …

And so Stephen was important to the progress of the church because he was taking over responsibility that freed the church to go. Secondly, he was important because he was a preacher, a New Testament prophet, and he preached to foreign Jews. So he began to extend this from the Palestine Jews to the Hellenist, or Grecian, Jews, who would come into Jerusalem.

Ultimately, Stephen’s ministry ended in martyrdom, which further assisted the Church at that time:

immediately following his death, chapter 8, verse 1 says, “And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem.” The death of Stephen precipitated the persecution of the church. And, as you know, when the church gets persecuted, the church gets going.

And so the persecution came, and immediately they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, which is right on target, right on schedule, exactly where God wanted them to go. Phase two begins to move. And it isn’t because God sent them out there directly. It’s because the people in Jerusalem started persecuting them and they fled to those places.

Stephen’s speech explains early Jewish history concerning the covenant and promises that God fulfilled for the people of Israel. Today’s reading is only the first part, relating how Abraham was called by God from Mesopotamia to inhabit a new land (verses 2, 3).

Note that Stephen addressed those gathered as ‘brothers and fathers’. In other words, ‘I am one of you’. Left unspoken for now is that he understood that God wanted them to believe in Jesus, the Messiah.

He also referred to ‘the God of glory’ and ‘our father Abraham’, further evidence that he was not blaspheming and that he had reverence for the Almighty and the great persons in Scripture.

Stephen went on to say that Abraham accepted God’s instructions and moved to Haran, then on to the present land ‘where you are now living’ (verse 4). Yet, God didn’t leave Abraham an inheritance of land, but told him it would belong to his offspring (verse 5). This was incredible, because Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children. She was sterile. Furthermore, they were advanced in age. So, Abraham spent time alone with their servant Hagar. Nine months later Ishmael was born. However, Ishmael was not part of God’s plan for Abraham.

Yet, Abraham’s faith was such that, even though his understanding of that plan was imperfect, he did not question God or His design for him and his people.

Then, as Stephen related (verses 6, 7), God had more news for Abraham: his offspring would be slaves to others, toiling in a foreign land for 400 years. (MacArthur tells us that it was 430.) Then, His people would be released from bondage and come to worship Him in their own land.

God made a covenant with Abraham, one of circumcision (verse 8) for every male in his family down through the generations, including slaves and foreigners. Abraham circumcised Isaac eight days after he was born. Circumcision continued with Isaac’s son Jacob and so on, encompassing all twelve tribes of Israel and their descendants.

What Stephen did here was to express his faith in God’s sovereignty. MacArthur explains:

Stephen’s saying, “I realize the destiny of Israel’s in the hands of God.” Do you see what he’s saying? That’s what he’s recognizing. “I know that God is running the show. I believe in the God of Israel, who called Abraham, who took the children of Israel into Egypt, who brought the plagues on Pharaoh and got them out of Egypt, who presented the great deliverer, Moses. I believe it all,” is what’s saying. He’s establishing himself in relation to the God of Israel.

This accomplished two things for those listening to Stephen in court:

He has captured their attention by reciting the history they love to hear. And I’ll bet you he was a dynamic speaker. It says that they couldn’t resist his spirit. And I think they just ate it up. And the second thing he accomplished was, he defended himself against the charge that he blasphemed God. He did believe in God. He did not believe God was unholy, unsacred. He believed God was the holy God of glory, the very God of Israel.

What Stephen was moving towards by recounting their common history as Jews was this:

The third thing he wants to do is indict them for sinfulness and rejection. The fourth thing is to present Messiah.

The story continues next week.

Next time: Acts 7:9-16

Almost every atheist bangs on about Moses and Christians.

This is incomprehensible to most Christians, because Jesus Christ put an end to the 613 tenets of Mosaic Law.

Yet, the atheist’s bravo sierra persists: ‘So, how is it you can eat seafood and wear mixed fabrics?’

Why are they not asking this of Reform Jews instead?

My suggestion to atheists is to stop reading the ignoramus Dawkins and begin studying the Bible and proper Christian theology.

My ‘go to’ man for biblical Christianity is the Reformed minister and Westminster Seminary California professor, Dr R Scott Clark, author of several theological books and the website Heidelblog, devoted to the eponymous catechism and the Reformed confessions.

If every town and city had an R Scott Clark, we would have much less unbelief and a more intelligent articulation of Christian faith.

Take, for example, Dr Clark’s ‘Abraham was not Moses’. Most professing Christians know the difference between the two. All of us will acknowledge both as being biblical greats. However, for Christians, one outshines the other in spiritual terms.

Clark explains (excerpts follow, more at the link, emphases mine):

The covenant theology underlying the Reformed view of baptism does not understand Abraham to have been, strictly speaking, an “old testament” character. He was a typological character in the history of redemption (John 8:56; , Matt 3:9; 22:2; Acts 3;13, 22; 13:26; Rom 4; 9:6; Gal 3; Gal 4:21; Heb 2:16; 6:13-15; ch. 7; 11:8; 11:17;  but not an “old covenant” character. He lived in the period of, as Hebrews puts it, “types and shadows” (Heb 8:5;  10:1. see also Col 2:16).

We distinguish Abraham from the old covenant because Paul does so consistently. He does so in 2 Cor 3:14 when he applies the language “old covenant” not to Abraham but to Moses. Of course the pattern for this was established in Jeremiah 31:32, which describes the new covenant as not like that made with the fathers when they were led out of Egypt. In other words, Jeremiah connects the old covenant to Moses and not to Abraham. Paul also makes this identification in Galatians 3 and 4, where he explicitly distinguishes between Abraham and Moses. In Gal 3 Paul argues that the Mosaic covenant did not change the Abrahamic covenant which is fundamental to God’s administration of saving grace in the world. The Mosaic covenant was a codicil added to the Abrahamic covenant 430 years later and it has expired with the coming of Christ. The Abrahamic covenant, however, has not expired.

The NT appeals consistently to Abraham and to the promise given to Abraham, not in earthly terms but in spiritual terms, not with respect to the land promises (which has expired with the expiration of the national covenant with Israel) but it consistently regards Abraham as our spiritual father in the faith. Abraham was looking forward to the heavenly city.

This is true not only of the Reformed — Calvinist — denominations but of Catholic and the other earliest Protestant ones as well: Lutheran, which came before Calvinism, then the Anglican Church.

Liturgical prayers, particularly during the Holy Communion service, often refer to ‘Abraham, our father in faith’.

None refers to Moses. And Christ’s abolition — fulfilment — of Mosaic Law (ritual, hygienic, ceremonial) is the reason why.

Although other smaller denominations came later, hardly any of these — including piestist-oriented churches — observe Mosaic Law. Those which do, do so in error. Those are not true Christian congregations.

Abraham’s story is one of absolute faith and hope in the Almighty. God asked him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. When God saw Abraham’s faith as he brought Isaac forward, He had confirmation of the man’s belief. Does this occur now? No. However, God works everything to His divine plan. Abraham is a role model for us. God blessed him richly because of his obedience to Him.

Today obedience is a bad word, even when it concerns God our Creator and Father. However, Christians cannot consider themselves as such unless they recognise His sovereignty.

Certainly, Dr Clark would have expressed my thoughts more eloquently.

Suffice it to say that Abraham’s belief was one of hope. He did not see Christ Jesus on Earth. He lived thousands of years before the arrival of the Messiah. Yet, without knowing the detail, he believed in God’s salvific plan which would embrace all of mankind.

This brings us to the everlasting covenant of God’s grace and what Protestants refer to as the solas. As Clark explains:

The chief benefit  of the covenant of grace is righteousness with God and it is by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) which looks to the righteousness of Christ alone (solo Christo). This was true for Abraham and it’s true for believers today. Abraham believed as a gentile and he believed as a Jew. Circumcision did not do anything more or less than signify and seal his faith, i.e. it was visible word or proclamation of the coming obedience and death of Jesus (through the shedding of blood) and a seal or a promise to those who believe that what the gospel offers is really true for them.

Clark goes on to cite the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, specifically chapters 7 – 10 and 13. Essentially:

The comparison and contrast is not between Abraham and the new covenant but between Moses and the new covenant. The covenant that God made with Abraham was a covenant of grace, the covenant he confirmed with the “blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb 13:20).

Therefore, with Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the Cross:

The Mosaic covenant, the old covenant, is, in the language of 2 Cor, fading. According to Hebrews 8:13 it is “obsolete.” These things are not said about Abraham’s faith or the promise of salvation given to and through Abraham.

Thus, the Reformed covenant theology sees the promises and commands given to Abraham as still in force. The typological elements (bloodshed in circumcision) have been fulfilled in Christ but the promises and commands (to initiate children of believers into the visible covenant community) remain. This is why God said through the Apostle Peter, “the promise is to you and to your children….” The promise is the very promise he gave to Abraham: “I will be a God to you and to your children.

I hope that this explains briefly why the Mosaic Covenant is no longer in force for Christians. It was to prepare the Jews for the Messiah’s coming. It had a time limit. Jesus was meant to fulfil it, which He did on what we recognise as Good Friday. He died for our sins, and rose on the third day — Easter Sunday.

Atheists might wish to step back from Dawkins and read the Bible for themselves, along with worthwhile biblically Christian sites as well as solid biblical commentary.

Heidelblog is a good place to start.

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