One of the arguments put forward by those who wish to find the divinity of Jesus under every stone is that as a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:17) Jesus must have been both God and man. This is a misunderstanding of the argument in Hebrews, and I want to set out briefly why I think this is the case. There is a lot more in the discussion that I would like to pick up on, particularly cherylu’s helpful contribution, but there’s an Eagles concert to go to tonight at the Dubai Rugby Sevens ground, and we’re off camping in the desert south of the Liwa Oasis tomorrow. From the ridiculous to the sublime.
1. Nowhere in the Bible is a priest identified with God. It’s not part of the job description. In fact, it’s part of the job description that a priest should be thoroughly human (Heb. 5:1-3).
2. Jesus qualifies for priesthood by virtue of his suffering on behalf of his “brothers”, that is, on behalf of suffering Israel (there is no reference to the nations in this argument). When it is said that it was necessary for him to “become like his brothers in every respect” (Heb. 1:17), the point is not that he had to become human but that he had to suffer (2:18); he was tested in just the same way that the recipients of the letter had been tested—that is, by persecution—but without sin, without disobedience, without backsliding (Heb. 4:15). Jesus was “designated” a high priest by God because he “learned obedience through what he suffered” and was “made perfect” (Heb. 5:8-10). That makes no sense at all if Jesus, as some sort of eternal high priest, was already God.
2. Jesus becomes a priest through the power of the resurrection, by the power of an “endless life” (Heb. 7:16). He was appointed as high priest (Heb. 5:5). He was not a high priest before his death and resurrection, so no claims can be made on the basis of this analogy regarding his preexistence. That Jesus would live forever is part of the argument; that he had already lived forever is not. As a human priest after the order of Melchizedek, raised from the dead, Jesus has gone ahead as a “forerunner” on behalf of those who will also suffer and be vindicated for his sake (6:19-20).
3. The reference to Psalm 110:4 indicates that the point of the argument is that Israel’s eschatological king, from the line of Judah, was also legitimately a high priest who could make propitiation for the sins of the people, following the failure of the Levitical priesthood (Heb. 7:11). The Jewish polemical background is obvious. Melchizedek was both a king and a priest, who predated the Levitical priesthood, and who set the precedent for the new conjunction of the two human roles in Jesus. John Doyle also has some good comments on the significance of Melchizedek in the argument of Hebrews. Divinity doesn’t come into it.
3. In Hebrews 7:3 we have this description of Melchizedek:
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.
Melchizedek is a “type” of Jesus here only in one respect: he continues as a priest forever, which is an element in the convergence of the priestly and royal themes. The other statements made are not part of the typology or analogy—clearly not, since Jesus had a mother and a genealogy, in fact, two genealogies. You can’t have a genealogy and be eternal. So the writer is not saying here that Jesus was also without beginning of days. This cannot be used as an argument for the divinity or preexistence of Jesus.
4. The strongest case for the preexistence of Jesus in the New Testament, in my view, is probably to be made on the basis of statements which connect him with the original act of creation (eg. Col. 1:16). The fact that the argument with regard to Melchizedek and the nature of priesthood is exegetically and theologically is flawed does not mean that the case cannot be made on other grounds.