We must prepare our minds to think as mature Christians. The author of Hebrews wanted very much for us to be able to follow his argument here. Without spiritual maturity, grounded in practical obedience, we will not be able to get what he is driving at. When Jesus gave the Great Commission, the thing He said to do was to disciple the nations, baptizing them, and to teach them obedience. He did not say to teach them to spew facts; He said that our task is the inculcation of obedience.
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated “king of righteousness,” and then also king of Salem, meaning “king of peace,” without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils. And indeed those who are of the sons of Levi, who receive the priesthood, have a commandment to receive tithes from the people according to the law, that is, from their brethren, though they have come from the loins of Abraham; but he whose genealogy is not derived from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. Now beyond all contradiction the lesser is blessed by the better. Here mortal men receive tithes, but there he receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives. Even Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham so to speak, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him (Heb. 7:1-10).
We are introduced to an ancient king. In olden time, Melchizedek was a king of Salem (an early name for Jerusalem). He was also a priest of the Most High God. The Hebrew word melek means king, and zedek means righteousness. This enigmatic figure is named in Genesis, and then again in the Psalms. The author of Hebrews shows us that the structure of the sacred text itself is a prophetic type. Without father or mother in the text, without birth or death in the text, without genealogy in the text, he provides a great picture of the Son of God. We know that he was not a theophany, an Old Testament appearance of Christ, because he is compared to Christ (“like the Son of God,” v. 3), and because Jesus Christ became a Melchizedekan priest (6:20).
We learn something here about authority and submission. The argument here is that Melchizedek is much greater than Abraham — even though Abraham had the promises. This is seen in the fact that Melchizedek blessed Abraham (and the greater always blesses the lesser), and in the fact that Abraham tithed to Melchizedek. Not only was this so, but Abraham’s descendants, still in his loins by federal representation, were represented in that tithe. This means the Levitical priesthood is less than the Melchizedekan priesthood. And remember the point of this letter. The point is the greatness of Christ’s person and office, indeed the supremacy of His person and office.
Notice that Melchizedek delivered his blessing immediately after Abraham, a great man of war, slaughtered some very grievous enemies of righteousness. Abraham pursued Chedolaomer and destroyed him, because he had taken Lot captive. Abraham was met by Melchizedek and the king of Sodom. Abraham gave a tenth of the spoil to Melchizedek and refused to keep the remainder — that he returned to the king of Sodom. Abraham was a military man, and he honored the Lord with the spoils of his victory.
This exchange predates the incorporation of the tithe into the Mosaic code. In this respect it is like the Sabbath, or circumcision. These things were not part of the Mosaic code only. This indicates that the tithe is grounded in the way things are, and is not just an administrative detail. We still observe the sabbath in the Lord’s Day (Heb. 4:10), and we still observe circumcision through baptism (Col. 2:11). The difference is that the tithe is still honored in the same manner that is was before — ten percent is still ten percent. We do not mind it when God demonstrates His greatness by blessing us. We do mind (sinfully) having to declare His greatness ourselves through the tithe. But the two go together. Nothing in the New Testament indicates that the practice of tithing is set aside, any more than our inferiority and Christ’s greatness is set aside. If the relation still stands, why not this biblical way of declaring the relation? We do not give ten percent as a way of showing that ninety percent remains “ours.” Rather, just as we observe the Lord’s Day, so we render the tithe. We set one day out of seven apart, not because the remaining six belong to us, but rather as a way of rendering the firstfruits. We are declaring, by offering one, that the other six are His as well. We offer ten percent as a ritual signification that one hundred percent is the Lord’s. We do not pay the money because we have extra and God is always a little short. We offer Him tribute. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. All we have and are belongs to Him. We tend to forget this, to our dismay and sorrow, and so God has instituted this little reminder. Ten percent, and off the top.
The Bible teaches that the “Levitical office” continues in some form under the New Covenant. “‘And I will also take some of them for priests and Levites,’ says the Lord” (Is. 66:21). In the New Covenant, priests and Levites (ministers) are taken now from among the Gentiles. One of the features that carries over to support the work of levitical Gentiles is this one: “Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:13-14). The “even so” here is houto kai — even thus, or idiomatically in the same way. Those who minister under the New Covenant are to receive their living in the same way as did the Levites in the Old. What was that “way?” It was the tithe.
All the financial embarrassments which afflict the church of Christ can be traced back to this. We do not declare the supremacy of Christ in this fundamental way. We will lay anything at His feet conceptually — except for our hidden idol. Tithing is one of the few ways to really mortify the idol of consumerism and materialism that genuinely afflicts Christians in the West today. Talk about the Lordship of Jesus, the supremacy of Jesus, without honoring Him with the firstfruits of your labor, is just that, talk. Abraham demonstrated the supremacy of Melchizedek, and he did not do this by asking Melchizedek into his heart. He did not do it by developing a “personal relationship” with Melchizedek.