There used to be an idea, in some church circles when I was growing up, that the Old Testament was a sort of first draft of God’s plan: it laid down a lot of rules and regulations that were frustrating and beside the point. Human beings were unable to follow these laws, and so eventually God had to come up with a better plan for human salvation: Plan B, if you will.
So (according to this story) God sent Jesus to teach us a more excellent way, the way of love. Love God, and love the neighbor as yourself: that was Jesus’ teaching. Supposedly, it was diametrically different from the Old Testament rule book, and superseded it. The rough draft was replaced with the final version of God’s plan. Jesus’ teaching put the human race back on the right track.
That’s how the story went, back in the day. Maybe it’s still popular; it certainly is simple and straightforward. The only problem is, it isn’t strictly true: at least as far as it pits one part of the Bible against another. Jesus’ teaching on love is on target, of course; but here with this teaching he is actually quoting the Old Testament, which turns out to be more than just a book of rules. The story, you see, is much more complicated than Plan A followed by Plan B.
Our reading this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews is a case in point: the two Testaments are closely connected, and both track back to God’s promise. In this short excerpt from the letter, the apostolic author gives us Jesus the great high priest, the mediator between God and humanity; the one through whom sinful human beings draw near to God. A mediator stands in the breech, in the chasm that exists between two parties. Jesus is the one who intercedes for us; he’s our advocate, the one who makes our case to God. As it says in our reading, “For he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).
In describing the work of Christ as priestly work, Hebrews draws on the images of priestly sacrifice found in the Old Testament. The pattern of sacrifice under the Old Covenant is taken up in the priestly work of Jesus Christ, as he offers himself as the true sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. The shedding of the blood of bulls and goats could not cleanse human sinfulness, but the blood of Jesus Christ can. The pattern of sacrifice we find in the Old Testament was “a shadow of the true things to come” but not “the true form of these realities” (Heb. 10:1), as it says in the tenth chapter.
In this sense, God has set aside the old law in order to bring in the new order. There has been a change in the law, as Hebrews says, because with Christ there has been a change in the priesthood (Heb. 7:12). Jesus was not qualified to be a priest under the old law, not being of a priestly family.
But in the psalms of David, which came after the Law of Moses (as our reading points out), God had promised to appoint a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 7:17 & Ps. 110:4). It was part of the plan from the start! God swore an oath, as it says in Psalm 110, and he will not break it; an oath to appoint a priest whose office does not depend upon his priestly lineage. That priest is Jesus Christ.
Now, you might think that this sounds like Plan A followed by Plan B. Out with the old; in with the new. But actually, the new plan is not new at all, as Hebrews reminds us in the sixth chapter, but takes us back to God’s original promise, made to Abraham (Heb. 6:13). That promise, that oath that God swore to Abraham and his family, to give them the land and to make them a nation, is foundational. What God promised under the Old Covenant was fulfilled by the New.
In case you’re wondering, Melchizedek was the gentile king who brought a thank offering to God when Abraham won the victory over his enemies: a story we find in the very beginning, in Genesis. Jesus Christ takes his pattern from Melchizedek, as Hebrews says, and therefore is a priest forever. The pattern of promise was there from the beginning. Like Melchizedek, there is no one before Jesus and no one after him. Jesus has been made perfect forever, through his offering of himself, which brings victory over sin and death.
You see, God was in the promise business long before he began to make rules and regulations. God was playing the long game all along; planning and making a way from the very beginning. No need to make a Plan B. God was laying the groundwork for the cross and resurrection from the start. God swore an oath, as Hebrews reminds us, and he will not break it: an oath whose promise runs from the beginning even to the end.
Jesus lives to make intercession for us, here and now, as we approach this altar to share in his victory over death. Here and now, we share the Body and Blood of our great High Priest, and inherit the promises made long ago. God is faithful to his promise, and he will be faithful to us. Jesus is our priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek, from the beginning until our very own day.