Whatever else we might say about the original audience of Hebrews, it seems clear that they understood their need for a priest. Surely, the author of Hebrews spends so much time in chapters 7–10 explaining the high priesthood of Christ in part because his first readers knew that they needed a priest and a sacrifice of atonement and were doubting that the new covenant in Christ could provide that.
The old covenant religious system revolved around the tabernacle, temple, and priesthood, and rightly so, because sinners cannot approach the holy God safely if the blood of a substitute does not cover their sin (Lev. 1; 3–4; Heb. 9:22). Levi, the great-grandson of Abraham, and the tribe named after him provided the priests under the old covenant (Deut. 18:1). Yet as great as this priesthood was, there is one far greater, the priesthood of Melchizedek. And long before Jesus became the High Priest in the Melchizedekian priesthood, it was greater than the Levitical priesthood, as today’s passage argues.
Looking to Genesis 14:17–24, the author of Hebrews reminds us that after Abraham rescued Lot from a confederation of Canaanite kings, the priest Melchizedek came out to meet the patriarch, receiving tithes from him and blessing him. Similarly, the Levitical priests received tithes from the Israelites and blessed them (Num. 6:22–27; 18:21). Yet, this priesthood is inferior to the Melchizedekian priesthood, for Melchizedek is greater than Abraham and therefore greater than his grandson Levi. John Calvin comments, “Abraham was he with whom God was pleased to make the covenant of salvation; though, then, he was superior to all others, yet he was surpassed by Melchizedek.”
Melchizedek is greater than Abraham first of all because Melchizedek is the one who does the blessing (Heb. 7:4–8). Abraham proves his inferiority to Melchizedek in that he pays tithes to that king of Salem. After all, a tithe is paid to one greater, to one who has the authority to demand and receive payment. But the author of Hebrews goes further to argue that we can say Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek through Abraham, for as a descendant of Abraham, Levi was present in his great-grandfather when he gave his tithe (vv. 9–10). To put it another way, in blessing Abraham, Melchizedek blessed Levi, and in receiving tithes from Abraham, Melchizedek received tithes from Levi. Thus, Melchizedek and his priesthood must be greater than the Levitical priesthood.