It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. Here tithes are received by mortal men; there, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who received tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the Law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. This becomes even more evident when another priest rises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him, “Thou art a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
Hebrews 7: 7-17 (Epistle of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple)
On February 2, the Church celebrates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple when He was forty days old. In the Epistle of the Presentation of Christ, we are introduced to several figures of the Old Testament. In verse 9, we are introduced to Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who was the grandson of Abraham.
It was Abraham who in Genesis 14 is visited by a mysterious figure named “Melchizedek,” whose name is also mentioned in Hebrews 7. We do not know the origins of Melchizedek, nor do we know what happens to him after this encounter with Abraham. Melchizedek is identified as “priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14: 18) and that he greets Abraham with bread and wine, which prefigures the Eucharist. He blessed Abraham (then known as Abram) with the words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (14:19-20) And in return, Abraham offers Melchizedek a tithe (ten percent) of everything he had, the measure of stewardship reserved for God.
Abraham’s grandson was Jacob, who had twelve sons, the Twelve Tribes of Israel. When God gave Moses the Law, God established the order of the priesthood through Aaron, the brother of Moses, who was a descendant of the tribe of Levi. Thus, all the priests were Levites. The book of Leviticus is like a handbook for these priests, a guidebook of how they would do their priestly duties and the expectations that the children of Israel had to fulfill.
Because the concept of the “tithe” was established by Abraham, Levi was giving tithes because of Abraham. The house of Levi, who were the priests, were receiving tithes from the people of Israel, and they themselves were offering tithes to God as well.
The priesthood of Levi had a defined beginning. It was created by God after the Israelites had left Egypt and after Moses had received the Ten Commandments. The priesthood of Melchizedek, on the other hand, has no beginning, just as God has no beginning. Thus, the priesthood of Melchizedek is superior to the priesthood of Levi.
We celebrate the feast of the Incarnation of Christ at the Nativity, on December 25. Forty days later, His parents, Mary and Joseph, brought Jesus to the temple to do for Him what the Law required. Jesus was going to follow the Law, not abolish it, but He also was going to supersede the Law, He was not going to be a slave to it. Because the Old Testament Law, and the Levitical priesthood had both positives and negatives. The positive was that the Law brought order and direction to the people. The negative was that the Law was oppressive to the people. They were struggling to worship the tenets of the Law, and love was suppressed by order.
Jesus told us not to throw out order but to lead with love. This Epistle is read on the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple to remind us that Christ was not a descendant of Levi, but is identified with Melchizedek, the mysterious high priest who visited Abraham in Genesis. Melchizedek, now synonymous with Christ, is uncreated, immortal and sinless. The priesthood of Levi was created, manned by mortals, and therefore not sinless.
And while Jesus was following the Law, in coming for His forty-day blessing, as St. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Hebrews, the priesthood of Melchizedek is superior to the priesthood of Levi, and when there is “a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” (Hebrews 7:12) Christ came to earth to inaugurate a new priesthood, the priesthood of Melchizedek, as well as to change the Law, so that love would lead in all things, and by example, He would offer His own self for us out of love for us. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is His first public appearance, signified a change was about to happen.
Saint Paul writes that “if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the Law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?” (7:11) The Old Testament Law and the priesthood of Levi, while foundational to Christianity, were incomplete. (It is, however, important to note that the Old Testament is foundational to the New Testament and thus should not be totally excluded in our study of Scripture). The Old Testament is like the foundation of a building, which, sitting alone, is just a slab of cement. It is the New Testament that completes the building, so to speak, and this is done through the person of Jesus Christ, presented in the temple on this feast to fulfill the Law, who will come later and supersede it.
As we read in John 1:17, “The Law came through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” With the Presentation of Christ in the temple, that change began, though people at the time did not recognize what was going on.
You sanctified the virginal womb by Your birth, O Lord, and bless the hands of Symeon fittingly, O Christ God; and even now You came and saved us. Now, give peace to our Nation in time of war, and empower our Leaders, so loved by You, the only one who loves humanity. (Kontakion, Presentation of Christ, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim)
Follow the Law (live a moral life) but lead with love!