What’s the significance of Melchizedek in Hebrews 6–7?

by | Dec 19, 2022 | Ask the Pastors

QUESTION

In Hebrews 6:19–7:3 (though really the whole of Chapter 7), a comparison is made between Melchizedek and “the Son of God” in that “he remains a priest perpetually.” First, I am ignorant of who exactly Melchizedek is in the Old Testament. Also, I would like to know more about the significance of the comparison between Melchizedek and Jesus. It seems like there is so much significance in this passage and my brain is only kind of scratching the surface.

ANSWER

Wonderful question. The author of Hebrews obviously wants his readers to understand that this connection between Jesus and Melchizedek is very significant. And you’re right that the significance has many layers!

Mysterious Melchizedek

Historically speaking, there really isn’t much to know about Melchizedek. He only shows up in one very brief episode in Genesis 14, just after Abram defeats Chedorlaomer king of Elam and the alliance of other kings who had captured Abram’s nephew Lot. Melchizedek appears and does three things:

  1. He dishes out bread and wine (v. 18). (Sound familiar?)
  2. He pronounces a blessing on Abram (vv. 19–20), the faithful father of all God’s covenant people.
  3. He receives a tithe from Abram (likely a tithe of everything Abram owned) (v. 20).

Then, as quickly as he arrives on the scene, Melchizedek disappears without a trace.

We may find it disappointing that we don’t get more information about this mysterious man, but the mystery surrounding him is actually part of the point. Hebrews 7:3 tells us that he is “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually.” This could mean that Melchizedek had some sort of supernatural origin, and perhaps that he literally bypassed death like Enoch or Elijah. However, I find it more likely that God intentionally concealed information about Melchizedek’s lineage so that he would appear to us as having no origin and would thus stand as a type of Christ the Son of God in the Old Testament. Here’s how John Calvin puts it:

For since the Scripture, by assigning no end to his life, leaves him as if he were to survive through all ages; it certainly represents or shadows forth to us, in his person, a figure, not of a temporal, but of an eternal kingdom. (Comments on Genesis 14:18)

We could speculate about whether or not Melchizedek really had parents, and about whether or not he died, but those questions are beside the point. The fact that he is presented to us in God’s Word as having no traceable lineage is in itself enough for him to prefigure Christ’s supernatural origin. And God’s withholding any record of Melchizedek’s death typifies for us the Son of God’s eternal existence and power over death.

Psalm 110 and the Priestly Messiah

Melchizedek is only mentioned in one other Old Testament passage: Psalm 110. This messianic psalm carries much significance in the New Testament, especially in demonstrating that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah, Anointed One). Jesus Himself quotes Psalm 110 (v. 1) when He challenges the scribes and Pharisees with this question:

How is it that they say the Christ is David’s son? For David himself says in the book of Psalms,

“The LORD [Yahweh] said to my Lord [Adonai],

‘Sit at My right hand,

Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’”

Therefore David calls Him “Lord,” and how is He his son? (Luke 20:41–44)

(The answer is that Jesus is the Christ: the promised Son of David who came after him, as well as the promised Son of God who existed eternally before him.)

It’s this same psalm which is cited in Hebrews 7:17, 21:

The LORD has sworn and will not change His mind,

“You are a priest forever

According to the order of Melchizedek.”

(Psalm 110:4)

What does it mean for Jesus to be “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”?

Melchizedek as Priest

If we go back to Genesis 14:18, we see that Melchizedek was “a priest of God Most High.” This is significant because it is the very first place in the entire Bible where the word “priest” (Hebrew kōhēn) occurs. In other words, Melchizedek’s priesthood is the first formal priesthood we are made aware of in all of Scripture’s accounting of human history. In particular, it’s a priesthood which far predated God’s establishment of the priestly tribe of Levi for the nation of Israel, which is what the author of Hebrews focuses on.

As God’s apostles began to proclaim that Jesus was a “great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14), the natural question from the Jews would have been: How could Jesus be a priest? “For it is evident that our Lord [Jesus] was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests” (Hebrews 7:14). Every Jew knew priests were supposed to come from the tribe of Levi.

The answer is that Jesus is of a priesthood which transcends the priesthood of Levi, a priesthood which existed long before Levi was born. This teaches us that the levitical priesthood was never intended by God to be an ultimate priesthood. In truth, it existed to point to an even greater priesthood, one that lasts forever. And when Jesus came and fulfilled His superior priestly calling by sacrificing Himself for the sins of His people, the levitical priesthood faded away and became unnecessary.

Abraham, the ancestor of Levi, demonstrated his allegiance to this superior priesthood when he paid a tithe to Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews even claims that Levi, in a manner of speaking, paid tithes to this great high priest while he was still in the loins of his forefather Abraham. And thus even Levi—who was designated by God to receive tithes under the Mosaic law—paid tithes to demonstrate the preeminence of a greater priesthood: the priesthood of the Christ as prefigured in Melchizedek.

So preeminent was Melchizedek’s priesthood that he himself is considered “greater” than Abraham. The author of Hebrews argues for this comparative greatness by highlighting the fact that Melchizedek was the one who bestowed a blessing upon Abraham, not the other way around (Hebrews 7:7). This is amazing if we think about it. Greater than Abraham? How is that possible? It’s hard to imagine someone “greater” in the Old Testament than Abraham, the “friend of God” (James 2:23), the one who himself was set apart by God to be a blessing to the nations. And yet, Hebrews teaches us that Abraham recognized his own subjection to one greater than he was, and thus he made an offering to the priest of God Most High. And in doing so, he testified to the truth of Jesus’ seemingly paradoxical statement of His own eternal greatness: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). (Even as Jesus is both David’s son and David’s Lord, He is both Abraham’s descendant and Abraham’s Lord.)

When we’re told that Jesus is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, we’re not to understand that Melchizedek is the head of a priestly line that has been handed down to Jesus in some way that makes Jesus subordinate to Melchizedek. No, even Melchizedek’s priesthood was a shadow of Christ’s perfect eternal priesthood. (Unless, of course, Melchizedek was—as some theologians would suggest—a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ Himself; but that’s a topic for another day. 😄)

Melchizedek as King

Hebrews 7:2 tells us that Melchizedek means “king of righteousness.” This is because the name is literally a combination of two Hebrew words: meleḵ, which means “king,” and ṣeḏeq, which means “justice, rightness, righteousness.” Furthermore, as he is identified in Genesis as the “king of Salem,” and Salem comes from the Hebrew word for peace, we are told that he is the “king of peace.” It is generally accepted that there is some connection between this place Salem and what would become the city of Jerusalem, which further intensifies Melchizedek’s foreshadowing of Christ who Himself would ride into Jerusalem as its coming King.

In Melchizedek, we have a glorious joining of the offices of priest and king, something that would wait hundreds of years to reach its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Priest-King who redeems His people and reigns over all things. Through Melchizedek God reveals Himself and a shadow of His plan to His friend Abraham, and through Melchizedek God gives us a glimpse of the riches of His kindness and wisdom in sending Jesus Christ to be our Great High Priest.

Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. (Hebrews 8:1–2)

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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