Who was Melchizedek?

In Genesis 14, Abram returns from rescuing Lot in battle and is met by a man called Melchizedek. We are told that he is both the king of Salem (Jerusalem) and a priest of God most high. Melchizedek provides food for Abram, blesses him and blesses God. Abram gives him 10% of the spoils.

Take this account on its own and what would you conclude? I would suggest the following key things.

  1. I would contrast Abram’s relationship to Melchizedek with his relationship to the King of Sodom whom he has recused as part of the action to save Lot but who he wants nothing to do with.
  2. I would be intrigued by Melchizedek’s existence which I think might shed new light on how we think about Abram’s call to the promised land. We tend to think of him as a lone ranger, the sole servant of the living God. Yet, the evidence is that God had other followers and at least one of them lived in the land and was aware of the need for priests and sacrifices. God links the two up.
  3. I would also be challenged by how you could have someone serving the true and living God and yet when the people of Israel return to the land under Joshua, the evidence is that the people of Jerusalem had no heritage as God-fearers.

However, we don’t leave things there because the New Testament sheds some further light on the story in Hebrews 7. The result of reading Hebrews 7 has been a lot of speculation. Melchizedek has gone from being a seemingly minor character to someone quite central and now he seems to be a bit of a mystery. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Melchizedek was actually the pre-incarnate Christ.

It is important that we pause and look at what Hebrews tells us about Melchizedek. There we are told that

  1. He is King and High Priest but with the added emphasis that the names involved make him the King of righteousness and peace.
  2. That he has no recorded parents/ancestors or descendants
  3. That this means that he is a priest forever.

It’s on that basis that some have concluded that he is the eternal Son of God.  There’s only one problem with that. This is not something that the writer of the Hebrews is willing to do. He is careful to tell us that the two are alike/similar but he does not claim that they are the same.

So what is going on here?  Well, let’s try an experiment.  I am going to describe someone to you. They are a king and a high priest. They bring justice/righteousness and peace. They are worthy of the loyalty and praise of God’s people. Even Abraham the great ancestor of Israel must bow down before them. By the way they have fed God’s people with bread and wine. Who is this?  Your first and instinctive answer is going to be “That sounds like Jesus.”

That’s how a type works. Look once and you see just one person in history, look again and it looks like you are seeing Jesus, look again and it’s just the person. Yet there is something incredible about the way that the narrative has been written about them which seems designed to focus you in on the life, death, resurrection and eternal reign of Christ. That’s what happens here. The writer to the Hebrews looks and says “Isn’t it amazing how the story has been told. Look at his names, look at his family tree (or absence thereof) look at how he relates to Abram. Does that remind you of anyone?”

The writer picks up on little (by themselves incidental) details and uses them to trigger our thought processes and open our spiritual eyes.  Is he saying that Melchizedek didn’t actually have a physical mother and father?  I don’t think he is -and actually the presence of physical mother isn’t necessarily that big a deal in Christology is it? However, isn’t it incredible that Moses when he writes this account chooses to talk about a follower of the living God without telling us anything about his family tree. This is especially true when you think about his priestly role. For the Levitical priests, lineage mattered because it was through their ancestry back to Aaron and back again to Levi that their authority and their permission to serve functioned. Family Trees were important for the priests and also for Moses, Genesis is structured around and punctuated by the family trees (the generations of) God’s people. This was not so with Melchizedek, he doesn’t receive his authority to serve as priest from another. The literary narrative does not present it as something passed on to him. Melchizedek’s authority to serve as priest seems to be something that is integral to who he is.  That’s the sense in which his priesthood is eternal. It isn’t a baton that he has picked up from someone else.[1]

This is important because it gets us thinking about context. Why does the writer bring up Melchizedek’s story? What is the point they are trying to make? It’s not a point about Jesus showing up in pre-incarnate forms, as interesting as that might be. Rather, the writer is drawing a sharper and radical contrast between Jesus as our High Priest and the Levitical priesthood. That priesthood was based on linage and passed from generation to generation. A new priest stepped p to their role when the old priest died.  This is the point the writer is making:

“20 This new system was established with a solemn oath. Aaron’s descendants became priests without such an oath, 21 but there was an oath regarding Jesus. For God said to him,

‘The Lord has taken an oath and will not break his vow:
You are a priest forever.’[d]

22 Because of this oath, Jesus is the one who guarantees this better covenant with God.

23 There were many priests under the old system, for death prevented them from remaining in office. 24 But because Jesus lives forever, his priesthood lasts forever. 25 Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save[e] those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf.”[2]

The writer wants to show us how different Jesus is from the Levitical priests because he is not limited by sin and death. He is an eternal High Priest and so in him we find forgiveness, security and hope.  We are not meant to play guess games about Melchizedek’s secret identity. We are meant to get a deeper, richer insight into who Jesus is. We are not meant to go chasing back to SOLVE Old Testament riddles, we are meant to be encouraged to dwell in the time of the New Creation finding life in the new King of Righteousness and Prince of Peace.

Now, how important is this?  Well, we can get dragged off into obscure discussions and so I don’t think this is something to lose sleep over. However, I think this is important for two reasons.

  1. First of all because I think it reminds us to look carefully at what the New Testament writers are saying. It’s important that we don’t get diverted from the point they are making.
  2. Secondly because asking these questions encourages us to pause, ponder and meditate on Scripture. The Gospel is simple and straight forward. We must not over complicate it. At the same time, it is deep and rich. We aren’t just to read the Bible in order to get a basic a-b-c of conversion of 5 lessons for practical living in the week ahead from it. Rather, we are to plunge in and enjoy its depth and richness as we mediate on it.

 

[1] On this see also FF Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (NICNT), 159-160.

[2] Hebrews 7:20-25.

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