Jesus and the mystery of MelchizedekWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
Melchizedek appears three times in the Bible. First, in the book of Genesis, he shows up for a brief encounter with Abraham and then disappears abruptly from the historical record. Next, in the book of Psalms, he’s mentioned in one of David’s messianic prophecies. Finally, in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, he’s discussed at length in connection with Jesus in his role as eternal high priest of a new and everlasting covenant.
Who was this mysterious figure who popped in and out of the scriptural accounts, and yet was considered by the biblical authors to have a vital connection to the Son of God? A brief survey of his three appearances is sure to shed new light on our appreciation of who Jesus is and what he’s done for us.
King of Salem
After Abram returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him in the Shaveh Valley (that is, the King’s Valley). Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest to God Most High. He blessed him and said: Abram is blessed by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and blessed be God Most High who has handed over your enemies to you. And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:17-20)
Not long after Abraham – still known as Abram at that time – followed God’s calling and settled in Canaan, he was swept up in a local war. The five kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar (city-states near the Dead Sea) had rebelled against Chedorlaomer (Ke-dor-la-OH-mer) king of Elam (modern-day southwest Iran), to whom they were subject. In response, Chedorlaomer and three allied kings from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) went on a circuit of destruction around Canaan to reassert their authority over the region and then routed the five Canaanite kings at the Dead Sea.
As part of their spoils of war, they took captive Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who was living in Sodom at the time, along with his family and all his possessions. Abraham marshalled some of his local associates, pursued and defeated Chedorlaomer and his allies, and rescued all the people and plunder they had taken, including his nephew Lot.
Enter Melchizedek, seemingly out of nowhere. He was the king of Salem, an older name of the Canaanite city-state that would become Jerusalem a thousand years later. He was also a priest of el ‘elyon, or God Most High, a divine name that occurs only a few times in the Scriptures, mostly in the Psalms. Melchizedek met Abraham with bread and wine, blessed him in the name of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, who had granted him victory, and accepted a tenth of the spoils Abraham brought back. Then he vanished from the historical record as abruptly as he had arrived.
Everything about Melchizedek leaps out from the main current of Old Testament history. Although not related to Abraham, he was a priest of Abraham’s God. Although not an ancestor of David, he was the first known ruler of what would become David’s royal city. He combined the offices of priest and king, which the Israelites later kept strictly separate, as per the law God gave Moses. His gift of bread and wine is an evocative pre-echo of the Last Supper. Abraham giving him a tenth of the spoil anticipated the tithe the Israelites would offer to God, centuries later. While scholarly opinions differ, these details hint at the possibility that Melchizedek may have been a theophany, a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Son of God in human history.
This is the declaration of the Lord to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion. Rule over your surrounding enemies. The Lord has sworn an oath and will not take it back: “You are a priest forever according to the pattern of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110: 1-2,4)
Over a millennium after Melchizedek’s mysterious encounter with Abraham, he reappeared in one of the messianic psalms written by King David. These psalms cover a wide spectrum, from subtle allusions about the coming Messiah to specific, detailed prophecies about the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Many of them can be read on two levels, one describing David’s own experience, the other pointing to his messianic descendant.
Psalm 110, however, is unequivocally about the future messianic monarch, descended from David, whose reign would be eternal and universal. He would sit at the right hand of God, who would put down all his enemies and elevate him to the position of ultimate authority and honour. When Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees, he countered them by quoting the first verse of this psalm to drive home the truth of who he was:
Then he said to them, “How can they say that the Messiah is the son of David? For David himself says in the Book of Psalms: The Lord declared to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ David calls him ‘Lord.’ How, then, can he be his son?”
The answer to Jesus’ question was impossible to miss. Far from being a mere mortal descendant of David, Jesus was also the eternal Son of God in human flesh.
A few verses later in the psalm, Melchizedek makes his second appearance in Scripture – and it leaps out of the text just as much as his earlier one in Genesis. The rest of the psalm is about the future Messiah’s role as the ultimate king. But right in the middle comes this startling assertion: God has sworn an eternal oath that his Messiah would also be an eternal priest like Melchizedek. In fact, he would be the first and only individual since Melchizedek to be both priest and king.
Archetype of Jesus
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of God Most High, met Abraham and blessed him as he returned from defeating the kings, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means king of righteousness, then also, king of Salem, meaning king of peace. Without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. (Hebrews 7:1-3)
The overarching theme of the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus is better. He is the Creator of the universe as well as its sustainer and redeemer, and he is the final Word from God, his ultimate revelation to humanity. In every sense, he is infinitely superior to angels, prophets, priests, kings, or anything else in his created order.
The heart of the letter is an extended discussion about Jesus as our great high priest and mediator of a new and better covenant. This is where Melchizedek makes his third and final appearance in the canon of Scripture. In fact, the author mentions him eight times in the span of three chapters, and five of those mentions are direct quotes or allusions to David’s messianic prophecy in Psalm 110: The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
The author of Hebrews sets the stage by driving home the unique, unearthly nature of Melchizedek: First, his name means king of righteousness, then also, king of Salem, meaning king of peace. Without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. (Hebrews 7:2-3)
Next, he illustrates the superiority of Melchizedek to Abraham, in that he received a tenth of the plunder from Abraham and then blessed him, and the lesser is always blessed by the greater. He draws a comparison with the Levitical priesthood, which collected a tenth from the people but also paid a tenth to Melchizedek, through their ancestor Abraham. Moreover, the Levitical priests all die, but according to the author, Melchizedek lives.
All of this may or may not add up to Melchizedek having been a pre-incarnate appearance of the Son of God. But either way, he’s an undeniable archetype of Jesus in all his divine greatness and glory.
Like Melchizedek, Jesus is from outside the line of the Levitical priesthood but is superior to it. Like Melchizedek, Jesus isn’t a priest by physical descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. Like Melchizedek, Jesus combines the offices of priest and king – in fact, they’re the only two people ever to do so, with God’s approval. And like Melchizedek, Jesus is eternal, with no beginning or end of days.
Finally, the author of Hebrews draws his astonishing conclusions. By God’s unchangeable oath, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, is an eternal priest on the pattern of Melchizedek. His priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood, and he is the mediator of a new and superior covenant. The Old Covenant and priesthood were weak, ineffective and temporary. The New Covenant and Jesus’ priesthood are eternal, powerful and perfect.
As followers of Jesus, we think of him often as our Lord, Saviour, brother, friend and King – and so we should. However, we likely think of him less often as our High Priest. Yet when we do, when we allow our minds, hearts and imaginations to meditate on all that means, it can bring us tremendous peace and joy, and it brings him glory and honour. The author of Hebrews offers us an appropriate catalyst for those meditations:
Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them. For this is the kind of high priest we need: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day, as high priests do – first for their own sins, then for those of the people. He did this once for all time when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak, but the promise of the oath, which came after the law, appoints a Son, who has been perfected forever. (Hebrews 7:25-28)
Sources and further reading
Shara Drimalla and BibleProject team, “Abraham, Melchizedek, and Jesus: How a mysterious royal priest points to Jesus,” BibleProject, May 27, 2021.
Moses Y. Lee, “Who Is Melchizedek?” The Gospel Coalition, June 17, 2020.
Mary Oelerich-Meyer, “What Is the order of Melchizedek in the Bible?” Christianity.com, June 28, 2023.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2024 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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