Melchizedek only appears briefly in Genesis 14, and yet this priest earns a role in the hall of faith in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament often compares Melchizedek, the king of Salem (in some translations, Sodom) and priest of God Most High, with Jesus.
Melchizedek appears on the scene after Abraham has defeated five kings. He declares a blessing on Abraham, and then Abraham gives him 1/10th of everything he owns.
As is the case with many seemingly minor details or characters in the Bible, each plays an important role in God’s redemptive story. In this article, we’ll discover more about this priest-king that Abraham (Abram at the time) encounters in Genesis 14.
Then we’ll discuss the meaning of Melchizedek’s name, what he did as a priest, and why the New Testament compares him with Jesus.
Let’s dive in!
Who Was Melchizedek?
As mentioned previously, Melchizedek is the king of Salem and a priest of God. Let’s break down those roles first before we dive further into the personhood of Melchizedek.
King of Salem, a place later supposedly known as Jerusalem, meant that he hailed from a land that would have significance in Israel’s later history.
As for his priestly role, we’ll dive into that more in the section below. We should make a careful note that he serves bread and wine. For those of us familiar with the act of communion, this should sound familiar.
We also have no idea about Melchizedek’s lineage (Hebrews 7). The Bible makes no mention of whose family he belongs, only because he appears for a few verses. Some rabbinic teachings say Melchizedek was Noah’s son Shem. Others have said Melchizedek appeared to Abram in a Christophany, or as the Son of God mentioned throughout the Old and New Testament.
Although scholars have highly debated his true personhood, most, like Matthew Henry in his commentary, have concluded that he was, in fact, a man and not the Son of God.
What Does the Name "Melchizedek" Mean?
Melchizedek, or in some translations Malki-Tzedek, literally means “my king.” Because the tzedek means “righteous” or “just,” many scholars have wrongly translated his name to mean just king or righteous king, writes John J. Parsons. Salem also derives from the term Shalom, which means peace. Perhaps his name had also meant King of Peace. Hebrews 7 confirms both of these names.
No wonder so many scholars have debated about the possible divine status of Melchizedek as the Son of God – because it seems odd that a mere human would ever have a name that means “king of righteousness,” as indicated in Hebrews 7.
In either case, Melchizedek’s name points to his kinghood.
What Did Melchizedek Do?
We don’t get a lot of hints in Scripture about the specifics of what Melchizedek does in his role as a priestly king. He does break out the bread and wine sacrament and offers a blessing to Abraham in the name of God.
To answer this question, we’ll have to look to the role of priests in the Old Testament and know that the roles may slightly differ. After all, the priesthood doesn’t really come until the time of Aaron, Moses’ brother, in Exodus.
Priests in the Bible would serve as mediators between the people and God (we’ll discuss this more in the high priest section below). They administered sacrifices, especially during important holidays throughout the year, such as Passover, and were divided in twenty-four different sub-types (1 Chronicles 24:7-18). They ministered in both the temple and in the cities in which they were assigned. They also specifically came from the tribe of Levi.
We should make note that Melchizedek appears again in Psalm 110:4. This verse makes it clear that the order of the priesthood of Melchizedek has an eternal value.
Unlike the priesthood of Aaron which ran into many roadblocks and happened on and off, Melchizedek’s priesthood lasts forever.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/mbolina
What Is a "High Priest"?
In the Bible, we do have a distinction between the priests and the high priest. The priests may range in their duties from taking care of the sacrificial lambs and maintaining the temple, but the high priest had the enormous task as serving as a mediator between the people and God once during the year.
On the Day of Atonement (Exodus 28), the high priest would enter the most sacred spot in the Temple (or Tabernacle, depending on the Old Testament timeline). He had a rope with bells attached to him, so those outside the holy of holies would know that God had not struck him dead from the sound. He would sprinkle the sacrifice for the people and himself on the holy seat (the ark of the covenant).
Scripture doesn’t offer any evidence that Melchizedek does this particular priestly duty. After all, the priesthood of Aaron existed long after his time. But we should make note that he does serve as a mediator between Abraham and God, as other priests do in Scripture.
And if Jesus does hail from the order of Melchizedek, we do know that a certain sacrifice Jesus did on earth (his crucifixion) tore the curtain to the holy of holies in half and atoned for our sins.
Why Is Jesus "of the Order of Melchizedek"?
Throughout the Old Testament, we do see certain archetypes to Jesus (Adam, David, etc.), but often they don’t receive half a chapter in the Bible dedicated to them. So why does this matter?
First, this shows that Jesus takes part in a greater priesthood than Aaron. The priesthood of the Levites was fraught with idolatry, abuse, and didn’t last forever. But the priesthood of Melchizedek has an eternal value – it lasts no matter what happens.
Second, the Bible highlights the importance of Jesus’ role as priest. We don’t often discuss this role as much in churches because most of us don’t have a familiarity with priests, as opposed to kings or even shepherds, other titles given to Jesus. But Jesus’ priestly role plays a huge part in the biblical narrative.
Like priests, Jesus mediates for us. He completed the ultimate sacrifice to atone for our sins.
Pointing to a Greater Priesthood
A great deal of debate has happened over a handful of verses about a man who lived thousands of years ago. The enigmatic figure of Melchizedek seems to last longer than Aaron’s priesthood, which spans entire books of the Bible.
We should care about this as Christians because no detail is too small in Scripture, and Melchizedek proves this. As an archetype of Jesus, he points us to a greater priesthood that will last eternally.
He also exemplifies kingly humility by declaring a blessing over Abraham and acknowledging God’s almighty power.
Like the Levitical priests and the high priest, Melchizedek acts as a mediator between the people and God. And we later see this same role played out in the New Testament in a different way through Jesus.
Jesus, who hails from the order of Melchizedek, plays the ultimate high priestly role and atones for our sins, allowing the people to come face to face with God, as opposed to via one man, once a year.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/fizkes
Hope Bolinger is an editor at Salem, a multi-published novelist, and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,100 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy is out with IlluminateYA. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in November of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.