Melchizedek the King-Priest
Main Idea: The great king and priest Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, the greatest of the Jewish patriarchs, and is thus greater than the priesthood derived from the tribe of Levi.
- Melchizedek and Abraham (7:1-4)
- Melchizedek, the king-priest of God Most High
- Melchizedek, the king-priest who blesses
- Melchizedek, the king-priest who endures
- Melchizedek, the king-priest who receives
- Melchizedek and Levi (7:5-10)
Scripture is overflowing with names. Some of these names—like Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, David, and Daniel—resonate with most Christians because of their significance in the biblical storyline. In fact, many of these names are even recognizable to a number of non-Christians. Names like Sarah, Rachel, Mary, and Martha still connect with us because of the roles these figures played in salvation history. Some figures in biblical history are less familiar to us. For instance, Phinehas is not a name that sticks out to us in the Bible. Even those who study the Old Testament might easily forget about his small but important episode in Numbers 25.
As we consider names, certain biblical characters cannot be overlooked. Certain individuals in the biblical storyline play key roles in redemptive history. We must recognize and appreciate who they are in order to understand how Scripture unfolds salvation and leads us to the gospel. For example, we cannot fail to speak of Abraham, Moses, and David and the part these men played in bringing about the new covenant. In order to have a tighter grasp on the realities of the gospel, we need to know some names more than others.
If not for the book of Hebrews, the name Melchizedek might be left off the list of those we really need to know. As we saw in Hebrews 5, the author develops the priestly identity of Jesus by describing him as a great high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Hebrews 7 unpacks the great significance behind what it means for Jesus to be a great high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. The first mention of Melchizedek occurs in Genesis 14, when Moses describes Abram’s encounter with the man. Hebrews does not merely reference this encounter; it draws deep theological comparisons between Melchizedek and Jesus that inform how we understand Christ’s identity as our great high priest. In other words, in order to understand who Jesus is more fully, we must understand who Melchizedek is. Melchizedek is a name we really need to know.
Melchizedek and Abraham
The author of Hebrews uses the first few verses of the chapter to give important details about the identity and significance of Melchizedek for Christians.
Melchizedek, the King-Priest of God Most High
These verses begin with a description of the historical Melchizedek from Genesis 14. He is identified as a king over the region of Salem and as priest of “God Most High.” Surprisingly, he has a coalesced ministry as a king and priest, which sets him apart from any other priest or king in Israel. While Melchizedek’s kingship is important, the author primarily develops the significance of Melchizedek’s priesthood and how it relates to Jesus.
Outside of Jesus and Melchizedek, Scripture identifies no one as both a king and priest. In fact, Israel markedly differentiated the roles of king and priest. No priest in the Old Testament could lawfully act as a king, and no king in the Old Testament could lawfully act as a priest. The opening verses of Isaiah 6 allude to this divide: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (Isa 6:1). King Uzziah died in disrepute because he defied God’s law by acting as a priest. As a consequence, God struck him with leprosy and cut him off from his people (2 Chr 26:16-21). Thus, the death of Uzziah demonstrates the divinely designed divide between the king and the priest in Israel. Yet Hebrews 7:1 tells us Melchizedek is the king of Salem and also priest of the Most High God. Shockingly, he is even from outside the tribe of Israel. This is an interesting character indeed.
The ancient pagan world had a plethora of different gods. The technical word for how the ancient Near East viewed this plurality of deities is not polytheism, but henotheism. Henotheism taught a hierarchy of gods; some were mid-range deities and others were high deities. Egyptians, Persians, and Sumerians ranked their deities according to this hierarchical pattern. Melchizedek’s priesthood and worship of God Most High—a name God uses for himself—contrasts the typical priesthood and worship of the adherents of these ancient Near Eastern gods. Apologetically, asserting Melchizedek as a priest of God Most High makes a remarkable statement about the superiority of God, especially to a Jewish readership.
Melchizedek, the King-Priest Who Blesses
Hebrews 7:1 also recounts the meeting of Abram and Melchizedek. The context of Melchizedek’s encounter with Abram, later called Abraham, is the termination of a war:
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. (Gen 14:17-20)
After his victory over these kings, Abram, accompanied by Lot and his men of war, meets Melchizedek. Genesis tells us that the king of Sodom came out to negotiate with Abram, but that Melchizedek, king of Salem, came out to bless him with bread and wine.
Melchizedek’s blessing of the patriarch is critical to the connection the author finds between Melchizedek and Christ. The coming verses teach that the greater one always blesses the lesser one. Thus, the fact that Melchizedek blesses Abraham, the head of the old covenant, is astounding. Is there a name in the Old Testament more exalted than Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel? Surely not! Yet Genesis 14 and the author of Hebrews show Melchizedek, a non-Israelite king, as a superior blessing an “inferior.” During this triumphant moment of military victory in which Abram has functioned as the kinsman redeemer for Lot, this king of Salem blesses him. The situation presents Melchizedek, as the one doing the blessing, as the greater of the two figures.
In response to the blessing, Abram offers Melchizedek “a tenth of everything.” Such a response is loaded with meaning, but the writer of Hebrews does not fully unpack the idea until later. What the author does tell us is the meaning of Melchizedek’s name: “king of righteousness.” The meaning of names meant more in Melchizedek’s day than in our own. Although Melchizedek may seem like a strange name to us, those familiar with the Semitic language could hear the word for king (mlk) and the word for righteousness (zdk) as the constituent parts of his name. Thus, Melchizedek’s name points to the fact that he is a righteous king. The writer of Hebrews also indicates that to say Melchizedek was the king of Salem was to say Melchizedek was the king of peace. In other words, Melchizedek’s kingdom aligns with the realm of peace.
Melchizedek, the King-Priest Who Endures
It is possible to conclude from verse 3 that Melchizedek was somehow immortal. A closer reading of this text, however, reveals that the eternality of Melchizedek’s personhood is not the subject of this verse. At issue is Melchizedek’s priesthood. Melchizedek was not a priest because his father was a priest, nor was he a priest who had successors. By providing this familial background, the author is trying to communicate the unprecedented nature of Melchizedek’s priesthood. Melchizedek is a priest of God Most High by divine ordination. Melchizedek enters into the Genesis story as if he has no mother, no father, and no sons. This kind of priesthood stands in stark contrast with the priesthood of Israel, which was entirely based on Levitical familial descent. The contrast will be highlighted for us in a later verse, but the author is using this verse to enforce that Melchizedek’s priesthood had nothing to do with ancestry or descent. Divine designation predicates his appointment as priest. Thus it continues forever.
Melchizedek, the King-Priest Who Receives
In verse 4 the author of Hebrews leads the reader back to Abram’s response to Melchizedek’s blessing and gives more details about the tithe that the great patriarch gave to him. Abram gave Melchizedek “a tenth of the plunder.” This is no small gift. Abram had just defeated a large number of kings and taken all of their possessions. One does not give a tithe to another without it being an obligation. Abram feels, as a matter of obligation to God Most High, that he should give this priest a tenth of everything he had obtained. This tithe would not have been a small tip but a large payment made by one of Israel’s most important figures. Abram’s tithe is one of the most unexpected and one of the most fascinating parts of the whole Old Testament.
Furthermore, that Abraham is addressed as a “patriarch” is another important detail in this verse. In the New Testament, the word patriarch does not appear many times, but it is a word of unique importance in the history of Israel. Patriarch denotes the highest level of honor in Jewish life. Men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are considered some of Israel’s most significant patriarchs. They were the foundation of Israel’s identity. These patriarchs are recognized as figures through whom God acted in salvation history in order to set the stage for what he accomplished in Christ. Abraham is almost never specifically referred to as a patriarch, but he is in this passage because the writer of Hebrews is trying to emphasize his main point. By attaching this title of respect to Abraham, the author demonstrates the superiority of Melchizedek, even when compared to Abraham, the great patriarch. In other words, even Abraham, the great patriarch, pales in comparison to Melchizedek since he is the one that is blessed by this priest and is also the one who gives this priest a tenth of all his spoils.
Melchizedek and Levi
In verse 5 the author reminds his audience that the Levites, who descend from Abraham, receive tithes from the other sons of Abraham on account of their priestly service. If Levi and his sons were to receive tithes, what is Abraham doing giving tithes to Melchizedek? This demonstrates that the priestly order of Melchizedek supersedes the priestly order of Levi because Abraham—the progenitor of the Levitical line—paid the tithe to Melchizedek. Since the Levitical priests descend from Abraham and Melchizedek surpasses Abraham, the Melchizedekian priesthood must be superior to the Levitical priesthood.
The author uses verse 6 to emphasize a second significant reality: Abraham “had the promises.” These promises likely refer to the promises God made to him in Genesis 12:1-3. Yet Hebrews highlights the fact that Melchizedek gave a blessing even to the one who had the promises. This again testifies to the greatness of Melchizedek. He is of such importance that he can bless Abraham, even when Abraham appears to be the most blessed human being on the planet. Who can possibly bless Abraham? Abraham is the one who gives blessings! Yet in Genesis 14, Abraham pays tribute to Melchizedek and receives a blessing from him, and in so doing, demonstrates his own inferiority.
An understandable question confronts the reader about the greatness of Melchizedek: Why does the writer of Hebrews emphasize this point with such technical care? He wants the Hebrews to see that the Old Testament itself showed that the Levitical priesthood was always meant to give way to something greater. Thus the author, under the inspiration and authority of the Holy Spirit, weaves together a biblical-theological argument to convince his audience of this fact on the basis of Scripture.
Now we might think some parts of this argument are a bit strange, particularly the notion that Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek through his ancestor Abraham. But this kind of argumentation (principally seen in vv. 8-9) is not unprecedented in Jewish logic or in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 4 Moses is speaking to the children of Israel and essentially says, “You were there at Horeb when God spoke from the mountain and when I went up to the mountain and when I came down with the two tablets.” But the Israelites Moses is speaking to in Deuteronomy 4 were not the same Israelites who were at Horeb! So how were they there? They were there biologically, in the loins of their fathers. This kind of corporate identity is not natural to our thinking, but it is essential to the Old Testament. Thus, the author of Hebrews closes his argument by using the concept of corporate identity to illustrate that Levi was biologically present when Abraham encountered Melchizedek. This is precisely why one might even say that Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham because he was in the loins of his ancestor Abraham when Melchizedek met him.
This section of Hebrews can seem biblically and theologically dense. But don’t let that discourage you. As we continue on in Hebrews we will see how Jesus, the priest according to the order of Melchizedek, has done what the Levites never could do: he accomplished our salvation. Melchizedek may seem obscure to us, but by investing ourselves in passages like Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and Hebrews 7 we will find that we will develop a much richer appreciation for what Christ has done for us as our great high priest.
Reflect and Discuss
- Why are we more familiar with some biblical characters than others? Why are some names more necessary to know than others? What names and characters are indispensable to the metanarrative of the Bible?
- What role do individuals like Abraham, Moses, David, and Mary play in the history of Christianity? How are their lives connected to each other and to Jesus?
- What did you know about Melchizedek before reading Hebrews 7? Read Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 and discuss what these two passages reveal about Melchizedek. How do the references to Melchizedek in these two passages relate to and inform the priesthood and kingship of Jesus Christ?
- What were the roles of kings in the Old Testament? Read Deuteronomy 17:14-20. What were the roles of priests in the Old Testament? Read Exodus 28 and Leviticus 4.
- Can you think of some important blessings given in Scripture? What are the blessings that have been granted to all Christians by their union with Christ (Eph 1:3)?
- What does the author mean when he says that Melchizedek is without father, mother, or genealogy? How does this demonstrate Melchizedek’s superiority to other priests?
- What conclusion does the author draw from the fact that Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek? How does the author use the term patriarch in relation to Abraham to demonstrate Melchizedek’s superiority?
- How does the author argue that Melchizedek is greater than Levi?
- Explain the corporate identity assumed by the author of Hebrews.
- Why does the author of Hebrews choose to compare Melchizedek to Abraham? Why do you think he also chose to compare him to Levi?