There are three Biblical books that reference Melchizedek, but it is the first referral which provides the clue to unpack his identity the most–Gen. 14:17 It not only is the first to cite Melchizedek but the first to mention a priest in all of Scripture. In addition to the ritualistic functions we think of priest’s playing throughout Israel’s history, their primary role was to be a mediator between God and man, a key to why Jesus would later be referred to as being of ‘the order of Melchizedek’.
Melchizedek’s name in Hebrew provides a further clue: malki-sedeq. That small hyphen indicates this is more of a title than a personal name, and means “King of Righteousness.” He is described as being both the King of Salem (or King of Jerusalem) as well as a priest of the Most High God.
We meet this enigmatic figure through the Patriarch Abram’s eyes as Abraham returns from a military victory over Chedorlaomer (pronounced ked’uhr-lay-oh’ muhr). He was King of Elam and leader of a group of other kings fighting those in Southern Israel’s plains who had just sacked Sodom and taken Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Abraham surprised them at night, driving the enemies victoriously out of Israel and rescuing his nephew. That military venture could have had disastrous results: had Abraham lost, he would have had to leave the land of promise. (See Gen. 14:14-16).
This is when Melchizedek enters the scene, to bless Abraham for this great accomplishment, revealing the Patriarch’s moral and military authority over lesser kings. The blessing is two-part (on Abraham and God) but note how it focuses more on God, and his delivering abilities. (Note that the Priest’s gift of blessing is bread and wine, the essence of the Eucharist meal which Jesus will celebrate at his final Passover centuries later.)
Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High who has delivered your enemies into your hand! (Gen. 14:19)
The key in a blessing is that whoever bestows it is greater than the one being blessed. So for all of Abraham’s specialness as the one to whom God reveals His covenant, it is still Melchizedek who bestows the blessing, indicating the Priest’s superiority and specialness. A further sign is that Abraham tithes a tenth of his battle plunder to Melchizedek, another indication of Abraham taking a more subservient position.
Melchizedek’s ceremony of blessing takes place not far from Jerusalem in King’s Valley—which leads to the second Biblical reference: Ps. 110:4. Considered a royal Psalm, Ps. 110 is thought to have been written for Judean kings’ coronations—which would eventually take place at Jerusalem. But there is also a sense that the Psalm was used as Judah entered battle against her enemies, declaring that God will provide a messiah and eventually lay claim to all nations. Thus the reference to Melchizedek as a precursor to the Messiah.
The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
By the first century CE, Christians were claiming Psalm 110 as a description of the Messiah they believed to be Christ Jesus, as in this excerpt from Matt. 22:41-44, where Jesus is said to be quoting Ps. 110:
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
Perhaps this is why, in the third Biblical book’s several references to this mysterious figure, Hebrews, the author pulls Melchizedek forward, quoting Ps. 110 in Heb. 5:6. Here the Hebrew author identifies Christ Jesus with Melchizedek (Heb. 5:10). In multiple references, the writer of Hebrews claims Jesus as ‘a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 6:20). (The entire book of Hebrews aims to contrast Christ with individuals or institutions of the Hebrew Bible. For more information, a CD (or MP3) talk is available below.)
The Hebrew writer explains that Melchizedek had no ancestry, adding to his remarkable character. Then Christ Jesus is exalted as a priest in Melchizedek’s order, coming to the work not through normal channels but “through the power of an indestructible life” (Heb. 7:16).
Regardless of Melchizedek’s origins and the scant mention of him in Scripture, the Hebrew writer helps remember this special figure who blessed the Father of Judaism. But even more, Christ Jesus is not only rabbi, prophet and Messiah, but Priest, whose ultimate role was to be mediator between God and man – a role Jesus Christ fulfilled unswervingly.
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