So, what is “Melchizedek” all about? Is a “Melchizedek” the level above the “Parking Deck”? No, not quite. In the Christian New Testament, the writer of the Book of Hebrews makes the priesthood of Melchizedek a central theme in that letter. Jesus the Christ is also our high priest, standing in the order of Melchizedek. So where does Melchizedek come from?
Originally, there are just a couple of obscure references in the Old Testament to Melchizedek, someone who has no described ancestry and no known descendants. He just appears and vanishes in the biblical scene quickly. Contemporary speculation abounds about Melchizedek, ranging from the writings of Joseph Smith to the Urantia book of the New Age Movement…. Mmmm….Is the writer of Hebrews just making things up as he goes along, making too much of a big deal over an insignificant character?
Melchizedek in the Old Testament:
If you read Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and blink at the right place, you just might miss Melchizedek. In Genesis 14:17-24, Abram (then Abraham) briefly meets Melchizedek, whose name means “my king is righteous“. In verse 18, we learn that Melchizedek is the king of Salem, which is perhaps a predecessor village to later Jerusalem, but this king is also a “priest of God Most High.” Melchizedek blesses Abraham and Abraham presents a tithe to him. That’s pretty much it. Not much of a story line there, is it?
The only other time we see this odd character is in a psalm attributed to King David, Psalm 110:
The Lord says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
The Lord sends forth from Zion
your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!
Your people will offer themselves freely
on the day of your power,
in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours.
The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
after the order of Melchizedek.”
OK. So what? This sounds sort of random and out of the blue. Right?
Well, it just so happens that Psalm 110 is quoted or alluded to in the New Testament more than any other passage from the Old Testament (here’s a brief list). Ah, this must be pretty important after all!
Kings and Priests:
Some background will help us to understand why the Jesus and the writers of the New Testament make such a big deal about Psalm 110. In ancient Israel, God kept the offices of priest and king separate. A priest represents the people before God, interceding on their behalf to make atonement for their sins. A king represents God to the people, announcing God’s rule over them. In the earliest days of Israel, the nation had priests but they had no king other than God Himself. In I Samuel 8, when the Prophet Samuel is acting as priest before Israel, the people clamored for a king. If the nations around them had kings, why should Israel not have a king as well? After all, you must keep up with all of the “cool-kid” neighbors, right? God relented and gave them their king in Saul. But in I Samuel 13, God rejects Saul as their king when he wrongly usurps Samuel’s role as priest, making a burnt offering before God himself instead of properly waiting for Samuel to come and perform his priestly duty.
According to the Bible, God saw that if a king were to take upon the additional role of a priest as well, the combination of secular and sacred power would become too concentrated and open to abuse and demagoguery, as was evident in the life of Saul (read 1 Samuel 9-31 for Saul’s story). Think of this godly principle as an early, primitive form of the “separation of church and state”. By keeping the offices of priest and king separate, God sought to protect the people from tyranny. David, as Saul’s successor, is greatly honored as Israel’s most beloved king who respected the distinct role of the priesthood.
Then we come to Psalm 110. Remarkably, David observes that God says to his, meaning David’s, “lord” that this “lord” over David will sit at God’s right hand and rule as King (verse 1). But not only that, this “lord” will also serve as Priest….. after the order of Melchizedek. Who is this “lord” that David is talking about who serves as both King and Priest? How does God intend to fulfill the roles of King and Priest in just one person? Is not this a very dangerous thing to do, as further demonstrated throughout Israel’s later history when king after king and king corrupted the spiritual authority of the priesthood?
Melchizedek in the New Testament:
Many Jews in Jesus’ day pondered these same type of questions. Before on Veracity, we have looked at how Jesus typically referred to Himself as the Son of Man. The identity of the Son of Man for Jesus is equal to that of the Messiah, or “the Christ”. But who is this Messiah? Jesus draws out this question Himself by pointing the people directly to Psalm 110, such as in Luke 20:41-42. Jesus’ implication is that the one who comes as both King and Priest, in the order of Melchizedek, is none other that the Christ, the Messiah.
Some might then ask this: was Melchizedek actually an early theophany, an appearance of Jesus, in the Old Testament? Maybe. But this really is not the point. Jesus in the Gospels is more of a type of Melchizedek, using the biblical principle of typology in Old Testament prophecy to connect the identity of Jesus with the story of the Old Testament.
Remember from Genesis 14:17-24 that Melchizedek was both a king and priest. It should come as no surprise that the early Christian community saw that this new Melchizedekian King-Priest prophecied by David is none other than Jesus, who is the Christ, the Messiah. But not only that, these early Christians began to see that the only way that you could have a Messiah acting both as King and Priest without the corruption of merely a human person is if this person was also the incarnation of God. For only God acts without corruption, perfecting the role of both King and Priest.
So, whenever you read the Book of Hebrews writing about the greatness of Jesus as the Priestly-King in the order of Melchizedek, or any other New Testament writer talking about Jesus sitting as the right hand of God, go back and look up Psalm 110 and Genesis 14:17-24 and meditate on the meaning of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is not just some random idea. Instead, this obscure ancient figure helps us to unlock the key of the message of the whole Bible. This discussion here only touches on the topic. You do not need to wander off to fill your mind in endless speculation outside of the Bible about Melchizedek. This is because the riches of the Bible promises a great reward for those who dig into God’s Word, if we only take the time to study it.
Canadian Don Carson, one of today’s best scholars of the New Testament, covers the meaning and significance of Melchizedek in fascinating detail. Here he is speaking at The Gospel Coalition’s pastor’s conference in 2011:
Other resources related to Carson’s talk can be found here.