The Importance of Melchizedek
“The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.'”
Melchizedek is a word in the Bible which used to cause me great annoyance. Early on in my Christian walk, I would dread the middle portion of the book of Hebrews, where the writer labors upon this guy. Who or what is a Melchizedek? And why is it important?
Melchizedek only comes up twice in the Old Testament, neither of which dwells on him much at all. We first see him in the book of Genesis. After Abram (Abraham) defeats the king Chedorlaomer, he is met by the king of Sodom as well as the king of Salem named Melchizedek. We find out that in addition to being the king of Salem he is also a priest of God Most High (Genesis 14:18). He brought Abram bread and wine and blessed him. In return, Abram gave him a tenth of everything he had. Melchizedek then fades out of Scripture, only to reappear much later in the Psalms. It is here that God makes an oath to David’s Lord (Jesus the Messiah), saying “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” And this is all we ever hear of the mysterious king of Salem. Given only two very vague references to this guy, it’s hard to believe that he is so important. But the book of Hebrews tells us why.
The book was written to Hebrew Christians facing the temptation to go back to the old covenant way of doing things (priests, sacrifices, etc.). The old priesthood given by God to the Israelites in the wilderness was now futile. During the wilderness wanderings and beyond, God had appointed the tribe of Levi to be priests. And only the Levites could be priests. “But to the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance; the LORD God of Israel is their inheritance, just as he said to them” (Joshua 13:33). This is what is referred to as the Levitical priesthood. The writer of Hebrews is laboring to show that Christ now serves as our High Priest. But there’s a problem for the Hebrews: only Levites could serve as priests. Jesus was born into the Tribe of Judah, not Levi. What claim to priesthood did he then have? To the Levitical priesthood, none at all. The only logical way for Jesus, who was not a Levite, to be a priest would be for him to become the priest according to different priesthood.
The Better Priesthood
So what is this non-Levitical priesthood? It is the Melchizedekian priesthood. Hebrews 7 shows us the characteristics of this priesthood compared with the Levitical priesthood by looking at the encounter between him and Abram in Genesis 14. Verses 1 and 2 briefly recall the event. In verse 2 we see that his name means “king of righteousness.” Pretty honorable. Furthermore we see that he is the king of Salem, or “peace.” It is Salem which would later be designated as the “City/Foundation of peace,” or in hebrew: “Jerusalem”. So we see that Melchizedek is the king of righteousness and peace. Then he says
“He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.”
The point of this verse isn’t to say that Melchizedek had no literal parents, but rather that his genealogy is curiously completely absent from a book which does well to trace lineages. Such absence isn’t incidental but purposeful. It’s here that we see a crucial aspect of his priesthood: it is not passed on through descent like the Levitical priesthood. Without a record of his birth and death, and being a a type and shadow of Christ, his priesthood is seen to be immortal. This priesthood, unlike the Levitical priesthood, will never come to an end.
The author then moves on in verses 4 through 10 to show that Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood. “See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils!” If Abraham the patriarch, a guy who holds significant weight in Scripture is giving tithes to this other guy, then he deserves to be looked at closely. The author notes how Levi’s descendants collected tithes from their brothers, all of whom are descended from Abraham. But Melchizedek, who does not share descent with Abraham, received tithes from him. Melchizedek, put simply, ranks higher than Abraham the patriarch. The Jews in Jesus’ day bragged that “Abraham is our father” (John 8:39). Maybe so, but there was someone much greater than Abraham in the Old Testament. As Hebrews says:
“It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior.”
It must also be noted that as Melchizedek blessed Abraham, the Gentile blessed the Jew. Continuing, the scriptures say that as a descendant of one who paid tithes to Melchizedek, Levi effectually also paid tithes to him through Abraham. This underscores the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood to the Melchizedekian priesthood. Based on the supremacy of this Order, we can stand to reason that if another were to arise as a priest of this order, then that person would nullify the inferior Levitical order. This honor was promised by God to his son Jesus Christ in Psalm 110:4. It is Jesus who rose up as a priest of this other, far more superior, priestly order, “not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16). Now that a new priest has arisen after a superior priesthood, the inferior is set aside. This is the author’s argument.
A Couple of Implications
Here are a few implications of the Melchizedekian priesthood:
1) Earlier I mentioned that Abraham the Jew was blessed by Melchizedek the Gentile. This is anything but an anti-semitic remark. After all, this superior priesthood is now and forever held by a man of Jewish descent. There is no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28). None, nada, zip. Being of physical Jewish descent counts for nothing in the order of Melchizedek. Abraham’s true offspring are those who belong to Christ (Galatians 3:29, Romans 9:6-7, John 9:39-47). The entirety of the old Jewish system of priests and sacrifices is subordinate and outranked by a Gentile priest of God, whose office is now held by a Jew. The implication of this is that it makes no difference whether we are Jewish or Gentile. There is no longer a distinction.
2) If you remember, Melchizedek was not just a priest. He also held another office. For the Levites, their priesthood allowed them to be only priests and nothing else. Genesis tells us that Melchizedek was not just a priest, he was a king. As priest of this order, Jesus is forever our faithful high priest and forever our king. Every reference you’ve ever heard of Jesus as King, every time you’ve heard someone mention “King Jesus” is rooted in the oath God gave him in Psalm 110:4 in which Jesus is promised priesthood after an order which includes the role of king. His role was never just to take away our sins on the cross. The reason for the cross and the atonement on our behalf was to redeem a people for himself to rule over. He is not just our savior. He’s our king. Jesus our priest has atoned for our sins and lives forever to make intercession on our behalf (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus our king lives forever to be our peaceful ruler. He is the king of righteousness and the king of peace. Melchizedek’s kingship was over Jerusalem. Christ’s kingship is over the heavenly Jerusalem, his Bride. He is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, and he has offered one sacrifice for our sins for all time: himself. We are now righteous because he is righteous. God does not look upon a Christian apart from Christ. He is also a king forever, and his kingdom is currently spreading. It is a kingdom of peace. This is our hope as Christians. It is what we are to set our minds upon ALWAYS (Colossians 3:1-2). And it is this constant gaze which brings us the joy and peace that Christ came to give us (Isaiah 26:3).