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Who the Heck is Melchizedek?

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When asked to name important people in the Bible, Melchizedek doesn’t usually come to mind. This seemingly obscure Old Testament figure who doesn’t get many babies named after him, and earns a mere three-verse appearance in Genesis 14, is key to understanding Jesus Christ. He is one of the many trajectories God placed throughout His plan to point to the Messiah.

So who is Melchizedek? His name literally means “king of righteousness.” Genesis 14:18 tells us he was king of Salem (probably Jerusalem), meaning king of peace, and was a priest to God Most High. He gives Abram (Abraham) bread and wine and blesses him after Abram won a hard battle. Abram returns the favor by honoring him with a tenth of the booty. And that’s the whole story.

Melchizedek blesses Abram

But about 500 years later, God declared through Moses that a king can’t be a priest, and a priest can’t be a king. In fact, Israel’s first human king Saul met his demise after he tried to act as a priest. Kings came from one line, and priests from another, so no one could be both.

Genesis doesn’t tell us anything about Melchizedek’s lineage, which is quite odd, as noted in Hebrews 7:3. In fact, Melchizedek is the only important figure in Genesis whose genealogy isn’t recorded. How do we know he’s important? Because Abram, the all-important father of God’s chosen people the Jews, honors him with a tithe (Hebrews 7:4-7), and a number of other Bible passages point to his significance related to Christ.

Melchizedek next appears in Psalm 110 where King David recorded two messages from God to Jesus. (We know David wrote it because Jesus says so in Mark 12:35, 26.) First God promises Jesus that He will be King and then makes an oath that Jesus will be “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” The Psalm continues to describe the eternal King but oddly mentions a human act: drinking from a brook.

Saul’s successor David knew you couldn’t be priest and king. And how could this priest-king rule the whole world forever, yet be human? Fast forward to Melchizedek’s final cameo in Hebrews 7. Here the New Testament author says Melchizedek, king of righteousness, king of peace, priest of God, without parents or genealogy, who just pops into the story without “beginning or end of days”, is similar to the Son of God, Jesus. He is God, without beginning or end, without genealogy, and He became our priest and king.

But that’s not allowed, right? The sequence traced by the biblical authors is fascinating. Psalm 110 announces the coming of a priest-king after God said no one can be priest and king, but before that was declared, Abram met someone who was both. So if God recorded this exception to His covenant, it must mean the covenant was temporary. Hebrews 7:11, 12 reasons that if the priests of this covenant were sufficient to offer sacrifices for human sin, why does Psalm 110 say there will be a priest in the order of Melchizedek? And if the priesthood of that covenant is obsolete, surely the whole covenant is obsolete as well.

Levitical priest

In Jesus, God provided a priest who did not need to offer sacrifices for his own sin, because he was perfect. He did not have to continually offer the blood of animals to symbolically pay for sin, which could never really substitute for human blood. Instead, Jesus became the priest and the sacrifice by offering His own perfect, infinite yet human blood on the cross for us. Unlike the human priests, he didn’t stay dead, but resurrected and “is always able to save those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 10:25). We can now approach God directly through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin.

The trajectory of Melchizedek leads to Jesus. Humans need a King to rule our lives, to secure victory for us, and Christ is that King. We need a priest to mediate between us and God; Jesus is the perfect go-between since he is both God and man. Melchizedek is just one of many such trajectories predicting Jesus and proving the Bible is not a hodge-podge of uncoordinated human musings. Rather, it is God’s recorded Word, an intricate tapestry with each thread forming a picture of Christ.

Many threads form a unified picture

Another theme in Psalm 110, the Old Testament passage most quoted in the New Testament, is found in verse 1 where God tells Jesus to sit at the right hand. God’s call for seat-check on behalf of Jesus may sound abstract but has huge implications which the New Testament authors spell out. Being seated at God’s right hand signifies Jesus:

  1. Is greater than David, the subject of Psalm 110, and the fulfillment of the promise to reign through David’s line forever. (Acts 2:34-36)
  2. Is greater than the angels. (Hebrews 1:13)
  3. Is exalted to God’s side as Prince and Savior so people can turn to God and be forgiven. (Acts 5:30, 31)
  4. Intercedes (pleads) for our right standing before God. (Romans  8:34)
  5. Made a complete, final sacrifice. The human priest had to stand to offer sacrifices daily, but Christ sat down, showing His work was complete. (Hebrews 10:11-14)
  6. Awaits ultimate conquest and surrender of enemies. (Hebrews 10:13)

Now that we know who Melchizedek is, Psalm 110 should leave us thanking God for revealing the beautiful intricacy of His plan to save us, and the perfection of Jesus as fulfillment of the paradoxical prediction about a priest-king. For more information, listen to “Getting Excited About Melchizedek” by D.A. Carson here.

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