The Example of Melchizedek
One of the biblical characters I’ve found exceptionally fascinating is Melchizedek. He appears in so few verses of the Bible that I wouldn’t be surprised if an average church going Christian had never heard the name. Perhaps all the more due to his brief appearances, he provides a striking example of the importance of a Christ centered interpretation of God’s Word, particularly in regard to “minor” characters.
Without an understanding of how all Scripture is fundamentally and ultimately about Christ, Old Testament stories are often taught in a moralistic light. For example, I recently heard a sermon on Samson from the book of Judges where the key truth distilled was that Samson’s sins and associated problems were a result of him not taking his sin seriously and spending too much time in “enemy territory”. The implication of the sermon being that we need to take our sin seriously and watch how much time we spend in “enemy territory”. The sermon contained moralistic admonitions and no connection to Christ.
On the other hand, some preachers and teachers just ignore the Old Testament altogether. Anecdotally speaking, I have occasionally scanned preacher's sermon catalogs going back decades and would hardly see Scripture preached outside the New Testament. One of the best examples of contemporary Christians' disregard or misunderstanding of the Old Testament is the existence of pocket New Testaments. Not much shows a misunderstanding of the Bible in general and Old Testament in particular like tearing off the front three-fourths of the book. With that in mind, the Bible’s own interpretation of Melchizedek completely upends those notions and provides an amazing example of how all Scripture points to Christ.
Melchizedek appears in all of 3 verses in the historical Old Testament, but for the sake of context, we’ll look at the preceding 10 verses. His story appears in Genesis chapter 14:
8 Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim 9 with Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, four kings against five. 10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits, and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country. 11 So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. 12 They also took Lot, the son of Abram's brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way. 13 Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.
Abram Blessed by Melchizedek
17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King'sValley). 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
Following Abram’s successful rescue mission of his nephew Lot and Lot’s associated possessions and people, Abram returns home with the spoils taken from the defeated kings also in tow. He is greeted at the King’s Valley, which is believed to be located east of Jerusalem, by the King of Sodom. Additionally, this new character Melchizedek enters the story and also goes to meet Abram. Melchizedek, whose name literally translates as “king of righteousness”, is the king of Salem, which means “peace”. Salem is likely a shortened name for Jerusalem as evidenced by its usage to refer to Jerusalem in Psalm 76:2:
“In Judah God is known; his name is great in Israel. His abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion.” – Psalm 76:1-2
It is said Melchizedek brought out “bread and wine”, which could have just been bread and wine, but that phrase was also used to refer to a full meal. In either case, he brings out food and drink to seemingly celebrate. Amazingly, we’re told he is priest of “God Most High”. The phrase translated “God Most High” was the Hebrew “El Elyon” which was one of the covenant names of God that translated “the most high God”. Melchizedek wasn’t a priest of some pagan deity or imaginary god; he was a priest of the true, living creator God of the universe. This is incredible, not only because this mention of him as priest predates the entire Aaronic priesthood and Levitical system, but also because Melchizedek is seemingly a random pagan king. Melchizedek then blesses Abram, acknowledges God as the source of the victory, and acknowledges God’s sovereignty over creation. Abram then agrees with Melchizedek’s statement by giving him a “tenth of everything” and a few verses later by repeating Melchizedek’s description of God’s sovereignty.
In this story we see Abram trust in God’s promises rather than human means (a few verses later Abram refuses the King of Sodom’s gifts and affirms God’s sovereignty). We see Melchizedek, whose name means king of righteousness, the king of Salem, king of peace, described as a priest to the true, living God. He blesses Abram, acknowledges God’s sovereignty, and then disappears from the Biblical story for hundreds if not thousands of years! What then are we to conclude about Melchizedek? Was he an unimportant side character, only briefly appearing in a story for a few verses?
If one were to try to moralistically preach this story, he wouldn’t have much to work with. Perhaps it would be structured around trusting in God’s sovereignty. Clearly, Melchizedek isn’t on the same level as “major” Old Testament characters who have many chapters devoted to them, such as Joseph, King David, or Esther. A part of me suspects a moralistic preaching of this text wouldn’t even focus on Melchizedek, but rather Abram. If one doesn’t understand Scriptures’ own interpretation of itself as all pointing to Christ, there isn’t much left for a preacher to work with.
Hundreds of years pass by and eventually King David writes Psalm 110. This was the psalm Jesus was discussing with the Pharisees in Matthew 22 that described the coming Messiah. In describing the Messiah, verse 4 states:
“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” – Psalm 110:4
What?! Out of nowhere, hundreds of years later, Melchizedek reappears in an explicitly messianic psalm. At this point, the Aaronic priesthood had already suffered corruption, such as two of Aaron’s sons being struck down by God for improper worship in Exodus and the high priest Eli letting his sons extort the Israelites in the period of the judges. The Messiah is prophesied to be a priest, not an Aaronic priest, but a priest after the order of Melchizedek, forever.
We’re left on this surprising cliffhanger for hundreds of years more, and a full explanation isn’t given until the book of Hebrews is written.
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” – Hebrews 5:7-10
In Hebrews 5, Jesus, the messiah, is reaffirmed to be a high priest in the order of Melchizedek. However, this begs the question “What is unique about Melchizedek?”. Why couldn’t the messiah be said to be a high priest like Aaron? The unique aspect about Melchizedek was that he wasn’t only a high priest, but also a royal king. He was both a priest and a king, a priest-king. Israelite kings weren’t allowed to function as a priest, and some got in trouble for attempting to do so, such as God rejecting King Saul’s lineage after he sacrificed a burnt offering instead of waiting for Samuel (1 Samuel 13).
Hebrews 7 further describes the implications of Jesus being in the order of Melchizedek:
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.
This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. 23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. – Hebrews 7:11-12, 22-25, 27
Because Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, he is indicative of the faults of the Levitical system and the emergence of the New Covenant. Additionally, he is described as the guarantor of a better covenant (the New Covenant) because he “holds his priesthood permanently” and “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them”. Not only is Jesus the eternal king his people live to glorify and whose sacrifice on the cross was effectual for the redemption of his people, but he is also the eternal priest who intercedes on behalf of his people for perpetuity.
That’s the significance of Melchizedek. A character who may have seemed to just be a simple side character in a story, not worth another look, in reality points us to Christ in powerful ways. Melchizedek, the king of righteousness and peace, served as a priest-king to the true, living God and acknowledged God’s sovereignty. He points us forward to Jesus Christ, the true and ultimate priest-king, who through acknowledging God’s sovereignty throughout his life and in the Garden of Gethsemane went to the cross and died to pay the penalty for the sins of his people. It is through Jesus’ death and resurrection wherein we can have peace with God and be righteous in his sight; Jesus the true king and bringer of righteousness and peace. Melchizedek’s appearance occurs in the midst of Abram’s refusal to accept gifts from the King of Sodom, instead trusting in God’s promises. We have the privilege of not refusing a king’s offer, but rather accepting the offer of the true and final priest-king Jesus Christ, an offer of salvation and reconciliation with God through turning from one’s sins and entering into a relationship with Him.
How incredible is that?! A character who appears in all of 3 verses in the historical Old Testament foreshadows Christ’s diverse roles and activities. Not only is this discernible in light of Biblically derived principles of Christ centered interpretation, but the Bible actually explains Melchizedek’s significance for us! The story of Melchizedek provides a striking reminder that we must strive to interpret all Scripture in light of Christ, no matter how small or insignificant a story or character may seem! Melchizedek only appears in three verses in the historical Old Testament, and yet he points to Christ in profound ways. All Scripture points to Christ; it is our responsibility to interpret God’s Word in that light!