The Mysterious Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-10)
A few weeks ago, I watched part of a video by a guy who claimed that Jesus was nowhere to be seen in the Old Testament, and that Christians are simply mistaken to think that their religion has any real connection to the faith of Abraham. And there are many who would say that what Christians consider to be prophecies which Jesus fulfilled during his earthly life and ministry all admit of other interpretations, and that Jesus is not in fact pointed to by any OT Scripture.
However, there is a problem with this kind of approach to the connection between our Lord and the Hebrew Scriptures. The problem is that such claims start off by assuming that Jesus is not the Messiah, and if you assume that, of course you are going to be able to come up with alternate ways of reading OT passages that Christians say point to Jesus. An alternative is to look at Jesus himself, his life, and his claims, and especially his death and resurrection. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead and therefore vindicated his claims. What were his claims? He claimed to be the Son of God, the I AM from Exodus 3, the way, the truth, and the life. These are not claims of a mere ordinary man. Moreover, his life as well as his death matched such claims. Someone who gives sight to the blind and raises the dead is no mere ordinary man. This is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
If you start there, and then look back into the Old Testament, you are going to find many, many pointers to our Lord. It is clear that this is the way the apostles worked with their Bibles. They didn’t arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is the Christ by simply reading their Old Testaments and then figuring out that Jesus matched the description of the Messiah. It was mostly the other way round: they first realized they were face to face with the Messiah, and then read the OT in light of that reality.
And it makes sense to look at it this way. For if we suppose that salvation history is being gradually unfolded over time, from less clear to more clear, then it makes sense to read the OT in light of the NT. As it has often been said, “The New (Testament) is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” It is a sound principle of interpretation to read the less clear in light of what is clearer.
At the same, that doesn’t mean that the OT doesn’t help to illuminate the NT in any way. It’s not that the OT is opaque and the NT is transparent. In fact, the OT is crucial in understanding the NT, especially the work of Christ. The entire sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant gives us a vocabulary with which to understand what happened on the cross when Jesus died. In the same way, the person of Melchizedek helps us to understand who Jesus is and why the Levitical priesthood was always meant to be a temporary institution. This is what our author is doing with the mysterious person.
These verses are basically an exposition of Gen. 14:18-20 and Ps. 110:4. Christ is the one being spoken of in Psalm 110, a Psalm that at least in our Lord’s day was generally acknowledged to be about the Messiah (cf. Mt. 22:41-46). In that psalm, which is repeatedly referred to in the epistle to the Hebrews (cf. 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17), we are told that the Messiah is to be a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4). This helps the argument of the epistle in the following way: it shows that the priesthood of the Messiah is not a Levitical priesthood and therefore the coming of the Messiah means the abrogation of the Mosaic Covenant. Furthermore, it shows that Jesus is superior to the Levitical priesthood because his priesthood, like that of Melchizedek, is eternal, whereas theirs was ended by death. To abandon the gospel is therefore to abandon Christ and to revert to an inferior state of affairs.
So what we have here in our text is this back-and-forth mutual illumination of the OT and NT. Since Jesus is the Christ, we now know who is being spoken of in Psalm 110: a case of the NT illuminating the OT. At the same time, the person of Melchizedek helps us to understand some things about the priesthood of Christ, especially as it relates to the priesthood under the Mosaic covenant and the superiority of the priesthood of our Lord in terms of its eternality: a case of the OT illuminating the NT.
However, to see how this works in this passage, we need to understand what is and is not being said about this strange fellow Melchizedek. In other words, we need to understand the first 10 verses of chapter 7. In particular, what we want to do in this message is to answer the following two questions: who is Melchizedek and what is his purpose in the OT Scriptures?
Who is Melchizedek?
There are only four verses in the entire Old Testament written about Melchizedek. There are three verses in Genesis 14 (ver. 18-20), and then there is Psalm 110:4. That’s it. Here are the verses in Genesis, which, as Heb. 7:1 indicates, are telling us about an incident that took place immediately after the slaughter of the kings by Abraham and his makeshift army. These were the kings who had previously defeated the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and had taken Abraham’s nephew Lot captive: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: and blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he [Abraham] gave him [Melchizedek] tithes of all.”
Then there is Psalm 110:4, which reads, “The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The context of the psalm is telling of the one who is David’s Lord as well as David’s Son, to whom God will say, “Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (1).
And that’s it.
However, these few verses still tell us something and in the first three verses of Hebrews 7, our author explains what these OT texts reveal to us about this man. The big picture is that this man is one of the few individuals in the OT who was both a priest and a king. This comes out immediately in verse 1, where he is introduced to us as “Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the most high God.” In sum, he was a monarch, he was a minister, and he was mysterious.
He was a monarch.
First of all, he was a king. To be specific, he was the King of Salem. There has been some dispute about the location of this place, but the fact that in Psalm 76:2 Salem seems to be synonymous with Jerusalem tilts the scales in favor of the city which would later become the seat of the Davidic kingdom. In verse 2, the author goes on to explicate the significance of his role as king: “first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of Peace.” The name Melchizedek itself means “king of righteousness.” Then we are told that “Salem” means peace.
He doesn’t spell it out for us, perhaps because he knows that his audience is well acquainted with the OT identification of the Messiah in these terms. But these are terms that clarify the mission of the Messiah. So the prophet Isaiah writes, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it, with judgment and with justice from henceforth ever forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Isa. 9:6-7). In the same way, the prophet Jeremiah writes also about the Messiah: “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell in safety: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Jer. 23:5-6). What is especially significant about these prophesies is that they tell us that the Messiah would not simply be a king himself characterized by righteousness and peace (though that is true), but the one through whom righteousness and peace would be brought into the world. By bearing these titles, Melchizedek was pointing not so much to himself as to the person and work of Jesus Christ who is King of Kings and Lord of lords.
He was a minister.
He was not only a king, but he was also a minister, not in the sense in which we often use that term today, but in the sense of a priest of the “most high God.” And he was not a pagan priest, but a priest of the true God. It was in this capacity that he gave a blessing to Abraham (1, 6, 7). It was also in this capacity that he received from Abraham the tithe of the spoils of war (2, 4, 6, 8, 9). The author is intent on pointing out that the giving of the blessing and the receiving of the tithe prove that, as great as the patriarch Abraham was, Melchizedek was greater (4, 7). Indeed, we are told to “consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils” (4).
He was mysterious.
So far so good! But there are other things predicated about this man that are a little more puzzling. The fact of the matter is that this guy is just plain mysterious. But our author is going to build on that and make an important point about him. It comes in verse 3: Melchizedek, we are told, was “without mother, without father, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.” At first, this looks like our author is saying that Melchizedek was never born and never died. In fact, in verse 8, we are told “And here men that die receive tithes; but there he receiveth them, of whom it is witnessed that he liveth.” When you add to that the witness of Psalm 110:4, where the point of contact between the Messiah and Melchizedek is in an eternal priesthood, it sure sounds like Melchizedek was never born and never died. In other words, that he was not just a man.
Now the truth of the matter is that throughout history some Biblical interpreters have said just that. Some have identified him with an angelic figure. However, though Melchizedek was in several important ways greater than Abraham, he was just a man. Which means that he had a father and a mother, a beginning and an end on this earth. There is no indication in the text that this was some angelic figure. No, he was a man like Abraham.
Others have tried to say that this was an example of the preincarnate Christ, which is tempting, given the numerous points of contact between the two. However, the problem with this theory is that our author precludes its possibility in verse 3, when he explicitly says that Melchizedek was “make like unto the Son of God.” “Like unto” is very different from “equal to” or “identical with,” which is what we would have to say if he was the preincarnate Christ. But if he wasn’t an angel and he wasn’t a preincarnate Christ, then what is meant by all this language about having no parentage and no end of days and so on?
The key is that the phrase “without descent” really denotes “without priestly genealogy.” There is also evidence in ancient Greek literature that “without father” can mean “father unknown,” and so “without mother” would then mean something similar.1
In other words, the point being made here is not that he literally had no father and mother, but that his father and mother were not recorded in any known genealogical record. Thus, his priesthood did not depend upon some genealogical succession. Now it is noteworthy that in Genesis where genealogical succession is so important (we can trace Abraham’s back to Adam!), nothing is said about Melchizedek. There must have been a reason for this, especially given the fact that we are told that he was a priest of the most high God. In other words, our author is not stretching the canons of Biblical interpretation by putting so much importance on the silence of the text about Melchizedek’s origins. This was a point meant to be made by the text itself.
We should then interpret the statements about his apparent deathlessness in the same way. It is not that Melchizedek never died; it is just that the text never reports that. The only time he appears in the text, he appears as a living man and that is the only way we meet with him in the history of Abraham. In other words, the way he is presented in the text of Scripture, where nothing is said about his parentage and nothing is said about his origin and nothing is said about his demise, all this is meant to make a point. And the point that it is making is that this man was meant to be a type of Christ, who really does have an eternal priesthood.
The mystery of this man thus sets up an important contrast between Melchizedek – and thus the Christ – and the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priesthood depended upon genealogical succession (cf. Ezra 7:1-6). It also ended upon the death of the priest. The Levitical priests don’t carry their office into eternity. So the fact that the Messiah would be like Melchizedek means that his priesthood could never be merely an extension of the Levitical priesthood. It was radically different – different especially in terms of its origin and different in terms of its continuance.
So all this is meant to make two big points. The first big point is that Melchizedek was like Jesus in his priesthood, and the second big point is that he was different from the Levitical priesthood. Putting those two things together, our author will be able to make his main point in the following verses: that the Levitical priesthood is inferior to the priesthood of Jesus. Melchizedek was like Jesus in that his priesthood was a type of Christ’s eternal priesthood. And he is different from the Levitical priesthood in that he does not have a succession-dependent priesthood. He is also like Jesus in that he is greater than Abraham – although of course Jesus is ultimately greater than Melchizedek himself! Which also makes him different than the Levitical priests since being greater than Abraham makes him also greater than Abraham’s descendants.
Now all of this will be unpacked further in the following verses. We simply want to point these things out as we explore what our author has to say about this mysterious person. But this leads us to our next main point.
Melchizedek tells us something very important about the purpose of the Old Testament.
It is sometimes easy to see the OT as a series of disconnected stories about interesting and sometimes very colorful people. But the reality is that all the OT is meant to tell one story. And that story is the story of the redemption of sinful humanity fallen in Adam. It is the story of how God is working out his plan of redemption in history through the family of Abraham in accordance with the promises God made to him. Two things are therefore happening in the OT: first, God is working in history to bring about a Savior, a Savior who will be a descendent of Abraham. Second, God is progressively unfolding his plan of redemption, beginning with the books of Moses and then through the Prophets and the Psalms.
This being the case, the OT is really essentially unified around God’s plan of redemption, which comes to us in its pages in God’s words and works. The purpose of the history it relates and the purpose of its ethical teaching and doctrinal instruction is all meant to bring about faith in the God of Abraham who saves. This history and teaching will continue in the NT in the person and work of Jesus the Son of God, the son of Abraham, and in the teaching of his apostles. This is what the book of Hebrews teaches: the NT is the continuation of the message of the OT (Heb. 1:1). Which means that ultimately the whole Bible, OT and NT, is about the person and work of Christ.
We see this illustrated in the man Melchizedek. His brief appearance in the pages of Scripture is not to satisfy morbid curiosity but to point us to Jesus Christ. His being a king points us to the righteousness- imputing and peace-bringing Savior. His being a priest points us to our Lord’s atoning work on the cross to purge the guilt of our sins and to intercede for us in heaven. Even the mystery behind his origins and his future are meant to point us to the never-ending and eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Now this doesn’t mean that we read the OT allegorically, as if every detail was meant to convey a specific spiritual truth. For example, I’m not meant to read the story of David and Goliath and interpret the five smooth stones in terms of the Five Points of Calvinism! This would be to turn the OT into a nose of wax. But it does mean that we should read the OT in light of its overall purpose – to read it and to interpret it in light of God’s overarching purpose of redemption in Christ. Thus the history of the OT shows us the faithfulness of God in keeping his promises, promises which all ultimately find their yes and amen in Christ. The teaching of the OT is meant to point us to the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man so that we will see our need of a Savior.
So the story of Melchizedek shows us how we should read our OT. It shows us that we should read it with a gospel focus. Which means two things: we read the OT in light of NT realities, and then as we read the OT, we are seeking to understand how a particular text connects to the bigger story of redemption in Christ.
Of course, we can’t do this if we don’t read the OT! I often hear people say that the book of Hebrews is hard. Perhaps one of the reasons we find it difficult is because we spend so little time in Genesis – Malachi. We need to read the stuff before Matthew: remember that this is primarily what the Scriptures were for the early church. When Paul tells Timothy that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable, he was primarily referring to the OT (2 Tim. 3:16-17). What was profitable for Paul should be profitable for you and me!
But it also shows us something else: that even the details of the OT are important! Four verses in the OT provide important and critical information about the person and work of our Lord. Even the silence about Melchizedek’s origins is important! No space is wasted in the OT, indeed, in all the Bible. Beware of scanning over verses that may not seem important. Rather, pray for insight and ask the Lord to help you see the meaning and importance even of those obscure passages in the Bible. For there are no vestigial passages in the Bible.
So what’s the bottom line here? The bottom line is that God is speaking in the Scriptures. That’s what makes all this important. That’s why we are seeking to understand the intricacies of the interpretation of this passage. It’s why we’re interested in the person of Melchizedek; it’s because he is in the Bible and everything in the Bible is important. On the other hand, if God is not speaking in the Bible, then we’re just wasting our time here. Who cares what this author thought about some mysterious character who barely shows up in the OT if it is not the word of God? The whole reason why you should be interested is because whatever God says, it’s important, whether I see it at first or not, whether I see the relevance of it or not, whether I feel the reality of it upon me or not.
There are so many people talking today, so many blogs, so many podcasts, so many messages on social media. And most of it has very little, if any, real value or substance. But the claim of the Bible is that in its words God speaks. He is speaking from the first words of Genesis to the last word of Revelation. He not only spoke it into existence in the past, but the Holy Spirit continues to speak through it today. Which means that this word is worthy of your most serious attention. I fear for those who yawn their way through the Bible, who think it is not important for them. Does that describe you? How much thought have you given to the claims of the Bible upon your life?
When you hear the Bible, you are hearing the word of God to you. You need to understand that. And you need to do something with that (cf. Mt. 7:24-27). Most importantly, you need to understand this word is not here to make you a self-righteous religious person who is a Bible expert; it is meant to tell you about the Son of God, Jesus Christ, so that you will trust in him as your Lord and as the only one who is able to wash away your sins, so that when you stand before God most high on the Day of Judgment you won’t be trying to find a hole to crawl into or a mountain to fall on you, but find him to be for you the Rock of Ages. As the hymn puts it,
God is speaking in all of Scripture the sweet and satisfying story of the gospel. It’s in the Garden of Eden when man fell, in the promise of the serpent-crushing seed of the woman. We see it in Noah’s ark. We see it in Melchizedek. We see it in the lamb slain on Passover night. We see it in the reign of David. We see it in the predictions of the prophets and the longings of the psalmists. All the music of the Bible is there for you to hear, and it is gospel music, inviting you to see and savor Jesus Christ. Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed are they that put their trust in him (Ps. 34:8).
1 William Lane, Hebrews 1-8 [WBC, vol. 47A], (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1991), p. 158.