Who Was Melchizedek?

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything.  He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace.  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.

Hebrews 7:1-3

As we enter chapter 7 of our study of Hebrews and read of Melchizedek, it’s worth remembering that the Hebrew writer had already mentioned him earlier in the book.  He had said that Jesus was “designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (5:10) before changing topics to rebuke his readers for their unsatisfactory spiritual growth (5:11-6:12).  Now having again returned to the topic of Jesus “having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (6:20), the Hebrew author opens chapter 7 by giving us some background on the man whose priesthood he correlates with Christ.

The Old Testament mentions Melchizedek only twice.  Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was captured in a war between Sodom and several other cities (Genesis 14:1-12).  Abraham and his forces defeated the kings who had kidnapped Lot and rescued him (14:13-16).  After this Melchizedek, king of Salem (thought by some to eventually become Jerusalem), met with Abraham.  Cited by Moses to be both a king and “priest of God Most High,” he blessed Abraham (vs. 18-20).  Abraham in return gave him a tenth of all of his possessions (v. 20).

Melchizedek is only mentioned once more in Psalm 110:4. Psalm 110 is alluded to several times in the New Testament as containing prophecies about the Messiah.  For example, Jesus cited verse 1 as referring to himself, with Peter also later correlating it with Christ (Matthew 22:44; Acts 2:34-35).  Now in chapter 7 of Hebrews, God will inspire the author to cite Psalm 110:4 in correlation with Jesus (Hebrews 7:17, 21).  Lord willing, next week’s column will study those verses more deeply.

For now, notice how the Hebrew writer summarizes the events of Genesis 14 to give us a refresher of who Melchizedek was to Abraham (7:1-2a).  He then explained the meaning of Melchizedek’s name (“king of righteousness”), before also giving the meaning of his title (“king of Salem, that is, king of peace”).  Keeping in mind how Hebrews will connect Jesus’ priesthood with Melchizedek’s priesthood in chapter 7, it’s interesting to note that Jesus too is a “king of righteousness.”  Indeed, Hebrews has already linked a “scepter of righteousness” to Christ” (1:8; cf. Psalm 45:6-7).  Furthermore, Jesus is also a “king of peace” (cf. Luke 2:14).

Verse 3 makes many people scratch their heads.  I guess it should first be pointed out that the Hebrew writer is not saying that Melchizedek had no parents, miraculously came into being without being born, and has never died.  It’s easier to figure out this verse when we remember the high importance ancient Jews placed on genealogy.  In order to be a priest under the Law of Moses, one had to prove via their genealogy that they were descended from Levi and Aaron.  The Hebrew writer wanted his Jewish Christian readers to recognize that Jesus’ priesthood was superior to the Levitical priesthood, and thus correlates it with Melchizedek, a priest in the Old Testament who came 400 years before Aaron’s priesthood and thus was not required to be proven legitimate by the right ancestry.

Thus, Hebrews points out that the Genesis record of Melchizedek gives no record of his ancestry or descendants, nor does it record where or when he was born nor where or when he died (and thus ceased being a high priest).  Not having that information, in a figurative sense you could say that Melchizedek never stopped being a priest!  And unlike the Aaronic priesthood prescribed in the Law of Moses, Melchizedek’s priesthood was not dependent on whom his ancestors were.  As Hebrews points out, in this way he “resembl(es) the Son of God” (7:3).  Jesus, the Christian’s high priest, had no genealogy and ancestry the Jews could trace back to Aaron and Levi…just like Melchizedek.  Being eternal (John 1:1, 14), Jesus also had “neither beginning of days nor end of life”…just as was said of Melchizedek figuratively.

Next week’s column will continue our study of Jesus and Melchizedek.  If you have any questions, e-mail me at calhounchurchofchrist@gmail.com.