October 23, 2014.
For my final class that I am teaching in Genesis this quarter, we are going to discuss a character that only gets three verses in the book of Genesis, but becomes very important in Christology, especially when discussing the priestly role of Christ. The story of Abram and Melchizedek is perhaps one of my favorites in the book of Genesis, not because of the story itself, but because of the point that the Hebrew writer makes using it, which we will get to later. Before we get to the story, however, it is good to have a little background and context setting.
The account of Abram’s interaction with Melchizedek is one that has been the subject of much mystery and thought over the years, as it appears and disappears quite suddenly in Genesis 14. Overall, there are only 4 verses dedicated to Melchizedek in the entire Old Testament. This in and of itself is not what is perplexing- plenty of names in the Old Testament get far less attention. What is peculiar is the abrupt nature in which Melchizedek is brought up in Genesis 14, the way he is referenced in Psalm 110:4, and the way his role in Christology is fleshed out in almost three chapters by the author of the book of Hebrews. Though Melchizedek appears a good number of times in second temple period literature, the apographa-esk accounts do not deal with Psalm 110:4 at all, and the dead sea scroll accounts depict him as an angelic figure (only supposedly based off of Psalm 110:4). To me, it seems unlikely that the Hebrew writer drew heavily from these sources to develop this Christology, though its not completely outlandish to think he might have drawn on some common conceptions of Melchizedek at the time. It is clear that the Hebrew writer saw Melchizedek as a type of Christ, and it appears that he drew this theology mostly from these four verses from the Old Testament.
The story of Melchizedek falls just after Abram rescues his nephew Lot who had been taken as a captive of war along with his family when a pact of four kings went to war against the king of Sodom. If you are familiar with the story, you know that when God called Abram to get up from his country and his people and go into the land which God would give to him and his offspring (Genesis 12), he took his nephew Lot with them. Their herds and people became so numerous that they had to separate to keep the peace. Abram gave Lot his choice of settling in the land of Canaan, and Lot chose to pitch his tent towards Sodom. Now the king of Sodom and four of his allies had gone to war against Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, and three of his allies, five kings against four. We don’t get a lot of details about the battle, but we see that Chedorlaomer and his allies defeated the king of Sodom and took the possessions of the cities, including Lot and his family, along with their possessions. When Abram heard of his nephew’s distress, he took 318 trained men to go to battle with Chedorlaomer, and defeated them, bringing back Lot with his possessions and the people. It is on the return from this victory that we meet Melchizedek.
Abram and Melchizedek.
As Abram is coming back from his victory, the king of Sodom comes to the Valley of Shaveh, assumingly to express his gratitude to Abram for defeating Chedorlaomer. All of the sudden, Melchizedek, king of Salem, shows up on the scene to bless Abram. Salem is likely a reference to a city that was a precursor to Jerusalem, as you can see Salem in the name of Jerusalem. This would shed a little light on the importance of Melchizedek in the eyes of an Israelite. The Hebrew writer would later inform us that “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” We also learn from Genesis that Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High. This phrase “God Most High” is a very interesting phrase, and is usually used in the context of referencing God in the midst of other spiritual beings. It seems to bypass the terms of the Mosaic Law, harking back to what was before the Law. This is obviously the case here, as we see that Melchizedek was a priest before the Aaronic priesthood was ever established (this will become very important later). Melchizedek brings out bread and wine for Abram and his men, and then pronounces a blessing upon Abram through God Most High.
After this blessing, Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth of everything. This is a very interesting action, especially when compared with what happens next. The tithing done here would suggest that Abram understands that he is subordinate in some way to Melchizedek, perhaps specifically in terms of a spiritual hierarchy, if you will (just as the children of Israel would give tithes to the Levites, the tribe chosen to be the spiritual leaders of all the tribes of Israel). Contrast this interaction with Abram’s encounter with the king of Sodom, developed in the following verses. Abram is unwilling to take anything that the king of Sodom offers, though he apparently had no problem taking the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek, and he certainly doesn’t give the king of Sodom a tithe of anything. There seems to be trust in the relationship that Abram has with Melchizedek, and a deep cynicism or distrust with the king of Sodom (which may not be all that surprising, given the wicked nature of Sodom that we will learn about later). From this interaction, it is more than fitting that the Hebrew writer calls Melchizedek “king of Righteousness.”
The important takeaways from this interaction with Melchizedek, which will become apparent as we move on, are Melchizedek’s status as a priest of the Most High, his lack of genealogy (and possibly the abrupt nature of his appearance and disappearance), and the fact that Abram pays him tithes. This will all become important as the Hebrew writer shows Melchizedek as a type of Christ.
Melchizedek and Christ.
The only other instance in the Old Testament where we find a reference to Melchizedek is in Psalm 110. What’s interesting about this reference, however, is that it is in the middle of a very clear messianic prophecy. This psalm is referenced upon numerous occasions in the New Testament (Acts 2:34-35, Heb. 1:13, 5:6, 7:27,21), even by Jesus himself (Mt. 22:44, Mk. 12;36, Luke 20:42). It is clear from Jesus’ use of the psalm that the Jewish leaders of his day knew that this was a messianic passage. So what is Melchizedek, a king who got three verses in the book of Genesis, doing in the middle of a messianic prophecy?
The key parts of verse 4 are these two phrases: “priest forever” and “after the order of Melchizedek.” The author of Hebrews will elaborate on the phrase “priest forever”. In the second phrase we find that there is an order, or some rank/characteristic that Melchizedek’s priesthood had that Aaron’s priesthood did not, as it is reasonable to assume that the Psalm is contrasting the two priesthoods. Note again that Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High God before the Aaronic priesthood was ever established.
Now we finally get to what the book of Hebrews has to say about Melchizedek. The author spends the better part of Hebrews 4:14-7:28 setting up Christ as our great high priest after the order of Melchizedek. As high priest, Jesus acts on behalf of men in relation to God, offering the ultimate sacrifice for our sins through his death on the cross. Not only is he our high priest, he is a high priest that knows our sufferings intimately, having gone through them himself and knowing our struggles, having been tempted in every respect that we have been (Heb. 4:14-16). But there was a necessity that Jesus’ priesthood be different than the Aaronic priesthood. The most obvious reason for this is that the Aaronic priesthood was occupied by sinful men, who had to also make intercession for themselves as they made intercession for the people. Further, the sacrifices that they made, the blood of bulls and goats, could never actually take away sin (Heb. 10:4). If you notice in the laws for sacrifices in the book of Leviticus, most, if not all, animal sacrifices were for unintentional sins (see Leviticus 4-6), or for purification (even without sin, such as in the case of childbirth).1 The priests of the Aaronic priesthood also were mortal men who died and continually passed on the priesthood to another.
To overcome these limitations of the Law, for perfection was not obtainable through the law (Heb. 7:18-19), Jesus’ priesthood had to be established on a different order, a better order. This is where the Hebrew writer pulls in Psalm 110 and Genesis 14, using them to paint Melchizedek as an archetype of Christ. Melchizedek was the king of Salem and a priest of the Most High God. We know very little about this Melchizedek as we are not given his genealogy nor a record of his birth or death. In a way he appears out of nowhere and then disappears as quickly as he appeared. He did not need to be of a certain lineage to be a priest of the Most High, just as Jesus came through the line of Judah, of which the Law said nothing about priesthood. Melchizedek, in a sense, continued as a priest forever because he is not recorded as having the beginning of days or the end of life, just as Jesus continues as our High Priest forever, having been raised from the dead to defeat death, never to die again.
Melchizedek, whose name is translated as king of righteousness and his kingdom as the king of peace, is shown to be the greater of the two men, as Abraham gave him a tenth of the spoils of war. By extension, it could even be said that Levi, from whom the Levitical priesthood would come, gave tithes to Melchizedek through Abraham his ancestor. Yet the inferior was blessed by the superior (just as we are blessed through Christ, our superior). The Hebrew writer emphasizes different comparisons of better/more excellent verses the inferior. Note the importance here that Melchizedek is before the Law, just as the Abrahamic covenant was made before the Law (see Gal. 3). Since Jesus was of the tribe of Levi, there was a change in priesthood, and therefore a change in the law- back to the order of Melchizedek, king of Righteousness and of Peace. Do you see the connection?
The Levitical priesthood was plagued by sin and death. There was need for many priests because they all succumbed to death. Further, the law made nothing perfect. But Jesus is the guarantor of a better covenant, for His priesthood was confirmed with an oath (the Lord swore) and build on the only sacrifice that could actually take away our sins, and that was the sacrifice of His life, the perfect Lamb of God. He introduced a better hope. Jesus did not need to offer first for His own sins, for He knew no sin, but rather was able to impart a purity that the blood of bulls and goats from the Levitical priesthood could never do (see Hebrews 10:4). Nor was He prevented from continuing in office by death, because He won the victory over death and lives forever. The word of oath that came in Psalm 110:4 appointed Christ as a priest forever, just as Melchizedek continued forever, and the bearer of a more excellent covenant.
Milk to meat.
This is actually why the story of Melchizedek is one of my favorite stories in the book of Genesis.I love the application point that the author of Hebrews makes when he is talking about Melchizedek. Though he is in the middle of deep theological discussion, the Hebrew writer takes a break to address the people he is writing to directly, that they might recognize where they are in terms of maturity (see Heb. 5:11-6:12). He bluntly says that what he is trying to explain is hard to grasp because they had become dull of hearing. They should have reached the point where they were able to teach these things, but they were still stuck on the basic principles of faith. Even more, they still needed someone to teach them again these basic principles. They were on milk when they should have been enjoying the spiritual meat of the word of God. He warns them here that they need to press on to maturity, with their powers of discernment trained to distinguish good from evil.
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
He goes on in rebuking and encouraging his audience to press on to maturity, leaving the elementary principles. This is not to say that they were to forget these teachings, of course, but rather to move past them. He lists six fundamental teachings that should be accepted and not laid again as a foundation: repentance, faith, baptismal instructions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection and eternal judgment. It was time to move on into deeper study and deeper understanding. Then the Hebrew writer makes a strong statement, saying that it is impossible for those who have tasted salvation and then fallen away to be renewed to repentance since they are crucifying the Son of God once again and holding Him up to content. Note that this says it is impossible to renew them to repentance, indicating that they who had fallen away were unwilling to repent of their sins, and thus why they were crucifying (present participle, continuing tense) the Son of God again (see Hebrews 10:26). They were a crop that had born thorns and thistles, and were to be thrown into the fire (see Luke 13:6-9). The Hebrew writer was not saying these things to his audience so as to discourage them, but rather to encourage them to be imitators of those though faith and patience inherit the promises. He was confident that their response would be positive, that they would indeed push towards maturity.
We too should take the warning given here by the Hebrew writer to press on to maturity, not laying again the foundational principles but enjoying the solid meat of the word. Our journey to maturity is expected of us as Christians. Too often do I see Christians who remain shallow in their theology, not wanting to take it to the next level for this reason or that. Maybe we say we’re too busy, or not smart enough. Maybe we assume that’s the preacher’s job, and not our own. Or maybe we are scared that we will find things that we don’t know, don’t understand or perhaps even show that we have been wrong about some point of theology all of our lives. Whatever our excuse, I don’t think the Hebrew writer would have accepted it. We are expected to grow, learn and mature in Christ. It is not optional. Lest we be like the audience here that still needed spiritual milk when they should have been eating the meat of the word of God. Let us be encouraged by this example, and press on to deeper study and deeper understanding of the One who created us all.
Suggested Reading: Genesis 14, Psalm 110, Hebrews 5-7.
Let us press on to maturity.
1. In our study of the Abrahamic covenant, we saw that an important theme was that it was made prior to the Law (see Gal. 3). This interaction with Melchizedek also happens before the Law, and we see that Melchizedek was a priest before the Aaronic priesthood was ever established. Do you think this is significant? Why or why not.
2. The blessing the Melchizedek gives Abram is focused on God and what He did for Abram. Is this how we look at our accomplishments today? How can we incorporate this attitude into our daily lives?
3. Compare and contrast Abram’s interaction with Melchizedek and with the king of Sodom.
4. Psalm 110:4 is clearly a Messianic Psalm. The key parts of Psalm 110:4 are these two phrases: “priest forever” and “after the order of Melchizedek.” What do you make of these two phrases?
5. This psalm is referenced upon numerous occasions in the NT. How important was OT to early Christians?
6. Hebrews 5-7 deals extensively with Jesus being our high priest and the necessity of there being a change in the Law. To overcome the limitations of the Law, for perfection was not obtainable through the law (Heb. 7:18-19), Jesus’ priesthood had to be established on a different order, a better order. What were some limitations of the Law? What does “the order of Melchizedek” entail? How is it better?
7. Melchizedek was the king of Righteousness and Peace. How is he a type of Christ?8. Though he is in the middle of deep theological discussion, the Hebrew writer takes a break to address the people he is writing to directly, that they might recognize where they are in terms of maturity. Are there ways we can recognize our own immaturity?
9. Do you think the Hebrew writer is being too harsh?
10. He goes on in rebuking and encouraging his audience to press on to maturity, leaving the elementary principles. Do we ever dwell on the elementary principles? How?
11. We are expected to grow, learn and mature in Christ. It is not optional. What are some practical ways in which we can mature in Christ? How can we continue in them?
12. How can we measure our growth?
1. For a very good study on what Leviticus teaches about the sin and guilt offerings, see Dr. Michael Heiser’s podcasts on Leviticus 4, 5 and 6: Leviticus 4, Leviticus 5, Leviticus 6. ↩