He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. —Hebrews 6:20
When you scan the world scene, it is interesting to note how different people rise to prominence, make their mark, and then disappear again from view. Some rise to renown gradually, like stars in the evening sky, which grow brighter and brighter as the darkness gradually overtakes the light. However, there are also persons who appear on the scene more like comets, which appear out of nowhere, streak brilliantly through the sky, and then disappear from view, never to be seen again.
There is a biblical person who reminds us of such a comet—suddenly appearing on the scene of the Old Testament world, and just as suddenly disappearing again. His name was Melchizedek, a man who must rank as one of the most mysterious of all Bible characters.
In fact, his life and deeds do not figure much in biblical history. Rather, he is significant for only one main reason: he was a type of another man, who is, without question, the most significant person in the Bible and all history—yes, who is the greatest person in the universe, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Melchizedek and Abram
Melchizedek is mentioned in three places in the Bible—in Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and in Hebrews 5, 6, and 7.
The first reference to Melchizedek, in Genesis 14, is set in the time of Abram. Abram had just rescued his nephew Lot, who had been captured by a coalition army of four kings led by Kedorlaomer, who had invaded Canaan. Lot and his family had moved near the city of Sodom. The foreign coalition had defeated the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and their allies, and in the process Lot and his family were seized and carried off as captives.
This led Abram to gather a force of his own servants, who chased the army of Kedorlaomer and was able, with the help of God, to rout them and rescue his nephew Lot.
It was on the way back from this victory that Abram was met by two kings. One was the king of Sodom, who was obviously elated that Abram had defeated the army of Kedorlaomer. He wanted to thank Abram by offering him the spoils of Sodom which Abram had recaptured. It is important to note that Abram refused to take (or keep) anything for himself from this evil king. He wanted no one to think that he had gained his riches from the king of Sodom but instead wanted to give all glory to God for his success and riches.
However, at the same time, Abram was met by another king, whose name was Melchizedek. Genesis 14:18–20 says: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying: ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”
This reference to Melchizedek, though brief, provides some very significant information about him.
One is simply that Melchizedek was an actual, historical person. Because of his uniqueness, and the statement about him in Hebrews 7:3 that he was “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end life,” some Bible students think that Melchizedek was perhaps an angel appearing in human form. Others have suggested that perhaps he was Christ, in a pre-incarnate human form. But Melchizedek is clearly identified as an earthly king. He is called “king of Salem.” Salem was the original name for the city later called “Jerusalem.” Salem is a name meaning “peace.” Hence, Melchizedek ruled over what later became the capital of Israel and its central place of worship.
Also important to note is the meaning of his name. Melchizedek is a combination of two Hebrew words which together mean: “king of righteousness.”
However, Melchizedek was not only a king, but Genesis 14:18 also states, “He was priest of God Most High.” So, he also held the office of priest. This was not uncommon among kings at this time in history. That he was the priest of “God Most High,” suggests he had some knowledge of the true God, later identified by Abram as “the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” (vs. 22).
So, who was Melchizedek? He was not a pagan Canaanite king. Neither was he from the godly line of Abraham, who was to be the father of God’s Old Testament people, the Jews. He was indeed a unique individual—a king-priest who suddenly appears on the pages of Scripture, who was used by God to bless Abram, and would serve as a type of the Messianic king-priest to come.
Hence, what is also important to note is what Melchizedek did when he met Abram and how Abram responded to this king. The Genesis account says that Melchizedek blessed Abram, saying: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
And what was Abram’s response? We read: “Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.” Abram somehow understood that he owed Melchizedek this gift from the spoils he had taken, an act that was later to have special symbolic significance, according to Hebrews.
From the above, we come to see that even though the reference to Melchizedek in Genesis 14 is very brief, it contains some crucial facts and truths.
Melchizedek in Psalm 110
After Genesis 14, we do not read of Melchizedek again for a thousand years. The next reference to him in Scripture is found in Psalm 110, a Psalm of David. This Psalm is one of the most-quoted Psalms in the New Testament. The reason it is quoted so frequently is because it speaks prophetically of the Messiah to come, Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus Himself quoted this Psalm to show that the Messiah as David’s Son was at the same time David’s Lord, that is, one much greater than David—a divine Messiah.
Psalm 110 speaks clearly of the ascension of Christ, as well as His sitting at God’s right hand and reigning in power over His enemies. The Messiah is the almighty King.
But the Psalm also speaks of Him as a priest. And in doing so, David, inspired by the Spirit, mentions Melchizedek. He writes in Psalm 110:4, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a Priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.’”
Suddenly, we have a reference here to an “order of Melchizedek,” that is, a priestly line that is not descended from the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. It is the line or order to which the coming Messiah would belong.
Melchizedek as a Type of Christ
The book of Hebrews is the last to refer to Melchizedek. Hebrews is a book that points to Christ as the exalted King-Priest. It shows Him as the one who has fulfilled the priestly functions and the tabernacle and temple ceremonies of the Old Testament.
Therefore, in Hebrews 5, 6, and 7, the author of Hebrews makes a special point of showing how Jesus Christ is the superior High Priest, far greater than all the priests and high-priests of the old dispensation. One way in which these chapters extol Christ is by referring to Melchizedek and what is said about him both in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110. Indeed, in each of these chapters, it is mentioned that Christ, God’s Son, is “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”
How was Christ like Melchizedek, or how was Melchizedek a type of Christ? Several truths are brought out in Hebrews. First, Jesus Christ was both a king and a priest—as Melchizedek was. Christ, in fact, even held a third office, that of prophet.
Second, the meaning of the name Melchizedek (king of righteousness) applies perfectly to Christ and to Him alone. Melchizedek as a human being was far from righteous in himself. But as Scripture repeatedly emphasizes, our Savior is the perfectly righteous King who is just and true in all His being and reign.
Third, as king of Salem, Melchizedek bore a title meaning “king of peace.” He pointed ahead to that Prince of Peace, who has brought true and lasting peace on earth—the peace of reconciliation between sinners and God.
Fourth, Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High God. We do not know exactly how he functioned in that capacity. But we do know that the ultimate priest of the Most High God was His own divine Son, whom God sent into the world to offer the final, perfect sacrifice for sin by His death.
Fifth, Christ is an eternal priest who lives forever. Hebrews 7:3 makes the puzzling statement about Melchizedek that he was “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life.” This must not be understood literally. As noted above, Melchizedek was not an angelic or divine being. He was a human being who had a beginning and ending to his life. What the author of Hebrews means is that there is no record of Melchizedek’s parents or genealogy, or even his birth and death. He appears and disappears like a comet on the pages of Scripture. He seems like an eternal figure.
But Christ, of whose human life we do have a record in Scripture and of whom we know his parents and genealogy and his birth and death, is the truly eternal High Priest. He was from eternity, and He lives forever as our High Priest and Intercessor with the Father.
Sixth, we should also note how Christ as “a priest in the order of Melchizedek” is superior to all the priests who served God’s people in the Old Testament. Those priests all came from the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. Before that, they were also descendants of Abraham.
In Hebrews 7, the author makes the argument that, when Abram offered tithes to Melchizedek, he indicated thereby that Melchizedek was greater than he. And so, all the priests of the Old Testament who were descended from Abraham are far lower than He who is the priest “in the order of Melchizedek.”
Christ is the great High Priest. He is the King to whom all must pay tribute. He is the One before whom every knee must bow. He alone is worthy to receive our gifts and our service. Indeed, He owns all of our lives.
And in turn, those who believe in and belong to this King-Priest will receive His blessing. As Melchizedek pronounced blessing on Abram, so all who belong to God’s redeemed, covenant people will receive the blessing of the great King and High Priest, Jesus Christ, of whom Melchizedek was only a type.
Rev. James Admiraal is a retired pastor in the URCNA. He served most recently as pastor of Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI. He also served for several years on the board of Reformed Fellowship.