Perhaps the most mysterious figure in the entire Old Testament is Melchizedek, who met the conquering Abraham with bread and wine after he returned from battling four kings and recovering his nephew, Lot. He is called “the priest of God Most High,” designating him as worshiping God even as did Abraham. He blessed Abraham and received tithes from Abraham (Genesis 14). Then no mention is made of Melchizedek for another thousand years, until David prophesies of the Messiah being declared “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Psa. 110). Again, no mention is made for another thousand years until the author of Hebrews writes to assure and encourage this struggling congregation by understanding the substance of Christ as their priest through the shadow of Melchizedek. While the language and typology might be unfamiliar to our Western minds, the message conveyed in the text is quite clear. All who will come in faith to Jesus Christ will find Him to be an all-sufficient priest who saves for eternity. Do you know Jesus Christ as your priest? Consider the author’s explanation of Christ in the priestly order of Melchizedek.
I. The Foreshadowing of Christ’s Priesthood
The Holy Spirit is the ultimate author of Scripture. Peter reminds us, “For no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (II Pet. 1:21). Our Lord indicated the same when referring to Psalm 110—the same text that the writer of Hebrews bases his exposition—Jesus said, “David in the Spirit” called the Messiah ‘Lord’ (Matthew 22:43). The early disciples, gathered for prayer after Peter and John had been released from jail, declaring that David spoke of the Messiah “by the Holy Spirit,” with David being only a mouthpiece of the Spirit’s utterance (Acts 4:24-26). The revelation of Scripture is the record of the utterances of the Holy Spirit through human vessels. “When the Scripture speaks, God speaks,” as J.I. Packer put it. So what does that have to do with Melchizedek? It is a reminder that this mysterious figure in the book of Genesis did not happen along by accident and that out of all the thousands of days and experiences in the life of Abraham, this one was among the few singled out for our benefit by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. Early readers of Genesis did not know what to make of Melchizedek. Then came David, setting forth one of several Messianic prophecies in the Psalms, making the rather odd statement of a divine oath, “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’” (Psa. 110:4). For another thousand years this psalm was sung in worship of the Lord by the Israelites in both their liberty and captivity. What did it mean? Why would the Messiah be declared a priest according to the order of Melchizedek?
1. A Devine Revelation
The first consideration is to understand that our writer is using typology to explain the nature and sufficiency of Christ as priest and king. Typology is “a hermeneutical concept in which a biblical place… person… event… institution… office… or object… becomes a pattern by which later persons or places are interpreted due to the unity of events within salvation-history” [ISBE, vol. IV, 930]. In this interpretive device you have types and antitypes. The antitype is the fulfillment of the original person or event. It serves as prophetic language, explaining in shadowy fashion a future person or reality. It is more than an illustration; it gives vivid pictures of what will certainly transpire through the antitype.
As an example, the bronze serpent that Moses lifted upon the pole for the perishing Israelites to look upon and be healed was a type of Christ on the cross. Jesus referred to this in John 3:14, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (the type), even so must the Son of Man be lifted up (the antitype).”
It is this interpretive device that the author of Hebrews is utilizing when he refers to Melchizedek. We will spend time analyzing what he has written, but it is important for us to recognize that this biblical author saw the continuity of Scripture. All of Scripture ultimately points to Jesus Christ—the Redeemer and Lord. This unity of the biblical writers stretched over a 1500-year period displays a remarkable symmetry as they record events and prophecies that find their fulfillment centuries later in Jesus Christ. Melchizedek is the shadow of which Jesus Christ is the substance. We understand this through biblical revelation.
There is also the teaching of representation in the figures of our text. “And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.” Even though Levi was the great-grandson of Abraham and not even his grandfather had been born, Levi is considered to have paid tithes and expressed his subordination to Melchizedek through Abraham. The Hebrew idea of Levi “still in the loins of his father” carries the concept of representation. O. Palmer Robertson asks, “How can the action of a person in one generation be reckoned as the action of another person in a subsequent generation?” He answers, “As strange as it may seem, this concept fits the pattern of biblical representations. Adam acted as the representative for the whole human race, and the high priest of Israel acted for the whole nation on the Day of Atonement. In a simple way, Abraham acted for Aaron in acknowledging the superiority of Melchizedek” [The Israel of God, 65]. The solidarity of a family, tribe, or race of people is bound up in the representative. It is through this interpretive instrument that the writer can make his claim that the priesthood of Jesus Christ is greater than that of the Aaronic priesthood; as such His priesthood is altogether sufficient for the eternal salvation of all who come by faith to Jesus Christ.
II. Substance of Christ’s Priesthood
We must not stay in the shadows if we are to understand this text. For the focus of this text is really not on Melchizedek, but rather on Jesus Christ. Through explaining the details of this Old Testament character we come to a clearer understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ, and why He is greater than all of the Aaronic/Levitical priesthood.
1. Intrinsic character
The second verse utilizes the name and position of Melchizedek to help us understand the natural, intrinsic character of Jesus Christ. “For this Melchizedek, king of Salem…was first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace.” The combination of the Hebrew terms for king and righteousness produce the name, Melchizedek, literally, “my king is righteousness” [Robertson, 61]. This was not happenstance. His name was given as a shadow of One who was to come 2000 years later. In Jewish thought, a name was to represent one’s character. So when a person would go through a significant change in his life, his name might be changed to reflect it. In the case of our text, “Melchizedek” explains the essence of Christ as one who rules over creation and the redeemed in righteousness. “Righteousness” refers to the moral character, attitude, and behavior of our Lord. Jesus Christ alone incarnated righteousness. He is declared to be “the Righteous One” (I John 2:1), and the essence of righteousness for the believer (I Cor. 1:30). Jesus displayed righteousness in all of His dealings with others. He never contradicted the revelation of His righteousness in the Law. Here the emphasis is upon his righteousness being displayed in the way He rules over His people. There is great comfort in this truth as we realize that Jesus Christ will never contradict His character in the way He works in our lives. Do you fear his rule over your life and all the details it encompasses? Then see Jesus Christ as your King of righteousness. History records a multitude of kings and dictators and presidents who lacked the righteous character in their reigns, and thus terrorized their people. But our Lord is never like that! We are secure in his righteousness. For a people under the strain of persecution it was vital that they knew that their Sovereign rules in righteousness.
“King of Salem,” is explained to mean “king of peace.” The ancient city of Jerusalem was likely the place referred to in this title of Melchizedek. There he exercised a godly rule and the city was blessed with peace. But his title was simply a shadow of the lasting, eternal peace that comes through Jesus Christ. Isaiah prophesied that He would be called, “the Prince of peace” (9:6). Paul declared Christ to be our peace who through His own death delivered us from being at enmity with God (Eph. 2:14-16). The need for peace has never changed. Circumstances may be different, but the struggle of humanity to live at peace with God has existed since Adam. It is only through the justification that is in Christ, received by faith, that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
Let’s go back to our first century audience for a moment. All of life was coming unglued for them. Threatened by persecution on one hand, and fear of having embraced the wrong religion on the other, they were distraught and needed assurance. The entire Epistle breathes an air of assurance for these embattled saints. They could count on the reign of Jesus Christ to be righteous. He would exercise his rule in demonstration of the perfections of his character. And they could count on the rule of Christ over their lives eventuating in peace. Their peace was threatened. So this pastoral writer uses the shadow of the ancient Melchizedek to show them the substance of Jesus Christ as their king of peace.
2. Effective mediator
The primary emphasis of Hebrews 7 is upon Jesus Christ being a better mediator than the Aaronic priests. They served for hundreds of years and none of them adequately mediated the way to God for the people. Their priestly duties were temporary, serving for 30 years if spared death, and then being replaced by someone else. They offered sacrifices that could not take away sin (10:4) based upon a covenant that could not make the people righteous (8:6-7). But the type prefigured the antitype who would never be replaced and whose work would be eternally effective. “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually.”
Some have taken this text as an indication that Melchizedek was an angel or even a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. The Genesis 14 text does not tell us anything about the genealogy of Melchizedek. It is strangely silent, since all of the other Old Testament worshipers of God are identified through their genealogies. Melchizedek stands alone—mysteriously alone! John Calvin comments on this silence concerning Melchizedek, “It must not be thought to be an omission either by accident or any lack of thought that he is given no family connection, and that there is no word of his death. The truth is that the Spirit has done this purposely so as to elevate him for us above the herd of men” [quoted by P. Hughes, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 249, fn. 3]. We are to see him as the type that the Holy Spirit intended concerning the antitype, Jesus Christ.
When you read that Melchizedek was without father, mother, genealogy, having neither beginning nor end of days, you have the idea of one who is eternal. That is the message intended by the biblical writers—in Genesis, Psalms, and Hebrews. The picture is to resemble Jesus Christ in his eternality. But we might say, Jesus had a birth through a human mother and both Matthew and Luke offer his genealogy! Indeed that is true of the incarnate Son, Jesus in his humanity. While the writer of Hebrews makes much of the humanity of Christ, here he stresses the fact that He is the Son of God, who is “eternally the same and his years will never end (Heb. 1:12; 13:8)” [Hughes, 248-249].
There is an intentional contrast with the temporary, ineffective nature of the Aaronic priesthood (or Levitical priesthood), and the eternal, perpetual effectiveness of the priesthood of Christ. He asserts of Christ as prefigured by Melchizedek, “He remains a priest perpetually.” Later he will speak of the continual intercession of Christ and how that truth should give us assurance of our salvation (7:23-25). Here he establishes his case. The priesthood of Jesus Christ, His mediatorial actions on our behalf, never has an end, never faces a loss, and never is inadequate.
What is the point of all this for us who have long forgotten about the Aaronic priesthood? Sometime we struggle with trying to assume the position of Christ as mediator for our lives. We seek to use our works or religious activities or moral actions or Christian service as a means to convey us into the presence of God. We are trying to be our own priests. With this struggle comes a loss of assurance, and rightly so. With it comes a frustration with the Christian life and the promises of God. And why is this so? It is because we have neglected to see Jesus Christ as our eternally effective mediator, the priest who remains perpetually. The type is given to help us understand the perfections of the antitype and, therefore, to walk in assurance before Him.
3. Dual offices
During the earthly ministry of our Lord, the office of high priest was coupled with the unofficial rulership of the people of Israel. Annas and Caiaphas were the two most powerful people in Israel. They served alternately as high priest. But not being satisfied with the office of spiritual leader and mediator for the people, they sought to add to it the iron fisted, often deceptive, rule over Israel. But the high priest of the Aaronic order was not to be king. He was not to live with the temptation of wielding power without integrity and thus desecrating the office of high priest. Nor was he to devote himself to ruling in favor of mediating before God. The Aaronic/Levitical priests were unqualified to simultaneously serve as priest and king. But not so with Jesus Christ!
Melchizedek is identified as, “king of Salem, priest of the Most High God.” And in priestly fashion as Abraham returned from slaughtering the pagan kings, “blessed [Abraham], to whom also Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils.” United in one man were the offices of king and priest as a foreshadowing of the One who would unite these offices in perfect harmony.
The writer of Hebrews has already laid the foundation of the prophetic office of Jesus Christ. He is the One through whom God “in these last days has spoken” (1:1-2). He is also the One who proclaims the name of the Lord to the elect and leads them in worship (2:11-12). And this writer also establishes the priestly office of Jesus Christ, calling him “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” and a high priest who can sympathize with us in our weaknesses (4:14-15). His priestly office is also by divine oath, and it is exercised in perfection of character (5:5-10). Now the writer chooses to bring the priestly and kingly offices of Christ together, so that we have the 3-fold offices of our Redeemer as Prophet, Priest, and King. The greatness of the priesthood of Christ is grounded in the supremacy of his rule as king, and undergirded in His prophetic word.
The 1689 London Baptist Confession helps us to see the importance of the 3-fold offices of our Lord: Christ, and Christ alone, is fitted to be mediator between God and man. He is the prophet, priest and king of the church of God. His office as mediator cannot be transferred from Him to any other, either in whole or in part.
Christ’s threefold offices are necessary for us. Because of our ignorance we stand in need of His prophetical office; because of our estrangement from God and the imperfection of our services at their best, we need His priestly office to reconcile us to God and render us acceptable to Him; because we have turned away from God and are utterly unable to return to Him, and also because we need to be rescued and rendered secure from our spiritual adversaries, we need His kingly office to convince, subdue, draw, sustain, deliver and preserve us, until we finally enter His heavenly kingdom.
Do you know the security of Jesus Christ as your Prophet, Priest, and King? Maybe you see the shadow of Christ in Melchizedek. But do you know and believe the substance—Jesus Christ, the Prophet, Priest, and King?
III. Sufficiency of Christ’s Priesthood
Perhaps you are wondering what difference all of this makes in one’s daily life. You might recall in the previous chapter that the pastoral writer had encouraged this church to see the hope that is in Christ alone, a hope that is “an anchor of the soul,” one that is certain for eternity, having entered “within the veil” (5:19). It is in reference to the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, “having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” that he now argues for the sufficiency of Christ’s priesthood over against the Aaronic priesthood that the Hebrews were being told they must return to. With the substance of Christ’s priesthood established through the illustrative shadow of Melchizedek, now the writer begins to make his point: the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ is superior to the Aaronic priesthood. And since that is true, you do not need to continue clinging to the old order, but trust in the superiority of Christ as your priest. Would they go back to the sacrifices and rituals that had been part of their lives? Or would they rest upon the sufficiency of Jesus Christ, having offered His own life as the sacrifice for their sins and the satisfaction of the justice of God?
1. Subordination of the old
To help them understand this the writer refers to the “shadow” of Melchizedek giving the priestly blessing to Abraham and receiving tithes from Abraham. “Now observe how great this man was to whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth of the choicest spoils.” The Greek emphasizes Abraham as the patriarch, that is, the primary or greatest one. To the Jewish people, no one could be greater than Abraham. Yet he acknowledged that Melchizedek, by receiving a blessing from him and giving him tithes, was greater than Abraham—or superior to Abraham.
But that was Abraham. What does this have to do with the Aaronic/Levitical priesthood? By means of representation, the writer explains that the whole Levitical priesthood was subordinated before the greater Melchizedek. “And those indeed of the sons of Levi who receive the priest’s office have commandment in the Law to collect a tenth from the people, that is, from their brethren, although these are descended from Abraham. But the one whose genealogy is not traced from them [Melchizedek] collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed the one who had the promises. But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater. In this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on. And, so to speak [i.e., he knows that his language is shocking so he gives a reminder that he is using typology], through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.”
The Aaronic/Levitical priesthood was never intended to be end-all for mediating the way to God. Their inadequacy was proved when Abraham acknowledged the superior priestly ministry of Melchizedek. And so for these believers to cast their hope and confidence in Christ away by reverting back to a dependency upon animal sacrifices offered by Levitical priests meant trust in the inferior, temporal, and inadequate rather than in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. The old priesthood must be left behind to embrace the new covenant relationship with God through Christ.
2. Superiority of the new
“The implications of this for the Jewish church as it bobs on the ominous tides of the first century were readily apparent,” writes Kent Hughes, “an eternal Melchizedekian king/priest has both secured their righteousness and peace and now devotes continual prayer for the working out of both qualities in their lives. This means they will survive the tides” . An eternal King who has a perpetual priesthood (v. 3) exceeds all rivals to our affections and worship.
We might not have the temptation to run to a Levitical priest and offer an animal sacrifice, but we might be tempted to depend upon lesser priests and worthless sacrifices of human ingenuity for our assurance. Some among us might be struggling to keep their spiritual heads above the rushing tides of temptation, doubt, fear, and lethargy. From the time that Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, the Lord God worked through thousands of years and generations of families to install His eternal Son as the Great High Priest of the Redeemed. All of the sacrifices and priestly mediators before were merely types of which Jesus Christ is the antitype—the real substance.
No one else can take away your sin. No one else can mediate for you before the throne of God with perfect satisfaction. No one else can eternally intercede for you and rule over your life to bring you through the dark waters to Heaven’s bright shore. None but our high priest and king, Jesus Christ, can give us a sure and steadfast hope that will be an anchor for the soul!