Who Is Melchizedek? Hebrews 7:1–10
First-century Jewish believers faced some perplexing questions concerning Christ’s high priestly ministry. Why wasn’t He called a priest while here on Earth? How could He be a legitimate high priest and how could His atoning work be efficacious if He was not from the tribe of Levi?
The writer to the Hebrews reached back into the Old Testament and, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, presented an obscure truth that had been hidden for two millennia. Christ is a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is mentioned earlier (5:6, 10; 6:20); but chapter 7 makes a fuller comparison, revealing that the Melchizedekian order was superior to the Aaronic one.
Much controversy has revolved around Melchizedek, who is one of the most significant types in Scripture to validate Christ’s high priestly ministry. He stepped briefly onto the stage of biblical history and then vanished; little is known of his background.
Introduction to Melchizedek
Melchizedek is first mentioned in relation to Abraham. After Abraham and his nephew Lot parted, Lot eventually moved to Sodom. Later four kings from the East invaded and defeated a coalition of five kings in the Jordan Valley. On hearing that the Eastern kings had abducted Lot from Sodom, Abraham marshaled 318 militarily trained men from his household and, in a nighttime assault, rescued his nephew, along with the spoils the invaders plundered from Sodom and Gomorrah. While returning from the war, Abraham was met by Melchizedek, the king of Salem and priest of God Most High, who brought out bread and wine (Gen. 14:1–18).
In Abraham’s presence, Melchizedek offered two blessings. First, he said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High” (v. 19; cf. Heb. 7:1). He recognized that Abraham had victory because he put faith and trust in God to provide it. Abraham did not receive, nor would he accept, any honor from the king of Sodom; but he did accept honor from Melchizedek.
Second, the king of Salem blessed God: “And blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (Gen. 14:20). Melchizedek honored God for Abraham’s miraculous victory. Although Abraham exercised great faith in waging war against the four kings, it was the Most High God who deserved the glory and honor in providing success.
Abraham responded by giving Melchizedek “a tithe [one-tenth] of all” of the spoil (v. 20; cf. Heb. 7:2). (Notice, tithing began with Abraham at least 400 years before the Law of Moses was given.)
Abraham’s response demonstrates three points: the victory belonged to God; the spoils of war rightfully belonged to God; and a portion of the spoils should be dedicated to honor God.
Identity of Melchizedek
The book of Hebrews identifies Melchizedek in one long sentence:
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the king s and blessed him, to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated “king of righteousness,” and then also king of Salem, meaning “king of peace,” without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually (7:1–3).
These verses reveal a number of facts about Melchizedek. First, his name means “king” (from the Hebrew, melech ) of “righteousness” (Hebrew, tzedek). Thus he was a king who ruled in righteousness—a type of Christ who, in His person and ministry, established true righteousness.
Second, Melchizedek was the king of Salem (later identified as Jerusalem), which means “peace” (Ps. 76:2). Righteousness and peace characterized Melchizedek’s rule. After His Second Coming, Christ will reign in righteousness; and Jerusalem will become the city of peace.
Third, Melchizedek was a “priest of the Most High God [Hebrew, El Elyon],” which means “God the Highest,” speaking of the true and living God. The God of Israel established Melchizedek’s priesthood, yet it was not of the same order as the Aaronic priesthood that God later established.
Fourth, Melchizedek was “without father, without mother, without genealogy [descent].” There is no record of his predecessors or successors. Since Melchizedek was a man, he had both a father and mother; but unlike Aaron’s lineage, nothing is recorded in Scripture about his descent, birth, or when he was appointed by God to become a king-priest. Israel placed great importance on a priest’s genealogy. Priests had to be able to prove they were qualified to function within the Levitical system. But no genealogy appears for Melchizedek.
Fifth, Melchizedek had neither “beginning of days nor end of life.” There is no record of his birth or death because he “remains a priest continually.” In comparison, the Levitical priesthood began and ended at a specific point in history. Thus Melchizedek’s priesthood is like Christ’s in its timelessness.
Sixth, Melchizedek’s priesthood was like Christ’s in its unlimited scope, while the Levitical priesthood ministered only to Israel.
Seventh, Melchizedek was “made like the Son of God” (Heb. 7:3). Some say this verse implies a theophany, or preincarnate appearance of Christ, similar to His appearance to Abraham (Gen. 18:1). However, the text simply states Melchizedek was made like the Son of God (v. 3), not that he was the son of God.
Dr. Homer A. Kent Jr. provided four compelling reasons why Melchizedek was not the preincarnate Christ:
(1) Melchizedek is said to be “made like the Son of God.” This is strange language if the sense is that he was actually the Son of God. To argue on the basis of a pagan king ’s statement regarding the fourth figure in the fiery furnace, “one like a son of the gods” (Dan. 3:25 ASV), is hardly convincing. (2) The statement of Psalm 110:4 calls Messiah a priest “after the order of Melchizedek.” This clearly differentiates Christ and Melchizedek, and it would hardly be a clarification if the text said he was a priest after the order of himself. (3) The historical record indicates that Melchizedek was king of a city-state in Canaan, a situation involving a fairly permanent residence on the part of the king. This would be totally without precedent so far as Old Testament revelation regarding theophanies is concerned. These were always temporary manifestations. (4) To argue from etymology that Melchizedek (“king of righteousness”) was a theophany h as its hazards. Historical and archaeological data indicate good reason to understand compounds with -zedek as reflecting a dynastic title for Jebusite kings of the areas. We have the Biblical example of Adonizedek, king of Jerusalem, in Joshua 10:1 (whose name is even more impressive); yet it can hardly be suggested that this wicked king was a theophany.1
In other words, he was not an angel, superhuman individual, or the preincarnate Christ. He was merely a man who was a king and is continually a priest. No other person in Scripture is identified as a king-priest apart from Melchizedek and Jesus Christ.
Importance of Melchizedek
To convince the Hebrew Christians of Melchizedek’s great importance, the author explained the king’s superiority to Aaron using two illustrations from the Old Testament.
First he asked readers to consider Abraham’s and Aaron’s responses to Melchizedek’s greatness: “Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils” (Heb. 7:4).
Abraham was in a position of superiority as patriarch and progenitor of the nation of Israel. But even with his pedigree, he realized Melchizedek was superior to him. And though he was under no obligation to tithe to Melchizedek, he voluntarily abased himself and generously gave the king-priest a tenth of the spoil taken from the four kings he defeated (vv. 2, 4; cf. Gen. 14:20).
Second, he discussed the Levitical priesthood that came through Aaron:
And indeed those who are of the sons of Levi, who receive the priesthood, have a commandment to receive tithes from the people according to the law, that is, from their brethren, though they have come from the loins of Abraham; but he whose genealogy is not derived from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. Now beyond all contradiction the lesser is blessed by the better. Here mortal men receive tithes, but there he receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives (vv. 5–8).
In the Law of Moses, God ordained that Levitical priests were to receive tithes from the Israelites, putting them in a superior position to those who gave the tithes. Melchizedek was not a Levite because Levi, Abraham’s great grandson, had not yet been born. Melchizedek and Abraham were contemporaries.
Furthermore, Melchizedek never demanded that Abraham give him the tithe; Abraham gave it voluntarily. Melchizedek accepted it and then blessed Abraham (Gen. 14:19–20). The Greek word for “blessed” in Hebrews 7:6 is in the perfect tense, indicating the result of Melchizedek’s historical action has lasting significance. His blessing was more than mere praise for paying tithes; it was an expression of approval from God. Melchizedek is indisputably greater than Abraham. It then follows that, if Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, he is also greater than the Levites who emanated from Abraham. Therefore, Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood.
In addition, the Levitical priests died, but Melchizedek’s death is never mentioned. This does not mean Melchizedek never died but, rather, that Scripture is silent concerning his death. Thus, in type, his priesthood is eternal—another reason Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior to Aaron’s and the Levites’.
The author concluded this section on the importance of Melchizedek by saying, “Even Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, so to speak, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him” (vv. 9–10).
In other words, the Levitical priests, although yet unborn, paid tithes to Melchizedek through their ancestor Abraham—the lesser (Levi) paying tithes to the greater (Melchizedek).
The beautiful truth presented in this chapter shows the greatness of the Lord Jesus’ high priesthood. Melchizedek, the king-priest, was superior to Aaron, Israel’s high priest. But with all his greatness, Melchizedek was only a type of the true High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is preeminent over all priests. Thus Christ is the Priest who can meet the needs of all believers everywhere, Jewish and Gentile.
- Homer A. Kent Jr., The Epistle to the Hebrews (1972; reprint, Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 2002), 127.