The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand,
till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”
The Lord has sworn. And will not repent,
“You are a priest forever. According to the order of
Gen. 14:18-20; Ps. 110:4; Heb. 5:5-10, 6: 17-20, 7:1-28.
Although Melchizedek is mentioned only twice in the Old Testament (OT), the Epistle to the Hebrews, which mentions him in a number of chapters, made of this early portrayal in the OT a basis for the most important teachings of Christianity on the Salvation offered by Christ and on His ministry as a Priest.
Melchizedek appeared first in the Genesis story of Abraham, when the king of Sodom received Abraham (Gen. 14:18-20). Mechizedek was not a party in the war which involved nine kings (Gen. 14:9). Rather, he appeared suddenly to bring forth bread and wine and offer them to God. He blessed God, and blessed Abraham, and received the tithe from him. The OT annals of the history of salvation do not mention Melchizedek any further; he suddenly disappeared as he suddenly appeared.
Recent manuscripts and excavations in Phoenicia and Syria support the account of Melchizedek, e.g. the use of God’s name ‘El-Elyon’ (Almighty). Manuscripts discovered in Tel-Amerna (Egypt) cite the name Jerusalem as one of the important cities of Canaan. The same manuscripts translate Melchizedek as ‘the king of righteousness’, as used in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb. 7:2). The same meaning was used in the writings of the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo in the 1st century. In Psalm 76:2, the city of Salem (peace) is cited as being the same as Jerusalem, a synonym of Zion. Again, this is supported by ancient Jewish writings.
Historically speaking, when Abraham was returning home after defeating the kings and rescuing his nephew Lot from captivity, he passed by the city of Salem. The king of that city, Melchizedek, received him and brought forth bread and wine. In recognition of the king’s priesthood, Abraham gave him a tithe of all he had. No doubt, the story puts Melchizedek in a higher rank than Abraham, because he blessed Abraham who acknowledged his priesthood – an act that bewildered Jewish scholars. This is made all the more complex by the wording of the Psalmist, “The Lord has sworn and will not repent (change his mind). You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4), although priesthood has been completely separated from civil leadership and rule since the days of King Saul.
Throughout history, the Jews never accepted the notion of a king who would combine the attributes of ‘sovereign kingship’ and ‘priesthood.’ Therefore, when the revolt of the Maccabees, who were priests themselves, took place in the 2nd century BC, the devout Jews did not feel comfortable with the situation at the mention of Melchizedek (implying a combination of roles). However, some of the recently discovered manuscripts in Qumran (1956) included material about Melchizedek who would offer sacrifices of atonement and would pray for the sinners as a priest on the Day of Judgement1.
In the New Testament, when the Lord explained to the Pharisees that Psalm 110 was about the Messiah, who was the Lord of David, they could not answer him (Mt. 22:44). The same idea was contemplated by Peter (Acts 2:34) and in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb.1:13).
A few of the early Fathers of the Church held the opinion that Melchizedek was not an ordinary man but a real manifestation of the Son of Man in the OT. This interpretation, which confuses the symbol and the symbolized, was not held by the majority of the Church Fathers. The Bible and ancient manuscripts attest to the reality of Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18; Josh. 10:1), and to the fact that he combined both kingship and priesthood. The OT also tell us that the priesthood of Christ was according to the order of Melchizedek. These three facts are all what we can draw from the OT.
Melchizedek and the priesthood of Christ2:
This issue was dealt with quite candidly in the Epistle to the Hebrews, whereas other books such as Revelation alluded to it in an indirect way. Hebrews made it clear that the mission of the priest is to offer sacrifices as a mediator between God and the people. So, his call to priesthood must come from God as stated in Psalm 110:4 about God’s call for Christ to become a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:6)3. The Epistle underscored the sublime position of Melchzedek when he blessed Abraham and accepted the tithe from him, thereby endorsing the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood. But Melchizedek was only the symbol of Christ.
“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 appointed a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he continues a priest for ever” (Heb. 7:1-3).
In his sermon on the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. John Chrisostom discussed the subject in detail saying, “Who is the king of righteousness other than our Lord Jesus Christ? He is also the king of peace: It is He who reconciled himself with all people. He reconciled to himself all things in heaven and on earth (Col. 1:20). Who can be considered the king of righteousness and peace other than our Lord Jesus Christ?”
The Epistle to the Hebrews also states in the next chapters that the Lord Jesus is the mediator of a new and a more perfect covenant (Heb. 8:6; 9:12, 12:24) and clarifies the superiority of Christ’s priesthood to that of Aaron on account of the following:
1. There were many priests in the OT because they were susceptible to death (7:23), whereas Christ “Because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood.” (7:24).
2. Whereas priests of the Jews were sinners who needed to offer a sacrifices for their own sins (5:3, 9:7), Christ was without sin (4:15, 7:26).
3. OT priesthood was an office taken without an oath, contrary to the priesthood of Christ (7:21).
4. Sacrifice in the OT was temporary and needed to be offered repeatedly (10:11), but the sacrifice of Christ was unique and done once for all (7:27, 9:12, 9:25-28).
5. OT priests were human beings with certain weakness, but Christ is ‘the Son who has been perfected for ever’ (7:28).
Finally, the Epistle draws the important conclusion that Jesus Christ is the only mediator for a more perfect and a new covenant (8:6, 9:12, 12:24). This is also what St. Paul underscored when he said that “He is the only mediator between God and men’ (1 Tim. 2:5).
The Epistle to the Hebrews proves how impossible it is to find a direct relationship between Aaron’s priesthood and that of Christ for one simple reason: Our Lord descended from the tribe of Judah “from which no man has officiated at the altar” and “of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood” (7:13,14). It is therefore wrong to apply the ritual teachings of the OT to the NT since we are dealing with a new priesthood (enacted) according to Melchizedek, a new law and a new covenant (7:12; 8:6).
This does not in any way nullify or invalidate the OT4, which is part and parcel of God’s word. But we ought to understand that it is a covenant of symbols and shadows. Only from this perspective do we find that the priesthood of Aaron symbolizes that of Christ (which is after the order of Melchizedek). All the sacrifices of the OT symbolize that of Christ and help us to understand the allusions implied, bearing in mind the deficiencies and limitations of OT sacrifices and the fallibility and weakness of the OT priests. They represent a contrasting symbol of Christ in the same way that Adam was a symbol of Christ, and Eve of St. Mary5.
The Lord’s choice of bread and wine to establish the mystery of the Eucharist was evidence that his sacrifice was different from all the sacrifices of the Jews. It also clarified that the Lord’s public call was not confined to a particular tribe or people, because he intended to make a feast unto all peoples (Is. 25:6). This all was a clear reference to the offering of Melchizedek as explained by Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the 3rd century: “In the priest Melchizedeck we see the sacrament of the sacrifice of the Lord prefigured, as the Divine Scriptures testify, since it says ‘Melchizedeck, the king of Salem brought bread and wine for he was a priest of the Most High God, and he blessed Abraham.’ Who is greater than our Lord Jesus Christ to become a priest of the Most High God? He offered bread and wine – that is, his body and blood – to God the Father after the order of Melchizedek.”
The same teaching was reiterated in the 4th century by Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who emphasized the fact that the priesthood of Melchizedek is older than that of Aaron: “The mysteries of Christians are earlier than those of the Jews. If the Jews recourse to Abraham’s authority, the symbols of our mysteries existed even before. Melchizedek, the high priest, came to Abraham the victorious and offered him bread and wine. Who brought the bread and wine? Not Abraham but Melchizedek; therefore he is the founder of the sacraments.”
St. Augustine finds a relationship between the prophecy of Malachi on the eucharistic sacrifice (Mal. 1:11) and Melchizedek’s offering: “Open your eyes at any time, from sunrise to sunset, to see that Christians do not offer sacrifices in one place only, as was prescribed for the Jews; they offer them in every place, even in Jerusalem itself, not according to the order of Aaron, but according to the order of Melchizedek.”
“Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away”
1 - International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Vol. 3, p 313.
2 - “The priesthood of Christ” and “The mystery of Priesthood” are two subjects that demand separate studies. This is why they are not discussed in this essay except as necessitated by our study of the character of Melchizedek.
3 - The New Testament emphasized that Christ is the only mediator between God and people (1 Tim 2:5; Heb. 8:1, 9, 15, 12:24).
4 - “How Christianity sees the Old Testament” (Al-Resalah, yr. 10, issue # 9).
5 - See “Eve”, the first Bible character in this series.
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