When you think of important heroes of the Bible, there are many names that might come to mind. Moses, David, Abraham, Samuel. But one name that is unlikely to be on anyone’s list is Melchizedek. Melchizedek may not have been a mighty warrior or king, but his significance in the Bible is not to overlooked. In fact, learning more about him may even help us to better understand the bigger picture of the gospel. So who, exactly, was Melchizedek?
The First Appearance
Melchizedek’s first appearance in the Bible doesn’t come with a whole lot of fanfare. The context of his arrival is that Abram – who later becomes Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel – has just returned from a victory in battle. Genesis 14:18-20 says, “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.” This simple passage lets us know many things. It first tells us that Melchizedek was a man with authority – so much so that he had the authority to bless Abram, whom we consider one of the greatest figures in the Bible, on behalf of God Himself. It also tells us that Abram clearly respected Melchizedek as a man of God. Hebrews 7:2 tells us that his name means “king of righteousness.”
The “tenth of everything” that Abram gives Melchizedek is the first act in the Bible that we can recognize as a form of tithing. Abram is not commanded to do this, nor is he mandated by any law. His giving becomes for us an example of the cheerful generosity that God delights in. This is also the first time we hear of a priest in scripture. In short, this passage is filled with quite a few firsts. While it may be easy to skim over this moment in the Bible, it is actually more important than it seems on the surface. With this in mind, we can begin to dive deeper into the significance of Melchizedek.
In the New Testament, the name “Melchizedek” is often preceded by the words “order of.” The “order of Melchizedek” implies that there is some kind of priesthood involved – which we know from Genesis’ introduction of him as a “priest of God Most High.” To understand this, we must first understand the cultural background.
Officially, priesthood in Israel began with Aaron, after the receiving of the Law of Moses on Mount Sinai. Priests were required to be direct descendants of Aaron and from the tribe of Levi. There was a long list of qualifications that a man had to meet in order to become a priest – and rightfully so. Priests in Biblical times were not as they are now; they held great authority and privileges that ordinary people simply did not have. Priests were seen as the mediators between men and God. They were allowed special access into the temple. They oversaw the process of sacrifices and offerings. Bearing the title of “priest” was not a light duty.
A Historical Landmark
Melchizedek was not simply any priest, however. He was the first high priest. In fact, he lived long before Aaron was even born – before Israel had even become a nation yet! This is the first key to understanding his significance. What is especially interesting about him is that unlike many figures in the Old Testament, his lineage is never revealed. One would expect ancestry to be of great importance, especially when considering something as significant as priesthood. But perhaps this is the point. In the order of Melchizedek, there are no exclusions.
Referring to Jesus, Hebrews 7:3 says, “He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.” Just as Melchizedek represented a time before lineage mattered, so also Jesus represents a time after it.
Melchizedek also represents a time before the Law. Consider Hebrews 7:11: “Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?” The people of Israel were heavily concerned with legalism and perfectionism. They thought that following the laws and rituals alone could save them. What the writer of Hebrews is saying here that this old order was flawed. A new one was needed: a priesthood that, like Melchizedek, could provide access to God apart from the Law.
A Forerunner of Christ
The coming of Jesus was, without a doubt, the most monumental event in all of history. To the people of biblical times, this sending of a Savior might have seemed shocking and completely unexpected. But here in the 21st century, we are blessed with the ability to look back on all the signs that God displayed to foreshadow the coming of Christ. The great flood, the story of Abraham and Isaac, the story of Moses and Pharaoh – all of these moments were meant to lead up to something even bigger and better before. Melchizedek, while not nearly as popular, similarly pointed to Christ.
Psalm 110:4 foretells of Jesus: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” The image of Jesus as a priest is echoed all throughout scripture, especially in the book of Hebrews. We have already seen that, like Melchizedek, Jesus does not limit access to God to any specific group. We have seen that Jesus’ order exists outside of the Law, just as Melchizedek did.
Another truth that we can glean from scripture is that like a priest, Jesus stands between us and God. 1 Timothy 2:5 tells us, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” The difference is that while all other priests have been just as human as us, Jesus is the radiance of God Himself. There is no longer any disconnect between us and the Father; we are one with Him through the Son.
What does this mean for us?
It can be hard to relate to someone who lived thousands of years ago.
We live in a modern society where sacrifices, altars, and priests seem like a foreign concept.
But this does not mean that the wisdom of the Bible does not apply to us – quite the contrary.
As we read scripture, the driving force behind every word should be why.
We can read all about who Melchizedek was and what he did. The important thing to grasp is why he was important and how this applies to us today.
Perhaps most importantly, Melchizedek can direct our attention toward the superiority of grace over law.
The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and many of the Israelites all made the mistake of equating holiness with rule-following. They thought that laws and ancestry determined their righteousness when reality, their hearts were in the wrong place.
We can rest in the truth that there are no restrictions that can keep us from the love of God.
Jesus is the one true priest for all nations, who requires nothing but our undivided love and allegiance.
Before Jesus, salvation was reserved for the Jews through constant sacrifices and rituals.
Because of Christ’s work on the cross, anyone can now have a loving relationship with God. It doesn’t matter what our race, ethnicity, social status, or historical backgrounds are.
We can be adopted into His order.
Finally, we can rejoice, because Jesus is the high priest that the world has needed from the very start.
Every other priest, whether from the order of Aaron or Melchizedek, has been flawed.
Every priest has been unable to give unfettered access to God – until Jesus. And this priest is able to relate to us on a personal level.
Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
We can come to Jesus without shame, knowing that He is intimately aware of our struggles and shortcomings and yet loves us the same.
Jesus is the only priest with the power to reconcile us with the Father and bring us salvation through His blood.
Melchizedek is just a small shadow of this bigger picture of the unconditional love of Christ.