Several days ago, a friend asked me to explain the statement in the book of Hebrews that Jesus is “a priest after the order of Melchizedek.” This designation of Jesus as a priest after the order of Melchizedek has baffled many Christians and has produced several interesting interpretations. The purpose of this post is to study the meaning of the statement in Hebrews that Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Five times in the New Testament, Jesus is called, directly or indirectly, “a priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 17). The text in Hebrews 5:5-10 presents two examples of the designation of Jesus as a high priest:
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:5-10 ESV).
The proper understanding of Jesus as Melchizedek must begin with Genesis 14:18, where Melchizedek is introduced for the first time: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.”
Melchizedek met Abraham when the patriarch returned from the pursuit of Chedorlaomer and the other Mesopotamian kings who had taken Lot as a prisoner of war. In the text, Melchizedek is introduced as the priest of God Most High and as the king of Salem. Salem is an ancient name for Jerusalem: “His abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion” (Psalm 76:2).
The identification of Melchizedek has been highly debated in the history of the church. Jewish tradition has identified Melchizedek with Shem, the son of Noah who, after the chronology in Genesis, survived the flood and lived at a time when Abraham was alive and was his contemporary for a hundred years.
Christian tradition has proposed different interpretations to identify who Melchizedek was. Origen said that Melchizedek was an angel. Others have proposed that he was the Holy Spirit in human form.
Many Christians, ancient and contemporary, have said that this is a classical example of a Christophany in the Old Testament, that is, Melchizedek was Jesus Christ himself, who appeared to Abraham in human form.
The concept of Christophany should be rejected because it contradicts the statement in the book of Hebrews that Jesus was designated a priest after the order of Melchizedek. If Melchizedek was Christ then how could Christ become a priest in the likeness of Melchizedek?
Another view is that Melchizedek was a type of Christ. The typological interpretation suggests that the priesthood of Melchizedek was a type of Christ’s priesthood. As Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High God, so was Jesus. As Melchizedek was a king, so was Jesus. Both Melchizedek and Jesus were royal priests. In the persons of Melchizedek and Jesus the offices of priest and king were combined.
The text in Genesis indicates that Melchizedek was a Canaanite king who reigned in Jerusalem before the city was conquered by David and became the capital of the united monarchy (2 Samuel 5:6-10).
As king of Jerusalem, Melchizedek combined the offices of priest and king into his official duties. The combination of priesthood and kingship into the office of the king was not uncommon in the Ancient Near East. For instance, Ethbaal king of the Sidonians and the father of Jezebel, was also the priest of Astarte (1 Kings 16:31).
So, when David conquered Jerusalem and made the city the capital of his empire, he called the stronghold of Zion “The City of David” (2 Kings 5:9). David incorporated the original inhabitants of Jerusalem into the population of Israel and became their king.
Since the king of Jerusalem was also a priest, David became a priest, not because he was a Levite, but because he continued the tradition established by Melchizedek. This is what Psalm 110:4 is trying to communicate. The words of verse 4 are addressed to the king: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.’”
Melchizedek now becomes a type of the Davidic king. The descendants of David will be king and they will be priests; this is clearly expressed in 2 Samuel 8:18: “and David’s sons were priests.”
The priesthood of Melchizedek is used by the author of the book of Hebrews to prove the claim that Jesus Christ was a high priest. In Israel, the high priest had to be a Levite and a descendant of Aaron. Since Jesus was from the tribe of Judah and a descendant of David, it was impossible for the writer of Hebrews to say that Jesus was a high priest.
But, this is precisely what the author of Hebrews is emphasizing in his writing. As a high priest, Jesus presented a sacrifice for sins. Jesus Christ was the “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Hebrews 4:14). Jesus Christ was the high priest who opened the way for people to approach the throne of grace (the Mercy Seat) with confidence so that they “may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
The writer of the book of Hebrews then is saying that Jesus became a high priest, not because he was a descendant of Aaron. Jesus because a high priest after the order of Melchizedek because he was a descendant of David and a legitimate successor of the legacy left by David when he became king of Jerusalem.
By saying that Jesus became a priest after the order of Melchizedek, the author of Hebrews is emphasizing that Jesus “become a priest, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent” (Hebrews 7:16-17), but because of the promise made to David that he and his descendants would become priests forever after the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4).
The erroneous view that Genesis 14:18 is a Christophany or that Melchizedek was an angel or even the Holy Spirit makes it difficult for the reader to understand the meaning of the statement that Jesus Christ is a high priest “after the order of Melchizedek.”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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