Melchizedek and Jesus

A reader asked me to explain the statement in the book of Hebrews that Jesus is a priest according to the “order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron” (Hebrews 7:11). 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.”

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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14 Responses to Melchizedek and Jesus

  1. Keith McDonald, Canada says:

    Thank you Claude, for this. Very sound and nicely summarized.

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  3. Craig says:

    Might I recommend a work in this vein? In Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), the author has a chapter titled “The Divinity of Jesus in the Letter of Hebrews” in which Melchizedek is discussed at some length. Hebrews 7:3 begins, “Without mother, without father, without genealogy”, apparently alluding to the fact that the Genesis passage makes no mention of Melchizedek’s parents. Of course, per Bauckham (p 246), this does not mean Melchizedek himself is unoriginated, but the writer of Hebrews applies this background to Jesus as One who truly is unoriginate, i.e. Deity.

    Bauckham defines “divine identity” on page 233:

    Essentially a Christology of divine identity includes Jesus in the unique identity of God as understood in Second Temple Judaism. It takes up the defining characteristics of Jewish monotheism—the ways in which the God of Israel was understood to be unique—and applies them also to Jesus.

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    • Craig,

      Thank you for pointing me to Bauckham’s book. I was not familiar with his work, but after I read a few pages of his work, I realize that he makes a strong argument about the identity of Jesus with the God of Israel. He argues that the early Christians identified Jesus with the same unique identity of the one true God of Israel. He also said that the early Christians saw and worshiped Jesus as the one and true God of Israel.

      After I finish reading this book, I will also read Bauckham’s early work, God Crucified:Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament.

      Claude Mariottini

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  4. Timothy Joseph says:

    Dr. M.,
    First, great post. Second, a question, with the understanding above, how do you explain the significance of the writer of Hebrews in his description of how Melchizedek is like Jesus says Melchizedek is without father and mother and without genealogy, he has neither beginning of days nor end of life but is like the son of God, and he remains a priest for all time?

    Tim

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    • Tim,

      When the author of Hebrew says that Melchizedek was someone without father, without mother, and without genealogy, he was saying that no one knew who he was or who his parents were. In contrast, everyone knew about Aaron and his family.

      In post-exilic Judaism, Melchizedek because legendary and assumed a mythical position precisely because he was without father, without mother, and without genealogy . When the author of Hebrews compare Melchizedek with Jesus, he is using this mythological figure of the Judaism of his days.

      Claude Mariottini

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jeffrey Gibson says:

    What is the order of Melchizedek?What does a priest within that order do? How are those of this order expected to behave?

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    • Jeffrey,

      The order of Melchizedek means that priests follow the tradition established by Melchizedek. The Aaronite priests followed the traditions established by Aaron; they served in the Temple. Melchizedek was king of Jerusalem before David conquered the city; he also served as a priest there.

      Claude Mariottini

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  6. Jeffrey Gibson says:

    Thanks for your reply. But it doesn’t answer my question about how such a priest was expected to behave. I note that at the outset of the Jewish War, a new High priest was established — one who could trace his line to Phineas, and therefore was expected to support and espouse the zeal of the Zealots. Were priest in the order of Melchizedek eschewers of violence?

    Jeffrey

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    • Jeffrey,

      In the post-exilic period and at the time of the New Testament there were no priests of the order of Melchizedek. If you reread my post you will discover that only the kings in the line of David followed the example left by Melchizedek. This tradition ended with the Deuteronomic reform in the days of Josiah.

      Claude Mariottini

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  8. Lucia says:

    Thank you, Dr. M.! Melchizedek’s very name clues us into his kingly/priestly identity. Some believe that he was Shem (who would still have been alive in Abraham’s time), and was a teacher of righteousness, which implies perhaps an oral tradition was extant at that time.

    I notice that some commenters retrojection of their 21st Century, western mindset (and its accompanying hubris) interferes with a real understanding of the Word. I wonder if you might discuss this anachronistic tendency in a post? And to these folks, I recommend Thorlief Boman’s book: Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek.

    Blessings!

    Like

    • Lucia,

      I have addressed some of these issues on several posts dealing with minimalism. Minimalists believe that all of the stories in the Bible are invented. According to them, none of these stories ever happened.

      Claude Mariottini

      Liked by 1 person

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