By Brandon Lemons
Recently, my family took a vacation to South Dakota. There were lots of great things to see and do while we were there. But many times, when my wife or I wanted to stop to check something out, our kids would call from the back seat, “No, we don’t want to stop! You’ve seen enough already!” This was especially the case in the Badlands. From my perspective, when we came to a scenic overlook, it was worth it to stop, because there were often great things we would miss if we kept driving.
I said last week that the author of Hebrews thinks like me. Because Hebrews keeps stopping to focus on a guy named Melchizedek: in chapter 5, chapter 6, and again in chapter 7. It might be tempting to say, “Haven’t we heard enough about Melchizedek?! Can’t we just move on to another topic?” My plan was that we would not dig into Hebrews 7; however, as I studied, I became enthralled by what was in the chapter. It felt like getting out of the van at a scenic overlook and being so amazed by what I saw that I came back to the van and declared, “You all have to come see this. It’s amazing!”
The Weird Appearances of Melchizedek
The appearances of Melchizedek in the Bible are weird. He appears for three verses in Genesis (14:18-20) and one verse in Psalms (110:4). If these were Melchizedek’s only appearances in the Bible, he would largely be unknown – one of the hundreds of names that have some significance but are treated as footnotes in the biblical storyline. But Melchizedek is not a footnote. Genesis and Psalms hint toward something bigger. Also, Melchizedek is the most talked-about person in Hebrews except for Jesus! To look at this another way, Melchizedek’s name appears twice in the Old Testament and eight times in Hebrews! Melchizedek is a major character! Yet he is still mysterious.
Typology in Hebrews
The relationship between Melchizedek and Jesus is a type of prophecy called typology. When people think about prophecy, they usually think of prediction and fulfillment. For instance, Micah 5:2 predicts the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, and Jesus was. Isaiah 53 predicts the Messiah will suffer to pay for the sins of the world, and Jesus did. But there is a different type of prophecy called typology. Typology is people, things, or events in earlier phases of biblical history (the “type”) that anticipate later fulfillment (the “antitype”), frequently through the person and work of Jesus. An example is the Passover Lamb. There were lambs sacrificed for Passover, and they pointed to the ultimate Passover Lamb, who is Jesus. This is typology. Typology takes people, things, or events – usually from the Old Testament – and ratchets up their meaning to a new level, usually in fulfillment through Jesus. Typology is rich and exciting. And it’s key to understanding the tie-ins throughout Scripture, including in Hebrews. Let’s take a look at five comparisons between Melchizedek and Jesus that highlight the greatness of Jesus.
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 apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. 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. (Hebrews 7:1-3)
Melchizedek was a king/priest, and Jesus is the ultimate king/priest.
Verse 1 is clear that Melchizedek was both a king and a priest. In ancient Israel, one person could not serve as both king and priest. The reasoning was a separation of power, like how the US President cannot at the same time be a Supreme Court justice or a member of Congress. But Melchizedek lived before the formation of Israel, and he was both king and priest. The Bible prophesied that one day would come another king/priest: the Messiah. That is Jesus. Repeatedly, Hebrews quotes Psalm 110:4 about Jesus being a high priest “after the order of Melchizedek.” One aspect of being a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” is that Jesus, like Melchizedek, served the dual role of a priest, who represents people to God, and a king, who leads people governmentally. Jesus is the greatest priest and the greatest king. On top of this, He is the greatest prophet, fulfilling all three of Israel’s primary leadership roles: prophet, priest, and king.
Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness,” and Jesus is the ultimate king of righteousness.
Hebrews 7:2 says Melchizedek “is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness.” Melchizedek’s name consists of two Hebrew words put together. The word melek means king, and the word tsedeq means righteousness. So “melek-tsedeq”, or Melchizedek, literally means “king of righteousness.” Jesus embodies righteousness, and He came to make us righteous in God’s sight. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection can make us righteous in God’s sight!
Melchizedek’s name means “king of peace,” and Jesus is the ultimate king of peace.
Let’s look back at verse 2. “[Melchizedek] is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace.” Melchizedek was king of a city called Salem. Later, Salem became Jerusalem. The word Salem means “peace.” Salem is related to the more familiar word “shalom,” which also means peace. So using a play on words, Melchizedek was the “king of peace.” This would be like saying I am the “pastor of peace” since I’m the pastor of Friedens and Friedens is a German word that means “peace.” To the Jews, this type of play on words was significant. Jesus is also a “king of peace” – even the ultimate king of peace. For instance, Isaiah 9:6 calls Him the “Prince of Peace,” and the next verse says, “of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.” Ephesians 2:14 says, “[Jesus] himself is our peace” in our relationships with one another and especially with God.
Melchizedek’s priesthood had the appearance of being everlasting, and Jesus really is a priest forever.
Look at verse 3. “[Melchizedek] 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.” This verse can be confusing. People have made a big deal out of the idea that Melchizedek had no father and mother, no beginning of days nor end of life. Some people have wondered whether Melchizedek was really human. Maybe he was angelic or divine. But this misunderstands how Jews thought and how typology works. Melchizedek was just as human as you and I. But when you read the account of Melchizedek in Genesis 14, he pops into the narrative for a few verses and then disappears with practically no background.
Here’s a quote from pastor Chuck Swindoll that helps clarify what is going on here: “What Melchizedek is in the narrative, Jesus is in His nature.” (This is typology at work. Some aspect of a person in the Old Testament is ratcheted up to another level and is fulfilled in Jesus.) The author of Hebrews looks at Melchizedek in Genesis and notes how there is nothing written about his birth or death or ancestors or offspring. This doesn’t mean Melchizedek didn’t have these things; they just weren’t recorded. So for the author’s purposes, he draws a parallel. He says, “Look, Melchizedek has the appearance of being eternal with no beginning or end. But do you know who really is eternal and truly has no beginning or end? Jesus!”
Jesus being a priest forever makes a radical difference. Look down to verses 23-25.
“The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
So the author of Hebrews is posing a question to his readers: Do you want to attach yourselves to priests who die and who can never fully atone for sin, or to the great high priest who has conquered death and lives forever? Jesus is better, so follow Him!
See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. (Hebrews 7:4-10)
Melchizedek was greater than Israel’s Levitical priests, and Jesus is greater than Melchizedek.
Verse 4 says to “see” or “consider” how great Melchizedek was. The point the author is working toward is that Melchizedek was greater than Israel’s Levitical priests, and Jesus is greater than Melchizedek. Let me explain what took place between Melchizedek and Abraham back in Genesis 14:18-20. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got captured in a battle. Abraham went to rescue Lot. In the process, Abraham won a large battle and gained lots of plunder – gold, silver, animals, clothing, food. On Abraham’s way home, Melchizedek came out to meet him with bread and wine. Melchizedek pronounced a blessing over Abraham. Then Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the plunder. A tenth is also called a tithe. This tithe wasn’t about giving to Melchizedek but to God. This is an example of giving God our first and best. So Abraham gave a tenth of the plunder to God through the priest Melchizedek.
There are two things I want to point out from Hebrews 7:4-10. First, in verse 7, it says “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior.” In a formal blessing in the Bible, the superior always blesses the inferior. This superiority is based on rank or status or prominence. So even though Abraham played an important role in God’s storyline, Melchizedek is pictured as having a higher position, or higher rank, than Abraham. Second, it says that Levi – a descendent of Abraham who would become head of Israel’s priests, which is why it’s called the “Levitical” priesthood – Levi essentially paid a tithe through Abraham to Melchizedek and God. Verses 9-10 say, “One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.” The point is that Melchizedek was a greater priest than Levi and his descendants could ever be. Melchizedek’s priesthood was superior to the Levitical priesthood. This is why Psalm 110:4 is so important when it says of the Messiah, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’”
Let’s think back to the two types of prophecy I mentioned earlier. The relationship between Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18-20 and Jesus in Hebrews 7 is typological. There are many similarities between Melchizedek and Jesus, and Jesus ratchets up those parallels to a completely new level. Psalm 110:4 about Melchizedek was predictive prophecy, fulfilled in Jesus. It predicted that a priest like Melchizedek would come who would serve forever. That prophecy was hanging out there, waiting for fulfillment. In the fullness of time, Psalm 110 was fulfilled in Jesus.
In what you’ve learned so far, I hope you have a better understanding of how Scripture ties together and see more about the greatness of Jesus. That is the goal that the author of Hebrews had. He wants his readers to understand and place their full allegiance in Jesus. The author is doing this by cutting the ground out from under anyone who is tempted to trust in the Jewish sacrificial system to reconcile them with God. Similarly, Hebrews is cutting the ground out from under every religious thing besides Jesus that Jews or Jewish Christians might be tempted to lean on: Jesus is greater than Moses. Greater than Joshua. Greater than Abraham. Greater than the Levitical priests who served in the temple every day. Don’t turn back to them. Turn to Jesus and hold fast to Jesus. And just to be sure we’re clear, Jesus is also greater than Melchizedek. You can probably figure out that this was a controversial teaching. It confronts Judaism head-on. In the next chapter, we will see more of how big of a deal this was.
So do we stand in awe of Jesus? Metaphorically speaking, as we’ve gotten out of the van at the scenic overlook of Hebrews 7 to gaze upon Jesus, do you see His glory? I pray that we all do and that we will not forget the fact that He truly is better than everything else.