WHO WAS MELCHIZEDEK?
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By Stephen Green. (First Published in Christian Voice: October 2003)
The Lamplight Bible-reading plan has just led us through the Epistle to the Hebrews. We also read Psalm 110. Psalm 110 is so important in understanding the ministry of Jesus Christ, it was also listed back in January, alongside Genesis 13 & 14. Genesis 14 is where we read of Abram's expeditionary force, and his successful mission to free Lot from the four kings with just three hundred and eighteen men. In the aftermath, Abram met the most awesome and enigmatic character of the Old Testament, Melchizedek himself:
Gen. 14:18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.
19 And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth:
20 And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.
Melchizedek appears for just three verses of Genesis, and then disappears. So who was he, what was he, and as nothing happens in the word of God by accident, why is he there?
Four main viewpoints about the identity of Melchizedek have been debated down the years. In one of them, Melchizedek is a man in the line of Shem, possibly Shem himself. That would make him greater (being an ancestor) than Abram. But in Hebrews we read that Melchizedek is Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually. Heb. 7:3 Shem's ancestors are listed in Gen. 6:10, 10:1 and his lifespan is also known from Gen. 11:10,11. This view, the most material of the three, in which anything supernatural is denied, cannot stand.
The second viewpoint is that Melchizedek was a Canaanite priest-king. There would be nothing unusual in such a person meeting the victorious Abram, but the name Melchizedek means 'king of righteousness'. Canaanite religious practice was degrading and condemned by God, so much so that God instructed the people of Israel to overthrow the Canaanites because of it. Canaanite priests were priests of fertility gods, not of 'the most high God'. This view also comes up against the description of Melchizedek as pre-existent and immortal. The Canaanite priest-kings were born and they died.
The third view is that Melchizedek is the preincarnate Christ. He would certainly be greater than Abram, but unfortunately the language of Hebrews 7:3 undermines this position too. The Greek word for 'made like unto' is 'aphomoiomenos' which means 'making similar or alike'. This implies a comparison between persons rather than a reference to the same person.
There is a fourth possible viewpoint, that Melchizedek is either an angel of God or a theophany (which means a manifestation of God, indeed of Christ). In this view, which is more difficult to get hold of than the other three, Melchizedek, whether an angel or an appearance, is a kind of prophecy of Christ. This view will allow both the language of Genesis and that of Hebrews. Both an angel and a manifestation of Christ will be without descent, and can be like unto the Son of God, without actually being Him.
BREAD AND WINE
It is striking that upon meeting Abram, Melchizedek 'brought forth bread and wine'. It is the first thing he did, before blessing Abram, praising God or receiving Abram's tithes. In this he prophesied the actions of the Lord Jesus at the last supper. I believe every Christian doctrine finds its origin in Genesis, and this of the bread and wine supports that view.
It also reinforces the message of Genesis 3, 9 and 12 that God desires fellowship with man - sharing a meal is a profound act of fellowship. Eating together can also show reconciliation - witness the Lord's fish barbecue on the beach (John 21:9-10), from which he gave Peter a meal (vs 12-13) before Peter's three-fold penitent act of reconciliation "Thou knowest that I love thee" (vs15-17). God is always more gracious to us than we deserve, and more eager for us to be reconciled to Him than our proud hearts often allow.
A BETTER PRIESTHOOD
The Epistle to the Hebrews uses the Psalm 110 link to explain that Jesus' priesthood, being of the order of Melchizedek, is superior to that of Aaron. It is a given in Hebrew thought that the father is superior to the son. The Lord Himself uses this idea in an enigmatic reference to Psalm 110 (Luke 20:41-44). Aaron and his priestly line are subordinate to Aaron's ancestor Levi, and Levi is inferior to Abraham. Therefore Aaron and Levi gave tithes to Melchizedek in the person of their father Abraham. Tithes are given by the lesser to the greater, they were given by Abraham to Melchizedek, therefore Melchizedek and anyone of his order is greater than Aaron and his successors. (Heb 7:2-11)
The great theme of Hebrews is that Jesus Christ is our High priest who has offered Himself as a sacrifice, once and for all, to end the animal sacrificial system which pertained to Aaron's priesthood. It was written to help Hebrew believers to see their faith in Christ as legitimate under God, and to prepare them for the forthcoming destruction of the temple. The expressions 'better', 'greater' 'more excellent' permeate the King James Bible text, in the context of Jesus' superiority to the Levitical priesthood.
I believe Hebrews also helps us to understand the vexed question of what Jesus did to the so-called 'law of Moses', or more properly, the 'Law of God by Moses' (Neh 10:29). In the Sermon on the Mount, He says that He does not destroy the law, but fulfils it. Jesus fulfilled the animal sacrifices of the Mosaic law and showed that they had prophesied His sacrifice all along. So there is no more need for the priesthood of Aaron. By concentrating on the ceremonial and sacrificial law, Hebrews associates 'the law' which is to be changed with the priesthood of Aaron. (Heb 7:12) Hebrews shows that it is after all possible to subdivide the Law of God into that which was temporary, the ceremonial and sacrificial, (Heb 9:9-10) waiting for the perfect once-for-all sacrifice, and that which endures 'Till heaven and earth pass', the natural, moral and the judicial.
PRIEST AND KING
This leads into the question 'What was Melchizedek?' We are told in Genesis that he was king of Salem, which means king of peace. Hebrews explains that the name Melchizedek means 'King of righteousness' in Hebrew. 'Salem' is an old name for Jerusalem, but Melchizedek is more than just king of Jerusalem; he is king of peace and of righteousness. But Melchizedek is also described as 'priest of the most high God'. He is both a king and a priest.
It is not unusual in pagan societies for the office of priest and king to be joined in one person. Canaanite kings could make sacrifice as well as rule. It elevated them almost to the level of a deity. The Pharaohs were thought of as gods; more recently the Japanese emperor was regarded as a god. Being a priest-king gives a person unlimited power. As power corrupts, total power is soon used despotically. To use a modern word, such a system is, literally, totalitarian.
SEPARATION OF OFFICE LIMITS POWER
One of the differences between Canaanite society and Israelite society was that God separated the office of priest from that of ruler. Moses, a Levite, was the first judge of Israel, but it was from his elder brother Aaron that the line of the high priest was established. The tribe of Levi was the priest-tribe - the Jewish name 'Cohen' means 'priest', but they were even denied land, to stop them becoming too powerful. The Lord Himself was their inheritance. (Numb 18:20) From Joshua to 1 Samuel, only one of the judges was a priest as well.
The exception is Samuel himself, the last judge of Israel. In 1 Samuel 7, Samuel exercises both the office of priest (in verse 9) and judge or national leader. But in the very next chapter, Samuel's dynasty was snuffed out before it even begins, when God granted the peoples' desire for a king.
KINGS WANT TO BE PRIESTS
The Bible makes clear that the kings of Israel were never allowed to exercise a priestly function. We have a record of what happened when two of them did. Saul, the first king of Israel, sacrificed a burnt offering at Gilgal in only his second year of reign, and Samuel immediately told him that God would take the kingdom from him. Three hundred years later, king Uzziah was on the throne of Judah. Uzziah was a righteous king, and God made him to prosper and build Judah into a considerable power. Sadly, he thought it was all his own doing. His power had gone to his head so much that he wanted the office of priest as well:
But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the LORD his God, and went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense. 2 Chr. 26:16
Azariah the priest took eighty other priests into the temple with him to throw Uzziah and his bodyguard out:
And they withstood Uzziah the king, and said unto him, It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the LORD, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed; neither shall it be for thine honour from the LORD God. 2 Chr. 26:18
The Bible records that Uzziah was angry rather than repentant, and God immediately afflicted him with leprosy. He couldn't wait to get out then. In effect, the leprosy cut him off from ruling at all, so he lost the office of king as well.
THE OFFICE OF MELCHIZEDEK
The message is that kings must know their place, and be subordinate to God. It is a message reinforced by what happened to Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, and Herod in Acts (Acts 12:21-24). And by the same token, priests may not become kings. Godly government is most certainly not a system of rule by clerics.
So how come Melchizedek is priest and king, but he is allowed to be? It is because he is a pattern for Christ Himself, who can only act in righteousness, and whose power will never corrupt Him:
Ps. 110:1 The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
2 The LORD shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.
3 Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.
4 The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.
5 The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath.
6 He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries.
7 He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.
It is right for Jesus Christ to be Priest and King, but wrong for anyone else. When we think of the offices of Jesus, we think of Him as our Saviour, Sacrifice and Prophet, as well as our High Priest and King. What Psalm 110 is saying, in the context of Genesis 14, is that He is Priest-King over the whole earth, not just over those who want Him to be.
So Melchizedek is there to provide the pattern of priest-king for Christ. The Epistle to the Hebrews shows that Christ is superior to Aaron by concentrating on His priesthood. But the order of Melchizedek is an order of priest-kings. So Christ is the ultimate priest-king. It is not the function of Hebrews to concentrate on the Lord's kingship, but Revelation will do that quite well.
Which leads to the thought that if Christ is priest and king, Antichrist will be priest and king. I would even suggest that if at any time an individual puts himself up as both priest and king, he has the spirit of Antichrist. I would also suggest that any totalitarian system, fascist or communist, where the state becomes a god, is coming from the same despotic, control-freak spirit of Antichrist.
Contenders for the role of the western world's leading fascist states today are Sweden and Canada. In both countries, a hate-crime law forbids Biblical criticism of homosexuality. By doing that, Sweden and Canada have exalted themselves to pass judgment over the Bible, which is the word of God (and God has magnified His word even above His name - Ps 138:2). On another level, fascist states attempt to control their population and exercise control over the means of production without actually going to the communist bother of actually owning them. Looked at in that light, our own land, where EU-inspired bureaucracy is hedging about the minutiae of life, especially economic life, cannot be far behind.
By contrast, the systems of limited government ordained by God deliver freedom, just as the rule of Christ Himself will deliver freedom. The kings of the earth don't like it, and won't have it, but Psalm 2 says it will do them no good, for Christ's rule is coming anyway. Psalm 149, Luke 19:15-19 and 1 Corinthians 6:3 tell us that we, the saints, will rule with Him. I pray that we shall be awake enough, diligent enough, sanctified enough, prayerful enough and prepared to study and love His law enough to be of some use to Him in that day.