On Facebook, my cousin tagged me in a post:
Okay, Bible people, help me out. Explain Melchizedek to me please. Why did Abraham pay him tithes? What’s the connection to Jesus?
Great question! The strange thing is, I have never seen anyone really lay out the answer. Of course, the Letter to the Hebrews meditates on Melchizedek, and commentators repeat what Hebrews says, but to my knowledge no one has connected all the dots.
Really to answer the question, I need to connect exactly five dots. Let’s go!
1. Abraham represents the people of Israel
To understand Melchizedek, we need to see his story in context. What is happening in Genesis when we meet him? Here is what we’ve seen so far:
After Abraham was called by God, he went down into Egypt. There his wife was taken by Pharaoh and his life was in danger. But God sent plagues on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and Abraham came out laden with gifts and journeyed to the promised land. Once there, he had to go to war to defend his kinsman: five local kings had defeated five other local kings and took Abraham’s kinsman captive in the process. Abraham swept up and defeated the five kings who had defeated the five kings, proving that he was the greatest military power in the region. It is at this point that he meets Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who is a priest of God Most High.
Now, even though we are looking at Israel’s earliest beginnings, the author of Genesis knows the rest of the story. He makes sure we can see that Abraham’s time in Egypt foreshadows Israel’s time in Egypt, when they were enslaved to Pharaoh, and that Abraham’s return from Egypt foreshadows the Exodus, when God sent plagues on Pharaoh and the Egyptians and the Israelites came out laden with gifts of gold and silver from the Egyptians. Once we’ve seen that, it’s not hard to catch the rest of the story: Abraham’s military conquest of the promised land foreshadows the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. So what does the author of Genesis want us to see when we get to Melchizedek?
To see the answer, we have to be familiar with the book of Judges, where we find out that Joshua’s conquest did not turn out as well as we might have hoped. The people did not drive out the Canaanites entirely, as they were supposed to, and as a result they were plagued by wars and by their own infidelity to God’s covenant. They worshipped the gods of the Canaanites, and fell under the Canaanites’ sway. In fact, the people did not really subdue all the enemies around them until they had a king—not King Saul, who was still fighting the Philistines as he died, but King David.
As soon as David was made king of all Israel, he established his capital city in Jerusalem, the city known in former times as Salem. Then he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, so that the royal city was also the holy city, the city of the king was also the city of God. In fact, while he was bringing the Ark to the city, he performed the duties of a priest, sacrificing cattle and oxen and wearing a linen ephod, the priestly garment (2Samuel 6:13-14). In other words, the king of the city formerly known as Salem was acting both as a king and as a priest.
It should be obvious by now where this is going. The author of Genesis wants us to see that, after Abraham foreshadows the time of captivity in Egypt, the Exodus, and the conquest of the land, he meets someone who foreshadows David, the priest-king of Jeru-salem.
2. The Psalms connect David with Melchizedek
This connection between David and Melchizedek is not something unique to Genesis. During the time of the Davidic monarchy, a royal psalm was written to celebrate David’s special status, now known to us as Psalm 110. It begins by emphasizing that David was the one who finally subdued the promised land and subjugated Israel’s enemies:
The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes! Your people will offer themselves freely on the day you lead your host upon the holy mountains. From the womb of the morning like dew your youth will come to you.
The Psalm continues in the next line to make the connection between David and Melchizedek:
The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”
3. David foreshadows the Messiah
In 2Samuel, immediately after David brings the Ark to Jerusalem, David conceives the idea of building a temple for the Lord. In response, God gives David an amazing promise: the Davidic kingship will never fail, because he will always have a son on the throne.
Later on, when the descendants of David fell on hard times and were eventually dethroned, the prophets pondered God’s promise. They realized that the promise to David was actually pointing forward to a future Davidic king who would give the people, not a temporary peace, but a permanent peace. They described this promised anointed king, the “messiah” (which means “anointed”; another word for the same thing is “christ”), as a new David. Just as Melchizedek foreshadowed David, so David foreshadowed the Messiah.
A similar move took place in the Psalms. The Psalms that speak about the Davidic king, like Psalm 110, made no sense when there was no Davidic king. How could the Jews pray Psalm 110 when the Davidic monarchy had ended? Simple: Jews read the Psalms that talk about the Davidic king as talking about the Messiah, and so they prayed Psalm 110 as a prophecy of the future Christ.
There is the connection between Melchizedek and Christ in a nutshell: Melchizedek was intended to foreshadow David, and David was intended to foreshadow Jesus Christ, so Melchizedek was intended to foreshadow Jesus Christ. But there’s more!
4. Hebrews 7 meditates on the Melchizedek-Jesus connection
In the New Testament, the connection between Melchizedek and Jesus is picked up especially in the seventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. The author notices some ways in which the foreshadowing of David maps perfectly onto the foreshadowing of Christ:
- The name “Melchizedek” means “King of Peace”: Melech = king and zedek = peace. It was David who eventually brought peace to Israel, but his peace was temporary. Jesus is the final King of Peace, who will give his people everlasting rest.
- Melchizedek did not get his priesthood by belonging to a priestly family. David’s priestly behavior was almost shocking, because he did not belong to the correct priestly family, namely the family of Aaron; he belonged to the tribe of Judah. The same is true of Jesus.
But the author of Hebrews notes some more connections that fit Jesus even better than David:
- Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, which seems to make Melchizedek the superior. As a descendant of Abraham, David was not his superior but his son. Here it makes more sense to connect Melchizedek to Jesus, whose divine sonship put him even above his human ancestor Abraham.
- David’s priestly behavior did not put an end to the official priestly role of Aaron’s family. The priests who officiated in the Temple were still descendants of Aaron, as prescribed by the Law of Moses. But when Jesus came, his priesthood did away with the priesthood of the Old Law, and so really did inaugurate a new priestly order, the “order of Melchizedek”.
But there’s more!
5. Melchizedek points to the Eucharist
Amazingly, the Bible never makes the connection that has always hit Christians between the eyes: Melchizedek offered bread and wine, which are precisely the forms under which Jesus told his disciples to continue his sacrifice on earth. Clement of Alexandria, who died in the year 215 AD, had already seen the obvious. He talks about
Melchizedek king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who gave bread and wine, furnishing consecrated food for a type of the Eucharist.
But I’ll give the last word to Cyprian of Carthage, who died in the year 258 AD:
Also in the priest Melchizedek we see prefigured the sacrament of the sacrifice of the Lord, according to what divine Scripture testifies, and says, “And Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine.” (Gen 14:18) Now he was a priest of the most high God, and blessed Abraham. And that Melchizedek bore a type of Christ, the Holy Spirit declares in the Psalms, saying from the person of the Father to the Son: “Before the morning star I begot You; You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4); which order is assuredly this coming from that sacrifice and thence descending; that Melchizedek was a priest of the most high God; that he offered wine and bread; that he blessed Abraham. For who is more a priest of the most high God than our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered a sacrifice to God the Father, and offered that very same thing which Melchizedek had offered, that is, bread and wine, to wit, His body and blood?