March 13, 2012 by Pastor Jeremiah
The question of Melchizedek has long been a mystery among theologians and Biblical scholars. At Westside church, we are currently teaching through the book of Hebrews verse by verse. This is a daunting task, but no subject is more challenging than that of Melchizedek. Who was he? Why is he featured so much throughout the book of Hebrews when only two passages in the Old Testament mention him (Gen. 14:1; Psalm 110:4)? How does the author of Hebrews know so much about him? The theories abound. In this post, I’ll try and clear a few things up about this mysterious Old Testament figure.
Who was he?
There are three main theories out there all attempting to identify Melchizedek. Some say he is Shem, the son of Noah, others suggest he is the angel of the Lord (who makes other appearances in Genesis), and still others suggest he is a Christophany (an appearance of the pre-incarnate Jesus). Let’s take one at a time.
Those who make the case that Melchizedek is Shem point to the following evidence. First off, Hebrews 7:3 says he is “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life.” The thought is that because Shem outlived many of the generations that came after him, no one could trace his genealogy. Secondly, Shem was given a blessing from his father Noah (Gen. 9:26) suggesting that he was given a priestly duty over his father’s descendents which would’ve included every human being on planet earth. Lastly, the messiah comes out of the line of Seth which some suggest could be why the writer of Hebrews refers to Melchizedek being “like a son of God.” The strength in this theory is that Melchizedek is given a real human identity. This is helpful considering he is referred to as the king of Salem, a man with a title who lived in a real place. Also, Hebrew tradition tells us it was Shem, who was the oldest man alive at the time of Abraham. This would seem to qualify him as a candidate for the order of Melchizedek. However, this theory also has its weaknesses and leaves many questions unanswered. Shem does have a genealogy which doesn't fit well with the Hebrews 7 description mentioned above. And while he lived to be 600 years old, he clearly had an end of days. Furthermore, the priestly line of Levi is descended from both Abraham and Shem, which makes the writers’ argument in Hebrews 7 that Melchizedek was a separate line problematic.
The angel of the Lord
Others suggest that Melchizedek was the Angel of the Lord who makes various cameos throughout the Old Testament. The angel of the Lord appears to Hagar in the desert (Gen. 16 & 21), the angel speaks to Abraham from heaven (Gen. 22), the angel of the Lord appears to Jacob in a dream and proclaims himself to be the God of Bethel (Gen. 31), the angel also appears to Gideon recruiting him to lead Israel into battle (Judges 6). This view that Melchizedek is the angel of the Lord is seen to fit well with the description of him in the book of Hebrews. He is a visible being and yet he clearly has eternal qualities, even God-like qualities. Hebrews 7 says he is an eternal priest, he has no beginning or end of days, and he is greater than Abraham. In addition, the fact that Melchizedek appears only briefly not to be heard from again in the Genesis narrative seems to fit the pattern of the angel of the Lord’s "peek a boo" appearances. It’s interesting to note that at Qumran (dead sea scrolls) Melchizedek was also viewed as an angelic figure. The weakness of this theory, however, is that it doesn’t account for the fact that a very specific name is given to Melchizedek. It’s problematic to assume that the angel of the Lord would appear to Abraham with the name Melchizedek and not be referred to as simply “the angel of the Lord”. The push back on this critique would be that perhaps Melchizedek was not a name, but rather a title. If that was the case, possibly it could be considered that the angel of the Lord was filling the role of priest and king.
Many suggest that Melchizedek is a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews states that he resembles the Son of God (Heb. 7:3). This theory certainly fits well with the divine attributes with which the writer of Hebrews describes Melchizedek. The fact that Melchizedek brought out bread and wine when he blessed Abraham (Gen. 14) is another significant fact when considering this theory. Was this an act of communion like unto Jesus and his disciples in the upper room? Melchizedek is described as the “king of righteousness” and the “king of Salem (peace)” (Heb. 7:2). Jesus is given these very same titles throughout the scriptures. Some have critiqued this position by suggesting that Jesus did have a genealogy (Mt. 1), which doesn’t fit well with the description of Melchizedek (Heb. 7). However, it’s difficult to trace the genealogy of the Word made flesh through whom God created the world (John 1). He may have descended from his mother Mary, but he was also her creator!
To summarize what the writer of Hebrews says, the relation between Melchizedek and Christ as type is seen in the following: each was a priest (1) who is not of the Levitical tribe; (2) who is superior to Abraham; (3) whose beginning and end are unknown; (4) who is not only a priest, but also a king of righteousness and peace.
There are no weaknesses in this view. It is perfect and therefore is my opinion (just kidding).
There are weaknesses in all of these theories and it’s difficult to pin down exactly who this Melchizedek character really is. The mystery is ongoing and will continue to be discussed until Melchizedek, ugh… I mean Jesus returns!
How did the writer of Hebrews know so much about Melchizedek?
Considering there are only two very brief passages in scripture that mention Melchizedek, where does the author of Hebrews get all his information? He seems to have done a background check on him. It’s my view that much of his information comes from the Holy Spirit. However, this is not entirely a subjective process of revelation. Clearly, the writer of Hebrews has engaged with the scripture and drawn many of his conclusions through what the Holy Spirit revealed to him through the various passages he quotes. As well, there may very well have been some general facts about Melchizedek that came through Jewish history, Rabbinical teachings, or the verbal teachings of the apostles.
Why is Melchizedek featured in the book of Hebrews?
What’s with the spotlight on Melchizedek in the book of Hebrews? After all, other New Testament writers like Peter, John, and Paul never mention him. What’s the deal? Understanding the purpose of the letter to the Hebrews is key here. First off, it’s a letter written to help those who, all their lives have relied upon the Jewish priesthood to represent them before God. They are in danger of missing the fact that God has appointed Jesus as high priest. In order to illustrate this, the writer of Hebrews reveals that Jesus is a priest whose line can be traced back to that of Melchizedek. This is an eternal priesthood (Ps. 110:4). This fact is of paramount importance to the Hebrews. They are keenly aware of the fact that they need a priest to represent them before God, but they have yet to see a revelation of Jesus as High priest.
There is much more we could say about Melchizedek, then again, maybe there is not much more that needs to be said. He is a mystery. And everyone enjoys a good mystery every now and again!