After the Order of Melchizedek

As I age, I’m finding that even with the progressive lenses in my spectacles, I often need a magnifying glass to read fine print. (Why does the important information on medication bottles need to be so small anyway?) Pulling out the curved lens of a magnifying glass enlarges and brings clarity to that which was otherwise too difficult to read without help. In Hebrews chapter seven, the author pulls out a magnifying glass in order to bring clarity to an obscure figure from the book of Genesis, and as he does, the magnificence of our Savior is enlarged before our eyes. The obscure figure is Melchizedek, and the magnifying glass is Psalm 110, verse four.

Let’s begin by looking at Melchizedek’s only appearance in the historical narrative of the book of Genesis:

After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Possessor of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
    who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. — Genesis 14:17–20

Unlike the multitude of characters we meet in the Genesis narrative, Melchizedek arrives on the scene without the usual genealogical introduction. We’re not told who his people were, who his parents were, when he was born, or when he died. He just pops into the storyline and back out again. Other than struggling to pronounce his name, we might not take much notice of him at all. After all, we’re following Abraham’s life and family; why give this fellow any further attention?

The author of Hebrews pulls out Psalm 110:4 and shows us why.

The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
    after the order of Melchizedek.” — Psalm 110:4

Hundreds of years after Abraham encounters Melchizedek, David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes the mysterious priest of God Most High into his great Messianic psalm. Our author has already used passages from Psalm 110 to demonstrate Jesus’ superiority to the angels (1:13), that Jesus was appointed by God to his role as high priest rather than exalting himself (5:5), and that Jesus’ priestly reign—being after the order of Melchizedek—lasts forever (5:6). Now he walks us through a careful exposition of the Genesis account of Abraham and Melchizedek in order to magnify the superiority of the high priesthood of Jesus Christ over that of the entire Levitical order of priests.

The exposition begins with a comparison of Melchizedek with the Lord Jesus Christ. The similarities are based on both the facts reported in Genesis 14 as well as the glaring omissions. This high priest of God Most High was also the king of Salem (likely Jerusalem) —literally the “king of peace” —and his name, when translated, means “king of righteousness.” As he is portrayed in the account, “He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (v. 3). Our author isn’t telling us that this ancient priest didn’t have parents or that he was an eternal being. As Michael Kruger explains:

“Melchizedek resembled Jesus in [that] he seemed eternal (7:3). . . . it seems that Melchizedek was a real human, and thus would have had a real father and mother. But the way that Melchizedek is presented in Scripture makes it seem that he pops in and out without a beginning or an end. He shows up on the scene out of nowhere and then disappears. We are not told anything about his parents nor where he comes from. So, he seems eternal. Therefore he is a very effective type of Christ: ‘resembling the Son of God.’”[1]

As a type of Christ, Melchizedek pointed forward to the person and work of our Lord Jesus. “Such historical figures, events, and institutions in the Old Testament were set up by God intentionally to point forward to the coming Savior and let people know what he would be like.”[2] And so, in “the likeness of Melchizedek” (v. 15), Jesus is our King of righteousness (Heb. 1:8–9) and Prince of peace (Isa. 9:6) who lives eternally, having no beginning of days nor end of life (Heb. 1:10–12).

The typology found in Genesis 14:17–20 doesn’t end with Melchizedek’s name, roles, and non-existent genealogy. The bread and the wine he served to Abraham are almost too obvious. Richard Phillips sees in these a direct connection to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper.

“The Holy Spirit, inspiring Moses as he wrote the book of Genesis, surely knew that in the light of the completed Scriptures a sacramental connection would be made by this appearance of the bread and the wine. I believe, therefore, that this is part of what the writer of Hebrews intended when he noted that Melchizedek blessed Abraham. He not only spoke the blessing, but also spiritually ministered to Abraham’s need.

. . . . in Melchizedek’s going out to bless Abraham we see a wonderful type of Christ’s ministry to us. When our battle is over, the risen Jesus Christ will bless us before the eyes of this world. Indeed, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper he proclaims us blessed even now from the throne of heaven. Like Abraham, we are despised by the world. Our blessing is hidden to sight, and no one realizes that we hold the promises of God. But Christ acknowledges us as Christ’s own, and the day will come when every eye will see it.

His blessing helps inwardly as well as outwardly. Melchizedek’s bread and wine spoke of the body and blood of Christ, sacrificed on the cross for us, as the source of spiritual blessing to all who believe, and thus he brought bodily and spiritual refreshment to Abraham. So too Christ now ministers to us from that same source, by means of his Holy Spirit.”[3]

The identification of Melchizedek’s resemblance to Christ in 7:1–3 is followed by a discussion of the superiority of his priesthood over that of the Levites (7:1–10) based on the blessing he gave to Abraham and in response the honor Abraham showed him by giving him a tithe of his spoils of war: “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior” (v. 7).

This leads us to verse 11, which begins the sharpening of our focus on why it is such good news that Jesus’ priesthood isn’t of the Levitical order but after the order of Melchizedek.

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? —Hebrews 7:11

Under the law of the sacrificial system administered by the Levitical priesthood, the “perfection” of true cleansing from guilt and sin was not attainable. The Law handed down through Moses was good in that it pointed God’s people to their utter inability to cleanse themselves and therefore their need for another to intercede for them. Yet while it showed the need for atonement, the law was never meant to be the means to accomplish it. Rather, it pointed forward in types and shadows to “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, [to] cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14). So there needed to be a change in the priesthood, and the law concerning the whole sacrificial system needed to be set aside (7:12, 18).

Another aspect of the law regulating the priesthood which also needed to be set aside was the means by which the high priest was chosen for office. According to the Mosaic law, the high priest was directly descended from Aaron, who was appointed by God to be the first high priest, and his sons after him. In each succeeding generation, the firstborn son of the high priest was the next high priest. This is one reason why genealogy was so very important to the Jews. The legal requirement to be high priest was based upon “bodily descent” from Aaron (v. 16).

Jesus was not from the line of Aaron or even the tribe of Levi, but from the tribe of Judah—the line of kings. Descended from David, nobody in his family tree had ever served at the altar in the worship of God. Indeed, God was serious about this separation of powers, which the kings Saul and Uzziah learned the hard way (1 Sam. 15; 2 Chron. 26:18–20). The only way Jesus could be both King and High Priest is if there is a change from the Levitical priesthood to one that is greater and allows for both offices to be held by the same person: the order of Melchizedek. Through Psalm 110, written by David years into the successive generations of Levitical high priests living and dying while serving the weak and useless commandment (v. 18), God decreed a change. The Messiah would serve as a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

Setting aside the former priesthood opens the way for “a better hope” under the ministry of Jesus, our great High Priest, “through which we draw near to God” (v. 19). And how was Jesus qualified for and ordained to this office? By “the power of an indestructible life” (v. 16) and God’s oath (v. 20–21):

“The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind,
‘You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.’” —Psalm 110:4

This makes all the difference in the world, not just for the accomplishment of our salvation, but for our assurance of security in that salvation. The God to whom we hope to draw near has sworn—and will not change his mind—that the priest upon whom our salvation depends will be our priest forever. And so, our author concludes that “This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant” (v. 22).

The Levitical priests couldn’t provide such a guarantee because, being human, not only were they sinners like those whom they represented, but also, they were dying men. Every other high priest needed “to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for the sins of the people” (v. 27), and still they “were prevented by death from continuing in office” (v. 23). They couldn’t even guarantee their own salvation.

The superiority of Jesus’ priesthood and covenant are found in that “he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (v. 24), and “He has no need . . . to offer sacrifices daily. . . for his own sins” (v. 27). Unlike the many Levitical high priests who came before him, Jesus is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (v. 26). So, when he “offered himself” on the cross, it was a “once for all” perfect sacrifice for the sins of his people (v. 27). “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him” (v. 25).

Friends, we are “to the uttermost” sinners, and we need a “to the uttermost” Savior! We need a high priest of the order of Melchizedek. Having secured for us his perfect salvation, Jesus prays for us from his position at the right hand of his Father in heaven. He continues as our priestly intercessor not for the duration of a human lifespan, but, because of his everlasting reign as our Priest-King, Jesus is praying for us unceasingly for all eternity. As sinners against an infinitely holy God, we need an infinitely holy Savior who “always lives to make intercession” for us (v. 27). And then, Melchizedek-like, he ministers to our needs, blessing us with every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3) and refreshing us bodily and spiritually in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. In Jesus Christ, because of God the Father’s unchanging oath, we have exactly the High Priest we need.

“For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” —Hebrews 7:28

O, what a magnificent Savior we have in Jesus.

[1] Michael Kruger, Hebrews For You, (The Good Book Company, 2021), p. 98.

[2] Ibid. p. 97

[3] Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), p. 224, 226

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s