Melchizedek is only shown to us one time and yet we are reminded of him with the familiar phrase from Hebrews that Jesus is a high priest "after the order of Melchizedek." You wouldn't think there'd be a whole lot to learn from one little "walk on" part. However, as is so often the case with Scripture, there is a whole lot more to it as we can see here.
|Melchizedek and Abraham. Painted Limoges enamel plaque, 1560-1570.|
Most modern biblical scholarship sees in Melchizedek a pre-figuring of Christ; some scholars suggest that it was actually an appearance of Christ to Abram. He is a mysterious figure. The early tradition of the Church, which continued well up to the time of the Reformation, was influenced by the Jewish rabbinic teaching that Melchizedek was actually Shem, the firstborn son of Noah who lived a very long time. This is a compelling idea. Shem was the one on whom Noah's blessing had rested. He was destined to be a master over the Canaanites. His priesthood was domestic; that is, the one who conducted the worship of God and through whom the blessing of God was received was the head of the family. We have seen this in Noah and Abram. This role was passed from father to firstborn son.All quotes from Genesis, Part II: God and His Family. This series first ran in 2004 and 2005. I'm refreshing it as I go. For links to the whole study, go to the Genesis Index. For more about the resources used, go here.
If, in fact, Shem is Melchizedek (this name is more of a title than a name), as the Fathers taught (even Martin Luther understood and taught this), what can we make of the description of him in Hebrews 7:1-10 (please read)? In Heb. 7:3, he is described as "without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever." In order to understand this statement, we need to know something about the Levitical priesthood in Israel, with which Melchizedek's priesthood is contrasted in the verses that follow.
The Levitical priesthood was instituted in Israel at the time of a great apostasy, a grave turning away from the covenant God had made with His people (see Exodus 32:25-29). Before that time, the priesthood had been a domestic one, as we have seen in Genesis thus far, passed from father to firstborn son. Due to the circumstances of its institution, the Levitical priesthood must be seen as inferior to the earlier one. The writer of Hebrews makes this clear. Additionally, by the time of the writing of Hebrews, the Levitical priesthood featured certain restrictions. A man could not become a priest until he was 30 and had to retire when he was 50. He also had to prove his Levitical (of the tribe of Levi) genealogy through both his father and his mother (this had become important when Israel returned to its land after foreign exile, in about 500 B.C.; there was careful attention to lineage in order to prevent any foreign corruption in the priesthood).
The priesthood of Melchizedek was not that way. There was no need for the Levitical attention to parental lineage ("He is without father or mother or genealogy..."). There was no start and end of his service ("neither beginning of days nor end of life"). It would be this kind of royal priesthood that Jesus would have (prophesied of the Messiah long before by King David in Psalm 110:4). His was the superior priesthood of the firstborn son, not the Levitical one. God's own Son became High Priest. Melchizedek was a type of the One Who was to come.]