Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Order of Melchizedek

“Jesus has become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” This verse should be familiar to us, but it is also mysterious. And this mysterious figure of Melchizedek is surprisingly important to us and to our salvation.

Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Westfalen oder Köln,
circa 1360. ULB Darmstadt, Hs 2505, fol. 29r

He appears briefly in Genesis and then once again in the Psalms and that is all we have about him in the Old Testament.

From Genesis:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed [Abram] and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker 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. (Gen 14:18-20)

And from the Psalms:
The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." (Psa 110:4)

Even though these references are brief, the author of Hebrews, who today we again hear speaking in the Church, reflects deeply upon these passages and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, finds in Melchizedek an image of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. He writes of Melchizedek, “He is without father or mother or genealogy” – because, you see, no genealogy is provided for him in Genesis – “and he has neither beginning of days nor end of life” – because, again, neither of these are recounted in the narrative.

Melchizedek simply appears and disappears again from the story, rather like Tom Bombadil.[1]  As Nahum Sarna writes, he “suddenly emerges from the shadows and as suddenly retreats into oblivion.”[2]  In having no beginning or end, the author of Hebrews finds that Melchizedek “resembl[es] the Son of God [and] he continues a priest forever” (7:3).

Melchizedek challenges the notion of priesthood prevalent in Jesus’ day, and he challenges some of our notions of priesthood as well. At the time of Christ, and really throughout most of scripture, when someone is talking about a priest, they are probably talking about the priesthood of Aaron and his descendants – the Levites. [3]  Being a priest of God meant having the proper heredity and it came with certain ritual obligations and privileges. By the time of Jesus, priests were primarily ministers of the altar in the temple.[4]

Significantly, the Gospels never refer to Jesus or his apostles as priests. Jesus, as Hebrews points out, was “descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (Heb 7:14). In the Gospels and Acts, the priesthood of God continues to be the Levitical priesthood.

Interestingly, the majority of the New Testament does not mention priests at all. The word “priest” is totally absent from all the epistles except for Hebrews.[5] Half of the New Testament’s entire discussion of priesthood takes place in Hebrews. And it is Hebrews that reveals to us the priesthood of Jesus Christ. So if we want to know anything about Christian priesthood, we have to study Hebrews, which clearly teaches that the priesthood of Jesus Christ is not akin to Aaron’s Levitical priesthood, but is something both newer and older than that. It is the eternal priesthood of the order of Melchizedek.

Melchizedek, “the priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:18), is the first priest mentioned in the Bible, and he is no Levite. He is not even a descendant of Abraham, let alone of Levi or Aaron. In fact, he blesses Abraham, and receives tithes from him. So, Hebrews says, his priesthood is superior to that of the Levites, because Levi, within his ancestor Abraham, is blessed by and pays tithes to Melchizedek, not the other way around (7:7-10).

So, Biblically, there is from the very beginning a kind of priesthood outside the line of Levi and Aaron, despite the fact that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, more commonly understands priesthood as Levitical.

St. Justin Martyr writes,
Melchizedek was described by Moses as the priest of the Most High, and he was a priest of those who were in uncircumcision, and blessed the circumcised Abraham who brought him tithes, so God has shown that His everlasting Priest, called also by the Holy Spirit Lord, would be Priest of those in uncircumcision. Those too in circumcision who approach Him, that is, believing Him and seeking blessings from Him, He will both receive and bless.[6]

This commentary underscores the importance of Melchizedek’s priesthood for the universal calling to Christ. Christ, and the “covenant he mediates” (Heb 8:6) as high priest, is available to all, circumcised and uncircumcised, and not only to those descended from Abraham.

To better understand the order of Melchizedek, I think we have to look at two figures: one you’ve probably heard of: David the king, and one you may not have: Zadok, the first high priest.

Melchizedek is both king and priest of Salem. Now, Salem, which means “peace,” is another name for Jerusalem – Jeru-Salem (cf. Psalm 76:2). And Melchizedek’s two roles in Salem – priest and king – would later be more distinct. Zadok represents the priests of Jerusalem and David the kings. Even Melchizedek’s name points to these two roles. Melek means “king” and “Tsadowq” is the name of the first high priest. Melek Tsadowq together form “Melchizedek.”

Zadok is one of the descendants of Aaron, a priest at the time of David, who became the first high priest of the temple built by Solomon. The high priests descended thereafter descend from Zadok. I think it may be partly for this reason that Hebrews usually calls Jesus “high priest” rather than simply “priest.” Zadok means “righteous” and so the name Melchizedek means “righteous king” as Hebrews states (7:2).

David, as I hope we all know, is the great king of Jerusalem. And so he shares this with Melchizedek. He is a successor to the kingship of Melchizedek. It makes sense, then, when Psalm 110 includes David and his successors among the priesthood, stating, “The LORD says to my lord…, ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’” (Ps 110:1,4).
And who is the true Son of David? Who is the true king of Peace? Jesus Christ! He is the true king forever and ever! He is the king of peace, the king of Salem, the king of Jerusalem, the successor of Melchizedek, a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.

Biblical priesthood of God ends rather as it begins. Melchizedek’s priesthood “of God Most High” in Genesis becomes the priesthood “of God and of Christ” in Revelation (Rev 20:6). Fittingly, according to Hebrews, Jesus Christ, in whom the last priests mentioned in Scripture have their priesthood, is after the order of the first priest mentioned in Scripture. Melchizedek and Christ begin and end the biblical discussion of priesthood. Their priesthoods are extraordinary. They are not Levites. Their sacrifices are not the sacrifices of animals. Melchizedek offers bread and wine (Gen 14:18), prefiguring Christ’s offering of his own body and blood (cf. Heb 9:11-12, 10:10). They are both called king as well as priest (Gen 14:18; Rev 19:16). The priesthood of each is forever (Ps 110:4; Heb 6:20). Extended once for all the sons of Aaron (Ex 28:43-29:1), priesthood is now extended to all those whom the blood of Jesus Christ has freed from sin (Rev. 1:5-6).

[2]  Nahum Sarna. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, 109
[3] In fact, the word כֹּהֵן kohen appears in 153 verses in Leviticus - more than in any other book in the Bible. Blue Letter Bible. "Dictionary and Word Search for kohen (Strong's 3548)"
[4] TDNT, 262
[5] Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Hort Balz, Gerhard Schneider. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991. 174.
[6] Justin Martyr. “Dialogue with Trypho.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1885, 211

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