In Genesis 14, Abraham is returning from battle with local tribes when the man of faith encounters the mysterious king of Salem (Jerusalem) named Melchizedek. As we read in verses 18–20: “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, 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.” Who is this mysterious Melchizedek, and why would Abraham pay tithes to him?
In Psalm 110:4, which is one of the most often-cited Old Testament passages in the New Testament, the psalmist speaks of Melchizedek as follows: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” Given the fact that Jesus quotes this same passage while debating with the Pharisees about whether or not He is the true “son of David” (Matt. 22:42–44), it is clear that the passage has strong messianic implications — both as a prophecy and as fulfilled by Jesus, the One of whom the psalmist had been speaking.
But it falls to the author of Hebrews to explain Melchizedek’s interesting role in redemptive history. In explaining just who the mysterious Melchizedek was and why he is important, he writes: “Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace” (Heb. 7:1–2). The very fact that Melchizedek is called “king of righteousness” indicates that the author of Hebrews understands this man to be a type of Christ. His work, in some way, points ahead to Israel’s Messiah. Given the fact that Melchizedek’s human ancestry cannot be traced (v. 7:3), he foreshadows Jesus, who alone is the eternal Son of God.
In verses 4–10 of Hebrews 7, the author recounts how Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek and that the Levitical priests (who were biological descendants of Abraham) would one day be commanded in the law to accept tithes from the people of Israel. The author concludes, “it is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior” (v. 7). Given that Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, and the Israelites paid tithes to the Levites, this is a strong argument that Jesus Christ’s priesthood is greater than that of the Levites.
In fact, in verses 11–19 it becomes clear that the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood indicates that a priest like Melchizedek is needed, and that priest is none other than Jesus. The author goes on to cite (just as Jesus had done) the words of Psalm 110:4 to make his point: “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus is that priest, and His once-for-all sacrifice for sin enables us to draw near to God (v. 19). His oath is unshakable
(v. 20). Remarkably, this oath is sworn about Jesus by none other than God Himself: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever’” (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:21).
This means that “Jesus [is] the guarantor of a better covenant”
(v. 22). Earthly priests are sinful men and they eventually die. Their work is temporary and provisional. But Jesus “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (v. 24). Melchizedek’s background and ancestry may be unknown. As a historical person, Melchizedek has a family tree, whether we can trace it or not. But Jesus’ priesthood continues forever. Jesus is the eternal Son of God, established in His priestly office by none other than the Father Himself. Therefore, we can say of Jesus (and not of Melchizedek, who foreshadows Him): “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (v. 25).
The author of Hebrews concludes, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. 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” (vv. 26–29).
It is only through the lens of Jesus Christ’s priestly work that we can now see the role the mysterious figure of Melchizedek plays in preparing the way for the coming of Israel’s Messiah. Melchizedek is a priest and the king of righteousness. Abraham pays him tithes, and Melchizedek in turn blesses Abraham. And in all of this, Melchizedek points God’s people ahead to an eternal Son with an eternal priesthood, whose death removes once and for all the guilt of our sins.