Who Was He?
QUESTION: R. V. M. writes, "So, Who is Melchisedec? Is this not Christ Himself?
ANSWER: Thanks for the question. Here is my own view on the subject. Hope it's a help.
The mystery of Melchizedek's identity is still debated. The vast majority of conservative commentators believe him to have been a real man, a historic personage. But there are still a few who think that what Abraham saw was a pre-incarnate appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ (what is technically known as a theophany).
There are unanswered questions with either view, but I tend toward the former. I do not believe Melchizedek was actually Christ. But he is certainly used as a symbol of Christ. (Theologians call this a type of which Christ is the antitype.)
Old Testament Appearances of Christ
The pre-incarnate Christ did appear briefly to various ones in the Old Testament (as He does to Abraham, in Genesis 18). (And a careful study of the many passages speaking of One called "the Angel [Messenger] of the Lord" suggests that He is deity, likely the pre-incarnate Christ–e.g. Gen. 16:9-13; 31:11-13; Exod. 3:1-6; Jud. 13:17-22, etc.) However, these were fleeting encounters. Nowhere before His incarnation does Christ take up residence, and serve as a local official over a period of time. Also, Christ is called a priest "according to the order [or likeness] of Melchizedek" (Ps. 110:4). It does not seem to make logical sense for the Bible to say He was a priest like Himself!
Melchizedek a Historical Figure
Melchizedek may not have been a personal name, but rather a title. It means King of Righteousness, or simply Just King. Zedek (just) is a title used by other Jebusite kings according to ancient literature (and see Adoni-Zedek of Josh. 10:1). Melchizedek appears in the historical Scriptures only once (Gen. 14:18-20), though he is mentioned several times afterward. He served as both king and priest of Salem, around 2000 BC. (Salem, a form of the Hebrew shalom, meaning peace, was by Joshua's time known as Jerusalem, Josh. 10:1.) This was a city in heathen Canaan, controlled by a Canaanite tribe called the Jebusites (cf. II Sam. 5:6-7).
Abraham's Respect for Melchizedek
There is no indication that Abraham treated Melchizedek as his God. As a pilgrim in a foreign land, he simply paid respectful homage to a local chieftain. And Abraham recognizes a spiritual kinship with this man as one who worships "God Most High" (El Elyon) as he does (Gen. 14:22-23). Melchizedek declares God's sovereignty over heaven and earth. And he credits God with giving Abraham the victory in a battle with some allied heathen kings, earlier in Chapter 14 (vs. 18-20). The Canaanites were idol worshipers. But if a priest of the true God could still hold authority there, Canaan was not as completely corrupt as it would become four centuries later (cf. Gen. 15:16).
Melchizedek in Hebrews
The book of Hebrews makes several references to Melchizedek, particularly to draw a comparison to Christ. Christ is said to be appointed to His priestly ministry by God the Father as Aaron (the Levitical priest) was appointed in his day (Heb. 5:4-6). But there was an important contrast between the two. While Aaron's was a hereditary priesthood, later requiring a succession of priests from the tribe of Levi to assume the office, Christ's priesthood was uniquely permanent.
Two Great Titles
In an extended passage (Heb. 7:1-28), the author makes reference to some details of the Genesis passage. First, Melchizedek's two offices and titles are noted, because these certainly apply in an infinitely fuller sense to Christ. The Lord Jesus is both "King of Righteousness" and "King of Peace" (Heb. 7:2; cf. Isa. 9:6; 11:4).
In truth, those two are cause and effect. That is, Christ alone can give the sinner peace with God, since He is the One who fulfilled the righteous requirement of God in paying our debt of sin. Interestingly, Melchizedek is the first priest mentioned in the Scriptures, and "Salem" gives us the first use of the word peace. The traditional "law of first mention" suggests that the first time a thing is mentioned in the Bible we are often told something particularly significant about it. Here we catch our first glimpse, in figure, of our Great High Priest (Heb. 4:14) who brings us peace with God (Rom. 5:1).
A Problem Text
A verse that has fanned the uncertainty about Melchizedek's identity is Heb. 7:3, which says he is "without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually." To those who identify him as the pre-incarnate Christ, this is taken to mean that Melchizedek literally had no beginning or ending, and thus could be no other than God Himself.
However, the writer may simply mean he was without these reference points as far as the record is concerned–that no father or mother (etc.) is listed for him, making him a fitting picture (or type) of Christ. The New Living Translation gives this interpretive paraphrase of the verse: "There is no record of his father or mother or any of his ancestors––no beginning or end to his life. He remains a priest forever, resembling the Son of God." Actually, Christ was without a father on earth, as to His humanity, and without a mother in heaven, as to His deity.
With the Levitical priesthood of Aaron, "there were many priests, because they were prevented by death from continuing" (Heb. 7:23). That is why the genealogies were so important back then. You had to be able to demonstrate that you were of the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron, in order to serve as priest in Israel. But no genealogy is given for Melchizedek–and no record of his birth and death. None was needed, as he was not a Levitical priest.
The Lord Jesus did not receive His priesthood by belonging to the priestly line. His priesthood was unique and nontransferable. Nor did another need to take it up, since He died once for sin, and paid the full price (Heb. 10:12; I Jn. 2:2), and now lives forever as our great High Priest (Heb. 4:14). Melchizedek pictures the eternal priesthood of Christ who is "also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7:25; cf. Rom. 6:9).
Abraham's Gift to Melchizedek
It is stated that Abraham gave a tenth (a tithe) of the spoils of war to Melchizedek. There is no record of this being a regular practice at the time. Nor is it the same as the tithing required of Israel under the Law. Note that Abraham's tithe was not presented to God, but to Melchizedek, in recognition of what a great man he was (Heb. 7:4).
Abraham was an outsider, a foreigner in the land God had promised his descendants. But here he comes upon a local king who worships the same God he does. The gift was a way of paying tribute to him. And in a sense, the genetic seed that would produce the Levitical priests (yet unborn) was in Abraham at the time, and in Abraham they too honoured Melchizedek (Heb. 7:9-10). This again shows that the Melchizedek priesthood was of a higher order than that of Aaron's.
Melchizedek's Gift to Abraham
The bread and wine that Melchizedek distributed to Abraham, and likely to his men (Gen. 14:18) was a kindness to refresh them after a long chase and a fierce battle (vs. 14-15). But it is not difficult to see that if Melchizedek is a type of Christ, the bread and wine might be viewed as a symbol of His body and blood, offered for the spiritual aid of sinners, just as these symbols are used in the Lord's Supper (I Cor. 11:24-25).
The Bottom Line
I believe that Melchizedek was a human being, not deity. He faithfully stood for God in a society that was growing more corrupt all the time. And he foreshadows the Lord Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, in a number of ways.