In chapter 5:1-10 the writer of Hebrews was discussing the high priesthood of Christ. Jesus is the superior High Priest because he was a human, like us, yet he was also God. Because of this unique combination, Jesus is able to be the perfect high priest forever, a priest that is not like the line of earthly priests descended from Aaron and the tribe of Levi, but a priest in the order of Melchizedek, the mysterious priest from Genesis 14. But because this was a difficult concept, the writer digresses into a warning to his readers not to be lazy in their spiritual development. They ought to be interested in the difficult “meat” of the Word of God.
In chapter 7, the writer of Hebrews shows that Jesus is the Perfect High Priest, in the order of Melchizedek, who serves as a “type” of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is the Perfect High Priest, he is able to meet our needs in a way that no human priest ever could.
Melchizedek is identified by the writer of Hebrews as both a priest and a king. While he is mentioned in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, there is a great deal of interest in him in the Second Temple period. Genesis 14 describes Abram’s rescue of Lot from the hands of invaders from the east. Lot was living in Sodom when it was captured by five kings from the east. Abram rallies a small army and pursues the invaders, and routs their army. While returning from the battle, Abram is met by Melchizedek, who greets him and blesses him. Genesis 14:18-20 describes Abram worshiping the most High God with Melchizedek and offering a tithe to God through this mysterious priest.
Psalm 110 also refers to Melchizedek. This psalm is perhaps the most cited messianic Psalm in the New Testament. The author of Hebrews used it in chapter 1 and it appears in Acts and Paul as well. What is important for our reading of Heb 7 is that the Psalm connects the davidic ruler to “the priesthood of Melchizedek.”
There were a number of interpretations of Melchizedek current in the first century, perhaps explaining why the author of Hebrews used this rather obscure character as an analogy for Jesus.
- The Dead Sea scrolls make Melchizedek into a paradigm for the righteous remnant, awaiting the return of the Messiah. He functions very much like Michael in Daniel 12. He is a defender of Israel who will return to punish those who opposed the righteous remnant.
- The Targum Jonathan argued that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah. In the genealogies of Genesis, Shem would outlived Abraham by 35 years. The Jews sought to find a way to explain the great Abraham giving honor to Melchizedek, they did this by making him one of Abraham’s great ancestors.
- The philosopher Philo described Melchizedek as the “divine logos,” not God but God’s representative in this world
The reason for all this speculation is that there is not much said in Gen 14 about who Melchizedek. That he worships the God Most High and was the king of Salem (presumably Jerusalem) is remarkable indeed. Perhaps the motivation is that Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem in the age prior to the Davidic Kingdom. Since David captured Jerusalem as his capitol, he became a king in the line of Melchizedek. As the son of David, Jesus is both a king (in the line of David) and a priest (in the line of Melchizedek).