Bible oldThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Hebrews 7:1-3

The Priestly Order of Melchizedek

For this 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. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.

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In last week’s reading the author of Hebrews began discussing spiritual meat, rather than milk, by introducing Abraham’s unwavering faith in God.

In today’s passage, he brings into scope the meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek.

Melchizedek is mentioned in prayers of consecration during the Communion service in Catholic and Anglican (including Episcopal) churches, using a phraseology similar to Hebrews 6:20 in describing Christ (emphases mine below):

20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

Given Melchizedek’s importance, the Old Testament has very little history on the man himself.

We have three lines from Genesis 14, where he appears after Abraham won the war against various kings, which included the liberation of his nephew Lot and the recovery of Lot’s possessions:

18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said,

Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Possessor[a] of heaven and earth;
20 and blessed be God Most High,
    who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

There is another mention in Psalm 110:4:

The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
    after the order of Melchizedek.”

The Book of Hebrews has the most to say about Melchizedek. He foreshadowed Christ, and Christ’s priesthood surpasses his.

The notion of priesthood and Melchizedek all gets quite complicated — but nonetheless fascinating — as we shall see from John MacArthur’s sermon below.

To begin with, I will look at a more general explanation from Matthew Henry after discussing the verses themselves.

The author of Hebrews reminds his Jewish audience of Melchizedek’s blessing of Abraham (verse 1).

In return, Abraham recognised Melchizedek’s stature as both king and priest (verse 2). As such, Abraham gave Melchizedek one-tenth of his spoils won in battle. These were not the middling spoils, but the very best. Abraham understood that Melchizedek’s name meant ‘king of righteousness’ and ‘king of Salem’, meaning ‘king of peace’.

The author of Hebrews says that we know nothing more about Melchizedek in Scripture (verse 3) — or history, for that matter. That said, he was a very important person in terms of universal priesthood. God chose Melchizedek for his character, not his lineage. Jewish priests were chosen from their tribe, e.g. Levites, or lineage.

The author says that this brief mention of Melchizedek’s priesthood should serve as a timeless example of what serving God should be, like the priesthood of Jesus Christ, whose eternal priesthood surpasses that of Melchizedek’s temporal one.

Excerpted below is Matthew Henry’s explanation:

(1.) Melchisedec was a king, and so is the Lord Jesus–a king of God’s anointing; the government is laid upon his shoulders, and he rules over all for the good of his people. (2.) That he was king of righteousness: his name signifies the righteous king. Jesus Christ is a rightful and a righteous king–rightful in his title, righteous in his government. He is the Lord our righteousness; he has fulfilled all righteousness, and brought in an everlasting righteousness, and he loves righteousness and righteous persons, and hates iniquity. (3.) He was king of Salem, that is, king of peace; first king of righteousness, and after that king of peace. So is our Lord Jesus; he by his righteousness made peace, the fruit of righteousness is peace. Christ speaks peace, creates peace, is our peace-maker. (4.) He was priest of the most high God, qualified and anointed in an extraordinary manner to be his priest among the Gentiles. So is the Lord Jesus; he is the priest of the most high God, and the Gentiles must come to God by him; it is only through his priesthood that we can obtain reconciliation and remission of sin. (5.) He was without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, Hebrews 7:3. This must not be understood according to the letter; but the scripture has chosen to set him forth as an extraordinary person, without giving us his genealogy … (6.) That he met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him … Thus our Lord Jesus meets his people in their spiritual conflicts, refreshes them, renews their strength, and blesses them. (7.) That Abraham gave him a tenth part of all (Hebrews 7:2) … as an expression of his gratitude for what Melchisedec had done for him, or as a testimony of his homage and subjection to him as a king, or as an offering vowed and dedicated to God, to be presented by his priest. And thus are we obliged to make all possible returns of love and gratitude to the Lord Jesus for all the rich and royal favours we receive from him, to pay our homage and subjection to him as our King, and to put all our offerings into his hands, to be presented by him to the Father in the incense of his own sacrifice. (8.) That this Melchisedec was made like unto the Son of God, and abideth a priest continually. He bore the image of God in his piety and authority, and stands upon record as an immortal high priest; the ancient type of him who is the eternal and only-begotten of the Father, who abideth a priest for ever.

John MacArthur has much more on the subject.

First, Melchizedek is a symbol — a type — representing Christ:

Now, there’s much in the Scripture that comes under the category of typology. There are many theological terms that we use in Bible study and in Bible teaching. One of them is typology. Whenever we talk about a type, we mean an Old Testament picture of the person and work of Christ. For example, in the Old Testament we read about a brazen serpent being lifted up, and all who looked upon the serpent were healed from the snake bites. And then we hear in John chapter 3 that that is a picture of Jesus Christ. And it says, “As the Son of Man was lifted – as the serpent was lifted up, so shall the Son of Man be lifted up, and those who look on Him in faith shall be healed from sin.”

We read in the Old Testament about lambs being slain, and then we hear the words of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God” in reference to Jesus Christ. There are many pictures in the Old Testament of Christ. We call these types, and Christ is the antitype or the fulfillment of that type

But as we come to Hebrews chapter 7, we meet another Old Testament type. Now, keep in mind that types are always frail illustrations at best. A lamb rates no comparison with the Lamb of God realistically. Nor does a serpent of brass rate a relationship to Jesus Christ realistically. They are merely humble pictures meant to give us insight from an illustrative point of view. And we say at the same time that Melchizedek in no way deserves an equality with Jesus Christ. But he does serve as a very interesting picture of Christ

The author of Hebrews begins a long dissertation on Melchizedek because the priesthood was — and still is — very important to the Jewish faith.

To a certain extent, it is also central to Christianity, because a priest, or minister, is seen by many believers to be the bridge between laypeople and Jesus as well as God. Note the word ‘pontifex’ below, which Catholicism uses to describe the Pope:

And the Latin word for priest is pontifex, taken apart and it means bridge builder. The priest was the one who built the bridge from man to God. And to the Jew, the priesthood was really very, very important. To them, you see, religion was access to God. And since they couldn’t go directly to God, they had to go through a mediator, and the priests were designed to be mediators.

The high priests offered the main Jewish sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. The high priest was the only person allowed into the Holy of Holies, and, even then, he could only stay there for a moment because he himself was not worthy.

Recall that, after the Crucifixion, the curtain shielding the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem was rent in two, meaning that Jesus — not a human high priest — is our only Mediator and Advocate with God the Father. Jesus Christ offered the true, final, sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world. The author of Hebrews wants his audience to understand this by beginning with a discussion of Melchizedek.

In God’s covenant with the Jews, priesthood was based on hereditary lines:

This was how God designed it, that certain men would be called out, set apart, sons of Aaron and Levi, to minister as priests. And they would build bridges between men and God according to God’s specifications.

Sacrifices went on and on for centuries. Then, Jesus sacrificed Himself for countless sins of Jew and Gentile alike, ending the Old Covenant and instituting a New Covenant:

And what they did, they had to do over and over and over again. And finally, a great, glorious priest has come along.

Now, you see, to the Jew this is very important, because he knows of no way to get yourself connected with God apart from a priest. And so, the Holy Spirit says, “Christ is that perfect priest. Not only does He fit the qualifications of a priest, but he supersedes any qualifications of any priest you’ve ever seen. He’s far beyond.”

Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest, forever and ever:

Now, here the Holy Spirit introduces the priesthood of Christ and says, “We have such a Great High Priest. We have a Great High Priest. You don’t need the priests of Judaism anymore. You don’t need the old system. There is a Great High Priest. There is a bridge builder whose bridge stays, whose bridge remains. And once you cross that bridge, you’ll remain eternally in the fellowship of God. There is such a bridge builder, and it is Jesus Christ.

Note that the author of Hebrews discusses Melchizedek because he was a priest of the Most High God, the creator of all. Melchizedek was not a Jewish priest, because God had not created the Jewish priestly system at that point. The Jews referred to the God who made the Old Covenant with them as Jehovah. Both names refer to the same God, but the Most High God referred to the God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews whereas Jehovah refers to the God of the Jewish covenant.

MacArthur compares and contrasts Melchizedek’s universal priesthood — a foretelling of Christ’s — with Aaron’s priesthood, which was strictly for the Jewish nation. Furthermore, Melchizedek was a king. However, no Jewish priest was a king himself, nor was he a bringer of permanent righteousness and peace with God:

Now, Aaron’s priesthood was national to begin with. In other words, it was strictly Judaistic. The particulars that were under Aaron were priests of Israel. Secondly, the priests were subject to the kings in a measure. They were not kings themselves; they were subjects in a kingdom. Thirdly, Aaron’s priesthood offered no permanent righteousness and peace, only that continual, continual, continual sacrificing. Nothing ever permanent. It never established a permanent righteousness for a man nor permanent peace with God. That peace and that righteous was shattered every time they sinned. Constant repetition.

Fourthly, Aaron’s priesthood was hereditary. It didn’t matter how good of a guy you were, if you were born in the right family, you were automatically a priest no matter what you were. Now, that poses some problems, obviously. Fifthly, it was a timed priesthood. They only existed in it from the year – from the age of about 25 to 50 and it was over. It was limited by time.

So, Aaron’s priesthood was a national one, subject to kings, no permanent righteousness and peace, hereditary, and limited by time. Now, this is very important for us to understand because Melchizedek’s priesthood supersedes Aaron’s at every single point. Therefore, says the Holy Spirit, Christ is a better priest than Aaron.

The author of Hebrews is positing a question in his audience’s collective mind. Do they want to follow a Jewish priestly system or do they want to follow a high priest who is also a king of righteousness and peace in the same way that Melchizedek was? There is only one high priest who can satisfy that criteria and that is Jesus Christ.

Looking at Melchizedek’s priesthood, we find that:

Melchizedek’s priesthood was universal. It was not national; it was universal.

At this point, MacArthur explains the difference between the Jewish names ‘the Most High God’ and ‘Jehovah’:

In relation to Israel, God took the name of Jehovah … God’s name is I Am. Right? YHWH in the Hebrew. But no Jew would say the name of God. And so, since the Jews didn’t want to say the name Jehovah, they took the consonants of Jehovah and the vowels out of Adonai, which means Lord, and stuck them together and got Yehowah which is Jehovah. So, Jehovah’s not really the name of God; it’s only that name which Israel came up with in an effort not to say YHWH and yet express who they wanted to express. So, it’s a combination word, Jehovah, and it deals strictly with Israel. And watch this, Aaron’s priests were priests of Jehovah. You remember that all the line of Aaron, the Levite line of Aaron, were – and incidentally, within the line of the Levites, you still had to be a son of Aaron. But all of those who came from Aaron were priests only of Jehovah. That is they were related to God only in connection with Israel. They couldn’t run over here and minister of there and here and everywhere else. They were tied to Israel’s economy.

But watch this. It does not say that Melchizedek was the priest of Jehovah; it says he was the priest of – what? – the Most High God. Now, that is a universal name for God, El Elyon, and it reaches everywhere and everything in heaven and earth. It is the universal name of God that includes Jew and Gentile. Far broader than the Jewish term Jehovah.

So, whereas Aaron’s priesthood related just to Israel, Melchizedek’s was broader than that and related to all men. Now, when the Holy Spirit says Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, do you see the significance? The significance is this: Jesus is not just the Messiah of Israel but of the world. So, it is very important to establish Melchizedek’s priesthood as universal if you’re going to say Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Now, you see the Jew – in the Jewish mind there had to be a historical reason for everything or a historical foundation. And so, God chooses Melchizedek as His perfect foundation to teach this truth. There have been priests who’ve been broader than Israel before; there’s no reason to believe there can’t be some more. And there is one, Jesus Christ. So, it transcends Israel.

MacArthur’s version of the Bible makes this clearer; Abraham used both names for God:

Now, Abraham understood this concept, because in Genesis 14:22, he said, in response to Melchizedek, “I have lifted up my hand unto Jehovah” – and then he said – comma – “God Most High.” So, he understood Jehovah in the covenant relationship; he also underst[oo]d Jehovah in the sense that He was God of everything.

The name Most High God appears elsewhere in the Bible:

In Daniel, for example, where the first great king of the Gentiles, Nebuchadnezzar is brought through seven years of humbling until he finally acknowledges the facts of God, he says this. He knew that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men. Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “The Most High doeth according to His will in heaven and in earth.” And here was a Gentile acknowledging the Most High. That’s a term that has reference to Gentiles. That’s a broad term for God.

And you’ll remember that even the demons, when our Lord cast them out, cried, “What have we to do with Thee, Jesus, Thou Son of the Most High God?” And they again used the universal term for God.

Jesus has made a promise to Christians involving the Most High God:

Jesus says for those of us who come into His relationship, He promised that we shall be called the sons of the Most High. And so, the term “the Most High” is then a universal name for God in the sense of His universal rule and character as it involves all men. And this means that Melchizedek’s priesthood is not limited to a nation. He is not just priest of Jehovah; he is priest of the Most High God, El Elyon, Possessor of heaven and earth, above all national and above all dispensational distinction.

MacArthur then examines kingship, which Melchizedek and Jesus Christ have in common:

Secondly, Aaron’s priesthood was subject to royalty; Melchizedek’s was royalty. Notice verse 1, “For this Melchizedek” – what’s the next word? – “king of Salem.” Four times it says he was king. In verse 2, it says King of righteousness, King of Salem, which is, “King of peace.” Four times in two verses, it tells us this man was a king, royal priesthood. Melchizedek’s was royal. This is something totally foreign to the Aaronic priests. This is totally foreign to the Levitical priests in Israel. There was never that combination. Israel’s priests were never king and priest. That was unknown in Israel. No priest was royal. But oh, my, what a perfect blend it is. What an absolutely perfect blend that the true Priest, the Great Priest, the glorious Priest Jesus Christ should be that blend of priest and king so that He not only takes men to God, but He rules men for God.

Listen to Zechariah 6:13, “Even He shall build the temple of the Lord; and He shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon His throne” – there He is as a King – “and He shall be a priest upon His throne.” Now, that is an unheard of concept. And yet it is prophesied in Zechariah so clearly. Jesus was to be a priest, but a priest on a throne, a royal priesthood.

Now on to the identity of Salem, about which there is broad agreement but not 100% certainty. Most experts believe it is Jerusalem, but other theories suggest Shalem in the land of Canaan and Salim, where John the Baptist performed many baptisms.

Jerusalem sounds the most reasonable place for Salem when you read MacArthur’s reasoning:

… likely that’s an ancient name for Jerusalem. Jerusalem also had the name Jebus – J-E-B-U-S. The Jebusites occupied Jerusalem initially. But it may have also, at the time of Melchizedek, had the name of Salem. And so, Melchizedek could well have been an ancient king of Jerusalem. And I think that has the best evidence. The city that was the hometown of God. There’s a most wonderful statement about that in Psalm 132. I’ll take a minute to read you two verses there, Psalm 132:13, “For the Lord hath chosen Zion” – that’s Jerusalem – “He hath desired it for His habitation. This is My rest forever; here will I dwell, for I have desired it.” You didn’t know God had a hometown, did you. His hometown is Jerusalem.

And it seems to me that it would be very likely that God would have had His priest in His hometown even pre-Abraham. And so, Jerusalem had a king long before David, and a king appointed by God; and a priest long before Aaron, and a priest appointed by God. Melchizedek was king and priest of Jerusalem. Now, this is important. The Jews always felt that God dwelt with them, and that was about it; that God was exclusively theirs, and there could never be another priesthood, and there could never be another covenant. And so, when Christianity came along and says, “Here’s another covenant; here’s another priesthood,” they said, “No, it can’t be.”

Now watch this – beautiful, beautiful argument by the Spirit. “Look,” He says. “There was another priest, and there was another covenant before you existed. Why can’t there be one after?”

Ultimately:

The whole world didn’t begin with Judaism. There was something going on before God worked that way; there can be something going on after He’s finished or temporarily finished working that one. Oh, this is so important. It leaves room for the new covenant. For if God dealt differently before, why can’t He deal differently again? He didn’t need to work through the nation Israel before Abraham. Why can’t He work another way if He wants to in this economy? That’s the point.

If He had a royal priest one time, why can’t He have another one? And He does. And who is He? Jesus Christ. Something no Jewish priest ever conceived.

There is one more aspect of this to explore which is ‘righteousness’ and ‘peace’. Peace, says MacArthur, is not temporal world peace but peace with God. And we can have peace with God only if we are righteous. Therefore, righteousness must come before peace. And, if you study Scripture, you will see that ‘righteousness’ precedes ‘peace’ in every passage with the two words.

MacArthur says:

There was no permanent righteousness, and there was no permanent peace in Aaron’s priesthood. Ah, but Melchizedek’s priesthood was a priesthood of righteousness and peace. Notice verse 2, “First” – and we’ll skip the first phrase, come back to it later, “First being by interpretation King of righteousness” – and that’s a translation of Melchizedek; that’s what his name means: King of righteousness – “and after that also King of Salem, which is King of peace” – Salem, from Shalom, which means peace. His name is righteousness; his city is peace. He is a perfect combination of righteousness and peace.

Now, don’t you know that that’s exactly what all priests attempt to accomplish? What is righteousness? Righteousness is holiness. And righteousness is demanded before you can ever be at peace with God. Right? God hates sin. Therefore, if you’re a sinner, you and God are not at peace. Right? God fights against His enemies. Did you know that? God fights against His enemies. And if a man is not righteous, then he’s not at peace with God. But if a man is righteous in the eyes of God, then he’s not at war with God; he’s at peace with God. Right?

Now, Romans chapter 3, the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ gave us His righteousness, and therefore, it says in chapter 5, we have peace with God.

You say, “Well, how do you get righteous?”

When the righteousness of Christ is given to you by faith in Him. Christ’s righteousness becomes yours; you’re immediately at peace with God. He sees you covered by the blood of Christ. Every priest wanted to make a man righteous that he might be at peace with God, but they couldn’t do it. The blood of bulls and goats didn’t do it; they had to do it over and over, and it only lasted as long as a man didn’t sin. But here He says Melchizedek’s very name was righteousness, and his city was peace, emphasizing that his was a kingdom and his was a priesthood of righteousness and peace. Is that typical of Jesus Christ? Does Jesus Christ provide a permanent righteousness? Absolutely.

What happens to a sinner after he comes to Jesus Christ, invites Him into his life and then sins? What happens? Does he have to go back and ask Jesus to come in again? No. His righteousness covers him forever. What happens once you you’ve made peace with God? All of a sudden do you turn into God’s enemy again, and He’s going to destroy you? No. No. Jesus Christ secures righteousness and peace on a permanent basis.

The historical Melchizedek was probably a very righteous man and a very peaceful king. But the Holy Spirit is not here dealing with the personal characteristics of Melchizedek; He’s only dealing with Melchizedek as a type of Christ. And He says that He was first righteousness and then peace. And may I say they always come in that order; there’s no peace with God unless there’s righteousness. The Bible says the Lord is our righteousness. Righteousness comes first, then peace.

I will leave it at that.

Who could imagine a 4,300+ word post discussing three verses? I had not anticipated it.

Yet, does this make you more elated to be a Christian? Does it make you more eager and willing to spread the Good News? I hope it does!

More on Melchizedek will follow, all being well.

Next time — Hebrews 7:4-10