OK – there’s a name you probably wouldn’t give to one of your kids! In fact, though it may sound vaguely familiar (“I know I’ve heard that somewhere!”) many Christians would be hard-put to say exactly why, and fewer yet would be able to explain the significance of the man being referred to.
A reason Melchizedek may sound familiar is because it appears multiple times in our liturgical readings from the New Testament book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a writing addressed to a Jewish audience that explains why Jesus of Nazareth is to be accepted as the Son of God. It does this by connecting Jesus to numerous references to the Messiah who had been promised in the Hebrew Scriptures (what we Christians call the Old Testament). A key point of reference is Melchizedek (mel-KIZ-eh-dek), a very ancient figure who was recognized by Jews of Christ’s time as a prototype of the Messiah they were waiting for.
The first mention of this mysterious person is very early in the Bible when it is told how Melchizedek, described as “king of Salem [and] … priest of God most high” came out to meet Abram (later renamed ‘Abraham’), offering bread and wine and pronouncing a blessing on him (Genesis 14:18-20). Abram in turn recognized the legitimacy of this priest by giving him a tenth of his possessions. This brief appearance would probably be regarded as no more than a curious detail, were it not that Melchizidek appears again in Psalm 110, a seven-verse song in which King David alludes to someone in the future who is mightier than himself (“my Lord”) and who will be granted God’s authority to rule and execute judgement over all the earth. David says of him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek’”. Over many generations of studying this and similar texts, this shadowy promised figure came to be known to the Jews as the mašíaḥ – a Hebrew word that most of us can’t pronounce and instead use the English equivalent: ‘Messiah.’ This title, like its Greek version ‘Christ,’ literally means ‘the anointed one.’
Psalm 110 speaks of a powerful figure that would rise up against the enemies of God. By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had been under more-or-less continuous subjection to a variety of conquerors (most recently the Greeks and Romans) and the idea of a liberator who would restore their nation and make all of the gentile peoples their subjects was a very appealing image for the Messiah. It was against this background of expectations that Jesus’ ministry unfolded. He continually referred to Himself as the “Son of Man” – the Messiah who would return in power (e.g., Mark 13:26 referencing Daniel 7:13-14) though He also emphasized that “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36). But when Jesus died a humiliating death it seemed self-evident to many Jews (then and now) that He could NOT have been the promised Messiah since He ‘failed’ to restore the nation of Israel and sit on its throne as king.
But it was not only kings who were anointed. Priests were too (Exodus 28:41). Unlike kings, who fought for and ruled their subjects, priests interceded to God for the people. The author of Hebrews thus finds in the figure of Melchizedek (king and priest) a powerful argument for Jesus as the one who perfectly filled both roles. Chapter 7 of Hebrews is filled with the potent symbolism of this identity, beginning with the literal names: “First, [Melchizedek] means ‘king of righteousness; then also, ‘king of Salem’ means ‘king of Peace’.“ (Hebrews 7:2) In this way, the image of a military/political Messiah is refocused as the Savior who would defeat evil and restore the peace of an intimate relationship with God – which Jesus did through His death on the cross.
There is certainly not room here to explore the depths of the Messianic arguments found in Hebrews nor the profound symbolism of the figure of Melchizedek. However, perhaps this ‘snapshot’ can help to illustrate how, when we dig more deeply, so many of the apparently unconnected threads of both the Old and New Testaments are found to be woven into a rich scriptural tapestry of God’s plan of salvation for all people.