Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Melchizedek Mystery

He briefly crossed the stage in Genesis 14, eliciting respect from Abraham, the father of the faith. He was mentioned in passing in Psalm 110, the most frequently quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament. Finally, in Hebrews Melchizedek commanded serious attention. But why does a cryptic figure mentioned in three verses in Genesis and one verse in Psalms merit such prominence in Hebrews? This question is only heightened when we learn that by the time Hebrews was written (in the second half of the first century), Melchizedek had been the subject of much literary speculation within Judaism. For example, 2 Enoch (part of the Pseudepigrapha or “false” writings), concludes with a wildly sensational account of Melchizedek’s supernatural birth as Noah’s nephew.

Who was this mysterious figure and why is he so prominent in Hebrews? Hebrews 7:3 is the key: “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.”

The first phrase, “Without father or mother, without genealogy,” applies a rabbinic principle to Melchizedek that held that when a Gentile came to faith in the God of Israel, he began a new line of descent within the family of faith. From the perspective of Talmudic law, he had no parents or genealogy. The second phrase, “without beginning of days or end of life,” applies another popular first-century rabbinic principle which claimed that if the Scriptures do not speak of something, for religious purposes, it did not happen. For example, it is often said that prior to Genesis 14 there was no war since that chapter holds the fist scriptural mention of it. In this case the writer weighed heavily the silence of Scripture regarding Melchizedek’s lineage since there are so many other records of birth and death in Genesis.

The most common Christian understanding is that Melchizedek was a Christophany—a preincarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. But the third and final phrase of Hebrews 7:3 prohibits this. We are told that “like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.” The term like is a term of comparison, not identity. Throughout the epistle, the author argues from the lesser to the greater. So is the case in Hebrews 7. If Melchizedek, as a Gentile believer in the Most High God, can be a priest (7:6), how much more can Jesus (7:13–16a)? And if Melchizedek figuratively had no beginning or end (7:8), how much more is that true of Jesus who truly has the power of an indestructible life (7:16b)? With Jesus as our High Priest, “a better hope is introduced by which we draw near to God” (7:19). Melchizedek was a dim foreshadowing of the priestly reality we see in Christ Jesus.