A Priest Like Melchizedek

WHEN THE RISEN CHRIST APPEARED to His disciples He reminded them “…that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44). When we think of the Old Testament prophecies we naturally look to figures like Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest who are formally labeled as “prophets.” The Lord’s words quoted above indicate that there are also prophecies in the Law and in the Psalms as well.

In the New Testament there are several psalm verses quoted as referring to the Lord Jesus as the Messiah. At the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, Psalm 2:7 is cited: “To which of the angels did He [i.e. God] ever say, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten You’” (Hebrews 1:5).

The first Christians did not invent the idea that Scriptural events and texts applied to the Messiah. The Jews looked to the coming of the Messiah and saw references to him in the Scriptures. Early Christians were simply continuing a tradition they had received from Judaism. The difference, of course, was that the Christian believed that Jesus was that Messiah and the Scriptures referred to Him.

Messianic Prophecies in the Psalms

In his Letter to Marcellinus, St. Athanasius the Great, the fourth century archbishop of Alexandria, gave his reader an overview of the psalms understood as referring to the Messiah. He writes, “If you want to sing Psalms that speak especially about the Savior you will find something in almost all of them; but 45 and 110 relate particularly to His Divine Begetting from the Father and His coming in the flesh, while 22 and 69 foretell the holy cross, the grievous plot He endured and what great things He suffered for our sakes. The 3rd and the 109th also display the snares and malice of the Jews and how Iscariot betrayed Him; 21, 50 and 72 all set Him forth as Judge and foretell His Second Coming in the flesh to us; they also show the call of the Gentiles. The 16th shows His resurrection from the dead in the flesh; the 24th and 47th His ascension into heaven. And in the four Psalms 93, 96, 98 and 99 all the benefits deriving to us from the Savior’s Passion are set forth together.”

(While St. Athanasius followed the numbering in the Greek Septuagint version (LXX), the above translation follows the Hebrew numeration rather than the Greek, since that is the system used in most English versions.)

We often find psalms and individual verses interpreted as messianic in the liturgical services, particularly on the Great Feasts. Verses of Psalm 2, for example, are associated with the Feast of Christ’s Nativity and also with Holy Friday: “Why do the nations rage and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed” (Psalm 2:1,2). At Christmas these verses bring to mind Herod’s plot against the Infant; on Holy Friday they speak to us of the Sanhedrin denouncing Jesus to Pilate. A subsequent verse – “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision” (Psalm 2:4) – recall the ultimate failure of both these plots to destroy the Lord Jesus.

Messianic foreshadowings in other psalms have made them important parts of our liturgical celebrations of the mysteries they typify. Psalm 22 (LXX: 21), for example, is for many Christians a description of the experience of Christ on the cross. Mt 27:46 indicates that Christ began to recite this psalm as He was dying. The opening verses of Psalm 68 (LXX: 67) are sung with the refrain “Christ is risen…” as the solemn proclamation of the resurrection on Pascha. Christ’s ascension is understandably evoked in Psalm 47:5 (LXX: 46): “God has gone up with a shout; the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.”

One of the references to Christ in the Psalms is repeatedly quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “The Lord has sworn and he will not relent: you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4; LXX: 109). Since this epistle depicts Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the Yom Kippur ritual in the Jewish temple, applying a reference to priesthood is not surprising, but who is Melchizedek?

Priest of the Most High

Melchizedek makes his only Scriptural appearance in Genesis 14. There Abram (later Abraham), then an ally of the king of Sodom, defeats Chedorlaomer, a warring king. The king of Sodom goes out to greet Abram on his victory. Then we are told, “Melchizedek, king of Salem brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram with these words: ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (Genesis 14:18-20).

Some Jewish commentators identified Melchizedek with Shem, the son of Noah and descendant of Adam. In one tradition, the Book of Adam and Eve, Shem officiated at Adam’s funeral when he was fifteen, because he was a priest as Adam was. Adam’s priesthood was that of every human being: to refer all things back to their Creator in thanks and praise. To be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek would be to be a priest according to the order of Adam.

Melchizedek’s priesthood was connected with a line that predates Moses and Aaron, and links him directly to Adam and God. To be a priest after the manner of Melchizedek, then, means to be a priest with a heritage that was older than that of the Jewish temple priesthood descended from Moses’ brother, Aaron. As “a priest of God Most High” from the earliest ages of mankind, Melchizedek represents a faith in the One God that predates Judaism and suggests the “natural monotheism” of ancient man.

Hebrews, reflecting on the picture of Melchizedek in Genesis, describes Melkchizedek as “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God…” (Hebrews 7:3). This image suggests that Melchizedek is not a priest by descent from a priestly line, but by nature. Melchizedek was considered a fitting type of Christ, the eternal Word of God, whose priesthood is eternal and brings together Jews and Gentiles without distinction before the throne of the Father.

Another image in the story of Melchizedek struck a chord for the early Christians. Melchizedek “brought out bread and wine,” probably as a gesture of hospitality. When seen in light of Melchizedek’s priesthood, these gifts become a type of the Eucharistic elements, connected to the natural priesthood of Adam and the New Testament priesthood of the New Adam, Christ.