This ‘King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him’; and to him Abraham apportioned ‘one-tenth of everything’. His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is also king of Salem, that is, ‘king of peace’. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest for ever.
See how great he is! Even Abraham the patriarch gave him a tenth of the spoils. And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to collect tithes from the people, that is, from their kindred, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man, who does not belong to their ancestry, collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case, tithes are received by those who are mortal; in the other, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
Hebrews calls Jesus ‘high priest’ but wants to distinguish him from the priests of the Jewish temple. Melchizedek offers a different template for priesthood. So Jesus is ‘high priest of the order of Melchizedek’ (6:20).
Melchizedek contributes only briefly to the Old Testament. He greets Abraham in Genesis 14. He crops up, almost in passing, in Psalm 110. Yet these two snippets of scripture help the writer of Hebrews in three ways.
First, Melchizedek was king and priest rolled into one. In Hebrews, Jesus is that too, a royal leader and a gentle pastor, a figure of both power and compassion.
Second, Melchizedek is timeless. He steps into Genesis from the ether, without notice, background or ancestry. He vanishes just as abruptly. We never see him die. So by linking Jesus to Melchizedek, Hebrews suggests that his roots too are beyond time in eternity. Jesus too is a priest whose ministry will never end.
Third, Melchizedek was honoured by Abraham. Abraham in turn was ancestor of the priestly tribe of Levi, who for their part received tithes from the people of Israel. Yet their forefather Abraham actually paid tithes to Melchizedek. Melchizedek was, you might say, priest to the priests. He brought the blessing of God at the very start of the nation’s life.
The first readers of Hebrews would ‘get’ these arguments. But even if we do not share their standpoint, we may still learn from the approach of this letter. For Hebrews tries to reach beyond familiar patterns, to present Jesus. And we too shall only make proper sense of Jesus if we think outside the box. We cannot contain him in the categories and precedents of history, nor in the standards and stereotypes of earth. He is utterly one of a kind, and one with God.
Prayer Lord Jesus Christ, outside our boxes, beyond our history, bursting the place where we buried you, we turn to you for blessing, for your powerful and tender touch, for your living presence in the demands, duties and difficulties of our days and years. Amen.
The Rev’d John Proctor is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge