At first glance he seems to be a mysterious figure. But who was he according to the entire Scriptures that mention him? An old-fashioned Bible study here, with my translation of Hebrews 7.
This post is divided into seven sections.
Genesis 14:14-17 and Comments
My Translation of Hebrews 7
My Expanded Translation
The Main Point
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
Genesis 14:17-20 and Comments
17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 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[b] 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. (Gen. 14:17-20, ESV)
Abram and an alliance of other kings defeated another king and his allies. Abram gave a tenth of the spoils of war to Melchizedek, who brought out refreshments of bread and wine and blessed Abram. The rest of the passage, not included here, goes on to say that the patriarch gave away all the rest of the spoils to the other kings, in case they should boast that they made him rich.
Melchizedek was the king of Salem. This argues against his being a preincarnate manifestation of the Son of God. It is one thing for the Angel of the Lord–who is said to be God in some verses–to come to earth and bring a message. In those cases he is the preincarnate Christ. But it is quite another to say that Jesus was a king over a city and a high priest for an extended period of time, perhaps all his life! Such dual incarnations is unknown in the New Testament and takes away from the incarnation’s uniqueness. To be more specific, he was not a priest and king of Salem for his entire lifetime in a strange incarnation, which the New Covenant author never once noted elsewhere. No. Jesus’s first and only incarnation is announced in the birth narratives and in John 1:14, and in various places in the epistles (e.g. Phil. 2:7 and 1 Tim. 3:16).
See my post:
Melchizedek brought out bread and wine. Bread was common, and wine was used for thirst. Many interpreters say that those two elements were symbolic precursors to the bread and wine that Jesus used to institute the New Covenant at the last supper, on the night he was betrayed (Matt. 26:26-29 // Mark 14:22-25 // Luke 22:14-20). However, caution must be used here if any teacher claims that those food items were symbols because the author of Hebrews does not make use of them to drive home the point that Jesus is aligned with Melchizedek. Yet if interpreters insist on seeing the symbolism or types, then they are certainly free to do this. My preference is to follow the New Covenant writers and not over-read passages. They were inspired; I am not.
The priest of the Most High God blessed Abram, and the author of Hebrews notes this, indicating the the lesser (Abram) is blessed by the greater (Melchizedek). Then the priest also blessed God, who had delivered Abram from his enemies.
Then Abram responded by giving him a tenth of the spoils of war. Many interpreters say that this tithe happened before the law (Exod. 19); therefore this custom is still valid for today. However, it is clear that Genesis was written from a post-Sinai point of view–unless the tithe teachers can prove that it was written before the law. Moreover, Paul does not split the law in half in such a sharp way. He needed to show that the law supported the life of faith, and Abram is in the law because Genesis was part of the law (Rom. 3:31 and 4:1-3, 9-25).
In any case, many customs existed back then that we don’t import into the New Covenant. We must follow the NT writers’ lead.
Please see these two posts:
In summary, Melchizedek is not said to live forever; rather, he appears without genealogy or heritage, that is, without parents. Apparently there is no successor because the text is silent about one. Therefore, the author of Hebrews will say that Jesus alone belongs to this order.
Translation of Hebrews 7
Here is my (tentative) translation of the entire chapter.
Readers are certainly invited to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham who was returning from the defeat of kings and blessed him. 2 Abraham apportioned a tenth of everything to him. First, (his name) is translated as “king of righteousness,” then also “king of Salem,” which is “king of peace.” 3 Without father, without mother and no genealogy, not having beginning of days nor the end of life, like the Son of God, he remains a priest continuously.
4 See how great this one is, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the best spoils! 5 On the one hand, even the descendants of Levi receive the priesthood and by command collect the tenth from the people according to the law, that is, their brothers, even though they descend from the loins of Abraham. 6 But on the other hand, the one without derived descent from them collected the tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 Without dispute, the lesser is blessed by the greater. 8 Further, in the one case, men who die receive the tithe, but in the other case he is declared as living. 9 So to speak also, through Abraham, Levi who receives the tenth paid the tenth, 10 for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
11 If therefore perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for by it the people were given the law), why was there further need to raise up another priest according to the order of Melchizedek and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? 12 For when the priesthood is altered, by necessity the law is also altered. 13 The one about whom these things are said belongs to another tribe, from which no one served at the altar. 14 For it is clear that our Lord descends from Judah, about which tribe Moses said nothing concerning priests. 15 Further, this is even more abundantly clear if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, 16 and who becomes such, not according to the law of bodily requirement, but according to the power of life indestructible. 17 For it is attested that:
You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek [Ps. 110:4].
18 For on the one side the annulment of the previous command happened because of its weakness and uselessness 19 (for the law perfected nothing); on the other side there is an introduction of a better hope through which we draw near to God.
20 And greater, as it was not without an oath! On the one hand, they became priests without an oath. 21 On the other hand, the one was affirmed with an oath by the one speaking to him:
The Lord has sworn
and will not change:
‘You are a priest forever’ [Ps. 110:4]
22 According to this, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant. 23 On the one hand, many have become priests because death prevented them from continuing. 24 But on the other hand, because he remains forever, he holds a permanent priesthood. 25 Consequently, he is able to save completely the ones coming to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them.
26 For such a one is appropriate to be a high priest for us: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, becoming highly exalted above the heavens. 27 He does not have the necessity each day like high priests who bring sacrifices first for their own sins, then for the people—for he did this once and for all, when he offered up himself. 28 For the law appointed men to be high priests, having weaknesses, but the word of oath, after the law, appointed a Son, who has been perfected forever. (Hebrews 7:1-28, my translation)
The meaning of Melchizedek’s name adds more spiritual significance to his person or character or ministry. He was a righteous priest and king of Salem who seems to appear out of nowhere. Somehow he came to know the true God.
For more examples of people outside Israel who had a certain knowledge of God, see this post:
The absence of Melchizedek’s parentage or genealogy is repurposed by the author of Hebrews to show a timeless aspect of his ministry and priesthood. (The Greek word, from where we get our word genealogy, can be translated as “without descent.”) His calling comes from God himself, not by the law of Moses or any other known law—unknown to the author of Genesis or unmentioned by him. It is important to the author of Hebrews to bring out this interpretation because he is about to draw clear contrasts between Melchizedek on the one side and the law of Moses and the Levitical order, on the other. The author of Hebrews latches on to the absence of information about Melchizedek’s past because of Ps. 110:4, quoted in v. 25, below. Jesus is in the order of Melchizedek forever.
“like”: translations of this one verb can read: “made to resemble” the Son of God or “made to be like” the Son of God” or just plain “likened to” the Son of God. In fact, it may be that it is the author of Hebrews who is “making” Melchizedek to “resemble” Jesus in the author’s free interpretation. He’s the one who is likening Melchizedek to Jesus in a typolological interpretation. (Verse 15 also says “likeness.”) This passive participle in v. 3 here indicates that we need to be careful about saying Melchizedek was the preincarnate Son of God in a Christophany (manifestation of Christ). Melchizedek has been made to resemble the Son in the author’s interpretation. He is not the Son of God, but was like the Son. This is a standard typological strategy. Another example of a typologial interpretation: Joseph in Genesis is like Jesus, but was he was not Jesus.
“continuously”: it could be translated as “unbrokenly” or “perpetually” or “from beginning to end” (Liddell and Scott). In this context, it is best to translate it as “continuously” or “perpetually,” since the author of Hebrews indicates that the priest had no mother or father and was without beginning of days or end of life. As noted, the author did not read of any parentage in Genesis, so he has in mind Ps. 110:4 (see Heb. 7:17), which says, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever’ in the order of Melchizedek’” (Ps. 110:4, ESV). The author capitalizes on this verse, especially “forever.” And therefore maybe it is best to say that he also has in mind that the order itself is perpetual, rather than Melchizedek himself. Note the hesitant phrase in v. 9, “so to speak,” indicating that the author is interpreting Melchizedek symbolically or typologically, but does not say so until v. 9.
This symbolic or typological interpretation, however, is not to say that Melchizedek did not exist; he did. But it is to say that his perpetual ministry may be in view, rather than the man himself. This is seen in the last verse of Heb. 6, which says, “Where the forerunner Jesus entered [behind the curtain of the temple] on our behalf, becoming the high priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (v. 20, my translation). So Melchizedek’s order of priesthood is more important than the priest himself. And the author of Hebrews also engaged in symbolical or typological interpretation of Levi existing in the loins of his great-grandfather. This is family solidarity, wrapped in the patriarch’s body, so to speak.
Even Abram the patriarch, the founding father of the Hebrews and Israelites and Jews—all three titles of the same people by historical stages—paid the tithe—literally the “top spoils”—to Melchizedek. This was a one-time act because he gave away the rest of the spoils of war to his allies in battle. Abram grew rich, but there is no record that he perpetually paid the tithe to the priest.
Here begins the contrast between the Levitical order and the order of Melchizedek, with the Greek particles men … de. Men is used in v. 5, and its counterpart de is used in v. 6. (This intelligent use of the particles indicates that the author of Hebrews had some rhetorical training in the Greek literature of the more conceptual or philosophical kind.) To draw the stark contrast, I translate the particles as “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.”
Here’s the contrast: On the one hand, Levi descends from Abraham, and so do his sons, who received the priesthood by mandate and command and the law of Moses (v. 5). They descend from the “loins” of their great-grandfather Abraham, an idea the author of Hebrews will carry to its logical conclusion in v. 10. On the other hand, the one without derived descent (the Greek word genealogy again, see v. 3) from these Levitical priests received the tenth or tithe from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. In v. 7, Melchizedek was a high priest and king of Salem; therefore he has greater status than Abraham does, so Melchizedek’s blessing indicates that he is superior to the patriarch, and so is Jesus greater.
What promises could Abraham claim? The ones delivered in Gen. 12. God promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation, and everyone who blesses them will be blessed, and everyone who curses them will be cursed (vv. 1-3). He also received the covenant and a reinforcement or confirmation of the promises in Gen. 15. Abraham believed the Lord, and it was credited or imputed to him as righteousness (v. 6).
See my post: What Is Biblical Imputation?
God initiated and unilaterally acted by his grace, and Abraham responded with faith. So Abraham is the man of God who receives the promises, in distinction to the later people during the time of Moses who receive the law and are people of God’s law. Righteousness was supposed to come through the law, which is an inferior method when it is stood in contrast to righteousness by faith.
The author of Hebrews drives home the point of vv. 5-6 in v. 7, as follows: the priest of greater status (Melchizedek) blessed Abraham and the priests of lesser status (embodied in Levi). Therefore, the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood. Jesus belongs to the priesthood of Melchizedek, and therefore Jesus the high priest is superior to the Aaron the high priest (see vv. 11-28).
This verse shows another sharp contrast. The Greek is even stronger than the men … de particles in vv. 5-6.
In any case, the Levitical priests died, yet they received the tithe, while Melchizedek is declared by Scripture to be alive—or his priestly ministry embodied in the person of Melchizedek is still alive. He received the patriarch’s tenth of the top spoils of war.
Once again, the single main point is that the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood.
The phrase “so to speak” can also be translated as “one might also say” (Shorter Lexicon). Here the author of Hebrews reinforces that he is speaking symbolically, which we can read back into the previous eight verses. Therefore, we have to be careful about making too much of a literal reading of “living” (v. 8) “without beginning of days” or “end of life” in reference to Melchizedek (v. 3). It is probable that the best interpretation is that Melchizedek’s priesthood—not Melchizedek himself—represents those perpetual things.
“So to speak,” or “one might say” that Levi was in the loins of his great-grandfather when Melchizedek met him. So Levi submitted to the greater Melchizedek. Levi is inferior to him.
As noted, this symbolism or typology does not argue that Melchizedek did not exist; he did. Rather, the interpretation of the interaction between him and Abram and Levi–hidden in Abram’s loins–is symbolic and representative. It is the literary technique of similitude (making one thing like or similar to another). Melchizedek is like the Son of God; therefore Abraham and Levi and his order of priesthood submitted to the Son of God, so to speak.
The Levitical priesthood contained inherent weakness, so another priesthood had to be raised up: the order of Melchizedek. The order of Aaron was insufficient.
The author of Hebrews now needs to show that the priesthood is altered; therefore, the law, which is part and parcel of the priesthood, is altered.
Now the door is open to another Israelite tribe, which the author is about to reveal. And this tribe has no one who officiated at the altar. Which tribe is this, and who is its main representative, its highest descendant?
It is clear Jesus descends from Judah (Is. 11:1; Matt. 1:3; Luke 3:33), and Moses said nothing about this tribe becoming priests. A change was needed, since the Levitical order was so weak. So once again, the law and priesthood have been altered and improved, as the author is about to demonstrate.
And this priest must fit into the order of Melchizedek, not the weak, dying Levitical order. The physical descent of priests was carefully guarded. It was hereditary. But Jesus does not conform to this “bodily” (literally “fleshly”) requirement, which can also be translated as “command.”
Note that in v. 15 the author of Hebrews says that Jesus was in the likeness of Melchizedek. Therefore, we have to be careful when we claim Jesus was Melchizedek before Jesus’s incarnation. As noted, he was not a priest and king of Salem for his entire lifetime in a strange incarnation, which the New Covenant author never once noted elsewhere. No. Jesus’s first and only incarnation is announced in the birth narratives and in John 1:14, and in various places in the epistles (e.g. Phil. 2:7 and 1 Tim. 3:16).
The author of Hebrews says that the quoted Scripture is really about Melchizedek first and then Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of the verse.
Now the author of Hebrews takes his gloves off and calls the priesthood and the bodily requirement to be a descendant of Levi weak and useless. He may even be talking about the entire law itself, in terms of effecting redemption. The law perfected no one. But the introduction of a better and greater hope did. What does it accomplish? We get to draw near to God. On what is this hope based? Jesus, as the rest of this passage asserts.
The Jesus and Melchizedek priesthood was affirmed, not without an oath, but with an oath. So we begin another men … de construction. The two clauses after men … de are contrasts, side by side. One side comes out on top. The Levites became priests without an oath. Jesus and Melchizedek had the benefit of an oath from God himself. The verse quoted from Ps. 110:4 proves it.
In v. 21, the author of Hebrews emphasizes the unchanging mind of God, because now the priesthood of Melchizedek is unchanging, and Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this eternal priesthood. He has a permanent priesthood.
Therefore Jesus is the guarantor of the better and greater covenant—the New Covenant, which the author is about to spell out very forcefully in Heb. 8, in quoting Jer. 31:31-34.
Once again, we have a men … de construction. I like to see the two covenants and orders as standing side by side or placed in two columns. Jesus and Melchizedek on the one side, and the Levitical priests on the other.
The two contrasting points: on the one side, each generation of priests died off, and the new generation had to step up and replace the previous one. Mortality takes its toll. On the other side, Jesus remains forever; therefore he holds a permanent priesthood.
What’s the result? He is able to save forever those coming through him to God. You can’t come to God through the old Levitical order. It is now deficient and defunct.
“forever”: it is the adjective pantelēs (pronounced pan-tel-ace), and it can mean, depending on the context: “complete, perfect, absolute” or in this verse “completely, wholly, forever, for all time” (Shorter Lexicon). You can choose which of the latter four possibilities works best. Maybe it could be translated as “all the way to the end or completion.”
It is great news that Jesus stands between us and God and intercedes for us. His work on the cross is perpetual intercession, but it is he, the person himself, who stands there, not a wooden cross. His very presence in heaven is his intercession. He does not need to stand next to God and whisper in God’s ears, every (heavenly) “minute.”
One additional point: some teachers, usually, the grace teachers, claim that God’s forgiveness is perpetual, so no repentance is needed, except once at conversion. Yes, God’s forgiveness is eternal, because he does not change; it is one of his attributes, as part of his mercy and compassion. But our receiving forgiveness is not eternal. We must repent down here in our temporal lives. We have to “come” to him (v. 25; 1 John 1:9).
Therefore, he is the fitting and appropriate high priest for the new way of salvation and access to God, because he is holy, innocent or blameless (literally “unbad” or “unevil”), and uncontaminated or unsullied or unpolluted. He is the ultimate pure priest. Yes, he is currently in heaven separated from sinners, but on earth he constantly associated with them (e.g. Luke 7:36-50). Yet even when he connected with sinners, he kept himself holy, innocent, and blameless.
The syntax (sentence structure) is a little choppy here. Literally he does not have the necessity, like the high priests who bring sacrifices for their own sins and for the sins of the people, to do this for himself. Unlike them, Jesus did this once and for all by offering up himself. Once again, Jesus is the better way. And so the repeated main point is now even clearer.
We have another contrast, but without men … de, just the de. It is clear enough, though. The high priest was appointed from among men, imperfect and weak. Jesus was appointed by an oath—sworn by the Lord himself, after the law, in Ps. 110:4 (the Psalms came after the law), and he is holy, innocent, and undefiled. Jesus is perfect, whole, complete; the human high priest is not.
My expanded translation is very, very interpretive, but it it is based on Gen. 14:17-24, Heb. 6:20, the previous translation, the exegetical comments, and New Testament theology as a whole. Readers are certainly invited to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham who was returning from the defeat of kings and blessed him. 2 Abraham apportioned a tenth of everything to him. First, Melchizedek is translated as “king of righteousness”; then king of Salem means “king of peace.” 3 Without known father, without known mother and no known genealogy, not having beginning of days nor the end of life in the office of priesthood he established, like the Son of God, he continuously remains a priest as head of his priesthood.
4 See how great this Melchizedek is, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the best spoils! 5 On the one hand, even the descendants of Levi, after whom the Levitical priesthood is named, receive this priesthood and by command collect the tenth from the people according to the law, that is, from their fellow countrymen, the Israelites, even though they also descend from the body of Abraham, like the priests do. 6 But on the other hand, Melchizedek, who does not share his ancestry with them, collected the tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 Without dispute, the lesser in status (Abraham and by extension the Levitical priests) is blessed by the greater in status (Melchizedek). 8 Further, in the one case, the priests who die receive the tithe, but in the other case Melchizedek is declared as living in his priesthood, even today. 9 So one might say also, through Abraham, Levi who receives the tenth paid the tenth, 10 for he was still in the body of his ancestor Abraham when Melchizedek met him.
11 If therefore perfection came about through the Levitical priesthood (for by it the people were given the law), why was there further need to raise up another priest (Jesus) according to the order of Melchizedek and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? 12 For when the priesthood is altered, by necessity the law is also altered. 13 The one (Jesus) about whom these things are said belongs to another tribe, from which no one served at the altar. 14 For it is clear that our Lord descends from Judah, and Moses said nothing about this tribe concerning priests. 15 Further, this is even more abundantly clear if another priest (Jesus) arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek. 16 Jesus became this priest, not according to the law of required ancestry, but according to the power of his indestructible life. 17 For it is attested about him that:
You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek [Ps. 110:4].
18 For on the one side the annulment of the previous law (about the Levitical order) happened because of its weakness and uselessness 19 (for the law perfected nothing); on the other side there is an introduction by Jesus of a better hope through which we draw near to God.
20 And so much the greater since it was not without an oath! On the one hand, men became priests without an oath. 21 On the other hand, Jesus was affirmed with an oath by the one speaking to him:
The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
‘You are a priest forever’ [Ps. 110:4]
22 According to this Scripture, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant. 23 On the one hand many generations have become priests because death prevented them from continuing in their priestly office. 24 But on the other hand, because Jesus remains forever, he holds a permanent priesthood. 25 Consequently, he is able to save completely the ones coming to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them.
26 For Jesus is of such high quality that it is appropriate for him to be a high priest for us: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, becoming highly exalted above the heavens. 27 He does not have the necessity each day to do what the high priests did, who brought sacrifices first for their own sins, then for the people—rather, he did this once and for all, when he offered up himself. 28 For the law appointed men to be high priests, having weaknesses, but the word of oath, after the law, appointed a Son, who has been perfected forever. (Heb. 7:1-28, my expanded translation)
The Main Point
The main of point of this passage is now clear. It is to demonstrate that the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the priesthood of Levi and and his descendant Aaron. The rest of Heb. 7 supports this obvious point and goes further: Jesus belongs to the order of Melchizedek, and therefore Jesus is superior to the Levitical order and Aaron the first high priest (vv. 11-28).
See my post: How Jesus Fulfills the Day of Atonement
Melchizedek came to know the true God because the author of Genesis endorsed him and said that he came to serve as a priest of the true God. This fact may lead to the conclusion that others around the globe who did not benefit from biblical revelation may have come to know the true God. Unfortunately, they are not known to us.
Once again, please see my post:
The author of Hebrews repurposes Melchizedek’s missing genealogy or unnamed parents–which the Levitical priest had–to say that there is an everlasting quality to his existence. However, Ps. 110:4 says that it is the order of Melchizedek that lasts forever, not the man himself (again see Heb. 6:20).
Melchizedek was not Jesus in a preincarnate Christophany, because v. 3 says he was like the Son of God, and v. 15 says the Son was in the likeness of Melchizedek. And they were like each other in only one substantial way: the order of the priesthood. And the passage in Genesis says he was the high priest and king of Salem, so it contradicts the rest of NT theology to claim that Jesus had an extended ministry in Genesis and in Salem as priest and king. The best we can say is that those two offices for Melchizedek are prototypes of Jesus’s future offices of High Priest and High King.
In summary, Melchizedek was not part of the Levitical order but transcended it. Jesus fulfills this priestly order in heaven for us because he lives forever to make intercession for us. Jesus is the one who lives on forever, in the priestly order that Melchizedek established.
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
This verse sums up the application for us.
25 Consequently, he is able to save completely the ones coming through him to God, since he always lives to intercede for them. (Heb. 7:25, my expanded translation)
The Father loves you so much that he stopped the old animal sacrifices and instituted the best one. Jesus sacrificed himself once and for all for you. He did not have to offer a sacrifice for himself, because he was holy, innocent. and blameless, but he did gave himself for you and me. Now he lives to to make intercession for us forever. Look up, child of God, for you have access to the Father if you come through Jesus.