Reading Melchizedek Backwards: What Hebrews Teaches Us about Reading the Old Testament Well
The mysterious figure Melchizedek first appears in the biblical narrative in Genesis 14. There the “priest of God Most High” brings out “bread and wine” and blesses Abram (not yet Abraham) after the latter’s rescue of Lot earlier in the chapter. Abram then gives him a tithe from plunder he’d just acquired (the rest of which he refuses to keep), and the story just ends. The “priest of God Most High” exits stage left as quickly as he entered.
Despite his brief appearance, Melchizedek has garnered quite a bit of attention. In particular because Psalm 110—a passage that Jesus would later use to silence his enemies (see Matt 22)—invokes Melchizedek in his blessing of the Davidic king: “The Lord has sworn an oath and will not take it back: ‘You are a priest forever according to the pattern of Melchizedek’” (Ps 110:4). In the New Testament, the author of Hebrews homes in on Psalm 110 in arguing for the superiority of Christ over Moses, Abraham, the tabernacle and temple, and the entire Old Testament sacrificial system.
What happens when we miss Jesus in the Old Testament
The unknown author of Hebrews practices a well-known and well-established rabbinical method of exegesis to build his argument. His readers, also steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures and presumably rabbinic tradition, would have known exactly what he was doing and should have been able to follow his sophisticated rhetoric. In fact, the author puts his readers on blast just before launching into his discussion of Melchizedek, stating that the relationship he’s explaining between Jesus and Melchizedek is “is difficult to explain” because they had “become too lazy to understand.”
If all we had was the Old Testament, then we would have all we need to know Jesus Christ.
The author then spends three chapters in a lengthy discussion showing that, like the Pharisees and disciples Jesus rebuked for not actually understanding Scripture (see Luke 24; John 5), they have missed the Christological significance of Melchizedek.
The argument simply says that Jesus is better than the Levitical priests and the sacrificial system they operated because Jesus is “a priest [or high priest] forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The phrase lifted from Psalm 110 is the drumbeat to Hebrews’s argument, the refrain that carries his argument through to its end.
The author then presents three lines of evidence to support his thesis, drawing comparisons between Melchizedek and Jesus Christ to show that Jesus’s priesthood is superior. It’s the ultimate fulfillment of Melchizedek’s priesthood. Put another way, Melchizedek is the lesser type that is fulfilled in the greater anti-type, Christ. The old (Melchizedek) corresponds to and is completed in the new (Jesus Christ).
Jesus is the greater Melchizedek
First, Melchizedek (and thus Jesus) beats Abraham and Levi. It’s clear because Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, and Melchizedek blessed Abraham. “Without a doubt, the inferior is blessed by the superior” (Hebrews 7:7). What’s more, Levi, the eponymous ancestor of the Levitical priests, also tithed to Melchizedek, “for he was still within his ancestor when Melchizedek met” Abraham. Thus, Melchizedek is greater than Abraham and Levi because a) Melchizedek blessed Abraham; and b) Abraham—and Levi with him—gave a tithe to Melchizedek.
Second, Melchizedek (and thus Jesus) beats the Aaronic/Levitical priesthood. Melchizedek is a greater priest because “he remains a priest forever” (Hebrews 7:3). The author of Hebrews keys in on Melchizedek’s lack of introduction in Genesis 14 to highlight that he just appears in the story “without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God.” Of course, Jesus does have an earthly genealogy, but readers also know that Jesus is the eternal Son of God—the Second Person of the Trinity who always has and always will be, “without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.”
Since Jesus is eternal, “he holds his priesthood permanently” and is therefore “able to save completely those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them.” Levitical priests, on the other hand, do have genealogy, otherwise they could not be Levitical priests. And they do not remain priests forever—they die like the rest of us. Though our experiences would tell us that death conquers life, Hebrews assures us that it is the other way around—life is greater than death.
Those of us who were raised in the church or are otherwise familiar with the Bible tend to read it in a way that suits our circumstances or confirms what we’ve always known.
Finally, the promise beats the law. The Levitical priesthood is “based on physical descent” and grounded in the law, which is “weak and unprofitable” (Hebrews 7:16, 18). Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension made self-evident the law’s weakness. If it could perfect, then “what further need was there for another priest to appear”? The promise, in contrast to the law, “is based on the power of an indestructible life,” not physical descent. Further, the promise “came after the law”—it was given to David in Psalm 110—and has “been perfected forever.” Since the promise is greater than the law, and Jesus is a priest according to the promise, then Jesus’s priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood.
Why we need to read the Old Testament closely
According to the author of Hebrews, readers familiar with Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 should see that the mysterious Melchizedek hinted at someone 1) greater than both Abraham and Aaron, 2) who lives forever, and 3) whose ministry is based on God’s promise. Further, based on a close, careful reading of the Old Testament, readers should be primed to say, “Oh! It’s Jesus!” when they meet him, just like readers of Lewis’s Narnia are primed to recognize Christ because they know Aslan.
Why does this matter for how we read and understand the Old Testament today? In the plainest sense, Hebrews confirms what Jesus said to the Pharisees and the disciples on the road to Emmaus: the Old Testament testifies to him. If all we had was the Old Testament—the Scriptures that Paul famously said are “profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17)—then we would have all we need to know Jesus Christ. According to the New Testament witness, Jesus is right there, staring us in the face.
The disciples, Pharisees, and original readers of Hebrews had missed what Jesus and the New Testament authors thought was so plainly written. It points to another issue modern readers continue to face. We—and I do mean to include myself—tend also to miss what is plainly written. A close and careful reading of the Old Testament should move us to worship and obey God, to know him more fully, and to marvel at the work he has done in Christ, work that he set in motion way back in Genesis 3:15 with the promise of a head-crusher. Those of us who were raised in the church or are otherwise familiar with the Bible tend to read it in a way that suits our circumstances or confirms what we’ve always known. However, Hebrews shows us that a close reading of the Old Testament slams us face-first into the question of Jesus every time.