Melchizedek and Christ in Hebrews 7: Part 4

Part 4?! “Hasn’t this gone on a little long, Adam?” you might ask. Maybe.

If you’re just discovering this series of posts, part 1 is a survey of ancient literature where Melchizedek is discussed or is a character in both Jewish and Christian sources.

Part 2 is the presentation of a series of contemporary scholars and their perspectives on the comparison of Melchizedek and Christ. This presentation is thorough, but not exhaustive.

Part 3 is a brief post that discusses Melchizedek’s two Old Testament appearances, and the context surrounding Hebrews 7 as it relates to to the comparison of Melchizedek and Christ.

This, the fourth and final post in this series on Melchizedek and Christ, looks at the comparison itself as it occurs in Hebrews 7. The primary focus is the heart of the comparison in 7:1-3, followed by an overview of 7:4-28 as it relates to and clarifies the comparison of vv. 1-3.

Hebrews 7:1-3

These verses introduce the midrash on the passage from Gen. 14 without delay. The author gives the historical context of Melchizedek’s meeting with Abraham in v. 1b, which includes the mention of Melchizedek’s blessing on Abraham. Aside from his name and station(s), Melchizedek’s blessing is the first mention of his actions as a righteous man in this passage. Melchizedek is identified as both the “king of Salem” and “priest of the Most High God” (ἱερεὺς τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ὑψίστου). Verse 2a presents Melchizedek’s status as greater than Abraham by way of narrative recounting: Abraham gave a tithe of his spoils to Melchizedek.

The lofty descriptions of Melchizedek begin in verse 2b. The author of Hebrews begins these lofty descriptions with the etymology of his name, presenting Melchizedek as the “king of righteousness.” He then follows Philo by interpreting his station as king of Salem with the phrase “king of peace.” These are, by no means, common descriptions of human beings in the Christian Bible. The author here sets the audience up for a high view of this enigmatic figure. In addition, it is the author’s reminder that the offices of God’s Son, his chosen king, and high priest have all converged in the Christ.[1]

Hebrews 7:3 is the central piece of this laudatory puzzle. It begins with three adjectives, all modified by the negating ἀ prefix. These adjectives describe the king-priest Melchizedek as “without father, without mother, without genealogy” (ἀπάτωρ ἀμήτωρ ἀγενεαλόγητος). As discussed by many scholars, including a large number of those surveyed above, these adjectives are included by the author of Hebrews because of the omission of these details from Gen. 14. Melchizedek suddenly appears in the Abrahamic narrative, and is gone again just as quick. As mentioned above, this is not to say that the author of Hebrews necessarily thought of Melchizedek as some kind of heavenly being. Rather, it is simply a rabbinic method of interpretation that allows him to make these claims in light of the Melchizedek/Christ typology.

Likewise, Melchizedek is said to have “neither beginning of days nor end of life” (μήτε ἀρχὴν ἡμερῶν μήτε ζωῆς τέλος ἔχων). He is said to continue as a “priest forever.” Again, the Genesis narrative does not include a genealogy, nor does it include a birth narrative or death narrative for Melchizedek. Melchizedek functions within the Genesis narrative as another figure who worships the same God as Abraham, but he also functions within the larger biblical narrative as a shadow of the Christ to come. This description, and those that came before, only become coherent when understood as typology.

It is precisely because of the typology between Melchizedek (type) and Christ (antitype) that the author of Hebrews can make these lofty claims about Melchizedek. The type of Christ is always a shadow, a form, a signpost pointing forward to that which is true. Thus, if it looks like Melchizedek is without father, or if it looks like he has no end, then how much more is Christ lacking an earthly father and enjoying a life of eternity? The author of Hebrews, himself, tells the audience that Melchizedek ‘resembles’ (ἀφωμοιωμένος) the Son of God. With the simple definition of typology given previously, this resemblance naturally falls into that category.

Hebrews 7:4-28

The first three verses of Heb. 7 are the core of the doctrinal teaching that follows in the rest of the chapter. What the reader finds in 7:4-10 is the first unspooling of the propositions found in 7:1-3. This second part of the 7:1-10 unit is a discussion on the significance of this priest. Specifically, the author of Hebrews demonstrates the primacy of the Melchizedekian priesthood as illustrated in the historical tithe from Abraham to Melchizedek.[2] The author of Hebrews and the apostle Paul overlap in a method of critique here. The author of Hebrews demonstrates Levi’s subordination to Melchizedek because he was “in the loins of his ancestor” (v.10) at the time. Paul uses the same logic in Romans 5 regarding the sin of all mankind in Adam’s loins.

The rest of chapter seven continues to examine the implications of the Melchizedek/Christ typology by an exegesis of Ps. 110:4. Kistemaker details a structure divided among words from that statement, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”[3] Heb. 7:11-13 look at the word “[priestly] order” by comparing the two orders of Levi and Melchizedek. Verses 13-14 look at the word “you” in more discussion on the Messiah who fulfills this typology. Verses 15-25 discuss the term “forever.” Jesus is demonstrated as the one who is the superior high priest whose holds an unending term of service.

So What is the Point?

Christians have mulled the question of Melchizedek’s function in Heb. 7 for millennia. By rabbinic and Hellenistic rhetorical devices, the author of Hebrews demonstrates to his audience that Melchizedek functions as a foreshadow of Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews argues for the superior priesthood of Christ in the longest doctrinal section of the epistle, Heb. 7:1-10:25. Heb. 7:1-3 and Melchizedek form one key to understanding his argument. Ps. 110 opened a door through which this once-enigmatic figure from Gen. 14 became important for defining the kind of priesthood the Christ embodies and fulfills. This Gentile priest outside of the line of Abraham, in his small way, embodied qualities of the Messiah. “So what is said about Melchizedek himself in Heb. 7 need not be taken too seriously as a statement about the historical figure in Genesis. Its point is its application to Jesus.”[4]

 

[1] See the Surrounding Context post, n. 5.

[2] cf. Kistemaker, Exposition, 186f, and Kistemaker, Psalm Citations, 118f.

[3] Kistemaker, Psalm Citations, 118; cf. Guthrie, Structure of Hebrews, 125-26.

[4] Richard Bauckham, “The Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, eds. Richard Bauckham, et al (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 28.

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