SO WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WITH MELCHIZEDEK, THEN?
Fr Geoffrey S Richardson
His name was ringing in our ears at the end of Passion Sunday’s NT Lesson. That Passage from Hebrews tells us that Jesus was “designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” – and we’re left wondering what it All means. We have the choice: do we explore it or ignore it?
I won’t start by telling you who he was – it’s easier to start at the other end of the problem, with Jesus. We want to say two particular things about Jesus: one, that He is our King; and two, that He our High Priest. Both of these are vitally important to our Christian belief; Jesus is King – He reigns eternally in righteousness and peace, and wishes to draw us all into His Kingdom; Jesus is also the great High Priest – on the Cross, He offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice which takes away the sins of the world.
King, and Priest.
When we use titles like this, we need to back them up with references to the OT. Jesus didn’t come into a vacuum – He came to fulfil the ancient hopes of Israel, developed and revealed over many centuries. And in the early days of the Church, when the audience were often Jewish, this had to be spelt out very clearly.
That’s where the problem arises. We claim that Jesus is our King, and our High Priest – but this is impossible, according to the OT. They had Kings in ancient Israel, and they had High Priests, but these could never be one and the same person. The OT didn’t recognise ‘Priest-Kings’, any more than we do in Britain today. Our Queen (or King) has no priestly role (in terms of celebrating Communion for instance). Supreme Governor of the Church, yes; priest, no. It was the same in the OT. In their case, Priests were hereditary, as well as Kings, and they came from different tribes. All true Kings were descended from David, and belonged to the tribe of Judah; all try priests were descended from Aaron, and belonged to the tribe of Levi – (the priesthood was evidently passed down in their genes!) According to this argument, Jesus couldn’t possibly be a priest and a king. Priest-Kings didn’t exist in the OT.
Or did they? If you go right back to the early chapters of Genesis, you’ll find a mysterious character called Melchizedek, who was King of Jerusalem and Priest of God. Even Abraham, father of all the tribes of Israel, recognised him as Priest and King, even though we’re not told any other details about him. The story is brief and simple: Abraham had just waged a successful battle against some invaders; Melchizedek came out to bless him, bringing bread and wine; and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything (the religious ‘tithe’). Not much to go on – but it does prove the existence of genuine Priest-Kings. The story is told in verse 1 of the GSS Office Hymn.
His name appears only one more in the OT: in Psalm 110, where it says, “You are a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek”. This was written for use at Coronations, where the words were addressed to the newly-anointed King, but by the time of Jesus, they hadn’t had a coronation for 600 years, and the psalm had taken on a new meaning. Now it was applied to the Messiah – the future King they were all waiting for – the one who would reign for ever in righteousness and peace. According the psalm, this man would be not only a King, but also “a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek”. That’s why the verse was quoted in this reading from the letter to the Hebrews. It is possible for Jesus to be both a King and a High Priest.
But what do we gain fro knowing about Melchizedek? Hopefully, a new insight into the events of Our Lord’s Passion, which we commemorate during Passiontide. Bear in mind that Melchizedek transcended all national and sectarian Boundaries: he doesn’t belong to any of the recognised groupings, and we hear nothing of his birth, or death, or relatives – we’re not even told of any succession of priests or kings into which he fitted. That makes him a very much a one-off figure – a man who seems to belong to another world – and one who points very clearly to Christ.
On Palm Sunday, the crowd were cheering Jesus because they thought He was their kind of King; a purely national leader who would pursue their own interests and theirs alone. He didn’t oblige, and He lost their support. On Good Friday, Jesus told Pilate what sort of King He really was: “My kingdom is not of this world”, He said. And we can see the same thing foreshadowed in the unique, mysterious kingship of Melchizedek.
Priests also feature in the story of Christ’s death. Annas and Caiaphas the High Priests were at the centre of the plot to destroy Him. They were priests in the narrowest sense: men who operated a system of rituals in the Temple at Jerusalem. They too were inward looking, with no one else’s interests at heart – even when they were sacrificing the Passover lambs. Jesus was High Priest in the fullest and widest sense. His offering on the Cross was not a meaningless repetition, but a real once-and-for-all-sacrifice – and it was done for the whole world, not just for His own religious group. Again, we see a hint of the wider priestly ministry in Melchizedek, who came out to bless Abraham, although they shared no ties of race or religion.
National leaders are two a penny – many kings and rulers are hailed as ‘SAVIOURS’ of their own people – but only one man has ever been the Saviour of the World. High Priests are fairly commonplace they operate the rituals of their own sectarian system – but only one man has ever offered a sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. Jesus is both King and Priest, and His reign and ministry are both world-wide. This dual role is central to our beliefs, and we see it acted out in the story of His Passion. But we can also see it prefigured in the OT, in the person of the priest-king Melchizedek.