The Most Important Bible Character You've Never Heard Of

Quite a few obscure characters line the pages of the Bible. There's Gomer, Ahithophel, and Orpah. And who could forget Dorcas or Methuselah?

But of all the obscure people in the scriptures, one rises to the top as an important figure. He's mentioned in Genesis, referenced by King David, and even the author of Hebrews writes about him.

But there's a good chance you've never heard of him. Or, you read those passages and moved on, not knowing what he was about or why he mattered. You probably thought he was just another Dorcas or Nimrod. I did the same thing.

A Christian of nineteen years and raised in the church, I too did not know who this man was until a few years ago when I read through the entire Bible. He is mentioned only in five chapters spread across three books, but we shouldn't be so quick to overlook this man. Who am I talking about?

I'm talking about Melchizedek.

If his name rings a bell, good for you. You can close out of this page and go polish your Bible Bowl trophies. But for the rest of us, let's take a deeper look at this mysterious man from the book of Genesis.

More Than a Man: The Genesis Account

The scripture tells us Melchizedek was the king of Salem and a priest of God. He gave Abram a blessing upon Abram’s return from rescuing Lot.

That is about it. He doesn't do much else in the context of the narrative.

Don't take my word for it though. Read it for yourself. Go ahead. It will only take fifteen seconds:

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying,
Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:18-20)

This is the only firsthand account of Melchizedek. The other references to him occur hundreds of years later.

I admit the importance of this man is not apparent from the passage at first read. But the fact that David refers to him in Psalm 110, a psalm quoted by Jesus and Peter, and that an entire chapter of Hebrews is dedicated to him should begin to reveal the importance of Melchizedek.

Melchizedek is a more than a man, more than a king, and more than a priest; Melchizedek is a symbol. He represents the coming Messiah embodied centuries later by Jesus of Nazareth.

But let’s start from the beginning.

The Meaning Behind the Name Melchizedek

The name Melchizedek means “righteousness is my king” or, as the author of Hebrews puts it, “king of righteousness” (Hebrews 7:2). As you know, Biblical names (especially in the Old Testament) are important. That he is named king of righteousness is an indication he was right with God, an important fact for an archetype of the Christ. 

Melchizedek was not only the king of righteousness but also the king of Salem, i.e. “king of peace” (Hebrews 7:2). Does that phrase ring familiar? Isaiah 9:6 refers to the Messiah as “Prince of Peace.”

But Salem is not just an analogy, it is an actual place. In Genesis 14:17 we see that after Abram saved his nephew, he went to the Valley of Shaveh where he met Melchizedek and the king of Sodom. Where is the valley of Shaveh? It lies just northeast of Jerusalem.

Are we to infer then that Jerusalem and Salem are the same place? It seems plausible. If so, it makes the connection between Jesus and Melchizedek even stronger because while Melchizedek was king of Salem, some centuries later, Jesus makes his triumphal entry as King of Jerusalem. All four gospels depict the scene when “Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King” in which the crowd shouted:

Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel! (John 12:13)

The masses acknowledged Jesus as the king of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital.

But those two similarities by themselves are unremarkable. There were numerous upright men who were also kings.

So here's where things begins to get heavy: Melchizedek brings out bread and wine to Abram. Maybe I’m reaching here but when I read “bread and wine” I immediately think of the Eucharist. Is Melchizedek's offering not foreshadowing The Last Supper?

At The Last Supper when Jesus gave the bread and wine to his disciples, he says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). In saying “new” covenant he is referencing the old covenant made with Israel. Following the meal in the upper room is Jesus’ sham trial and crucifixion by which God established the New Covenant with mankind. Similarly, the offering of the bread and wine by Melchizedek to Abram immediately precedes the covenant that God made with Abram.

Melchizedek the Priest

Another important passage is the phrase, “He was priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:18). Not only was Melchizedek a king, he was also a priest; he was both royal and religious. This is significant because the Law of Moses prescribed that priests came from the tribe of Levi. And when Israel demanded a king, the first came from the tribe of Benjamin (Saul) and later, from Judah (David). With the anointing of David, God made this promise through the prophet Nathan:

Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (1 Sam. 7:16)

So the idea of one man occupying both posts is a bit odd. (It would be a bit like the Pope serving as president.) Although Jacob and his twelve sons had not yet been born, Melchizedek is remarkable in that he is both priest and king.

But not just any priest.

Verse eighteen says that he was "priest of God Most High." Why is the passage worded this way? Typically a reference to God in the Old Testament is the LORD which is translated from Hebrew YHWH. Neither a biblical scholar nor a master of Hebrew, I can only infer the answer from the English text. Because the LORD had not yet established his nation of Israel, it might not be readily apparent of whom Melchizedek was a priest. The phrasing is to emphasize that Melchizedek did not serve a pagan god, but rather the one true God.

King David refers
to Melchizedek’s status as priest in Psalm 110:

The LORD says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”
The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
“Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
Your troops will be willing
on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy splendor,
your young men will come to you
like dew from the morning’s womb. The LORD has sworn
and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”

This passage is quoted over twenty times in the New Testament. Verse four is where Melchizedek comes in, but the reference to him is so brief you could miss it: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” Who is the subject in this sentence? Who is a priest forever? When we look at the entire Psalm, we see that David is referring to the Messiah. Re-read verse one: “The LORD said to my lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” Translation: The LORD (God the father) said to my lord (the Messiah) sit at my right hand (in heaven).

And the Messiah is a priest in the order of Melchizedek. But why include Melchizedek in this verse? Why not just say “You are a priest forever”? David makes the analogy in order to emphasize that the Messiah will not only be a king, but also a priest just like Melchizedek. Everyone assumed the Messiah would take over the throne as king, but his role as priest was less obvious. Since the Messiah was to come from Judah, the Jews would not have associated the Messiah with priesthood. The book of Hebrews addresses this matter:

For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 7:14-16

This is why David writes He is a priest “forever.” Levitical priests lived and died just like any other man. The role that they played in Jewish society was, in a nutshell, to serve as intercessors for the people and God. They offered a sin sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people and for themselves. Melchizedek on the other hand is King of righteousness, implying (at least symbolically) he is blameless and has no sins to atone for. Similarly, the Christ is a spotless lamb. By using the word forever David implies a couple of things:

1. Jesus will live forever. When he dies he will be seated at the right hand of God to rule alongside him.

2. Because Aaron died, his offspring had to take over as priests. But since the Lord will not die and he is spotless, there need be no more priests. He took over those duties.

You may remember the famous scene just after Jesus’ death on the cross when the temple curtain was torn in two:

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. Mark 15:37-38

This curtain covered the Holy of Holies, a part of the temple that only the high priest could enter, and he could enter it only once a year. The Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant. To fully understand the significance of this ceremony, I’d recommend reading all of Leviticus 16 wherein God gives Moses instructions for the Day of Atonement known nowadays as Yom Kippur.

It is on this day that the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies (also translated in many English texts as The Most Holy Place). To oversimplify the process, the high priest (beginning with Aaron) slaughtered a bull and a goat and brought the blood into the Holy of Holies in order to atone for the sins of Israel. The priest would have a rope tied around his ankle, because if he did not follow the prescriptions laid down by God, he would die. The only way retrieve the body was by pulling him out by the rope. The curtain separated God’s presence from the people so that they would not die. But when Jesus died, the curtain was torn, signifying a few things:

1. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice. His blood was pure, because he was without sin. It is no longer necessary to offer animal sacrifices to atone for sins because Jesus through his blood did this for us. This is why he is referred to as the “lamb of God.”

2. We no longer need a priest to be an intercessor between us and God. The curtain served a practical purpose, but it is also symbolic. The curtain was a barrier between God and the people, but when Jesus came to earth, the barrier was removed. We now have open access to God via the Holy Spirit that was granted to the people.

3. Jesus took the place of the high priest in that he atones for our sins. He goes to God on our behalf to provide forgiveness. This is why Jesus said that “no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6).

Jesus Christ, the Messiah, became a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.

Psalm 110 also reads: “The LORD has sworn and will not change His mind: You are a priest forever. . .” Why would someone want the LORD to change his mind? I was a bit perplexed by this question. Why is he swearing? Paul cleared this up for me in Hebrews 7. This passage uses the word “sworn” in order to evoke an oath. This is the new covenant. It is not that someone would necessarily want to change His mind, but this phrase is more of a reassurance that the new covenant will stand forever. The old covenant was the law. It was finite, earthly. It required earthly priests who lived and died. The new covenant was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ which made him the high priest forever.

Melchizedek's Blessing

Next we come to the blessing offered by Melchizedek:

Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.

While it is unclear exactly who Melchizedek is—he is “without father or mother, without genealogy” (Hebrews 7:3)—he knew Abram was a big deal. As Paul says, Melchizedek “blessed him who had the promises” (7:6). Although God had not yet made his covenant with Abram at the point he meets Melchizedek, He had already called him. In Genesis chapter 12, God gives these promises to Abram:

I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

And at this point, God was already fulfilling his word. He blessed Abram by giving him success in rescuing his nephew Lot, and here through Melchizedek he gave him a literal blessing. But although Abram had the promises of God, Melchizedek is greater still because “without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater” (Hebrews 7:7).

And notice that God says that everyone will be blessed “through” Abram. He does not say that all peoples will be blessed “by” him. God is using Abram to fulfill his promises. This is another reference to the Messiah and to the new covenant. And this is only the twelfth chapter of the bible! Do you see what God is doing here? He is already preparing the way for his son, Jesus; Abram had no business having a child as he and Sarai were both too old. But Sarai gave birth to Isaac anyway, and through Abram’s lineage is born Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

Think of it as a filter: Melchizedek gives Abram a blessing and that blessing passes through Abram through his offspring all the way to Jesus who, by his death on the cross and resurrection, blessed all peoples on earth. This established the new covenant and fulfilled the words that God spoke to Abram.

After Melchizedek’s blessing, the last portion of the narrative is verse 20:

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

If you read verses 18 and 19 without noticing Melchizedek is important, this verse should tip you off. Abram the patriarch—the one with the promises—would not give ten percent of his plunder to just anyone. Abram recognizes that Melchizedek is a man of God so he gives him “a tenth of everything.” I assume that “everything” means all of the booty from his mission to rescue Lot. The funny thing is that this plunder actually belonged to Sodom. Check out verses 11-12:

The four kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. They also carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom.

Don’t get me wrong: Abram was entitled to this plunder because he risked his men to conquer the four kings, and, in fact, the king of Sodom even offers him all of the plunder. He says to Abram, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself” (v. 21). But this offer comes after Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth.

This is the first tithe; the grandfather of Judaism offers a tithe to a representative of the Messiah. But why did he give the tithe? As far as the scripture tells us, Melchizedek is just some random guy handing out bread wine and blessings. But as we now know, he is no ordinary man. I have two thoughts on this:

1. He was commanded by God to give a tenth. This theory is conjecture. Why wouldn’t the scripture record this command? I cannot answer that, but a verse or two later Abram tells the king of Sodom that he has received another command from God and this one is not recorded in the scripture. He tells him that he is not to keep any of the treasure so that the king of Sodom would not “be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich’” (v. 23). Or . . .

2. Abram recognized the importance of Melchizedek. He understood that the LORD gave him the victory and that this man is a representative of God.

Of course, later on when God established his law, the Levites collected a tenth from the other eleven tribes (Numbers 18:24). The author of Hebrews contrasts Abram’s tithe with that collected by Levi:

In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor. Hebrews 7:8-10

The writer is comparing Melchizedek to Jesus by referring to him as he “who is declared to be living.” His point is that Jesus, the Messiah, is greater than the Law of Moses and as proof even Abram paid tribute to Him.

Some take it a step further and say that Melchizedek was a Christophany (an appearance of Christ) or an Angel of God. While I think that this is possible, it doesn’t really matter. I’ll say what I said at the beginning: Melchizedek is a symbol.

Embedded in the scriptures in the fourteenth chapter of the bible is a Jesus-like figure. Even before God established his people, he had a plan to bring about a Messiah. When understood this way, it makes the twelfth chapter of Genesis all the more clear: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (v. 3). God is referring to Jesus.

And when we realize that, it makes the importance of Melchizedek become apparent.

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