Who was Melchizedek?
Melchizedek is a figure we only see mentioned on three occasions in scripture but he seems to be a significant figure even if not much is known about him.
We are first introduced to Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18 and while there isn't much there about him, there are a couple of key pieces of info to learn in this verse. First Melchizedek was the king of Salem and second he was "a priest to God Most High." These two things may not seem like much in the context of what is going on in the whole story (Genesis 14:1-24) but they prove to be a key illustration later on in the book of Hebrews. To briefly summarize what occurred in Genesis 14, there was a battle taking place between two groups of kings in the land. In the midst of this battle Abram's nephew Lot, was taken captive. Abram rallied together some of his allies and proceeded to rescue Lot and his possessions. After Abram's defeat of the enemy kings, Melchizedek king of Salem brings out bread and wine and blessed Abram. After receiving the blessing the text says "And Abram gave him a tenth of everything." Perhaps of all the spoils of the victory or maybe from all that Abram had.
Why would Abram give this tenth to Melchizedek? That I do not have a good explanation for. I could speculate but the text here just doesn't give us any real solid info to go on. This verse is often cited as evidence that giving a tithe of one tenth presupposes the law given through Moses therefore cementing it as a required action of all of the Lord's righteous. It may come as a surprise to you, but there are Christians on both sides of the argument as to whether tithing is a command for Christians today. Whether this passage can be accurately used to argue that point is a discussion for another day. Melchizedek shows up out of nowhere, blesses Abram and is never to be heard from again during his lifetime. If the events of Genesis were all we had to go by we probably wouldn't give Melchizedek much thought, but the fact that he is brought up later in the Psalms and Hebrews piques our interest to want to know just who this Melchizedek really was and why he is important.
We see our next mention of Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4. This is a significant Psalm in that it is quoted often in the New Testament (NT). Psalm 110 is what is referred to as a Messianic Psalm. It is a Psalm of David, but has a much more perfect application and it also speaking of Jesus the Messiah. We see this clearly spelled out for us in Acts 2:32-36. Psalm 110:1 is quoted often in the NT as is 110:4 which states "'The Lord has sworn an oath and will not take it back: “Forever, You are a priest like Melchizedek.” This seems like an odd statement since David was not a priest, but a king and more so the priest came from the lineage of Levi, a tribe that David was not a descendant of. David was descended from the tribe of Judah (Matthew 1:1-6). This is one thing that is interesting about the statement in 110:4, Melchizedek held the office of both priest and king something that we don't see once the law is given through Moses. It may not be unreasonable to use the story of Saul as an argument that a king shouldn't be carrying out priestly duties (1 Samuel 15). The second interesting thing to note here is that it speaks this priesthood being "Forever, You are a priest like Melchizedek." David of course was not a priest and would certainly not rule forever. Nor would the Levitical priesthood be forever. This is a very good clue that there must be more to what is being said in this Psalm than what we have in the context. To make sense of Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 we must look to the book of Hebrews.
Hebrews was written to a group go Christians that were in danger of turning from Jesus and going back to their old ways of living under the law. The author of Hebrews (the author of Hebrews is unknown) is trying to keep them from turning away from Jesus. One of the key themes in the book is that Jesus is greater than the law and that the old covenant has passed away and a better covenant has been established in Jesus (Hebrews 8:13). To help argue his point, the author repeatedly brings up Melchizedek to bolster his argument (Hebrews 5:6,10, 6:20, 7:1,7:10-11, 7:15-17). The real understanding of Melchizedek comes from these verses in Hebrews. In the law there was a high priest who was able to offer sacrifices on behalf of God's people for the forgiveness of sin, but the Bible says that the old system was never going to be sufficient for covering our sin (Hebrews 10:4-5). The author of Hebrews uses Melchizedek as a way of making this point more clearly by stating in Hebrews 6:20 that Jesus is our hight priest now, offering an ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, His life. Jesus was like Melchizedek in that He was "without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God-- remains a priest forever." (Hebrews 7:3) Jesus is eternal as we see in John 1:1,14. We could take this passage of Melchizedek literally believing he is a supernatural being that just appeared in the days of Abram and vanished. Some have suggested this may be the case and that Melchizedek was a Jesus preincarnate, meaning Jesus took a human form and appeared on earth in the Old Testament (OT) on occasion. Another possible example of this would be the fourth man in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:25). It is indeed possible Melchizedek was Jesus in the flesh in the OT. Even if this is not the case there is no issue with Melchizedek being an ordinary human being and the statements about him still be applicable to Jesus. It is possible that Melchizedek was a simply man of whom we know nothing about and that when Hebrews speaks of not knowing his genealogy and that he has no beginning and end it may just be a way of saying that information about him is unknown, we don't know where he came from or where he went only what happened in his interaction with Abram.
We can of course get to caught up in the details in trying to understand this or other passages we don't have a good understanding of but the real understanding of Melchizedek seems to become clear in a read through of Hebrews. In the same way that Melchizedek was spoken of as being forever, so is Jesus. Just as Melchizedek served as priest and king, so does Jesus. Melchizedek was not appointed as priest by his lineage (Hebrews 7:15-16) but by God's appointment. In the same way Jesus was sent by God to be our high priest. Jesus is the King and He has descended from the kingly lineage of David (Revelation 5:5). Melchizedek comes on to the scene before the law and the priesthood were established and his appearance pointed to the coming Messiah who was the perfect fulfillment of what Melchizedek represented. Jesus is both our priest and our king. He was faithful to death by giving His life on the cross and shedding His blood for the atonement of our sins (1 John 2:2). His was a perfect sacrifice that was good once and for all for the forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 10:9-10). Now Jesus reigns at the right hand of God (Romans 8:34) as King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Timothy 6:13-16). He is the priest who offered a perfect sacrifice and He is the King who is worthy of our praise!