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Despite being one of the least mentioned and most obscure figures in the Old Testament, Melchizedek, the king-priest of Salem, is foundational for understanding how Jesus occupies the offices of king and priest—a dual honor that finds little to no precedent among Israelite kings.
But who exactly is this mysterious figure? How does this dynastic order help us to better understand the nature of Christ’s kingly and priestly roles?
King Who Prepares the Table
Melchizedek commands a disproportionate amount of importance in redemptive history compared to the amount of space devoted to him in Scripture. His name literally means “king of righteousness,” and he rules over the city of Salem (or, “shalom,” meaning cosmic, harmonious peace).
Melchizedek, the King-Priest of Salem, is foundational for understanding how Jesus occupies the dual offices of king and priest.
In the three verses that describe his life and ministry (Gen. 14:18–20), we’re introduced to Melchizedek’s authority as king of Salem and “priest of the God Most High.” He speaks of God as both Creator and Deliverer. He even offers “bread and wine” to Abram after his victory in battle over his enemies. In response, Abram tithes to Melchizedek a tenth of everything, reinforcing the latter’s spiritual significance. The gospel allusion to the sacrament of communion shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Anticipating a Better King
As the most quoted psalm in the New Testament, Psalm 110 deserves careful attention in order to appreciate Christ’s execution of the offices of king and priest. King David writes this psalm for a future king, perhaps Solomon prior to his ascension to the throne in 971 BC, or for a future messianic figure who descends from his line.
The psalm begins by declaring that this future king will be given a greater honor, power, and authority than any human king before him: he sits at Yahweh’s right hand, the place of highest honor as Yahweh’s vice-regent and representative (110:1). As such, he derives his authority from Yahweh and exercises Yahweh’s own royal rule, resulting in the subjection of the king’s enemies (110:2), as well as protection for the king’s realm and his people (110:3).
But this messianic figure isn’t only a king—he’s also a priest in the order of Melchizedek (110:4). In one sense, this is nothing new. Davidic kings undertook “priestly” functions such as leading worship, guiding in corporate prayer, and offering sacrifices on special occasions outside of the Levitical tradition.
Yet, this verse further develops the priestly functions of the Davidic dynasty into a full-blown connection to the dynastic line of Jebusite king-priests who once ruled from Jerusalem. As a result, the Davidic dynasty can claim divine support for their rule over the Promised Land, a fulfillment of Abraham’s blessing from Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18–20.
Verses 5–6 parallel verses 2–3 in Yahweh’s relationship with the Davidic king. Notably, whereas the king sits at Yahweh’s right hand in verse 1, Yahweh stands by the king in verse 5, noting divine protection and support. And whereas verses 2–3 portray the king as the protagonist in battle, verses 5–7 portrays Yahweh as the protagonist, or the Divine Warrior, who helps the king defeat his enemies on individual, corporate, and cosmic levels (“among the nations,” “over the wide earth,” and so on).
This greatly expands upon the original Israelite domain, indicating that these enemy kings represent the cosmic powers of chaos that Yahweh defeats through his ultimate Melchizedekian Priest-King on behalf of Israel and all the other nations. In other words, the application of Yahweh’s salvation extends beyond that of individual souls to physical bodies, corporate systems, and cosmic powers.
The application of Yahweh’s salvation extends beyond that of individual souls to physical bodies, corporate systems, and cosmic powers.
Finally, the psalm ends with Yahweh refreshing himself from a brook (110:7). Though this verse initially may seem odd, it portrays Yahweh as one who sympathizes with the human condition.
Eternal Melchizedekian King-Priest
In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews raises Melchizedek’s profile to a pre-incarnate Christ-figure. Melchizedek is eternal, having no “father or mother” and “resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever” (Heb. 7:3). Abraham’s tithe to Melchizedek also confirms his greatness (Heb. 7:4).
Following Melchizedek, Jesus is the true king of righteousness (“Melchizedek”) who lived the perfect life no human being could. Jesus is also the true king of peace (Salem) who came to earth to bring peace through his sacrificial death and resurrection. Jesus is also “a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 7:17) and not through Levitical lineage (Heb. 7:14), making his priesthood superior (Heb. 7:11).
As a result, “This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:22). Because “he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (Heb. 7:24), “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).
Thus, believers can rest knowing that Jesus is the perfect King who rules with infinite power and justice. Believers are also comforted knowing Jesus is the perfect Priest who ministers with infinite mercy and sympathizes with us in our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15).
As a result of our union with Christ, believers are reminded of our Melchizedekian calling to expand his kingdom through truth and justice as members of God’s royal family and to be a channel of mercy and healing to the covenant community, as well as to the rest of the world.