One of the most intriguing sections in the Book of Hebrews is its discussion of Melchizedek and his priesthood. Hebrews 7:1-3 says that “Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.”
As Douglas Sweeney notes in his excellent book Edwards the Exegete, many modern preachers have found Melchizedek perplexing. But Melchizedek was in the preaching wheelhouse of Jonathan Edwards, the great pastor-theologian of Northampton, Massachusetts. The reason why is that Edwards employed exegesis that was canonical and Christological. Unlike Old Testament scholars today who might balk at deriving much theological significance from a shadowy figure like Melchizedek, whom we first meet in Genesis 14, Edwards was eager to do so.
In every nook and cranny of the Old Testament, Edwards saw images and types of Christ. Melchizedek was one of the most alluring types of Christ in the Hebrew Bible.
Aside from the explicit teaching of the Book of Hebrews and the Old Testament references, Edwards drew partly on the English Puritan theologian John Owen to understand Melchizedek. Owen wrote that the king of Salem was “the first personal Type of Christ in the World” and arguably the “most eminent.”
For Edwards, Melchizedek was a type or image of Christ at multiple levels. Even his name, which Hebrews translates as “king of righteousness,” or as “king of peace” (Salem), had typological significance, for who else in Scripture than Jesus could more deservingly be called the King of Peace and Righteousness?
Edwards also understood the mysterious circumstances of Melchizedek’s birth as a type of Christ’s lineage. Something as seemingly insignificant as Scripture’s silence on Melchizedek’s birth and death had typological importance. Even though we may reasonably assume that Melchizedek did have a beginning and end of life, to Edwards the Holy Spirit had intentionally hidden these details in Genesis to make a point about the coming Christ. Because of his high view of the canon, Edwards assumed that the same Spirit inspired each of the biblical authors to shape their texts in a theologically complementary way.
Melchizedek’s “service as a hybrid priest-king,” as Sweeney notes, also rang with typological importance. The Old Testament’s Levitical priests were not to take on kingly duties; neither were Israel’s kings supposed to do the work of priests. Such a combination was unknown under the Mosaic Law, yet here was a person much earlier who took on both roles in the place that would become Jerusalem.
Clearly, this dual function prefigured Christ. More surprisingly, it prefigured the way in which those in Christ would become “like unto Him,” as the “royal priesthood” of 1 Peter 2:9. Melchizedek’s eternal, permanent priesthood was also a “remarkable prophecy” of Christ’s priesthood, Edwards said in a sermon on Psalm 110:4 (a third key Scriptural reference to Melchizedek).
Edwards also argued that “Salem” was a type of both the coming City of David, and of the church itself. “God’s Church is His Jerusalem,” Edwards told his congregants, “in which reigns his spiritual Melchizedek.”
Edwards, following Hebrews, had squeezed a great deal of meaning out of the Melchizedek account. But he was not done yet. Genesis 14:18 notes that Melchizedek brought out bread and wine in order to bless Abram. Some earlier Protestant commentators had hesitated to emphasize the analogy to the Lord’s Supper, knowing that Catholic commentators had interpreted Melchizedek’s blessing as a forerunner of the Mass.
Even though Edwards was as hostile to Catholic theology as most of his Protestant contemporaries, he did not shy away from seeing Melchizedek’s bread and wine as types of the Lord’s Supper. Those elements, Edwards once preached in a Sunday sermon, were the “same that Melchizedek, that great type of Christ, gave to Abraham, which signified the same spiritual blessings which bread and wine doth in the sacrament.” They also signified the blessings of the covenant of grace.
Sweeney’s Edwards is, first and foremost, a Calvinist pastor and preacher. What Edwards taught about Melchizedek depended upon the Scripture references to the king of Salem, Edwards’s sophisticated system of biblical theology, and his trusted Scripture commentators like John Owen. Edwards the preacher was not usually, in Sweeney’s rendering, a theological innovator. This Edwards would no doubt appreciate some of today’s best evangelical and Reformed preaching on topics like Hebrews 7 and Melchizedek.
But if Edwards’s preaching was Reformed, canonical, and Christological, he also delivered it with an “intensity and interest in the unified witness of the Spirit that exceeds that of most other biblical interpreters,” Sweeney says. That earnestness and confidence is what makes the study of Edwards’s exegesis so rewarding.