The name of Melchizedek isn’t often mentioned among Christians. And there’s no mystery about that. Melchizedek makes only one actual appearance in the Bible, in Genesis 14:18-20.
After Israel’s patriarch Abraham, then called Abram, alongside allies, fought and won a battle, we’re told: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem [Salem means “peace.” The city bearing that name later became the site of Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. Melchizedek] 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.”
[Portrayed here is a the scene from Genesis 14:18-20. Melchizedek brings bread and wine to Abraham.]
Think about this. Before God had begun to fulfill His first covenant (or first testament) by making Abraham and Sarah the parents of Isaac, the foundation on which God would build His people Israel, there already was, at Jerusalem, a king and priest of God.
Now, this is interesting. Among the descendants of Abraham, there were priests and then there were kings. While Israel’s kings were called to be submissive and trusting toward God and to honor the priests, except in the case of pretenders later in ancient Israel’s history, Israel never had people who were priests and kings.
Such a combination of eternal and earthly power could only be handled by someone who, because of their humble trust in God, would resist the temptation to be an autocrat, a dictator, or self-glorifying conqueror. Melchizedek apparently was the kind of person who could resist those temptations.
When Abraham met Melchizedek, he clearly understood himself to be in the presence of someone who was a priest of the very God Who had called him from the comforts of his home in Ur, willing to wander to the new home that God promised to show to him.
That’s why he humbly received bread and wine from this priest and king and, in response to God’s grace, gave Melchizedek a tithe, ten percent “of everything” he owned.
This is the last known appearance by Melchizedek on the earth.
So, what happened to his royal house?
What happened to his priesthood?
And what difference does it make for you and me?
Our second lesson for this morning, Hebrews 5:1-10, provides some answers.
Hebrews, you'll remember, is a book of unknown authorship. We do know that it’s a sermon by a Jewish-Christian to a congregation of Jewish-Christians who are being tempted, under pressure of Roman persecution, to renounce Christ.
The preacher of Hebrews encourages his fellow Jewish-Christians to not desert the hope they have in Christ. Christ, he says, is the culmination of all of God’s promises of forgiveness and new life given to their ancestors and through them, to the world.
Let’s take a look at what he has to say today.
Verse 1 (He's talking about priesthood.): “Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron [the brother of Moses] was.”
The high priest of Israel, who had been at the temple in Jerusalem before the temple was destroyed and the priesthood decimated in 70 AD, several decades before this sermon was given, acted as a mediator between God and God’s people.
The high priest was called to make sacrifices for their sins and to gently counsel people with God’s Word. He was able to do this because, as a human being himself, he understood the pressures, joys, and temptations that we human beings face.
But the high priest could only do this because he acknowledged his own sins before God and offered sacrifices for them.
The preacher in Hebrews says that anyone who would presume to take the office of high priest would not be qualified for it; it had to be conferred on them by God.
I think that even today, there’s a principle for us: Anyone who wants to have a position of authority or power in the Church--be it pastor, bishop, church council president, congregational officer, church council officer--ought to be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism. When the people of the Church, after a season of prayer, felt led to ask an often reluctant but faithful person to respond to God’s call, that’s the person God is likely calling.
One of the things I love about this congregation is that we don’t ask any elected person to serve in positions of responsibility unless there has been prayer and a discernment of their call from God. We don’t use the spaghetti method to recruit candidates for church council, for example: We don’t just throw up a name and see which one sticks. Like the high priests, those who hold responsibility in today’s Church need to be believers who live in daily repentance and renewal, who have no notion that they’re anything other than sinners made saints by God’s grace through their faith in Christ. We are blessed to have elected leaders like that at Living Water. And it’s my observation that we take the same care in selecting people for appointment to positions in the congregation.
The preacher goes on to say that Jesus Christ’s claim to be our great High Priest, King, and Lord is not contingent on His taking the reins of ultimate power by force. Jesus too was called by His Father in heaven. Verses 5 and 6: “In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’ [This is from Psalm 2. More on that in a second. And he says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’”
Here, the preacher of Hebrews cites two different psalms. There are different kinds of psalms. Psalm 35, for example, is an imprecatory psalm in which the psalmist asks God to go after his tormentors. In Psalm 51, David confesses his sin and asks God to give him a clean heart. In our lesson from Hebrews, two psalms, Psalm 2 and Psalm 110, are cited. These are both royal psalms. They were written to celebrate the anointing of God's king in Israel. royal pslams. A king of Israel was referred to as the Anointed One, in the Hebrew, Meshiah, Messiah and in the Greek in which the New Testament was written, Christos, Christ.
So, what’s the point? Jesus isn’t a successor to the priesthood of the Levites in the temple, who were descendants of Aaron. Instead, Jesus is, like Melchizedek, anointed directly by God the Father. And like Melchizedek
Jesus is also a king, the King of kings.
God has made Jesus both our High Priest, able to understand our weaknesses because He’s withstood every test and temptation that we have in life, and our King, Who has conquered death, darkness, and the devil to give all who let Him be their Priest and King, life with God that never ends.
And how has Jesus achieved this for us? Verse 7: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death [Remember Jesus in Gethsemane, Who prayed in submission to the Father’s will that He become the perfect sacrifice for our sins even as He asked if there might be a way for Him to avoid the cup of wrath for human evil that He was about to drink full-up on the cross?], and he was heard because of his reverent submission. [He was heard even though the Father didn’t take away the cross. He was heard because God gave Christ the strength to endure the cross for us, the greatest act of love in the history of the universe. And He was heard too because, having faithfully endured the cross, the Father raised Him on the third day, allowing Christ to exert an eternal priesthood and an eternal kingship for you and me.] Son though [Jesus] was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect [The word in the original Greek doesn’t mean perfect, but complete. Jesus uses a form of the same word when, with His dying breath on the cross, He says, “It is fulfilled,” more literally, ‘It is completion. Having completed His mission], [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.”
[A portrayal of Jesus, high priest and King of Kings.]
All of this Jesus did for you and me so that, even now, at this very moment, sitting at the right hand of the Father, He is able to be our understanding priest and the King Who has conquered our darkness and death by giving His life for us.
What does Jesus ask of us in return?
What can we do?
What should we do?
"The work of God is this,” Jesus tells us, “to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29)
Everything you and I might be tempted to put our trust in in this world--kings and presidents, money, security, and possessions, health and success, the power of every bit of it will give out at the grave.
Jesus, our High Priest and King of kings, Who comes to us amid the battles of our lives with bread and wine, His body and blood, has conquered this dying world and its futile ambitions for us.
He and those who trust in Him and His high priesthood of love are all that will survive and thrive for all eternity.
May we always be counted among those who trust in Christ alone.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]