by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
On May 22nd this week, the Church remembers the Righteous Melchizedek, King of Salem. Who was He and why should we care? Actually, you need to know about Melchizedek because He’s an Old Testament image of the Lord Jesus Christ, and you desperately need to grow in knowing who Jesus is, because we’re supposed to grow in unity with Him. Saint Paul feels so strongly about this, that in Hebrews 7:3, he gives an imperative command that we should intensely observe and discern this Melchizedek.
We first come across Him in the Old Testament. There’s a thrilling story from Genesis 14, where several kings combined their armies to attack and kidnap a very wealthy businessman named Lot, also abducting all his family and stealing everything he owned. As these kings and their soldiers absconded across the countryside with Lot, Lot’s uncle, the great Patriarch Abraham, set out with his own armies on a rescue mission to liberate his nephew. When Abraham’s army caught up with these evil kings, he attacked their forces at night for maximum confusion, and came at them from several directions at once, thoroughly crushing them. Abraham was able to save his nephew Lot, together with the rest of Lot’s family, recovering all their possessions.
The next morning, all the defeated kings collected their dead and wounded, assessed their situation, and then gathered together in the area of Salem (in what’s called the “King’s Valley”) so that terms of surrender and the spoils of war could be negotiated with Abraham. Suddenly, a new King came upon the scene, someone named Melchizedek. Melchizedek was the King of “Salem” (which means “Right-relationship…Wholeness & Peace”). Not only was he a King, but the bible tells us that He was also a Priest of the Most-High God. His name, “Melchizedek,” means, “King of Righteousness.” Thus, remarkably, He was King AND Priest of Right-relationship & Righteousness. Does that sound familiar? Melchizedek had nothing to do with the kidnapping or any part of the battle the night before. However, while those other wicked kings gathered to extract as much plunder as possible from the other kings… Melchizedek, by contrast, instead came offering hospitality, bringing bread and wine—food and refreshment for everyone there—a meal with the goal of rebuilding fellowship among these soldiers and kings and the families present.
This Priestly King, Melchizedek, then gave Abraham a blessing, saying, “Blessed be Abraham by God Most-High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most-High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” This generous act of blessing and hospitality from the “Priest & King of Right-relationship and Righteousness,” so thoroughly impressed Abraham that, in an act of gratitude and worship to the Most-High God, he refused to take any of the spoils of war, realizing that he didn’t need them, because God was the true source of his blessings. Abraham is transformed in seeing this powerful act of love. So, in Eucharistic gratitude to God for His many blessings, and in a generously tangible act of faith, Abraham offered God’s High-priest, Melchizedek, one tenth of everything he owned.
So, who was this life-transforming King and Priest of Salem, Melchizedek? Where did He come from, and where did He then go? Well that’s the mysteriously delightful thing about Him. We don’t quite know the answer to either of those questions. In his Epistle to the Hebrews, Saint Paul, writing about Melchizedek (mostly in chapter 7), pulls some fascinating details from Melchizedek’s life-story, to talk about Jesus as “High Priest.” In Hebrews 7:3-7, St Paul says, “Melchizedek had no father or mother and there is no record of any of His ancestors. He was never born and He never died but His life is like that of the Son of God—a priest forever. See then how great this Melchizedek is: Even Abraham, the first and most honored of all God’s chosen people, gave a tithe of his possessions to Melchizedek. One could understand why Abraham would do this if Melchizedek had been a Jewish priest, since, later on, God’s people were required by law to give gifts to help their priests because the priests were their relatives. But Melchizedek was not a relative, and yet Abraham paid him. Melchizedek placed a blessing upon mighty Abraham, and as everyone knows, a person who has the power to bless is always greater than the person he blesses.” Paul goes on to point out that Melchizedek was a different kind of priest… actually greater than all the priests that would ever follow, the greatest of great high-priests, part of a different plan of God. He says that Christ as High Priest, in the way of Melchizedek, became a priest in a new way, on the basis of power flowing from a life that’s timeless and enduring. Because of this, Christ forever guarantees the success of this new and better arrangement. Therefore, He’s able to wholly save those who come to God through Him, because He lives to ceaselessly intercede on their behalf.
Some Church Fathers, like Cyprian of Carthage lean towards Melchizedek being purely some mysterious person who was merely prefiguring or foreshadowing Jesus Christ. Other Church Fathers, like St John Chrysostom, go a little further, talking about Melchizedek as though He’s a Theophany—a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ Himself. Given the way Saint Paul draws so many parallels between Melchizedek and Christ, it seems wise to lean in carefully towards Chrysostom’s inference. There’s a kind of Theophany in Melchizedek’s presence on the scene in Genesis 14.
There are three vitally important things can we learn from Melchizedek as a pre-incarnate Theophany of Jesus, and what we’re supposed to become under His High-priesthood: 1.) Notice, in Genesis 14, that Melchizedek lived with the sinful city of Sodom on one side and the pagan Canaanites on the other, and yet He remained there to serve the community. Our Lord, in His love, is committed to having godly witnesses for Himself in the midst of the worst of communities to bless and transform them. 2.) Also notice that Melchizedek and Jesus are, both, King and Priest in One Person. Likewise, when every Christian is Chrismated at their Baptism, the prayers within the service connect this anointing with the Prophet Samuel’s anointing of David as king. Every Christian is anointed at their Chrismation to become royalty—sons and daughters (princes and princesses) of God, to become kingly after the manner of Christ’s way of humble kingship—in self-offering servanthood, in offering a blessing for an insult, and in self-sacrificially offering our lives for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Yet also, at our Baptism, every Orthodox Christian also becomes a part of what St Peter calls “the royal, priesthood” (what’s also known as “the priesthood of believers”). From baptism on, every Christian is supposed to live and operate through life as the priest does with the gifts at the altar—taking everything we encounter and essentially lifting it up to God in praise and thanksgiving, for Him to transform into a blessing for all of creation. 3.) Pay attention to the fact that Melchizedek shows up in loving contrast to a very negative situation (where kings are selfishly trying to take advantage of each other). There instead, Melchizedek offers gifts of refreshment, offering hospitality—with the goal of rebuilding fellowship among everyone present. He is truly the King and Priest of Salem (Shalom), of restoring peaceful, right-relationship between people who have gotten off track. Thus, a key part of His ministry is to move them back toward the Father, Son & Holy Spirit’s way of offering of Love as community, always seeking the wellbeing of the other. That’s the image in whom and for what we were created. As He constantly intercedes for us that we become unified with God in this way, transformed into that for which we were created…Jesus, our Great High-priest is able to wholly save those who come to God through Him.