Making Sense of Melchizedek Through the Framework of Progressive Covenantalism

By

D.A. Carson once said in a sermon that Melchizedek is “one of the most instructive figures in the Bible for helping us put our Bibles together.”[1] Carson’s words might seem like an overstatement since Melchizedek hardly appears in the biblical corpus. He shows up in Genesis 14:17–20 where he blesses Abraham and receives a tithe from Abraham before exiting the drama of redemption’s stage never to appear again.[2] Yet David later wrote in Psalm 110 that the Messiah would be a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4), a prophecy fulfilled in Christ according to the author of Hebrews (Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21). How did such an enigmatic figure as Melchizedek become integral to David’s messianic hope and, in Carson’s words, become such an instructive figure for helping us put our Bible’s together?

1. Carson’s sermon was published in D. A. Carson, “Getting Excited About Melchizedek (Psalm 110),” in The Scriptures Testify About Me: Jesus and The Gospel in The Old Testament, ed. D. A. Carson (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 147.

The purpose of this brief article is to make sense out of Melchizedek and his priesthood in the Bible’s story. More specifically, I contend that a proper understanding of Melchizedek depends on the covenantal structure of Scripture. A study of Melchizedek provides a helpful test case to apply the hermeneutical framework of progressive covenantalism to a significant, yet mysterious, figure in the biblical story. Melchizedek is one of the most instructive figures for helping us put our Bible’s together because his significance in redemptive history depends on his association with Abraham and the Abrahamic covenant.

2. In Genesis 14, Abraham is still Abram. For the sake of simplicity, I will use the name “Abraham” unless directly quoting a verse from Genesis 14 or another author.

A robust understanding of the Melchizedekian priesthood, therefore, must rely on the fundamental claim of progressive covenantalism that “the Bible presents a plurality of covenants that progressively reveal God’s one redemptive plan for his one people which reaches its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant.”[3] In what follows, I will first examine Melchizedek’s interaction with Abraham in the context of Genesis. Second, I will consider Psalm 110 to show how David concluded that the Messiah would be a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4, ESV). Lastly, I will briefly examine Hebrews 7 to demonstrate how Christ fulfills David’s messianic prophecy and why a Melchizedekian priesthood (not Levitical) is essential to Christ’s new covenant salvation.[4]

3. Stephen J. Wellum, “What Is Progressive Covenantalism? Part 1,” Christ Over All, September 5, 2023, https://christoverall.com/article/longform/what-is-progressive-covenantalism-part-1/.

Genesis 14: Melchizedek and The Abrahamic Covenant

4. On the nature of the new covenant and its relationship to the Levitical covenant, see the three-part series by David Schrock beginning with “The Levitical Covenant (Part 1): Returning a Priceless Work of Art to the Bible.”

Genesis 14 describes Abraham’s war with a coalition of eastern kings led by Chedorlaomer, and his encounter with the king of Salem (Melchizedek) and the king of Sodom. When Chedorlaomer formed an alliance of kings to crush a rebellion, Chedorlaomer’s forces swept through Sodom and Gomorrah and took Abraham’s nephew Lot captive along with possessions and other people (Gen. 14:11–12). When Abraham received word of Lot’s captivity, he led 318 trained men from his household on a rescue operation. He divided his forces by night and struck down Chedorlaomer’s armies taking captivity captive by delivering Lot and returning the possessions and the people (Gen. 14:16).

The events of Genesis 14 unfold within the larger context of God’s promises to Abraham (Gen. 12–15). At this point in the Genesis narrative, Abraham is still without an heir and without possession of the land of Canaan. Perhaps childless Abraham set out to rescue Lot because he was, in McConville’s words, “trying to persevere his stake in Lot as heir.”[5] More importantly, Abraham’s interactions with the king of Salem and the king of Sodom shed light on the meaning of the narrative and the importance of Melchizedek’s place in the story. After his military success, Melchizedek, the king of Salem, came out to meet Abraham. He gave Abraham bread and wine and pronounced a blessing on Abraham:

5. J. Gordon McConville, “Abram and Melchizedek: Horizons in Genesis 14,” in He Swore an Oath: Biblical Themes from Genesis 12–50, ed. R. S. Hess, G. J. Wenham, and P. E. Satterthwaite (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1994), 113.

And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Gen. 14:19–20)

6. Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness” (cf. Heb. 7:2).

The king of Sodom, on the other hand, came to Abraham not with a blessing but with a bargain: “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself” (Gen. 14:21). The contrast between the king of Salem and the king of Sodom is profound. The king of Sodom represents power-hungry human kingship. He wants people to control and finds strength in numbers. He clamors for worldly power at the expense of others because in his kingdom, might makes right. Melchizedek is different. Melchizedek’s kingship is a righteous kingship—as his name suggests.[6] Melchizedek clamors not for power but acknowledges God’s sovereignty over the earth. He is subservient to God—a true priest-king. Melchizedek knew that God gave Abraham victory in battle because God Most High rules the universe (Gen. 14:19–21). Melchizedekian kingship is servant-kingship, and it points the reader back to Adam’s priestly kingship established in the creation covenant. As Alexander observes, Melchizedek’s kingship “seeks to re-establish God’s sovereignty on the earth in line with the divine mandate given to human beings when first created.”[7]

7. T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2009), 82.

Abraham aligned himself with Melchizedek and rejected the offer of the king of Sodom refusing to receive riches from anyone but Yahweh, God Most High (Gen. 14:22–23). Abraham’s response to these two kings demonstrates his trust in God’s covenant promises. At a time when Abraham could have relied on his political and military prowess to form alliances with kings of Canaanite city-states and lay claim to property, possessions, and even land, he refused. He would instead receive God’s promises by faith.

Genesis 14, then, puts Abraham, the recipient of the covenant promises, in contact with a gentile priest-king who blesses Abraham, the recipient of the covenant promises. Abraham paid a tithe to a priest-king whose kingship was defined by righteousness and peace (Salem)—two characteristics that would later define Davidic kingship (Ps. 72:7; Isa. 9:7, 48:18–19). In fact, Psalm 76:2 identifies Salem with Zion (Jerusalem), the city of the Davidic king. Melchizedek’s (Jeru)Salem is David’s Jerusalem. Before the Mosaic law established the Levitical priesthood, Genesis 14 described a royal priest of (Jeru)salem who reflects Adam’s role as priest-king in the garden and who blesses Abraham and his seed.

From these observations in Genesis 14, we can infer that the Melchizedekian priesthood is the order of priesthood that will mediate the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant to the world. All of these details—the description of Melchizedek in Genesis 14:17–20 and his association with the Abrahamic covenant—provide the foundation for understanding David’s messianic prophecy in Psalm 110.

Psalm 110: A Priest After the Order of Melchizedek

Psalm 110 is a messianic psalm about David’s greater son and Lord (Ps. 110:1). Verse 4 stands at the center of its chiastic structure: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’”

8. Matthew H. Emadi, The Royal Priest: Psalm 110 in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson, New Studies in Biblical Theology 61 (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022).

How exactly did David come to the conclusion that the Messiah would also hold Melchizedek’s priestly office? I have argued elsewhere that Psalm 110 represents David’s reflections on Genesis 14, the promises of the Davidic covenant, and the patterns of his own life.[8] The reference to Yahweh’s oath in Psalm 110:4 is probably David’s way of referring to the promises of the Davidic covenant (cf. Ps. 89:3; 132:11). David’s offspring would sit on the throne, build God’s house, and usher in God’s kingdom (2 Sam. 7:12–16). David would have recognized that God’s covenant promise to him was, as Beecher writes, “a renewal of the promise made of old that all the nations should be blessed in Abraham and his seed.”[9] A righteous king of Jerusalem would bless the offspring of Abraham once again.

9. Willis Judson Beecher, The Prophets and the Promise (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1905), 238.

The Davidic covenant also promised that David’s heir would relate to God as a son relates to his father (2 Sam. 7:14), echoing God’s original covenant relationship with Adam in the garden (cf. 2 Sam. 7:19). Like Adam, David’s son would serve God as a priest-king. David knew, however, that a son from the tribe of Judah could not serve as a priest under the stipulations of the Mosaic Law. He would need a priesthood of a different order, one that tied together God’s purposes in creation (Adam) and his plan of redemption (Abraham). In other words, the Davidic king would be a priest-king like Adam and hold a priesthood able to mediate the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant to the nations. That priesthood in the biblical storyline is the Melchizedekian priesthood.

Melchizedek exemplified the kind of righteous royal priesthood that was to characterize Jerusalem’s throne. Indeed, David may have even viewed himself as a type of Melchizedek when he brought the ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6), wore the priestly garment of the linen ephod (2 Sam. 6:14), blessed the children of Abraham (2 Sam. 6:18), offered sacrifices and offerings (2 Sam. 6:13, 17), and distributed bread, meat, and raisins to the people (2 Sam. 6:19). The Messiah, David’s son, would be a priest-king like Melchizedek, because David was a priest-king like Melchizedek.

Hebrews 7: A Better Priest of a Better Covenant

In Hebrews 7, the author of Hebrews appeals to Genesis 14:17–20 and Psalm 110:4 to establish the superiority of Christ’s Melchizedekian priesthood over the Levitical priesthood. Jesus is the mediator of a new and better covenant because he qualified for a permanent priesthood (Melchizedekian) on the basis of his sinless self-sacrifice and resurrection from the dead.

Unlike the Levitical priesthood, Melchizedek’s priesthood is permanent because it is not attached to genealogy or the Mosaic law. Melchizedek appeared in Genesis “without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Heb. 7:3). While some commentators have taken this verse to mean that Melchizedek was a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ, the author of Hebrews says that Melchizedek “resembled” the Son of God, not that he was the Son of God (Heb. 7:3). Melchizedek is a type of Christ; he is not Christ himself.

“Having neither beginning of days nor end of life” is the author’s way of describing Melchizedek’s lack of genealogy in the Genesis narrative. In other words, we have no record of his parents, no record of his birth, and no record of his death. Instead, the only testimony we have about him in the literary context of Genesis is that “he lives” (Heb. 7:8). Melchizedek was a mortal man, but his literary profile is one of permanence; his priesthood was enduring, an expression of Adam’s priesthood in the creation covenant, not attached to genealogy and the restrictions of the Mosaic law-covenant.

The whole Levitical system had a built-in succession plan because the Levites were sinful, mortal men that died. Every high priest would eventually need a successor with a verifiable genealogical connection to the tribe of Levi. Melchizedek had no successors in Genesis. He was, in a real sense, a priest forever with the authority to bless Abraham and his seed.

The Old Covenant in and of itself was not able to bring perfection, that is, it could not cleanse the conscience because it did not provide full atonement for sins (Heb. 9:11–14; 10:1–3, 11–18). The “weakness” and “uselessness” (Heb. 7:18) of the old covenant was due, in part, to its faulty priesthood and insufficient animal sacrifices. God’s promise to Abraham and the blessings of the new covenant could not be unleashed by sinful, mortal mediators (the Levites) who had to offer ongoing sacrifices for their own sins and for sins of the people (Heb. 7:27). Such promises necessitated a better mediator of a better covenant. The new covenant promised, among other things, a changed heart and the full forgiveness of sins (Jer. 31:31–34), implying no need for continual animal sacrifices that can never take away sins (Heb. 10:11). The better promises of the new covenant required a better priesthood not rooted in the stipulations of the temporary Mosaic covenant. That better and permanent priesthood is the Melchizedekian priesthood.

Jesus qualified for the Melchizedekian priesthood making him the mediator of a better covenant (Heb. 7:22). How did he qualify? As Hebrews 7:16 says, Jesus “has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life.” In other words, Jesus rose from the dead never to die again—his life is indestructible. He conquered death through his own sinless self-sacrifice. What order of priesthood is worthy of a righteous resurrected king who reigns from the heavenly Jerusalem mediating the blessings of the new covenant to the children of Abraham? The Melchizedekian priesthood. The risen Christ has been enthroned as the Davidic Son having become a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. The priests of the old covenant “were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, 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. 7:23–25, emphasis mine).

Conclusion

Without the Bible’s unified story held together by God’s covenants, Melchizedek would be like an extra in a play that flashes onto the stage in the first act making little to no difference in the overall story. I have tried to demonstrate in this article that Melchizedek makes a difference in the Bible’s storyline precisely because the Bible’s grand story is held together by a plurality of covenants that progressively reveal God’s one plan of redemption. Melchizedek illustrates the ways in which Progressive Covenantalism reads the Bible—namely, that we must read the Bible across the covenants in order to make sense of the parts in light of the whole. Progressive Covenantalism provides the framework that enables us to understand how Melchizedek functions as a type of Christ as we move through the covenants from Abraham to David to Jesus. Melchizedek might be a mysterious figure, but when we understand his place in redemptive history in relationship to the biblical covenants, he does indeed become one of the most instructive figures for helping us put our Bible’s together. And, I might add, for helping us understand more deeply the glory of Christ’s saving work.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Matthew Emadi

    Matthew Emadi (PhD, Southern Seminary) is senior pastor of Crossroads Church in Sandy, Utah; adjunct faculty for the Salt Lake School of Theology (Gateway Seminary); and author of How Can I Serve My Church? and The Royal Priest: Psalm 110 in Biblical Theology. He is married to his wife Brittany and they have six children.

Matthew Emadi

Matthew Emadi

Matthew Emadi (PhD, Southern Seminary) is senior pastor of Crossroads Church in Sandy, Utah; adjunct faculty for the Salt Lake School of Theology (Gateway Seminary); and author of How Can I Serve My Church? and The Royal Priest: Psalm 110 in Biblical Theology. He is married to his wife Brittany and they have six children.