(Gen. 14:17-20) Does Melchizedek foreshadow the work of Christ as high priest? (c.f. Heb. 5:1-6; 7:1-28)

In chapters 5 and 7 of his book, the author of Hebrews argues that Jesus is in the high priesthood of Melchizedek.

Why is Jesus’ high priesthood important?

The author of Hebrews was writing to Jewish Christians in AD 65 before the fall of the Temple. Apparently, these Christian believers were still offering sacrifices through the priests there (Heb. 9:6-9). The author of Hebrews is trying to demonstrate that these priests were inadequate in their ability to really pay for human sin (Heb. 10:4). Instead, they should trust that Jesus was our high priest who paid for sin “once for all” (Heb. 7:27; 9:12; 10:10). He explains,

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Heb. 4:15-16 NLT)

The author was trying to get his audience to understand that their sins have been completely forgiven through Christ. Therefore, they can come into the direct presence of God with boldness, and not come through human priests any more. As Paul writes to Timothy, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Human priests or mediators have become completely obsolete.

The problem with Jesus’ high priesthood

There was just one problem with Jesus being considered a high priest: Jesus was from the tribe of Judah—not Levi. While this might not seem important to a modern audience, this was a major stumbling block to this ancient Jewish culture. In order to be a king, one needed to come from the line of Judah (Gen. 49:10), and in order to be a priest, one needed to be from the line of Levi. Since Jesus was from the tribe of Judah (Mt. 1:2; Heb. 7:14; Rev. 5:5), he could qualify as a king—but not as a priest.

To put this in modern terms, this would be similar to the Republican Party nominating Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Presidential candidate. In our culture, there would be a major difficulty with this: Arnold was born in Austria—not America. According to the U.S. Constitution, this would disqualify him from the Presidency. In the same way, Jesus was born in the tribe of Judah, which could make him a king, but not a priest.

For this reason, the author of Hebrews needed to offer a theological argument for why Jesus could rightfully replace the priesthood that God established in the tribe of Levi. He writes,

(Heb. 5:1-4 NLT) Every high priest is a man chosen to represent other people in their dealings with God. He presents their gifts to God and offers sacrifices for their sins. 2 And he is able to deal gently with ignorant and wayward people because he himself is subject to the same weaknesses. 3 That is why he must offer sacrifices for his own sins as well as theirs. 4 And no one can become a high priest simply because he wants such an honor. He must be called by God for this work, just as Aaron was.

Jesus didn’t come from the tribe of Levi (the priestly tribe). Thus he was disqualified as being a priest. The author of Hebrews explains:

(Heb. 7:13-14 NLT) For the priest we are talking about belongs to a different tribe, whose members have never served at the altar as priests. 14 What I mean is, our Lord came from the tribe of Judah, and Moses never mentioned priests coming from that tribe.

These first century Jewish Christians would have agreed with the author at this point. While Jesus was the King Messiah from Judah, he still didn’t replace the priestly line. Doesn’t this mean that we should still encourage priestly sacrifices today?

Enter Melchizedek

At this point, the author of Hebrews makes a brilliant theological observation. He explains how the OT predicts another priesthood that would supersede the priesthood of Levi, once it arrived. In fact, the OT predicted that once the Messiah came, he would inaugurate a new priesthood that would replace and abrogate the Levitical priesthood. The author of Hebrews explains,

(Heb. 5:5-6 NLT) That is why Christ did not honor himself by assuming he could become High Priest. No, he was chosen by God, who said to him, “You are my Son. Today I have become your Father.” 6 And in another passage God said to him, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”

How do these OT citations support the author of Hebrews’ claim about Jesus’ priesthood? Let’s look at each closely.

Genesis 14:17-20

As modern readers, we probably wonder who Melchizedek is, and what he has to do with this discussion about Jesus replacing the Levitical priests. In order to fully grasp the author’s argument, we need to read about Melchizedek’s only appearance in OT history found in Genesis 14:

(Gen. 14:17 NLT) After Abram returned from his victory over Kedorlaomer and all his allies, the king of Sodom went out to meet him in the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).

The historical setting is roughly 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Abraham (called “Abram” here) has just returned from rescuing his nephew, Lot, from military capture (v.12). After he defeated Kedorlaomer’s small army, he took back all of the booty that the king had stolen (v.16).

(Gen. 14:18 NLT) And Melchizedek, the king of Salem and a priest of God Most High, brought Abram some bread and wine.

After Abraham returns from the battlefield, he is met by this mysterious figure named Melchizedek. This passage describes Melchizedek both as a king and as a priest.

Melchizedek as a PRIEST: The text describes Melchizedek as “a priest of God Most High.” What a strange title for a person that lived before the birth of the Jewish nation! In fact, the Levitical priests wouldn’t exist for another 500 years! And yet, the text tells us that he was a legitimate priest of God.

Melchizedek as a KING: The text also tells us that Melchizedek was a king—the king of Salem. Melchizedek’s name literally means “king of righteousness.”[1] And the city of Salem literally meant “city of shalom.” Morris writes, “The place name comes from the same root as šālôm, the Hebrew word for “peace,” and it may accordingly be translated in this way.”[2] The city of Salem was later renamed Jeru-salem (Ps. 76:2), which literally means “city of peace.” Thus the king of righteousness (Melchizedek) ruled over the “city of peace.”

Therefore, according to Genesis 14, Melchizedek was priest-king in Jerusalem 500 years before the Jews even entered into the Promised Land. Is this sounding familiar? Later, Jesus would come to Jerusalem—the capital of Israel—and would claim that he was a king-priest, also. Jesus—the “prince of peace” (Isa. 9:6)—would bring true peace to the people. Thus Melchizedek was a type (or foreshadowing) of Jesus.

The next interaction between Melchizedek and Abraham is just as interesting to this discussion of Jesus’ priesthood.

(Gen. 14:19 NLT) Melchizedek blessed Abram with this blessing: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.”

By blessing Abraham, Melchizedek was demonstrating that he was superior to Abraham. For instance, in American military culture, we can learn a soldier’s rank and office by whoever salutes first. When a younger officer salutes an elder officer, it shows deference and respect. In this culture, whenever someone gave out a blessing, it communicated that they were higher in authority and office. By accepting a blessing, an individual was admitting that they needed blessed. Thus Melchizedek was demonstrating here that he was greater than Abraham.

(Gen. 14:20 NLT) And blessed be God Most High, who has defeated your enemies for you.” Then Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the goods he had recovered.

Not only did Melchizedek show his superiority to Abraham by giving him a blessing, but Abraham reciprocated this by tithing some of his loot back to Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews argues,

(Heb. 7:4-7 NLT) Consider then how great this Melchizedek was. Even Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel, recognized this by giving him a tenth of what he had taken in battle. Now the law of Moses required that the priests, who are descendants of Levi, must collect a tithe from the rest of the people of Israel, who are also descendants of Abraham. But Melchizedek, who was not a descendant of Levi, collected a tenth from Abraham. And Melchizedek placed a blessing upon Abraham, the one who had already received the promises of God. And without question, the person who has the power to give a blessing is greater than the one who is blessed.”

By blessing Abraham and receiving his tithe, Melchizedek was demonstrating his superiority over Abraham. Of course, the entire nation of the Jews came from Abraham: Moses, Aaron, the twelve tribes… even the Levitical priesthood. Therefore, if Abraham was bowing down before Melchizedek, it was almost as though all of his descendents were bowing down to him as well. The author of Hebrews explains,

(Heb. 7:9-10 NLT) “We might even say that these Levites—the ones who collect the tithe—paid a tithe to Melchizedek when their ancestor Abraham paid a tithe to him. 10 For although Levi wasn’t born yet, the seed from which he came was in Abraham’s body when Melchizedek collected the tithe from him.”

So, here with Melchizedek, we have “a priest of God Most High” (v.17), who is greater than the Levitical priesthood that came from Abraham. If only there was some way of connecting Jesus Christ with the priesthood of Melchizedek, we would have a genuine and strong theological argument for Jesus abrogating (or eliminating) the Levitical priesthood.

Psalm 110

As it turns out, there is one other passage in the OT that refers to the mysterious character of Melchizedek: Psalm 110. According to the superscription, this is a psalm of David. Therefore, David writes,

(Ps. 110:1) The LORD [Yahweh] says to my Lord [Adoni]: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”

David was the Lord (Hebrew adoni) over Israel. However, in this passage, David claims that God (Hebrew Yahweh) was speaking to someone who was Lord over him. Since David was the highest ruler in Israel, this “Lord” must be a messianic figure who is greater than David. Therefore, Psalm 110 must be a messianic psalm (c.f. Mt. 22:41-46). David continues,

(Ps. 110:2-3) “The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies. 3 Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Arrayed in holy majesty, from the womb of the dawn you will receive the dew of your youth.”

After reading verses 2 and 3, it becomes really clear that this is a messianic psalm. The scepter was a symbol for being a king (Gen. 49:10). Thus David predicts here that one of his descendants will rule over the Gentile nations as a king. But notice what this next verse states:

(Ps. 110:4) “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’”

Here David claims that when the Messiah comes from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10), he will be considered a priest, and he will come from the priesthood of Melchizedek. Therefore, the author of Hebrews brilliantly clinches his argument: The priesthood of the Messiah (Jesus) eliminates the earlier priesthood through the Levites!

The priest-king in Isaiah 53

This concept of a messianic priest-king was not unique to David. Isaiah also describes the Servant of the Lord as a king (“He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted… I will allot Him a portion with the great… He will divide the booty with the strong”), but he also describes him as a priest (“He would render Himself as a guilt offering… He will bear their iniquities”). The Hebrew word here is ‘asham (pronounced ah-SHOM), which is the same word used for the sacrificial animal in Leviticus: “So it shall be when he becomes guilty in one of these, that he shall confess that in which he has sinned. 6 He shall also bring his guilt offering (‘asham) to the Lord for his sin which he has committed” (Lev. 5:5-6).

The priest-king in Zechariah 3 and 6

Zechariah also describes the future Branch as a priest-king (Zech. 3:8; Zech. 6:11-13). Zechariah writes that there will be a “Servant” in the future, who will be like “Joshua” the high priest. However, he states that this priest would wear a crown and sit on a throne. Jesus, whose name was Y’shua (or Joshua), came both as a priest (to die for our sins) and as a king (to rule and reign in his return).


The author of Hebrews makes a cogent argument for why Jesus is the only high priest that we will ever need, and he does this by appealing to the Hebrew Bible alone. This has caused readers to marvel at the internal consistency of the Bible. Even though the Bible was written by 40 or more authors over thousands of years, here we have a consistent stream of thought that verifies the authority of Jesus Christ. Of course, Moses, David, and the author of Hebrews did not conspire to write this theme into the Bible. They were separated by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Instead, Bible believers hold that God inspired this material about the priesthood of Melchizedek to uniquely validate the work and authority of his son: Jesus Christ.


[1] Morris, L. (1981). Hebrews. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (63). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Morris, L. (1981). Hebrews. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (63). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.