“So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,’ You are my Son, today I have begotten you’; as he says also in another place, ’You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’ In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” — Hebrews 5:5-10 NRSV
Very often, when we consult a commentary on this passage, we get enmeshed in a long, confusing discussion about Melchizedek. Some of the old, classic commentaries go on and on about this character: who he was, what was his connection to Christ, was he some sort of mystical being, was he Christ himself, and on and on it goes. A reader can get lost in it — and end up being none the wiser for it.
But, I always figured the interpretation was simple and the commentators were making a mountain out of a mole hill.
It seems pretty simple to me.
The name Melchizedek (מַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק) means “King of Righteousness.” (Thus, it is a title rather than an actual name — but that’s neither here nor there.)
Melchizedek is mentioned in two other places in the Bible: Genesis 14 and Psalm 110.
In Genesis 14:18-20 we read: “And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him one tenth of everything.”
So, he’s the king of Salem. This word, of course, שָׁלֵם means “peace.” Think: Shalom. This is the city that will later become known as Jeru-salem (“foundation of peace”).
He blesses Abram. Abram accepts the blessing and honors him by giving him a tithe.
Now certainly the author of Hebrews sees Psalm 110 as a messianic psalm which foretells the Davidic Messiah-King Jesus. Right? So, don’t bother right now trying to figure out what it might have meant in its original context. In Psalm 110 the Davidic king is given this promise: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (Verse 4.) The Davidic king would not normally be considered a priest, because he’s not of priestly family. Ah! But, there’s a more ancient order of priests who ruled at the site of Jerusalem: the order of Melchizedek.
So, that’s why this obscure Old Testament figure is important here. Christ is both King and Priest. This was prophesied in Psalm 110. Christ was the son of David, so he is not a priest in the order of Aaron. How can he be a priest, then? Simple: he is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, since the Davidic Kings ruled in Jerusalem, the home of the original Melchizedek — and Jesus is a descendant of David.
Honestly, it’s not that difficult.
Melchizedek —> Jerusalem —> David —> Jesus.
And, all that talk in the old commentaries about Melchizedek being a mystical being is just speculation. What does the author of Hebrews say? He says: “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.” (Hebrews 7:3.) All he’s saying there is that we have no genealogy or history of the original Melchizedek. We know nothing of his birth or death. Because we know nothing of his death, he foreshadows Jesus, who has conquered death. And, that’s as far down that road as any interpreter should ever go.
And, the fact that the original King of Righteousness — who was also a priest — and who ruled a city named Peace — brought out bread and wine is another of the remarkable correspondences with the Gospel of Christ in this ancient story from Genesis.