MELCHISEDEK, THE KING OF SALEM
by Bishop Photius of Lyons
"Then He said unto them: these are the words which I spake unto you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning me. Then He opened their minds, that they might understand the scriptures" (Luke 24:44-45).
No figure points out the continuity between the Old and New Testament in a manner as explicit and at the same time enigmatic, as that of Melchisedek, in which St. John Chrysostom sees "the perfect image of the Saviour". (Homily on Melchisedek, Complete Works, t.X, p.482, trad, Bareille, Paris, 1867).
In chapter XIV of the Book of Genesis verses 18-20, Moses writes that: "And Melchisedek, King of Salem, brought forth loaves and wine, and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed Abram, and said: Blessed be Abram of the most high God, Who made heaven and earth, and blessed be the most high God Who delivered thine enemies into thy power. And Abram gave him the tithe of all". (For the Fathers and the commentators, Salem here signifies Jerusalem. "Melch" is the Hebrew word for "king", "sedek" signifies "justice" and "shalim" (salem) is derived from roots which mean "peace".)
Melchisedek is the first priest mentioned in the Scriptures, even preceding the institution of the levitical priesthood; but, from no other priest did he receive the priesthood and to no other priest did he transmit his dignity. Thus did he prefigure the only priesthood of the Lord according to the Prophet David: "The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit Thou at my right hand, until I make Thine enemies the footstool of Thy feet . . . The Lord hath sworn and will not repent: Thou art a priest forever, after the order of Melchisedek" (Psalms 110:1&4).
In this first verse, the Fathers have seen the witness of the co-substantiality of the Father and of the Son (Cf, in particular St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Psalm 110, in The Complete Works, op. cit., t.IX. Cf likewise, Mat. 12:42-45, where Jesus Christ sites this psalm Himself to show that He is the true Son of God.), and the confirmation that the high priest is indeed the Lord Jesus Christ, Whose coming is prophesied. As the Apostle Paul explains it in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "And being made perfect, He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him; called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedek" (5:9- 10).
This mysterious passage from Genesis and the prophetic allusion from Psalm 110 find their meaning only in the Epistle to the Hebrews because on Christ brings light to the faces of the Old Testament who foretell of Him in signs and in a veiled manner. (Cf. 2Cor. 3:11 to the end.)
Meanwhile, who is this Melchisedek? Why does he offer bread and wine and not an animal sacrifice as God prescribed it to the Levites? What relationship is there between the eternal high priesthood of Melchisedek and the priesthood according to the order of Aaron? How can the Apostle Paul say that he is "Without father, without mother, without descent . . . but made like unto the Son of God, he remains high priest forever" (Heb. 7:2-3)? What is the meaning of the benediction given to Abraham? Should not the King of Salem himself have received the blessing from Abraham, the Father of Israel and of a multitude of nations, with whom God made His Covenant? "Of whom (Melchisedek)", the Apostle Paul forewarns us, "we have many things to say and hard to be uttered . . . " (Heb.5:10-11).
The contemporary exegetists do not concern themselves with such questions. For them, it would only be about "an obscure text introduced late in the Pentatuch, (dating back to or showing he has reascending) Davidic royalty" (Dictionnaire de Spiritualite, art. Melchisedek, col. 967-969), serving to justify the introduction in Israel of the royal institution. This, notwithstanding its novelty and the remonstrance of the Prophet Samuel, would not be contrary to tradition since Abraham himself had received the blessing from the Canaanite priest-king. Nevertheless, the commentators doubt that Melchisedek had been . . . monotheistic! (cf. The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1968, p.19), because he worshipped the God Most High, "El-Elyon" in Hebrew, a name composed of divinities from the Phonecian pantheon. "What is remarkable is that the author allows Abraham to recognize the God of Melchisedek as his own . . . All of the text manifests an acceptance of the Canaanite religion which is the only one in the Bible." (A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London, Thomas Nelson and sons, 1961, p.14.)
Melchisedek thus appeared as the priest of a local pagan religion, holding the title God Most High (Theos Hypsistos) which the Septuagint uses and which, it is said, "is usual for the Supreme God of the pagan Greek religion since the time of Pindar and the Tragedies". (La Bible d'Alexandrie,I,La Genese, introduction et notes de M. Harl, note 15, p.160, Le Cerf, Paris, 1986.)
Let us leave the question of how such interpretations can agree with the prophetic words of King David: "Your are a High Priest forever after the order of Melchisedek" and the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews. Let us simply say that it is with other eyes - the eyes of an intelligence renewed by the Spirit - that the Fathers of the Church have read and commented on the Scriptures. Thus, for St. Dionysios the Areopagite, the same text of the Bible shows that Melchisedek was not an idol worshiper, contrary to the theories of pagan exegetists, ancient and modern: "It is necessary to realize that Melchisedek, the great friend of God, was not made high priest of vain idols, but of the True and Most High God. Because those who know the Divine mysteries did not simply call Melchisedek friend of God, but also priest, in order to clearly manifest to the wise that he does not at all only convert himself to true God, but further, as high priest, he pushes other men also to elevate themselves towards the true and unique Thearchy" (St. Denys L'Areopagite, La Hierarchie Celeste, 9,3, trad. M. de Gandillac, coll. Sources Chretiennes, Ed. du Cerf, Paris 1970, pp.135-137.)
According to the
all the Apostles and Doctors of the Faith, the image of Melchisedek was
realized in the Lord Jesus Christ, and not in another Prophet: "The
themselves," says St. Justin, "well indicate that the psalm refers to
our Jesus", ("Dialogue avec Tryphon", 30, in "La
Philosophie Passe au Christ", P.170), because He alone is `without
geneology', offered His own Body and His own Blood, thus becoming the
great-Priest for the Jews as well as for the Nations, not according to
imperfect priesthood and for the expiation of its sins, but as
Priest, having appeared at the end of the ages "to abolish sin by His
sacrifice" (Heb. 9:26).
The priests of Israel sacrificed to God the irrelevant blood of animals, but Melchisedek brings bread and wine. He thus shows the imperfection of the Law and prefigures the sacrifice of the Cross where the Lord Jesus offered Himself in His Body and shed His Blood for our salvation, "because," says the Apostle, "it is impossible that the blood of bulls and he-goats take away sin" (Heb. 10:4).
For the Apostle and for the Fathers, such is the prophetic sense of the distinction that is found in the Old Testament between `the order of Aaron' and `the order of Melchisedek'. "You are High Priest forever according to the order of Melchisedek." In effect, the Apostle Paul explains, "on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness, for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God" (Heb. 7:17-19).
Commenting on this same verse in his "Homelie on Melchisedek", St. John Chrysostom says: "Melchisedek was righteous and the faithful image of Christ. Moved by a prophetic spirit, he discerned the oblation which must one day be offered for the Gentiles, and, in the example of the future Christ, he offered bread and wine as sacrifice to God. But, the Judaic synagogue, which honored God according to the order of Aaron, offered Him a sacrifice, not of bread and wine, but of bulls and lambs and glorified the Lord by bloody sacrifices. That is why God, addressing Himself to the One Who was to be born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, His Son, says to Him, `You are Priest forever according to the order of Melchisedek' and not according to the order of Aaron, who honors his God while offering Him bulls and heifers" (Op. cit., p.482-483). St. Ambrose draws the conclusion that the Christian worship is more ancient than that of the Law since it is Melchisedek, the image of Christ, who brings the bread and the wine, not Abraham (Cf "Dictionnaire de Spiritualite", col. 971. St. Ambrose, "De Sacramentis", IV, 8, 10-11; "De Mysteriis", 8, 44-45).
That the figure of Melchisedek is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Fathers all hold to the fact that He alone is truly `without genealogy': "The Son of God," says St. John Chrysostom, "is without father and without mother; without father as to His earthly genesis; without mother as to His heavenly genesis" ("Homelie sur Melchisedek", op. cit., p.479. Cf. also "Expication des Psaumes", Ps. CIX, ibid., p.332). If then the Scriptures say of Melchisedek that he was `without genealogy', it is not at all that in reality he did not have parents, "because", says St. John Chrysostom, "we maintain that Melchisedek is not only a man like us . . . but as Melchisedek was the type of Christ, Whose image he bore, in the same way was Jonas. The Scriptures had not spoken of his father, so that he might offer us a perfect image of the Saviour Who alone, in truth, has neither father nor genealogy" (Ibid., p.482). Likewise, in his homily on the Psalm of David, he says: "That which Melchisedek was in figure, Jesus Christ was in reality, and the name of Melchisedek was like the names of Jesus and of Christ, which long in advance announced and prefigured the mission of the Saviour. When we read that Melchisedek had neither beginning nor end of his life, it is not that in reality he had had neither beginning nor end, but because no trace is found of his genealogy. Jesus, on the contrary, had in truth no beginning of His days, nor end of His life. His existence had no time, no beginning, no end. One was the figure, the other the truth" (Id.,"Oeuvres Completes", t.IX, p.332).
In short, it is universal salvation in and by Christ which, according to the Apostle Paul and the Fathers, is prophetically announced by this passage of Genesis. Abraham gave one-tenth of all his wealth to the priest and King of Salem; but with him are all the Nations and Levi, of whom Abraham is the father, who will give tithe to the One of Whom Melchisedek is the image, our Lord Jesus Christ. (Levi, says the Apostle Paul `was still in the loins of his father'- Heb. 7:10).
In his "Homily on Melchisedek", Mar Jacob, Bishop of Sarugh, explains that if the King of Salem were living in the times of the Old Testament, he would see in the illumination of his heart, the mysteries of the New ("The True Vine", no.2, 1989, p.30-55 or cf. "La Lumiere du Thabor", no.24, 4th quarter 1989, p. 1-4). Melchisedek brought the bread and wine to Abraham, thus proclaiming in advance that all the Nations would be called to participate in the Body and Blood of the eternal Sacrificer, the Lord Jesus, of whom he is the image. The same interpretation is developed by St. Justin: ". . . just as Melchisedek, as Moses writes it, was priest of the Most High, just as he was priest of the uncircumscribed, just as he blessed Abraham to circumscribe those who bring the tithe; likewise God declares that He Who is called by the Holy Spirit `Priest Eternal' and also `Lord' would be the Priest of the uncircumscribed and that the circumscribed would turn to Him, that is to say that they would believe in Him and would ask His blessing; them also He will receive and bless" (ibid. 31 or cf. 19, p.154).
The teachings of the Apostles and Fathers who have received the Holy Spirit thus show us in the Holy Scriptures that which remains invisible to human wisdom: that everything comes from, returns to, and meets in our Lord Jesus Christ: "If you believe Moses", He says, "you will believe Me also because he wrote of Me" (John 5:46). Let us devote ourselves then to search the Scriptures with a pure heart, according to the divine commandment and ancient practice, so that we will also be able to show that in Jesus are fulfilled all the prophecies and that He is the Christ (Acts 18:28), to Whom is due all honor, glory and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Translated by Elaine Matsikis from "La Lumiere du Thabor", No. 25, pp. 5-11. Published in “Orthodox Light”, Volume 6, July-August, 1990, pp. 1 - 6.