Looking for a Priest Like Melchizedek (Psalm 110)

During Advent, we anticipate and celebrate Christ’s coming. But what does it mean that Jesus is the “Christ”? Last time, we learned that “Christ” and “Messiah” are synonyms that mean “Anointed One.” In the Old Testament, three offices required ceremonial anointing: prophet, priest, and king. By studying Deuteronomy 18:15, we joined God’s Old Testament people in looking for a prophet like Moses and learned that Jesus met all the criteria. Jesus represents the Father, declares his word, and calls us to repentance.

Let’s turn to Psalm 110 and look at another aspect of Christ as the Anointed One:

1 The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
The Lord shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.
Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.
The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent [change his mind (ESV)], Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.
The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath.
He shall judge among the heathen [nations (ESV)], he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads [rulers (NIV)] over many countries.
He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.

Christ the Son of God (v.1)

Verse 1 is curious. We know that there is only one Lord, yet David says that the Lord spoke to my Lord. If we replace “Lord” with God in verse 1, it would essentially read, “God said to God, sit at my right hand….”

Jesus quotes this verse in Mark 12:35-37:

While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, ‘Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: “The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?

When David penned Psalm 110 “by the Holy Spirit,” David recognized that the Messiah would not only be his son (or “descendent”), but also the Son of God. The only way that Psalm 110:1 harmonizes with the rest of Scripture is if we understand that there are at least two Persons in the one true and living God: God the Father and God the Son, and that these two are equal in power and glory, since David calls both of them Lord. (Of course, we know from the rest of Scripture that there are three Persons in the one true and living God, which is the Trinity.)

We could spend months exploring the implications of verse 1; after all, Jesus himself used it to defend his Deity. But although it is important, we must ask if it is the main thing that the Psalm is trying to tell us about the Messiah.

Chiastic Structure (v.1, 7; 2, 6; 3, 5; 4)

In verse 1, a king is enthroned: the Lord asks the Messiah to sit at his right hand, until his enemies are overthrown. Some commentators think that this is the same idea communicated in verse 7: “He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.” Since water is often used a symbol of affliction, some think that “drinking of the brook” refers to a period of suffering and“lifting up the head” refers to being exalted afterwards. This would certainly be true of Jesus: “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow.” He humbled himself in suffering, therefore he was exalted. If this is true, then verses 1 and 7 are closely connected. But since the imagery is in question, let’s look at verse 2.

In verse 2, Messiah will come with a “rod of thy strength” to “rule” his enemies. Is there anywhere else in the Psalm that this idea is communicated?  Look at verse 6: “He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries.” It is quite clear that verses 2 and 6 are communicating the same idea: Messiah will come to conquer his enemies.

Look at verse 3. This verse describes the reaction of Messiah’s people to “the day of thy power.” Is there anywhere else in the Psalm that this idea is communicated? Do you see it? Verse 5 says, The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath” (emphasis added). It is unmistakably clear that verses 3 and 5 are parallel verses.

So, what does all of this tell us?

If you learned how to write a five-paragraph essay in school, you may have been told to put your thesis sentence in the first paragraph. In English literary structure, highlighted ideas are usually at the beginning. But this is not often the case in Hebrew literary structure. What we have in Psalm 110 is a clear case of chiastic structure, where highlighted ideas go at the center. David signals that verse 4 is of great importance by surrounding it with sets of parallel ideas and phrases. God’s oath to the Messiah is of the greatest importance to David: “The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent [change his mind (ESV)], Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”

Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20)

Melchizedek is only mentioned one other time in the Old Testament, in Genesis 14:17-20.

17 And the king of Sodom went out to meet him after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer, and of the kings that were with him, at the valley of Shaveh, which is the king’s dale.
18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.
19 And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth:
20 And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.

While this may not seem like much to go on, Psalm 110 is clear that the Messiah will be like the mysterious priest-king Melchizedek. Some have suggested that Melchizedek was actually Jesus, showing up before his incarnation; however, it is safer to view Melchizedek as a type of Christ. A “type” is when God uses a person or a place as a symbol or example of what is coming in the future.

So, what was Melchizedek like? 

  • First, the priesthood of Melchizedek was universal. He was not just the priest of one nation. Melchizedek served Abraham, the king of Sodom, and the kings that were with him; they all recognized Melchizedek as a priest of the one true and living God.
  • Second, Melchizedek was a royal priest. He was both the priest of the Most High God and also the king of Salem. Melchizedek was a priest-king; he held two anointed offices.
  • Third, he was the prince of peace. Salem means “peace” and Melchizedek was the king or prince of peace.
  • Fourth, he was the king of righteousness. His name—“Melchizedek”—means “king of righteousness.”
  • Fifth, he was superior to Abraham. Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek and was blessed by Melchizedek. The one who blesses is always superior to the one who is blessed. This alone should startle us. Abraham was the one man chosen out of all the earth to receive the great promises of God. He is the father of all the faithful, and yet he recognized that he was inferior to Melchizedek.
  • Finally, he was superior to the Levitical priests. When God established the Levites as priests in Israel, he commanded the people to pay tithes to them. But remember—the Levites were descendants of Abraham, and rather than receive tithes, Abraham paid tithes to yet another. He recognized there was one even more worthy to receive tithes than he or his descendants.

We should also consider at least two things that the text does not say. First, the text does not give a genealogy of Melchizedek. We do not have a record of his mother or father. And finally, the text does not record the death of Melchizedek; therefore, there is no record of his priesthood ever coming to an end.

Based on David’s words in Psalm 110, “The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek,” we should expect the Messiah to resemble Melchizedek in at least some of these ways.

It’s no coincidence that Zechariah 6:3 identifies the Messiah as a priest-king who brings peace: “he…shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.” And you probably picked up on the connection to Isaiah 9:6, which confirms that “his name shall be called…The Prince of Peace.” But even so, some of the connections are a bit hazy. For old covenant people like David, looking for a priest like Melchizedek was like living in the shadows. They needed a bright light to shine.

Jesus and Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-8:7)

Thankfully, the New Testament provides radiant clarity. The author of Hebrews, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, confirms what one might have suspected after listening to the Old Testament prophets, and explains why it is so vitally important for you and I to understand.

Let’s read Hebrews 7.

1 For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him;
To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all [Tithe means “tenth”]; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace;
Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto [resembling (ESV)] the Son of God; abideth a priest continually. [Melchizedek had a mother and father, but they were never recorded in a genealogy; and there is no record of the death of Melchizedek, although he most certainly died. The point is this: there is no record of the beginning or end of Melchizedek’s priesthood; Christ is the greater Melchizedek in that his priesthood literally has no beginning or end—he is an eternal priest.]
Now consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils.
And verily they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood, have a commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law, that is, of their brethren, though they come out of the loins of Abraham:
But he [Melchizedek] whose descent is not counted from them [traced from Levi] received tithes of Abraham and blessed him that had the promises.
And without all contradiction the less is blessed of the better.
And here men that die receive tithes; but there he receiveth them, of whom it is witnessed that he liveth. [The Levites received tithes, then died, until their priesthood passed away completely. But there is no record of Melchizedek’s death.]
And as I may so say, Levi also, who receiveth tithes, payed tithes in Abraham.
10 For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedec met him. [From a Jewish perspective of headship, the Levites paid tithe to Melchizedek through their forefather Abraham.]
11 If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron?

The Levitical priesthood was not a perfect priesthood; it did not offer a complete and permanent solution for sin, nor provide full reconciliation with God. Therefore, a better priest needed to arise. This is key. The priesthood that God’s Old Testament people were familiar with was the Levitical priesthood. By introducing the superior priesthood of Melchizedek first, God was teaching his people that the Old Testament priests and their sacrifices were not a permanent solution for sin. Instead, the Levitical priesthood was to be a constant reminder of the need for a better priest. Faithful Israelites like David were looking for a priest like Melchizedek.

Let’s continue reading in verse 15:

15 And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude [likeness] of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest,
16 Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.
17 For he [David] testifieth [in Psalm 110:4], Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.

In verses 18-19, Hebrews states that the law, which established the Levitical priesthood, has been set aside because it was weak and useless. The law made nothing perfect, so Jesus—a better hope—was brought in, making it possible to draw near to God. Jesus was appointed as a priest by an “oath” made by God—the oath recorded in Psalm 110:4!

20 And inasmuch as not without an oath he was made priest:
21 (For those priests [Levites] were made without an oath; but this [Jesus] with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec:)
22 By so much was Jesus made a surety [guarantee] of a better testament.
23 And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: [there were many Levitical priests, because each one died and was replaced]
24 But this man [Jesus], because he continueth [lives for] ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood.
25 Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.
26 For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens;
27 Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself.
28 For the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore.

  • Like Melchizedek, Jesus is superior to the Levitical priests.
  • Like Melchizedek, Jesus is superior to Abraham. In John 8:48-59, the Jews ask Jesus, “‘Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? … Jesus answered, ‘…Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.’ So the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”
  • Like Melchizedek, Jesus is a royal priest. He is both the great high priest who sits at the right hand of God the Father, and also the king who destroys our enemies—sin, Satan, and death.
  • Like Melchizedek, Jesus brings peace and righteousness—peace with God and true holiness through the removal of sin by his blood.
  • And so on.

The Uttermost Salvation Provided by Christ’s Priesthood

As a priest in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus meets all of our needs. Hebrews 8-10 explores in great detail how Jesus is a great high priest. (I’d encourage you to read these chapters later this evening or in the morning for your devotions.) But there is one verse in Hebrews 7 that summarizes what Christ’s priesthood provides. Just a moment ago, I read verse 25 in the King James Version: “Wherefore”—because he is a priest in the order of Melchizedek—“he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” 

In his book The Deep Things of God, Fred Sanders quotes this verse in the King James Version, then explains:

It was that particular combination of words that stuck in the minds of English-speaking evangelicals and became a motto for embracing the full scope of the gospel. Two of evangelicalism’s greatest preaches, John Wesley (1703-1791) and C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), were drawn to these words repeatedly. Wesley cited them often, and in his Notes on the New Testament explained the “uttermost” of Hebrews 7:25 as “all the guilt, power, root, and consequence of sin.” Wesley preached a version of full salvation that struck many as outrageously optimistic about how far salvation could go in personal transformation. Defending the message of the early Methodists, Wesley wrote that ‘what most surprised us, was, that we were said to ‘dishonour Christ,’ by asserting that he ‘saveth to the uttermost;’ by maintaining he will reign in our hearts alone, and subdue all things to himself.’ … Wesley, with a vision of perfect holiness, pictured ‘the uttermost’ as entire sanctification.

Sanders explains how Spurgeon elaborated on the text differently based on his theological convictions, but draws the attention back to “the challenge that, with one united voice, they present to any age that diminishes the gospel.” He continues:

The fact that Spurgeon had a Calvinist uttermost and Wesley had a holiness uttermost is insignificant compared to the more basic fact that both of them had big thoughts about the gospel and pushed hard to communicate them. They perceived the scope of salvation and struggled to frame thoughts big enough to accommodate it. Neither of them could be reproached with “your gospel is too small.”

Hebrews 7 looks back to Psalm 110 and further back to Genesis 14, and sees something that is foundational to the monumental teaching that we can be saved to the uttermost. At the heart of the gospel is a Priest after the order of Melchizedek, who offered himself as a perfect, one-time sacrifice for sins, then ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father and intercede for us, so that whoever plunges in to the fountain of his blood can be made perfectly whole.

Jesus Christ; Jesus the Anointed One; Jesus the Anointed Priest. He is the great High Priest above all priests, and his gospel is the great gospel above all gospels. 

“A gospel that is only about the moment of conversion but does not extend to every moment of life in Christ is to small. A gospel that gets your sins forgiven but offers no power for transformation is too small. A gospel that isolates one of the benefits of union with Christ and ignores the others is too small. A gospel that must be measured by your own moral conduct, social conscience, or religious experience is too small. A gospel that rearranges the components of your life but does not put you personally in the presence of God is too small.” (Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God)