The Gospel According to Melchizedek

Bread and Wine is Enough

Chris Wachter / 3.15.23

Tucked deep away in the dark corners of the early patristic narratives of the Old Testament, amidst the stricken battlefields of Genesis 14, lies the story of an unsuspecting priest-king named Melchizedek [Mel-KIZ-uh-dek]. He appears out of nowhere, brings bread and wine to the survivors, receives a gift from Abraham, blesses him, then — poof! — he disappears, never to appear in the Bible again. At least narratively. (There’s a reason why he often gets likened to Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings “lore”: his identity is shrouded in mystery, he seems to possess ultimate supremacy, and yet takes up such little space in the story.)

But according to the New Testament book of Hebrews, the way this interaction between Abraham and Melchizedek takes place has deep theological significance for our lives, even going so far as to say that not understanding it might contribute to spiritual malnourishment, apathy, and too much trust in the self.

It says, “Without a doubt, the lesser [Abraham] is blessed by the greater [Melchizedek]…one might even say that Levi himself paid tithes through Abraham for he was still in the body of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him” (Heb 7:7-10). In other words, it was Levi (one of Abraham’s great-grandsons) who bent the knee and paid tithes to Melchizedek because Levi was “in” Abraham at the time. So, to do the math: Levi was lesser than Melchizedek. This is important because of what Levi would come to represent, namely, the Levitical priesthood and the old laws and commandments that mediated God and Israel in Old Testament times. (Moses was a descendant of Levi.)

Centuries later, David wrote Psalm 110 and said, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The New Testament authors later understood this to be a prophetic anticipation of Jesus who would come in the future to serve after the order of Melchizedek, a priest-king, and not after the order of Levi. Incidentally, David also had priestly characteristics as a king — a deviation from the Old Testament pattern, as kings and priests did not overlap. But David broke from the old rules and, like Melchizedek, pointed to a new way.

This is deep theology. You’re not alone if you’re a little confused. But the implications here are massive and worth our time thinking over. At least understand this: Jesus didn’t descend from Levi. He came from the tribe of Judah, and “in connection with that tribe, Moses said nothing about priests” (Heb 7:14). “So what?” you might still be thinking? Well, “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well” (Heb 7:12). That’s quite the seismic shift. When you change the priesthood, which Jesus did, you change the laws that accompany that priesthood (and testament) as well. They can’t be separated.

There are two testaments in play here: an old one associated with Levi, Moses, and the Law, and a new one associated with Melchizedek, Judah, and Jesus. And with this latter covenant, there is no law — in the sense that the old covenant laws that “failed to [reconcile us with God] have been set aside” (Heb 7:18). And now a better hope is introduced, one built on God’s saving grace and the power of Jesus’s resurrection alone.

Put differently, Jesus didn’t come to extend the moral laws of the Old Testament into the New Testament era, but rather to change them. Like Melchizedek brought out bread and wine, so does the new covenant or “new law” revolve around the sacrament of communion alone, and what it represents. And when Jesus establishes the New Testament at the last supper, what’s on the table is just as important as what’s off the table. What’s on the table? Jesus’s body and blood alone and an invitation to come without money and eat. What’s not on it? Moral expectations, conditional to-do lists, personal trophy cases, or the stone-cold tablets of the law of Moses.

The problem is that we often live as though Jesus descended from Levi, that is, that he came to polish up or “blend” himself with the law, to reaffirm its authority over our lives, and obligate us to keep it in order to stay in covenant with God. But, Hebrews invites us to draw a line from Melchizedek to David to Jesus, a line that never intersects with Levi and the old law. It invites us to see how Jesus replaces the law with himself, the one who — like Melchizedek — shows up on the battlefield of our lives by grace, unannounced, out of nowhere, to bless us, feed us with the bread of his body, and wash us with the wine of his blood forever.

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One response to “The Gospel According to Melchizedek”

  1. John says:

    David said he loved the law. Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Yes, we cannot keep the law perfectly yet we should acknowledge the law is actually for our good. Please stop presenting the law primarily as something we cannot and do not need to keep. Instead, it is the perfect and wise direction of our loving Father. Yes we will fail, yes there is grace and forgiveness when we do, but like David we should delight in the law.

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