Before the angel of the Lord appears to Hagar in Genesis 16, Abram encounters a curious king and priest named Melchizedek. He appears suddenly in the wake of Abram’s victory over King Chedorlaomer and his allies. We read about his brief visit to Abram in Genesis 14:17-24.
Melchizedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem) and a priest of God Most High, presents bread and wine to Abram and his battle-weary men. He further bestows a blessing on Abram in the name of El Elyon, God Most High, and praises God for granting Abram victory. In response, Abram offers Melchizedek a tithe of all the items he has won in battle, an act that acknowledges the priest as one who ranks higher spiritually than Abram.
All of which begs the question: Is the story of Melchizedek the first recorded appearance of the angel of the Lord? Put another way, is Melchizedek the preincarnate Christ?
While he could be, it seems more biblically faithful to see Melchizedek as a type, or prophetic preview, of Christ rather than as Jesus himself prior to the Incarnation. While we take the position that Jesus comes to Abram as the angel of the Lord in Genesis 17, 18, and 22, the preincarnate Christ does not materialize as an earthly priest or king in Genesis, or anywhere else in the Old Testament.
Even so, we should address key Scriptures that draw close parallels between Melchizedek and Jesus:
Psalm 110:4 – “The LORD has sworn an oath and will not take it back: ‘You are a priest forever according to the pattern of Melchizedek.’” This messianic psalm of David presents Melchizedek as a type of Christ, showing a clear distinction between the two. In this text, Yahweh addresses David’s Lord (Jesus) in the second person, while the reference to Melchizedek is in the third person. Note how Jesus applies this psalm to himself, silencing the Pharisees with his claim to be Messiah (Matt. 22:41-46).
Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 17 – Christ is a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek.” The Greek word taxis (order) suggests an arrangement, an ordering. Just as Melchizedek is simultaneously a king and a priest, so Christ is as well. Even though the writer of Hebrews makes no mention of priests between the time of Melchizedek and the time of Jesus, that doesn’t mean they are the same person. A comparison is being drawn, not a duplication.
Hebrews 7:3 – About Melchizedek, the writer of Hebrews notes, “Without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” If one takes this literally, it can apply to no one other than Christ. No earthly king is eternal. No priest remains forever. And no human being is without father or mother.
But in the context of Hebrews 7, this verse is better understood as an analogy.
Melchizedek and Christ are depicted as kings of righteousness and peace. The writer of Hebrews cites Melchizedek and his unique priesthood to show that Christ’s new priesthood is superior to the old Levitical order, as well as to Aaron’s priesthood. Melchizedek is a priest prior to the establishment of the Mosaic Law, so no precedent may be cited for it. In a similar way, Christ’s superior priesthood is without precedent.
Melchizedek is “without father, without mother” (Heb. 7:3). This means his role is not derived through genealogy, as with the Levitical priests; it is God-ordained. So it is with Jesus, whose priesthood is not determined by physical lineage – he is from the tribe of Judah, not Levi.
Further, Melchizedek’s administration is without “beginning of days” or “end of life” (Heb. 7:3). This means the priesthood is not for a fixed term as is the case for Levitical priests, who begin service at age thirty and end service at age fifty (cf. Num. 4:3ff). Since Melchizedek’s priesthood comes before the Levitical priesthood, evidently there is no chronological limitation to his term of service. This foreshadows Christ’s high priestly role, which has no term limit.
Melchizedek resembles the Son of God (Heb. 7:3). This is a comparison. This term has no meaning if Melchizedek and Jesus are the same person. As The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes:
The verb aphomoioo [resembling] always assumed two distinct and separate identities, one of which is a copy of the other. Thus Melchizedek and the Son of God are represented as two separate persons, the first of which resembled the second.
The reference to Melchizedek as “without … genealogy” (v. 3) is telling. James Montgomery Boice comments:
A genealogy is a record of ancestors and descendants; so the author is saying that Melchizedek has no such record, not that he had no ancestors or descendants. In this sense, Melchizedek is a type of Christ. Only Christ truly has no beginning or end, so he is the perfect, all-sufficient priest, ‘able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them’ (Heb. 7:25).”
There’s one final consideration: While the text says Melchizedek is a priest of El Elyon, this is not necessarily a reference to the one true God. El Elyon is a Canaanite deity whose identity is curiously merged with Abram’s God in this passage. Melchizedek blesses Abram by El Elyon and identifies him as maker of heaven and earth (Gen. 14:19). Then, the priest blesses El Elyon for delivering Abram’s enemies into his hand (Gen. 14:20). Abram, in turn, offers tithes to Melchizedek. Further, Abram refuses to accept any spoils of war from the king of Sodom, explaining that he has sworn to El Elyon, maker of heaven and earth, to take nothing.
This is truly remarkable. Melchizedek seems to be worshiping the true God under the name of a Canaanite deity. As Gerald McDermott explains:
This is not to suggest that Melchizedek’s beliefs about God were the same as Abram’s, and it certainly does not imply that all Canaanite beliefs about El Elyon were accurate. But the text does seem to imply that Melchizedek had some sort of knowledge of the God who manifested himself as the Holy One of Israel. It means that true knowledge of God came to Melchizedek apart from revelation given through the Abrahamic lineage.
Why does this matter? Two reasons. First, if Melchizedek is, in fact, the preincarnate Christ, he would not worship God Most High because he is God Most High. Second, if Melchizedek is Jesus prior to the Incarnation, he would not permit Canaanite false teachings about El Elyon to go unchallenged. It seems the true God has revealed himself in some way to the Canaanites, while delivering more detailed truth about himself to his chosen covenant partner, Abram.
In summary, while Melchizedek is a fascinating and mysterious figure, in Scripture he does not rise to the level of the angel of the Lord, that is, the preincarnate Christ. Rather, he is an important king and priest who foreshadows the King of kings and our great high priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Next: The Angel of the Lord at the Burning Bush
This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.