The Bible, as we know, is full of all sorts of weird and wonderful characters. There are those that are more well-known, like Jonah, who was famously swallowed by a big fish, or the giant Goliath, slain on the battlefield by the young David; and there are those that are more obscure, and therefore, perhaps more tantalising – Balaam, the prophet, who had a talking donkey, or the wicked Simon the Sorcerer encountered in the book of Acts, who, according to apocryphal sources, was a powerful wizard, with the ability to fly.
One of the more mysterious characters, though, was mentioned in our New Testament reading this evening – Melchizedek, the King of Salem. Our reading from the book of Hebrews goes some length in explaining why he’s seen as so mysterious. It brings together the only two references to him in the Old Testament – a passage in the book of Genesis, where he met the patriarch Abram, and in Psalm 110, which talks about the order of the priesthood of Melchizedek, and we find ourselves questioning why the writer of Hebrews is going on about this obscure man in this way? What point is the writer trying to make?
It’s sometimes thought that the book of Hebrews is a sermon, rather than a letter. And, as with most sermons, the answer to our question is probably 'Jesus'. The writer of Hebrews is trying to explain something about Jesus Christ by referring back to Melchizedek. As such, it probably makes sense for us to try to find out a little bit more about this mysterious king Melchizedek, in the hope it will also tell us something about Christ too.
|A Russian icon of Melchizedek|
First up, we know from the book of Genesis that Melchizedek was a king – king of Salem; Jerusalem. This king inhabits Abraham’s Promised Land even before it is promised to him. He’s not Abram’s enemy, though, from whom the land must be taken; we see that Melchizedek actually blesses Abram, showing his religious superiority, gives him bread and wine, and that Abram actually pays him a tithe or a tribute of the spoils of his recent war. Melchizedek, then, is not just a king, he’s a priest. The priest. The first priest of God, from before the Jewish priesthood had ever been established. Jewish priests are all descended from the tribe of Levi, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. The Jewish priesthood would not be established until three generations after this meeting between Melchizedek and Abram. So, Melchizedek is the first king of the Promised Land, and the first priest, of a higher order than that which would later be established under the Levites.
Unusually with important figures in the Bible, we know nothing about Melchizedek’s birth or his death. We are not told his age when we meet him, or how old he was when he died – or even that he died. We are neither told of his parents or his offspring. In the Bible, he stands alone – a priest-king, with no beginning, and no ending, with no forefathers and no descendants. Over time, legend grew that he was himself immortal – a priest forever; an angel, perhaps, or an incarnation of God.
This legend was fuelled by his name. Some believed ‘Melchizedek’ to not, in fact, be a name, but a title instead. It literally translates as King of Righteousness. And Salem, the city of his kingdom, means Peace. Melchizedek, King of Salem means King of Righteousness, King of Peace.
I think we’re starting to see the parallels that the writer of Hebrews is trying to draw. Christ, he says, is a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. That makes him a priest, the priest, greater than all religious teachers before or since. It also makes him a king, greater than Abraham, the father of nations (and therefore greater than us all). It makes him the King of Righteousness, King of Peace, of whose kingdom, there will be no end. The writer of Hebrews places a metaphorical full-stop here. There is none greater. There has been none greater. There will be none greater. This Christ is the one to seek after, the one to follow, now, and always.
And the same is still true today. There is none greater. Our reading may not seem like it fits in this season of Epiphany, but it is well-chosen, for Epiphany is about discovering Christ, and whether we join wise-men in following a star to the hidden wonder of a stable and a baby and an incarnation, or read the scriptures to discover a priest-king has been pointing the way since the very beginnings of the Bible, from Melchior to Melchizedek, we too, are called to marvel and search, and find out for ourselves.
Many Christians agree that Melchizedek is a proto-Christ; a type of Christ, pointing the way towards the saviour. What many Christians forget, however, is just as he was a type of Christ, so are we. The word Christian means 'Little Christ'. We are all Melchizedek, leaders of righteousness and leaders of peace.
And so, once we ourselves have found Christ, Epiphany does not, cannot stop there, for, having found him, like that star-of-wonder, like the writer of Hebrews, we too must help show the way, must help others to reach their own epiphany, leading others in righteousness and peace to the throne of our king, to the altar of our great high priest.
So this is our Epiphany challenge; to be the angels proclaiming good news in the fields. To be the star leading seekers of wisdom to a brighter light. To be Melchizedek.