A little while back, the Church of England's weekday lectionary spent some time in Hebrews 7 and Genesis 14. So it was, that I found myself trying to explain as simply as possible why the hard-to-pronounce character of Melchizedek is such good news to have in the Bible.
There is a lot more to be said about Melchizedek than this, but the aim here is to be clear and relatively brief. I offer it out in the hope it helps some folk.
The Old Testament is an incomplete book. It is essentially forward-looking, leaving lots of loose ends untied, leaving you consciously looking for the one it foretells. There are many strands to what the Old Testament leaves us hungering for, but increasingly we see those converging on the same individual. This is the one we call the "Messiah", or the "Christ", literally the "anointed one".
In particular, there were 3 great Spirit-endowed offices in Old Testament times - the office of prophet, of king and of priest. Each of these offices were shadows, anticipating the great Prophet, the great King and the great Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Take the prophets first.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
God spoke through many prophets in the Old Testament. But they were only anticipatory. One day, God would speak by sending his own Son to earth. There is no greater Prophet than the eternal Son, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Then take the king. God said this to King David through Nathan the prophet:
I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever. (2 Samuel 7:12-16)
So there is great attention paid to the descendants of David. The first Solomon was a great king, but his shoulders were not broad enough to carry that great promise. None of Solomon's descendants were as great as he was, so the Old Testament closes without us having found the king descended from David that we're all looking for.
Then Matthew chapter 1 opens the New Testament, with Jesus' family tree explicitly traced back to David. This is why it was so important that Joseph took Mary home as his wife, and was the one to give Jesus his name. At last, we have the king we have been waiting for and he's descended from David.
However the office of priest is not so straight forward. It is clear from the Old Testament that the office of priest was also incomplete.
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1-4)
So the writer of Hebrews will show in the rest of chapter 10 how the one sacrifice that Jesus offered is the perfect sacrifice for sin. He's been showing in chapters 8 and 9 that Jesus sacrifice of himself establishes the promised new covenant. But before we can get to Jesus' perfect sacrifice, and Jesus as our great high priest (Hebrews 8-10), we have to go through Hebrews 7. Because there is a problem.
Jesus had to be descended from David, which meant he had to come from the tribe of Judah. But to be an Old Testament priest, you had to be descended from Aaron, which meant you had to come from the tribe of Levi. But Jesus could not do both.
So the writer of Hebrews observes that Levitical priests are only one kind of priest you find in the Old Testament. There is a shadowy hint that there are other priests, not from the tribe of Levi. In chapter 7, he shows how Melchizedek exhibits all the characteristics you'd need for him to be a true priest. Furthermore, he appears on the stage without any family tree, and disappears as mysteriously later. He was human, so he had a family tree, but the Genesis account chooses to portray him in this disconnected way. Indeed, not only is Melchizedek a true priest, there are pointers in Genesis that he's actually greater than the Levitical priests who would come later.
All of that is developed much more fully in the careful argument of Hebrews 7. But the overall point is a simple one: It is not necessary for Jesus to be from the tribe of Levi to be a priest. He could instead be a priest of the order of Melchizedek. Indeed, the writer of Hebrews got this from the Old Testament itself; he quotes Psalm 110, one of few places where the Old Testament brings the offices of king and priest together:
The Lord says to my lord:
‘Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.’
The Lord will extend your mighty sceptre from Zion, saying,
‘Rule in the midst of your enemies!’
Your troops will be willing
on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy splendour,
your young men will come to you
like dew from the morning’s womb.
The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
‘You are a priest for ever,
in the order of Melchizedek.’
That is why Melchizedek is so wonderful. Without Hebrews 7, we couldn't have any of Hebrews 8-13. Without Melchizedek, we couldn't have the one figure who is the perfect Prophet, Priest and King, united in one person. Without Melchizedek, we couldn't have the gospel.