What’s a Melchizedek?
Bible Text: Hebrews 6:13–7:28 | Preacher: Rev. Alex Peterson | Series: Hebrews: God Is With Us Always | I remember 3-D movies changing. Today 3-D movies give you black plastic glasses with clear lenses. You see okay in them outside the movie, the movie is somewhat comprehensible without them, and you don’t look like as big a dork. But I’m old enough that when I was a kid, 3-D movies still required those blue-and-red paper glasses. The red and blue lens were the only things capable of turning the swirl of colors on-screen into an image your brain could process. Though you looked silly in them, those red-and-blue glasses were the only way to make sense of those older 3-D movies, which were gibberish without them.
Hebrews chapters 6 and 7 are a lot like those older blue-and-red 3-D glasses. Our red lens is Psalm 110, which is quoted elsewhere by Hebrews in these chapters. This Psalm was often seen as a messianic prophecy, and it says the Messiah will be a “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” So what’s a Melchizedek? That’s where we get the blue lens to our Biblical 3-D glasses, which is the Genesis 14 scripture quoted near the start of today’s reading. Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 are the only Old Testament scriptures where Melchizedek shows up. So Hebrews takes red lens of Psalm 110 and blue lens of Genesis 14, and together it uses them to give a 3-D image about what it means for Jesus to be a priest like Melchizedek.
But who is Melchizedek? As Hebrews says, we don’t get much backstory or context for this guy: Melchizedek just is there, more like a title or piece of scenery than an actual human. But his name is unusual. “Mel” comes from ancient Hebrew for “king,” while “zedek” is ancient Hebrew for “justice” and “righteousness”. And Salem, the last bit of his title, shares its root meaning with “shalom,” which is the Jewish word for peace that means not only “no war” but also the presence of justice and wholeness. Altogether, you could say his name means “Righteous & Just King of Peace.” While I don’t want to dive too much into its technical debates, Hebrews in chapters 6 and 7 wants to show how Jesus, as a high priest in the order of Melchizedek, is superior to the high priests of the order of Aaron then-presiding over Jerusalem’s Temple. All this talk of lineage, succession, oaths and sacrifices? They’re all links in Hebrews’ chain of logic that Jesus exceeds all Biblical figures who came before him, now including the Temple high priests.
The other odd yet important term in today’s scripture that needs unpacking is “high priest.” Is a high priest merely the boss one? In ancient Judaism, the high priest did indeed oversee the other priests in the Lord’s service. But administration was not his biggest job. What made the high priest special was that he alone was allowed once a year to enter the holiest of holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple where the ark of the covenant was kept. Whenever I think of the ark of the covenant, a disturbing image I saw as a child always leaps to mind first. A man dressed in golden, bejeweled robes and flanked by soldiers stretches a hand over the ark, while a woman in white and man in brown watch helplessly. And then all their faces melt off, because it’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Nazis who had stolen the ark were all judged unworthy by the Spirit they unleashed. Only Indy and his friend are spared, for they close their eyes before the untouchable holiness of God. While it’s fun cinema, it also shows the dread respect the Israelites held for the ark. The moral, ancestral, and ritual requirements set on the high priest were extreme… because he alone could enter the holiest of holiest of the Lord. And he could only do this once a year, on Yom Kippur or, in English, the Day of Atonement.
Do you know what atonement means? Atonement means at-one-ment. Literally, the word was created in the Middle Ages when monks smashed together at-one-ment to make a new word to describe what Jesus and other priestly figures do. But that is exactly what atonement means: you bring together what was torn apart. Because sin tears the people apart from God… once a year on the Day of Atonement the high priest could enter the holiest of holies to do at-one-ment and restore harmony between God and the people. And note that the high priest pleaded for forgiveness not only over people’s individual sins but the sins committed communally by the entire nation. Having this communal sin forgiven was a huge part of this job. And so we see the truest job of a high priest is to bring about at-one-ment between us and God, when our individual and collective sins tear us apart. So Hebrews 6 and 7 celebrate that not only is Jesus superior to all the priests of Jerusalem’s Temple… he is a high priest, one who brings about our at-one-ment with God… a high priest forever according to the order of the Righteous and Just King of Peace.
And today I need to dwell on Jesus’ title of high priest in the order of “Melchizedek of Salem” or, again translated, Jesus’ title of high priest in the order of “the Righteous and Just King of Peace.” In Biblical thought, righteousness and justice are not separate ideas. If you are holy, pure, and morally upright… then you ensure justice is done for the poor, the abused, and the marginalized. Ensuring everyone is treated fairly, mercifully, and kindly is part of being morally righteous in Biblical thinking. You cannot separate the justice and righteousness in the Bible: they are two translations of the same word. The Old Testament word for peace, shalom, is similar, and is also part of Melchizedek’s title.. Shalom peace means contentment, well-being, harmony, and justice across all levels of society. Shalom is peace, not because troublemakers are silenced but because there is nothing to be troubled about any more. It’s peace, not merely because laws are enforced but because justice is so even and widespread that none need disturb the tranquility. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. defined the Biblical shalom perfectly when he said: “True peace is not the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
Look at the life of Jesus, that high priest in the order of Melchizedek, “the Just and Righteous King of Peace.” Wherever Jesus went, the peace he brought meant the blind received sight, the woman about to be executed for adultery was spared, those who were to kill her learned true justice, outcast tax collectors found welcome, victims of the tax collectors’ abuse found restoration, the well-fed found grace to share, the hungry found food, and so on. Biblically speaking, peace is only gained when all is well for every single person. Biblical peace is not the absence of conflict or tension but the establishment of true justice and righteousness. And we see this in Jesus, who made at-one-ment wherever he went.
There’s a lot of chaos in our nation right now. I trust you all have seen the protests over the past week. If you have not watched the full video of George Floyd’s killing that sparked these demonstrations, please do so before passing judgment on him or the response to his death. It’s a video of a man on the ground with an officer’s knee to his neck, begging for his momma and crying that he cannot breathe. The knee does not move. Onlookers ask for the knee to ease up, appeal to the officers’ shared humanity, plead that he’s stopped moving so please stop, and weep when George Floyd dies. Even then the knee does not leave his neck. The man was detained over claims about a faked twenty-dollar bill. Twenty dollars saw a man killed. This pattern we have seen over and over. Ever since cell phone cameras could record good videos, we’ve regularly seen videos of people of color being killed over minor offenses or even no offense whatsoever.
At this point I’ve probably annoyed some people. Perhaps some want to talk about the criminal or personal histories of folks like George Floyd, Philando Castile, or others. Perhaps some want to talk about the tiny minority of people who use these demonstrations for justice as an opportunity to loot or, worse, do so to intentionally discredit civil rights advocates. But to me that’s complaining about symptoms while ignoring the cause. Because denying that there is a real grievance behind all this… or criticizing those who point it out… this is also a pattern in American history. When Martin Luther King Jr. in the 60s marched for civil rights, he was smeared as a provoker of riots, un-American, a communist. In the 50s, marches over Emmet Till’s lynching were also called inappropriate, and segregationists alleged his brutal murder was exaggerated or faked. In the 40s, red-lining excluded black veterans of WWII from enjoying the gains of peace, and their demands for fair treatment were pitilessly ignored. You can find examples from nearly any decade of black people being mistreated and then getting smeared when they complain about it. It’s why MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail weeps that white moderate pastors were the biggest obstacle to civil rights. Dr. King lamented that preachers like me have a nasty habit of agreeing on civil rights goals… but nitpick civil rights methods to the point that no justice gets done. Our nation—and I love this nation, which is why I want it to become better each day—has a history of people of color receiving unjust treatment… and we white folks denying that reality. Yet the chaos, the protesting, backlash, and everything… it’s like we go through this cycle over and over.
Do you ever wonder why this cycle has gone on for centuries? I suggest it is because we as a nation settle for “good enough”… when we should never stop trying to be that perfect city shining on a hill. We settle for “no open conflict” but let pain and injustice simmer under the surface until it boils over again in ten years… when instead we should be pursuing justice that negates not only the open conflict but the very root causes of the matter. We settle for the illusion of peace but not the reality of God’s shalom. We settle for the decorations of order but not the foundation of justice. We are a great nation, but we could become even better. But we settle… and not because we tried to be that city on a hill and found it wanting… but because we found the process hard and stopped trying. The marches we’ve seen the last week, the chaos, the fighting, the death of a man over twenty measly dollars… this cycle will repeat itself over and over as long as we settle for good enough. Today’s protests may slow down in a week or two. But the cycle of pain and protest will repeat endlessly until the root causes of this hellish pattern are fixed.
As a student of the Bible, this cycle saddens but does not surprise me. King Melchizedek of Salem reminds us, Biblically speaking, that peace does not last until it provides justice, well-being, righteousness, and harmony for all. Cycles like this only end when we stop settling for good enough and instead take on the work of striving together as a nation to become even better, to truly become that city on a hill. For those upset that I am criticizing the nation I love so much, I would point out ancient Israel’s high priests loved their nation too… so they confessed their nation’s sins to the Lord every year, admitting that they as individuals and as a community should be better. We love this congregation, which is why we confess our sins each Sunday, why we admit that both individually and communally we are not as holy, just, or righteous as we ought to be. It is not unpatriotic to point out communal sins: it’s what priests and prophets have done since Moses, in hopes that the nation can find atonement, can be at-one with God and itself. The sins of racism, prejudice, and injustice are not the vices of a few monsters we can push aside. They are cyclical evils that have haunted our nation for generations, wounds that requires both individual and community-wide therapy. We cannot pat ourselves on the back for not belonging to the Klan and call that good enough. Sometimes sins go beyond any one individual. That’s why Israel had high priests: to deal with communal sins, to make atonement for evils that emerge not from any one person but from the system itself in which everyone lives. If we want our nation to truly heal, then both as individuals and collectively we must seek atonement, at-one-ment… and atonement requires confession and repentance. It is hard, yes. But atonement is how you get a peace of justice and righteousness, which is the only real lasting peace according to the Bible.
We need atonement, yes. But all is not bleak. Because we do indeed have a high priest who can bring us that at-one-ment, just as the high priests of Israel did long ago. We have a high priest of the order of the Just & Righteous King of Peace. That high priest’s name is Jesus. And Hebrews says, “Consequently, Jesus is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to plead their case on their behalf.” Christ has assured us victory in the war against sin and death. But today’s battle against the power of evil is still ongoing. But it’s not a battle won with swords. Christ’s gospel kingdom does not grow via conquest. And you and I cannot control other people: we can only control our own actions and responses. What we can do is to remember that Biblical vision of peace—not just order but justice, not just calm but flourish—that repenting of sins is something every Christian must do (both for individual sins and group sins), and that our goal is not to defeat other people… but to be at-one with them, just as Jesus our high priest atones, at-ones, for us with God. In Christ, Amen.