About a month ago, my mother sent me a question from one of her co-workers. The question was: “Who was Melchizedek? Was he a type of Christ or considered to be the Christ?” That is a great question, but it requires some background to answer.
When most people think of the word “type,” they think of it as a word that describes the various kinds of something else. For example, they might say, “andouille is a type of sausage,” or “Vidalia is a type of onion.” Generally speaking, we use “type” and “kind” interchangeably. Speaking in terms of theology, this is not the case. When speaking about Holy Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament, a “type” is a person or an event which foreshadows or prefigures some aspect of the life or ministry of Jesus Christ. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples in the Old Testament. The example of Jonah is probably one of the best because Our Lord mentioned it Himself.
Some Pharisees approached Jesus and demanded that He perform a sign. To this demand, Our Lord replied, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (St. Luke 11:39-40) Our Lord makes the comparison quite clear. Jonah foreshadowed Jesus in that Jonah was held captive in the belly of the great fish just as Jesus was in the tomb for three days. All the more interesting is the fact that, in the Book of the Prophet Jonah, from the belly of the great fish itself, Jonah prays to the Lord saying,
“I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction,
And He answered me.
Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
And You heard my voice.” (2:2)
“Sheol” is the Hebrew name for the place of the dead. One reading suggests that Jonah was dead for three days. (For a more thorough treatment of Sheol, click HERE.)
It is incredibly tempting to begin explaining some truly remarkable examples of types in the Old Testament. Their meanings add such depth to Holy Scripture and bring such richness to the interpretations. Nevertheless, let us now turn our attention to Melchizedek. This mysterious figure appears in two Old Testament passages; the first is Genesis 14 and the second is Psalm 110. In the first passage, we find:
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he [Melchizedek] blessed him [Abram] and said:
“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
And he [Abram] gave him [Melchizedek] a tithe of all. (vv. 18-20)
For all of its three verses, this passage is tremendously full of meaning. First off, Melchizedek’s names means “My King is Righteous” or “King of Righteousness.” He is both the King of Salem, and earlier title forJerusalem, and a priest to God Most High. While we call the citySalem, the Jews would have called it something that sounds more like “Shalom,” meaning “Peace.” Since then, Jesus has been referred as both the King of Righteousness and the Prince (or King) of Peace. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly refers to Psalm 110, which states,
The LORD has sworn
And will not relent,
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.” (v. 4)
St. Peter used this Psalm in his Pentecost speech as Psalm which prophesied about the coming Messiah. Verse 1 states, “The Lord said to my Lord…” Clearly, the “You” in verse 4 likewise refers to Jesus Christ. (See Acts 2:29-36) Thus, while not of Levitical descent (being of the Tribe of Judah), Jesus was able to serve as our Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14) because He was a priest in the same manner (“according to the order of”) as Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High. Finally, no sacramentalist could ever read Genesis 14 without noticing that Melchizedek brought out “bread and wine.” Now wine and bread were common in all sorts of religious observances, but if we are talking about a King of Righteousness and Prince of Peace who is both King and Priest, who also happens to bring out the same elements Our Lord referred to as His Body and His Blood at the Last Supper (St. Luke 22:19-20), we can by no means dismiss the similarities.
So, yes, Melchizedek is a type of Christ in that he very much prefigures the coming of the Messiah who is both Priest and King and who offers Bread and Wine for us. While this means that Melchizedek is a type of Christ, it does not mean that Melchizedek was Jesus. We believe that the Incarnation was a unique event. Jesus did not walk the earth as a man prior to His conception by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. There may have been many types, even Angelic apparitions (see Genesis 18:1-10), but the Word did not “become flesh” until the Incarnation. Thus, yes, Melchizedek is a type of Christ, but, no, he is not Jesus Himself.