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Melchizedek – man of mystery

January 16, 2017

Hebrew 5: 1-10                                 16 January 2017

I was talking last night to someone who is a Moslem, wanting to convert to Christianity, and last night I was talking to him about baptism. One of the things that came up in our conversation, the way it went, was that I found myself saying to him that the important thing is that we have, in Jesus Christ, God and man. If God is all-powerful, almighty and timeless, and everywhere, and all these wonderful things which are beyond our understanding, how much comfort we get from the fact that God has also become a man in Jesus Christ, because that means that Jesus has experienced the things we experience. Jesus is God. Is God frightened of anything? No. He is all-powerful – there is no need to be frightened. Jesus, as a man, was doubtless frightened. We know on the night before he was cruelly executed that he was terrified and frightened. Yet He offered Himself for us as that ultimate sacrifice. God, offering Himself, with human emotions. This is mind shattering, but tremendously reassuring, because as we heard this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews (echoed in Marks’s Gospel), that we have a Great High Priest who knows what it is like to be where we are.

In the first reading and in the psalm today that message kept coming through: ‘You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchizedek of old.’ This was a prophecy made in the Book of Genesis when a priest called Melchizedek appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to Abraham – our Father in Faith for the Jews, the Christians and the Moslems. What is it about Melchizedek? We hear it in our Eucharistic Prayers too, this reference to ‘Melchizedek, a priest of old.

The psalm was Psalm 110. That was written by King David a thousand years before Christ, and it contains a prophesy that the Messiah will indeed be forever ‘a priest of the order of Melchizedek’.

And then, less than 40 years after the Resurrection, this same phrase, ‘a priest after the order of Melchizedek’ is being quoted in today’s extract we heard from the Letter to the Hebrews (5:6-10).

Why all this interest in Melchizedek? Well, he is understood to be one of the characters in the Old Testament who points towards the New Testament, towards the coming Messiah. And from its earliest days, The Church, the Christians saw Melchizedek and his mysterious appearance to Abraham in the Book of Genesis (Chapter 14) as helping them to recognise that Jesus is the genuine Messiah. How?

Well….

  • The name Melchizedek itself means ‘King of righteousness’.
  • He is the King of Salem; and that city was later to be known as Jerusalem, the place where God’s Temple is to be found.
  • Very unusually for a king, Melchizedek has no family tree, and we know nothing of his descendants. He just appears at a moment in time. He is timeless.
  • And Melchizedek is not only a king, he is a priest, an intermediary between God and mankind.
  • As king and priest, Melchizedek received offerings from Abram, our ‘Father in Faith’, gifts of bread and wine and blesses God and Abram.

This is a clue, 2,000 years before Jesus, hidden in the Book of Genesis, a clue of what is to come. Once people knew Jesus and saw what He did in His ministry, it at last made sense.

It is two chapters later in the Letter to the Hebrews (7:1-19) where all these things are carefully explained. Not only is Melchizedek a sign of the Christ, but he also explains how Jesus is a priest, even though he is not from the traditional Levite line of hereditary Jewish priests.

And what all this adds up to is this: when the true Messiah comes, the Jews can expect there to be a very radical change to the priesthood. The Messiah will be a priest forever, and the priesthood will not be hereditary. And that means that the Laws of Judaism, with the arrival of the new priesthood of Christ, would change. As Jesus explained, you can’t patch old and new things together – what you need is “new skins for new wine”.

And indeed this is what happened. Within 30 years of the resurrection, the Temple had been destroyed; the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant – the covenant between Moses and God, came to an end. The old sacrifices had gone forever, having been replaced by the NEW covenant, the New Testament. And the arrival of the Church saw a new priesthood, a timeless priesthood. And the new priests were celebrating a new, timeless sacrament, called the Eucharist.

 

 

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