Who was Melchizedek? Did he really exist as an historical person and was just pointing us to Jesus, or was he an appearance of Jesus [theophany]?
The meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek is recorded in Genesis 14:18-20. The context and text of these verses give a very real sense of being plainly historical. What is strange is that so little is said of this man. These three verses are the only record in the Old Testament of this man who was evidently very important. The Old Testament usually gives much more detail about important individuals that have contact with God’s chosen people, whether they are good or evil. In addition, we are told that he is a priest and king. But, we are told nothing of his personal ancestry or any of the political or economic relationships of this kingdom. All this does lead one to suspect that this was an appearance of Jehovah to Abraham, or “theophany.”
The only other mention of Melchizedek in the Old Testament is in Psalms 110:4. This verse is obviously Messianic, meaning that it is accepted by Jewish and Christian scholars and expositors as referring to the Messiah. The language is actually quite plain. The Messiah is here said to be a priest, but not one according to the existing line of Aaron, rather he is a priest in the ancestral line of Melchizedek. I suspect that this would seem very strange to an Old Testament Israelite who knew that Jehovah instituted the priesthood for them to be according to Aaron’s lineage. This Psalm tells us that the Messiah was to be a king and a priest. This was not according to the strict separation instituted by Jehovah between the kings and the priests. In fact, king Uzziah attempted to act in a priestly role and was severely punished (2 Chr. 26:16–21).
This mystery is solved for us by the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews. Melchizedek is mentioned in nine verses in chapters 5–7 describing the kingly priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is an important passage in several respects. Most importantly it gives us a magnificent view of the Lord Jesus in His office as our High Priest. Many have commented on this so here I pass over this to another important aspect that is concerned with understanding Old Testament histories and directly answers the question given to us. Hebrews 7:3 reads: “He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.” The word to notice here is “resembling.” The Greek word here is also translated as “assimilated” (DBY) and “made like” (FWG).
As with the discussion above, “without father…” reinforces the idea of a theophany. But, what is essential is to notice that “make like” tells us that the history as recorded was shaped to make a resemblance of someone else, in particular, Christ in his Melchizedek priesthood. I need to emphasize here that I am not saying this is merely a “story.” Melchizedek was a real person and the meeting with Abraham was a real event. We say that Melchizedek is a “type” of the Lord Jesus in his kingly priesthood according to the prophecy of Psalms 110:4. This relationship between Old Testament history and New Testament truth is a gateway to understanding much of the Old Testament histories.
Notice again that the passage in Hebrews is telling us that the description of Mechizedek, the man, is a picture or type (“made like”) the Lord Jesus. This has prompted us to look at other Old Testament histories for examples of New Testament truth. When we speak of Joseph, for example, as being a picture or type of Christ, we are following the reasoning of the apostle’s example in Hebrews. This is what is often meant when we say “the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed; the New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed.”
Quick accuracy checkpoint (beginning of third paragraph) – while it is commonly believed that Paul is the author of Hebrews, and the style is Pauline, God’s Spirit did not record authorship in the inspired record.