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Melchizedek: A Prefiguration of Christ

The second Sunday preceding Christmas is known as Sunday of the Forefathers. These are ancestors of Christ who lived both prior and under the Mosaic Law. In the Theotokion of the Vespers on Saturday evening preceding this Sunday we hear the names of the Forefathers. Among the several names, there is one that is unique, Melchizedek.
 
Melchizedek is mentioned only twice in the Old Testament, in Genesis 14:18-20: Now Melchizedek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hands.” Then Abram gave him a tithe of all. From these few verses we see a lot of imagery.
 
Melchizedek brought out bread and wine relates to the Great Entrance in the Divine Liturgy. The clergy take the Holy Gifts from the altar, proceed around the church, returning the Gifts back into the altar and then placing them on the Holy Table. The priesthood of Melchizedek typifies the High Priesthood of Christ who gives His precious Body and Blood to the faithful in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
 
As Melchizedek was without earthly genealogy, so is Christ by virtue of His virgin birth. Christ is without paternal genealogy, having only maternal genealogy from the Theotokos. Since Jesus is God Incarnate, His priesthood is able to transform humanity. The priesthood of Christ is perfect since His sacrifice on the Cross was offered once and for all.
 
Likewise, the Old Testament does not cite when Melchizedek was born or died; thus, having no genealogy. For this reason, he typifies the eternal priesthood of Christ. Also, Salem is synonymous with Jerusalem (Psalm 76:2) and so Melchizedek is a descendant of David.
 
The tithe or ten percent of possession is a crucial element of worship. Throughout the Old Testament, Israelites showed their continuing desire for God’s priesthood by giving a tithe. Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils. And indeed those who are of the sons of Levi, who receive the priesthood, have a commandment to receive tithes from the people according to the law, that is, from their brethren, though they have come from the loins of Abraham; but he whose genealogy is not derived from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises (Heb 7:3-6).
 
The other time Melchizedek is mentioned in the Old Testament is in Psalm 110:4: You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. This verse is indeed messianic, since Melchizedek is a type of the priesthood of Christ as Messiah “the Anointed One.” Hence, he fulfills and infinitely surpasses the priesthood under the Mosaic Law. He is the first person to be called a priest. The Mosaic Law was temporary and was fulfilled by Christ in His earthly ministry. The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor (Gal 3: 24-35).
 
In the New Testament, Melchizedek is mentioned throughout, Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews. In fact, a major theme of this Epistle is a contrast between the earthly or Levitical priesthood and that of the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek. The Levitical priesthood came after Melchizedek, established by Aaron of the tribe of Levi.
 
The Levitical priests carry out God’s instructions and assist the people in their worship, but they cannot reconcile people to God. The sacrifices of the Levitical priesthood are temporary and have to be repeated. The example of this is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Hebrews 9:1-7 gives a full description of this. The High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies once a year and offer a sacrifice first for his own sins and then that of the people. Melchizedek, on the other hand, is both king and priest. He prefigures Christ and His eternal priesthood. His name being translated “king of righteousness,” and then also king of Salem, meaning “king of peace,” without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually (Heb 6: 2-3).
 
The Sunday of the Forefathers is indeed a prelude to the Feast that is soon to come, Christmas. The following Sunday which is the Sunday before Nativity we will hear in the 1st chapter of Matthew, the Genealogy of Christ.
 
Although the Sunday of the Forefathers mentions the ancestors of Jesus according to the flesh, it also mentions Melchizedek who has no genealogy, thus suggestive of Christ’s divinity and His eternal priesthood. Also, on this Sunday, the hymnography mentions Adam. In the Sunday before Nativity, the genealogy of Matthew goes back only to Abraham and there is no mention of Melchizedek. Thus, the emphasis is different, focusing on the lineage of Christ containing both righteous and sinners.
 
The Word of God takes on flesh in order to save all of mankind. With the Sunday of the Forefathers, the emphasis is on the dual natures of Christ, divine and human. The mention of the ancestors from Adam onward refer to Christ’s humanity, the mention of Melchizedek refers to His divinity.
 
As we approach these last several days of Advent and await the Infant Christ to be born in Bethlehem, let us feel assured that our salvation is at hand. The Magi journeyed from afar to behold the Infant Christ and so we have journeyed through this period of Advent to receive the same Infant Christ who is Lord and Savior, the eternal priest according to the order of Melchizedek. He is the New Adam who is coming to redeem all mankind beginning from the First Adam. As we hear at every Orthros service, let us now triumphantly exclaim: God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us, Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.
 
Christ is Born, Glorify Him!
 
-John Athanasatos 

 

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

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