Jesus, Melchizedek, and the Priesthood
The authority of the LDS Church as the only true church on the earth today rests on its claim that it alone is the custodian of the “Melchizedek priesthood”—a priestly order that God supposedly withdrew from the world sometime after the passing of the New Testament apostles. Mormons believe this priesthood is something the early church had and that has now been “restored” through Joseph Smith. The New Testament does talk about Melchizedek and priesthood in Hebrews 7. Is the rest of Christianity missing something essential to the Christian church that only the Mormons have? What does Hebrews 7 really teach about Melchizedek and priesthood? We’ll consider those questions in this article.
A. Melchizedek Priesthood: Is There Such a Thing?
The second and far more important priesthood division in LDS religion is the Melchizedek priesthood. According to LDS teaching, the Aaronic priesthood is merely “an appendage” to the Melchizedek priesthood (D&C 107:14). Although the name might suggest that Mormons view Melchizedek as the first member of this priesthood, in fact that is not their view at all. According to the Book of Mormon, the priesthood order is actually “the holy order of God” or “the order of the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father” and existed “from the foundation of the world…being prepared from eternity to eternity” (Alma 13:2, 6-7, 9, 18; see also Alma 4:20). Melchizedek “was also a high priest after this same order” (Alma 13:14). Although there were many priests in this order both before and after Melchizedek, “none were greater,” which is why it is sometimes named for him (Alma 13:19).
In Doctrine & Covenants, Joseph Smith gives a similar explanation for the term Melchizedek priesthood:
“Why the first is called the Melchizedek Priesthood is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest. Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood” (D&C 107:2-4).
There are at least two fatal problems with this explanation for the term “Melchizedek priesthood.” The first problem is simply that the term “Melchizedek priesthood” never occurs in any ancient literature. In fact, not only does this term never appear in the Bible, it never appears in the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, or the Book of Moses—even though all three books refer to priests and priesthood. Moreover, in all three of these books that Mormons view as ancient scripture, only one person is ever said to be a priest “after the order of Melchizedek”: Jesus Christ—and only in two passages of the Bible (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5-7). To say that this expression was used to avoid the “too frequent repetition” of the name of God doesn’t make any sense given how rare the expression is.
The second problem is that the practice of using substitute terms or names in place of God’s name began long, long after the time of Melchizedek (who lived around 2000 BC). There is no evidence whatsoever for the practice until toward the end of the Old Testament period (roughly 500-400 BC). The word “God” appears about 200 times in the book of Genesis (where Melchizedek is mentioned) alone!
According to LDS doctrine, the “Melchizedek priesthood” is an eternal priesthood order that existed before the world and that was passed down from generation to generation. It is “the order ofMelchizedek, which was after the order of Enoch, which was after the order of the Only Begotten Son” (D&C 76:57). In D&C 84, Joseph Smith gives a kind of genealogy of the priesthood, tracing its history from Moses backward through his father-in-law Jethro, Abraham, Melchizedek, Noah, Enoch, Abel, and finally Adam (D&C 84:6-16). In the same revelation, Joseph Smith explains that God took this greater priesthood away from the Israelites because of their disobedience in the wilderness following the Exodus, while the lesser Aaronic priesthood continued to be passed down from one generation to the next until John the Baptist (D&C 84:18-28). Jesus, who as the Only Begotten Son already had the Melchizedek priesthood, restored it to the earth for a short time in the first century, but with the passing of the apostles God again removed that priesthood from the earth. The LDS Church teaches that the Lord restored both priesthoods in 1829 by having heavenly figures confer them on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery—the Aaronic priesthood by John the Baptist in May 1829 and the Melchizedek priesthood by the apostles Peter, James, and John in June 1829 (see D&C 13:1; 27:7-8, 12-13).
B. Melchizedek and the Priesthood: What the Bible Says
The LDS concept of the Melchizedek priesthood departs even more radically from biblical teaching, if that were possible, than their concept of the Aaronic priesthood. In the Bible, there is no such thing as a “Melchizedek priesthood” that men hold and pass down from one generation to the next. We may see this simply by reading the only three passages in the Bible that mention Melchizedek: Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and Hebrews 5-7.
Melchizedek is a mysterious figure in Genesis 14 who stands alone in the narrative. In contrast to all of the other significant figures of the book of Genesis whose genealogies provide some background as to their origins (see especially Genesis 4, 5, 11, 25, 35, and 36), we are told nothing about Melchizedek’s family, tribe, or roots, or even about his birth or death. He appears suddenly in the narrative as the “king of Salem” (later called Jerusalem) and as “a priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18). Melchizedek served Abram and his men bread and wine and blessed Abram following Abram’s defeat of the five kings and rescue of Lot. In turn, Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils of the battle (Genesis 14:19-20). That is literally all that the Bible tells us about this man Melchizedek. The text tells us nothing about how he came to be a priest, and certainly does not suggest that he ordained Abraham (or anyone else, for that matter) as a priest. As far as we can tell from the book of Genesis, Melchizedek was, figuratively speaking, an “order” of one priest. As we shall see, this is not a mistaken way of reading Genesis 14.
The only other Old Testament reference to Melchizedek comes in Psalm 110:4, which says that the Messiah would be “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” David (the psalmist) was not referring to a priestly office that was being passed from one generation to the next from Melchizedek down to the time of David and that would continue to be passed all the way down to Jesus. David doesn’t even claim that he is a priest, but speaks prophetically of his future descendant who will be that priest. Throughout Psalm 110, David is speaking of the exalted position that his descendant the Messiah would have forever as the King ruling at God’s right hand (see especially verses 1-2, 5). Just as Melchizedek was a king-priest ruling on the throne in pre-Israelite Jerusalem, so the Messiah would be a king-priest ruling at God’s right hand on his heavenly throne, of which David’s throne in Jerusalem was a type. Neither David nor any other Israelite king in Jerusalem was a priest; the prophetic words of Psalm 110 refer forward to just one individual, Jesus the Messiah. Psalm 110 thus treats Melchizedek as a type of the Messiah, a human being foreshadowing the coming of the ultimate, eternal King-Priest. Melchizedek is not an example of a position that all worthy men may hold, but a type prefiguring one Man, Jesus Christ, whose position is absolutely unique.
The enigmatic figure of Melchizedek prompted all sorts of speculations about him in ancient Jewish literature outside the Bible, as well as later Christian literature. However, no ancient literature of any kind (unless one counts the Book of Mormon) identifies Melchizedek’s priesthood as belonging to an order that was passed down from one generation to the next. The idea simply does not come up in any of the ancient Jewish and Christian writings that referred to Melchizedek. (See, for example, the articles on Melchizedek in such standard reference works as the Anchor Bible Dictionary or the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.) We may presume that there were priests serving the true God both before and after Melchizedek (although Genesis does not mention any other priests of God besides Melchizedek), but neither the Bible nor any ancient text outside the Bible presents him as a figure whose priesthood was transmitted from person to person.
Now we come to the last mention of Melchizedek in the Bible—Hebrews 5-7. Hebrews states repeatedly, quoting Psalm 110:4, that Jesus is a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 17). This is surely an odd way of stating matters if, as the LDS Church teaches, Melchizedek was actually a priest after the order of Jesus! The LDS teaching turns the argument of Hebrews 5-7 on its head. Hebrews teaches that Melchizedek’s priesthood was a type of Jesus’ priesthood that was to come; the LDS Church teaches that Melchizedek’s priesthood was an example of Jesus’ primordial priesthood that he passed down to him.
Mormons often argue that Melchizedek’s priesthood must have been part of an order that could be passed from one generation to the next because Psalm 110:4 (and its quotations in Hebrews) refers to “the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews also contrasts “the order of Melchizedek” with “the order of Aaron” (Hebrews 7:11). This argument overlooks evidence in Hebrews that the author is interpreting “order” figuratively with regard to Melchizedek. The writer shows us what he understood Psalm 110:4 to mean when he says that Jesus is a priest “according to the likeness of Melchizedek” (7:15). He is arguing that Jesus holds a unique position that Melchizedek’s status as a king and priest foreshadowed. As we have seen, this is precisely what Psalm 110 says as well.
The Book of Hebrews, especially in chapter 7, draws several comparisons between Melchizedek and Jesus to show that Melchizedek was a type of Jesus, the future Messiah:
- Melchizedek’s name foreshadows Jesus as the “king of righteousness,” and his position as king of Salem (Jerusalem) foreshadows Jesus as the king of peace (Hebrews 7:2).
- The account of Melchizedek in Genesis does not mention his parents, genealogy, or the beginning or end of his life (unlike the other major figures in Genesis). This makes him foreshadow the coming of Jesus, who as the divine Son of God is literally eternal (Hebrews 7:3).
- Melchizedek was apparently greater than Abraham and his descendant Levi, since Melchizedek collected tithes from Abraham and imparted a blessing on Abraham (Hebrews 7:4-10). Likewise, Jesus is greater than Abraham or Levi.
- Melchizedek was both a king and a priest, something which under the Mosaic Law was not true of anyone in David’s tribe of Judah (Hebrews 7:14). But Jesus is both King and Priest as prophesied in Psalm 110 (Hebrews 7:15-17).
Again, what this shows is that Melchizedek was not a member of a priestly order that began with Jesus. Rather, he was a priest who foreshadowed the priesthood to end all priesthoods, the priesthood of Jesus.
Another problem for the LDS view is that Hebrews teaches that Jesus was not already a priest in this order that supposedly existed before the world, but rather that he became a priest (or a high priest) at his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father. Jesus had to become a human being “so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17 ESV). It was after his death and resurrection that Jesus was “designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (5:10 ESV). Jesus went into heaven, “having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (6:20). Jesus was “another priest” who was to “arise” (7:11, 15). These statements all indicate that Jesus’ priesthood was not a primordial priesthood passed down by Jesus through Adam to Melchizedek and other men. Rather, Jesus’ priesthood was the ultimate reality that those mortal priests merely anticipated. Jesus became our priest by dying on the cross for our sins, rising from the dead, and ascending to heaven to enter the heavenly “sanctuary” and sit down at God’s right hand to make intercession for those who put their faith in him. In doing these things, Jesus has become the fulfillment of everything that the system of priests and sacrifices had symbolized and prefigured. To put it succinctly: Jesus is not the first priest; he is the last priest.
Once the meal has been served, there is no more use for the menu. Once you arrive at your destination, you have no further need of a map. Once you find the person for whom you are searching, you are done with artists’ sketches of what the person looks like. Likewise, once the real High Priest has offered the ultimate, final sacrifice for sins and taken his place as our Intercessor, we have no use for earthly priests whose sacrifices and offerings actually did nothing to take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-18).
That Jesus is the last priest, the final high priest, is also clear from the teaching of Hebrews that Jesus holds his office of high priest permanently. In Israelite religion under the Mosaic covenant, the high priesthood was an office passed down from one generation to the next for the obvious reason that mortal high priests died. Unlike those priests who died and passed down their office to others, Jesus holds his office as high priest “forever” and “permanently” (5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21, 24). Jesus holds his office of priest “according to the power of an indestructible life,” because he is immortal (7:16). That is, being immortal is a key qualification for Jesus holding this priesthood. Anyone who is mortal, therefore, is unqualified to hold this priesthood. Of course, that applies to all Mormons—and to the rest of mortal humanity as well.
Thus, like Melchizedek, Jesus is a priestly “order” of one member. He is the only priest of his kind because he alone is perfectly innocent, holy, immortal, and exalted, sitting at the right hand of God the Father in heaven (Hebrews 7:26-8:2). The church never “lost” this office because Jesus has had it all along!
It is truly distressing to see that in two chapters (13 and 14) on priesthood in Gospel Principles, the idea that Jesus Christ is our heavenly high priest is never mentioned and plays no role in the LDS understanding of priesthood. The LDS Church loudly claims that it is centered on Christ, yet on this fundamental aspect of the redeeming work of Christ, LDS teaching is strangely off the mark. Instead of magnifying Jesus Christ as our great, heavenly, eternal High Priest, the LDS view of priesthood emphasizes its religious ordinances and offices, promoting the LDS Church hierarchy as a system for magnifying one’s own spiritual worthiness.
For Further Reflection
- Why is “Melchizedek priesthood” not a biblically accurate term?
- Is there any reference in the Bible or other ancient Jewish or Christian literature to a “Melchizedek priesthood” open to all worthy males? If not, why not?
- Why does the Bible say that Jesus became a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” if Melchizedek was a priest after the order of Jesus?
- Why does the Bible’s presentation of Melchizedek as a type of the coming Messiah conflict with the claim that there is a Melchizedek priesthood that can be passed from one generation to the next?
For Further Study:
Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Book of Hebrews and the Joseph Smith Translation.” Includes a discussion of Hebrews 7:3, showing that Joseph Smith misunderstood the meaning of this verse in the context of the book of Hebrews.