The Beginnings of Abraham: The Priest-King

Sermon by Cory Brock on August 18, 2019

Genesis 14

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So we’re finishing our mini-series tonight on the story of Abram and we’re in Genesis 14. And at the center of Genesis 14 is the story of Melchizedek. And one popular Old Testament scholar today says that “Melchizedek is the most complex subject in all of Biblical studies.” And so it’s kind of silly to do thirty minutes on Melchizedek, but that’s what we have. And we’re going to do – dip our toe into the water a little bit and highlight some of the main ideas. Melchizedek shows up in five chapters of the Bible – Genesis 14, Psalm 110, Hebrews 5, 6, and 7. And it’s no secret that the New Testament connects Melchizedek to Jesus Christ in some way. He’s a successor, that’s the word that’s used, after the order of Melchizedek. And so like going into Isaiah and looking at the Servant songs in Isaiah, like Isaiah 53, you can actually go back to the Old Testament, go back to Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 and learn new things about Jesus Christ, even from the Old Testament. So let’s pray and we’ll read this passage. Let’s pray.

Our God, Melchizedek is obscure and hard to understand, and so we come and ask for help – that the fire would come down, that the Spirit would be among us. So come, O Spirit of Christ. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

This is Genesis 14 and this is the Word of our Lord:

“In the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, these kings made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). And all these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea). Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and defeated the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, and the Horites in their hill country of Seir as far as El-paran on the border of the wilderness. Then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh) and defeated all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who were dwelling in Hazazon-tamar.

Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim with Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, four kings against five. Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits, and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country. So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Abram's brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way.

Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram. When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.

After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said,

‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’

And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. And the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.’ But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have lifted my hand to the Lord, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me. Let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share.’”

The King 

We’re going to see three things here tonight in this passage. We’re going to see the king, the feast, and the foil. So first, the king. There’s a pretty stark genre change from the past couple of stories to this one. In the past couple of stories, it was focused down on Abram and Sarai and Lot, the family, and their particular narrative. But now in 14 it jumps to an international scale, to military campaigns, and Abram has moved from being a local figure to an international figure, an international player in this military scene. And the scene is this. There are four kings. I’m sure you got all of it down when we read the first half of the chapter! But there are four kings and the first one is from Shinar. You remember Shinar? What happened in Shinar? That’s where the tower of Babel was built. Shinar, Ellasar, Elam, Goiim. The thing to know is that these are all Babylonia city-states from the region of Babylon. And these are regional kings, kings of these chiefdoms of these city-states. And then there are five other kings, and these are the vassal kings. The vassal kings live around the Dead Sea just outside the Promised Land where Lot just so happens to live in Sodom and Gomorrah and these other places. And the situation is that the Dead Sea kings are vassals to the Babylonian kings. The Babylonian kings are their lords and the Dead Sea kings have been serving them for fourteen years and now they’ve revolted and there’s a revolution. And so the Babylonian kings come in and they defeat the Dead Sea kings and they take the people into exile. 

And the point of all that military history here, the commentators will say that if you pay close attention you can see that Abram is playing out the life of Israel before Israel ever existed. It’s been common in Jewish interpretations in the Old Testament to say this, that the sons of the fathers lived the lives of the fathers. The sons lived the lives that the fathers lived. And just think about it. Abram was called to the Promised Land. He went down to Egypt. His family became enslaved in Egypt. There was an exodus up out of Egypt. There was a division of the Promised Land. And now there’s a Babylonian conquest and an exile. And that looks a lot like the whole story of the Old Testament from beginning to end. Abram is living – he’s the first Israel – he’s living the life that Israel would someday live. He was first and they were second and this is his climax, this is his zenith, this is his peak. This is the pinnacle of the Abram story, of his own personality in some sense, because he’s become an international dignitary, a military leader. The climax is this – that when Babylonia takes all these people from his region into exile, including Lot, Abram, the text tells us very specifically, took 318 men and defeated four lords of Babylon. And that’s preposterous really! He took 318 men and he defeated the four kings of Babylon and saved the five surrounding the Dead Sea and brought everybody home again. And then when he goes back home in verse 17, he goes to none other than the King’s Valley – the valley where the kings meet together, where they counsel, where they confer.

Why? Because it’s saying Abram has moved from a Babylonian pagan to the king of all the nations here. He’s the greatest of all the ten kings that appear in this whole narrative. He’s better than Babylonia. He’s better than Pharaoh. And if you read from verse 17 and you skip the Melchizedek verses – 18, 19, 20 – the story makes perfect sense. Just look at it with me. When he returns from the defeat of the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him in the King’s Valley. And then jump to 21. “And the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself!’” It makes perfect sense. He went down to the King’s Valley to meet the king of Sodom, and verse 21, “And so the king of Sodom said to him…” And what the king of Sodom says is, “You give me homage. Give me what you owe me.” He’s trying to make Abram into a vassal himself. And Abram’s saying, “No, no, no, no. I do not serve you. I’m better than Pharaoh. I’m better than Babylon. I’m better than the Dead Sea kings and I’m better than you, king of Sodom. I’m greater. I’ve been named by God!” He’s the king. It’s his climax. This is the pinnacle. This is his zenith point. 

And he is totally eclipsed. He’s overshadowed. He fades away into the background. He’s not the most important person in this story. He’s the second player. Here at the pinnacle of his leadership, at the pinnacle of his kingship, he becomes number two; he fades into the background. He’s upstaged by verses 18, 19, and 20 because it introduces Melchizedek. And Melchizedek is random. The text reads more normally if you delete the verses. It’s strange in a hyper-stylized text like Genesis. He doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t fit. And look, if you want to get a job today in the 21st century, you need marketable skills. Right? You need a resume that has some marketable skills for whatever kind of job you’re trying to pursue. And if you want a job in the Ancient Near East, if you want to be somebody in the Ancient Near East, your CV, your resume, it’s all about who your dad is, who you come from. 

And the book of Genesis is structured into ten genealogies. The whole structure of Genesis is ten genealogies with stories in between. It’s tracing the seed of promise, the child – who’s it going to be? It’s all about whose dad is whose, whose son is whose. And we get to Melchizedek and you ask the question, “Who is he?” And Hebrews 7:3 says it’s an argument from silence. It’s like the dog barking in the night, the famous Sherlock Holmes story. Right? Sherlock figured it out because the dog all of a sudden stopped barking in the night. It’s an argument from silence. Hebrews picks up on what’s not here. And it says that Melchizedek has no mother, has no father, has no burial place, has no beginning of days or end of days. He comes from nowhere. He never dies. He was never born. There’s no genealogy in a book of genealogies. And so Calvin says this. “This Melchizedek, whoever he was, is presented before us without any origin story, as if he had dropped from the clouds and his name is buried without any mention of death.” Nobody knows who he is. The author of Hebrews doesn’t know. 

Where does he live? Well, it says that he’s from Salem. And the truth is that there are many Salems in the Ancient Near East. There were multiple cities called Salem. But in Hebrews 7:2, the author teaches us that he takes the three consonants from Salem – S, L, M – and helps us understand that it’s not just Salem; it’s the word “Shalom.” That he’s from a city called peace. He’s from a city called peace. And we know now that the King’s Valley, Shaveh here, is about 2 kilometers outside the city of Jerusalem. And so it’s more than likely that this man is from the city that will one day be called Jerusalem, the city, Salem; the city of Shalom, the city of peace. 

But even more than that – what is he? And this is the first thing we learn about him. It’s written into his name. He is Melchizedek. The first part of his name means “king” and the second part of his name means “righteousness.” And his name can literally be translated “my king is righteousness.” And so let’s take some stock here. His name is righteousness. He’s the king of the city of peace. He has no beginning and no end. Who is he? And there have been many proposals throughout history for who he is in the Intertestamental Period, Jewish literature before the time of Christ and even after – most of the time suggest that Melchizedek is Michael, the archangel of God who’s come down to meet Abram here. He’s the head of the divine counsel. The head of God’s angels. 

But Hebrews takes this shadow, this strange figure that has no genealogy, and it’s like we were all people in a dark room groping for the furniture and Hebrews kicks the door down and lets the light come in. And it says this. That at least we know he’s a type, he’s a forerunner, he’s a shadow, he’s a prefigurement of Jesus Christ. Is he the preincarnate manifestation of the Son of God? Is this the second person of the Trinity? The Son of God come down from the heavens? I don’t know. Maybe. Nobody knows. Nobody knows. The author of Hebrews doesn’t know in the end who Melchizedek really is. He could be. But what we can say with confidence from the New Testament is that whoever he is, we are looking, Abram, you are looking for Melchizedek, the king of righteousness from the city of Shalom. That’s what you need. That’s what you’re looking for. Abraham knew it. He knew he was standing before something great and he did not understand it but he knew it.

And here’s what he first teaches us. It’s this – there is a king, it’s just a fact, there is a King who stands before all kings and above all kings and behind all kings that is not a king by birthright or bloodline, who does not get His kingship merely from the succession of king after king. There is a King who stands above all and beyond all and He stands in the succession, in the order of Melchizedek. He is first. That’s what Melchizedek is saying. And sometimes we say things like God, Jesus Christ, is like a king. You know you look out and you see the kings and queens of old or Queen Elizabeth or the great kings of Europe and you say, I can look at a monarch and say Jesus Christ is like that. But what this text is teaching us is that Jesus Christ is not like earthly kings. He is the paradigm of kingship; that kingship exists only because He is the King first. They are merely a model, and a bad model, of Him. He is Kingship. He is the King. 

In Psalm 110, David, where he mentions Melchizedek, David who is the king of Israel, the greatest king of Israel, looks up and sees two figures, two in the heavenly place. And he says, “I saw the Lord, Yahweh, God, say to my Lord.” And David doesn’t know what to do with that in the psalm. “I see the Lord saying to my Lord.” And David is the lord. He’s the king of Israel. The only way he knows how to describe this second Lord that he sees, this King seated at the right hand of the Father, at the right hand of Yahweh, is he goes back to Genesis 14 and says, “I don’t know what this is, but it reminds me of Melchizedek. This Lord, this Son, He must be a King like the Melchizedek I read about in Genesis 14.” And commentators will often say that David, when he wrote that psalm, was at the height of his own kingship. He had, we think, defeated most of his enemies or just after he had, that he wrote this. And Abram had too. Abram was the greatest king in the world in Genesis 14 and he was second. David was the greatest king that ever lived in the Old Testament and Melchizedek is saying, the order of Melchizedek is saying they’re both nothing. There is a King who stands above right now all earthly rulers.

There is a reason why the greatest narratives, the greatest stories of old, are all about a lost monarch. I got made fun of this week – it happens every week! But I got made fun of particularly this week by David Felker and he said to me, “Hey, how many weeks in a row are you going to, either teaching on Wednesday night or on Sundays – “going to quote Herman Bavinck from the pulpit?” And I said, “Every week, man!” But I actually don’t have a Herman Bavinck quote tonight. Instead, I have a Johan Herman Bavinck quote tonight, who was Herman Bavinck’s nephew. And he was a Missions professor at the Free University of Amsterdam. He traveled the world studying religion, particularly from a Christian lens. And what he noticed and what he wrote about was what he called “magnetic points of the human heart.” That the human heart is like a compass that has these magnetic points – no matter what culture, no matter what language, no matter what region, no matter what philosophy – that it always points to. And one of them that Johan Herman Bavinck noticed is he said “the universal desire for a good king.”

And you know, we don’t have a king here in the US. The last king we had was George III and that didn’t go well! And the reason, you know if you read the literature of the Founding Fathers, one of the things they say is that the reason we don’t have a monarch, the reason we fight for democracy, is not because of the evil of monarchy but because no one in a sinful world is fit to rule with absolute power. Democracy is medicine in a sick world, a broken world, a world full of human sinners. But we’re all moved by the great legends and the great stories of the kings that have been lost. And I don’t know what David Strain thinks, but when Heather and I were living in Scotland, we loved the Queen and we thought about her as our Queen. 

But the story – it goes typically like this – there was once a great king and he ruled with justice, he ruled with peace, the city was as it should be, and then darkness came upon the land and now the legends all say, “If only we could get back to that time – the king of righteousness and the city of peace!” The great stories – they’re all the same. They’re all like the great modern legend that many of us love probably, is Lord of the Rings. And what’s Lord of the Rings really about? It’s about a king whose bloodline has been lost. He’s hidden in the north, a ranger, living in the forest, and if only he would return to the city of Gondor he would reestablish the kingdom of peace for all mankind. That’s what Lord of the Rings, that’s the main story. That’s what it’s really about. And whether it’s Arthur in Camelot or Aragorn in Gondor, the desire for the good king is in the blood of humanity. Why? Because there is one. Because He exists! He’s real! He’s ruling right now and we’re waiting for Him to come back down to earth and claim His property! There is one! You were made by a King under a King for a King through a King and His name is Jesus Christ. And Tim Keller says that if you don’t find this real King, you will find a false king and you will poison your life. 

The Feast 

But also secondly and more briefly, there’s something even more peculiar in this passage. It’s not just the strangeness of the kingship of Melchizedek, but it’s also the feast that he offers. And you can see that he’s called in verse 18 the priest of El Elyon, the priest of the Most High God. And he starts his relationship with Abraham by bringing him bread and wine. And then he pronounces a benediction over Abram. And then he receives a tithe from Abram. And in all three of these activities, he is priesting – if we could make up a verb! He’s priesting! He’s being a priest. He’s acting like a priest. And why is this so peculiar? Well, if you read the Torah – Genesis to Deuteronomy – if you read the Old Testament you might start to pick up on something; that there is no such thing as a priest who is a king or a king who is a priest. There’s no such thing! The offices are totally separate in the Law of God. A priest cannot be a king and a king cannot be a priest. And Saul figured this out the hard way. In 1 Samuel 13, Saul, remember, offers a sacrifice like he’s the priest. And God comes down and judges him and condemns him; ultimately kicks him out of office for it. There’s no such thing in the Old Testament as a Priest-King. 

And in Genesis 14 we have a weary soldier, Abram, who comes and Melchizedek says, “Take this bread. Take this wine,” just like the priest after the sacrifice would eat at the table with the family who had come to offer the sacrifice. Then he blesses Abraham; he gives him the benediction. The priest in the temple would bless the Israelite who has come for a sacrifice. And then Abraham turns around and gives him a tithe, a tenth of everything. Abram wants to be blessed by Melchizedek, he wants to eat at Melchizedek’s table, he wants to give a gift to Melchizedek. He knows something. He doesn’t get it. How could this man do what’s not going to be commanded of Israel for five hundred years almost until Sinai? We’re way before that, but why is he acting like a priest of the Levitical system? Abram knew there is something here truly great. This man must be a priest-king. 

And why are they separate, that they don’t do the same thing? A king in the Old Testament represents God to the people. He’s the office of judge. He brings justice to the land. He settles what’s wrong and makes it right. He is the courtroom. But the priest, the priest exists because the people can obey the king. The priest exists as the office of compassion and mercy. He brings the sacrifices, the repentance of the people up to the king, up to God the King. Right? These two, they’re different offices. One is the office of judgement; the other is the office of mercy and compassion. Did you know that the priest’s job is to take care of the poor, it’s to reach out to the downtrodden; it’s to take care of the poor in Israel. And Abraham, he instinctively knows this. 

What is God teaching us in Genesis 14 about the priest-king? It’s asking this question – Could there be one? Could there be one who’s both a king and a priest? The lion. The judge. The bringer of justice. The destroyer of evil. That’s a king. And the shepherd. The one full of compassion, full of mercy that represents the people back to the king. But could there be one who does both? In John 17, Jesus – we call it the High Priestly prayer – He turns to the disciples and says, “You’re going to get destroyed. You’re going to get eaten alive. Satan is coming after you, but I have prayed for you.” And that’s not like when we say to other people, “Hey, I’m praying for you.” When Jesus says, “It’s coming, but I have prayed for you,” He’s saying, “You can’t get out from under My mediation. I’m the great High Priest. I have prayed for you. I stand for you. I am for you.” He says to Peter later, “You’re going to deny Me three times. You’re going to commit treason against Me, but I have already prayed for you. I’ve already priested for you. You’re already forgiven. You’ve already gotten mercy. It’s done.” He’s the great High Priest.

We know when we come to the New Testament that Jesus Christ is the great High Priest. When He goes in His Passion narrative it’s very clear He is the Priest who offers the sacrifice, but He’s also the Lamb, the sacrifice Himself. But look, when you go from John 17 to 18 to 19 to 20, the Passion narrative of Jesus, what is the language that appears, the word that appears more than any other word? It’s not the language of the priesthood. We know He’s a priest when He goes to the cross. What is it? It’s the language, it’s the word “king.” Did you know that the word “king” is the word that appears more than any other single word in the Passion narrative of Jesus? Do you remember when Pilate was standing before the crowd and he said to them, “Do you want Barabbas?” And Acts chapter 3 tells us that Barabbas was a robber and a murderer. And what’s the choice between? What does he say? He doesn’t say Barabbas and Jesus Christ. He says, “Do you want Barabbas or the King?” And we all with the crowd, Paul tells us, shouted out, “We want Barabbas! We hate the King!” which is exactly why we need a Priest – because we hate the King. And then what did he do to Him? He stuck a crown upon His head and the blood poured down His face. And he put a purple robe, the color of royalty, over His back. And then if you keep going through the passage it happens over and over again. He brings Jesus back out again, maimed, His body broken a second time. And what is the first thing Pilate says to the crowd, to us? He says, “Behold, your King!” And they say, “Kill Him! Crucify Him!” And Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” And the chief priests said, “We have no king but Caesar.”

You know, the entire narrative of the Passion is about Christ’s kingship. We know He’s a Priest, but in the moment of the Passion He’s a king. And that’s why John chooses to use the language of the cross. What does he say? “He was lifted up onto His throne.” There’s nothing that looks more like a King than a man lifted up with His arms outstretched. In that moment He is the Priest-King, the ultimate Priest-King. A king is all about justice and a priest is all about mercy. And at the cross, justice and mercy kiss. Jesus Christ stands in the order of Melchizedek. He’s not just a King; He’s not just a Priest. He is the strong Lion and the gentle Shepherd. He is the Man of power, the Creator of the world, and He’s the Creator of the world on a cross. And that is what the one Priest-King has to look like to be both priest and king.

The Foil 

Now I’ll finish just a couple minutes here by saying thirdly, the foil. The passage doesn’t end there. Abram has a choice and you do too. In verse 21, the king of Sodom now comes to Abram. Melchizedek was there and the king of Sodom was there. And Sodom, the king, says, “Give me what you owe me. Give me the people.” And what is he saying? He’s saying, “You just gave Melchizedek a tenth, and in doing so you paid homage. You recognized something great. You recognized a king. Now you give me what I am owed.” In other words, Sodom was saying, “You will now become my vassal. I’ll be your king.” And this is another moment in Genesis of a potential fall narrative where Abraham is standing between the king of righteousness, the forerunner of Jesus Christ, offering him the fruit of the vine, the cup, and then the serpent of Sodom saying, “No, no, no. If you will just bow down to me, I will give you all the loot.” It happens again in Matthew with Jesus in the wilderness. That’s what’s happening here. Abraham had a choice and he said, “No, I’ve already sworn through the priesthood of Melchizedek I will not take anything from you. You are not my king.” He had a choice. This is the one time so far in the Book of Genesis where no one falls, where he stands. 

And let me just say this in closing. We have two choices here, just like Abram did. Melchizedek is saying this about Jesus Christ. He is the Judge of the earth, the King of creation, the bringer of justice, the destroyer of evil and death, the High Priest of heaven, the merciful, compassionate Shepherd. He’s everything. And what that is saying is, tonight you don’t have a choice. You don’t get to be nonchalant about Him. You cannot evade Him. You heard it – that He claims to be the Priest-King forever above all earthly rulers. You can’t evade Him. You have to make a decision. You have to choose. He says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. You have to drink My blood and eat My flesh to come into the kingdom.” That’s outrageous! You can’t sidestep Him. You have to hear it and you have to choose, tonight – the serpent of Sodom or the King of righteousness. That’s the choice that’s being offered here.

And then secondly, if you do, if you forget your past, it’s gone if you repent. If you repent tonight, if you renew, if you come under, if you submit, if you recognize where in your life, even as a Christian, Jesus Christ is not your King this week, where He’s not been your King, and you repent of that, then just hear this as we say the last thing. Revelation 1:6 – if He is your Priest-King then you are now a priest. That’s what the New Testament teaches. Revelation 1:6, “He has made us into a kingdom of priests.” And what does a priest do? A priest prays, a priest stands in the presence of God every single day. A priest represents the world by praying bold prayers on behalf of the world. A priest offers meals at their table. A priest takes care of the poor and the downtrodden and those in need of mercy. A priest witnesses to the true sacrifice. You’re a priest if He is your Priest-King. So get ready tonight, tonight, with repentance and faith like Abram to wake up tomorrow morning and say the Priest-King, Melchizedek himself, the real, He has made me His priest in the world today. Let’s pray.

We give thanks for the Priest-King on High, the King of kings and the Mediator. Help us to awaken to the reality – to the reality of the truth about what the world exists for. And we ask for this help in Christ’s name, Amen.

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