The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


What is it about this Melchizedek?

One of the best reasons I know for believing that the Bible was inspired by the Spirit is that if it had been left to a committee or to some editors or theologians I know, some stories would never have gotten in. Some are just too sexually oriented, such as certain stories found in Judges, and others just don't fit. The story of Melchizedek is like that. In all the 66 books of the Bible there is just one four-verse reference in Genesis (Genesis 14: 18-21) that tells us about Melchizedek. He's never heard of again except for a brief reference in the Psalms and a story in Hebrews.

Abraham had just defeated four kings in a battle, and out of nowhere comes this Melchizedek. He is called a priest of God. He says, "Blessed be [Abraham] by God most high, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God most high, who has delivered your enemies into your hand."

Abraham gives him a 10th of all the spoils, and that's all there is to the story. Except later, Jesus himself is called a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:20). What do we make of it? Even Hebrews makes a point of saying that he was a priest. Where did this priest come from? How did he get ordained?

I marvel at the skill with which the Spirit puts together the drama of Scripture. A stage play is made up of not only leading roles but also some bit parts. Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish the bit parts from the major role. It's not determined by the length of time the actor spends on the stage. Sometimes there is one function that has to be performed that becomes the key to a lot of other things. We tend to write off a person like that as having a bit part. But in the genius of the author, that bit part may be a leading role, and the effect it has on people may be the stuff of which courage and history are made.

A Melchizedek may be God's way of keeping us humble and in tune with mystery. We like to explain everything. That's what theology is all about, and why systematic theology is often called the queen of theological studies. It enables us to explain in a rational way how God works. We like it when everything fits together.

And then along comes Melchizedek, totally outside the structure. We need structures, boards, committees, agencies, one-year, three-year and five-year plans. They are part of the incarnation, the human structures through which God works. But we are in danger when we begin to assume they are the only way through which God works.

Some of the important things in life and history have happened when there has been an individual or an idea that went contrary to the usual plan. That does not mean we should throw out all plans. It simply says that the works of God are so much larger than we understand, and we need to be aware of the little surprises with which God wants to bless us. So when a Melchizedek comes along we don't say, "Hey, wait a minute, God. This is not the way you want to do this."

We need to learn both lessons — how to work within structures, for they, too, are ordained by God, and also how to recognize a Melchizedek when we see one. We don't need to pray for Melchizedeks. There are a number of them around. We should pray that we may be able to recognize one when we see one.


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February issue


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