Abraham Encounters Melchizedek
We are going to study Gen. 14, which narrates the encounter between Abraham and Melchizedek. Briefly explain the setting of this encounter.
Read 14:1,2. Five minor kings rebelled against Chedorlaomer, so he and his four ally kings went to war against the five rebel kings.
Critics viewed cities like Sodom and Gomorrah as mythical (like Babel) because they had no extra-biblical attestation of their existence. All that has changed since 1975, when archeologists excavated the city of Ebla at Tel Mardikh in what is today north-west Syria. They almost 20,000 of clay tablets (SLIDE) which were the royal archives of the city. These tablets date back to the middle of the third millenium BC, even earlier than Abraham's time. Tablet 1860 names the five cities of Gen. 14:2--in the exact same order--as trade partners of Ebla!
The inhabitants of Sodom (including Abraham's nephew Lot) were taken captive. When Abraham heard this, he led a small army and ambushed Chedarlaomer's army at Hobah (MAP). After defeating Chedarlaomer and rescuing Lot, he returned to Canaan and stopped at the valley of Shaveh (probably the Kidron valley next to old Jerusalem, where the king of Sodom met him to get his people back.
Here Abraham also met this man named Melchizedek. Read 14:18-20. That's all there is to it. The entire encounter probably lasted no longer than an afternoon. He just pops up out of nowhere to have this picnic lunch with Abraham, and then recedes from this biblical narrative. Yet this encounter was so important that we are going to spend the rest of this morning understanding its significance. It teaches us two key lessons . . .
Melchizedek as the original "man in Africa"
By the "man in Africa," I am referring to those people who have never had access to the Bible. What about these people? Is it possible for them to know the one true God, or are they hopelessly cut off from him and the possibility of salvation? This is a difficult question, and the Bible does not answer all of our questions about it. But Melchizedek definitely sheds some light on the question!
This was a time when people knew very little about what we call today "special revelation"--God's plan of salvation for humanity. Only a little of this plan had been revealed (review 3:15 and 12:1-3), and Abraham's household was the only group who knew this. Furthermore, the Canaanite culture was in deep spiritual darkness (explain Baal/Molech worship).
Yet here is this man Melchizedek, who knows quite a lot about the one true God!
In the midst of a deeply polytheistic culture, Melchizedek was a monotheist. He calls him El Elyon, which means literally "the most God God" or "the God who is really God." In other words, he recognized that YHWH alone was God.
He understands that El Elyon is both transcendent (14:19 - " . . . Possessor/Creator of heaven and earth . . . " and immanent (14:20 - " . . . Who has delivered your enemies into your hands . . .").
He functions as a mediator between El Elyon and others (14:18 - " . . . he was a priest of El Elyon . . . "). We'll talk more about this in a few minutes because it has direct significance for us today.
He recognizes that Abraham belongs to El Elyon and has a special relationship with him (14:19 - " . . . Blessed be Abraham of El Elyon . . . ").
Where did Melchizedek get this understanding of God? We do not know. But he shows us that God is active in reaching out to people who have never heard of the Bible, and that those who truly seek him will find him.
Many missionaries have had similar encounters as they brought the message of Christ to people who had never seen a Bible before. If you are interested in this subject, I recommend Don Richardson's Eternity in Their Hearts. Here is one example from his book (KAREN?).1
I don't want you to draw wrong conclusions about what I am saying.
I am not saying that people will be saved as long they are simply devout followers of their native religion. Melchizedek was anything but that--he stood out in stark contrast to Canaan's polytheism and rejected its major tenets. So will all who respond to God's light before hearing the gospel (NEE'S EXAMPLE2).
I am not saying that (normally) those who respond to less light will do as well spiritually as if they hear the fuller message. Their relationship with God will be greatly enhanced if they learn how God has provided for their forgiveness through Jesus Christ and if they receive the Holy Spirit, who is only given through Christ.
I am not saying that just as many people will be saved whether they hear the gospel or not. The New Testament clearly commands us to take this message to all peoples, in part because more people will normally respond to God when they get more light (Matt. 11:21-24). Christians shouldn't use this as an excuse to opt out of missions. I am simply saying that God has not left himself without a witness to such people, and that he will save those who respond to the light he gives them (Acts 10:34,35).
CONCLUSION: Don't use the "man in Africa" as an excuse to reject Christianity. God can and has revealed himself to those who have never heard of Christ. We can trust that he will fair in the way he judges those people. But you have heard, and you are responsible for your response . . .
The Priesthood of Melchizedek
Many people ask us why we don't have liturgical worship services officiated by priests (EXPLAIN). Some are really relieved by this, while others are really bothered by it. They say, "The Bible is full of priests and liturgical worship. You're just ignoring what God's Word teaches about this area to be cool, culturally relevant, etc." How would you answer this objection? Would you just say, "We don't do it because we don't like it, we don't want priests, etc." That's not this right answer. The correct answer is, "We don't do it because of the priesthood of Melchizedek."
This is exactly what the author of Hebrews argues in Heb. 7. The priestly, liturgical way of relating to God comes from the Old Testament Law. God told the nation of Israel that they could not relate to him directly because of their sinfulness. They had to relate to him through a Levitical priest (a priest from the tribe of Levi, a descendant of Abraham), and he prescribed a complex and cumbersome set of rituals for both the priest and the worshippers. In this passage, the author explains why these Jewish Christians should turn away from priestly liturgy to a new way of relating to God.
Read vs 1-3. Melchizedek was evidently a TYPE of Christ (vs 3 "like"), in that he foreshadowed Jesus as a king-priest of Jerusalem. This is Jesus' role in the millennial kingdom.
Read vs 4-7. Melchizedek was greater than Abraham. Two things communicate this.
Because of who blessed whom. In ancient cultures, the greater always blesses the lesser. Melchizedek blessed Abraham rather than vice-versa. Therefore, Melchizedek was greater than Abraham.
Because of who gave gifts to whom. In ancient cultures, the lesser was obligated to give gifts to the greater. Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of the battle spoils. Therefore, Melchizedek was greater than Abraham.
Read vs 8-10. The point here is more subtle. Vs 9,10 refer to what is known as the federal principle: what our ancestors do affects us (IMMIGRATION; CITIZENSHIP). Since the tribe of Levi was "in" Abraham, the Levitical priesthood also acknowledged the superiority of Melchizedek. Therefore, Melchizedek's priesthood is greater than the priesthood descending from Abraham.
Read vs 15-17. In Psalm 110, God emphatically swore that the Messiah would be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Because the Messiah (who is a Melchizedekian priest) has now come, Jesus' priesthood supersedes the Levitical priesthood.
So what? Listen to the logical and radically liberating conclusions that the author of Hebrews draws from these facts.
God never planned the Levitical priesthood to be permanent (vs 11). If he had planned this, he would never have spoken of the Messiah as a Melchizedekian priest. He sovereignly arranged the encounter between Abraham and Melchizedek, and inspired David to say the Messiah would be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek so we would know that a change in priesthood was coming.
God has now replaced the whole Old Testament way of relating to him with a better way through Christ (vs 18,19). A change in priesthood signals a change in the way we approach God. The value of this system was that it performed a foreshadowing function, as we mentioned a few weeks ago. But it was "weak and useless" in the sense that it did not have the ability to truly reconcile anyone to God because it only offered animal sacrifices which can never pay for human sin (Heb. 10:4). With the coming of the "real thing" in Jesus and real sacrifice, this system should be cast aside. Through Jesus, God has provided a better way to relate to him. What is this better way?
You can relate to God confident of his acceptance (read Heb. 4:15). This is the best thing of all. You never have to worry again whether or not God will accept you or reject you. Because Christ's death was big enough to pay for all of your sins, and because he will always apply that death to your sins, you never have to be afraid of God again. This is the key to a dynamic relationship with God!
You are free from ritualism and free to relate to God personally, any time and any place. You don't need any impersonal system of relating to God through human priests, sacrifices, rituals, etc. When you receive Christ, he actually indwells you through the Holy Spirit. You can relate to God wherever you are--heart to heart, sharing your problems and joys, asking him for the help you need, thanking him for his work in your life, etc. His Word comes alive to you as a personal love letter. Take it from one who has tried the other way, this is infinitely superior!
All this is available to you right now--because Jesus is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek! All you have to do is admit to God that you need his forgiveness, and ask Jesus to pay for your sins and reconcile you to God. What do you say??
1 Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (Ventura: Regal Books, 1981), pp. 71-83.
2 Watchman Nee, What Shall This Man Do? (Fort Washington, Pennsylvania: Christian Literature Crusade, 1971), p. 41.