The Order of Melchizedek

melchizedek 2Contrary to what might be expected, the first priest mentioned in the Bible is not from the Tribe of Levi. In fact, the first priest is described before Levi is even born. In Genesis 14, we are introduced to Melchizedek, who is described as “Priest of God Most High.” Identified in Psalm 110 and extensively reflected upon in the Letter to the Hebrews, Melchizedek remains an elusive figure in the Scripture.

Even so, he appears in the Roman Canon at Mass; today’s priests are ordained to “the Order of Melchizedek,” and his appearance in Genesis forms the basis of some of our theology of the priesthood.

The first question that arises is regarding Melchizedek’s very identity: who is he? His appearance in Genesis 14 is quite minimal and set at a point very early in Abram’s faith journey, as Abram defeats several war lords in the land of Canaan. Identified in the Scripture as “King of Salem,” ancient Jewish sources see him as the leader of the entire area, a wise sage of a man whom the rest must respect. But this does not answer the question of his identity. We must look back even further.

As Abram presents Melchizedek with a tithe, Melchizedek gives him a blessing in return. Here is the hint we’ve been looking for! The last person to receive a blessing was the oldest son of Noah: Shem. Adding up the dates of Shem’s life, we learn that he was actually still alive during Abram’s time, and in fact outlived Abraham!

Blessings at this time in history were not things that could be easily exchanged, once they were given, they could not be taken back. (See Jacob’s stealing of Issac’s paternal blessing from his older brother Esau.) Blessings are tangible things, so Melchizedek/Shem must still have the one given to him by his father, Noah; and he now passes it on to his descendent Abram, the one chosen by God to be the father of many nations.

All of these identities have priestly functions, but it is taken to an even greater degree when we see what Melchizedek offers as a priest, for priests offer sacrifices and Melchizedek offers a sacrifice of bread and wine. This sets off signal flares in the eyes of a Catholic, for our priests also offer sacrifices of bread and wine, now fulfilled in Christ to be His very Body and Blood.

What becomes important for today is that the priesthood in which Catholic Priests share, and by extension that all the baptized share in as well, goes back not just to the Sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, but back to the very foundations of creation by God. Melchizedek is identified as “a priest forever” in Psalm 110, his priesthood continues on into the ages. The Catholic Priest, in the place of Christ the Head, also shares in this eternal priesthood, continually offering a sacrifice of bread and wine before God in Heaven.

Uniting all of this into one, we see God’s divine plan in the scope of Salvation History. That Jesus came when He did is not some type of accidental occurrence, but had been planned out from before by our Loving Father. God wants to give us the tools to return to His presence in Heaven. Let us therefore rejoice that Christ left us with the great gift of the priesthood, that He continues to choose men to serve Him in this way, so that we might all come to worship Him forever around His altar in heaven.


This archival article is reprinted with permission from The Catholic Telegraph, and has been updated for content. 

Fr. Kyle Schnippel


Fr. Kyle Schnippel is the Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

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  • noelfitz

    I am grateful to Fr Schnippel for this article. I could never understand the reference to a Catholic priests being considered a priest like Melchizedek of old. In Hebrews Christ was designated a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

    I am afraid I still do not understand the references to Melchizedek in the Bible, especially in Hebrews where Christ was designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

    Can anyone explain the following?

    Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
    “You are my Son,
    today I have begotten you”;
    as he says also in another place,
    “You are a priest forever,
    according to the order of Melchizedek.”
    In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb 5:1-10).

  • Melchizedek/Shem survived the chaos of the waters of the flood, and went on to offer sacrifice to God in the form of bread and wine. Christ, the new Melchizedek, survived (though he died) the chaos of the Garden of Olives and the Cross, and went on to offer continual sacrifice to the Father both through the trials he endured on Earth and through the Body and Blood (bread and wine) that are offered through each Mass. Jesus continues to offer sacrifice on our behalf each time Mass is celebrated, and will continue to do so until the consummation of all things on the Last Day.

  • Fr Schnippel


    Scott Hahn explains that part of the reason (in addition to what PraireHawk says above) that Christ is identified as a Priest in the Order of Melchizadek is that He is The First-born Son, the reason that Melch’s priesthood is eternal is that it is both in the form of Christ’s Eternal Priesthood (Eternally Begotten, not made), but also that his is a fore-shadowing of Christ’s Priesthood on earth.

    The author of the Letter to the Hebrews (St. Paul?) is also at pains to distinguish Christ’s priesthood from that of the Levitical/Aaronite priesthood, hence the strong connection with Melch, a priesthood that was original to God’s plan and pre-dates that of the priesthood of the Levite’s. (How the Levite’s take over the priestly duties is subject of the next article….)

    Also to be kept in mind, Levitical priests did not serve for life, but only for a span of time. They began their training at 20 years old and served at the Altar in the Temple from 30-50; after that, the priesthood of that individual came to an end. Melch’s, being in the original state, is a priesthood without beginning or end because he has his priesthood naturally, as the righteous first born son of his father, Noah. Christ is The Righteous First Born Son of His Father: God, hence his priesthood is even greater than that of Melch.

    Hope this helps, and isn’t too deep!

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  • esper

    The idea that Melchizedek = Shem contradicts Hebrews 7:1-3 – “For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him; To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace; Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.”

  • JMC

    Is this to say that Melchizedek was actually Shem? When I was in Catholic school (in the early 1960s, before Vatican II), I was taught that those incredible ages weren’t to be taken literally, that they were symbols in Hebrew numerology and were simply indicative of “great age” – and back then, 40 was “great age.” (They said that was true during the Roman Empire and in the Middle Ages…so why are so many people from those times solidly documented as having lived to 60, 70, and even 80?) Of course, I don’t deny that it’s possible that those ages WERE literal, that it took time for the immortality for which Adam and Eve were created to be “bred out” of the human race. Can someone clarify this please?

  • Winston Barquez

    The mystery of his identity was planned by God to give him an aura of being “not of this world”. Jesus had the same aura so much so that his contemporaries were goaded to ask: “Is this not the carpenter’s son?”

  • Gail Finke

    Doesn’t it also say that he had no father and mother? Then how could he be Shem? JMC: I can’t answer your question about the long, long ages, which I assume are indeed just a poetic Judaic way of saying “really old,” but some people have always lived to be in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. When you read a demographic stat saying as “the average lifespan was…” you have to find out whether it means the mathematical average (ie: If some people in a group live to be 80, but a lot of people die before age five and a lot of women die in childbirth, the “average” will be low even though the people who survive infancy and don’t die in childbirth live to be at least 40 or 50) or whether it is a general statement that “few people lived past 50.” In either case, I can’t imagine any post-stone-age cultures for whom 40 was considered “advanced age”!

  • paul becke

    What about priests who go to hell? Are they still able to offer gifts and sacrifices?

    When the disciples returned from their evangelisation, and were rejoicing because they had even been able to cast out devils, Jesus told them that what they should rejoice over, instead, is that their names were written in the Book of Life; that they would be faithful to their baptismal vows and bear witness in their own lives to his own infinite love.

    Can there be a higher priesthood than the royal priesthood of all Christians? An imperial priesthood? Was Christ’s sacrifice not the alpha and omega in terms of the redemptive sacrifice to take our sins away, for which we all offer the ‘sacrifice of praise’ during the Holy Mass, as stated in it?

    In the New Testament, Peter describes himself as an Elder, a term from Judaism, Christianity’s womb, denoting, not a separate superior caste, but seniority. God did not create the laity to honour his consecrated pastors; he created his consecrated pastors (the love upon which the whole of the Law depends requires that we all be pastors, informally – part and parcel of our evangelism and our very life), to serve the laity – their brothers and sisters.

    Peter, I believe, in that passage in which he refers to himself as an elder, tells a crippled man he has cured that he is a man like him, and hauls him to his feet. (As indeed angels did on occasions in the scriptures, pointing out that they were merely fellow-servants of God.) That was Peter, the man we know as the Prince of the Apostles, and whose vocation as the Rock upon which (after Christ, himself, evidently) the Church was to be built; and we rightly reiterate, again and again.

    When Peter asks Jesus, ‘What about us? ‘We have left everything and followed you.’ Evidently, all too aware of the danger of clericalism, Jesus specifically avoided addressing them in this sacrificial context, as distinct from others who renounce their worldly possessions. Not that any clergy or laity today are likely to be deliberately living like a tramp, ‘freeloading’, as our lovely materialistic society, would have it, and ‘sleeping rough’, though many of the destitute laity who do so, may have been forced into such straits because their treasure was where their heart was.

    Jesus replied to Peter: ‘I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers,
    children and land – not without persecutions – now in this present time
    and, in the world to come, eternal life.

    Here are links to two interesting articles:

  • paul becke

    Our priests perform miracles every day by performing the sacraments. (What could be more practical and propitious for discipline than to have our leaders do so? A benign anarchy isn’t practical, is it? Or possible…?) Just like the disciples who were rejoicing because they had been able to cast out devils, there clearly is that tendency to rejoice that they routinely perform great miracles, instead of rejoicing that they at least had a great opportunity to have their names written in the Book of Life.

    I feel some sympathy for the author of the article, attached to the second link in my earlier post, since he makes no allowance for the mediation of Our Lady and the saints, indeed, the Communion of Saints. But how could he, other than by the divine inspiration granted to our church since the earliest times? My analytical intelligence, lacks the due imagination, so that I would fail to recognize the centrality of family in God’s plans for us, as he evidently does. Nevertheless, the main thrust of his article is evidently spot on. I saw it similarly expounded in a pamphlet written by a Dominican.

  • paul becke

    Is it not the case, rather, that the royal priesthood of the laity is not a mysteriously vague extension of the royal priesthood of the clergy, but, rather, the converse: the royal priesthood of the clergy is an extension of the royal priesthood of the laity; no two-tier priesthood, we are all brothers, we all share in the one Spirit. They are an emanation from us, even spiritually, not vice versa.

    It is also striking, isn’t it, that, while we are told in Revelations that those who share in the first resurrection will be priests of God and of Jesus (not the other way round, i.e. priests/clergy will be the ones who enjoy the first resurrection), we also read of the twenty-four elders who worship before the throne of God.

    With Peter and other Apostles calling themselves elders, and the twenty-four elders of Revelations thus designated, it would scarcely be a demotion for our ministers to be thus redesignated, would it? I don’t believe the term, ‘priest’, is used in the texts of the Mass to describe the celebrant, but ‘minister’, and I think the reason is obvious, and must have been to the authorities who composed them.

  • Common Sense

    Melchizedek never died. So when the author says he outlived Abraham… umm yeah. He is without genealogy and without end. It states that in Genesis. Two questions though. If he never died, where did he go? Was Jesus just a priest before his time on earth? And therefore not the Son of God? Or are all High Priests sons of God, but Jesus given the highest honor among them? Meaning there was no trinity before the new testament? I am awfully confused. Also it says that in Chapter 7 of Hebrews verse 10 “Because when melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” still in the body of his ancestor?? what does that mean? Thanks.

  • Just a Thought

    Just a thought:
    Melchizedek was described in Hebrew 7:3 “He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. But chosen by God to serve Him as a high priest at his time. May be the subject by the name Melchizedek as Hebrew 7:3 emphasize that the subject does not exist(He is without father or mother or genealogy) but the name represent as a character. A character to the calling of a priest/pastors/elders(whatever you may call it). And their duty/ responsibility to the church(Christ People). To make that God’s word is living and alive. Fitting to anyone who is called and chosen to the calling Example: if the bible uses Aramaic and Hebrew language up to the present then this languages would be still existing and use by many. Since the bible was translated into Latin and English then the Aramaic and Hebrew became dead language at this age. If God uses a name or subject that exist and the subject died then God’s word will not be alive and living at our present age and in the future. Since God is all knowing that all your questions will arise sooner or later and in the future. That’s why God uses the subject as a character in His word so that His word will be alive and living at the old age, present and in the future. As God spoke to Isaiah 55:8-9 ”
    8 “8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
    declares the Lord.
    9 “9 As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    Just a thought…..

  • Zeniel