“Was Melchizedek the preincarnate Christ?”
No, Melchizedek was not the same person as Jesus, contrary to a rather popular notion that stems from a misunderstanding of certain passages in Hebrews 7.
Melchizedek is first mentioned in Genesis 14. Abram (later called Abraham), returning from the rescue of his nephew (Lot), encountered this ancient dignitary who was king of Salem (early Jerusalem; cf. Psa. 76:2).
In addition to being king, he was described as “priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:18).
His stature is revealed in that he “blessed” Abraham (the greater always blesses the lesser), and to Melchizedek the patriarch paid tithes, i.e., gave to the king-priest a tenth of his spoils (the lesser tithes to the greater).
The writer of Hebrews uses this incident (together with a prophecy from Psalm 110), to demonstrate the superiority of the priesthood of Christ to that of the Levitical system (Heb. 7:4-10). Beyond that, there were some similarities between Melchizedek and Christ, so that it may be said that the former was a “type” (a picture or symbolic preview) of Jesus. That does not mean, however, that they were the same person. In fact, the sacred text indicates otherwise.
Christ was said to be a priest “after [kata] the order [taxis] of” Melchizedek (Heb. 5:6,10; 6:20; 7:11).
The Greek term taxis (order) suggests a similar “arrangement.” For example, just as Melchizedek was both a king and priest simultaneously, so Christ is as well (cf. Zech. 6:12-13; Heb. 1:3).
The preposition kata used with the accusative case suggests the sense of “in accordance with, corresponding to” (Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, p. 377). Hence a comparison is being drawn.
Melchizedek was “without father, without mother” (Heb. 7:3a).
The meaning is this: his divine role was not genealogically derived, not handed down from his parents. So, neither was Jesus’ priesthood determined by a physical lineage, as in the case of the Aaronic priests (Ex. 28:1; Num. 3:10).
Among the Tel el Armarna tablets (discovered in Egypt in 1887), there are several letters written to a Pharaoh from one Ebed-tob, who is called “king of Uru-Salim.” The Canaanite king tells the Egyptian ruler that he did not receive his reign from his father and mother, but it had been conferred upon him by “the Mighty King.” This helps to illustrate the phraseology in the book of Hebrews (see A.H. Sayce, “Melchizedek,” Dictionary of the Bible, James Hastings, Ed., Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1908, III, p. 335).
Melchizedek’s administration was without “beginning of days” and “end of life” (Heb. 7:3b).
Again, the meaning is that his priesthood was not for a fixed term (as in the case of the Levitical priests). Under the Old Testament regime, priests began their service at the age of 30, and the Levites served from age 30 to 50 (cf. Num. 4:3ff; 8:24-25).
Apparently, however, there was no chronological limitation with reference to this “priest of Most High God” who reigned in Salem. Again, in this regard he foreshadowed Christ, who serves continually as our priest throughout the Christian age.
That Melchizedek was not the same person as Jesus is evident in that he is said to be “like unto” the Son of God (Heb. 7:3c).
The participle aphomoioo denotes a comparison (e.g., a “copy” or “facsimile” – J.H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958, pp. 89-90). The term becomes irrelevant if the two persons were the same in identity.
The point is made again in verse 15. Jesus is a priest after the “likeness” of Melchizedek. D.W. Burdick observes:
“The verb aphomoioo always assumes two distinct and separate identities, one of which is a copy of the other. Thus Melchizedek and the Son of God are represented as two separate persons, the first of which resembled the second” (“Melchizedek,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia – Revised, G.W. Bromiley, Ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986, Vol. 3, p. 313).
A distinction between Christ and Melchizedek is vividly seen in Psalm 110.
In this text, Jehovah addresses David’s “Lord” (Jesus) in the second person, while the reference to Melchizedek is in the third person (v. 4). [Note: See Matthew 22:42-44 for Jesus’ application of this psalm to himself.]
Accordingly, one should not make the mistake of identifying the ancient king-priest of Salem as Jesus Christ.