“The Name ‘Melchizedek’: Some Thoughts on Its Meaning and the Priesthood It Represents,” Ensign, Sept. 1980, 19
Special Issue: Old Testament
The Name “Melchizedek”:
Some Thoughts on Its Meaning and the Priesthood It Represents
The righteous priesthood holder will not only bear authority, he will bear love and a ministry of service and inner healing as well. With this perspective, home teaching and priesthood quorums will increasingly become instruments of love.
I am indebted to James Carver, an instructor at the University of Washington Institute of Religion at Seattle, Washington, for this basic idea. It is used with appreciation.
It is not new to us that there have been many noble bearers of the Melchizedek Priesthood. In fact, a considerable number of these are much better known than the person whose name identifies that priesthood—that is, we have a more complete record of their ministries than we do of Melchizedek.
Why, then, does that sacred priesthood, which was titled the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God, bear Melchizedek’s name rather than that of some other prophet and patriarch (see D&C 107:3)? After much study, I have concluded that the name Melchizedek is a name of deep significance, and that we can know, at least in part, why the Lord selected this particular name to identify his holy priesthood.
Too often a search to understand such things ends before it begins. Old Testament matters, we often conclude, are so peculiar and unusual that few can expect to understand them. So we give no further thought to any relationship between the name and ourselves.
Similarly, when I was ordained a deacon, Aaronic Priesthood was a meaningless term, one of the myriad words “they” had magically created before I arrived. To me, the name didn’t need to mean anything, and so it didn’t. As with those mysterious words that doctors and scientists use, its unfamiliarity put it in the domain of the scholars, and I was willing to receive it as a given, as arbitrarily defined.
As I have matured, however, it has been a sweet experience in my gospel study to discover some part of the plan of God imbedded in one of those “peculiar” concepts that I had simply accepted and not thought about. How unfortunate it would have been if my understanding of that grand order of priesthood had remained so shallow. It has been my joy to discover, line upon line, the heritage which connects today’s sons of Aaron with those charged anciently with the temporal affairs of Israel.
But what of the name Melchizedek? Here is a term even stranger to our experience than Aaron. Yet the name is so significant that it is used to identify the order of priesthood by which the Savior atoned for the sins of the world (see Heb. 5–8). Why is Melchizedek given the singular honor of having the higher priesthood bear his name when we wish to avoid too frequent use of the Lord’s name (see D&C 107:3–4)?
An appeal to the scriptures begins to inform us. We learn that Melchizedek was spiritually prodigious as a child (see JST, Gen. 14:26; Heb. 11:33–34). But, as we remember, so were Nephi (see 1 Ne. 2:16), Jacob (see 2 Ne. 2:1–4), and Moroni (see Alma 43:17). Or as we learn more, we may reason, “Melchizedek was a man of faith, … And his people … obtained heaven” (JST, Gen. 14:26, 34). But this criteria would suggest that the priesthood could just as well bear the name of Enoch (see Moses 7:13, 21)—by virtue of the compelling impact of his similar accomplishments. In fact, this miracle of both Melchizedek and Enoch preparing and then seeing translated an entire city into the presence of God is indeed a feat so powerful upon the imagination that none should misunderstand the allusion to either a Melchizedek or an “Enochian” priesthood as being the priesthood powerful enough to take us to heaven. Perhaps at last we have found the reason.
Yet, why is it that only Melchizedek has his name used to designate the “Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God”?
We turn again to the scriptures and see that they explain that it “is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest” (D&C 107:2), and that “there were many before him, and … many afterwards, but none were greater; therefore, of him they have more particularly made mention” (Alma 13:19; italics added). Perhaps, then, this finally explains why Melchizedek is a most fit representative to personify the highest meaning of this sacred and powerful priesthood.
However, in addition to these scriptures there remains still another exciting and beautiful consideration that we should examine: it appears possible that the actual name of Melchizedek preserves the original, full, and true identity and name of the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God.
The Name Melchizedek
It is not unusual for Hebrew names to contain one of the word roots used to designate deity. For example, Immanuel, which means “God with us,” contains the same el reference as Elohim, which is the plural form for God, or Gods. Other examples are Ishmael and Israel, as well as names ending in iah for Jehovah, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Elijah (“My God is Jehovah”) combines both these roots and demonstrates a variation of the Jehovah root.
Hebrew names in scripture are sometimes given by inspiration or directly by the Lord, such as when he changes Abram to Abraham or Jacob to Israel. Such names often serve as a divine message, much like a patriarchal blessing—a message of hope, comfort, or warning; a directive for the bearer; or a description of his attributes. For example, what beauty and comfort are in the name and prophecy of Immanuel: “God [is] with us” (see Isa. 7:14; Isa. 8:8, 10; Matt. 1:23).
So what of the name Melchizedek? We discover some inspiring and fascinating clues by turning to a Bible or Hebrew dictionary. We first find Melchiah, meaning “Jehovah is king.” We then find Zadok, meaning “just” or “righteous.” Thus, our study has identified the very roots from which Melchizedek, “king of righteousness,” is formed (see Heb. 7:2). As we contemplate what we have found we see that the name Melchizedek is not simply a contrived arrangement of unfamiliar syllables! But is there more about the significance of the name’s translated meaning? So far, we have not yet seen why He after whom this mighty order of priesthood is named should be referred to as “an high priest … after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 6:20). We ponder that there must be something out of order in identifying the Master by the name of the servant, however extraordinary that servant may be—unless perhaps the name of the Master is revealed in the name of the servant—If so, then Melchizedek glorified the Savior as he did honor to his own name.
In pursuing this thought, we consider the following expressions from Enoch which reveal another of the beautiful names of the Redeemer:
“When shall the blood of the Righteous be shed … ?
“And behold, Enoch saw the day of the coming of the Son of Man, even in the flesh; and his soul rejoiced, saying: The Righteous is lifted up, and the Lamb is slain from the foundation of the world” (Moses 7:45–47; italics added).
Surely the Righteous is also the King of Righteousness in the fullest meaning of the name and title. Thus, it is possible, then, that the translated word Melchizedek also represents one of the Savior’s title-names. If so, then when we speak of the holy priesthood after the order of Melchizedek, we are not only invoking a grand historic allusion of the power to go to heaven, we are also identifying the source of that divine power and authority—the great, ultimate King of Righteousness. Accordingly, the Melchizedek Priesthood would thus not simply be defined to mean the holy priesthood, but would appear to intrinsically mean, by translation, the power and authority of the great King of Righteousness, Jesus Christ. Another way to phrase it would be to say: the priesthood of Melchizedek, meaning, the power and authority of the King of Righteousness.
Many title-names with which we are familiar have been formed to represent the Lord—Savior, Redeemer, the Righteous, the Creator, and so forth. Consequently, the scriptures say, “Out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood” (D&C 107:4).
Perhaps we have assumed that reference to deity was thereby eliminated, rather than rendered—as the Lord has also done in so many other instances—in a more discreet form. But if the name Melchizedek is simply a different form of a true title—King of Righteousness—preserving the identity of its divine head, then the Melchizedek Priesthood is more than the priesthood belonging to or originating from an exemplary patriarch; it would be the very power of the King of Righteousness. Perhaps the Lord is telling us in D&C 107:4 that the term Melchizedek Priesthood is but a discretionary way of identifying the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God, who is the true King of Righteousness, rendered by the name Melchizedek in magnificent Hebrew reverential sensitivity and judgment.
The Doctrine of the Priesthood
As we gain deeper appreciation for the name of this sacred priesthood, we also will want to learn more of the requirements for the priesthood’s use. Several principles help us appreciate its holy nature.
1. The power of the Melchizedek Priesthood derives from the honor due Jesus Christ throughout the universe. His work of redeeming love affects all, and so he is honored and obeyed. This principle is illustrated by a brief statement of the Lord that “the devil … rebelled against me, saying, Give me thine honor, which is my power” (D&C 29:36; italics added).
Because the Lord can capture the hearts of men through his love, honor, and virtue, he has power to transform their lives. The example of Christ inspires us to a higher, spiritual level of consciousness and conduct, to become what we have the capacity to become. While it is true that Christ has commanded us to love and to live righteously, to limit our vision of his teaching to the issuing of commandments is to miss the point. What he did was to reveal the nature and potential of man and the meaning of love and righteousness. He has shown us that the worst of us is worthy of love (see Matt. 5:44) and that each is capable of loving the rest of us.
Then, our salvation is provided for in the moving act of the Atonement. The Savior explains the effect of this transcendent expression of God’s love upon the souls of men, “My Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross … that I might draw all men unto me” (3 Ne. 27:14) “and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:15). Thus has God exercised influence upon men “without compulsory means” (D&C 121:46). And such is “the doctrine of the [Melchizedek] priesthood.”
Now how does man qualify for the sobering trust of bearing this sacred power?
2. A man must reflect the nature of Jesus Christ to use the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood. We know that “the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness” (D&C 121:36), yet many ignore the sensitive conditions upon which priesthood power exists and operates. Priesthood is not a technology, not a thing to be used merely by the knowing how. Priestcraft, not priesthood, consists of form, symbol, ritual, and knowledge alone. True, the pattern and order of heaven must be reflected in the ordinances of the priesthood, but that which defies counterfeit is the preparation and qualification of one bearing holy keys. “That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (D&C 121:37).
Many of the commandments of the Lord, in accordance with this principle, can be seen as a description of the Lord’s holy nature rather than as arbitrary regulation he has imposed upon us. Consider the revelation of God’s nature, the self-portrait he gives as he pleads:
“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
“By kindness, and pure knowledge” (D&C 121:41–42).
A profound expression of worship is emulation. Thus the bearer of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood who would “worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) will increasingly reflect the “image of God” in his countenance (Alma 5:19). He will not only bear the power and authority of Jesus Christ; he will bear his love and his ministry of service and inner healing as well. From this perspective, home teaching and priesthood quorums will increasingly become instruments of love rather than merely organizational functions.
Doctrine and Covenants 121 [D&C 121] appears central to understanding the principles of priesthood administration because it provides a profile of fitness for anyone called to represent the Master.
3. The key to priesthood leadership is relationship. To the extent that a priesthood leader is willing to invest love, concern, and interest in others, he can become a positive and powerful influence in their lives without the need to resort to coercive means. The Savior permanently affected the world during his mortal ministry, without the compulsory exercise of authority, even though all power and authority resided with him. To rely solely on “persuasion” and “long-suffering” (D&C 121:41), rather than “to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control” (D&C 121:37) is a profound expression of meekness and “love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41).
I believe that the person who enjoys the companionship of the Spirit will be taught by the Spirit in his relations with others. I have found listening to be the source of much that the Lord refers to as “pure knowledge” (D&C 121:42), which enables us to counsel with “sharpness” (D&C 121:43), an act that is characterized by relevance and focus rather than harshness. To reprove with sharpness is not to vent frustration or to unleash advice. It is counsel of perfect relevance to the situation—understanding made available to a leader through the Spirit, whose fruits include meekness and love. Before listening with understanding to the feelings of another, my counsel is inferential and biased because I respond to my preconceived notions. After listening, I am more inclined to feel with a person in his need. This posture seems to be what Paul is admonishing us to do when he says,
“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
“For if a man think himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself” (Gal. 6:1–3).
4. The family is the domain for some of the greatest tests, as well as opportunities, of priesthood leadership. The home is the crucible of Christian commitment. I have done a far better job of living the gospel in public and private than in the mini-society of my family. No other person or group can press upon me, demand of me, or expose me like the members of my family can.
To whom do the words “as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose” (D&C 121:39) more apply than to parents? Many parents may seem to be vulnerable to the offense of exercising “control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children” (D&C 121:37). My children’s chronic grievances, whether spoken or silently held, often indicate my failure to operate in harmony with true principles.
Yet the family is an eternal domain within which the greatest blessings of the Melchizedek Priesthood can be realized. Parents have an enviable opportunity in their relationship to the small kingdom of agents within their own homes. Theirs is the challenge to organize or bring order to a home on the basis of love and honor, as our Father in Heaven has done with us. Yet as discipline problems arise, how habitually and compulsively do parents resort to force and in other ways abridge the freedom and the agency of their children? Some parents are too often tempted to attribute disobedience to a character flaw within their children, rather than to their own failure to inspire obedience by their honor, justice, and holiness.
Parents are “called,” but are they “chosen” by their children to be an influence in their lives? How can parents convey the kind of love our Heavenly Father offers? Are parents prepared to rely entirely on their increasing virtue and righteousness to elicit loyalty, cooperation, and harmony among their children? What a challenge, to qualify to influence only through relationship! Yet only then can parents establish an “everlasting dominion” or eternal family that can function and will endure “without compulsory means,” as our Eternal Father has done. What we find so very difficult to do within our own homes, God has brought to full fruition among the innumerable hosts of heaven.
5. Priesthood is not chauvinistic. The priesthood is “without father, without mother, … having neither beginning of days, nor end of life” (Heb. 7:30), nor maleness nor femaleness. It is head to them both. Male and female alike come under it and must understand their true relationship to it, one to serve as priest within it, the other eventually as a priestess. Men here are given the priesthood power, but both man and woman must bring themselves into submission unto it, rather than she unto him as a person. The man must assume the same relationship of honor and obedience to priesthood truths and doctrines that the woman does. That is, it precedes them both. For the man to assume that because he “holds” the priesthood that it is his or that he is somehow exalted in importance is a serious distortion:
“That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion … in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves” (D&C 121:37).
There is no chauvinism in true righteousness. It may be that in society generally—among other causes—some male sin spawns some feminist grievances. It especially becomes those bearing the priesthood of the King of Righteousness to grow increasingly Christlike, thus voluntarily eliminating any basis for contention. Justice, fairness, sensitivity, and respect—regardless of another’s sex—reflect the depth and maturity of the commitment of a priesthood bearer.
For a mortal to attempt to use the priesthood without honor and righteousness is to attempt that which even God cannot do. Priesthood bearers must become men of virtue. Men and women alike have this commandment and promise:
“Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
“The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever” (D&C 121:45–46).
6. In the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood the power of godliness is manifest (see D&C 84:20). By this power “man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live” (D&C 84:22). Also, “God having sworn … with an oath … that every one being ordained after this order and calling should have power, by faith, to break mountains, to divide the seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course;
“To put at defiance the armies of nations, to divide the earth, to break every band, to stand in the presence of God; to do all things according to his will, according to his command, subdue principalities and powers, and this by the will of the Son of God. …
“And men having this faith, coming up unto this order of God, were translated and taken up into heaven” (JST, Gen. 14:30–32).
“All that my Father hath shall be given unto him. And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood” (D&C 84:38, 39).
Who can comprehend it? Surely “there is a strange thing in the land” (Moses 6:38). This incredible power of God has been given to man—and it is among us! Who can be indifferent? Who can presume to thoughtlessly exercise it? Who can disregard the terms set for use of so great a power? Who would choose to forfeit the staggering blessings of a power of such holiness?
The sons of Melchizedek have a work to do in the world, in the kingdom, in their homes. All around are lives that need the blessings of the priesthood of the King of Righteousness. Thus has the Lord counseled:
“[S]tand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5).
As priesthood holders serve in meekness, they draw unto themselves, their families, and others the power to attain godliness, for “all those who are ordained unto this priesthood are made like unto the Son of God” (JST, Heb. 7:3).
What a heritage and challenge, then, is ours in the Melchizedek Priesthood! Here is a name of beauty. Here is a priesthood of love that, by its very nature, teaches of Jesus Christ. Even the ministry of Melchizedek prefigures and typifies the Master in its power to inspire repentance; to establish peace, virtue, and holiness; to do works of meekness, service, and love; and to bring an entire society into the presence of God.
Our ministry is no less as we pursue the preparations for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the great King of Righteousness, after whom we all are to be patterned.