Priesthood in the New Testament

1. The Jewish Priesthood

2. The Priesthood and High-Priesthood of Jesus Christ

3. The Priesthood of Believers

1. The Jewish Priesthood:

In the New Testament hierateuma (1Pe 2:5,9), "priesthood," is not found with reference to the Jewish priesthood, but hiereus, and archiereus, "high priest," frequently occur. As until the fall of Jerusalem the activities of the priests were carried on in careful accordance with the prescriptions of the Old Testament, there naturally is nothing new or striking in the numerous New Testament references to their work. Perhaps the information of the greatest interest is found in Lu 1:5-9 to the effect that Zacharias was of the course of Abijah, the Lu 8:1-56th of the Lu 24:1-53 courses into which the priests were divided (compare 1Ch 24:7-18), and that in these courses the priests divided their work by lot. In the Gospels the archiereis are mentioned oftener than are the hiereis, the power of the priesthood seeming to have been absorbed by a sort of priestly aristocracy. As under the political pressure of that time the office of high priest could seldom be retained until the death of the holder, there might even be several living at the same time who had for a longer or shorter time held this office which made a man the head of the nation, not only ritually, but also politically, since the high priest was ex officio presiding officer of the Sanhedrin. Not only would these ex-high priests naturally retain the title belonging to their former dignity, but probably the name had come to include as well other members of the same families or of families of equal position, so that it seems that "chief priests" is a more exact translation of archiereis than high priests. In the singular, however, the reference of archiereus is usually, if not invariably, to the individual who at the time given was holding the unique office of high priest. The word hiereus is of course employed in its ordinary signification on the rare occasions when reference is made in the New Testament to corresponding ministers of other religions, as to the priest of Zeus (Ac 14:13) and also to Melchizedek (Heb 7:1).

2. The Priesthood and High-Priesthood of Jesus Christ:

Only in Hebrews is the activity of Jesus set forth as priestly and high-priestly, but in this Epistle great emphasis is laid on these aspects of His work. Interpreters seldom distinguish between these two aspects of His work, and it is plain that sometimes at least the author himself made no effort sharply to distinguish them. But certain considerations make it probable that they were not really confused or combined in the mind of the author himself. For example, it is to be noted that the priesthood of Jesus is declared to be after the order of Melchizedek, and consequently radically unlike that of the Levitical priests. On the other hand, the Aaronic high-priesthood is regarded as having been analogous to that of Jesus, so that in spite of its inferiority, comparison is frequently made with it. It is readily seen that the work of the high priest, both because of his entry into the Most Holy Place and because he bore the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment for a memorial before Yahweh continually, far more suitably than that of the ordinary priests typified the atoning and intercessory work of Jesus (Ex 28:12,15).

Attempting then to treat separately the priestly and high-priestly functions of Jesus, we note that most of what is said of the priestly functions is involved in the declaration that He is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, and this thought is handled in Heb 7:1-28 in such a way as to make plain the superiority of a priesthood after the order of Melchizedek, and thus to confirm the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, the great theme of the book. Historically, the blessing bestowed upon Abraham and the reception of tithes from him prove the superiority of Melchizedek to Levi, and still more to the priestly descendants of Levi (Heb 7:4-10). Further, Jesus became priest not on the ground of a "carnal commandment," i.e. in an order based on descent and inheritance, but by "the power of an endless life" (Heb 7:16), of which fact Melchizedek reminds us, since Scripture is silent alike as to his birth and his death. Again, unlike the Levitical priests, Christ is inducted into His office by the oath of God (Heb 7:20-21; compare Ps 110:4). Finally, while the priests of the Levitical line were hindered from permanence in office by their death, Jesus holds His priesthood untransmitted and untransmissible (Ps 7:17,14). This discussion of the priesthood of Christ "after the order of Melchizedek" occupies almost all of Heb 7:1-28, but at Heb 7:26 His high-priesthood is suddenly introduced, and after that point, while His work is more than once contrasted with that of the temple priests (Heb 8:4-5; 9:6; 10:11 f), no further reference is in any way made to Melchizedek.

After having twice merely given the title of high priest to Jesus (Heb 2:17; 3:1), the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews at Heb 4:14 begins a statement of the resemblance between Jesus and the Jewish high priest, such "as was Aaron," finding the resemblance to reside (1) in His divine appointment to His work (5:4,5), (2) in His experience of suffering (5:7,8; compare 4:15; 5:2), and (3) in His saving work suggested by the sacrificial activity of the ordinary high priest (5:9), which, however, it far transcends in value and effect. But (4) later the work of the high priest and that of Jesus are contrasted as to place where done, the high priest going into the second tabernacle, i.e. the Holy of Holies (9:7), while Christ passes through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, "heaven itself" (9:11,24). A similar contrast is (5) drawn between the sacrifices respectively offered, the ancient sacrifices being the blood of goats and calves (9:12), Christ's being "himself" (9:14), "his own blood" (9:12), "the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God" (9:14). The author also accepts and urges without argument or even explanation (6) the truly sacrificial character of this self-immolation of Jesus. Nor is this fact nullified by the emphasis which once is laid on doing God's will in an antithesis copied from the Ps (10:5-9; compare Ps 40:6 ff), for here the contrast drawn is not between sacrifice on one side and obedience on the other, but rather between the sacrifice of animals dying involuntarily and wholly unconscious of the sacrificial significance of their death, and the offering of Himself on the part of Jesus in intelligent purpose to carry out the will of God, by which will the body of Jesus Christ is the only acceptable offering (Heb 10:10). Further the author urges (7) the actual effectiveness of Christ's work, his argument being that it would already have been repeatedly performed if this single offering had not been sufficient for all time, "once for all" (Heb 7:27; 9:26). Finally is asserted (8) the intercessory work of Christ, which, though not explained, seems to be a figurative presentation of his idea that men are blessed because Christ died, i.e. that this was an indispensable condition of God's manifestation of His merciful love, and that the grace consequent on the death of Christ does not merely grow out of a fact, but that the divine love and providence for believers are exercised, neither automatically or impersonally, but in virtue of a constant personal sympathy for varying temptations and needs, a sympathy intensified by the earthly experience, temptation, suffering of Him who had been and is, not only the Divine Son, but also the Son of Man. Thus, the salvation of the believer is certain and complete, and the priestly and high-priestly work of Jesus reaches its consummation.

3. The Priesthood of Believers:

The priesthood of believers is an idea which finds formal expression less frequently in the New Testament than has been the case in Protestant theology. But it does not follow that there has been a corresponding divergence from the thought of the apostles. It only shows that a thought which according to apostolic conception was one of the invariable privileges of every Christian, and which found, if not constant, yet sufficiently clear expression in this figurative fashion, has come, in consequence of errors which have developed, to receive in the controversies of later centuries stronger emphasis than it did at first. It may well be noted first that this conception of the priesthood of believers, standing by itself, is in no way related to the various priestly activities which are also figuratively attributed to them. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who does not speak of the priesthood of believers, knowing no Christian priesthood but that of Jesus Himself, yet calls "praise," "to do good and to communicate," sacrifices (13:15,16). So Paul bids the Romans present their bodies "a living sacrifice" (Ro 12:1), and Peter calls Christians "a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices" (1Pe 2:5). But this figurative usage is entirely distinct from the subject of the present paragraph. Also the conception of the Christian priesthood never in the New Testament attaches itself merely to the ministry of the Christian church, whatever may be held as to its orders or tasks. In no sense has the church or any church an official priesthood. Nor is it any part of the New Testament conception of the priesthood of believers that any individual should act in any respect for any other. Though the intercessory supplication of believers in behalf of other persons has of late often been represented as a priestly act, as being, indeed, that activity which is essential to any real priesthood of believers, the New Testament thought is quite different, and is to be thus conceived: In ancient times it was held that men in general could not have direct access to God, that any approach to Him must be mediated by some member of the class of priests, who alone could approach God, and who must accordingly be employed by other men to represent them before Him. This whole conception vanishes in the light of Christianity. By virtue of their relation to Christ all believers have direct approach to God, and consequently, as this right of approach was formerly a priestly privilege, priesthood may now be predicated of every Christian. That none needs another to intervene between his soul and God; that none can thus intervene for another; that every soul may and must stand for itself in personal relation with God--such are the simple elements of the New Testament doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. (Consult treatises on New Testament theology, and commentaries on the Epistle to the Hebrews.)

David Foster Estes

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