PRIEST, PRIESTHOOD. The English word priest is derived from the Greek presbyteros, which means “elder” and suggests the priestly function of counsel. The NT word for “priest,” hiereus, related to hieros, “holy,” indicates one who is consecrated to and engaged in holy matters.

The Hebrew kōhēn, “priest,” is of uncertain origin. For practical Bible study we may say simply that a priest is a minister of any religion, whether pagan (Gen.41.45; Acts.14.13) or biblical (Matt.8.4; 1Pet.2.5, 1Pet.2.9).

I. The History of the Formal Priesthood. The formal priesthood in Israel began with the time of the Exodus. In the patriarchal times the heads of families offered sacrifices and intercessory prayers and performed general religious functions, but there seems to have been no specialization and no separate priestly office, as there was among the Egyptians (Gen.47.22, Gen.47.26) and in the instance of Melchizedek (Gen.14.18-Gen.14.20).

In Exod.28.1-Exod.28.43-Exod.29.1-Exod.29.46 and Lev.8.1-Lev.8.36 is the record of the founding of the Aaronic order of priests. The choice of the tribe of Levi as the priestly tribe to serve as assistants to the Aaronic priests is recorded in Num.3.1-Num.3.51 (see Exod.32.26-Exod.32.29; Num.8.16ff.).

It is not possible in this article to go into technical historical and critical questions related to the OT priesthood. The reader who is interested in those matters will find extended discussions from a relatively conservative point of view in ZPEB, ISBE, HBD, and in Ochler’s Old Testament Theology (see his index). The common critical view is given in R. H. Pfeiffer’s Introduction to the Old Testament, 1941 (see “Priesthood,” “Priestly Cities,” and “Priestly Code” in the index, p. 913). Current critical opinion on the historical priesthood is reflected in the Journal of Biblical Literature for March 1961 in an article by Professor R. B. Y. Scott of Princeton University discussing the relationships between the priests, the prophets, and the wise men; and in the first article of a series by Professor Menahem Horan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the ancient Levitical Cities.

Major attention must here be confined to the theological, devotional, and ethical implications of the biblical idea of the priest and the priesthood.

II. Christ’s Priesthood. The priesthood of Christ is the principal theme of the Letter to the Hebrews. “Christ as our redeemer executeth the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king, both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, p. 23). The three offices of Christ are the subject of chapter 15 of Book II of Calvin’s Institutes. The distinction of the offices, particularly that of priest, is not to be made rigidly, as though there were no overlapping; nevertheless the distinction has been found illuminating and profitable for an understanding of the Bible.

That Christ combines in himself the three offices is a matter of special significance. After the establishment of the Aaronic priesthood, it was considered an offense in Israel for anyone not officially consecrated as a priest to offer formal ritual sacrifices. The rebellion of Korah (Num.16.1-Num.16.50) involved intrusion into the priesthood, even though he and his associates were Levites (Num.16.8-Num.16.9). King Saul was most severely rebuked for a similar intrusion (1Sam.13.18ff.), and King Uzziah was struck with leprosy for this offense (2Chr.26.16ff.).

The offices of prophet and priest might be combined in one person (John.11.49-John.11.52). Jeremiah was a member of a priestly family (Jer.1.1). The offices of king and prophet might also be combined (Acts.2.29-Acts.2.31), but the kingly line of David was of the nonpriestly tribe of Judah, and therefore no king of David’s line could have been also a priest according to the Levitical law.

The NT writers made much of the fact that Jesus belonged to the house and line of David (Luke.2.4-Luke.2.5; cf. Matt.21.9; Mark.11.10). How then could he be also a priest? The author of the Letter to the Hebrews finds the scriptural answer in the priestly order of Melchizedek (Heb.6.10, Heb.6.20-Heb.7.17), who was Abraham’s superior and both king and priest. This amplifies Zechariah’s prophecy (Heb.6.13) that “the Branch” (cf. Isa.4.2; Jer.23.5-Jer.23.6) will be “a priest on his throne.”

A. The atonement of Christ was just as effective before the event as afterward. The high priestly office of Christ did not begin at his incarnation; it was a fact known to David (Ps.110.4) along with his sovereign lordship (Ps.110.1). His priesthood with reference to fallen humanity was established in the eternal decrees of God and has been exercised in every age on behalf of God’s elect. The Bible presents Christ, our Prophet, Priest, and King, as a figure of cosmic proportions, whose work as our Redeemer has “neither beginning of day nor end of life.”

B. The priestly ministry of Christ is introduced in Heb.1.3 in the words “after he had provided purification for sins.” This is, of course, a reference to his death on the cross, regarded as an atoning sacrifice. But this act of sacrifice was not a mere symbol, as were all of the Aaronic priestly acts; it was of infinite intrinsic worth. He was “crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death [sufficiently for the offer of salvation] for everyone” (Heb.2.9).

Christ’s priesthood was in no sense contrary to the Aaronic order. It fulfilled all the soteriological significance of it. But the priesthood of Christ furnished the substance of which the Aaronic priesthood was only the shadow (Col.2.17; Heb.8.5) and symbol.

Examination of the wealth of detail in which the priesthood of Christ is said to complete and supersede the Aaronic priesthood, especially in Heb.5.1-Heb.5.14-Heb.10.1-Heb.10.39, would require an elaborate and extended thesis. All that is possible here is an attempt to clarify certain points of misunderstanding.

C. The tabernacle of which Christ is the High Priest is the entire cosmic scene of the redemption of God’s elect. This was the “pattern” that Moses saw (Heb.8.5)—God’s plan of salvation. It includes all the spiritual and temporal furniture of heaven and earth. The cross of Christ was the altar of sacrifice on which he offered himself. When he gave up his life on the cross, the atonement was “finished” (John.19.30) once and for all (Heb.7.27; Heb.9.26) with absolutely nothing more for God or man to add to it. The meaning of Rom.4.25 is not that his resurrection added anything to our justification but that, having died “for our sins,” which we had committed, he was raised from the dead “for our justification,” which he had fully accomplished in his death. His resurrection does not add to the atonement, but of course death could not keep him, and for us it is a proof that his death was a victory.

The notion that the atonement was not finished until Jesus presented his blood in some far-distant sanctuary is entirely unscriptural. The atonement was finished on the cross in the immediate presence of God the Father. The “way of the sanctuaries” is now fully revealed. The curtain has been torn from top to bottom and no longer hides the “place of mercy.”

True, the curtain is once spoken of as though it still cuts off our view (Heb.6.18-Heb.6.20; see also Heb.4.14), but this is a different metaphor. It is not the “mercy seat” that is hidden in Heb.6.18-Heb.6.20, but the “hope offered to us,” the “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb.9.28; Heb.12.14-Heb.12.29).

D. The present intercession of Christ is taught in Rom.8.34; Heb.7.25. (Cf. Rom.8.26-Rom.8.27 for the intercession of the Holy Spirit.) But there is nothing in the Scripture to indicate an unfinished atonement or an unfinished case in court. (The Adventist doctrine of “investigative judgment” is particularly erroneous. See Walter Martin’s discussion of this doctrine in his valuable book on Seventh Day Adventism, 1960.) The NT word for intercession does not necessarily indicate any plea being offered. It suggests conferring over, or brooding over. Similarly the word “advocate” in 1John.2.1 (kjv) does not mean that our case is not completely settled. “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?” (Rom.8.33). Satan accuses, but he has no standing in court. The case is settled, the verdict has been given. We are justified in Christ. Now our “Advocate,” our great High Priest, broods over us and counsels and guides.

The comparisons of different priesthoods in the Letter to the Hebrews are not between the religion of the OT and the “Churchianity” of this age. The comparisons are between the outward form of Judaism and the reality in Christ. Every argument against Judaism could be turned with equal logic against the outward forms of the church, if Christ is not the center of it all.

III. The Priesthood of Believers. This can be but briefly mentioned. Our church sacraments conducted by ordained ministers are analogous to those of the OT. They are but shadows, as worthless as “the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean” (Heb.9.13), unless they are received by genuine faith in the atonement of Christ. No act of any human being in any age could do more than shadow the atonement of Christ. “No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him” (Ps.49.7).

Bibliography: E. O. James, The Nature and Function of Priesthood, 1955; T. W. Manson, Ministry and Priesthood, 1959; T. J. Meek, Hebrews Origins, 1960; C. C. Eastwood, The Royal Priesthood of the Faithful, 1963; J. H. Elliott, The Elect and the Holy, 1966; H.-J. Kraus, Worship in Israel, 1966; J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 1969; NIDNTT, 3:32-44.——JOB

The institution of priesthood is found in virtually all the great religions, usually in connection with some kind of sacrifice. The term “priest” either alone or in combination with “high” or “chief” occurs over 700 times in the OT and over 80 times in the New. Etymologically the English term “priest” is a contraction of presbuteros, which itself is rendered regularly in English as “elder.” “Priest” renders hiereus, which never refers to a Christian minister in the entire NT, though in the gospels and Acts it usually refers to Jewish priests. In the OT, the pre-Mosaic order of the priesthood was patriarchal. Later a more formal priesthood appears to have emerged. Moses consecrated Aaron and his three sons (Exod. 28:1). Next, the tribe of Levi was set aside and consecrated to the Lord (Exod. 32:26-29) and given charge of the services in the tent of meeting while only the sons of Aaron exercised the function of the priesthood. Thus the Book of Deuteronomy, which reflects the period of the monarch, refers to the levitical priests (Deut. 18:1).

In postexilic times the priesthood was divided into three orders: (1) the high priest; (2) the ordinary priest; and (3) the Levites. In theory, the members of all three orders were descendants of Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Thus the priesthood proper was confined to those Levites who were descendants of Aaron, one of Levi's grandsons and sometimes known as Aaronites. Those who could not claim kinship with Aaron became a lower order whose task it was to minister to the Aaronites (Ezek. 44:14).

In the NT, the idea of Christ as the culmination of the high priesthood (a mediator between God and man) finds expression in the Book of Hebrews, the only NT book with a specifically Jewish name. Here Christ is a High Priest (Heb. 5:10) and through His sacrifice He is able to reconcile man to God, which was the purpose symbolized by the older Jewish sacrifices of sheep and goats. But He Himself became the victim (Rev. 13:8) as well as the intercessor. In the Christian Church the “priesthood” did not emerge as a function until well after the apostolic period. Apart from a questionable reference in Ignatius, the term does not appear to have been applied to Christian ministers until c.200. Perhaps by the early fifth century, the priest had accrued the authority to administer the sacraments, and thus the way opened for the doctrine of the priesthood which would reach full flower in the medieval period. The Reformers, in general, rejected the concept of the priesthood because it had come to be seen in connection with the Mass.

The present use of the term is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. This is perhaps due to a rediscovery of the relationship of the priesthood to Christ, rather than merely to church authority.

E.R. Fairweather and R.F. Hettinger, Episcopacy and Reunion (1952); E.O. James, The Nature and Function of Priesthood (1955); C.C. Eastwood, The Royal Priesthood of the Faithful (1963); A.G. Hebert, Apostle and Bishop (1963).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(kohen, "priest," "prince," "minister"; hiereus archiereus; for hiereus megas, of Heb 10:21, see Thayer’s Lexicon, under the word hiereus:


1. Implies Divine Choice

2. Implies Representation

3. Implies Offering Sacrifice

4. Implies Intercession



1. A Strictly Religious Order

2. Priestism Denied

3. The High Priest’s Qualifications

4. Symbolism of Aaron's Rod|Aaron’s Rod


1. Symbolism of Consecration

2. Type and Archetype


A priest is one who is duly authorized to minister in sacred things, particularly to offer sacrifices at the altar, and who acts as mediator between men and God. In the New Testament the term is applied to priests of the Gentiles (Ac 14:13), to those of the Jews (Mt 8:4), to Christ (Heb 5:5,6), and to Christians (1Pe 2:9; Re 1:6). The office of priest in Israel was of supreme importance and of high rank. The high priest stood next the monarch in influence and dignity. Aaron, the head of the priestly order, was closely associated with the great lawgiver, Moses, and shared with him in the government and guidance of the nation. It was in virtue of the priestly functions that the chosen people were brought into near relations with God and kept therein. Through the ministrations of the priesthood the people of Israel were instructed in the doctrine of sin and its expiation, in forgiveness and worship. In short, the priest was the indispensable source of religious knowledge for the people, and the channel through which spiritual life was communicated.

I. Nature of the Priestly Office.

1. Implies Divine Choice:

The Scriptures furnish information touching this point. To them we at once turn. Priesthood implies choice. Not only was the office of divine institution, but the priest himself was divinely-appointed thereto. "For every high priest, being taken from among men, is appointed for men in things pertaining to God. .... And no man taketh the honor unto himself, but when he is called of God, even as was Aaron" (Heb 5:1,4). The priest was not elected by the people, much less was he self-appointed. Divine selection severed him from those for whom he was to act. Even our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, came not into the world unsent. He received His commission and His authority from the fountain of all sovereignty. At the opening of His earthly ministry He said, "He anointed me. .... He hath sent me" (Lu 4:18). He came bearing heavenly credentials.

2. Implies Representation:

It implies the principle of representation. The institution of the office was God’s gracious provision for a people at a distance from Him, who needed one to appear in the divine presence in their behalf. The high priest was to act for men in things pertaining to God, "to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Heb 2:17). He was the mediator who ministered for the guilty. "The high priest represented the whole people. All Israelites were reckoned as being in him. The prerogative held by him belonged to the whole of them (Ex 19:6), but on this account it was transferred to him because it was impossible that all Israelites should keep themselves holy as became the priests of Yahweh" (Vitringa). That the high priest did represent the whole congregation appears, first, from his bearing the tribal names on his shoulders in the onyx stones, and, second, in the tribal names engraved in the twelve gems of the breastplate. The divine explanation of this double representation of Israel in the dress of the high priest is, he "shall bear their names before Yahweh upon his two shoulders for a memorial" (Ex 28:12,19). Moreover, his committing heinous sin involved the people in his guilt: "If the anointed priest shall sin so as to bring guilt on the people" (Le 4:3). The Septuagint reads, "If the anointed priest shall sin so as to make the people sin." The anointed priest, of course, is the high priest. When he sinned the people sinned. His official action was reckoned as their action. The whole nation shared in the trespass of their representative. The converse appears to be just as true. What he did in his official capacity, as prescribed by the Lord, was reckoned as done by the whole congregation: "Every high priest .... is appointed for men" (Heb 5:1).

3. Implies Offering Sacrifice:

It implies the offering of sacrifice. Nothing is clearer in Scripture than this priestly function. It was the chief duty of a priest to reconcile men to God by making atonement for their sins; and this he effected by means of sacrifice, blood-shedding (Heb 5:1; 8:3). He would be no priest who should have nothing to offer. It was the high priest who carried the blood of the sin offering into the Most Holy Place and who sprinkled it seven times on and before the mercy-seat, thus symbolically covering the sins of the people from the eyes of the Lord who dwelt between the cherubim (Ps 80:1). It was he also who marked the same blood on the horns of the altar of burnt offering in the Court of the Tabernacle, and on those of the golden altar, that the red sign of propitiation might thus be lifted up in the sight of Yahweh, the righteous Judge and Redeemer.

4. Implies Intercession:

It implies intercession. In the priestly ministry of Aaron and his sons this function is not so expressly set forth as are some of their other duties, but it is certainly included. For intercession is grounded in atonement. There can be no effective advocacy on behalf of the guilty until their guilt is righteously expiated. The sprinkling of the blood on the mercy-seat served to cover the guilt from the face of God, and at the same time it was an appeal to Him to pardon and accept His people. So we read that after Aaron had sprinkled the blood he came forth from the sanctuary and blessed Israel (Le 9:22-24; Nu 6:22-27).

II. The Two Great Priests of the Old Testament, Melchizedek and Aaron:

These were Melchizedek and Aaron. No others that ever bore the name or discharged the office rank with these, save, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom they were distinguished types. Of the two, Melchizedek was the greater. There are two reasons why they are to be considered chiefs: first, because they are first in their respective orders. Melchizedek was not only the head of his order, but he had no successor. The office began and terminated with him (Heb 7:3). The ordinary priests and the Levites depended for their official existence on Aaron. Apart from him they would not be priests. Second, the priesthood of Christ was typified by both. The office is summed up and completed in Him. They were called and consecrated that they might be prophecies of Him who was to come and in whom all priesthood and offering and intercession would find its ample fulfillment. In the Epistle to the Hebrews the priesthood of both these men is combined and consummated in Christ. But let it be noted that while He is of the order of Melchizedek He exercises the office after the pattern of Aaron. He perfects all that Aaron did typically, because He is the true and the real Priest, while Aaron is but a figure.

III. Priestly Functions and Character.

1. A Strictly Religious Order:

These are minutely prescribed in the Law. #In the institution of the office the Lord’s words to Moses were, "Take thou unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office" (Ex 28:1 the King James Version). Their duties were strictly religious. They had no political power conferred upon them. Their services, their dependent position, and the way in which they were sustained, i.e. by the free gifts of the people, precluded them from exercising any undue influence in the affairs of the nation. It is true that in process of time the high office degenerated, and became a thing of barter and sale in the hands of unscrupulous and corrupt men, but as originally appointed the priesthood in Israel was not a caste, nor a hierarchy, nor a political factor, but a divinely-appointed medium of communication between God and the people.

2. Priestism Denied:

The Hebrew priests in no wise interfered with the conscience of men. The Hebrew worshipper of his own free will laid his hand on the head of his sacrifice, and confessed his sins to God alone. His conscience was quite free and untrammeled.

3. The High Priest’s Qualifications:

There were certain duties which were peculiar to the high priest. He alone could wear the "garments for glory and for beauty." To him alone it pertained to enter the Most Holy Place and to sprinkle the blood of the sin offering on the mercy-seat. To him alone it pertained to represent the congregation before the Lord as mediator, and to receive the divine communications. He was to be ceremonially pure and holy. He must be physically perfect. Any defect or deformity disqualified a member of the priestly family from performing the duties of the office (Le 21:17-21). The Law spoke with the utmost precision as to the domestic relations of the high priest. He could marry neither a widow, nor a divorced woman, nor one polluted, nor a harlot; only a virgin of his own people, a Hebrew of pure extraction, could become his wife (Le 21:14,15). Nor was he to come in contact with death. He must not rend his clothes, nor defile himself, even for his father or his mother (Le 21:10,11). His sons might defile themselves for their kin, but the high priest must not. For he was the representative of life. Death did not exist for him, in so far as he was a priest. God is the Ever-Living, the Life-Giving; and His priest, who had "the crown of the anointing oil of his God upon him," had to do with life alone.

4. Symbolism of Aaron’s Rod:

Adolph Saphir believes there is deep significance in the miracle of Aaron’s rod that budded and bare almonds (Nu 17). It was a visible sign of the legitimacy of Aaron’s priesthood and a confirmation of it, and a symbol of its vitality and fruitfulness. The twelve rods of the tribes were dead sticks of wood, and remained dead; Aaron’s alone had life and produced blossoms and fruit. It was the emblem of his office which correlated itself with life, and had nothing to do with death.

IV. Consecration of Aaron and His Sons (Exodus 29; Leviticus 8).

The process of the consecration is minutely described and is worthy of a more detailed and careful study than can here be given it. Only the more prominent features are noticed.

(1) Both the high priest and his sons were together washed with water (Ex 29:4). But when this was done, the high priest parted company with his sons.

(2) Next, Aaron was arrayed in the holy and beautiful garments, with the breastplate over his heart, and the holy crown on his head, the mitre, or turban, with its golden plate bearing the significant inscription, "Holy to Yahweh." This was Aaron’s investiture of the high office.

(3) He was then anointed with the precious oil. It is noteworthy that Moses poured the oil on his head. When he anointed the tabernacle and its furniture he sprinkled the oil, but in Aaron’s case there was a profusion, an abundance in the anointing (Ps 133:2).

(4) After the anointing of the high priest the appointed sacrifices were offered (Ex 29:10 ). Up to this point in the ceremony Aaron was the principal figure, the sons having no part save in the bathing. But after the offerings had been made the sons became prominent participants in the ceremonies, sharing equally with the high priest therein.

(5) The blood of the offering was applied to the person of father and sons alike (Ex 29:20,21). On the tip of the right ear, on the thumb of the right hand, and on the great toe of the right foot was the consecrating blood-mark set.

1. Symbolism of Consecration:

The significance of this action should not escape the reader. The whole person and career of the priest were thus brought under power of the blood. He had a blood-stained ear that he might hear and obey the divine injunctions, that he might understand the word of Yahweh and interpret it to the people. His will was brought into subjection to the will of His Lord that he might be a faithful minister in things pertaining to God. He had a blood-stained hand that he might execute, rightly and efficiently, the services of the sanctuary and the duties of his great office. He had likewise a blood-stained foot that he might walk in the statutes and commandments of the Lord blameless, and tread the courts of the Lord’s house as the obedient servant of the Most High. Sacrificial blood, the blood of atonement, is here, as everywhere else, the foundation for saints and sinners, for priests and ministers alike, in all their relations with God.

2. Type and Archetype:

The priests of Israel were but dim shadows, obscure sketches and drafts of the one Great Priest of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Without drawing out at length the parallelism between the type and the archetype, we may sum up in a few brief sentences the perfection found in the priestly character of Christ:

(1) Christ as Priest is appointed of God (Heb 5:5). (2) He is consecrated with an oath (Heb 7:20-22).

(3) He is sinless (Heb 7:26).

(4) His priesthood is unchangeable (Heb 7:23,24).

(5) His offering is perfect and final (Heb 9:25-28; 10:12).

(6) His intercession is all-prevailing (Heb 7:25).

(7) As God and man in one Person He is a perfect Mediator (Heb 1; 2).

See Offices of Christ, sec. V.


Smith, DB; HDB; P. Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture, II; Soltau, Exposition of the Tabernacle; the Priestly Garments and the Priesthood; Martin, Atonement; A.B. Davidson, Hebrews; Moorehead, Mosaic Institutions.

William G. Moorehead