Priest, Priesthood

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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).

We read in Exod.24.5 that Moses sent young men of Israel to offer the burnt offerings at the covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai. Presumably these must be linked with the command in Exod.13.1 that the Lord’s claim to all the firstborn males among the people be honored. Was it, then, the divine intention at this point that the priestly officiants should be taken from all the people, in this way reflecting the Lord’s desire that his people should be a kingdom of priests? (Exod.19.4-Exod.19.5). Note too that Aaron is described in Exod.4.14 as “the Levite.” Was there, even then, some particular significance attaching to the tribe of Levi? Furthermore, the appointment of Aaron and his sons as priests (Exod.28.1-Exod.28.43-Exod.29.1-Exod.29.46) precedes the events at Sinai (Exod.32.1-Exod.32.35) that led to the special appointment of the tribe of Levi to officiate before the Lord, and to do so instead of the firstborn (Num.8.16). It looks, therefore, as if the Lord intended a “priestly people” who would exercise their priesthood through their firstborn sons under the rule of the house of Aaron, but that this became, through the failure of the people, the Aaronic-Levitical system familiar throughout the OT period. Yet, in the background, the vision of the priest-people remains, waiting to become the “priesthood of all believers” under the one and only New Testament Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.

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.

On the Day of Atonement in Levitical ritual (Lev.16.1-Lev.16.34) the high priest had to go in and out past the curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place. By this symbolism the Holy Spirit (Heb.9.8-Heb.9.9) signified that “the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed” while the Levitical mode of worship still had its proper standing. But when Jesus’ body was broken on the cross, this symbolized the tearing of the curtain (Heb.10.19-Heb.10.22) and the clear revealing of the way into the very presence of God (Matt.27.51; Mark.15.38; Luke.23.45).

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