International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
1. Priesthood Is an Office
2. In the Old Testament
3. Hereditary Priesthood
4. In the New Testament
All worship is based on priesthood, for the priestly office is an essential part of salvation. Christianity itself has its glorious Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is through His one supreme offering that we are brought into saved relations with God and enjoy fellowship with Him. The priesthood of Christ and its mighty effects in sacrifice and intercession on behalf of the people of God are the chief and fundamental theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
1. Priesthood an Office:
Priesthood is a real office, definite and specific. It is needful to insist on this fact, for the noble word "priest" has been misappropriated and misapplied, so that its intrinsic import has been impaired. There is a certain literary slang indulged in by some who talk of the "priests of science," "priests of art," and similar absurdities. The idea of priesthood, if priesthood is to have any definite meaning, can have no place in literature or science or art or in anything of the kind. For it belongs to the realm of grace, presupposing as it does sin and the divine purpose to remove it. Hugh Martin writes that he "would as soon think of transferring the language of geometry and of algebra to botany and talk of the hypothenuse of a flower and the square root of a tree, or the differential coefficient of a convolvulus, as to speak of the priesthood of nature or letters." Priesthood is an office, embracing very specific duties and functions.
2. In the Old Testament:
Priesthood in some form appears to have existed from the earliest times, even from the beginning of the history of our race. In patriarchal times the office was held and its duties were discharged by those who occupied some sort of headship, and particularly by the father or the chief of the family and of the tribe. Thus, Noah in his capacity of priest and in behalf of his household "builded an altar unto Yahweh, and took of every clean beast, and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar" (Genesis 8:20). Abraham offered the ram "for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son" (Genesis 22:13). In like manner Job offered burnt offerings for his children, and likewise by divine direction for the three "comforters" when the great trial had passed (Job 1:5; Job 42:8). In these and the like instances there was priestly action no less certainly than in that of Aaron or of any regularly appointed priest in Israel. Melchizedek was "priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18). Isaac "builded an altar there and called upon the name of Yahweh" (Genesis 26:25), as did Jacob (Genesis 33:20). In these cases priestly acts were performed by the patriarchs in their capacity as fathers of the family or heads of clans. From the beginning, priesthood with its acts of expiation and of worship was thus recognized as a divinely-instituted office. But in pre-Mosaic times there was no special class of priests recognized.
3. Hereditary Priesthood:
Regular priestly succession in a single family was established by Moses (Exodus 28:1-3). From this point of time onward the priesthood in Israel was confined to the family of Aaron. No hereditary priesthood seems to have prevailed in patriarchal times. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Melchizedek, a priest of the highest rank, had neither predecessor nor successor in his great office. By divine direction Moses designated the Aaronic family as the priestly family in Israel, and he prescribed the garments they should wear, the sacrifices they should offer both for themselves and for the congregation, their maintenance, their domestic relations, and their conduct toward their fellow Hebrews.
In the appointment of the priesthood there is no trace of Egyptian influence. Yet we know that Joseph married the daughter of the priest of On (Genesis 41:50). But this fact had no bearing on the selection of Israel's priestly family. The Aaronic priesthood had nothing in common with that of Egypt; it claimed to be of divine origin, and its duties, functions and powers in no way contradict the claim. The witness of an Egyptian archaeologist (Dr. M.G. Kyle) may be here introduced touching one essential element in the duties of the priestly office, namely, sacrifice: "The entire absence from the offerings of old Egyptian religion of any of the great Pentateuchal ideas of sacrifice, substitution, atonement, dedication, fellowship, and indeed of almost every essential idea of real sacrifice, as clearly established by recent very exhaustive examination of the offering scenes, makes for the element of revelation in the Mosaic system by delimiting the field of rationalistic speculation on the Egyptian side. Egypt gave nothing to that system, for it had nothing to give." As much may be said respecting the priesthood; Israel took little or nothing of its powers and functions from Egyptian sources.
Although the office was limited to the Aaronic family, nevertheless in certain exigencies and emergencies others beside the regular priest offered sacrifices to the Lord and were accepted by Him. Thus did Gideon in a time of great straits in Israel (Judges 6:24, 26); thus the men of Beth-shemesh (1 Samuel 6:14, 15); the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 7:9); David (2 Samuel 6:13, 17); Elijah (1 Kings 18:23, 32-38), etc. The chosen people appear to have felt free to offer sacrifices and to engage in priestly functions when occasion required, until the central sanctuary was established on Mt. Moriah. When the Temple was built and dedicated, priestly action was confined to Jerusalem and to the regular priestly household. When Pharisaism, with its rigid legalism, with its intolerable burdens, became dominant, all liberty of worship and spontaneous service largely disappeared. The religious life of Israel stiffened into a dreadful monotony.
4. In the New Testament:
All priesthood reaches its climax in that of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is because of the perfection of His priesthood that the office as represented by Melchizedek and Aaron was effective, and fulfilled the end for which it was appointed. The one answers to the other as type and antitype, as prediction and fulfillment. Christ's priesthood is opened to us in the Epistle to the Hebrews (2:14-18; 4:14-16; 5:1-10; 7:9, 10, 18). Two fundamental truths touching His priesthood are made very prominent in the Epistle to the Hebrews. These are its order and its duties. By the order is meant the rank or grade of the Priest, and by the duties the various functions of His ministry. Christ's order as Priest is that of Melchizedek, not at all that of Aaron; Hebrews 7 makes this fact perfectly clear. Like Melchizedek, and infinitely above Melchizedek, He is Priest, having no predecessor in the great office, and no successor; herein He stands absolutely alone, peerless and perfect forever. He executes the duties or functions of it after the pattern of Aaron, as Hebrews 9 clearly exhibits. These two priesthoods, Melchizedek's and Aaron's, are gloriously accomplished in the person and Work of Jesus Christ.
The point is raised and discussed with some keenness in our day, Did Christ execute the office of priest during His sojourn on earth, or does He exercise the office only in heaven? A full discussion of this interesting subject would be inappropriate. However, let it be noted (1) that the Lord Jesus was appointed a Priest no less certainly than was Aaron (Hebrews 5:4, 5). In the words, "Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee," there appears to be a reference both to His incarnation (Luke 1:32 Hebrews 1:5) and also to His resurrection (Acts 13:33). In Hebrews 2:17 we are told that it "behooved him in all things to be made like unto his brethren, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people." The assumption of human nature was needful that He might be such a priest. John the Baptist saw this truth, and said, "Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
There was certainly priestly action in His death. Twice we are told that He "offered up himself" (Hebrews 7:27), "For this he did once for all, when he offered up himself." This strong term, "offered," is sacrificial and points to His death as an offering made for the sins of the people. His own action in it must not be overlooked; it was He Himself who presented the offering; He was not, therefore, a struggling victim, a martyr, who could not escape the doom that came upon Him-nay, He voluntarily offered Himself.
In Hebrews 9:14 we find these significant words: "How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" It was as Priest that He made this stupendous offering, and this He did when still on earth. He was at once both sacrifice and priest. Never was He more active than when He offered Himself to God.
It is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the words employed in Scripture to express the act of His dying are never used to denote the death of a creature, a man. Matthew has, He "yielded up (dismissed), his spirit" (Matthew 27:50). John has, He "gave up his spirit" (John 19:30); Mark 15:37 and Luke 23:46 both have the same words: He "gave up the ghost." He died, not because He was mortal as we are, nor because He could not deliver Himself, but because He gave Himself for our sins that we might be forgiven and saved (John 10:17, 18). The voluntariness of His offering is the very essence of His priestly atonement.
SeeCHRIST, OFFICES OF, V; PRIESTHOOD IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.
Priesthood springs out of the deepest need of the human soul. Men universally feel that somehow they have offended the Power to whom they are responsible, to whom they must give account of their deeds. They long to appease their offended Lord, and they believe that one who is authorized and qualified to act in their behalf may secure for them the abrogation of penalty and the pardon they seek. Hence, priesthood connects itself most closely with sin, with guilt and its removal. The heart craves the intervention and intercession on their behalf of one who has liberty of access to God, and whose ministry is acceptable. In short, the priest is the representative of the sinner in things pertaining to God. He is the mediator whose office it is to meet and satisfy the claims of God upon those for whom he acts, and who secures the pardon and the favor which the offender must have, if he is to enjoy fellowship with God. And this, and more than this, we have in our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.
P. Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture, II; Soltau, Exposition of the Tabernacle, the Priestly Garments and the Priesthood; Martin, Atonement; Moorehead, Mosaic Institutions, article "Priest."
William G. Moorehead
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 (1 Peter 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 Luke 1:5-9 to the effect that Zacharias was of the course of Abijah, the 8th of the 24 courses into which the priests were divided (compare 1 Chronicles 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 (Acts 14:13) and also to Melchizedek (Hebrews 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 (Exodus 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 Hebrews 7 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 (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" (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 (7:20, 21; compare Psalm 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 (7:23, 14). This discussion of the priesthood of Christ "after the order of Melchizedek" occupies almost all of Hebrews 7, but at 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 (8:4, 5; 9:06; 10:11), no further reference is in any way made to Melchizedek.
After having twice merely given the title of high priest to Jesus (Hebrews 2:17; Hebrews 3:1), the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews at 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 Psalm (10:5-9; compare Psalm 40:6;), 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 (Hebrews 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" (Hebrews 7:27; Hebrews 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" (Romans 12:1), and Peter calls Christians "a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices" (1 Peter 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