The Christian Priesthood
Several terms are employed in the New Testament to express various relationships that Christians sustain to God and to one another. They are designated as “children” in view of the new birth process that is required for a spiritual union with their Creator (John 3:3-5; 2 Corinthians 6:18; Galatians 3:26-27). As a result of his incarnation (John 1:14), Jesus entered into a kindred relationship with us, hence is not ashamed to call us his “brothers” (Matthew 12:49-50; Hebrews 2:11-12). It is perhaps not recognized quite so commonly, however, that Christians also are designated as “priests.”
The Old Testament Era
The term “priest” (Hebrew kohen) is found in some sense or another about seven hundred fifty times in the Old Testament. The designation commonly referred to an official who approached God (or “gods” in the case of paganism) on behalf of others. He performed sacrificial and mediatory duties. Melchizedek was a priest of the true God (Genesis 14:18). He was not a worshipper of “El, the Canaanite high God” (Heard 2009, 118). Joseph married the daughter of a pagan Egyptian priest (Genesis 41:45). Most of the heathen peoples had their priests (1 Samuel 5:5; 6:2; 2 Kings 10:19; 2 Chronicles 34:5). In the Patriarchal period of Old Testament history, the fathers of each household served as its priest (Genesis 8:20-21; 22:12-13; Job 1:5).
The derivation of the Hebrew term kohen is obscure; some suggest that it might originate with kahan, allied to kan, “to stand.” This possibly suggests that the priest was one who “stood before God as a servant or as a representative of the people, and also as one who stood before the people as a representative of God” (Kalland 2003, 1394).
Two important points result from the common idea of priesthood in antiquity. First, it underscores the prevalent belief throughout humanity of a superior power (or powers—and monotheism predates polytheism) over mankind. Second, it suggests the conviction that humans are inferior to deity, hence are in need of a mediating intercessor. Reflect on Job’s anguish: “There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both” (9:33, ESV).
While a study of the Old Testament Levitical priesthood is fascinating, the most important element of that system is the typical nature of it, as it foreshadowed the greater priesthood of the New Testament regime.
New Testament Priesthood
Every elementary student of the Bible understands that the Mosaic system was designed to be a temporary, preparatory dynasty that looked forward ultimately to the establishment of Christianity (Galatians 3:24-25). This is a major theme in the book of Hebrews. In this document the inspired writer emphasizes that as a result of the sacrificial death of Christ, there was a change—both in the law and in the priesthood (7:12). Moreover, it easily is recognized that the Mosaic administration contained prophetic pictures (sometimes called types) that would find their fulfillment in the Christian dispensation (see: Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 8:5; 9:9, 23-24; 10:1). That the Aaronic priesthood, to some degree, prefigured the higher, spiritual priesthood of the kingdom of Christ, is beyond dispute. This is established by Peter’s references to Christians as a “holy priesthood” or a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5, 9; cf. Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). The apostle clearly discerned the connection between the type and the antitype.
Without pressing the matter beyond reason, there appears to be some clear analogical connections between the Old Testament priesthood and that of the New Testament era. Let us consider several of these possibilities.
The priesthood was accessed only by birth. When the law of Moses was enacted, Aaron and his sons were appointed to minister to God in the “priest’s office” (Exodus 28:1; Numbers 3:10; cf. 16:10). When Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, were destroyed by divine punishment (Leviticus 10:1ff), the priesthood was henceforth restricted to Eleazar, Ithamar, and their offspring (Numbers 3:4). Under the new covenant, only those who submit to the conditions of the new birth, thus entering the kingdom of God are granted the privilege of the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6).
The Aaronic priests served God in a designated place—in the environs of the tabernacle, later the temple (Hebrews 9:6). The tabernacle was the “house of Jehovah” (Deuteronomy 23:18), otherwise known as “the temple of Jehovah” (1 Samuel 1:9; 3:3). Christians, as members of the body of Christ, constitute the spiritual “temple of God” (1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:21; 1 Peter 2:5). Worship is offered to God and is accepted by him in that relationship—not apart from it. There is no acceptable priestly service apart from the church established by Christ.
The ordinary priests of the former regime were subservient to the high priest. The elevated dignity of the high priest was reflected in his ornate dress (Exodus 28), his ordination service (Exodus 29), and in the unique duties he performed—for example, offerings on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16; 23:27-32). The role of Christ as our high priest is powerfully argued in the book of Hebrews (4:14-10:18). The term “high priest” is employed seventeen times in connection with the redemptive role of Jesus. Our high priest, who is “after the order of Melchizedek” (5:10; 6:20; 7:11, 15, 17), is both a king and priest (Psalm 110:4; cf. Zechariah 6:13). And, as noted earlier, though Christians are regal priests (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6), we submissively serve under the authority of our high priest (cf. Matthew 28:18; Ephesians 1:20-23).
As priests we happily offer a variety of sacrifices to God. In his letter to the Roman saints, Paul depicted the Christian life as one of sustained sacrifice. This is the general proposition:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God (12:1-2).
The Christian’s entire life is a sacrifice to God; the Lord owns us—body, heart, soul, mind, and might (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 6:19).
Our priestly sacrifices occasionally are viewed categorically. Consider a few examples:
- Paul viewed his evangelistic work among the Gentiles, in a manner of speaking, as a priestly work (see “ministering” [Romans 15:16]). His converts were thought of as an “offering” to God.
- The Philippian Christians were a joy to Paul. Their faith was like a sacrifice that had been given up to God; if necessary, he was willing for his own life to be “poured out as a drink offering” to complement that sacrifice (Philippians 2:17, ASVfn; cf. 2 Timothy 4:6).
- As the apostle wrote from his incarceration in Rome, he reflected upon the recent support conveyed by Epaphroditus from the church in Philippi. It was an “odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
- Note the similar imagery set forth in Hebrews 13:15-16.
When one contemplates his service to Christ in the imagery of those symbolic sacrificial offerings depicted in the Old Testament (e.g., the first and best gifts), he is brought to the sorrowful conviction that the marginal dedication of many children of God today scarcely fits the prophetic character of a truly sacrificial service.
False Priestly Systems
We should not leave this theme without calling attention to the false sacerdotal systems of some modern religions.
For example, the Catholic Church (in its various forms—Greek, Roman, and Anglican) teaches there is a “hierarchical priesthood” (of bishops and priests) that is separate from the common “priestly” function of the “community of believers” at large (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994, 386). There is absolutely no biblical authority for this clerical distinction. Of course, one does not require Bible authority when he views himself or his movement as an independent source of authority equal to (or even superior to) the Scriptures.
Another example of a pseudo-priesthood is that which has been crafted within the Mormon Church. Joseph Smith Jr., who founded the movement, claimed to have received a revelation from God on March 28, 1835. It begins: “There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood” (1952, 107.1). This claim is presumptuous and contradictory to the teaching of the New Testament. (For a careful refutation of this theory, see Free 1962, 220-234.)
The biblical teaching of the universal priesthood of genuine Christians is both thrilling and challenging. Unfortunately, however, it has been seriously perverted. Honest souls will strive to return to the original instruction of Scripture in this important matter.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1994. Imprimi Protest, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference.
- Free, Jack. 1962. Mormonism and Inspiration. Concord, CA: Pacific Publishing Co.
- Heard, Christopher. 2009. The Transforming Word. Mark Hamilton, ed. Abilene, TX: ACU Press.
- Kalland, Earl S. 2003. Priest/Priesthood. Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. Charles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, John Rea, eds. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Smith, Joseph, Jr. 1952. Doctrine And Covenants. Salt Lake City, UT: LDS Church.