The theme of priests and priesthood is prominent within the Scriptures. One is first introduced to the concept of a priest in the book of Genesis, and the role lingers until the sacred canon closes. The office of the priest is mentioned some 700 times in the Old Testament, and approximately 80 times in the New Testament. It is obvious that there is much truth to be learned from a consideration of this subject.
What Is a Priest?
A priest, in effect, is a mediator who stands between God and man. He offers sacrifice to God on behalf of man and administers other worship obligations that people feel unworthy to offer personally. The nearest thing to a definition found in the Scriptures is probably Hebrews 5:1.
“For every high priest, being taken from among men, is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
The presence of a “priesthood” has been characteristic of virtually every society of cultured man since the beginning of time. The ancient Assyrians had priests, as did the Babylonians. When Abram was returning from the rescue of his nephew, Lot, he encountered Melchizedek, who was not only “king of Salem,” he was also a “priest of God Most High.” Abram acknowledged the king’s sacred office and paid tithes to him (Gen. 14:18ff). When Joseph was elevated to prominence in Egypt, he was given a wife who was the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen. 41:45).
Here are some important implications relative to the matter of the phenomenon of universal priesthood.
First, this historical fact reveals a world-wide recognition of the consciousness of sin in the human experience. Even without a written law from God, there is an awareness of mankind’s moral frailty (see Rom. 2:14-15).
Seneca, the tutor of Nero Caesar, once wrote: “All men have sinned — some more, some less.” An ancient Chinese proverb says: “There are two good men — one is dead, the other is not yet born.”
Sin is a reality that cannot be denied. There is no man who does not sin (1 Kgs. 8:46; Rom. 3:10,23; 1 Jn.1:10). Every honest person is painfully aware of his imperfection.
Second, the priesthood role is also a testimony to the fact that man feels that he is without merit to atone for his own sins. He longs for, and gropes after, some method for pardon — even from the darkest recesses of paganism.
Third, perhaps it is not without significance that in many priestly cultures, there is the practice of offering blood sacrifices for sin. One cannot but recall how the priest of the temple of Jupiter attempted to sacrifice oxen in his misguided zeal to worship Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:13). In ancient times some pagans even sacrificed their children to their “gods” (cf. 2 Kgs. 16:3; 17:17; Psa. 106:38; Jer. 19:4-5).
The Levitical law brings to light the fact that in the divine scheme of things, blood is necessary for redemption (see Heb. 9:22), because the life of a creature is in its blood (Lev. 17:11). And man, by his sin, has forfeited his right to live (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23).
Priests of the Patriarchy
The first period of Bible history is commonly called the Patriarchal Age. The term “patriarch” derives from two roots meaning “father rule.” It encompasses that era between the creation events, and that time when Israel was separated as a special nation (at Sinai) for the preparation of the coming Messiah.
When Noah disembarked the ark following the great Flood, he offered sacrifices on behalf of his family (Gen. 8:20-21). Abram, after a long trek from Ur (stopping for a while at Haran), came into Canaan and built an altar at Shechem (Gen. 12:7; 22:13). Job, the patriarch of Uz, offered sacrifices as the head of his family (Job 1:5). When Moses fled from Pharaoh into the land of Midian, he met and married the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest (Ex. 2:15ff).
The Aaronic Priesthood
The formal priesthood of the Mosaic dispensation was known as the Aaronic priesthood, because all the priests were required to be selected from Aaron’s (Moses’ brother) lineage. However, there apparently was a priesthood of some sort before that time. Moses requested permission from Pharoah to lead his people into the wilderness so they could “sacrifice unto Jehovah” (Ex. 5:3). Furthermore, certain “priests” were required to sanctify themselves in preparation for the reception of the law on Sinai (Ex. 19:22,24). Some surmise that these were the “elders” (Ex. 3:16), or else a select group of “young men” (Ex. 24:5). This group might have been constituted of the “first-born” who were “sanctified” unto the Lord (Ex. 13:2). Later, the Levites seem to have taken the “sanctified” place of the first-born (Num. 3:5-13). The tribe of Levi was chosen because of its fidelity when Israel worshipped the golden calf at the base of Sinai (Ex. 32:26-29).
When the law was given in the wilderness, Aaron and his sons were appointed to the priesthood (Num. 3:10). The role of high priest was a life-long appointment, and was assumed by the oldest qualified descendant of Aaron. All other male offspring of Aaron served as priests, except in the case of the physically impaired (Lev. 21:17-23), or unless he became temporarily “unclean” (Lev. 22:3). Only the high priest was allowed to entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement each year (Lev. 16:1ff).
There are some important points that stress great truths regarding the priesthood of the Mosaic dispensation.
The Holiness of God
One of the prime features of the priestly system was to emphasize — and quite graphically — the absolutely holy nature of Almighty God. This is a concept repeatedly affirmed in the Scriptures (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). This fundamental truth must be grasped, as much as is humanly possible, if one is to be motivated to serve the Ruler of Heaven and Earth.
The priestly ministration of the law was characterized by numerous detailed regulations. The high priest, along with the subordinate priests, were required to dress in a particular way so as to reflect the concept of holiness (Ex. 28:4). Some scholars are persuaded that merging lines of evidence indicate that in their official functions priests were required to be barefoot as a token of the fact they were serving a holy God (cf. Ex. 3:5). As noted above, even those men of the family of Aaron who had certain physical deformities were forbidden to serve as priests (Lev. 21:17-23). Apparently the unblemished body of the priest was to be a visual expression of the perfection of the God whom he was serving. Think also about the unblemished nature of the sacrifices (cf. 1 Pet. 1:19).
There were elaborate ceremonies for the “consecration” of priests as they embarked upon their sacred roles (see Ex. 29; Lev. 8-9). The ceremonies lasted for seven days and involved washings with pure water, the adorning of special garments, anointing with oil, the sacrifice of bullocks and rams, etc. All of this was designed to demonstrate that these men were entering the service of God Most Holy.
There is a vast chasm between the perfect purity of our Creator, and the filth of our own transgressions (cf. Prov. 30:12). In studying the priesthood of the Old Testament, we must constantly remind ourselves of this penetrating and humbling truth.
Preparation for the Arrival of the Great High Priest
There is a strong connection between the priestly castes of the Old Testament and the components of the New Testament regime. For example, the arrangement that obtained in the case of Melchizedek, who was both king and priest simultaneously, prophetically foreshadowed the fact that Jesus would serve as king and priest at the same time (Gen. 14:18ff; Psa. 110; Zech. 6:12-13). This circumstance clearly demonstrates that Christ’s reign is heavenly (not earthly) in scope, because Jesus was not genealogically qualified to function as an earthly priest (Heb. 8:4; cf. 7:14).
One of the major emphases of the book of Hebrews is the fact that the priesthood of the Mosaic economy was typical (pictorial) and thus preparatory in nature. As the inspired writer noted, those elements of the law were a “a shadow of the good things to come” (10:1; cf. 8:5), indeed, he says, “a figure for the time present” (9:9).
The former system was “carnal,” while the latter is “heavenly” (Heb. 9:9; 8:5). (Why is it that so many people clamor for the inferior, as evidenced by their inclination to gravitate back to Moses for the alleged authority for their self-willed practices?) The Mosaic priesthood, in some ways, pictured the Christians of the new system (see below). The tabernacle/temple arrangements, in which the priests performed their duties, were typical of both the church (the holy place) and heaven (the most holy place). The blood offerings set forth certain truths concerning him who was offered for our sins (Jn. 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:28). How wonderfully the Old Testament served in preparing the way for the arrival of our High Priest (Gal. 3:24; Col. 2:14ff), who is “great” (Heb. 4:14; 10:21), “merciful and faithful” (Heb. 2:17), “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb. 3:1), and who serves “after the order of Melchizdek” (Heb. 5:10).
The Christian Priesthood
Just as the Levitical priests were consecrated to their office by the washing of water, even so, men and women today may enter upon their priestly functions as Christians. This they do by drawing near to God with a true heart, having their hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and their bodies washed with pure water (cf. Heb. 10:22). That this transition occurs at the point of baptism is beyond successful dispute (cf. Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26; Tit. 3:5). Professor Donald Hagner, of Fuller Theological Seminary, says that the term “water” (in Hebrews 10:22) is “almost certainly” a reference to “Christian baptism” (New International Biblical Commentary — Hebrews, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990, p. 165).
The glorious message of the gospel is this. All Christians are priests, and, with spiritual sacrifices (Rom. 12:1ff; Phil. 2:17; 4:18; Heb. 13:15-16; 1 Pet. 2:5), we offer up service to God through our High Priest, Jesus Christ (Heb. 3:1; 4:14ff), who mediates on our behalf (Heb. 2:17ff; 1 Tim. 2:5). It is not surprising, then, that we see references to children of God as “priests” in the New Testament (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).
False Ideas Associated with Priesthood
We cannot leave this study without calling attention to three false ideas that are associated with the concept of “priesthood” in the modern world of “Christendom.”
Catholic Priests Successors of Apostles
The Roman Catholic idea of a sacerdotal system of physical priests for today’s church has no support of the New Testament. It is based upon the fallacious notion that the apostles “were clothed with the powers of Jesus Christ,” and that Catholic priests, as “successors” of the apostles, are similarly endowed with their power (James Cardinal Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, Baltimore: John Murphy, 1917, p. 387ff). The idea is closely associated with the delusion that in performing the “Mass,” the priests are sacrificing the body of Christ — a notion completely at variance with the Scriptures. The New Testament teaches that Jesus was sacrificed once, and that was entirely sufficient (cf. Heb. 9:25-28).
Mormons’ Two Priesthoods
The Mormon theory of priesthood is equally erroneous. Mormonism promotes two priesthoods, without which, supposedly, there can be no salvation. These are the Melchizedek and the Aaronic priesthoods (Doctrine & Covenants 107:1-3,5). The Mormon priesthood dogma has no authority higher than that of Jospeh Smith, Jr., who claims to have “restored” the ancient order of priests on May 15, 1829. The error in this is all too obvious to anyone with a more-than-minimum acquaintance with the New Testament.
First of all, the Melchizedek priesthood was to belong to Christ, and to none other, until the end of time. The writer of Hebrews says concerning Jesus that: “. . . he, because he abides for ever, has his priesthood unchangable” (7:24). The key word is “unchangable” (aparabatos), which suggests that the Lord’s priesthood is imperishable. Some suggest that the meaning of the Greek term is simply “permanent, unchangable” (F.W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 97), which, of itself, would eliminate the Mormon idea. But even more to the point is the proposed meaning “non-transferable” (C. Spiqu, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994, 1.143-44). That would specifically deny that it could pass to other persons.
Second, the Aaronic priesthood cannot be operative today because it was an integral part of the law of Moses, which law was abolished by Christ (Eph. 2:15), being, in a manner of speaking, nailed to his cross (Col. 2:14). Moreover, the verb rendered “hath taken away” in this latter passage is a perfect tense form, which argues for the permanent abolition of that law. There is no biblical indication that the law was to be, or ever will be, restored. Too, one could not restore the Aaronic priesthood without “of necessity” resurrecting the entire Mosaic law (Heb. 7:12).
Premillenialism’s Restored Aaronic Priesthood
Finally, the premillennial speculation that the Aaronic priesthood is “to be resumed nationally, on behalf of Gentiles, in the Millennial Kingdom” is groundless. And it is quite disappointing that this concept was argued so stringently by such a respectable student of New Testament Greek as W.E. Vine (Priest — Expository Dictionary). The passages he cites as proof (Isa. 61:6; 66:21) refer to the Christian dispensation, not a supposed earthly, millennial kingdom.
And so we conclude our brief study of the subject of “priests,” we remind ourselves of the numerous valuable lessons that come with this theme. At the same time, as we have noted, this is a subject given to serious abuse.