Priesthood in the New Testament
By: Fr. Andrew Younan
Friday November 13, 2009 from 7:00 pm -9:00pm
Review of Priesthood in the Old Testament
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. – Hebrews 5:1
The Letter to the Hebrews, which is the classic interpretation of Christ as the High Priest of the New Covenant – that is, the fulfillment of the priesthood of the Old Covenant – names three characteristics of priests:
A. They are chosen from among men. That is, they do not choose themselves to become priests but are chosen by God from among others.
B. They are intercessors between God and man. That is, their first role is to be representatives of the people from whom they were chosen before God. They stand, liturgically speaking, in front of the people and face God, to whom they intercede.
C. They offer gifts and sacrifices for sin. That is, their role as intercessors is required because of the fact of sin. Their job is to sacrifice (in the case of the Old Testament, animals) in order to make up for the offense to God that sin is.
In discussing Priesthood in the New Testament, our first task will be to establish how Christ is the perfect High Priest in each of the ways mentioned above. In this, our main source is, of course, the Letter to the Hebrews, which interprets the life of Christ in precisely this way, perhaps better than any other source.
Secondly, having established that Christ has taken over, by divine right, the essence of the Priesthood in his own Person, we will show how he in turn shared that Priesthood with the Apostles (again, in each of the three ways above), thereby establishing a new priesthood of the New Covenant.
I. CHRIST AS THE HIGH PRIEST
A. Chosen from Among Men
In our discussions of Christology (the discipline that understands how Christ is at once both God and Man), we can often lose sight of the fact that much that he did and that happened to him refers to something other than simply the fact that he is God and the fact that he is Man. While this is the central question of Christology, it is often not the central question of many parts of the New Testament. And so we can be side-tracked in interpreting texts that never meant to ask this question.
This is especially relevant when it comes to the question of the Priesthood of Christ. For Christ to be the replacement and fulfillment of the priesthood of the Old Testament, he had to have been chosen. Thus we have texts like the following:
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” – Hebrews 5:5
This refers to Psalm 2, and is fulfilled at the moment of the baptism of Christ:
And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and behold, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:16-17
That Christ was chosen, and the fact that this choosing was publicized at Christ’s baptism does not imply, for example, that someone other than Christ could have been chosen or that he was one of many options; nor is it said in a sense that Christ was not chosen until this particular time, and that God made the decision once he was baptized and not before, both of which would be impossible if Christ were truly God. On the contrary, the baptism and the choosing are in reference not to the question of Christ’s Divinity, but to the question of his Priesthood. He was chosen because he was to be the High Priest; he was baptized because priests are anointed (cf. Leviticus 8:10). John the Baptist was from a priestly family, and his father Zechariah had taken his turn as high priest in the temple the year Christ was born. It was John’s role to anoint the High Priest of the New Covenant, and that is what the baptism was.
B. Intercessor on behalf of Men before God
Christ having taken over the role of the Priest in himself, he becomes the ultimate Intercessor between God and man. This occurred first in his earthly life and secondly, in its full finality, in heaven:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. – Hebrews 5:7
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. – Hebrews 4:14
Here the author of the Letter to the Hebrews compares, in a beautiful image, Christ the High Priest passing through the heavens to the priest of the Old Covenant who passes yearly through the curtain of the Holy of Holies in order to burn incense to God, an offering on behalf of the people. He continues:
The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all times to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. – Hebrews 7:25
The eternity of the Priesthood of Christ points us to a greater, properly Christological reality, that aids us in understanding the significance of this all. Christ is not simply a man who is in heaven praying for sinners on earth; Christ is at the same time God who accepts our prayers, which we offer through him in a way superior to the offering of the prayers of the people of the Old Covenant through their priests. Thus while the priest of the Old Testament was a bridge, a connector, between man and God through his ministry and his animal sacrifices, Christ is that bridge, that connector, between God and man in his very Self, his very Person, his very Body. This leads us to the final point in this section.
C. Offering Sacrifices for Sin
Christ contains in himself all that the Priesthood is and must be, and since the essential activity of the priest is to offer sacrifices for sin, Christ must not only DO this, but somehow BE this in his very self. God’s justice, however, does not simply forget the transgression of sin. This is not a matter of convincing. There must be a sacrifice. Something – or someone – must die:
Indeed, almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22
But this old system of purification did not accomplish its goal. Sins were not forgiven; these rituals were established only to prepare for their fulfillment in Christ. We are not purified or made holy by the offering of bulls or lambs, but by the offering of the Lamb of God, the name given to Christ by, again, John the Baptist. Thus the author of Hebrews can say:
We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. – Hebrews 10:10
Rather than the multiple, continuous sacrifices of the Old Covenant, Christ replaces everything – not only the Priest, but the Lamb as well – in offering his own Body, and in doing so becomes the Temple as well (cf. John 2:21). And so the author of Hebrews tells us, in an exhortation that refers again, very interestingly, to baptism:
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. – Hebrews 10:19-22
Madrasha from Passover Thursday
Thanks be to Christ who completed our salvation
and washed the filth of our sins through his Body.
In the mystery of the lamb was hidden the mystery of salvation;
in the blood of beasts was written the absolution of our wickedness;
for if a brute forgave the rational,
how much more did the Living Blood sanctify us?
He erased the deed of our of our debts by his passion,
and we received, in his renewal, freedom from death.
In the sacrifice of the dumb was drawn a living Image;
in the slaughter of the mute the likeness of the Speaking;
his Blood is living Blood, freeing creatures,
and like him who is the preacher of all these things:
the sacrifice of the Speaking absolves debts
and clothes mortals in the gowns of forgiveness.
On the path of the mystery of the lamb walked the true Lamb,
and he arrived at the sacrifice for the establishment of the allegory.
He gave freedom of life to the race of mortals,
and paid the debt with his death
which his kin earned in breaking the command,
and cheated the Creator of the keeping of his commands.
II. APOSTLES – SHARERS IN THE PRIESTHOOD OF CHRIST
Having established the significance of the Priesthood of Christ, it is important to realize how he intended his Apostles to have a share in it. While Christ is and remains forever the one and only High Priest, and his one Sacrifice on the Cross remains “once and for all” (cf. Hebrews 10:12-14), he shared the power and the responsibility of this Priesthood with those closest to him, so that as he intercedes for the whole human race before the Father in heaven for all eternity, those on earth may make his one Sacrifice present, for the forgiveness of sins.
A. Chosen from Among Men
Because we have already discussed the importance of the three elements of priesthood, it should suffice here simply to show how the Apostles participate in them. First, the Apostles did not choose themselves, but were chosen explicitly by Christ:
And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles; Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. – Luke 6:13-16
B. Intercessors on behalf of Men before God
More specifically, we find Christ choosing Peter out of the Twelve to be granted special authority as their prime representative. It is here we find the intimate connection between apostleship and the relationship between heaven and earth:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. – Matthew 16:18-19
C. Offering Sacrifices for Sin
Most significantly of all, we find Christ giving his disciples a very strict command his last night before he died on the cross, fulfilling his identity as the true Priest and Lamb of God:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said,”Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” – Matthew 26:26-28
That the Eucharist is commanded to be done “for the forgiveness of sins” is, in the language of the Bible, an indication that it is a priestly activity, and that those who are commanded to perform it are sharers in Christ’s priestly identity.
Basilica Hymn – The Third Sunday of the Apostles
The priesthood of the house of Aaron served a mystery, an imitation and a shadow in the Law. But the apostleship of the house of Simon received the embodiment, the perfection, and the certitude of the Incarnation, for in it the Heir of the Father was pleased and by it he captured the earth. Indeed, by the hands of fishermen he converted and captured the whole creation and lo, it lifts up praise, being baptized in the completeness of the Qnome of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – glory to you!