The subject of priesthood runs through the scriptures from Genesis to the book of Revelations. With the appearance of Melchizedek in the book of Genesis, this subject finds its grand opening. The Old Testament Levitical books, the books of Kings and Chronicles, the Psalms, the books of the prophets expounds in great detail the Levitical priesthood. This theme continues in the New Testament in and through the High Priesthood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who ushers in a new form of the priesthood with the theme running right up to the book of Revelations.
This article is an attempt to bring out some salient features of this vast subject as seen through the eyes of the author of the book of Hebrews. Some salient features that the article would touch on are as follows:
1. Jesus is the eternal Son of God.
2. As the Son of God, Jesus is superior to the prophets of the Old Testament, to the angels and to Moses himself.
3. Jesus has been declared by God to be the eternal priest, superior to the priests of the Old Testament.
4. The believer is saved from sin, fear and death and Jesus as High Priest provides the true salvation, which was only foreshadowed by the rituals and animal sacrifices.
It is not very clear the audience to whom the author of book of Hebrews was addressing. Was it to Jewish Christians, the Gentile Christians or a group of Jews who had broken with Orthodox Judaism but were not convinced that Jesus was Messiah? Yet what is quite clear is that the author wanted to show the imperfect and transitory nature of Old Testament sacrifice. The writer to the Hebrews draws from the Exodus experience in the Old Testament, and the return of the Jews from
, to suggest that the redemption in the New Testament and Christ's priesthood was actually a New Exodus from the old Levitical priesthood to a new priesthood in Jesus. Babylon
In the Old Testament the Exodus had served as a return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile (Isaiah 42:9, 43:16-21, 51:9-11). In the New Testament the redemptive work was regarded as the new exodus, experienced first by Jesus himself (Luke 9:31) and then by his followers (1 Cor 10:1-11)
(The New Jerome Biblical Commentary 1990, 1968 by Prentice Hall, Inc., 927)
There are three areas which we need to address:
1. Exodus from Old Testament priesthood to New Testament priesthood.
2. The writer of Hebrew takes pain to show that any form of priesthood from the New Testament priesthood, in and through Jesus Christ, back to the Old Testament priesthood actually amounts to apostasy and is rebellion against God himself.
3. The dichotomy between the clergy ministry and lay ministry is nonexistent in New Testament priesthood.
In the first chapter of Hebrews, the writer begins by showing that Jesus is equal to God and was also superior to angels. He speaks by showing the primacy of Jesus as the author of eternal salvation by first showing his equality with God in that God created the universe through Him and that he reflects the brightness of God's glory and that he is the exact likeness of God's own being and sustains the universe with his powerful word. The author notes the supremacy of Jesus by showing that after achieving the forgiveness of sins of mankind; he sits in heaven at the right hand side of God, the Supreme Power. In other words, the ultimate supreme power and authority rests in Jesus showing again that he is in no way inferior to God, but in every way exercises the ultimate supreme power and authority of God. The author opens this letter to the Hebrews with such a grand opening in order to show to the readers that Jesus' sojourn on earth for the salvation of mankind and forgiveness of sins should not be in any way be interpreted as Jesus becoming inferior to God in any way humanly conceivable. This opening affirms the Trinitarian nature of God and is in tune with the theologies of John and Paul. The Gospel of John echos this theme in its grand opening:
"Before the world was created, the Word already existed; he was with God and he was the same as God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. Through Him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without Him. The Word was the source of life, and his life brought light to mankind." John 1:1–4.
Paul, in his letter to the Colossians presents the same idea of the equality of Jesus with God when he wrote:
"Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God. He is the first-born son, superior to all created things. For through him God created everything in heaven and on earth, the seen and the unseen things, including spiritual powers, lords, rulers and authorities. God creates the whole universe through him and for him. Christ existed before all things, and in union with him all things have their proper place." Colossians: 1:15–17.
Paul continues to show the pre-eminence of Jesus with the church which is his body when he wrote:
He is the head of his body, the church; he is the source of the body's life. He is the first born son, who was raised from death, in order that he alone might have the first place in all things. For it was by God's own decision that the son has in himself the full nature of God. Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son's death on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven." Colossians 1: 18-20
Paul in his letter to the Philippians and through his kenotic theory again reflects the opening of the author of the Hebrews in showing that Jesus, by becoming human, his death on the cross, and his resurrection did not in any way become inferior to God or lose any of his equality with God. Paul writes:
"He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to become equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like man and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death – his death on the cross. For this reason God raised him to the highest place above and gave him the name that is greater than any other name. And so, in honor of the name of Jesus all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below will fall to their knees, and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Philippians 2:6-11
Having shown that Jesus was equal to God, the author of the Hebrews had another task at hand in that he had to prove to his audience that Jesus was superior to the prophets of the Old Testament and to Moses himself. In proving Jesus' superiority over the Old Testament prophets, to Moses who initiated the Levitical priesthood in the Old Testament and to Joshua who took the Israelites to the promised land, the author could prove that High Priesthood of Jesus was not only superior to the Old Testament priesthood, and not being of human origin originated by God himself.
In his struggle to show his audience that Jesus was superior to Moses and Joshua, the author of the Hebrews leads his readers to Israelite history. The author of Hebrews was trying to equate the High Priesthood of Jesus to the Exodus in the Old Testament. Just as the people of
Israel were called out of Egypt to the Promised Land, which would be a land of rest, Jesus calls us out of the of sin to an eternal freedom and rest from sin. Egypt
"My Christian brother, who has been called by God, think of Jesus, whom God sent to be the High Priest of the faith we profess." Hebrews 3:1
With this opening verse the author of the Hebrews begins to unravel the new mystery of priesthood through Jesus Christ as opposed to the priesthood of the Old Testament. The writer of the Hebrews make pains to show that though both Moses and Joshua were chosen by God, and who through the Exodus experience led the people of Israel out of slavery to the promised land, they were unable to provide the Israelites the land of rest because of the stubbornness and unbelief, by which they were rebellious to God. The root reason for this rebellion was that the people of
were evil and unbelieving. Through Jesus we are offered the promised rest through freedom from sin. The rest that God provides for us through Jesus Christ is to rest from our own works. The basis of entering both the Promised Land by the Israelites and for us to enter the rest offered by God through Jesus Christ is faith. Just as the Israelites failed to attain the promised land because of their lack of faith, the promised rest from sin provided to us through Jesus Christ may be lost if we do not receive it through faith. In both cases, stubbornness and rebellion against God are the cause of the lack of faith. Israel
In chapter 5, we can see a distinct shift of emphasis made by the author of the Hebrews, in that he is trying to make a break and show that the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ was not that of the Aaronic order of priesthood but in line with that of the priestly order of Melchizedek. Here we can also see the change in process to becoming a priest in the order of Melchizedek which Jesus showed in his own life. The change in paradigm is shown in the following verses.
"In his life on earth Jesus made his prayers and requests with loud cries and tears to God, who could save him from death. Because he was humble and devoted, God heard him but even though he was God's Son, he learnt through his sufferings to be obedient. When he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him, and God declared him to be High Priest in the priestly order of Melchizedek." Hebrews 5:7-10.
In the Aaronic priesthood, the priests came from the Levitical lineage that was hereditary in nature and no one else other than those who belonged to the Levites could be a priest. At this juncture, Jesus, by his own experience during his life showed what needs to be the characteristics that set apart the new priesthood. There are two characteristics that we see here which Jesus showed through his life which should characterize every believer who is called into the priestly service. The first characteristic is a prayerful life. "Jesus made his prayers and requests with loud cries and tears to God, who could save him from death." Hebrews 5:7. Why should Jesus be saved from death through prayer? Death symbolizes all the evil that Jesus had to face in his life on earth from the forces of death be it through evil systems, structures, sinful people and situations that had the stamp of death on it. The path that Jesus had to follow during his sojourn on earth and especially in his earthly ministry was a path froth with danger in the midst of wicked people, evil structures and the bastions of evil. He was forced to confront conspiracies and the constant scheming of the powers that be such that death's shadow was always a reality. To Jesus, the psalmist's prayer in Psalms 23:4, "Even though I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me." Death in all its reality was a constant experience. The second characteristic is that of obedience. Obedience is an extremely difficult discipline to learn and Jesus had to subject himself to suffering involved in obedience and had to humble himself to the will of God to the point of the death on the cross in order to provide the perfect way of salvation for sin. This obedience was an extremely costly sacrifice and involves a great deal of suffering.
In chapters 7, the author of the Hebrews in order to stress the superiority of the priesthood that was from Melchizedek brilliantly points out to his audience that when Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek, in fact Levi, who was in the loins of Abraham, also gave tithes to Melchizedek. Thus, in blessing Abraham, Melchizedek not only received tithes from Levi but was also blessing Levi through Abraham. The whole point the author of the Hebrews makes plain here is that even before the Levitical priesthood existed, an eternal and superior priesthood was in existence through Melchizedek. In demonstrating the ineffectiveness of both the law and the Levitical priesthood for providing redemption for sins, the existence of a more perfect law and priest to provide redemption of sins becomes imperative. Then it is pointed out that such a priest has already appeared in Jesus. This priesthood had three distinctive characteristics separating it from the Levitical priesthood:
1. This priesthood has the divine stamp on it in that Jesus became High Priest by a vow made by God himself, "The Lord has made a solemn promise and will not take it back; you will be a priest forever." Hebrews 7:21.
2. While the Levitical priesthood needed many priests, this High Priesthood had just one priest who lives forever to plead with God for us.
3. The Levitical priest was imperfect and had to offer sacrifices not only for the people, but also for himself, whereas Jesus was holy and did not need to provide another sacrifice as he had provide the one sacrifice for the redemption of sins on the cross once and for all.
Chapter 8 is an extension of chapter 7 of the book of Hebrews where we find two salient features which further separate the new order from the old namely:
1. The law is written in the minds and hearts of the believer. "I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts." Hebrews 8:10.
2. There is no dichotomy between the clergy and laity. "None of them will have to teach his fellow-citizen or say to his fellow countryman, 'Know the Lord.' For they will all know me, from the least to the greatest." Hebrews 8:11
In Chapter 9 we find that the old order of priesthood was only a copy or shadow of the real. It was only a representative of the real and therefore in itself was not the real. Thus the outer tent, the lampstand, the bread represented the Holy Place whereas the gold alter for burning the incense , Covenant Box, the gold jar with the manna, the two stone tablets represented the Most Holy Place. Thus the copy or shadow was imperfect and could not make the worshipper's heart perfect. When the perfect came the imperfect had to go. It is then emphasized that the Perfect had arrived when Christ entered into the
Most Holy Place in heaven not with the blood of goats and bulls but his own blood thereby obtaining the eternal salvation for all humankind. Thus, Christ made the perfect sacrifice once and for all.
As a part of the grand finale, the author of the Hebrews in Chapter 11 show through the examples of people of faith in the Old Testament that faith alone entitles one to become a priest whether it be in the Old Testament or in the New Testament.
In light of the above, the Royal Priesthood epitomizes the perfect and not the copy or shadow. The Old Testament priesthood or the Aaronic priesthood was the copy or shadow whereas the Royal Priesthood is the perfect covenant we have with God through the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. To go back to the copy or the shadow is equivalent to apostasy and rebellion against God. To represent the sacrifice of Jesus Christ through ritualism and outward ceremonies is equivalent to idolatry, whereas the true believer in Jesus Christ, presenting the real from the shadow, the perfect from the imperfect, is the chosen race, the King's priests, the holy nation, called out of darkness into his own marvelous light to proclaim the wonderful acts of God, and are the Royal Priesthood.
"But you are the chosen race, the King's priests, the holy nation. God's own people, chosen to proclaim the wonderful acts of God, who called you out of darkness into his own marvelous light. At one time you were not God's people, but now you are his own people; at one time you did not know God's mercy, but now you have received his mercy." I Peter 2:9-10