This week we look at the second of the three offices of Christ. That is, Jesus as our priest.
Today, I am going to look generally at priests in the Bible and what it says about their role amongst the people of God. I will look at and show how Jesus supremely fulfils those roles, and then I will look at the wider application for us. How does the church fit into this? How should we live since we are not only a ‘priesthood of believers’, but also the body of the ‘great high priest’ described in Hebrews?
What is the role of the priest?
The first time we come across the role of priest is way before Israel even existed as a society. Generations before Aaron and the development of the priestly tribe of Levi. In Genesis 14 Abram’s nephew Lot is captured (note that Abram is renamed Abraham when the covenant of circumcision is given in Genesis 17). Lot, (who lived near Sodom), is taken into captivity when the four kings of Elam, Goyim, Shinar, and Ellasar win a battle against the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboyim, and Bela. Abram takes over 300 men and rescues his nephew. When he is returning across the Valley of Shaveh, the king of Salem comes out to meet him. This encounter is described in Genesis 14:18-24:
📖 ‘Then Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything
And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.” But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me”.
(Aside) Notice 2 things:
- The Bread and wine Melchizedek brought. To me, this is something which speaks to the last supper. Melchizedek brings bread and wine, and he blesses Abram. Jesus supremely introduces the custom of using bread and wine to remind us of the greatest blessing anyone can have – that of the offer of forgiveness for our sins and reconciliation with God.
- Melchizedek is given a tithe by Abram. We should note that this is BEFORE the law and its instructions on tithes and offerings were given. This morning’s is not a message about offerings and tithes, but just as David insisted on paying for Naboth’s vineyard, saying, ‘I will not give to God that which costs me nothing’, Abram, when told by Melchizedek that he could keep for himself part of his offering, refuses to do so. Comparing this with the account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 who withheld some of their offering while claiming they gave it all, and noting that Malachi speaks against promising one thing to God and then giving something less perfect, we should at least note the danger there is in holding back for ourselves something which belongs to God or which we have promised to Him.
Notice here that Melchizedek did two things: he blessed Abram and he praised God. His priestly ministry was both man-ward AND God-ward. The priest functions in these two directions, and he misses something if he neglects one or the other.
So, the first priest we encounter in Scripture is Melchizedek, who was also king of Salem. But for the Israelites, priests were descended from Levi, not Melchizedek, who was not even part of the chosen people. One did not become a priest by choice, or by calling, but by ancestry—only a Levite could be a priest. However, we must note that not all Levites were priests. They all had roles and responsibilities in the temple. They all performed religious functions, but they were not all priests. This explains why priests and Levites are differentiated from each other in the gospels. So, for example, John writes: ‘this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” (John 1:19). And the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 separates them completely: ‘Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side’ (Luke 10:31-32).
Although the Levitical priesthood is descended from Levi (a son of Jacob), the priesthood actually began with Aaron, the brother of Moses (Exodus 28:1–3). We know that Moses is a Levite from Exodus 2:1-3: 📖 ‘Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank’. This was Moses, of course. Aaron was Moses’ brother, so he was also a Levite. Aaron was the first to be anointed as priest, and this is the Strat of the priesthood. Aaron and his descendants were to serve as the priests in Israel, ministering in the tabernacle and, later, the temple, primarily as mediators between man and God: Exodus 40:9-15 says this: 📖 ‘Then you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it may become holy. You shall also anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and consecrate the altar, so that the altar may become most holy. You shall also anoint the basin and its stand, and consecrate it. Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall wash them with water and put on Aaron the holy garments. And you shall anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest. You shall bring his sons also and put coats on them, and anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests. And their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations.’
One thing to note about priests is that they did not own land, they were not allowed to, they had no earthly inheritance at all. This is one of the purposes of the tithes and offerings: Deuteronomy 18:1,2 tells us that, ‘The priests, who are Levites – indeed the whole tribe of Levi – are to have no allotment or inheritance with Israel. They shall live on the offerings made to the Lord by fire, for that is their inheritance’. Without the offerings of food and the tithes given, they would have been destitute, because in an agrarian society as Israel was, all wealth was in land – without land, you are nothing, & have no means of survival. This was abused by the priests and Levites. So, for example, the sons of Eli (who was high priest when the prophet Samuel was given to the temple by Hannah) are killed by God because of their abuse of their priestly rights. Of all of the people of God, priests and levites should have understood the significance of a heavenly inheritance. I wonder if Paul had this in mind when he wrote in Ephesians 1:11-12: ‘In him (Christ) we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory’.
The passage in Exodus 40 that I’ve just read describes the anointing of Aaron and his sons. They were anointed to serve. Interestingly, they were anointed to serve GOD (v13, v15). It is God they serve, not men. This means it is God they were to obey, not men. The Priest’s first allegiance is to God.
Sacrifices are very foreign to us nowadays, we understand the concept of what we might describe as personal sacrifice, but to talk of sacrificing an animal as an offering is generally viewed as archaic and savage. What sacrifices DO is remind us of the devastating consequence of sin. The first death came as a result of sin (God killed an animal to make clothes for Adam and Eve), Abel sacrificed a lamb and his sacrifice was acceptable to God (Hebrews 11:4 says, ‘By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks’). The whole point of the sacrificial system is to show us that sin deserves a death. The priest stands before God on behalf of the people and makes the sacrifices for the sins of the people. Hebrews tells us that the priests were to offer sacrifices for sin: 📖 ‘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. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honour for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was’ (Hebrews 5:1-4). It is the priest who asks for God’s forgiveness for the people.
Priests were teachers. They were to teach people God’s law and His commandments:
Deuteronomy 33:8-11 describes the blessing Moses gave to the tribe of Levi, in v10 he says this: ‘they shall teach Jacob your rules and Israel your commands’
Leviticus 10 contains some of God’s instructions to Aaron, and in verse 8-11 we read: 📖 ‘the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses’.
Nehemiah 8 describes Ezra standing on a platform to read the book of the law and in v7,8 we read that, 📖 ‘also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanna, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading’.
So, through their lifestyles, their service in the temple, and their teaching ministry, priests stood in the gap between God and man. They made sacrifices to God on behalf of the people, and they taught the people who God was and what He was like. They represented the people before God and God before the people.
How does Jesus fulfil that role?
In offering sacrifices to God on behalf of the people and representing God to the people, priests were mediators between God and man. Paul writes to Timothy that this is exactly the role Jesus took: ‘For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Timothy 2:5). As a starter, then, Jesus fulfils this aspect of the priesthood.
We can’t possibly have a message about Jesus being a priest without referring to the letter to the Hebrews. Much of Hebrews (particularly chapters 4–10) details about how Jesus is our ultimate High Priest and how His priesthood is far superior to the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament. The writer of Hebrews also explains how the Old Testament system of priests served to foreshadow the ministry of Jesus.
Hebrews 4:14–16 says, 📖 ‘Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’. With Jesus as our High Priest, we can go before God boldly, knowing that Jesus has true compassion on us and that, through Him, we will experience the grace and mercy of God (see also Hebrews 10:19–23).
Hebrews 7 describes Jesus as a priest ‘after the order of Melchizedek’ and verses 11-17 say this: 📖 ‘Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him,
“You are a priest forever,
after the order of Melchizedek”.’
The quote about being a priest of the order of Melchizedek comes from Psalm 110 (which, incidentally, is generally understood to be a messianic Psalm):
📖 ‘The LORD says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
The LORD sends forth from Zion
your mighty sceptre.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!
Your people will offer themselves freely
on the day of your power,
in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours.
The LORD has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
after the order of Melchizedek.”
The Lord is at your right hand;
he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
He will execute judgment among the nations,
filling them with corpses;
he will shatter chiefs
over the wide earth.
He will drink from the brook by the way;
therefore he will lift up his head’.
Back to the Hebrews passage, according to His human ancestry, Jesus did not descend from Aaron or Levi, He is ‘the lion of the tribe of … JUDAH’. So, humanly speaking, Jesus had no right or authority to be a priest. His right, this passage shows us, doesn’t come from His ancestry, but ‘by the power of an indestructible life’ which I believe is a reference to his resurrection.
The priest serves God in the temple, he offers sacrifices to God on behalf of the people, for their sins. The Bible is quite clear that Jesus IS both the temple and the priest:
- In John 2:19-21, when Jesus says, ‘destroy this temple and I will raise it in 3 days’, the Jews thought He was talking about the temple itself, but john note that Jesus was talking about himself. HE is the temple. (Interestingly, WE are the temple now—in which God lives by His Spirit).
- Hebrews says of Jesus that He is the priest and that He enters God’s presence, not by the blood of sacrifices, but his own blood: Hebrews 9:11-12 ‘when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption’. Again, it is interesting to note that once again, WE enter the presence of God by Jesus’ blood: Hebrews 10:19-20 ‘we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body’,
Jesus’ ministry represented God to the people He met, He declared the Jubilee and came to bring freedom for the prisoner, food for the hungry and so on, and the Gospels are full of examples about HOW He ministered to people and proclaimed the Kingdom of God. John actually says that there would not be enough books in the whole world to record everything He said and did. That is some representation of a loving father God, yet He never forgot his service of God. In fact He took on the nature of a servant, as Paul says, even to death. Jesus both represented God before the people and made a sacrifice (himself) to God on behalf of people.
Jesus says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). We know He came to serve (the Son of man came not to be served but to serve : Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45), but His service was of GOD, not man. He says of Himself, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me’ (John 6:38).
How does the church fit into this?
The first thing to remember is that Christ is priest, but He is not just an ordinary priest, He is our high priest:
- Hebrews 4:14-16 📖 ‘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. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’.
- Hebrews 9:11 📖 ‘Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come’
You will remember last week I noted that the ordination of pastors and leaders in the church today often includes anointing with oil. Many church streams call their leaders ‘priest’. Catholics certainly do, but so do many traditional protestant denominations. Anglican ordination, for example, is often described as ‘priesting’. BUT the witness of the New Testament is that priesthood is no longer confined to a specific group of people in the church. Church leadership, what we and others might describe as the pastorate, I would argue is NOT the same as the priesthood. I am a pastor, but NOT in the Old Testament, temple, sense am I a priest. Priesthood is the privilege and responsibility of all believers.
That we are all priests is most directly stated in 1 Peter 2 which twice describes us in terms of the priesthood. It is primarily from this passage that the concept of the ‘priesthood of believers’ comes.
Firstly, we have
1 Peter 2:5 which describes believers like this: 📖 ‘you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’.
1 Peter 2:9 📖 ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’.
So, we see two foci of our priestly function echo the responsibilities of the Levitical priesthood:
- In v5, we are to ‘offer spiritual sacrifices to God’ (this is a function directed towards God).
- In v9, we are to ‘proclaim the excellencies’ of God (this is a function directed towards the world).
But actually, the priesthood of all believers is not an exclusively New Testament concept. In Exodus 19: 3, God tells Moses this: 📖 ‘you shall say to the house of Jacob and to the people of Israel’ the following: (Exodus 19:5-6) 📖 ‘if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ .
So the priestly function of the whole people of God is BOTH an OT and a NT calling.
As a nation of priests, let’s not forget that just as in Exodus 28 we see Aaron’s anointing and responsibility is to serve God, our primary responsibility is to God and not to man. Jesus says to us, ‘why do you call me Lord, Lord and don’t do what I say?’
We are called to follow God, to worship Him and Him only, and to do His will. Any social action or care we take is an outworking of our service of God. We are called to serve others, yes, but any ‘works’ we do, any good we accomplish in this world is worthless if it is not undergirded by our service of God. Don’t forget that people said to God: ‘Lord we did this for you, we did that in your name’, and Jesus says ‘go away from me, I never knew you’ (Matthew 7:21-23 📖).
Even in Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus says the nations and people will be separated into two groups, sheep and goats, the focus is on how we minister to God. When we ‘serve’ other people, it is, ultimately, God we are serving, not men (whatever you did for the least of these you did it for me). This speaks to our motivation and not practice.
We have a calling, then, to stand in the gap between man and God.
I would suggest that the church in the latter half of the 20th century and so far in the 21st century, churches in general have been unbalanced in their priestly calling. They have concentrated on the ‘representing God before the people’. We understand (quite well I think) that we are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) with the ministry of reconciliation, imploring people to be reconciled to God. We have, by and large, accepted the challenge of the great commission, proclaiming the gospel, particularly in practical terms. This has been the overwhelming focus of EVERY church I have ever been in.
They have been less interested in standing before God and crying out to Him on behalf of the people. The prayer meeting in churches is almost always the least attended of all.
Very rarely do I ever hear people crying out to God: ‘woe is me I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips’ (Isaiah 6:5). I do wonder HOW we might, as a church, embrace that aspect of our priestly calling? Clearly we do not need to offer sacrifices for the people, Jesus is the supreme sacrifice. But is there a place for us crying out to God and repenting of the sins of our nation as representatives?
We don’t have a regular prayer meeting here at The Seed, perhaps this is an area that as a church we should try to improve on.
Hebrews 7 shows us how Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek was both a priest and the ‘king of Salem’ who blessed Abram. Likewise, Jesus is not just a ‘priest forever’, but also a king. Next week, we consider that aspect of Jesus—our king.