From time to time I have posted comments about the nature of ministry in the New Testament. Some have difficulty accepting the idea of a non-hierarchical ministry, but when we look at the Scriptures, this is what we find. I summarize this by saying that the New Testament never refers to Christian ministers as priests; this is a title reserved for all the people of God (or for the Lord Jesus alone.)
The truth of the assertion can be seen in the vocabulary the New Testament uses. Priest is the word ἱερεύς (hiereus.) From this, one can see the etymology of hierarchy, or priestly rule. The word occurs 33 times in the New Testament, 14 in the book of Hebrews alone. There, it refers to Melichizedek and his priesthood, Aaron and the Levitical priesthood, and to the Lord Jesus as one in the line of Melchizedek, having an eternal priesthood. Outside of Hebrews, almost all the occurrences are in the gospels and Acts. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist is a priest. Jesus tells the man he heals of leprosy to go show himself to the priest. In Acts 6, “many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” In all these contexts, it is the Jewish priesthood that is in view. (An outlier is the “priest of Zeus” mentioned in Acts 14, but this has no bearing on the question of Christian priests.)
The only other references are in Revelation, where Jesus has made all believers are “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.” At 5:10 and 20:6, this affirmation is repeated, and applied to every believer. Given this, we can say the New Testament uses the word priest in three ways:
- To refer to priests under the Old Covenant.
- To refer to the Lord Jesus in his eternal, Melchizedekian, priesthood.
- To refer to the common birthright of all Christians.
If this is so, then we do not find the idea of a Christian priesthood where some have rights and prerogatives beyond what any believer has. The most common misunderstanding is to import into the New Covenant what properly belonged to the Old. Indeed, under the Levitical priesthood there was a definite hierarchy with Aaron as the high priest, his sons as priests, and the Levites as their assistants. The priest alone could present an offering on behalf of an Israelite, and only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. But the point of much in the book of Hebrews is to draw a contrast between old and new. We now have a better covenant, enacted on better promises.
Throughout Christian history, we find this tendency to bring into the New what belonged to the Old. Special vestments for priests—there in Leviticus—absent from the New Testament. Special privileges belonging only to some—there in the Mosaic code—absent from the New Testament. What hierarchical traditions have done with the office of priest is not determinative of what the New Testament teaches.
Indeed, because the Lord Jesus is our great high priest, every believer is constituted as a priest, who is able to offer gift and sacrifices of worship.
“Having then a great high priest, who hath passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Later in the book, we read of our priestly privileges, the common lot of every single Christian: “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (Hebrews 13:15) We have no need of going through another as our mediator, for “there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5) And the sacrifices we ourselves bring are acceptable because of the Lord Jesus. These truths of our free access to and acceptance with God are diminished if another is needed to stand between us and God. Nowhere in the New Testament is the believer told he cannot approach, rather we are invited repeatedly to do so.
If there is no office of priest specific to some, what are we to make of the offices the New Testament does present? This is the topic of a future post.