The Office of New Testament Priest
by James Akin
In both Old and New Testaments, there are three ranks of priests, which are commonly referred to as the high priests, the ministerial priests, and the universal priests.
At the time of the Exodus the high priest was Aaron (Ex. 31:30), the ministerial priests were his four sons (Ex. 28:21; the sons were Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, the first two of which were killed for abusing their priestly duties), and the universal priests were the people of Israel as a whole (Exodus 19:6).
Prior to this time, there had been neither a high priest nor had God elected all of Israel as universal priests. There was only the ministerial priesthood, which appears to have resided in the firstborn male of each family. The existence of the pre-Aaronic ministerial priesthood is shown in Exodus 19:22 and 24, which differentiate the priests from the people but occur before the establishment in the Aaronic priesthood in Exodus 28. The fact that the ministerial priests were held by the firstborn is suggested (though not proven) by the exchange of the priestly tribe of Levi for the firstborn of Israel in Numbers 3.
In any event, the three-fold model of the priesthood which was in use at the time of Aaron was carried over into the New Testament and thus we find there also a high priest, ministerial priests, and universal priests. In the New Testament age the high priest is Jesus Christ (Heb. 3:1), the ministerial priests are Christ’s ordained ministers of the gospel (Rom. 15:16), and the universal priests are the entire Christian people (1 Peter. 2:5, 9).
So the Bible clearly states that all Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9), as the Catholic Church clearly teaches for all who bother to read its teachings, see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1141-4, 1268, 1305, 1535, 1547, 1591-2 on the common priesthood. But the Bible also said the same thing about the Israelites (Ex. 19:6), yet this did not prevent there from being a separate, ministerial priesthood even before the Law of Moses was given (Ex. 19:22, 24).
Furthermore, since the top, Old Testament office of high priest corresponds to Jesus, the New Testament high priest, and since the bottom, Old Testament universal priesthood corresponds to the New Testament universal priesthood, the middle, ministerial priesthood in the Old Testament corresponds to a middle, ministerial priesthood in the New Testament.
This priesthood is identical with the office of elder. In fact, the term “priest” is simply a shortened, English version of the Greek word for “elder” — presbuteros — as any dictionary will confirm. This is any some Old Catholic translations render the word as “priests” where Protestant Bibles have “elder.” For example, in the Douay-Rheims Bible (the Catholic equivalent of the King James Version) we read:
“For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldst set in order the things that are wanting, and shouldst ordain priests in every city, as I also appointed thee” (Titus 1:5).
“Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil, in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man; and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15).
We also see in the New Testament that the functions of the Old Testament elder — who served in the synagogue — have been fused with the functions of the Old Testament priest — whose served in the temple.
We can see the fusion of the two concepts in Romans 15:15-16. In the New International Version of this passage, we read:
“I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty [literally, "the priestly work"] of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
Paul tells us that because he has been given a calling as a professional minister of Christ, he has a priestly work of preaching the gospel so that the Gentiles may be an offering — a sacrifice to God. This is not something only he has. Every elder in every church has that same “priestly work” of preaching the gospel. So Paul here conceives of the office of the New Testament minister as a priestly office. Notice that the hearers of the gospel in this passage are not depicted as priests, but as the sacrifice to God. Paul draws a distinction between himself and his work of preaching the gospel, and his readers and their duty of hearing it. It is the minister, not the congregation, who is here pictured as priest.
A second passage revealing the fusion of the offices of Old Testament elder and Old Testament priest is Revelation 5:8, where we read:
“And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”
Here we have the twenty-four heavenly elders (presbyteroi) depicted as offering incense to God in bowls, just as the Old Testament priests did with their own gold incense bowls (Num. 7:84-86).
It is especially important to note that this was a function only priests could perform, as indicated a few chapters later, in Numbers 16, which records the story of Korah’s rebellion. This story concerns precisely the issue which is before us today: Whether the fact that all believers are priests means that there is no ministerial priesthood. Korah said it does mean that, and he gathered a rebellion against Moses and Aaron to usurp the priesthood from them. Numbers 16 says:
“Now Korah . . . and Dathan and Abiram . . . took men; and they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said . . . ‘You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’ When Moses heard it, he fell on his face; and he said . . . ‘In the morning the LORD will show who is his, and who is holy . . . Do this: take censers . . . put fire in them and put incense upon them before the LORD tomorrow, and the man whom the LORD chooses shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi! . . . [I]s it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel . . . would you seek the priesthood also? Therefore it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together; what is Aaron that you murmur against him?’” (Num. 16:1-11).
After this you can guess what happened. The men loaded up their censers and tried to offer incense before the Lord, but God caused the earth to open its mouth and swallow up Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, then he caused fire to come out of the Tabernacle and swallow up the two hundred and fifty men offering incense, showing that they were not to be priests, not the ones to offer incense, even though God had said that in one sense the whole congregation were priests.
Thus, in the Old Testament God was willing to kill people that are not priests who offer incense to him. So when we see the elders (presbyteroi) doing so in his heavenly temple, we must infer that they are priests. A fusion of the office of elder and priest has taken place.
Scripture takes the distinction between clergy and laity very seriously. Both Old and New Testaments warn people against assuming an office to which they have not been ordained. For example, I direct your attention to Jude 11, a verse most people gloss over when they read the book. That verse discusses various wicked Church leaders and states,
“Woe to them! For they walk in the way of Cain, and abandon themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.”
It is therefore possible for people, even in the New Testament, to perish in Korah’s rebellion by usurping the office of the priesthood.
And notice that it is not only those who actually perform the priestly duties that are subject to death, but those who follow those that have usurped priestly duties. God also killed those lay people who merely supported Korah and his pseudo-priests. Moses also had to intercede to keep God from killing those in the congregation who merely supported Korah, even though they did not themselves offer incense. Later, when the people grumbled after Korah was dead, Moses again had to intervene to stop God from killing them all, but almost 15,000 of them died anyway for being followers of Korah.
It is against this sin that the book of Jude warns us, because the same thing can happen in the New Testament age. We cannot confine the warning against Korah’s rebellion to the Old Testament age. Jude tells us it was going on in his day as well. Just as Korah, Dathan, and Abiram came along and said, “Hey, in Exodus 19 God said we are all priests, so we don’t need a ministerial priesthood; we can do that ourselves!” today people come along and say, “Hey, in 1st Peter God said we are all priests, so we don’t need a ministerial priesthood; we can do that ourselves!”
Finally, we can see the fusion of the offices of elder and priest in the fact that the church is a combination of the Old Testament synagogue (where the teaching occurred) and the Old Testament temple (where the sacrifice occurred). The New Testament church incorporates both of these elements, with the liturgy of the word (teaching) and the liturgy of the Eucharist (sacrifice), which has been the structure of Christian worship since the first century.
This brings us to the principle sacrifice of the New Testament priesthood, which is the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. To see the sacrificial dimension to the Lord’s Supper, note first that it is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament Passover feast, in which the sacrificed paschal lamb was consumed (1 Cor. 5:7-8). The New Testament Eucharist, like the Old Testament Passover, is thus a sacrificial meal.
The sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist is even built into its visible structure in a way that was not the case with the Passover meal. Jesus first says that the bread is his body and then that the wine is his blood. Whether this is literally or symbolically true is a question beyond the scope of our present discussion. What I want to point out is that the bread and the wine, the body and blood, are separate. The sacrament thus shows his body and blood in a state of separation from each other, in a state of sacrifice. The famous Protestant scholar Joachim Jeremias points this out in his book, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, which Protestant scholars have come to regard as the definitive work on this subject. He states,
“[W]hen Jesus speaks of ‘his flesh’ and ‘his blood’ . . . [h]e is applying to himself terms from the language of sacrifice . . . Each of the two nouns presupposes a slaying that has separated flesh and blood. In other words: Jesus speaks of himself as a sacrifice [p. 222].
By displaying the body and blood in a state of separation, the elements display a sacrificial character. This is true regardless of whether Christ is literally present in the sacrament or whether he is only symbolically present. Even if he is only symbolically present, then the Eucharist symbolizes a sacrifice. It is a symbolic sacrifice. Because elders have the duty of performing the sacraments, they have the duty of performing this sacrifice, again indicating the priestly character of their office.
Further confirmation is found in the words Jesus used to instruct his ministers to perform it. His statement, “Do this in remembrance of me,” may also be translated, “Offer this as my memorial sacrifice” — a fact Protestant preachers never mention when they talk about this passage. But it has a most important bearing on our discussion, because by telling the apostles to offer his memorial sacrifice, Jesus clearly ordained them as his priests.
In Greek, these words are Totou poiete eis tan emen anamnesin. They are usually translated into English as “Do this in remembrance of me,” but this does not do full justice to the words.
First of all, the word poiein or “do” has sacrificial overtones. This can be seen by examining the way it is used in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. As Protestant theologian D. M. Baillie says in his book The Theology of the Sacraments,
“There is no doubt that this verb is used frequently in the LXX in a cult or sacrificial sense. Gore says there are from 60 to 80 instances.”
He then goes on to give examples. For instance, Exodus 29:38:
“This is that which you shall offer (poieseis) upon the altar: two lambs . . . “
Here the verb poiein should clearly be translated as “offer,” as all the Protestant translations of this passage have it. The King James, the Revised Standard, and the New International Version all render it as “offer.”
Jesus’ word anamnesis, usually translated “remembrance,” also has sacrificial overtones. For example, in the NIV of Hebrews 10:3 we read,
“But those sacrifices are an annual reminder [anamnesis] of sins.”
The word for “reminder” in this passage is anamnesis. The passage thus tells us that these sacrifices are an annual anamnesis, an annual memorial offering, on behalf of the sins of the people. In fact, all of the occurrences of this word in the Protestant Bible, both in New Testament and the Greek Old Testament, occur in a sacrificial context.
An anamnesis of a memorial offering which one brings before God to prompt his remembrance. The thought is the same as when the Psalmist urges God to remember him, or the congregation, or Mount Zion, or how the enemy scoffs, or how God’s servant has been mistreated. The idea of a memorial offering is to present the gift to God and prompt him to take action. For example, in the NIV of Numbers 10:10 we read,
“Also at your times of rejoicing . . . you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial [LXX, anamnesis] for you before your God.”
Joachim Jeremias admits this in his book. While liberal Protestant scholarship tried to interpret the Lord’s Supper as a pagan memorial meal which merely commemorated a loved one, Jeremias saw through this and recognized the Palestinian background for the Lord’s Supper and its offering of the elements to God to prompt his remembrance of Jesus and what he did.
“[T]he command for repetition [of the Lord's Supper] may be translated: ‘This do, that God may remember me.’ How is this to be understood? Here an old Passover prayer is illuminating. On Passover evening a prayer is inserted into the third benediction of the grace after the meal, a prayer which asks God to remember the Messiah. . . . In this very common prayer, which is also used on other festival days, God is petitioned at every Passover concerning ‘the remembrance of the Messiah’” (Jeremias, 252).
So Jesus’ command to the disciples to “do this in memory” of him was a command to present the elements to God as an anamnesis, as a memorial sacrifice to bring to God’s mind the work that Jesus did on the cross for us.
Of course, Jesus does not die again in this sacrifice (Heb. 9:26), but death is not an essential part of a sacrifice. The essence of a sacrifice is the idea of presenting a gift to the deity. This gift may or may not be presented to God by killing it. There are numerous sacrifices in the Bible in which the gift is not killed. In fact, there is a class of sacrifices, known as “wave offerings” in which the gift is “waved” before God to present it to him. In wave offerings it is not at all required for the gift to be destroyed. For example, if you read Numbers 8:11-21, you will see that the entire tribe of Levi was waved before God as a wave offering to consecrate them as ministers at the Tabernacle. So God’s ministers present themselves as a wave offering to God.
If you read Romans 12:1, you find out that we present ourselves to God as wave offerings, for Paul tells us to offer our bodies to him as a living sacrifice. It is in this manner that the resurrected Jesus presents himself to God, as a wave offering, a living sacrifice, a living memorial that God may remember what he did on the cross and bestow upon us the graces of salvation. By his intercessory ministry in heaven, Christ continually presents to God what he did on the cross, he continually brings it before God as a memorial offering of what he did in the past, so that we might receive God’s grace.
This is true regardless of whether Jesus is actually or only symbolically present in the elements. I recognized this fact even when I was still a Protestant: Regardless of the doctrine of the Real Presence, the sacrament of communion is a sacrifice, just as the early Church said it was, and just as the Christian Church throughout the ages has understood it. We thus see the function of the temple — offering of sacrifice — being brought together with the function of the synagogue — teaching the people — into the New Testament church. Those who preside over the church thus incorporate both the functions of the Old Testament priest and the Old Testament elder.
Thus in the Christian liturgy that has come down to us from the first century, the church first celebrates the Liturgy of the Word (synagogue service) followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist (temple service.)