Why Jesus as Priest?
As we near the end of the season of Lent, in which we particularly focus on Jesus as the sacrificial offering, we now focus on Jesus as the High Priest. This image of Christ as Priest is crucial. Most Jews in his day expected the Christ would be a glorious king, and they were right, but not in the way or time that they expected. Jesus was many things – in fact, he was everything that the Old Testament predicted he would be. His roles (or offices as they’re traditionally called) are Prophet, Priest and King. As a Prophet he preached the word of God to his people and backed it up with miracles. We hear about that especially in the themes of the Epiphany season. As a Priest, he acted as an intercessor between God and the world, making the ultimate sacrifice to righten all the wrongs between them. We hear about that especially in these weeks leading up to Easter. And finally, as a King, Jesus conquered the devil, trampled over sin and death, and will return to judge the world. This we celebrate partially in Easter and partially in Advent.
Anyway, Jesus is our great high priest. We say this a lot, we hear about it the Communion prayers every week, it’s one of those concepts that most of us are familiar with. But it’s also one of those concepts that’s familiar to many but not always as well-understood as it could be. Priesthood is a servant role. The basic concept of a Priest is a sort of middle man representing two parties: God and humanity. If God and man are at peace, then there’s no need for a priest. So in a sense, the very idea of a priest is one that is temporary; it has a starting point and an ending point. Once sin entered into the world, the need for a priest began. When sin is ended and put away, the need for a priest will end. Thus when we talk about the Old Testament and its covenant, and Law, and priesthood, we talk about it being fulfilled in Christ. That is, their useful function has come to an end. Christ provided a new covenant, a new law, a new priesthood which together accomplish what the old ones could only strive for. And yet, as glorious as that is, even Jesus’ priesthood has an endpoint. That is, in part why Jesus insisted that he does not seek his own glory. For, as a priest, he was just a middle man. The glory of being a priest is entirely dependent upon the parties he represents.
What is priestly ministry?
From both Old and New Testament writings, theologians have generally summarized the ministry of a priest into three steps: sacrifice, intercession, and blessing. In the Old Testament setting this would involve the priest slaughtering the animal that is brought to him, bringing some of its flesh and blood to an altar where it is offered to God by burning it, praying for the people who brought the animal (depending on what type of offering it is), and then returning to the people to deliver God’s answer, or forgiveness, or blessing. And while there were many types of offerings and sacrifices, the most important one was the Atoning Sacrifice. This could only be performed by the High Priest on a certain holiday, according to very strict rules, and was done for the forgiveness of the sins of the entire nation of Israel.
It was that High Priestly atoning sacrifice that Jesus copied in his own priestly ministry. As a High Priest, Jesus offered his own life as the sacrifice. After returning from the dead he then took his sacrificed body up into the heavens at the right hand of the Father where he makes intercession for us. When he is done, he will return, bringing the blessing of eternal life and perfect restoration of the whole world. Sacrifice, intercession, and blessing: it’s the same three-step priestly ministry.
Now, because Jesus’ ministry as a High Priest was literally cosmic in scale, the very concept of time can’t completely contain it. Although Jesus died once for all upon the Cross, the cause and effects of that death are present throughout time. The Old Testament sacrifices made before Jesus’ death drew their power and significance from Jesus’ sacrificial death. The New Testament sacrifice of the Eucharist also draws its power and significance from Jesus’ sacrificial death. Everyone who is saved from their sins, BC and AD, is saved by the power of Christ on the Cross. Likewise, Jesus’ intercession for us defies time. He prayed for us throughout his life, especially in the famous ‘High Priestly Prayer’ in John 17, as well as in the garden of Gethsemane. And he continues to make intercession for us in the heavenly places until he comes again. Thirdly, the blessing stage also overflows throughout time and space. We don’t speak of our salvation only in future tense – it has present realities that we can know and celebrate throughout our lives! The giving of the Holy Spirit is described in Scripture as a “deposit” from God. This baptismal grace is a promise from God that more blessings are to come. The gifts of the Spirit help us to grow towards those blessings, and the fruit of the Spirit help us to see that growth. And yet the perfection and ultimate fulfillment of God’s blessings has yet to be seen.
How is his priesthood shared?
Christians in every tradition agree on the priesthood of Christ; it’s fundamental to the Gospel. But when you turn the question over to how his priestly ministry is shared with the Church, then you start to see arguments cropping up between the traditional Catholic teaching and the opinions of the Reformation. Rather than using the arguments of the past 500 years as my starting point, I’d like to stay with Scripture as we look at this topic. Throughout the Bible, priesthood shows up in more than one layer. There is a general priesthood identity that is applied to all of God’s people, and specific priesthood identity that is reserved for a relatively small number of God’s people. The classic verses that refer to the general priesthood are Exodus 19:5-6 (“Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” ) and 1 Peter 2:9 (“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…”). And yet, despite God calling all of his people a “royal priesthood,” in both covenant eras, he still raised up orders of clergy in their midst. Why? Because as I said at the beginning, whenever there is sin, there is need for a mediator to reconcile the two sides. Since everybody sins, including God’s people, a priestly role is needed for them.
Perhaps it helps to think about this in terms of relationships. There has been a great separation: the world has rebelled against God, and now we need a relationship counselor. God’s people, collectively, are a priesthood. They stand between God and the unbelieving world, inviting the world to believe in God and thus be reconciled with him. It’s the same thing with the specific priesthood within God’s people: since even God’s people still sin, a priesthood is set up to act as relationship counselors to help maintain and deepen the link already established between them.
What do these priesthoods look like on earth right now?
It’s time to return to that three-step summary of what priestly ministry is: sacrifice, intercession, and blessing. How do these practically happen in regular life right now? For the specific priesthood, those who are ordained, it’s probably fairly obvious. The movements of sacrifice, intercession, and blessing are emphasized throughout the Communion service. As an ordained priest, I lead the congregation to the altar of God where we offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, we bring an offering of bread and wine, and through the ordained ministry of the priesthood, I unite our general sacrifice to Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, which I then deliver to each of you in the bread and the wine. Ordained priests also pronounce special types blessings, and administer most of the other sacramental rites of the Church such as marriage and absolution. The specific ordained priesthood functions to speak and act on behalf of the whole Church in our local settings.
And while that’s all very noble and special, the general priesthood that is common to all believers cannot be understated! All Christians offer themselves as living sacrifices to God, not just at the altar during Communion but every day in all that we do and say. All Christians intercede for one another and, especially, for the world. Same with blessing: every Christian blesses the world by representing Christ to them. As far as the unbelieving world is concerned, my priesthood is extraneous and pointless, because an ordained Christian Priest chiefly represents Christ to Christ’s people. But the general priesthood in which we all share means that we each represent Christ to the world around us. It’s part of our identity as Christians to live like Christ.
So if we want to avoid the arguments that often crop up between Roman Catholics and Protestants (which has always gotten Anglicans caught in the middle on this topic anyway), we must respect the ordained priesthood for what it is by not diminishing it, mocking it, or abusing it. While at the same time we must honor the general priesthood for what it is by celebrating the manifold ways that God’s people serve him.
And, most important of all, we must always remember that these concepts of priesthood (performing sacrifices, making intercession, and bestowing blessings) stem from the Priesthood of Jesus himself. His sacrifice is unrepeatable. His intercession is unceasing. His blessing is unbeatable!
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we see Christ’s Priesthood in action. Keep this in mind when we get there, and walk through Holy Week together.