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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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PRIEST (In NT). ‘Priest’ (Gr. hiereus ) is employed in the NT to denote anyone whose function it is to offer a religious sacrifice. 1. It is used of a Gentile priesthood in Acts 14:15 (‘the priest of Jupiter’), and also in Heb. as applied to the ‘order of Melchizedek’ ( Acts 5:8; Acts 5:10 , Acts 7:1 ff.), for Melchizedek, it is evident, was not merely a pre-Aaronic but a Gentile priest.

2. It is constantly employed to denote the members of the Jewish priesthood in their various ranks and functions. The ordinary officiating priests of the Temple come before us discharging the same offices of which we read in the OT. They burn incense ( Luke 1:5; Luke 1:8 ), present the sacrificial offerings ( Matthew 12:5 , cf. Numbers 28:9-10 ), effect the ceremonial cleansing of the leper ( Matthew 8:4 = Mark 1:44 = Luke 5:14; cf. Luke 17:14 ). The high priest ( archiereus ) appears as president of the Sanhedrin ( Matthew 26:57 ||, Acts 5:27; Acts 7:1; Acts 23:2 etc.), and as entering every year on the Day of Atonement into the Most Holy Place with his offering of blood ( Hebrews 9:25 ). Most frequently of all the word occurs in the plural form ‘chief priests’ ( archiereis ), an expression that probably designates a high-priestly party consisting of the high priest proper, the ex-high priests, and the members of those privileged families from which the high priests were drawn.

3. In the Ep. to the Hebrews Christ is described as both priest and high priest, but the fact that Melchizedek (wh. see), the chosen type of His eternal priesthood, is also described by the same two terms (cf. Hebrews 5:6 with Hebrews 5:10 , Hebrews 6:20 with Hebrews 7:1 ) shows that no distinction in principle is to be thought of, and that Christ is called a high priest simply to bring out the dignity of His priesthood. This conception of Christ as a priest is clearly stated in no other book of the NT, though suggestions of it appear elsewhere, and esp. in the Johannine writings ( e.g. John 17:19 , Revelation 1:13 ). In Heb. it is the regulating idea in the contrast that the author works out with such elaboration between the Old and the New Covenants. He thinks of a mediating priest as essential to a religion, and his purpose is to show the immense superiority in this respect of the new religion over the old. He finds certain points of contact between the priesthood of Aaron and that of Christ. This, indeed, was essential to his whole conception of the Law as having a shadow of the good things to come ( Hebrews 10:1 ), and of the priests who offer gifts according to the Law as serving ‘that which is a copy and shadow of the heavenly things’ ( Hebrews 8:5 ). Christ, e.g. , was Divinely called and commissioned, even as Aaron was ( Hebrews 5:4; Hebrews 5:6 ). He too was taken from among men, was tempted like His fellows, learned obedience through suffering, and so was qualified by His own human sympathies to be the High Priest of the human race ( Hebrews 4:15 ff., Hebrews 5:1 ff.). But it is pre-eminently by way of antithesis and not of likeness that the Aaronic priesthood is used to illustrate the priesthood of Christ. The priests of the Jewish faith were sinful men ( Hebrews 5:3 ), while Jesus was absolutely sinless ( Hebrews 4:15 ). They were mortal creatures, ‘many in number, because that by death they are hindered from continuing’ ( Hebrews 7:23 ), while Jesus ‘abideth for ever,’ and so ‘hath his priesthood unchangeable’ ( Hebrews 7:24 ). The sacrifices of the Jewish Law were imperfect ( Hebrews 10:1 ff.); but Christ ‘by one offering hath perfected for ever them that are being sanctified’ ( Hebrews 10:14 ). The sanctuary of the old religion was a worldly structure ( Hebrews 9:1 ), and so liable to destruction or decay; but Christ enters ‘into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us’ ( Hebrews 9:24 ).

And this contrast between the priesthood of Aaron and the priesthood of Christ is brought to a head when Jesus is declared to be a priest not after the order of Aaron at all, but after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:11 ff.). ‘ Order ,’ it must be kept in mind, does not here refer to ministry, but to the high priest’s personality a fact which, when clearly perceived, saves us from much confusion in the interpretation of this Epistle. The distinctive order of Christ’s priesthood is found in His own nature, above all in the fact that He is ‘a priest for ever.’ The Melchizedek high priest is conceived of all through as performing the same kind of priestly acts as were discharged by the high priests of the house of Aaroo; but the quality of His Person is quite different, and this completely alters the character of His acts, raising them from the realm of copies and shadows to that of absolute reality and eternal validity (cf. A. B. Davidson, Hebrews , 149).

It is a mistake, therefore, to attempt, as some do, to distinguish between an Aaronic priesthood exercised by Christ on earth and a Melchizedek priesthood exercised by Him in heaven; and equally a mistake to attempt to confine His priestly ministry to a work of mediation and intercession that begins after His exaltation. No doubt it is true that His priestly work is not consummated until He enters into God’s presence in the heavenly places, but all that the writer has previously set forth as bearing upon His priesthood must be borne in mind. It was by His life on earth, by the obedience He learned and the human sympathy He gained, that Christ was qualified to be the high priest of men. Moreover, every high priest ‘must have somewhat to offer,’ and the ‘somewhat’ of Jesus was Himself, yielded up on earth in a life of perfect obedience (Hebrews 5:3; Hebrews 5:9 ) and an atoning death of spotless self-sacrifice ( Hebrews 9:11-16; Hebrews 9:28 ). It was with this priestly offering of His life and death, and in virtue of it, that Jesus entered into the presence of God ( Hebrews 9:24 ) as the ‘mediator of a new covenant’ (v. 15) and the ever-living Intercessor ( Hebrews 7:25 ), and so secured for us our access with boldness unto the throne of grace ( Hebrews 4:16 , Hebrews 10:18-22 ).

4. According to the teaching of the NT, the Church is a priestly institution, and all believers are themselves priests. The OT idea that Israel was ‘a kingdom of priests unto God’ ( Exodus 19:5 ) is transferred in precise terms to God’s people under the New Dispensation. They are ‘a royal priesthood’ ( 1 Peter 2:9 ); Christ has made them to be ‘a kingdom of priests unto God and his Father’ ( Revelation 1:6; Revelation 5:10 ). Again, they are referred to by these same two writers as ‘a holy priesthood’ ( 1 Peter 2:5 ), ‘priests of God and of Christ’ ( Revelation 20:6 ). And though the author of Heb. does not so describe them in set language, it follows from his way of speaking that he regards all Christ’s people as priests. When he says in the passage fast cited ( Hebrews 10:19-22 ) that they have boldness to enter into the Holy Place by a new and living way through the veil, it seems evident that he is thinking of those who draw near to God, by the blood of Jesus and in fulness of faith, as a company of worshipping priests; for under the old economy, which serves him at so many points as a type of the new, it was priests alone who could pass through the curtain into the Holy Place. It is the same idea, probably, that meets us in St. Paul when he speaks of our ‘access’ ( Romans 5:2 ), our ‘access in one Spirit unto the Father’ ( Ephesians 2:16 ), our ‘access in confidence through our faith’ in Christ ( Ephesians 3:12 ). And it is nothing more than a carrying out of this same conception that all believers belong to a holy priesthood, when St. Peter writes of the ‘spiritual sacrifices’ which we are called to offer up ( 1 Peter 2:5 ); and St. Paul beseeches us to present our bodies a living sacrifice ( Romans 12:1 ); and the author of Heb. bids us offer to God the sacrifice of praise ( Hebrews 13:15 ), or declares that God is well pleased with such sacrifices as kindly deeds and gifts of Christian liberality ( Hebrews 13:16 ); and the seer of the Apocalypse speaks of the prayers of all the saints as rising up like incense from the golden altar before the throne ( Revelation 8:3 ).

5. It is a noteworthy fact that the NT never describes the Christian ministry as a priesthood, or the individual minister as a priest, except in the general sense in which these terms are applicable to all believers a fact which is all the more significant when we consider how frequently both the minister and the ministry are referred to. In particular, there is no trace in the NT of the later idea that in the Lord’s Supper a sacrifice of propitiation is offered to God, much less that this sacrifice is presented through the mediation of an official priesthood. The two terms ‘presbyter’ ( presbyteros ) and ‘priest’ ( hiereus ), which came to be confounded by and by, were at first kept absolutely apart. Thus, so far as the NT is concerned, it is only in an etymological sense that it can be said that ‘presbyter is priest writ large.’

J. C. Lambert.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Priest'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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