Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
1. The Jewish priests.—The few passages in the Gospels where the word ‘priest’ (ἱερεύς) occurs apply solely to the Jewish priesthood, but of its position and functions very little is recorded either in the Gospels or generally in the NT. The Gr. ἱερεύς is the equivalent of the Heb. כֹּהֵן. The Jewish priesthood is brought before us in the Gospels in the following connexions:—(1) The work of Zacharias (Luke 1:5-9), where we read of the priestly courses with the duties assigned to them by lot. The priesthood was divided into twenty-four courses (ἐφημερίαι), and each course was on duty twice during the year (Plummer, in loc.). (2) The priests and Levites who interviewed John the Baptist (John 1:19). (3) The lepers cleansed by our Lord were to show themselves to the priest (Matthew 8:4, Mark 1:44, Luke 5:14; Luke 17:14) in proof of their healing and of the obedience of Jesus to the Law (Plummer, in loc.). (4) The reference to the shewbread as eaten by the priests only (Mark 2:26). (5) The priest who passed by the wounded traveller (Luke 10:31). The Gospels are much more concerned with ‘chief (or high) priests’ (ἀρχιερεῖς) than with priests, the former word being frequently found in all four Gospels. See artt. Chief Priests and High Priest.
2. Priesthood of Christ
(1) The general position of Christ’s priesthood in the NT.—The English word ‘priest’ represents two different Heb. and Gr. words. It is used to translate ἱερεύς and כֹּהֵן (Lat. sacerdos). It is also the contraction of presbyter (‘prester,’ ‘prest,’ ‘priest’), which is the transliteration of πρεσβύτερος and LXX Septuagint rendering of וָקֵן (elder). But the NT idea of the priesthood of Christ is associated solely with the former of these words. Christ is called a priest, or high priest, in the sense of a sacrificing priest (ἱερεύς, ἀρχιερύς). This application of the term to our Lord is found only in Hebrews, though the priestly functions connected with sacrifice and intercession are, of course, found frequently in the NT (Matthew 20:28, John 1:29; John 14:6, Romans 8:34, Ephesians 2:18, 1 Peter 1:19-21; 1 Peter 3:18, Revelation 1:5; Revelation 1:13). It should, however, be carefully observed that it is only in Hebrews that these functions are connected with our Lord as priest. Elsewhere they simply form part of His general work as Redeemer.
(2) The specific purpose of Christ’s priesthood in Hebrews.—It is important to inquire why, and under what circumstances, the priesthood of Christ is brought forward in Hebrews. The situation there described is one in which the Hebrew Christians were in danger of spiritual degeneration (Hebrews 5:12), backsliding and apostasy (Hebrews 6:9, Hebrews 10:35). The Epistle was written to prevent this, and the means of accomplishing it was personal experience of the priesthood of Christ. In some way, therefore, Christ’s priesthood is associated with spiritual steadfastness, progress, assurance. In the full understanding and acceptance of this truth will be found the secret of growth and maturity of experience. It is evident that these Hebrews knew Jesus as Saviour, and had an elementary knowledge of the truths of redemption (Hebrews 6:1), but they did not realize what it meant to have Him as priest. The distinction between the two may be seen by a consideration of the time and circumstances under which priesthood appeared in connexion with Israel. Apart from foreign priesthoods like those of Egypt and Midian (Genesis 47, Exodus 3), the first mention of priesthood in Israel is at Sinai. There was no priesthood in Egypt, only redemption. There was none at the Red Sea, where deliverance was the one thing needful. At Sinai they were to realize for the first time their true relation to God and God’s relation to them as dwelling among them (Exodus 19:4-6; Exodus 25:1-8). The priesthood was appointed to provide the means of access to God and prevent fear in approaching Him. The essence of priesthood, therefore, is access to God based on an already existing redemption. The Hebrew Christians knew Christ as Redeemer; they were now to be taught the possibility, power, and joy of constant free access to God in Him, and in this, the removal of all fear and dissatisfaction. Any sense of unworthiness would be met by His worthiness, all fear removed by His nearness to them and to God as at once Son of Man and Divine High Priest. There is thus a whole world of difference between knowing Christ as Saviour and as Priest. The former may involve only spiritual childhood, the latter must necessarily include spiritual maturity (Hebrews 5:10-14). This is one of the great distinctions between the teaching of Romans and of Hebrews. The former is concerned with redemption which makes access possible (Romans 5:2), the latter with access which is made possible by redemption. This practical purpose of Hebrews in close connexion with spiritual growth and maturity should ever be kept in mind. Herein lies the present and permanent value of the Epistle in Christian life and service, with its constant emphasis on ‘Draw near’ (Hebrews 10:22), ‘Draw not back’ (Hebrews 10:39), ‘Let us go on’ (Hebrews 6:1).
(3) The essential meaning of priesthood.—In order to obtain a true idea of the priesthood of Christ, it is necessary to inquire what were the essential characteristics of priesthood. What were the functions which the priest performed as priest, those of which he had the monopoly, and which no one else could perform under any circumstances? The best definition is in Hebrews 5:1, where we are told that the priest was ‘appointed for men in things pertaining to God,’ that is, he represented man to God. What was included in this representation we shall see later, but meanwhile it should be clearly observed that priesthood meant the representation of man to God, and was the exact opposite and counterpart of the work of the prophet, which was to represent God to man. The priest went from man to God, the prophet went from God to man. The two ideas are seen in Hebrews 3:1, where Christ is called ‘Apostle and High Priest’—‘Apostle’ because sent from God to man, ‘High Priest’ because going from man to God. In this twofold capacity lies His perfect mediation. If the priest did other duties, such as teaching, receiving tithes, and blessing the people, these were superadded functions and not inherent in the priesthood. The Levites could teach and the kings could bless, but by no possibility could either do the essential duties of the priesthood in representing man to God. This specific idea is clearly taught as the essence of priesthood both in OT and NT, where the Godward aspect of priesthood is always stated and emphasized (Exodus 28:1, Numbers 16:40, 2 Chronicles 26:18, Ezekiel 44:15, Hebrews 6:20; Hebrews 7:25; Hebrews 9:24). This essential idea of priesthood as representative of man to God carries with it the right of access to and of abiding in the presence of God. In primitive days, families were represented by the patriarch or head of a clan; but as the sense of sin grew and deepened, and as the Divine purpose of redemption was gradually unfolded, it became necessary to have men entirely separated for this office. Priesthood was thus the admission at once of the sinfulness of the race, of the holiness of God, and of the need of conditions of approach to God. It is of the utmost importance that we should define and keep clear these essential characteristics of the priesthood. They can be summed up in the general ideas of (a) drawing near to God by means of an offering, (b) dwelling near to God for the purpose of intercession (Ezekiel 44:16, Leviticus 16:17, Exodus 28:30; Exodus 30:7-8, Luke 1:9-10).
(4) The special order of Christ’s priesthood.—The unique feature of the discussion in Hebrews is the association of Christ’s priesthood with that of Melchizedek. Three times in Scripture Melchizedek is mentioned, and each time the reference is important. (a) In Genesis 14 he appears in history in connexion with Abraham. He is termed ‘priest of God Most High.’ (b) Then in Psalms 110 he is mentioned again in a Psalm usually regarded as Messianic, and as such applied to Himself by our Lord (Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, Luke 20:42). The underlying thought in the Psalm is of a priesthood other than that of Aaron, and suggests a consciousness, however dim, on the part of spiritually-minded Jews, of something beyond and superior to the Aaronic priesthood. The bare mention of another priesthood at all is significant and striking. (c) He appears in Hebrews as a type of Christ. The record of Genesis 14 is taken as it stands and used to symbolize and typify some of the elements of the priesthood of Christ. (α) The position of Melehizedek as king indicates the royalty of Christ’s priesthood. (β) The meaning of the name ‘Melchizedek’ is used to suggest the thought of righteousness. (γ) The meaning of the title ‘king of Salem’ suggests the idea of peace. The order and connexion of righteousness and peace are noted in Hebrews. First comes righteousness as the basis of relation to God, and then peace as the outcome of righteousness. Righteousness without peace vindicates the Law and punishes sin, peace without righteousness ignores the Law and condones sin. Righteousness and peace when combined honour the Law while pardoning sin. (δ) The absence in the record of Genesis 14 of any earthly connexions of ancestry and posterity is used in Hebrews to symbolize the perpetuity of Christ’s priesthood. What was true of the record about Melchizedek is present in actual fact in Christ. One point of great importance not to be overlooked is that in Genesis 14 no priestly functions are attributed to Melchizedek. The gift of bread and wine to Abraham had, of course, nothing essentially priestly in it. In the record he is just called ‘priest of God Most High,’ without any characteristic priestly acts being stated. This exactly corresponds to the use made of the Melchizedek priesthood in Hebrews, which does not treat of any priestly acts or functions, but of the order of the priesthood. The fundamental thought of the Melchizedek priesthood in Hebrews refers to the person of the priest, not to his acts. The functions, or acts, are considered in connexion and contrast with the functions of the Aaronic priesthood. It is the priestly person rather than the priestly work that is emphasized in the Melchizedek priesthood. He was a royal person (which Aaron was not); an abiding person (which Aaron was not); a unique person (which Aaron was not). It is the personal superiority in these respects over the priesthood of Aaron that is dwelt upon in connexion with Melchizedek. There is, of course, no comparison drawn between Melchizedek and Christ, but use is made of Melchizedek to symbolize the personal superiority of Christ’s priesthood over all others—a priesthood that is older, wider, more lasting than that of Aaron.
(5) The particular functions of Christ’s priesthood.—It is in connexion with the Aaronic priesthood that the work of Christ’s priesthood is considered. A contrast is made, as is shown by the recurring key word ‘better’, (Hebrews 7:22; Hebrews 8:6 et al.). Our Lord never was a priest of the Aaronic line (Hebrews 7:13-14, Hebrews 8:4), but it was necessary to use the illustration of the Aaronic priesthood to denote Christ’s priestly functions, because no characteristic priestly functions are recorded of Melchizedek. A series of comparisons between Aaron’s and Christ’s priesthood needs careful attention: (a) first generally in Hebrews 2:17-18 with reference to personal qualification; (b) then after bare mention in Hebrews 3:1, more fully in Hebrews 4:14-16. (c) But it is in Hebrews 5:1-10 that we have the first definite comparison. In Hebrews 5:1-5 the requirements of the Aaronic priesthood are stated in regard to (α) office (Hebrews 5:1), (β) character (Hebrews 5:2-3), (γ) Divine appointment (Hebrews 5:4-5). In Hebrews 5:6-10 we have the fulfilment of these requirements in Christ stated in the reverse order: (α) Divine appointment (Hebrews 5:5-6), (β) character (Hebrews 5:7-8), (γ) office (Hebrews 5:9-10). (δ) Then in ch. 7 we have the comparison and contrast between Melchizedek and Aaron, with the superiority of the former, on three grounds: (α) Aaron was not royal, (β) Aaron did not abide, by reason of death, (γ) Aaron had many successors. The superiority of the person gives superiority to the functions, (e) Then in chs. 8–10 the superiority of the work of Christ is compared with that of Aaron under three aspects: (α) a better covenant (ch. 8), because spiritual, not temporal; (β) a better sanctuary (ch. 9), because heavenly, not earthly; (γ) a better sacrifice (ch. 10), because real, not symbolical. In the course of this entire discussion several elements of superiority emerge. A superior order (Hebrews 7:1-17), a superior tribe (Hebrews 7:14), a superior calling (Hebrews 7:21), a superior tenure (Hebrews 7:23-24), a superior character (Hebrews 7:26), a superior sanctuary and a superior covenant (ch. 9), a superior sacrifice (ch. 10). After ch. 10 there is nothing priestly in the terms used, though ch. 13 refers to functions connected with the priesthood. The functions of priesthood may thus be summed up as (a) access to God for man, (b) offering to God for man, (c) intercession with God for man; and the superiority of our Lord’s priesthood is shown in the following particulars: (1) It is royal in character, (2) heavenly in sphere, (3) spiritual in nature, (4) continuous in efficacy, (5) perpetual in duration, (6) universal in scope, (7) effectual in results.
At this point there are three questions that call for attention, (α) There is no real distinction between ‘Priest’ and ‘High Priest.’ Christ is both (Hebrews 5:6; Hebrews 5:10; Hebrews 6:20; Hebrews 7:1; Hebrews 7:3; Hebrews 7:15; Hebrews 7:17; Hebrews 7:21). The difference is one of rank only, the High Priesthood being, as it were, a specialized form. The term ‘high priest’ occurs only nine times in the OT, of which but two are in the Pentateuch, and it is curious that the term is never once applied to Aaron. This clearly shows that there is no real distinction between the two offices, for if there had been an essential difference from the first, Aaron would have been called ‘high priest.’ Christ is never termed ‘High Priest’ in connexion with Melchizedek, but only when Aaron is under consideration. As, however, the distinction was current in NT times, it was necessary to show that Christ fulfilled both offices.
(b) Hebrews dwells very carefully on Christ’s offering as connected with His death on the cross, and also on His entrance into heaven as connected with His Ascension. The absence of reference to the Resurrection (except in Hebrews 13:20) is explained by the fact that there was no place for this event in the type. Attention is therefore called to the two parts of the one priestly function of offering which was connected with the Day of Atonement, the sacrifice of the animal without the camp (Hebrews 13:11-12), and the entrance into the Holiest with the blood of the animal sacrificed. Stress is laid on the Ascension because that is regarded as the moment of our High Priest’s entrance into heaven on our behalf (Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 9:24). It is the close association of these two parts that explains Hebrews 8:3 ‘It is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.’ The view that this verse teaches that Christ is now continually offering Himself to God in heaven is clearly inconsistent with the rest of the Epistle, which lays such stress on the association of the offering with Christ’s death, and which also dwells on the uniqueness and completeness of the offering (ἐφάπαξ, Hebrews 7:27, Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 9:28), and on the session at God’s right hand (the attitude of a victor, not an offerer). Further, the great and essential characteristic of the New Covenant is remission of sins (Hebrews 8:8, Hebrews 10:11-12), and this was possible only after the offering was completed (Hebrews 4:16, Hebrews 9:14-22). The aorist tense in Hebrews 8:3 seems decisive in associating the offering with the death. It may be ‘timeless’ (G. Milligan, Theol. of the Ep. to the Hebrews), but at least it is not continuous (Westcott, in loc.). If with A. B. Davidson we interpret this ‘somewhat to offer’ of the heavenly sanctuary, as seems only natural, the conditions are exactly fulfilled by the fact and at the moment of ascension, when Christ first appeared before God for us, and then sat down at the right hand of God, having fulfilled all the requirements of the work of offering and presentation of Himself on our behalf. The offering in Hebrews is invariably associated with sin, not with consecration; with Christ’s death, not with His life; and offering is thereby shown to be the characteristic work of a priest. To regard our Lord as now offering, or representing, or re-presenting Himself in heaven, is to think of Him in the attitude of a worshipper instead of on the throne. His work of offering and presentation was finished before He sat down, and it is significant that what the author calls the ‘pith,’ or ‘crowning-point’ (κεφάλαιον) of the Epistle (Hebrews 8:1) is a ‘high priest who is set down.’ This exactly answers to the type on the Day of Atonement. When the high priest had presented the blood, his work was complete; and if we could imagine him able to remain there in the presence of God, he would stay on the basis of that complete offering and not as continuing to offer or present anything. Besides, there was no altar in the Holy of Holies, and there could therefore be no real sacrificial offering. Christ is not now at an altar or a mercy-seat, but on the throne. If it be said that intercession is an insufficient idea of His priestly life above, it may be answered that offering and intercession do not exhaust His heavenly life. His presence there on our behalf as our Representative includes everything. He Himself is (not merely His death was) the propitiation (1 John 2:2). Does it not betoken a lack of spiritual perception to demand that Christ should always be doing something? Why may we not be content with the thought that He is there, and that in His presence above is the secret of peace, the assurance of access, and the guarantee of permanent relation with God? It is just at this point that one essential difference between type and antitype is noticed. The high priest went into the Holy of Holies ‘with blood’; but when Christ’s entrance into heaven is mentioned, He is said to have gone ‘through his own blood,’ i.e. His access is based on the offering on Calvary (Hebrews 9:12). It seems impossible, therefore, to extend the idea of Christ’s offering to mean ‘a present and eternal offering to God of His life in heaven’ (W. Milligan, Ascension, p. 116). Such a view finds no warrant in the Epistle, and everything against it in the emphasis laid on the association of Christ’s offering with His death (Hebrews 7:27, Hebrews 9:13-14; Hebrews 9:24-28, Hebrews 10:10-14), and the uniqueness and completeness of that as culminating in the entrance into heaven. The death of Christ meant propitiation, the Ascension emphasizes access based upon this propitiation (Westcott, Hebrews, p. 230).
(c) The use of the two priesthoods, Melchizedek’s and Aaron’s, is not to be interpreted of two aspects of priesthood,—one on earth and the other in heaven successively realized by Christ,—for this would be quite opposed to Hebrews 7:18, Hebrews 8:4. It means that there is one priesthood, of which Melchizedek is used for the person, and Aaron for the work. If Christ’s death is associated with the Aaronic priesthood (against Hebrews 8:4), then the entrance into heaven must also be associated with Aaron (against Hebrews 6:20 et al.), which would leave no room at all for the Melchizedek priesthood. It is impossible for the death to be associated with one priesthood, and the ascension with the other. The order or nature of the priesthood according to Melchizedek gives validity and perpetuity to the acts which are symbolized in the Aaronic priesthood.
(6) The personal qualifications of Christ as Priest.—The practical and spiritual use made of priesthood in Hebrews gives special point to the emphasis laid on the personal qualifications of our Lord as High Priest. These are dealt with mainly from the human side up to Hebrews 5:9, and thenceforward from the Divine side. Both the human and the Divine are shown to be necessary. In regard to the human qualifications, we have: (a) His manhood, involving oneness with us for sympathy and help (ch. 2); (b) His perfect sympathy (Hebrews 4:14-16); (c) His perfect training by obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:1-10). The Divine qualifications are: (a) His Divine appointment (Hebrews 5:10); (b) His indissoluble life (Hebrews 7:16), involving an uninterrupted tenure of office as contrasted with the constant deaths in the Aaronic priesthood; (c) His inviolable or intransmissible priesthood (Hebrews 7:24), involving the impossibility of succession or delegation (ἀπαράβατον); (d) His perpetual life of intercession (Hebrews 7:25); (e) His fitness through character (Hebrews 7:26); (f) the Divine guarantee in the Divine oath of appointment (Hebrews 7:28); (g) His position on the throne (Hebrews 8:1); (h) His perfect offering (Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 9:24, Hebrews 10:12) These Divine and human qualifications of priesthood are based upon His Divine Sonship (ch. 1). His priesthood inheres in His Person as Son of God. It is this uniqueness as Son that gives Christ His qualifications for priesthood.
(7) The spiritual work of Christ as Priest.—The various aspects of His priestly work are shown in Hebrews as follows: (a) His propitiation (Hebrews 2:17); (b) His ability to suffer (Hebrews 2:16); (c) His ability to sympathize (Hebrews 4:15); (d) His ability to save (Hebrews 7:25); (e) His present appearance in heaven for us (Hebrews 9:24); (f) His kingly position on the throne (Hebrews 8:1); (g) His coming again (Hebrews 9:28). These are the elements connected with His priestly work, though there are others which are associated with His more general and inclusive work as Redeemer. The work is at once perpetual and permanent. He offered Himself through an eternal spirit (Hebrews 9:14); He has made an eternal covenant (Hebrews 9:13-14); He is the cause of eternal salvation (Hebrews 5:9); He obtained eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12), which culminates in eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15).
(8) The practical uses of Christ’s priesthood.—The definitely practical purpose of the truth of priesthood is what must ever be kept in view. It is by means of the experience of Christ’s priesthood that Christians come out of spiritual infancy into spiritual maturity (Hebrews 6:1, Hebrews 10:1). Nowhere is the practical character more clearly seen than in the various statements and exhortations which have to do with the daily life of the believer. In particular, there are the associated phrases, ‘we have,’ and ‘therefore let us.’ (a) Hebrews 4:14 Having the High Priest, let us hold fast. (b) Hebrews 4:15-16 Having a sympathetic High Priest, let us come boldly, (c) Hebrews 10:19 Having boldness of access, let us draw near with faith; having a High Priest, let us hold fast our hope, let us consider one another in love. Then these three exhortations to faith, hope, and love are amplified respectively in ch. 11 (faith), ch. 12 (hope), ch. 13 (love). (d) Hebrews 12:28 Receiving a kingdom, let us have grace, (e) Hebrews 13:12-13 Jesus suffered; let us go forth. (f) Hebrews 13:14 We seek a city to come, therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise. The Epistle thus emphasizes one truth above all others. Christianity is ‘the religion of free access’ to God (Bruce, Hebrews, p. 171). It might be summed up in the exhortations, ‘Draw nigh,’ ‘Hold fast,’ ‘Draw not back.’ It is characteristic that the word for believers is οἱ προσερχόμενοι, ‘those who come right up’ to God, and its corresponding exhortation is προσερχώμεθα, ‘Let us come right up’ to God. Christianity is the better hope by which we ‘draw nigh’ to God (ἐγγίζειν τῷ θεῷ), and Christ is the surety (ἔγγυος) of a better covenant, that is, One who ensures our permanent access to God (Bruce, Hebrews, p. 275). In proportion as we realize this privilege of nearness, and respond to these exhortations to draw near and keep near, we shall find that element of παρρησία which is one of the essential features of a strong Christian life. It is this above all that the priesthood of Christ is intended to produce and perpetuate, to guarantee and guard. This truth of priesthood, as taught in Hebrews, is absolutely essential to a vigorous life, a mature experience, a joyous testimony, and an abounding work.
Literature.—Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , artt. ‘Priest (in NT),’ ‘Hebrews’; W. Milligan, Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of our Lord; Davidson, Hebrews, Special Note on ‘Priesthood of Christ’; Dimock, Our One Priest on High, and The Christian Doctrine of Sacerdotium; Perowne, Our High Priest in Heaven; Rotherham, Studies in Hebrews; Soames, The Priesthood of the New Covenant; Hubert Brooke, The Great High Priest; H. W. Williams, The Priesthood of Christ (Fernley Lect. 1876); J. S. Candlish, The Chr. Salvation (1899), p. 6; G. Milligan, Theol. of Ep. to Heb. (1899) p. 111; R. C. Moberly, Ministerial Priesthood (1897); A. S. Peake, ‘Hebrews’ in Cent. Bible; Beyschlag, NT Theol. ii. 315.
W. H. Griffith Thomas.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Priest (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/priest-2.html. 1906-1918.