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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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Much of the ambiguity of the term arises from its use even in the RV_ to represent two different Greek words. The one is ἱερεύς, a sacrificing priest, whose services were necessary in the ritual of any such religion as that of the ancient Jews. In other cases the term represents πρεσβύτερος, ‘presbyter,’ from which indeed it has been derived by a process of compressing the several syllables into one. Before our period it was in use both in Egypt and in Asia Minor to designate the members of a secular corporation, and in the former case also the members of a college of priests (Deissmann, Bible Studies, Eng. tr._, 1901, pp. 154 ff., 233 ff.), and its connotation had already come to refer to office and not to age. The implications of the word with either origin may be conveniently examined in its application in turn to Jewish officials, to Jesus Christ, to Christians generally, and to the ministry of the Church.

1. Use in regard to Jews.-The actual high priest of the day figures in Acts alone (Acts 4:6; Acts 7:1; Acts 22:5; Acts 23:4, etc.), whilst in Heb. the original and typical high priest, Aaron, is introduced for the purpose of comparison with the priest of the New Covenant. The term is used with some laxity even in Acts, as in Acts 4:6, where it is applied to Annas, whose son-in-law Caiaphas was the actual holder of the office. Apparently it covered the group of ex-high-priests, whose number varied with the frequent changes of appointment made by the Roman authorities, and was the style of address of the occupant of the chair at any important meeting of the Sanhedrin. The phrase ‘chief priests,’ again confined to Acts,_ is of the same elastic kind. It included such officials probably as were ‘of the kindred of the high priest’ (Acts 4:6), with such representatives of the priesthood as were prominent through ability or influence. Technically it was confined at first to the heads of the twenty-four courses; but the term was convenient and fluid, and when used loosely, embraced any priests whose character or status gave them a certain recognized authority. After the fall of Jerusalem they rapidly declined in influence through their loss of income and inability to discharge their sacrificial duties. But their priestly pedigree still remained a distinction, preserved by the incidence upon them of special prohibitions, though not investing them with any authority comparable in fact with that of the Rabbis, the masters and expounders of the Law. A sacrificial priest becomes an anachronism when his duties are in abeyance, and the opportunity for their discharge is but a hope always deferred.

2. The priesthood of Jesus Christ.-According to apostolic teaching, Jesus Christ (a) gathered to Himself all the ideas essential to the conception of a sacerdotal person or ministry; (b) particularly was the antitype, in regard alike to qualification and to function, of all the distinctive features of the Jewish institution, but stood eternally above all His predecessors, closing the line of development in Himself in such a final and complete way that no other priest is needed, and no real want of the human soul is left unmet.

(a) In the earliest times the priestly was a part of the parental function, but was so far separable from it that any adult man was held to be able to approach God for himself with offerings or prayers, and after due preparation to communicate Divine responses to others. Gradually the offices were differentiated. Access to God in aspiration and vow remained the recognized privilege of every man, while in the case of sacrificial duties, of everything that belonged to the deep religious life and to the promptings begotten of the consciousness of an actual or imminent breach in right relation with God, resort was had to an official class or family. In the course of time the members of this class were invested with a quasi-sacred dignity, and were regarded as intermediaries between God and man. On the one hand, they were the representatives of man to God, and through them only could offerings be made that would expiate sin or propitiate an offended Deity. They were the custodians of the prescribed ritual, the acknowledged mediators. On the other hand, they were the representatives of God to man; and, however this character may have been claimed or possessed by the prophets, the prophets were rather preachers of righteousness, and not directly concerned with the administration of institutional religion. The priest presented the sacrifice to God, and blessed the people ‘in the name of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 21:5), settling difficult perplexities and sending men away from the altar with the assurance of Divine grace and help. For Jesus Christ as Priest and High Priest the NT claims this doubly representative character. The phrase ‘appointed for men in things pertaining to God’ (Hebrews 2:17; Hebrews 5:1) suggests, if it does not actually cover, ‘appointed for God in things pertaining to man.’ He offers Himself, as representing man, as a sacrifice for man. Between God and man there is only ‘one mediator, himself man’ (1 Timothy 2:5), who gave Himself a ransom for all, and in whom men are blessed with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3). As representative of God, He reveals the Father, and gives men in Himself the sum of all benediction. As representative of men, He approaches God with an adequate offering, and continues permanently to act as our Paraclete or Advocate (1 John 2:1)-an office which includes, though it is not confined to, His priestly work.

The NT is far from silent in regard to the conditions of His appointment as Priest and Representative. He was not self-appointed, nor on the other hand was He selected and chosen by those whom He represents. The latter course was impossible in the case of a priesthood affecting generations, future and past as well as present; and the former would have been open to all the objections, and liable to all the defects, that attach to every assumption of the right to speak or act for others. The appointment was made by the Father (Hebrews 5:4), and the action of the Son was not that of initiation but of loving and resolute consent (Hebrews 10:7 ff., 1 John 5:20). He needed no constraint, and was more than ready to undertake a priesthood that involved the pains of a life upon earth and death for men. Love, resolute from the beginning and persisted in through all difficulty and human unresponsiveness, is the explanation of the Incarnation on His part, and a fundamental qualification for priesthood.

If it be asked, What is it exactly that constitutes the representative character of Christ? or Why did the Father appoint Him and no other? apostolic thought suggests several replies, that give prominence in turn to the typical, the federal, and the immanental relation of Christ to man. He is the antitype of Adam, between whose relation to the race and that of Christ a striking parallel, with a more striking contrast, may be drawn (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:21 f., 1 Corinthians 15:45 ff.). The one was the medium of sin and death, the other of redemption and life; and as the one stands for a race sinful before God, so, in virtue of what He does for the race, lifting men up to higher spiritual privileges than the unfallen Adam ever knew, the other is even a fitter representative. These typical representations of Christ’s Headship of the race have at times to be modified into His Headship of the Church on account of the different attitudes towards Him that men assume (Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 1:22 f., 1 John 2:2), and are strengthened by various federal considerations. He brings the race into unity, especially by His priestly exercise of sympathy and brotherliness (Hebrews 2:10-17; Hebrews 4:14 f.) and creates human solidarity by the common tie of brotherhood, binding each individual to Himself (John 17:23). Thereby again He is qualified to act for all; and an effective motive is secured for unlimited forbearance among men and for mutual kindness and helpfulness of every degree.

But deep down at its foundations the representative character of Christ rests not so much upon His ethical qualities and their exhibition and effects, or upon typical connexions with OT beliefs, as upon what He actually is, upon His intrinsic and essential nature. He is God as well as man, and as God He is immanent in every man, and thereby naturally qualified to act as his representative. This is implied in the frequent references to the indwelling of Christ as a racial fact, which becomes when recognized a source of assurance and strength, to the universal Fatherhood and Sonship, and to the action of the Holy Spirit in leaving no man without internal witness and prevenient grace. Not only are we insphered in God (Acts 17:28), but we are the shrine in which His Spirit dwells (1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 6:19; cf. Romans 8:9 ff.), dishonoured and powerless, or allowed to rule, and leading on to perfection. All the differentiations of the universe, personal or impersonal, were produced by Christ from an original unity, of which He was the centre (Colossians 1:15 ff.), just as again they will eventually be gathered up into a unity in Him (Ephesians 1:10). Meanwhile ‘in him all things consist,’ or hold together; and Christ is thus the secret of the world’s order and the natural representative of the race in the presence of God. In the apostolic period it was too soon to discuss at length the relations between the Divinity and the humanity of Christ, or to recover the doctrine of immanence from the pantheistic schools and apply it to the solution of the problems of Christ’s work. Yet the germs are distinctly present, and one part of St. Paul’s writings guards and completes the teaching of another. Christ as Priest is the substitute and representative of man, not by any arbitrary appointment on the part of God, still less by a legal fiction with which there is no correspondence in actual fact, but because as God He is immanent in every man, and therefore in His nature the fit and only Person to act in the behalf and stead of all. As God-Man He stands in virtue of what He is between the two parties to be brought together, and represents perfectly each to the other.

(b) Since the apostolic teaching sprang immediately out of Jewish conceptions, it was to be expected that it would represent the Priesthood of Christ specifically as a continuation of the sacerdotal ministry of the OT, and knit the two together as a preparation with the fulfilment, or as provisional with the ideal (Hebrews 8:5; Hebrews 9:23 ff.) and permanent. This it does in respect alike to the priestly qualifications and to the priestly functions of Christ. To the qualifications already referred to-(1) Divine appointment and (2) sympathy-several are added. The list begins with (3) His perfect humanity, involving oneness with the men for whom He acts, with the experience in His case as in theirs of the discipline of suffering and temptation (Hebrews 2:9 ff; Hebrews 4:15). (4) In personal character He was holy and guileless (Hebrews 7:26; 1 Peter 3:18, Acts 3:14), not only free from moral disqualification, but an example of virtue and godliness, with a personal right of access to God. (5) This freedom from limitations extends beyond the range of morality to all the infirmities to which man is subject (Hebrews 7:28; Hebrews 5:2), and lifts Christ altogether above the Aaronic order. A better comparison is suggested by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews: see Melchizedek. The Priesthood of Christ is royal from the beginning, and still He sits ‘on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens’ (Hebrews 8:1). (6) Its timelessness and indissolubility arise from Christ’s triumph over death (Romans 6:9 f., Hebrews 7:23 f.), and render any delegation of His priestly duties unnecessary, and any succession to His office impossible. Because ‘he ever liveth to make intercession,’ salvation ‘to the uttermost’ (Hebrews 7:25) is a gift He can bestow at any moment upon the sincere and strenuous. Other priestly aids become superfluous and an encumbrance. (7) Finally, the offering He presents is perfect both in itself (Galatians 1:4, Ephesians 5:2, Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 9:24) and in its value and effect (Romans 5:21; Romans 6:9 f., Hebrews 9:25 f., Hebrews 10:12; Hebrews 10:14-18, Titus 2:14).

Of the actual priestly work of Christ two views are combined, according as it is regarded as reaching its supreme point on the Cross or as still continuing; and in either relation it may be considered under various aspects.

(1) Prominence is given in the NT to the fact that the offering of Christ was expiatory. It stands in a line with the sacrificial institutions of the OT, and even takes up into itself the meaning of each. It is a burnt-offering (Ephesians 5:2, Philippians 4:18), a sin-offering (2 Corinthians 5:21), a peace-offering (Ephesians 2:14, Colossians 1:20), and it moves easily amid the implications of the Passover and Day of Atonement (1 Corinthians 5:7 f., Hebrews 9:7; Hebrews 9:12-14; Hebrews 9:24 ff.). The very variety of the typical sacrifices, handled and offered by our Priest, tells of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and of the primary need of expiation through the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22, Ephesians 1:7) as the ground of remission.

(2) From this idea of such a treatment of sin as destroys its offensiveness, wiping it out or neutralizing its relation to natural justice, it is but a step to that of propitiation. By linking His offering with our sin our Priest removes the necessity for a Divine reaction in our condemnation, and even propitiates God, i.e. takes away the hindrances to the manifestation of His goodwill, and enables His grace to exhibit itself in forgiveness (Romans 3:25 f., Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10; cf. Luke 18:13). As the passages show, propitiation is not regarded as a priestly act by which love is excited in God, for God devised it and arranged its method, but as an act so altering the condition of the sinner that the unchanged love is able to exhibit itself and stream out upon him. His sin, and not merely his creatureliness, is rendered inoperative and null; and the active goodwill of God is the natural response to Him who substituted Himself in sacrifice, and to those for whom He acts.

(3) Hence complete reconciliation between God and man is rightly viewed as the culmination of Christ’s priestly work upon earth. In effecting it He removes altogether the alienation in heart and will of man from God, and the alienation, under the necessities of His perfect nature, of God from sinful man. Of these two aspects of His priestly work, the one is explicit in Scripture (Romans 5:10 f., Romans 11:15, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, Colossians 1:21), the other is present in frequent logical implication. Not only is reconciliation itself a mutual process, involving a changed sentiment on either side (cf. Matthew 5:23, where the advice is to do everything to turn a brother’s coolness or resentment into forgiveness), but God’s attitude changes from apparent displeasure to evident pleasure (Romans 8:8; Romans 8:16 f.), from accumulating wrath to wonder-awakening grace (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10). He provides the means whereby forgiveness may be granted without moral harm, and, the means being used, His unchangeable nature reacts accordingly, and the love that is outraged but not quenched by sin becomes the most assured feature of His relationship with the penitent. Thus the Priestly Mediator covers the sin of man with His sacrifice, enables a God who is compacted of all moral perfections to act without denying the legitimate rights of any of them, and, breaking down all non-moral distinctions, makes men everywhere one by making each severally in the enrichment of his faith one with God (Ephesians 2:14 ff., Colossians 1:19 f.).

(4) To this whole process from its beginning in the experience of the regenerate to the ultimate perfecting, as anticipated by St. Paul, the term ‘redemption’ is freely applied. Redemption is thus the result either of the offering by the priest of a propitiatory gift in satisfaction for a forfeited life, or of the payment of the required price for the release of a person from servitude (1 Peter 1:18 f., Acts 20:28). The servitude is variously represented as captivity to sin (Hebrews 9:26), with its accompanying curse (Galatians 3:13) or with its penal liabilities [Hebrews 2:14 f.). The price paid by the Priest is Himself (Galatians 1:4, Titus 2:14); and that is what the references to His life (Matthew 20:28) and to His blood (Ephesians 1:7, Revelation 5:9) really mean. Thereby He binds men to Himself as His property (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 7:23); and to His rights of ownership, as to their obligation of devoted service, there is no limit.

(5) At His death the sacrificial part of Christ’s priestly work was completed (Hebrews 7:27; Hebrews 9:28); and after His ascension He entered (Hebrews 6:20, Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 9:24, Ephesians 4:10) and ‘passed through the heavens’ (Hebrews 4:14) to the very presence of God (Hebrews 9:24), where from His throne on the right hand (Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 8:1) He continues to act as the Priestly Representative of men, interceding for them (Hebrews 7:25, Romans 8:34), Himself the permanently valid propitiation for their sins (1 John 2:2), and therefore the triumphant Advocate of the case of every one in fellowship with Him.

3. The priesthood of believers.-It has been seen already that, according to early belief, all sacrificial institutions and ministries were gathered up into Jesus Christ, whose Priesthood is complete, admitting no rivalry, with no residue of opportunity or work for a successor. Yet metaphorically the sacrificial term is applied to the whole Christian community, irrespective of office or any other distinction (1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9), and also with implications of future enlargement (Revelation 1:6; Revelation 5:10; Revelation 20:6). Thus the conception of Israel in Exodus 19:6 is transferred to the community of believers, whose priestly rights are common and equal, whatever administrative grades are introduced with a view to efficiency and order. To all alike the priestly privilege of access to God belongs (Romans 5:2, Ephesians 2:18, Hebrews 4:16; Hebrews 10:19; Hebrews 10 :1 Peter 3:18). All alike are called upon to offer spiritual sacrifices of praise and prayer (Revelation 10:3), of body and soul (Romans 12:1, Hebrews 13:15), with such actual gifts in charity and helpfulness as are prompted by love to God (Hebrews 13:16, 2 Corinthians 9:7, Philippians 4:18). Nothing of this kind is an offering for sin, the virtue of that made by Christ being inexhaustible. No longer does any distinct priestly class or caste mediate between God and man; but the priestly functions and status, in a strict sense reserved entirely to the Saviour, pass over, as far as they can pass over, to the whole body of believers, each of whom has the indefeasible right of access to God through Christ alone. Of himself the individual has to give account, and no artificial system of mediation prevents him from standing in personal and incommunicable responsibility before God.

4. The priestly theory of the Christian ministry.-It follows that this theory is without direct Scriptural warrant. The word used for the office is πρεσβύτερος, from which sacrificial associations are absent, and never ἱερεύς, from which such associations are inseparable

(a) No argument can be based upon the passages in which compounds of that term or cognate expressions occur. The nearest is probably Romans 15:16 RVm_: ‘a minister of Jesus Christ unto the Gentiles, ministering in sacrifice the gospel of God.’ Here the sacrificial allusions are unquestionable but entirely figurative. St. Paul is a λειτουργός, i.e. one who performs functions that are sacred inasmuch as they serve the needs of the community, whether viewed as an ecclesiastical (1 Chronicles 16:4, Hebrews 10:11; Hebrews 8:2) or a social (Numbers 18:2, Sirach 10:25, 2 Corinthians 9:10) unit. In such a sense priests may be said to minister in the house of God (2 Es 20:36), or the ‘ministers’ may be distinguished from the priests (2 Es 20:39). The word may be used of the work of prophets and teachers (Acts 13:2), and even of the ministry of the rich to the poor (Romans 9:12; Romans 15:27); and its technical use in non-sacrificial connexions is well authenticated. St. Paul accordingly applies the term to himself as a minister of Christ to the Gentiles, and by a familiar figure compares his functions with those of a sacrificing priest, the offering which he presents being that of converted men. Each of them in a figure presents himself as a sacrifice (Romans 12:1), their apostle in a figure presents them all. But that the ministry of the Church is in some special sense priestly and sacrificial is not said and not to be inferred. Similarly with Philippians 2:17 -‘If I am offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith’-the metaphor does not make St. Paul the priest, but the Philippians themselves, while their faith with the accompanying works is the sacrifice. So great is the Apostle’s eagerness to help them that he is ready to die for Christ’s sake in their behalf, or, as he puts it, to have his blood poured out as a libation, according to the practice in the heathen rites with which they were familiar (see Lightfoot, in loc.).

(b) This silence of Scripture in regard to the priestly character of the ministry is not relieved by an assumed identification of the ministry with the priests of Judaism or by the assumption of a parallel between them. There is no such parallel, as far as our period is concerned; for the line of typological development from the OT conception, as we have seen, runs up directly to Jesus Christ and terminates in Him, while the circle of analogy encompasses all the faithful, investing them with common privileges and the same obligations, and recognizing no distinction between the classes of clergy and of laity. All alike are priests of God, required each to present himself a living sacrifice; and the priestly work of Christ is so completely done that the intervention of any official to repair or supplement it is superfluous in regard to man and an undesigned reflexion upon the Saviour.

(c) It is the non-sacrificial term ‘presbyter’ that is consistently used in the NT as the chief and technical designation of a Christian minister. Other officials of lower rank, and, in later centuries, of higher rank, were appointed in the interest of fitness and efficiency (1 Corinthians 14:40); but to none of them did sacerdotal functions appertain. The ministers of a congregation, whether engaged in teaching or administration (1 Timothy 5:17), were called elders or presbyters, probably in imitation of the practice of the synagogue (Acts 11:30; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:2). For this term ‘bishops’ was sometimes substituted in churches where Hellenistic influence was strong (Acts 20:28, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1, Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:1-2), the new term being familiar to the people as the title of the presiding official in their local confraternities and gilds. In NT times and afterwards the terms were interchangeable (1 Clem. 21, 42, 44), and for either substitutes could be used. The holders of the office were responsible rulers (Romans 12:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:12, Hebrews 13:24; Hebrews 13:1 Clem. 1), stewards of God (Titus 1:7), messengers of the churches (2 Corinthians 8:23), ministers (1 Timothy 4:6), and servants (Philippians 1:1) of Christ Jesus; but of sacrificial duties they had none, and in sacerdotal rank they ranged with the laity, whose worship they shared and conducted, and over whose faith they watched. Of actual altar and literal sacrifice since Christ died there is no need; for even the altar of Hebrews 13:10 is that of Christ, on which each Christian must offer for himself the sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15 f.) and good works. In all such things the minister should be an ensample (1 Timothy 4:12, Titus 2:7, 1 Peter 5:3); but with the passing away of the sacrificial ritual there ceased also the need and the possibility of any sacerdotal or vicarious activities. For the sake of order, the minister still leads and represents the people, and speaks with authority when he proclaims the word of God; but he is himself one of them, separated from them by no personal quality or privilege whatever. He has no offering to make in anybody’s behalf except his own, and no immunity or personal sanctity except such as arises from his own relation to God.

(d) Nor is there any trace in the Apostolic Age of the emergence of a ministerial theory to which the sacerdotal factor was integral. (1) The apostles proper never claimed either to be or to appoint priestly officers. Their specific work was to bear the witness of their senses to the historical Christ (Acts 1:21, 1 John 1:1-3); and while they were shrewd enough to take steps for the effective organization of the little groups of disciples they attracted, they never pretended to link on to the new Church any fragments of a sacrificial system that was in their opinion outworn and spent. (2) Or, if it be assumed that the ministerial office soon began to be conceived as the result of a fusion of apostolic and presbyteral functions, as there was no priestly element in either of the original constituents, there could be none in their conflation. If, consequently, such an element subsequently appeared, its introduction must have been surreptitious, and a legitimate descent from Scriptural teaching cannot be claimed. The minister was regarded as a priest in no other sense than was every disciple. Every disciple had access through Christ to God, and was charged with the priestly function of evangelism or the establishment of real contact between man and God. When the communities became organized, suitable disciples were appointed to the various offices; and the appointment to at least the presbyterate involved three concurrent actions-the commission of God (Romans 10:5, 1 Corinthians 9:16; cf. John 17:18), and selection by church leaders or ‘men of repute,’ with the consent of the church (Acts 14:23; Acts 15:27, 1 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:5; Titus 1:1 Clem. 44). But while such appointment carried the right to preside at the Eucharist and other church meetings, it added no priestly quality or prerogative to those which the minister already as a disciple possessed.

Literature.-Comm. on the passages cited, especially B. F. Westcott, Hebrews, 1889; Sanday-Headlam, Romans 5 (ICC_, 1902); J. B. Lightfoot, Philippians4, 1878, with appended dissertation on ‘The Christian Ministry.’ The principal Patristic literature is Epistle of Barnabas (a.d. 75[?]), in which, however, there is no description of ministerial qualifications or functions, and no mention of the Eucharist, but all Christians have personal access to saving knowledge; and Clement of Rome’s Ep. to Corinthians (a.d. 96 or 97), for which see J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, pt. i. (1890). See also W. Milligan, Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord, 1892; E. Hatch, Organization of the Early Christian Churches, 1881; F. J. A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia, 1897; W. Lefroy, The Christian Ministry, 1890; T. Powell, Essay on Apostolical Succession2, 1840; C. Gore, The Ministry of the Christian Church2, 1889, and Orders and Unity, 1909; T. M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries, 1902; R. C. Moberly, Ministerial Priesthood2, 1907; A. E. J. Rawlinson, in Foundations, 1912, pp. 362-422; and C. H. Turner, Studies in Early Church History, 1912, pp. 1-70.

R. W. Moss.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Priest'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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