The Old Testament. The priestly activity of drawing near to God in sacrifice and prayer is introduced in the Old Testament through Abel the head of a family ( Gen 4:4 ), Melchizedek the king of Salem and priest of God Most High ( Gen 14:18 ), Jethro the priest of Midian ( Exod 18:1 ), Aaron ( Exod 28:1 ), and the Levites ( Exod 32:28-29 ; Num 1:47-53 ). The law of Moses established a closed, hereditary, vocational priesthood in Israel ( Exod 28:1 ; 29:9 ; 40:12-15 ). It was their assignment to serve the Lord with dignity and honor in the tabernacle and later in the temple, representing the people in the presence of God ( Exod 28:29 ; Num 3:5-10 ). Through the casting of lots, they possessed the oracular power of pronouncing divine decisions ( Exod 28:30 ; 33:7-11 ; Lev. 13-16 Deut 17:8-12 ; 1 Sam 28:6 ). They were the guardians of the sanctuary and the spiritual piety of the nation ( Num 18:1-7 ). The extensive cultic instructions concerning sacrificial and ceremonial duties in the tabernacle and temple overshadow their responsibility to teach the truth of God ( Exod 7:1 ; Lev 10:11 ; Deut 17:11 ; 27:9-10 ; 33:10 ; Ezra 7:10-12 Ezra 7:21 ), and soon this role is assumed by the prophets of Israel.
Although the Levites served in the tabernacle and temple, caring for its furnishings and maintenance, and assisting the priests ( 1 Chron 23:28-32 ), the responsibility of presenting offerings and leading ceremonial rituals was restricted to the levitical family of Aaron and his descendants ( Num 3:5-10 ; 16:8-11 ; 2 Chron 13:9 ). A physical deformity or disability disqualified them from approaching the altar of God ( Lev 21:16-23 ; cf. Luke 22:50 ), and those who qualified to serve had to be thirty to fifty years of age ( Num 4:47 ; 8:23-26 ). They were to avoid uncleanness by contact with the dead ( Leviticus 21:1-4 Leviticus 21:11 ), remain unshaven ( Leviticus 21:5-6 Leviticus 21:10 ), and marry a virgin ( Leviticus 21:7-8 Leviticus 21:13-15 ). Only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement ( Lev 16 ). Through the appointment of David and later exilic developments, the office of high priest became restricted further to Zadok and his descendants ( 2 Sam 15:24-29 ; 1 Kings 2:35 ; 4:2 ; Ezek 40:46 ).
The ritual of ordination consecrating Aaron to the office of high priest lasted seven days ( Exod 29:35 ). At the entrance to the Tent of Meeting ( Exod 29:4 ; Lev 8:1-3 ), he was washed with water and dressed in priestly garments; anointing oil was poured on his head ( Exod 29:4-7 ; 40:12-16 ; Leviticus 8:12 Leviticus 8:30 ; Psalm 133:2 ). Aaron and his sons laid their hands on a bull and one of two rams without defect, which were sacrificed as offerings ( Exod 29:10-28 ). A feast followed on that first day, during which Aaron and his sons ate the meat of the ram with unleavened bread ( Exod 29:32 ). The consecration continued with the daily sacrifice of two lambs a year old, and when completed, "the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" ( Exod 40:35 ).
The Gospels. There were several ways in which Jesus fulfilled the function of the messianic priest, although he neither refers to himself nor to his disciples as priests. He justifies his Sabbath activity on the basis of the priestly exemption in Matthew 12:3-8. When he healed lepers, he sent them to the priest for the determination of cleanness in accordance with the law ( Mark 1:44 ; Luke 17:14 ). Luke reports a scathing criticism of priests and Levites who would pass by a dying man, while a heretical Samaritan models divine love for his neighbor ( Luke 10:30-35 ).
During the week of his passion, Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem and prophesied her future destruction ( Luke 19:41-44 ; cf. Deut 17:8-11 ). Entering the temple he cleansed it of the merchants and money changers ( Matt 21:12-13 ; Luke 19:45-46 ; cf. Mark 11:15-17 ; John 2:13-16 ), affirming the temple as "a house of prayer" (cf. Num 18:1 ; Acts 2:46 ; 3:1 ; 5:12 ). This was clearly interpreted as an affront to the authority of the chief priests and teachers of the law, for they began plotting to kill him ( Mark 11:18 ; Luke 19:47 ; cf. Matt 21:15 ). Observing the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury, he praised the poor widow who put in two small coins ( Luke 21:1-4 ). Jesus left the temple and went out of the city to Bethany, the village of Simon the Leper ( Mark 14:3 ) and the resurrected Lazarus ( John 11:1 ; 12:2 ). While at a dinner given in his honor, Mary took an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume and anointed Jesus' head ( Matt 26:6-13 ; Mark 14:3-9 ; John 12:2-8 ), which echoed the anointing of Aaron to the office of high priest (cf. Exod 40:13 ). Jesus warned Simon Peter of his approaching trial by Satan, and comforted him with the assurance of his priestly intercession on his behalf ( Luke 22:31-32 ). Perhaps the ultimate priestly action of Jesus is recorded in John 17. He prayed for himself, his disciples, and then for those who would believe through the disciples' message. Each of these Acts had priestly implications.
The Epistle to the Hebrews. In Hebrews the motif of Jesus Christ as High Priest is most prominent, and serves as an early church, theological commentary on the life, suffering, and exaltation of Jesus. Jesus experienced human nature, being "made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people" ( 2:17 ; cf. 4:15 ; 7:26 ; 9:14 ).
The basis for the priestly Christology of Hebrews is found in the familiar words of Psalm 110, where a connection is made between the anticipated messianic King and Priest. The Messiah is told to sit at Yahweh's right hand, assuming the ceremony of royal enthronement to kingly power, but in the very presence of God (v. 1). This apparently was the consensus of rabbinic interpretation at the time of Jesus, for this Old Testament verse is the most frequently quoted in the New Testament ( Matt 22:44 ; Mark 12:36 ; Luke 20:42-43 ; Acts 2:34-35 ; Heb 1:13 ). The psalm of David continues with a reference to the mysterious king-priest Melchizedek: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek'" ( Psalm 110:4 ). Abraham recognized the greatness of Melchizedek, who served in the dual offices of king of Salem and priest of God Most High, offered his tithe, and received a blessing ( Gen 14:18-20 ; cf. Heb 7:6-10 ). As with Melchizedek, Jesus was without the ancestral, genealogical credentials necessary for the Aaronic priesthood ( Hebrews 7:3 Hebrews 7:13 Hebrews 7:16 ), he was also before Aaron and the transitory, imperfect law and levitical priesthood ( Hebrews 7:11-12 Hebrews 7:17-18 ; 8:7 ). Melchizedek, Aaron, and his descendants all died, preventing them from continuing in office ( 7:23 ). Jesus Christ has been exalted to a permanent priesthood by his resurrection and enthronement at the right hand of God in the heaven ( 8:1 ).
The new covenant, which Jesus inaugurates and serves as mediator of, supersedes the old ( 7:22 ; 8:6-13 ; 9:15 ; 12:24 ; cf. Jer 31:31-34 ; 1 Tim 2:5 ). Jesus has become the High Priest in the true tabernacle ( 8:2 ), which is not of this world ( 9:11 ). He is qualified to enter the Most Holy Place, not by the blood of a bull and a ram, but by his own blood ( 9:12 ). Whereas the blood of Aaronic sacrifices could make the people outwardly clean but had to be repeated ( 9:13 ; Hebrews 10:1-4 Hebrews 10:11 ), Jesus continues in the presence of God ( 9:25 ) as the perfect High Priest ( 9:25-26 ), offering his own blood as the perfect sacrifice to take away sins and cleansing the consciences of many people ( 9:28 ; cf. Isa 53:12 ). The people of Christ now have confidence that they also may enter the very presence of God by the blood of Jesus ( 10:19 ), and participate in "a holy priesthood" ( Exod 19:6 ; 1 Peter 2:5 1 Peter 2:9 ).
Christ the Priest will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him ( 9:28 ).
Melvin H. Shoemaker
Bibliography. J. Baehr, NIDNTT, 3:32-44; B. S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context; G. L. Cockerill, The Melchizedek Christology in heb 7:1-28; A. A. Cody, A History of the Old Testament Priesthood; O. Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament; R. H. Culpepper, Theological Educator32 (1985): 46-62; W. Horbury, JSNT 19 (1983): 43-71; W. L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8; M. C. Parsons, EvQ 60 (1988): 195-215; G. Schrenk, TDNT, 3:221-83; H. S. Songer, Revep82 (1985): 345-59.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Priest, Christ as'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".