We come now to the priestly office of Jesus. Being that we have already considered his prophetic office, let us briefly note the distinctions between the two. Again, I quote Berkhof:
The Bible makes a broad but important distinction between a prophet and a priest. Both receive their appointment from God, Deut. 18:18f; Heb. 5:4. But the prophet was appointed to be God’s representative with the people, to be His messenger, and to interpret His will. He was primarily a religious teacher. The priest, on the other hand, was man’s representative with God. He had the special privilege of approach to God, and of speaking and acting in behalf of the people. It is true that the priests were also teachers during the old dispensation, but their teaching differed from that of the prophets. While the latter emphasized the moral and spiritual duties, responsibilities, and privileges, the former stressed the ritual [or ceremonial] observances involved in the proper approach to God.
The important point to take away here is that a prophet represented God to the people (“the LORD says…”), whereas a priest represented the people to God (offering sacrifices on their behalf and interceding for them).
The Nature & Function of the Priesthood
The nature and function of the priesthood may be developed more fully by looking at the classical passage on this office…
Hebrews 5:1-4 “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.”
I believe we find in this passage four noteworthy characteristics of the priesthood:
- The priest is taken from among the people he is to represent
- The priest is called or appointed by God; he is not self-appointed
- The priest can identify and sympathize with those he is chosen to represent
- The priest offers gifts and sacrifices to God on behalf of himself and the people
In the verses that follow (vv. 5-10) we find that Jesus fulfilled this office. Such fulfillment had been prophesied in the Old Testament (Ps. 110:4; cf. Isa. 53). It is important to note, however, that Jesus, unlike the rest of the priests, was not in need of offering a sacrifice for himself, for He was without sin (Heb. 4:15; cf. 7:26-28), and being without sin he was able to be the spotless lamb of God – the perfect sacrifice – to take away the sins of the world. A look at Hebrews 2:14-18 will demonstrate further this priestly work of Christ. However, before we look at that passage, let us first briefly consider the relation of Jesus’ priesthood to Melchizedek, as this important relation is mentioned in 5:6, 10.
Jesus & Melchizedek
A full discussion of the relation between Jesus’ priesthood and Melchizedek is beyond the scope of this post; however, it is necessary to point out a few key things. The author of Hebrews discusses this quite extensively in Hebrews 7. The overall thrust of this chapter is to demonstrate the temporal and typical aspects of the Old Covenant priesthood as a shadow of the better things to come in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, which is not according to Aaron, but according to Melchizedek. While the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood was according to the law, and perfection was not attainable through this priesthood (vv. 11, 18-19), Jesus’ priesthood is according to an oath that transcends the law and saves to the uttermost (vv. 15-28). In short, Christ’s priesthood does away with the Levitical priesthood. While the high priest was a mediator for the people under the Old Covenant, Christ is the Mediator of a better covenant, the New Covenant (v. 22, cf. Ch. 8).
This is perhaps the best passage that clearly delineates these characteristics of Jesus’ priesthood as observed above. In this passage we see…
- the necessity of the incarnation. Christ, who is the eternal Son of God, had to be made like those he came to save (the children of flesh and blood). He did not come to help angels, but the offspring of Abraham, who are the children of promise (cf. Rom. 9:6-8; Gal. 3:29).
- the purpose for which he came. He came to destroy the work of the devil, and in so doing, deliver sinners from the fear of death (cf. Rom. 6:23).
- the relation of these two points (just observed) in regard to his priesthood. In the former, he is able to be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to make propitiation for the sins of the people. In this accomplishment, he fulfills the latter – destroying the devil’s work and saving the offspring of Abraham from the fear of death.
- His continued sympathy and aid toward those who are tempted by the ways of the world. Since he has become like one of us (cf. Phil. 2:7-8), has suffered the same temptations we suffer, and has mightily overcome, he is able to come to our aid. This speaks to his continued intercession as our great High Priest.
The two main concepts of this passage, and therefore of Jesus’ priesthood, are sacrifice (or propitiation, which defines more pointedly the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice; see below) and intercession. Let us then look more closely at these two central works of Jesus’ priesthood.
Christ’s Sacrifice in Scripture
Jesus Christ offered himself up to be a sacrifice for sin. This priestly work of Christ is found all throughout the New Testament. Just a sampling will suffice. Note the emphasis of some passages in regard to the actual nature of this sacrifice (e.g. propitiation; bearing the curse of the law) and the result of the atonement (e.g. reconciliation, peace, righteousness).
John 1:29 “The next day he [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”
Romans 5:8 “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Galatians 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
Ephesians 2:13-16 “But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us [Jew and Gentile] both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”
Colossians 1:19-22 “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”
Hebrews 9:26b “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
1 Peter 3:18 “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”
It is important that we briefly consider one very key term and its relation to the biblical doctrine of penal substitution, which teaches that Christ took the punishment of our sins upon himself, thereby satisfying the holy wrath of God in our place. This significant term is propitiation. We are specifically told in four passages that Jesus’ sacrifice was a propitiatory sacrifice (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10). John Murray remarks, “To propitiate means to ‘placate,’ ‘pacify,’ ‘appease,’ ‘conciliate.’ And it is this idea that is applied to the atonement accomplished by Christ.” Murray continues,
Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure. Very simply stated the doctrine of propitiation means that Christ propitiated the wrath of God and rendered God propitious to his people.
Why was God wrathful toward us? Because we have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and sin is the transgression of God’s holy law (1 Jn. 3:4). Couldn’t God just forgive us without the just demands of his law being met? No; as Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” You see that? God would be light the wicked who condemn the righteous. But wait, hasn’t God justified the wicked? Indeed, he has. So how does God escape the judgment of his own word? This is the issue the apostle Paul addresses in…
Romans 3:24-26 “And [we] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Note the relation of Jesus’ sacrifice being a propitiatory sacrifice and the justice of God. In short, if God had simply forgiven sins without sins actually being propitiated then God would have been unjust. God’s justice is seen, however, in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. Christ, the Holy and Righteous One (Acts 3:14), took our sins upon himself, along with the punishment of those sins, so that God could justly declare as righteous all those who have faith in Christ. Again, Murray is helpful in explaining this sweet and central biblical truth:
[Christ] perfectly met both the penal and the preceptive requirements of God’s law. The passive obedience refers to the former and the active obedience to the latter. Christ’s obedience was vicarious in the bearing of the full judgment of God upon sin, and it was vicarious in the full discharge of the demands of righteousness. His obedience becomes the ground of the remission of sin and of actual justification.
This is captured succinctly in the following Scripture: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9).
Christ’s intercessory work is just as important as his sacrificial work, which is incomplete or not properly applied without his intercession. Berkhof notes this significance as well as the full intent of Christ’s intercession well:
The intercessory work of Christ is based on His atoning sacrifice, is but a continuation of His priestly work, and carries this to completion…. It is not limited to intercessory prayer, as is often mistakenly thought, but includes much more. As intercessor Christ continuously presents His sacrifice to God as the ground of all necessary blessings for His people, persistently claims these blessings for them according to their need, answers all accusations preferred against them by Satan, by the law, and by conscience, secures forgiveness for everything that is justly charged against them, and presents to God their worship and service, rendering it acceptable through His own righteousness.
Christ’s sacrifice is the pleading ground of his heavenly intercession! We find these truths in such passages as…
Romans 8:31-34 “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
Hebrews 7:23-25 “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
Hebrews 9:24 “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”
1 John 2:1 “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
We have seen the great importance of Jesus’ priesthood for our salvation. This office was likewise prophesied in the Old Testament, as well as prefigured and typified in the Old Covenant priesthood and Temple services. Prior to the law it was prefigured in the person and priesthood of Melchizedek. Jesus’ priesthood not only fulfills the Old Covenant priesthood, it transcends it, being after the order of Melchizedek. Further, we have seen that the two central aspects of his priesthood are the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood on the cross and his continual intercession. The two are inseparable works, for what is accomplished in his sacrifice is the pleading ground of his intercession before God. His intercession assumes that justice has been met and atonement for sin made. In glory, Christ continues to plead his blood for his people.
Implications & Applications
- Christ’s priesthood serves to assure and comfort us in our trials and temptations, even when we sin. It gives us confidence to draw near to the throne of glory and grace. (see Heb. 2:14-18; 4:14-16; 12:1-3; Rom. 8:1)
- Christ’s priesthood establishes the priesthood of believers. While Christ stands alone in His priesthood (he alone is Priest according to the order of Melchizedek, and is holy and righteous in and of himself), our priesthood is collective. As the body of Christ, we are a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). This priestly service involves offering up spiritual sacrifices (Rom. 12:1; Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:15-16) and praying on behalf of others.
- Other than the concept of the priesthood of all believers, there is no priesthood today. There is no office of priest in the Church. Any group that seeks to establish a priesthood on the basis of the Levitical priesthood and/or Melchizedek is putting forth a teaching and practice that is not according to Christ and undermines the very gospel itself. As the Scriptures say, “…he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Heb. 9:26b) and “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).
 Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology (MI: Eerdmans, 1941), 361.
 C.f. ibid., 361.
 Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans Publishing Co, 19550, 30.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 22.
 Berkhof, Louis. Manual of Christian Doctrine (MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., reprinted 2002), 205.