Priestly Profiles: Introduction

The theme of priesthood permeates Scripture.[1] From Genesis to Revelation, in a variety of contexts, we find instructions for, and records of, priestly people engaged in priestly activity. Priesthood pervades history and in every continent and culture, manmade counterfeits of true priesthood have flourished, and still do.

This pervasiveness should alert us to the fact that priesthood is an important topic, but its significance is more than just a function of ubiquity. Priesthood is the point of contact between God and man, and it is this that gives it its fundamental and far-reaching importance. It is for this reason that priesthood is intimately connected with virtually every major branch of doctrine – it has implications for our theology, anthropology, soteriology, ecclesiology and eschatology. Our understanding of what it means to be a priest will affect how we think about God and man, about sin and salvation, about worship and service, about what we should be doing now and what we will be doing eternally.

Priesthood is an important subject. It is also a rather complex subject; both its range and its importance ensure that. And, while we often think about some aspects of the subject – the consecration and activities of Levitical priests, for example, or the high priesthood of Christ – there are other aspects that are seldom touched on, and the biblical big picture is rarely considered. In this series, we will seek, as God gives help, to look somewhat comprehensively at the subject by tracing its development through Scripture from Eden to eternity. While we will be unable to consider each of the stages along the way in anything like exhaustive detail, we hope, at least, to provide a rudimentary sketch map to guide the explorer in this important and exciting area of scriptural truth.

Before setting out on our expedition, it is worth addressing the issue of definition. What is a priest? The Bible gives us many examples of people who were called priests, and we will consider some of these in this series. It also describes a number of formal priesthoods, and we will look at these too. In addition, it provides examples of individuals who are not explicitly called priests and who did not belong to a formal priesthood, but who acted as priests, and we will also consider some of these. This focus on priestly activity will allow us to grasp the progressive revelation of priesthood and will give us a more comprehensive view of the subject than we would achieve by confining our attention to those who are explicitly called priests.

In effect, then, our working definition of priest is “someone who performs priestly actions.” Obviously, this immediately requires us to address what we mean by “priestly actions.” For this, Hebrews 5:1-2 offers a useful starting point: “For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins: Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity.”[2]

The first thing that we should notice here is that priestly service involves mediation. We have already said that priesthood is the point of contact between God and man, and these verses give the basis for this claim – every priest is “ordained for men in things pertaining to God.” Priesthood is no mere human office; it involves standing between God and man, speaking to God on man’s behalf and to man on behalf of God. In the sacrifices and offerings of the Levitical system we see Aaron and his sons approach God on the behalf of men, and Malachi 2:7 records the failure of their descendants to speak to the people on behalf of God: “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” In this connection, it is interesting to remember that “one Latin term for priest, pontifex, etymologically means ‘bridge builder.’”[3] Priests, in the Bible, are called not just to build bridges but to be bridges between God and man.

Second, we should note that priesthood involves consecration. To be a priest was (and is) to be set apart. This idea is implicit in the Greek word for priest, hiereus, which has its original in an adjective meaning “sacred, consecrated to the deity, pertaining to God.”[4] Hebrews 5 emphasises this by stressing, first, that priests are “taken from among men.” The preposition ek, translated as “from among,” has the sense of “out from” – God lays His hand upon the priest and, in doing so, separates him from the rest of humanity. And it is God who takes them – the writer is at pains to emphasise that priests are divinely appointed: “no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God” (v4). In the Old Testament, Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 use similar language concerning the inauguration of the Levitical priesthood: “And this is the thing that thou shalt do unto them to hallow them, to minister unto me in the priest’s office” (Exo 29:1). “To hallow” was to set apart, to make distinct, to separate. Priesthood was not a parttime responsibility or a casual duty. It demanded all of a person and the whole of his life. It still does. To be a priest was to be distinct and different, to enjoy unique and weighty privileges, but it also meant bearing burdens that were correspondingly unique and correspondingly heavy. And it still does.

Third, note that priesthood involves representation. Although the priest is taken out from among men, he is ordained for men. Priesthood was not a personal enterprise – the Levitical priest offered “for the people” (Heb 5:3). He went into the presence of God not as a private individual but as the representative of the nation. This is beautifully figured in the garments of the High Priest, as described in Exodus 28. The names of the tribes of Israel were graven in twelve stones set on the breastplate of the high priest, and on two onyx stones on his shoulder. This identified the priest with the people that he represented: “Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a memorial” (Exo 28:12). “Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goeth in unto the holy place, for a memorial before the Lord continually” (28:29). The same truth is thrillingly stated in relation to our great High Priest, who has entered “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Heb 9:24). He is there, not only on our behalf but in our place, our priestly representative “in heaven itself.”

Finally, priesthood involves action. Priests are busy men – they offer “both gifts and sacrifices for sin.” Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 speak of the consecration of Aaron and his sons using a word that means “to fill the hands,” and the chapters focus on the hands of Aaron and his sons. As Aaron and his sons moved through the stages of the ritual of consecration, their empty hands were filled with sacrifices, and priests are still expected to have full hands. The writer to the Hebrews highlights two things that filled the hands of the Levitical priest: “gifts and sacrifices.” “Sacrifices” reminds us that, before Calvary, much of the priest’s work focused on dealing with sin by the offering of sacrifices. The offering of Christ has brought a glorious conclusion to that aspect of priestly labour, but Hebrews 13:15-16 reminds us that the offering of gifts continues. Worship, above all else, is priestly work. This is repeatedly emphasised in the Old Testament: “They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law: they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt sacrifice upon thine altar” (Deu 33:10). “Aaron was separated, that he should sanctify the most holy things, he and his sons for ever, to burn incense before the Lord, to minister unto him, and to bless in his name for ever” (1Ch 23:13).

In the context of the epistle, Hebrews 5:1-2 is dealing especially with the Levitical priesthood. However, as we make our way through Scripture, we will repeatedly notice these four characteristics associated with priesthood. The relative emphasis will vary from dispensation to dispensation, but mediation, consecration, representation and action will prove to be distinctive features of priesthood.

[1] “Priesthood” can mean “the office or function of a priest; the condition or status of being a priest” (OED). It can also be used to describe a formal order of priesthood. In this article we are using the term in the first sense; in later articles we will consider more formal priesthoods.

[2] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[3] William H.C. Propp, Exodus 19-40, Anchor Bible, (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 527.

[4] Thayer, s.v.