“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)
One of the things about the Catholic Church that can be foreign to most Protestants is that we have priests, who wear vestments and preside at Eucharist and administer the sacraments. In general, Protestants have been taught that the ministerial priesthood was abolished by Christ in the New Covenant, and that we are all now priests. An example from “Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics” by Ron Rhodes (an anti-Catholic work):
“Christians have no need of intermediating priests because there are no further sacrifices being made to God today. Jesus has done it all. Furthermore, it is critical to understand that every Christian is a member of the priesthood of believers…. (Revelation 1:6, Revelation 5:10, Revelation 20:6, 1 Peter 2:5)
…. In fairness, the Roman Catholic Church does recognize a general priesthood of believers, and a person becomes a member of this priesthood through baptism. But the emphasis is on the ministerial priesthood, which is open only to unmarried celibate men.
…The Bible knows nothing of such a distinction in priesthood. The Bible simply says that every believer in Christ is part of the priesthood. And for that reason, Protestants reject the Catholic view as unbiblical.”
From the Catholic perspective the Bible does indeed know of a distinction between the priesthood of believers and the ministerial priesthood in the New Testament. Mr. Rhodes is correct in that the Catholic Church does recognize that we are all priests and part of the priesthood of believers. If you’ve ever attended a Catholic Baptism, as the person is anointed with Holy Chrism you heard the words “Just as Jesus was anointed priest, prophet, and king, so may you live always as a member of his body sharing everlasting life.” In 1 Peter 2:4-5 he tells us that we should “Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The Catechism explains what it means for the laity to “offer spiritual sacrifices” in CCC901 — “For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit – indeed even the hardships of life if patiently born – all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord. And so, worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God, everywhere offering worship by the holiness of their lives.”
But from the Catholic perspective this common priesthood of the believer did not eliminate the ministerial priesthood. Along with the verse from 1 Peter, Mr. Rhodes offered these verses to show the reality of the priesthood of the believer.
- Revelation 1:6 “and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen”
- Revelation 5:10 “and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”
- Revelation 20:6 “Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years.”
What Mr. Rhodes does not do is identify that these verses are actually quoting from the Old Testament when God tells the people of Israel “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6) For when God called Israel to enter into covenant and become His chosen people, he established them as a kingdom of priests. This priesthood of the nation of Israel co-existed with the ministerial priesthood of Aaron and his sons of the tribe of Levi.
So in the Old Testament we see three kinds of priests established by God as part of the covenant made with Israel. The first was the office of the high priest. We see this office beginning with Aaron in the book of Exodus and continuing to the time of the Gospels. The book of Hebrews (Chapters 4-9) goes into great detail that Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant high priest. The second kind of priest we see in the Old Testament is the Aaronic priesthood that God had Moses establish with Aaron and his sons. This was the ministerial priesthood whose primary role was to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people in atonement for their sins, and to preside over the liturgical worship of the people of Israel. As Catholics we would see this fulfilled in the New Testament in our ministerial priesthood. The third kind of priest we see in the Old Covenant was the priesthood of the nation of Israel that God establishes when they become His chosen people. This is fulfilled in the New Covenant as the priesthood of believers.
There are some who view the Old Covenant ministerial priesthood as “standing between” God and His people in such a way that the people did not have access to God. In their view, when Christ died and the curtain in the temple is torn (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45), it signifies that people now have direct access to God, so there is no longer a need for a ministerial priesthood. I think that reading is problematic. For one thing, Moses was not a priest and he had the most direct access to God of any of the Israelites, to include the priests. This was often the case with the prophets, who in general were not priests. You can read the Psalms of David and see how he conversed with God with great intimacy. The ministerial priesthood of the Old Covenant did not deny the people access to God, but they did offer sacrifice on their behalf and preside over their liturgical worship. From the Catholic perspective the curtain in the temple that separated the people from the Holy of Holies is a representation of the sin that has separated us from God. Since the sacrifice of Christ can indeed make us perfect as the sacrifices from the Old Covenant could not (Hebrews 10:1), his sacrifice removes that barrier and the torn curtain signifies that truth. It is sin that has separated us from God and what the curtain represents, and as we allow Christ to transform us into the “spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23) the barrier between us and God is removed.
So from the Catholic perspective God clearly establishes three kinds of priesthoods in the Old Covenant – the high priest, the ministerial priesthood of the family of Aaron from the tribe of Levi, and the priesthood of the nation of Israel. We see these fulfilled in the New Testament as Christ as our high priest, the ministerial priesthood of the Church, and the priesthood of the believer. For many Protestants, they have simply been taught that the Old Covenant had priests but we are all priests in the New Covenant. There is no awareness that the nation of Israel was also a kingdom of priests, and that those verses about the priesthood of the believer in the New Testament correlate to the priesthood of the nation of Israel in the Old Covenant. For others, they may realize this, but the claim is then made that even though God made all of Israel priests, He later actually revoked the priesthood of the nation of Israel and replaced it with the ministerial priesthood of Aaron’s family. In my next post I will explore why Catholics would believe that is not what the Bible teaches, but rather these two priesthoods co-existed in the Old Covenant as they co-exist today in the Catholic Church.