“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)
In my last post I reviewed how the ministerial priesthood of Aaron and his sons in the Old Testament co-existed with the priesthood of the nation of Israel. In this post I will look at the evidence in Sacred Scripture that in the New Covenant established by Christ, there is indeed a ministerial priesthood that co-exists with the priesthood of the believer, and they are the fulfillment of these Old Covenant priesthoods.
In general Protestants reject that there is both a ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the believer in the New Covenant. A view 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)
…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.”
The passages cited by Mr. Rhodes correspond to Exodus 19:5-6 where God makes Israel his chosen people and a “kingdom of priests.” The priesthood of believers is the fulfillment of this promise made to Israel. It is not the fulfillment of the priesthood of the family of Aaron in the Old Covenant, and from the Catholic perspective there is indeed a distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the believer in the New Covenant just as there was in the Old.
Mr. Rhodes says that “Christians have no need of intermediating priests because there are no further sacrifices being made to God today. Jesus has done it all.” As Catholics we do believe and understand that Jesus died once for all (Hebrews 7:27). And the event of his crucifixion did indeed occur at a specific time and place in human history. But his sacrifice is truly “for all” – all people from all places from all times. In this sense it is an eternal sacrifice which is why Christ holds his priesthood permanently – it didn’t end once his sacrifice in time was completed (Hebrews 7:24). His sacrifice applies to us, today. And we are called to participate in offering this sacrifice. As St. Paul says “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). And he also says that when we “eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
When Christ celebrated the first Eucharist with the apostles it was both a sacrifice and an offering. And when he tells the apostles to “Do this in remembrance (anamnēsin) of me” (Luke 22:19), he is instructing them to celebrate a memorial offering of his body and blood. The word anamnēsin has very limited usage in Scripture and is always related to a sacrificial or memorial offering – a “priestly function” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Hebrews 10:3, Leviticus 24:7, Numbers 10:10, Psalm 38:1, Psalm 70:1). He in effect ordains them to the ministerial priesthood at this time; they are to celebrate Eucharist as an offering of Christ’s sacrifice that allows all people across all time to participate in his sacrifice to the Father on our behalf.
To better understand this, we need to turn to a concept present throughout Scripture of people coming to God’s holy mountain. We saw in my last post how the people of Israel entered into their covenant with God at Mt. Sinai, and there they witnessed God descend as a thick cloud on the mountain along with trumpet blasts, thunder, lightning and smoke, and the entire mountain quakes. (Exodus 19:17-19). This event is referenced in the book of Hebrews, where it is written “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:18-22).
This time when “all the nations” would come to God’s holy mountain (in contrast to only the people of Israel) is prophesied in the Old Testament. We see for example in Micah 4:1-2 “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
And we see this prophecy from Isaiah – “And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 66:20-21) This shows the intent that when the Church is opened to the Gentiles (all the nations) that some of them will be called from the priesthood of believers to serve as ministerial priests, just as was the case in the Old Covenant.
And in the book of Malachi we see “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11) This speaks to a time when throughout all the world and in all the nations a pure offering will be made to God. And there is no “pure offering” other than Christ. His sacrifice is truly for all people for all times.
When we turn to the New Testament, we see that there are still priests of the Old Covenant, and we see “elders” as part of the New Covenant leadership. Ron Rhodes also speaks to this in his book “Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics” (an anti-Catholic work). “Sometimes Roman Catholics will try to argue that references in the New Testament to ‘elders’ point to the office of priest in an effort to build support for their case…..This is not honest scholarship. The Greek word for elder is ‘presbuteros’, whereas the Greek word for priest is ‘hiereus’…Any honest look at the lexical use of these words in the Bible shows that two entirely different offices are in view with these words.”
As Catholics we would agree that these are two different offices. The priests in the New Covenant are distinctly different from the priests in the Old Covenant, because the priests in the new covenant are acting “in persona Christ” – in the person of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:10 KJV). They are making the eternal priesthood of Christ present to us. It is my opinion the reason the Bible introduces a different word is to clearly note the difference, and in most translations “presbuteros” is rendered as “elder.” But the literal translation is the English word “presbyter,” which Merriam Webster defines as priest or elder. The question is whether these “elders” are part of a priesthood that is distinct from the priesthood of the believer.
One very strong verse to support the Catholic view is found in Romans 15:15-16 where St. Paul writes to them “But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Note that this may be a verse where some translation bias exists in some versions. The KJV says “That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.” It does not render the verse as “priestly” service.
But when we do as Mr. Rhodes suggests and look at the lexical use of these words, we see the word used for minister is leitourgon, which Strong’s Concordance (3011) defines as “a public servant, a minister, a servant.” But the word translated in Romans 15:16 as “ministering the Gospel” in the KJV and as “priestly service” in the RSVCE is ierourgounta which Strong’s Concordance (2418) defines as a combination of the Greek words “hieros” and “ergon” and means to “perform sacred rites.” Strong’s Concordance is a Protestant concordance of the KJV. And it shows the word “hieros” used in this passage, which is the same word used for the Old Covenant priesthood, and it is used to describe the ministry of the apostle Paul.
Aside from that consider the rest of the passage. Paul sees his priestly service to “perform sacred rites” as necessary “so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Again there is nothing we have to offer other than Christ, and ourselves along with him. But for the Gentiles to make this offering and to participate in Christ’s offering to the Father (1 Corinthians 10:16), it requires Paul in the role of a priest.
We also see Paul elude to this when speaking of the apostles. He tells the Corinthians that “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1) The Greek word mustēriōn is translated by St. Jerome as “sacramentum.” The sacraments are still referred to as the “mysteries” in the Eastern Church. St. Paul also tells the Ephesians that they have heard of “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you” (Ephesians 3:2). St. Paul understands he is in a priestly role apart from that of the priesthood of the believer and in that role he is a steward of the sacraments and God’s grace.
There is also a very interesting reference in the Epistle of St. Jude that is quite easily overlooked. In his only writing in the New Testament, St. Jude in this very short letter warns about false teachers in their midst and how they reject authority (Jude 1:8-11). And in verse 11 he says “Woe to them! For they walk in the way of Cain, and abandon themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.”
When St. Jude warns about false teachers who reject authority and “perish in Korah’s rebellion,” we have to go back to the Old Testament to understand the meaning of Korah’s rebellion. It is recorded in Numbers 16. Korah was a Levite which means he assisted the priests (somewhat as our deacons today) but he was not of the family of Aaron, and therefore not part of the ministerial priesthood. But he rebelled against the priesthood of Aaron and the leadership of Moses telling them – “You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3) Frankly this sounds quite like the way many Protestants view the Catholic priesthood. This angered Moses, who knew it was the Lord who had called him, and had him establish Aaron and his sons as priests. He responds to Korah “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them; and that he has brought you near him, and all your brethren the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also?” (Numbers 16:8-10)
So Moses challenges Korah and his followers “’Be present, you and all your company, before the Lord, you and they, and Aaron, tomorrow; and let every one of you take his censer, and put incense upon it, and every one of you bring before the Lord his censer, two hundred and fifty censers; you also, and Aaron, each his censer.’ So every man took his censer, and they put fire in them and laid incense upon them, and they stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron.” (Numbers 16:17-18) The burning of incense was limited to the priests. And when Korah and his followers attempt to burn incense to the Lord, the earth opens and swallows them, along with all their households and goods and they all perish (Numbers 16:31-33).
Korah’s rebellion was one against the ministerial priesthood. He believed that all people should be able to serve the Lord in this way, that there was no distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the nation of Israel, and that Moses had essentially lied to them when he established the priesthood of Aaron and his sons as God had commanded. And he and his followers perished in his rebellion. St. Jude would not have warned Christian believers that there are false teachers who were currently perishing in Korah’s rebellion unless he understood there is indeed a New Covenant ministerial priesthood that is distinct from the priesthood of all believers. And in the book of Revelation we see these New Covenant priests, the presbyterous performing the priestly function of offering incense before the throne of God – “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8). As Catholics we understanding this distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the believers is indeed necessary that our offering may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16).