The Priesthood, Old and New

As a Baptist Sunday School and Bible study teacher, one of the questions that used to nag at me incessantly was this: Why, after such painstaking deliberation in dictating an institutional religion that pleased Him in the Old Testament and that was designed to lead the people to recognize the Messiah when He came, would God then introduce a system in the New Testament Church that was so completely unlike the one He established in the Old? There are innumerable examples of how ridiculous this complete “change” would be, but take the priesthood, for instance.

Priests were the officiators of worship whose main duties, those that set them apart from the “priesthood of the people” (Exodus 19:6), were to maintain the tabernacle sanctuary, offer sacrifices, and facilitate the peoples’ confession of sins through them. God Himself established this formal priesthood, stipulating everything about it in the Law of the Torah. The priests must be descendants of Aaron, the first priest selected by God Himself; their bodies must have no defect in them, because their persons and bodies were an offering to God (like the animals they would sacrifice on the altar); they must be dedicated in a special seven-day ceremony that involved bathing, oils, and sacrifices.

They were clad in special garments. They wore a “coat” woven from a single piece of linen without seam that symbolized spiritual integrity, wholeness and righteousness. The headpiece, called a miter, was made by God’s direction to look like a flower in bloom to illustrate the wearers’ spiritual health and bloom. The girdle, specified by God, was a belt worn around the waist to show that theirs was an office of service to the people.

While in active service to God in the tabernacle, and later at the temple, the priests were to have no marital relations with their spouses. This celibacy illustrated the inherent purity which the priest must embody. Along with offering sacrifices, they were to be the teachers of the people. This was not to prevent the people from learning, praying, or studying the Law on their own; it was simply to protect the people from error. They were also the office of authoritative judgment for the people, a way of justice for them.

This priesthood was so sacred that even the priests’ possible, probable and, later, actual, infidelity to God would not negate it. The people were instructed to officially hear and obey them due to the sanctity of their office, as it was a function of God’s grace rather than the priests’ merit. The priesthood was to be a perpetual institution (Exodus 40:15), as were the sacrifices they would offer Him.

”If this is true, where is the priesthood in the New Testament, after Christ?” I asked myself as a Baptist. It cannot simply be that members of the body of Christ were now “The Priesthood” as I had been taught through 1Peter 2:9 and the Book of Hebrews; not if the Old Testament is to be our example as the Scriptures so clearly say (Matthew 13:52). In the Old Testament, the people were also said to be a priesthood, though still not of the official, institutional office (Exodus 19:6), and St. Peter uses the same wording when he speaks of the “priesthood of the believer.” If the Old Testament is our example, there must also be a formal New Testament office of the priesthood in addition to the priesthood of the believer. The “fulfillment” of the Old Testament in Christ cannot, and would not, negate the perpetual and institutional nature of the office of the priesthood. He Himself said He came to fulfill it, that is to give it its proper orientation and meaning, not abolish it (Matthew 5:17-18).

This was one of the questions that bothered me the more I learned about the Old Testament example, especially after experiencing the epidemic rebellion, disunity, and church-splitting of the sole “priesthood of the believer” propounded in Protestant churches. Although the Scriptures are full of how consecrated and special they are to God, there is little respect for pastors’ authority or office in denominational churches anymore. A sign of the times, of course, but also a sign of a fundamental structural error (and appropriately of the exact nature of the original error) that is now making itself evident; for the perpetual, institutional priesthood was carried forth in obedience in and through the Catholic Church.

Everything about the Old Testament example, including the priesthood of the believer, is both fulfilled and perpetuated in Her, through Christ’s eternal sacrifice, just as the Scriptures teach. The sacrifices Catholic priests make are the single sacrifice pleasing to God: His only Son. This is the Sacrifice pictured and eternally being offered in the heavenly temple revealed to St. John in the Book of Revelation, the Sacrifice initiated and perpetuated by Christ Himself in the words “do this in remembrance of me,” this being the very thing Jesus was about to do — sacrifice Himself. Who obeys this command to the letter, offering and consuming the Blood of the new covenant and the Body which is broken for us, but the priesthood of the Catholic Church? Who officiates at this true and perpetual Sacrifice but the priesthood of the Catholic Church? Who maintains the sanctuary, offers the Sacrifice, and facilitates the peoples’ confession of sin? Who carries forth the descendants and celibacy of Christ’s priesthood with the consecration and the garments? Who administers the official and error-free, authoritative Teaching of Christ? Who but the priesthood of the Catholic Church?

The formal priesthood was to be an eternal sign of God’s wish and order that there be an institutional system in service to His precious people. As Catholics, we can rejoice and rest in the provision, Scriptural nature, and orthodoxy of our beloved formal priesthood. Let us confidently pray for vocations, while striving to meet our own obligation to holiness as part of the priesthood of the believer.

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  • This is original sin, Adam and Eve thought they could do it alone and without the presence in the garden. Both within the Catholic church, but most especially within the Protestant this original sin is most apparent.

    We think we do not need God to make our chioces for us, that we can do without Him.

  • plowshare

    Protestant ministers are really more like rabbis than like priests, either in the Old Testament or in the Catholic Church.

    The old priesthood disappeared when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. However it is still venerated among Jews: the Cohens are taken to be the direct descendants of the tribe of Levi, and Father Benedict Groeschel has said that just before a rabbi pronounces a blessing, the Cohens in the congregation leave, because blessings are supposed to be done by a Cohen if one is present. I also read once, about 15 years ago, that efforts are being made in Israel to re-establish the Jewish priesthood and the old sacrifices.

    Until that succeeds, the Roman Catholic priesthood could well be the real successor, all through the Judeo-Christian tradition, of the Jewish priesthood.

  • JimAroo

    Excellent analysis of the OT Priesthood. How clear it is that this priesthood was a “type” of the sacramental priesthood of the new covenant. By the way for 1,500 years after Christ, East or West, would have disputed this insight. Even the heretics believed in the priesthood until Luther and company.