Priesthood in the New Testament

Mark Vickers FAITH Magazine July-August 2010

Fr Vickers shows clearly that the Catholic understanding of the priesthood can be traced directly back to Christ and is clearly manifest in the New Testament writings. Fr Vickers is Parish Priest of Hatfield South, and Chaplain to the University of Hertfordshire.

The Nature of the Priesthood in Catholic Theology

In the years after the Council a certain confusion took root in many quarters regarding the nature of the Catholic priesthood. Doubts were raised concerning whether the New Testament shows Christ instituting the priesthood. If one denies that Jesus founded the priesthood, and denies its foundation in the New Testament, and argues that it is just an administrative convenience developed later by the Church, then it becomes optional or infinitely changeable.

Against such a reductionist vision of the priesthood we can present a magnificent vision of the priesthood rooted in Christ and central to the life of His Church. The Catholic priest has no priesthood of his own: he shares in the one priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ was a priest - was and is the Priest - and He willed to share that priesthood with those whom He chooses. That is why the Church has priests, and this understanding of the priesthood can be proved from the New Testament.

The Letter to the Hebrews[1]

Was Jesus a priest? At first sight, it can seem un-clear. If anything, his contemporaries thought of Him as a prophet, a role distinct from and sometimes critical of priesthood in the Old Testament. Peter correctly identifies Him as the Christ, the Messiah, but he is silent on the question of Christ's priesthood. Jesus never calls Himself a priest.

Priesthood in the Old Testament passed by physical descent. Priests had to be descendants of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi. But Jesus is of the tribe of Judah. Priesthood in the Old Testament had a varied role at different times, but increasingly it focussed on worship, the offering of sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem. And Jesus has at best an ambiguous relationship with the Temple cult. He drives out from the Temple the animals required for sacrifice, and He is critical of ritualism and hypocrisy.

In deciding whether to think of Jesus as a priest, the early Christians faced a quandary. Say He was a priest, and they would be accused of returning to the Old Testament ritualism He seemed to reject. Say He was not a priest, and there was a break in continuity between Old and New Testaments where, otherwise, they argued Christ fulfilled and exceeded the Old Covenant. Moreover, there were expectations that the Messiah would be a priest, even a priest-king. God's definitive revelation was to have a priestly aspect. "I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind."[2] Passages like Psalm 110 were taken to refer to the Messiah. "The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, "You area priest forever.""[3] How could that possibly be said to apply to Christ?

Where the rest of the New Testament is virtually silent about the priesthood in relation to Christ, one book makes this its explicit and central message. Time and again, the Letter to the Hebrews insists that in Christ we have "an eminent priest," "a high priest," even "an eminent high priest."[4] The references are endless, and the author sets out with a vengeance to prove his point.

It is important to realise the Letter to the Hebrews presents no innovation. It is a meditation upon and development of what is contained elsewhere in Scripture.

Referring specifically to His suffering, Hebrews says, Christ "had to be made like to His brethren in all things in order to become high priest."[5] This echoes Christ's words on the road to Emmaus: "Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and so enter into His glory?"[6] Hebrews simply concludes this makes Christ a priest, and it gives ample reasons for this conclusion.

The other books of the New Testament never present Christ's Crucifixion as a meaningless judicial punishment imposed on an alleged criminal. As Paul says, "Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed."[7] St. John sees Christ's death as "the expiation for our sins."[8] Though Paul and John talk of Christ's death in terms of a sacrifice, of itself that does not entail that Christ be a priest because a priest offers sacrifice but is distinct from the offering. Yet Christ is presented as more than just a passive victim. John's Gospel: "I lay down My life, that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord."[9] Paul tothe Galatians : "He loved me and gave Himself up for me."[10] Paul to the Ephesians : "Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God."[11]Christ is the sacrifice, but He also offers Himself in sacrifice. Even though the term priest is not used Christ's priesthood is implied.

Christ manifests His priesthood as much by what He does as by what He says. All His actions are priestly, concerned with drawing us into communion with God.

The Letter to the Hebrews does not distort the New Testament message; rather it deepens the early Christians' understanding of their faith. Straight away it maintains Christ "made purification for sins"[12] - the action and language of priesthood, which exists to restore relations between men and God by removing the obstacle of sin. Hebrews continues, Christ "had to be made like His brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people."[13] This is presented as the whole purpose of the Incarnation -that Christ might exercise an effective priesthood.

A priest is a mediator, one who goes between God and men - praying and offering sacrifice to God for the remission of men's sins, returning to men with God's forgiveness and blessing. Mediation aims to restore communion, to bring humanity into a full and personal relationship with God. To be an effective mediator, a true priest, one must be able to identify with both God and men. And that was the problem with the Old Testament priesthood. It was part of God's providence, it prefigured something greater and better, but by itself it was ineffective.

St. Augustine defines sacrifice as every work done to unite us in communion with God. The Old Testament priesthood was flawed. Due to their sinfulness, its priests were unable to identify with, to be acceptable to, God. Their sacrifice was not found worthy to take away sin. The Book of Maccabees tells of high priests gaining their position through scheming ambition and bribery. Hebrews and the Law itself both recognise Old Testament priests had first to offer sacrifice for their own sin, before they could begin to offer sacrifice for the people. They could not make a worthy offering because their own sin offended God. The entire contention of Hebrews is that a new sacrifice, a new priest, is needed.

Christ is the perfect mediator, the perfect priest, because He is both true God and true man. For the author of the Letter to the Hebrews it is self-evident that Christ is God. Our high priest "has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God." He is "holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens... a Son Who has been made perfect for ever... one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of majesty."[14]

Christ's effectiveness as a priest in the presence of God is clearly established. But how can we fallen human beings approach and identify with this perfect priest? That would seem a problem. No, says the Letter to the Hebrews. That is the whole point of the Incarnation. "For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need."[15]

The Old Testament priesthood tried to separate itself from sinful humanity through ritual purification. By contrast, Christ voluntarily chose to identify with us, by humbling Himself. Yet can Christ be identified with humanity, and therefore be a successful mediator, if, unlike us, He is without sin? But this is precisely how He identifies with us. Sin is not an essential part of the human condition. It is not how we were created by God in the beginning. Sin is what divides and separates.

It is not sinfulness which establishes Christ's solidarity with us, but rather His voluntary acceptance of suffering, taking the consequences of sin on our behalf, out of love. Hebrews is clear that it is through His suffering that Christ is consecrated a priest in His humanity. "In the days of His flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears... He learned obedience through what He suffered; and being made perfect He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek."[16] "Through His Passion, Christ has been transformed and has become high priest in the fullest sense."[17]

Hebrews maintains the continuity between Old and New Testaments by pointing out both Aaron and Christ owe their priesthood to God's call; it's not something they take upon themselves.[18] But if Christ's priesthood was only the same as that of Aaron, nothing would have been gained. So, immediately the author cleverly and effectively shows the superiority of Christ's priesthood and meets the potential objection that Christ is not of the physical descent of Aaron, He is not a Levite.

He cites Psalm 110. In the Old Testament God Himself declares that His Messiah will be a priest, but different to the Levitical priests. "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”[19]If the Old Testament priesthood was perfect, why did the Old Testament itself foretell a new type of priesthood? Melchizedek is cited because he is a priest-king, a "priest of the Most High God"[20] who offers a sacrifice of bread and wine. The fact Abraham, the ancestor of Levi, pays Melchizedek tithes, demonstrates his superiority to the Levitical priesthood. His priesthood does not depend on physical descent. His is an eternal priesthood, and it is an image of Christ's priesthood.

The Old Testament priesthood was inadequate and temporary, it ended with death. Christ's priesthood is superior because it is an eternal priesthood by virtue of His Resurrection. "He holds His priesthood permanently, because He continues for ever. Consequently He is able for all time to save those who draw to God though Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them."[21]

The priesthood of Christ is also superior due to the nature of the sacrifice. The Letter to the Hebrews is critical of the fruit and animals offered by the Old Testament priests. "Gifts and sacrifices are offered which have no power to make inwardly perfect the one who performs the worship; as they are based only on food and drink and various ablutions, they are no more than carnal rites which last only until a time of renewal."[22] By contrast, Christ offered "His own Blood, thus securing an eternal redemption."[23] He is not offering external objects, but His very life, a gift made freely out of love for us.

As a result of this perfect sacrifice, "Christ has entered into heaven itself, in order to appear now on our behalf before the face of God."[24] He shows Himself the true priest by opening up for us "this authentic encounter with God by becoming the man of the sanctuary who "stands in the presence of God" (Dt. 18:5)."[25]

Following the Passion and Resurrection of Christ the purpose of the Old Testament priesthood is redundant. It comes as no surprise that, after centuries, the Temple, the Levitical priesthood, the altar and ritual sacrifice are swept away with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies in 70AD. The thousands of priests of the Old Covenant are replaced forever by the one eternal Priest of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ.

Christ Institutes the Ministerial Priesthood

Although Christ is clearly presented as a priest in Hebrews, still there are those who refuse to admit Jesus founded the ministerial priesthood. They argue there is no Scriptural evidence that Our Lord ordained priests or intended this should happen. John Henry Newman addressed the issue 175 years ago when he noted: "the only question being, whether there is reason for thinking that Christ has, in matter of fact, left representatives behind Him" to exercise His office and authority. Even as an Anglican, Newman concluded firmly, "Scripture enables us to determine" this question "in the affirmative."[26]

Newman argued Christ's intention to establish a permanent ministry exercising His own authority is manifest in Scripture. Had He not done so, in some way, Our Lord's own ministry would have been in vain. It would have benefited those in Palestine 2,000 years ago. But how would anyone subsequently have known His Will, the Will of God the Father? Christ is not so cruel as to deny us anything necessary for our salvation. "Behold, I am with you always, even until the end of time."[27]

To perpetuate His presence amongst us, Christ commissions the apostles. There are numerous references to their call and commission. "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of heaven."[28] "And He called to Him His twelve disciples and gave them authority... These Twelve Jesus sent out."[29] "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations."[30] "Truly, truly I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him Who sent Me."[31] "As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you."[32] We can know what God wants because Jesus is God, because Jesus is sent into the world by the Father. And Jesus shares His authority with His apostles.

The authority of the apostles is unquestionable. Very well, our critics say: the apostles were chosen and commissioned for a preaching ministry, to take the Good News to the nations. That has very little to do with priesthood as understood by Catholics. The apostles were not priests.
What was it the apostles were commissioned to do? They were to be faithful to all they had seen and heard Christ do in the three years they had spent with Him. The apostles were witnesses to the truth, of the Resurrection. Of course, they had a preaching ministry to proclaim the Good News. But that was not all.

Preaching, the prophetic role, is part of the priest's ministry. But the priest also has a liturgical role, to lead the people in worship, to celebrate the sacraments. And that is what Christ commissioned His apostles to do. The apostles are told to go to all nations, "baptising them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."[33] Christ shares with His apostles His priestly power of forgiving sin. "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."[34]

The sacrament of anointing is also entrusted to the apostles in Mark, chapter 6.

The priest also has a third role: he is meant to govern God's holy people - in a spirit of humility and service, certainly; but, nevertheless, governing, building up the Church. Christ gives this to His apostles. Peter asks Jesus, What about us? The response is : "Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."[35] The apostles have a "genuine governing authority, ordered to the unity of God's people and its faithfulness to His plan."[36] Christ clearly intends that His apostles are to be priests.

The Priesthood Instituted at the Last Supper

Nowhere is that intention more obvious than at the moment Christ gives us the priesthood - at the Last Supper. The Last Supper, of course, occurs in the context of the Old Testament Passover, the celebration of God's freeing the People of Israel from slavery in Egypt. That is marked by the sacrifice of thousands of lambs by the Old Testament priesthood in the Temple. It is a type, a foreshadowing, of the perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God by which we are freed from sin. The Last Supper takes place in the context of the Jewish Passover meal, but it is not the Jewish Passover. It is clearly orientated to the sacrifice on Calvary on the following day.

Everything about the Last Supper is priestly. Christ's discourse in John chapters 14-17 is known as "the High Priestly Prayer." It is the summit and summary of His priestly ministry in anticipation of the supreme sacrifice which will take place on Good Friday. "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."[37] Christ the High Priest is about to make the perfect offering, the offering of His very life, in obedience and love, for the forgiveness of sin, to bring us into communion with God. The connection of the shedding of Christ's Blood with the establishment of the New Covenant gives this a definitive sacrificial and priestly meaning.

While the Letter to the Hebrews does not specifically mention the Eucharist, it surely has this in mind in when it states in connection with Christ's priesthood, "We have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the Blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh."[38]

And the apostles are associated in this. Christ prays to His Father for them, "For their sake, I consecrate Myself, so that they too may be consecrated in the truth."[39] They are consecrated as priests of the New Covenant to lead "true worshippers [who] will worship the Father in spirit and in truth."[40] This is the reason for their call. "You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and your fruit should abide."[41]

The apostles' fruit abides by making present throughout the world and through history the one perfect sacrifice of Christ. At the Last Supper Christ instituted two sacraments, ordered to each other: the Eucharist and the priesthood. The apostles were ordained first and foremost to offer Mass, to bring about, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the living and true presence of Christ. At the Last Supper "Our Lord gave them the power to renew the sacrifice of the Eucharist with the command, "Do this as a memorial of Me" as He blessed the cup."[42][43] The Council of Trent taught, "As the Church received the sacrament of the Eucharist (at the Last Supper), there must have been a priesthood tooffer it from the beginning."[44] It is no surprise that at the Reformation the Protestants rejected both the Mass and the priesthood - the two are inseparably linked by the command of Christ Himself.

"This is My Body... This is the cup of My Blood... Do this in memory of Me." That is why the apostles were ordained priests - to continue to offer for all time the Eucharist, "the climax for mankind of the work of the Incarnation."[45] In the Eucharist we receive Jesus Christ Himself, personally and truly present in what before the words of consecration were bread and wine. And to effect this change, a priest is needed.

In a persecuted Church there was a natural reticence to talk publicly about the "holy mysteries." These would be explained later to those initiated into the faith. Yet, nevertheless, we can see in the New Testament the centrality of the Eucharist. The description of the life of the very first Christians: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."[46] Paul's instructions to the Corinthians on the worthy reception of Holy Communion in which he insists he is only passing on the same teaching he himself received from the Lord.[47]

The Priesthood Perpetuated in the Church

Our Lord commissioned the apostles, and their commissioning was as priests, especially in relation to the Eucharist. So, our critics argue that the role of the apostles was purely personal. It was a unique gift from Christ for themselves alone and, when they died, their function, priestly or otherwise, died with them.

It is not just the Twelve chosen by Christ during His earthly ministry who are called "apostles." Paul is clear about his claim to the title: "an apostle - not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father."[48] Again, his authority comes from "God, Who has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant."[49] His office involves for Paul, like the other apostles, a right to support from the community, celibacy, suffering and complete identity with Christ. Others, like Matthias, Barnabas and Silas, are commissioned as apostles or co-operators of the apostles. While not commissioned directly by Christ, they must be commissioned by one or more of the apostles whosecommission does come directly from Christ. Later we see Paul commissioning men like Timothy and Titus, giving them in turn authority to appoint elders in the local church. These men have the same universal powers as the original Twelve.


Scripture, then, clearly demonstrates Christ is a priest and that He passes His priesthood on to His apostles and that the apostles themselves commission successors. It is beyond the scope of this article to trace the development of ecclesial roles in the sub-apostolic age. We can, however, recognise clearly the origins of the priesthood in the New Testament, in Christ Himself. All priesthood is a participation in the priesthood of Christ. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, "Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only His ministers."[50]


[1] This exegesis of Hebrews draws on the work of Cardinal Vanhoye cited below which is strongly commended.
[2] 1 Sam. 2:35.
[3] Ps. 110:4.
[4] Heb. 10:21; 4:14; 4:15, 8:1.
[5] Heb.2:17.
[6] Lk. 24:6.
[7]1 Cor. 5:7.
[8]1 Jn. 2:2.
[9] Jn. 10:17-18.
[10] Gal. 2:20.
[11]] Eph. 5:2
[12] Heb. 1:3.
[13] Heb.2:17.
[14] Heb. 4:14; 7:26, 28; 8:1.
[15] Heb. 4:15-16.
[16] Heb. 5:7-10.
[17] Albert Vanhoye, SJ, Old Testament Priests and the New Priest, St. Bede's Publications, (Petersham, MA, 1986), p. 83.
[18] Heb. 5:4-5.
[19] Heb. 5:6 citing Ps. 110:4.
[20] Heb.7:l.
[21] Heb. 7:24-25.
[22] Heb. 9:9-10.
[23] Heb. 9:12.
[24] Heb. 9:24.
[25] Vanhoye, op. cit., pp. 206-7.
[26] John Henry Newman, Oxford, 14 December 1834, "The Christian Ministry" in Parochial & Plain Sermons.
[27] Mt. 28:20.
[28] Mk. 4:11.
[29] Mt. 10:1,5.
[30] Mt.28:18-19a.
[31] Jn. 13:20.
[32] Jn. 20:21.
[33] Mt.28:19b
[34] Jn. 20:22-23.
[35] Mt. 19:28.
[36] Aidan Nichols, OP, Holy Order, Veritas, (Dublin, 1990), p. 8.
[37] Jn. 15:13.
[38] Heb. 10:19-20.
[39] Jn. 17:19.
[40] Jn. 4:23.
[41] Jn. 15:16.
[42] Lk. 22:19.
[43] Nichols, op. tit., p. 162.
[44] Council of Trent, Session XXIII.
[45] Fr. Edward Holloway, Christ our Eucharist, Faith-Keyway Publications, (Reigate, 2003), p. 10.
[46] Acts 2:42.
[47]1 Cor. 11:23-29.
[48] Gal. 1:1.
[49] 2 Cor. 3:5-6.
[50] St. Thomas Aquinas, Hebr. 8,4.

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