The Old and New Priesthood

     A priest was one who offered prayers, sacrifices, and worship to God on behalf of others. He also offered instruction, by speech and behavior, concerning how to properly approach God in righteousness. In the OT—before the Mosaic Law—few priests are mentioned. Melchizedek functioned as the king/priest of Salem (Gen 14:18-20; cf. Heb 7:1), and Jethro/Ruel (Moses’ father-in-law) as the priest of Midian (Ex 2:16-21; 3:1). Job served as the priest over his household, offering sacrifices for the sins of his family (Job 1:5). Most people worshipped and served God as non-priests. Men such as Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built temporary stone altars and worshipped God directly (Gen 8:20-21; Gen 12:7; 13:18; 26:24-25; 35:1-7). Before the Mosaic Law, it appears that sacrifice and worship were personal, simple, did not require special attire, and were not tied to a specific geographic location or facility.

     After Israel was delivered from the bondage of Egypt, God established the Hebrews as a theocratic nation among the Gentile nations of the world. God originally intended the whole nation to be a kingdom of priests, saying, “and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). However, because of the sin of worshipping the golden calf (Ex 32:1-35), God took that privilege from the nation and gave it solely to the tribe of Levi (Num 3:6-10).

     Aaron was from the tribe of Levi, and he and his descendants constituted the priestly class in Israel, and other qualified Levites helped them in their priestly duties. The distinction between priests and Levites continued into the NT (John 1:19; Luke 10:31-32). The priests in Israel were not given land (Num 18:20, 23-24), but could live in one of forty-eight cities that were assigned to them (Num 35:7). Their living was derived from the tithe (Num 18:21, 24-28), and they could eat part of the animal sacrifice (Lev 5:13, 7:31-34), along with their family (Lev 10:12-15).

     God required that Levitical priests could not have any physical defects (Lev 21:17-23), and restricted the age to twenty-five to fifty (Num 8:24-25). The Levitical priests originally served in the tabernacle, and later in the temple. Special clothing was required both for the priests and the high priest. Throughout the years of their priestly service they were required to:

  1. Be holy in their behavior (Ex 19:6).
  2. Teach God’s Law to others (Lev 10:8-11; Deut 31:9-13; 33:8-10; 2 Chron 17:7-9; Ezra 7:10; Mal 2:7).
  3. Offer sacrifices for sin to God (Lev chapters 4, 9, 16).
  4. Adjudicate legal matters (Deut 17:8-13; 19:16-17; 2 Chron 19:8-10).
  5. Preserve the tabernacle and temple (Num 18:1-7).
  6. Perform official duties in the Holy of Holies once a year (Ex 30:6-10; Lev 16).
  7. Inspect persons, animals, and fabrics to make sure they were clean (Lev 1:3; Deu 15:21; Lev 13-15).
  8. Receive the tithes (Num 18:21, 26; cf. Heb 7:5).
  9. Pronounce God’s blessing on the nation (Num 6:22-27).

     The death of Christ on the cross fulfilled the Mosaic Law and ended the OT animal sacrificial system and the Levitical priesthood (John 1:17; Rom 6:14; 8:3-4; 10:4; 2 Cor 3:1-13; Gal 5:18; Heb 8:13). Jesus is identified as a Priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Psa 110:4; Heb 7:11-19), and He offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice to atone for sin (Mark 10:45; Rom 8:3-4).

The Priesthood of all Believers     Today, there is no specialized priesthood, and the Catholic Church—or any organization—is not justified in creating a priestly cast within the body of Christ. Presently, in the church age, every Christian, at the moment of salvation, becomes a priest to God. Peter writes of Christians, saying, “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5), and “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).[1] This is the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, who “has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Rev 1:6), and “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth” (Rev 5:10; cf. 20:6). Furthermore, we do not worship at a temple; rather, “we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16; cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17). And we do not bring animal sacrifices, but “offer up spiritual sacrifices” to God (1 Pet 2:5). The basic functions of the Christian priesthood include:

  1. The continual giving of the body for service to the Lord (Rom 12:1-2).
  2. Confessing our sins directly to God (1 John 1:6-9).
  3. Sharing the gospel with others (Rom 15:15-16).
  4. Offering praise to God (Heb 13:15).
  5. Doing good works and sharing with others (Heb 13:16; cf. Phil 4:18).
  6. Giving our lives for the benefit of others (Phil 2:17; cf. Phil 1:21-26; 2:3-4).
  7. Walking in love (Eph 5:1-2; cf. 1 Pet 1:22).

     The Christian becomes a priest at the moment of salvation; however, the practice of the priesthood begins when he/she surrenders their body as a “living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom 12:1). Unlike the OT animal sacrifices which surrendered their lives once, the Christian life is a moment by moment, continual surrender to God. This spiritual service is performed by the believer “to our God” (Rev 5:10), for the benefit of others (Gal 6:10; Phil 2:3-4; Heb 13:16).

Audio lesson on The Old and New Priesthood

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

  1. The Gospel Message
  2. Restoring Fellowship With God
  3. The New Covenant and the Lord’s Supper
  4. What is the Church?
  5. The Basics of Prayer
  6. The Righteous Lifestyle of the Believer
  7. Walking with God

 


[1] Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum argues that the references in 1 Peter 2:5-9 refers narrowly to Jewish Christians, and there is merit to his argument. He also makes clear that all Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, are priests to God, and references Revelation 1:6; 5:10, and 20:6 as his prooftexts. For further investigation, read Israelology, pages 720-722.

Atonement for Sins

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement [Heb. כָּפַר kaphar] for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement [Heb. כָּפַר  kaphar].  (Lev. 17:11)

And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.  (Heb. 9:22)

       Sacrificial LambAtonement is a very important concept in the Old Testament.  The word atonement translates the Hebrew verb כָּפַר (kaphar) which means to “cover over, pacify, propitiate, [or] atone for sin.”[1]  The animal sacrificial system—which was part of the Mosaic Law—taught that sin must be atoned for.  The idea of substitution was clearly taught as the sinner laid his hands on the animal that died in his place (Lev. 4:15, 24; 16:21).  The innocent animal paid the price of death on behalf of the guilty sinner.  God established the Levitical animal sacrificial system as a way of teaching that human sin must be atoned for.  The atoning animal sacrifices were performed daily by the Jewish temple priests on behalf of Israelites who committed sins in ignorance (Lev. 4:1-4, 20, 26, 31).  More serious sins—those deliberately committed—were atoned for once a year on the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur—by the High Priest who would enter the Holy of Holies in the temple and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull and goat on the mercy seat which was on the top of the Ark of the Covenant (Lev. 16:14-15).  There were two sacrifices on the Day of Atonement: a bull was sacrificed for the sins of the High Priest (Lev. 16:6, 11), and two goats for the sins of the nation (Lev. 16:7-10).  The sacrifice of the goats were “to make atonement [כָּפַר kaphar] for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year” (Lev. 16:34).  One goat shed its blood on the altar, and the other was sent away into the wilderness after the High Priest had laid his hands on it and confessed over it “all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins” (Lev. 16:21).  The innocent animals died in place of those who were guilty of sin.  

Atonement means making amends, blotting out the offense, and giving satisfaction for wrong done; thus reconciling to oneself the alienated other and restoring the disrupted relationship. Scripture depicts all human beings as needing to atone for their sins but lacking all power and resources for doing so. We have offended our holy Creator, whose nature it is to hate sin (Jer. 44:4; Hab. 1:13) and to punish it (Ps. 5:4-6; Rom. 1:18; 2:5-9). No acceptance by, or fellowship with, such a God can be expected unless atonement is made, and since there is sin in even our best actions, anything we do in hopes of making amends can only increase our guilt or worsen our situation. This makes it ruinous folly to seek to establish one’s own righteousness before God (Job 15:14-16; Rom. 10:2-3); it simply cannot be done.[2]

       The animal sacrificial system under the Mosaic Law taught that God is holy, man is sinful, and that God was willing to judge an innocent creature as a substitute in place of the sinner.  The animal that shed its blood gave up its life in place of the one who had offended God, and it was only through the shed blood that atonement was made.  A life for a life.  The whole animal sacrificial system under the Mosaic Law was highly symbolic, temporary, and pointed forward to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  The Levitical priests would regularly perform their temple sacrifices on behalf of the people to God, but being a symbolic system, the animal sacrifices could never “make perfect those who draw near” to Him, for the simple reason that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:1, 4).  For nearly fourteen centuries the temple priests kept “offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb. 10:11), until finally Christ “offered one sacrifice for sins for all time” and through that one offering “perfected for all time those who are sanctified” by it (Heb. 10:12, 14).  What the Mosaic Law could never accomplish through the sacrifice of symbols, Christ did once and for all time through His substitutionary death on the cross when he died in the place of sinners. 

       Jesus’ death on the cross was a satisfactory sacrifice to God which completely paid the price for our sin.  We owed a debt to God that we could never pay, and Jesus paid that debt in full when He died on the cross and bore the punishment that rightfully belonged to us.  In Romans 3:25 Paul used the Greek word ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion)—translated propitiation—to show that Jesus’ shed blood completely satisfied God’s righteous demands toward our sin, with the result that there is nothing more for the sinner to pay to God.  Jesus paid our sin-debt in full.  There’s nothing for us to pay.  The Apostle John tells us “He Himself is the propitiation [ἱλασμός hilasmos – the satisfactory sacrifice] for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2; cf. 4:10).  Jesus’ death on the cross forever satisfied God’s righteous demands toward the sins of everyone for all time!  God has “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14).  Regarding Christ’s death, J. Dwight Pentecost states:

You can be adjusted to God’s standard, because God made Christ to become sin for us.  The One who knew no sin, the One in whose lips had never been found guile, took upon Himself our sin in order that He might bear our sins to the cross and offer Himself as an acceptable substitute to God for us—on our behalf, in our place.  And when Jesus Christ identified Himself with sinners and went to the cross on their behalf and in their place, He was making possible the doctrine of reconciliation.  He was making it possible for God to conform the world to Himself, to adjust the world to His standard so that sinners in the world might find salvation because “Jesus paid it all.”  You can be adjusted to God, to God’s standard, through Christ, by His death, by His cross, by His blood, and by His identification with sinners.[3]

       Atonement for sins is the basis for reconciliation, because God has judged our sins in the Person of Christ who died on the cross in our place.  The death of Christ has forever satisfied God’s righteous demands for our sin and it is on this basis that He can accept sinners before His throne of grace.  The blood of Christ is the only coin in the heavenly realm that God accepts as payment for our sin-debt, and Christ paid our sin debt in full!  That’s good news! 

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:18-19)

       Because Jesus’ death satisfies God’s righteousness demands for sin, the sinner can approach God who welcomes him in love.  God has cleared the way for sinners to come to Him for a new relationship, and this is based completely on the substitutionary work of Christ.  God has done everything to reconcile us to Himself.  The sin debt that we owed to God has been paid in full by the blood of Christ. 

This article in an excerpt from my book: The Cross of Christ: Sufficient to Save

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

[1] Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers 1979), 497.

[2] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1995), 138.

[3] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things Which Become Sound Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mi., Kregel Publications, 1965), 89.