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When Apostles Became Priests

Some say Jesus did not institute new priests, or that there's only a "priesthood of all believers"—but an in-depth look at the Last Supper shows otherwise.

Rod Bennett

In the Upper Room, on the night Jesus was betrayed, the twelve apostles learned that Christ’s kingdom was to have its own set form of worship: its own liturgical rituals, its own sacrifice, its own priesthood, just as God had formerly given to the Temple—new in one sense, but also ancient. We have seen how Jesus defended the actions of his apostles in the matter of the grain gathered and eaten on the Sabbath by showing David and his men acting as priests—though not, clearly, of the Levitical variety. Yet the Levites were the one and only set of priests sanctioned by Moses’ law. To find any other priesthood in the pages of the Old Testament, we must go back to the time prior to Moses’ law, to the age of the patriarchs—and look, if possible, to find priests before the priests. And if we do this, we come to Genesis 14, where the mysterious notices of Melchizedek first appear.

In that chapter, Abraham rescues his nephew Lot from captivity to the five kings who had defeated his people at the Valley of Siddim. Upon his return, the patriarch receives a blessing from a figure about whom almost nothing else is known for certain outside verse 18: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.” Here is a priest, offering the same sacrificial elements we see Christ himself offering at the Last Supper, long before the Levitical priesthood was ever minted. Then, many centuries later, we find David composing a psalm that Christ himself will later identify as a prophecy of the Messiah (Luke 20:41-44): “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.’ . . . The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’” (Psalm 110:1,4). Jesus is a priest, then, distinct from the kind established by Moses and Aaron.

Did Melchizedek’s order pass away when the covenant made at Sinai went into effect? Apparently not, since the man Jesus can take up its rites and privileges again. “Genesis implies,” according to commentators Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, “that the order of Melchizedek is the patriarchal order of priesthood that functioned for many centuries before the ordination of Aaron and his sons took place at Mt. Sinai [Lev 8:1-36].” Extrabiblical Jewish sources (such as the Talmud and Targums) sometimes linked Melchizedek to the patriarchs directly; several of them identify Melchizedek with Noah’s righteous son Shem, ascribing to him a Methuselah-like longevity that allowed him to live long enough to bless Abraham in his day!

Throughout the book of Genesis, we certainly see the patriarchs performing all the characteristic functions of a priest: building altars, consecrating shrines, pouring out thanks offerings, and offering sacrifice on behalf of God’s family. This was the original, pre-Levitical form of priesthood that existed before Moses’ law. The priesthood Jesus takes up, then, isn’t so much a new one as the re-emergence of a priesthood temporarily suspended. As the author of the book of Hebrews writes: “Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him . . . ‘You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek’” (Heb. 5:5-6).

“Insofar as Psalm 110:4 envisions a change from the Levitical priesthood of Aaron to the Melchizedekian priesthood of Christ,” according to Hahn and Mitch, “it follows that Mosaic laws of worship must also give way to the messianic laws of worship.”

Practically all Christians accept the Melchizedek priesthood. Some movements, however, have marshaled arguments against the tradition that Jesus ordained any additional priests to minister in the Church during his absence. They often cite 1 Peter 2:9, in which the fisherman addresses the faithful as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” This verse is held to illustrate the existence of a priesthood of all believers that has superseded and obviated the need for any sort of ministerial priesthood such as the Jews possessed. This, though, is surely the argument that proves too much, since Peter is echoing the words of Exodus 19:6!

The apostles didn’t so much replace the Levitical priests as step back in, thank them for their service, and then allow them to enjoy a long-deserved Sabbath rest. Gathered together in the Cenacle, they watched as Jesus began to perform a series of acts in front of them that were both strange . . . and strangely familiar.

The Passover had been the sacred meal of the Hebrews, commemorating the night when a mark of blood made on the doorposts of the faithful (a mark, according to tradition, inscribed in the form of an X-shaped cross) caused the death angel to pass them over during the final plague before the Exodus. Here, Jesus is telling his men that this will be the last of the old Passovers—the last anticipatory Passover, that is. What did Jesus mean when he said, “I shall not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (a saying that echoes his previous word in Matthew 5:18 that the whole Law of Moses would pass away once it had been “fulfilled”)?

Medieval exegete Robert Grossteste explains this language:

To fulfill . . . and not destroy a thing whose existence is transient is to lead it through its natural progression continually unto its end. . . . He who hides a seed in a storeroom and keeps it for many years and does not allow it to germinate by dying . . . truly destroys the seed and ruins it.

This is a sense in which the old Passover—which Moses commanded to be done—passed away but was not destroyed. It was transformed instead . . . and the apostles gradually became aware that they were watching it happen before their eyes.

John’s Gospel includes the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples just before this supper. Priests of the Old Covenant had to wash their feet before coming into the Temple to offer the sacrifice of a lamb—something Nathanael, at least (the canon lawyer), would have been aware of. Now, the apostles hear Jesus “giving thanks” for the bread and the wine. The original Greek word in these verses is eucharisteo—an offering of thanks, a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15). They hear him speak about giving his body, as the sacrificial lamb had given its body under the Old Covenant as an atonement for sins—a powerful reminder, to former disciples of the Baptizer, that Jesus himself had previously been identified to them as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

The apostles also hear that Jesus’ blood is to be “poured out”—a coined phrase used by the Old Testament priests for their own (insufficient) act of atonement in emptying the blood of animal sacrifices at the base of the Temple altar. Most significantly, they hear that Melchizidek’s old elements of bread and wine are now, in some sense, becoming Christ’s body and his blood: “This is my body . . . this cup is the new covenant.” An act is being performed: an act of sacrifice, though the apostles may not yet have understood whence these rites (taking place prior to Jesus’ death on the cross) were to gain their power. And that act is being demonstrated in front of them so that they will remember.

Finally, Jesus—speaking in private to the apostles—issues a commandment: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:9). The Greek verb (poieo) translated here as “do” is the same word the Greek Old Testament uses for the offering Moses made while ordaining Aaron and his sons to the Levitical priesthood (Exod. 29:36-41). The apostles knew the Greek Bible very well—and thus Luke and the other evangelists surely did not employ poieo here for nothing.

Likewise, the Greek term for “a remembrance” is anamnesis—not just a memorial, but a ritual act perpetuating a memory. Anamnesis is used in the Septuagint (Lev. 24:7) for the offering of frankincense that accompanied the bread sacrificed by fire. Thus, “do this in remembrance” has been understood through the ages as Jesus ordaining the apostles to a similar, but purified, priestly service, directing them to continue making this same offering of thanksgiving—of bread and wine—after he is gone.

“You are those who have continued with me in my trials,” Jesus continued. “As my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28-30). David was a king, yes, with a throne . . . just as Melchizedek had been king of Salem (the ancient village that had become Jeru-Salem by David’s time). But God, as we have seen, declared David a priest, too, “after the order of Melchizedek.” Theologian John Bergsma explains that “‘eating and drinking at the king’s table’ was a privilege reserved for the king’s sons . . . [So] Jesus’ words about the apostles sitting on thrones judging the tribes clearly allude to Psalm 122:3-5, which speaks of the thrones where the Davidic princes sat to judge cases.” David’s sons, who were heirs like their father to Melchizedek’s Jerusalem kingship, were heirs to his priesthood as well: “David’s sons were priests” (2 Sam. 8:18).

This is how the apostles, too, were able to become Melchizedek priests—by virtue of their role as the twelve “princes” of Christ’s New Covenant.

If you liked this article, you can find more in Rod Bennett’s exhilarating new book These Twelve, now available for sale in the Catholic Answers shop.


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