“Did Jesus establish a ministerial priesthood for the New Testament Church?”
A Catholic’s response to such a question may be one of bewilderment, since the ministerial priesthood is a part of his everyday life. One may think, “Of course Jesus established a priesthood, because I talk to Fr. Joe every day.” But when asked by Protestants to give a biblical account for the divine constitution of the priesthood, many Catholics would be hard pressed to give an answer.
Protestants object to the Catholic doctrine of the ministerial priesthood by saying, “We are all priests.” They cite 1 Peter 2:5 as their supporting text, in which Peter calls the Christians “a holy priesthood.” As Catholics, we should respond with an “Amen!” The Catholic Church affirms the existence of a common or universal priesthood (see CCC 1141, 1268). But this does not exclude the existence of a ministerial priesthood. Within the pages of the Bible we can discover a blueprint that reveals God’s plan for constructing his New Covenant priesthood.
The reasonableness of priesthood
In light of the interpretive principle of content and unity of Scripture, one can see that it is biblically reasonable and fitting in the Father’s plan of salvation for the New Covenant to have a ministerial priesthood.
Note first the parallel between the Israel of God in the Old Covenant and the Christian Church. St. Peter’s calling the Christian faithful a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) echoes Exodus 19:6, where the Lord calls his chosen people, Israel, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Peter is alluding to the continuity between the Israel of God and the Christian Church.
St. Paul identifies Christians as “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16. This is not to say that God has abandoned physical Israel (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 674) but that covenantal relationship with the Father is determined by union with Christ and no longer merely by ethnic relationship with Abraham. This comparison between the Israel of God in the Old Covenant and the Israel of God in the New is the key for showing the reasonableness of the existence of a ministerial priesthood within the New Testament Church.
Even though in the Old Testament all the Israelites were considered priests, there existed a specific ministerial priesthood. For example, just a few verses after the Israelites are called a “kingdom of priests,” one discovers a distinct order of men who are considered priests apart from the people: “And also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out upon them” (Ex. 19:22).
In verse 24 we find the following: “And the Lord said to him: go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord.” What priesthood might this be? It is the firstborn priesthood whose priestly office would be given over to the Levites in Exodus 32 after the golden calf incident. The Lord says to Moses, “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn that opens the womb among the people of Israel” (Num. 3:12).
Clearly, the Israel of God in the Old Covenant had two priesthoods: the universal and the ministerial.
Three levels of priesthood
Another way of seeing the reasonableness of a ministerial priesthood is by looking at the New Testament against the backdrop of the threefold structure of the priesthood after Israel becomes a nation under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Aaron is constituted as the single high priest according to Exodus 30:30—the top level. His sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar minister with him as priests according to Exodus 28:21—the middle level. Finally, as mentioned before, all the Israelites were universal priests according to Exodus 19:6—the bottom level.
When we compare this structure to the New Testament, we can see clearly the top level, which is occupied by a single high priest, Jesus. Hebrews 3:1 reads, “Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” (It is important to note that the Church recognizes bishops as “high priests” in the New Testament [cf. CCC 1586]. I emphasize Jesus here for the top level in the parallel because it is a point that our Protestant audience will agree with.)
Along with the top level, the bottom level is also explicitly revealed in 1 Peter 2:5, 9: “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood. . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”
When one puts these levels of priesthood in the New Covenant alongside the three levels in the Old, the only level missing is the middle—namely, those priests who minister with the high priest, Jesus. Does this mean that the New Covenant doesn’t have this level of the ministerial priesthood? Such an assertion would not make biblical sense.
If the top level corresponds to Jesus and the lower level corresponds to the universal priesthood of baptized Christians, it’s reasonable to conclude that the middle level of priest ministering with the high priest in the Old Testament would have a corresponding middle level of priests who minister with Jesus in the New. The Catholic Church identifies this level as the hierarchical priesthood, which consists of both the episcopate and the presbyterate.
But now the question is: Is there any biblical evidence that suggests Jesus established a ministerial or hierarchical priesthood distinct from the common priesthood of the baptized? We as Catholics can answer with a confident and firm “Amen.”
The first way in which we can demonstrate that Jesus established a ministerial priesthood is by showing how Christ gives the apostles priestly duties. In the biblical tradition there are certain actions that are constituted specifically as priestly actions. We know a priest by what a priest does. We find Jesus conferring priestly duties on the apostles, and we conclude that he is constituting them as priests. I will limit the present article to two duties: the forgiveness of sins and the offering of sacrifice.
The forgiveness of sins
In John 20:20-23, Jesus transfers to the apostles his power to forgive sins:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.“
Notice that Jesus sets it up so that the forgiveness of sins is received through the ministry of the apostles. From the words of Christ it is clear that the apostle has the authority to make a judgment whether to forgive or not to forgive.
This paradigm is not foreign to the Jewish people. In the Old Testament the forgiveness of sins was associated with the intercession of the priest: “A man . . . shall confess the sin he has committed, and he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord for the sin which he has committed . . . and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin” (Lev. 5:5-6). Numbers 15:27-28 serves as another example: “If one person sins unwittingly, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who commits an error, when he sins unwittingly, to make atonement for him; and he shall be forgiven.”
These passages show that God’s ordinary way of dealing with man’s sin is through God’s priests. Notice that it was not a part of God’s will for his people simply to confess their sins privately to him; their confession of sin involved the ministry of the priests. It is in light of this Old Testament context that Jesus tells his apostles to forgive sins. Jesus, as God does in the Old Testament, associates his new ordained ministers with the ministry of the forgiveness of sins. In doing so, Jesus is revealing his apostles to be priests.
It is important to make a catechetical point here. Within the Old Covenant, the priest did not have the power to absolve sins from the individual’s soul. The priests simply offered sacrifice as a visible symbol for the individual’s repentance in hope for them to receive God’s mercy. The priests in the New Covenant, according to Jesus (cf. John 20:23), have the actual power to forgive sins as they so judge.
Here Protestants usually respond, “Only God can forgive sins, not man.” No argument here. As Catholics, we are not saying that the apostles (and their successors) forgive sins by their own power. The power by which they absolve sins is the very power of Jesus Christ. The priests are simply the agents in persona Christi who exercise that power to which they have access because it resides in their soul by virtue of their ordination.
The offering of sacrifice
A second priestly duty that Jesus gives the apostles is to offer sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice that Jesus offered at the Last Supper. After Jesus pronounces the words of consecration over the bread, St. Luke records Jesus saying, “Do this in remembrance of me” (22:19). Knowing that sacrifice within the Old Testament is always associated with priests, if we can demonstrate that Jesus is commanding the apostles to offer sacrifice, we will be able to conclude that Jesus is establishing them as priests.
There are several clues within this Last Supper narrative that reveal such an event to be a sacrifice, thus revealing the apostles to be priests. This article will highlight only one.
The sacrificial characteristic of the Last Supper is supported by the Greek word used for the command “do.” According to the Greek text, it can be rendered literally as “offer this” in the sense of a sacrifice. The Greek word for “do” is poiein, conjugated in the text as poiete, which in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, is used in a sacrificial sense.
For example, Exodus 29:38 reads: “Now this is what you shall offer upon the altar: two lambs a year old day by day continually.” The Greek word for “offer” is also poiein, conjugated poieseis. Leviticus 9:7 and Psalm 66:15 serve as other examples where poiein is used in reference to sacrifice. Moses says to Aaron in Leviticus 9:7, “Draw near to the altar and offer [Greek, poiein] your sin offering and your burnt offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people.” Psalm 66:15 reads, “I will offer [Greek, poiein] to thee burnt offerings of fatlings.” Because poiein is used in the Last Supper narrative in reference to the duties of the apostles, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus is commanding them to offer a sacrifice, thus making them priests.
To add to the evidence, one can turn to Matthew 12:1-8, which recounts the story of the apostles picking the heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. The Pharisees object to this action of Jesus and the apostles because they view it as breaking the Sabbath rest. St. Matthew records the Pharisees’ objection in 12:2: “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”
Jesus defends his apostles by calling to mind an event that involves David and his men eating the showbread or bread of presence within the Holy Place: “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” (Matt. 12:4; cf. 1 Sam. 21).
I wish to draw your attention to the fact that eating the bread was the duty solely of the priests. What Jesus does not say here is that this duty was performed on the Sabbath. Moses commands, “Every sabbath day . . . Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the offerings by fire to the Lord, a perpetual due” (Lev. 24:8-9). Therefore, the Old Testament priests were permitted to perform the work of their ministry on the Sabbath without incurring the guilt of sin. This is the context that Jesus is calling to mind in response to the Pharisees.
Similarly, in Matthew 12:5, Jesus refers to the priestly prerogative of breaking the Sabbath by performing their work of offering sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus says, “Have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless?” This Sabbath offering that Jesus refers to is found in Numbers 28:9-10.
How does this reveal the priestly character of the apostles? Think about it this way: Why would Jesus, in defense of his apostles breaking the Sabbath rest, use two examples of the Old Testament priestly prerogative of breaking the Sabbath rest if he did not intend to reveal that his apostles are the New Testament priests? Therefore, this passage is a subtle but profound revelation of the priestly rank of the apostles.
The apostles as priests
We’ve established the reasonableness of the existence of a ministerial priesthood distinct from the common priesthood. We’ve also established the evidence that Jesus constitutes his apostles as priests by the priestly duties he gives them and by ascribing the priestly prerogative to break the Sabbath rest without incurring the guilt of sin. But the question now is, “Does this biblical blueprint reveal the apostles recognizing their priestly character and exercising a hierarchical priestly ministry in the early Church?” As we’re going to see, the answer is yes.
For example, in Acts 1 the apostles cast lots to determine who would replace Judas—that is, who would take on his apostolic duties. This practice of casting lots calls to mind the method that David used to decide who and at what time each of the descendants of Aaron would minister in the Temple of Jerusalem.
In 1 Chronicles 24:5 we read, “David organized them according to the appointed duties in their service.” Then, in verse 8, we discover that he organized them by the casting of lots: “They organized them by lot, all alike, for there were officers of the sanctuary and officers of God among both the sons of Elea’zar and the sons of Ith’amar.”
Another scriptural passage that witnesses to this priestly act is Luke 1:8-9, which records of Zechariah: “Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” Notice the connection between the casting of lots and Zechariah’s priestly duties.
It is in light of this Old Testament tradition that the apostles cast lots to determine who would succeed Judas, indicating that the apostles saw their apostolic office as the new priesthood of the New Israel of God.
Another scriptural passage that demonstrates the apostles recognizing their priestly rank is Romans 15:15-16: “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.”
Notice the language Paul uses in reference to his ministry. He calls it his “priestly service.” The Greek word that Paul uses for “priestly service” is hierourgounta, which is the verb form of the Greek word hiereus. In the Bible, hiereus is commonly used in reference to the Jewish priests of the Old Covenant. For example, Exodus 28:1, 4, and 41 speak of the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests. The word for priests in the Greek Septuagint is hiereus. Therefore, if Paul sees his apostolic work through the lens of the priestly work of the Old Testament, then he must recognize his apostolic office as a priestly office.
The second clue to draw out of this passage is the Greek word that Paul uses when he describes himself as “a minister of Christ”: leitourgos, which means “public servant” and is used in the Jewish tradition to describe the work of the priesthood.
For example, the word is used in Exodus 28:35 to speak of the ministry that Aaron performs within the sanctuary. The letter to the Hebrews uses this very Greek word to describe how Jesus “ministers” in the heavenly sanctuary: “We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven . . . a minister [Greek, leitourgos] in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord” (Heb. 8:1-2).
Paul sees Jesus as the true high priest fulfilling the priestly ministry of old. By referring to himself as leitourgos, Paul sees himself as participating in the one high priesthood of Jesus, which is the fulfillment of the priesthood of the Old Covenant. Therefore, Paul recognizes himself as a New Testament priest.
According to the biblical blueprint, we have seen a plan set down by the Divine Architect for the building of a new covenant ministerial priesthood. He establishes the Church as the New Israel paralleling the priestly ranks of old. He invests his apostles with certain duties that, when compared with the Old Testament, prove to be priestly. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he leads them to recognize and exercise their priestly prerogatives. Such prerogatives are even transferred to other men outside the college of the twelve apostles, but the evidence for such an affirmation must wait for another article.
In light of this divine plan, we can conclude that Christ willed for his Church to have a ministerial-hierarchical priesthood that is distinct from the common-universal priesthood. Therefore, when one compares Christ’s blueprint for his Church with the priestly ranks in the Catholic Church, one finds a perfect match.