World history provides plenty of evidence regarding the office of priesthood. We know that some ancient religions had or still have a concept of priesthood. In Ghana, for example, where I come from, traditional African religions have been known to exercise a form of priesthood for several centuries. In the Bible, we know also of Aaron’s priesthood which characterized the Old Covenant. From the tribe of Levi, God selected Aaron and his sons to serve as priests: “But only you and your sons may serve as priests in connection with everything at the altar and inside the curtain. I am giving you the service of the priesthood as a gift. Anyone else who comes near the sanctuary is to be put to death” (Num 18:7; emphasis mine). The world has, therefore, seen many priests and priestesses. But where are these priests now, and what has happened to their priestly office?
The New Covenant, which is the bedrock of Christianity, also has a priesthood. This article will discuss three (3) biblical reasons why no one else can assume the priestly office of the New Covenant on behalf of Christians except Christ himself, and what the implications are for those who believe in Christ. (All Scripture quotations are based on the New International Version (NIV), unless otherwise indicated).
Christ was not born a priest. In fact, because he was born of the tribe of Judah, and not of Levi, Christ was automatically disqualified from the Aaronic priesthood (Heb 7:13-14). We must not also that Christ did not earn his priestly office through a theology program. Nor was he ordained a priest at the hands of human beings. Christ earned the title and office of high priest after meeting the perfect standards and prerequisites of everlasting priesthood, after a fierce confrontation with death, Satan, and sin. No other individual, man or woman, ever met the standards required to represent God’s people as an everlasting priest. Consequently, the high priestly office of Christ is an exclusive club. And there is only one member of that club: Christ Jesus.
The Bible identifies at least three (3) major reasons for the exclusive character of the priestly office of Christ. They are as follows:
- The Reality of Death
Death brings an end to a person’s priestly ministry. All priests, except Christ, have at least one thing in common: They die, and their priestly office ends with them. To perpetuate the priestly office, successors must be named. Otherwise, no one is left to maintain harmony or reconciliation between God and the people. Thus, the priesthood of Aaron had an arrangement establishing a clear line of succession because of the reality of death. Aaron was the first high priest under the Old Covenant, yet he died. His death meant the end of his priestly office. We must note that the death of a priest results in grave spiritual consequences for the people, because, as in Aaron’s case, the priest’s office consists primarily in mediating between God and the people, offering sacrifices on behalf of the people, dealing with their sin, and ensuring that the people are accepted before God. Therefore, strictly speaking, it is no exaggeration to assert that when a priest dies, the hope of the people dies. The state of a priest is a reflection on the people. As a priest is, so are his people.
Typically, a line of succession is necessary to maintain the priestly office, and as we have noted, that was the case of the Aaronic priesthood. The Bible tells us about the death of Aaron and the appointment of his successor as Israel’s high priest:
“Get Aaron and his son Eleazar and take them up Mount Hor. Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people; he will die there.” Moses did as the Lord commanded: They went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses removed Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar. And Aaron died there on top of the mountain. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, and when the whole community learned that Aaron had died, all the Israelites mourned for him thirty days” (Num 20:25-29; emphasis mine).
Eleazar, therefore, succeeded Aaron as high priest of Israel. Death ended the priestly office of Aaron, and all of Israel witnessed it. Without a successor, a big vacuum would have been left in the spiritual life of Israel. When the line of succession breaks down, the priestly office suffers a setback and the spiritual health of the people is compromised. This was a major weakness in the priesthood of the Old Covenant. To ensure a reliable priesthood, we needed a priest who would not succumb to death but will overcome it. This brings us to Christ.
In contrast to previous forms of priesthood, the priesthood of Christ eliminates the need for a line of succession, because unlike Aaron and others, Christ “has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:16; emphasis mine). Let us add also that Christ has become a priest not on the basis of completing a seminary program or Bible school, but on the basis of his victory over death. Consequently, the resurrection of Christ is the basis for the unending nature of his priesthood. In other words, Christ earned the right to represent us continually in heaven, because he has proven that he will never die. Because he will never die, his priestly office endures and cannot be transferred to, or shared with, another. He is a priest forever. Being forever alive, Christ has eliminated the need to appoint successors to his priestly office. His priestly office is unique and it continues without interruption. Christ has, therefore, surpassed the Aaronic priesthood and any other priesthood which requires successors for its viability.
Comparing the Old Covenant priests to the New Covenant priest, the Letter to the Hebrews observes, “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (7:23-25; emphasis mine). Notice the comparison between “priests” (plural) and “priest” (singular). A major difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is that, the former had many priests but the latter has just one priest. The Bible tells us the reason for the number of priests under each covenant. The Old Covenant priests were many, because death prevented them from remaining in office. One priest succeeded another to keep the priestly office alive. However, the New Covenant has just a single priest, because death does not prevent him from remaining in office.
This rules out the need to appoint priests on earth to represent us before God, because Jesus is still in office – actively acting as our priest in heaven. Christ always lives to intercede for us. He is able to save completely, thus eliminating the need for intermediaries. Compared to other priests, Christ is infinitely better. Were Christ to appoint human beings to act as our priests, it would defeat the very purpose of his priesthood, and it would send us thousands of years back to the priesthood of Aaron. It would bring back again the problem of looking for a line of succession, because whoever Christ appoints, they would eventually die and we would need replacement. No human being can hold the priestly office beyond his or her death, a defect Christ has surpassed. Because his priestly ministry is never interrupted by death, the priesthood of Christ is the only priesthood that has no line of succession. If anyone claims to be sent by God to represent us as a priest, we only need to ask him or her the question, “Will you ever die?” or “Will you ever need to be replaced?” If the answer to the question is “Yes,” then we know that their priesthood is not the priesthood of Christ.
We shall now turn our attention to the next point which establishes the exclusive nature of the priesthood of Christ.
2. The Reality of Sin and Temptation
Sin requires atonement. As already mentioned, the primary function of the Old Covenant priest was to offer sacrifices for sins, thereby obtaining reconciliation between God and his people. In view of this, Aaron and his company of priests offered daily sacrifices on behalf of the people. Additionally, God set aside a special day known as the Day of Atonement on which the high priest entered the Most Holy Place to make atonement for all of Israel. Instructions for the high priest are found in chapter 16 of Leviticus, part of which include the following:
Because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community. “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites” (16:30-34; emphasis mine).
We must note also that the instructions for the Day of Atonement required the high priest to make atonement for his own sins and those of his household (Lev 16:6). This is a significant detail, for it highlights the fact that the high priest himself was a sinner who, like everyone else, needed to be cleansed and reconciled to God. The question is: How can a sinner adequately represent other sinners and offer propitiatory sacrifices on their behalf? We know the answer: It is impossible. This exposes another major weakness in the priesthood of Aaron, and explains its inability to deal with sin definitively. No priest ever was sinless. A necessary function of the priestly office is to deal with the sins of the people. And dealing with sin involves offering sacrifices capable of making perfect atonement, resulting in perfect, everlasting reconciliation. This could not be accomplished under the Old Covenant priesthood, because the priests were themselves sinners. Sin, therefore, prevented the former priests from securing eternal reconciliation for the people they represented. The Letter to the Hebrews puts it bluntly, “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?” (7:11; emphasis mine). The implication is that perfection is possible, if we could find a perfect – sinless – priest. Perfection here means obtaining eternal reconciliation with God, thereby putting an end to the ongoing quest for reconciliation.
Through the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit testifies that there was one man who never yielded to temptation, thus obtaining a sinless record. His name is Jesus Christ. Because of this proven record, he qualified to serve on our behalf as priest. Eternal reconciliation or perfect reconciliation with God requires that the priest making the atonement be blameless. With a sinless priest representing us, we can be sure that we will stand before God forever reconciled, forever accepted; for, as our priest is, so are we. The author of Hebrews makes sure that we know of Christ’s sinless record: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (4:15; emphasis mine). The world had a sin problem, so we needed priests to deal with it on our behalf. But sadly, the priests themselves were as guilty of sin as the people. A sinner cannot adequately mediate between people and God. All priests, except Christ, have one more thing in common: They all break God’s law at some point, and are therefore, incapable of securing perfect reconciliation. Christ alone, in virtue of his sinless life, can, and has, dealt with sin. This puts Christ in an exclusive class.
Membership in the priestly office of Christ is restricted to people with a proven record of having obeyed God’s law perfectly, having conquered every temptation, and having remained sinless. No man or woman can claim to have met these criteria, leaving Christ as the only person in the New Covenant who qualifies to represent us before God as our priest. For the same reasons, Christ never appoints sinful men or women to act in his name (or in his person) as priests here on earth. If he did, it would defeat the very purpose of his priesthood, for it would send us back to the limitations of the Old Covenant priesthood. Sinful people, no matter their best intentions, cannot be relied upon to secure everlasting reconciliation. But, the Bible assures us that, “Unlike the other high priests [and any other priest, for that matter], he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb 7:27; emphasis mine). Here we have another biblical standard for holding a priestly office under the New Covenant. If anyone here on earth claims to possess or have a share in the priestly office of Christ, we need only ask him or her, “Have you ever sinned or have you ever broken God’s law?” If the answer is “Yes,” (and surely it will be “yes”), then we know that their priesthood is not of Christ. Similarly, if anyone claims to have the power to offer sacrifices for our reconciliation with God, we can simply ask the person to read Hebrews 7:27, where it says that Christ has sacrificed for our sins once for all, definitively, for all eternity – implying that we are reconciled with God once for all time. The work of our reconciliation is perfectly accomplished by Christ. If we believe Hebrews 7:27, we will realize that no priest is needed here on earth to do the work which Christ has already finished. What Christ needs are ambassadors to proclaim to the world that our reconciliation with God is a finished work, not an ongoing work (Rom 5:11; 2 Cor 5:18-19).
3. The Reality of the Divine Oath
What has the divine oath got to do with the exclusiveness of the priesthood of Christ? Everything. God is faithful, and his word is as good as him. When he speaks, he does not need to prove himself. From the Old Testament to the New Testament, God makes several promises. Yet, a few times in the Bible he confirms his word with an oath. When makes an oath, God binds himself with his own word to assure us that is totally reliable. He swore, for example, to preserve David’s royal line (Ps 132:11-12). Centuries earlier, God swore by himself to Abraham shortly after Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son, Isaac. This incident is recorded in Genesis 22:15-18. Later in the New Testament, the author of Hebrews recalls this oath and connects it to the priesthood of Christ. God swore to Abraham, but the connection of this oath to Christ is significant, because Jesus, being a Jew, is a descendant of Abraham. Of all the descendants of Abraham, Christ is unique, because in him alone was to be fulfilled the salvation promises made to Abraham. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul notes, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ (3:16; emphasis mine). On this basis, Paul is quick to conclude, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29; emphasis mine).
In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author points out that God confirmed his promise with an oath, swearing by himself to Abraham, so that we – heirs of the promise – might have complete confidence in God’s promises (6:13-17). In the next verses, the Bible reveals the connection between the oath to Abraham, the sure foundation of our hope, and the everlasting priesthood of Christ: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek (6:19-20; emphasis mine). Our hope, then, is based on the unchangeable character of God’s promises confirmed with an oath made to Abraham and Abraham’s seed, Christ. Our hope of salvation enters deep into the inner heavenly sanctuary – the holy of holies – where our high priest, Christ, has entered on our behalf. This revelation is profound and powerful. We must note that the Bible does not say two or more people entered the inner sanctuary on our behalf. It says Jesus entered on our behalf. This implies that we do not need anyone else to enter on our behalf. Again, the Bible does not say Peter or Paul entered on our behalf. Nor does it say that Jesus shares his work in the inner sanctuary with another human being. Jesus alone is our forerunner who has entered the heavenly sanctuary on our behalf, because he alone can hold a priestly office under the New Covenant. No other person can enter on our behalf. But, our hope remains firm and secure, because it follows Jesus into the inner sanctuary where the question of our salvation and reconciliation is forever settled.
Also worthy of note is the fact that the above passage identifies Jesus as a high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. This is new and radical. Many priests have been previously identified in the Bible, but none of them possessed an eternal priestly office. Jesus, however, is said to be a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. We have already noted that an essential difference between the priestly office of Christ and that of other people is the fact that Jesus has overcome death. Furthermore, we have noted that God made an oath to Abraham. But the Bible speaks of another related oath. This time, God swore exclusively to Christ to assure him of an everlasting priestly office. David prophesied about this when he stated, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4; emphasis mine). The “you” in this passage is singular and exclusively applies to the Son of God, and no one else. God was addressing his Son and swearing to him alone that, unlike other priests whose ministry can be ended by death, Christ will have an everlasting priesthood which will allow him to represent the rest of us uninterruptedly. No one else received this oath; not Abraham, not Moses, not Aaron, not David, not Peter, and certainly not Paul.
If a priest can die, then he or she is not a priest forever. A person is a priest forever if his or her priestly office is never interrupted or terminated through death, sin, or any form of limitation. The priesthood of Christ has no limitation. If there is any form of interruption in a person’s priestly ministry, it is proof that the oath in Psalm 110:4 was not addressed to him or her. This point is important, because God keeps his oath. He kept his oath to his Son. And Christ became a priest forever on the basis of his bodily resurrection from the dead (Heb 7:16), which allows him to exercise his priestly ministry forever, in the order of Melchizedek. Deceived, some associate themselves with this oath and apply it to themselves, wrongly assuming that the oath extends to them. I fell into the same error and false impression until the Lord drew my attention to the truth. Convinced by the biblical evidence, I left the Catholic priesthood so that I could teach and preach Christ on the basis of biblical truth. Interestingly, I noticed that no Apostle or individual in the Bible associated himself or herself with the divine oath in Psalm 110:4. Furthermore, nowhere in the New Testament did Jesus extend the oath to anyone, thereby demonstrating the exclusive and personal character of the oath.
The Letter to the Hebrews applies the prophecy in Psalm 110:4 specifically and exclusively to Christ, the Son of God (7:28). It further stresses the significance of Christ being appointed a priest on the basis of the Father’s oath:
The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever.’ Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant (Heb 7:18-22; emphasis mine).
God set aside the Law and the priesthood of the Old Covenant, because they were powerless to save or make the worshipers perfect. In place of that, God introduced a better hope, by which we can draw near to God without the burden of sin, guilty conscience, fear, uncertainty, or condemnation. The passage above reveals yet another major weakness in the Old Covenant priesthood: It lacked the strength of a divine oath. God did not swear to Aaron that he (Aaron) would live forever. If he had done so, Aaron would never have died, but would have continued to exercise his priestly office. That is what the passage means when it says that others became priests without an oath. In contrast, God swore to Christ that he would be a priest forever. Christ did not become a priest forever on the basis of completing a theological program. Rather, he became a priest, because his Father swore to him. That divine oath is what holds the priestly ministry of Christ together and ensures that we have constant, uninterrupted representation in heaven. No other person can claim to have a priestly office based on an oath. God’s oath to Christ was personal, direct and exclusive. To arrogate to oneself this divine oath is a grave mistake and amounts to gross disregard of the word of God.
Let us address a final point from the passage in Hebrews 7:18-22. In verse 22, the Bible declares that because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant. The oath put Jesus in office as a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. But the Bible adds another important fact. The divine oath in Psalm 110:4 made Jesus the surety or guarantor of the New Covenant. This secures the New Covenant once and for all, and provides the basis for our confidence that our salvation is eternally secure. We must note also that the oath that appointed Christ as a priest forever is the same oath which established him as the surety or sponsor of the New Covenant. Jesus does not share sponsorship of the New Covenant with another human being, because the divine oath was addressed to him alone. If we associated other persons with the divine oath, we would, in effect, be saying that these other persons are co-guarantors or co-sponsors of the New Covenant. That would amount to blasphemy. But the Bible’s teaching on this matter is unambiguous. From the Old Testament to the New Testament, the Scriptures emphasize the exclusive character of Christ’s priestly office. Apart from Christ, no other person can lay claim to the prophecy of Psalm 110:4. If anyone claims the oath in Psalm 110:4, the person must necessarily claim the attribute in Hebrews 7:22, because the oath in Psalm 110:4 and the conclusion in Hebrew 7:22 are inseparable.
To sum up, Christ alone is a priest forever. He is a priest forever, because neither sin nor death can terminate his priestly office. Additionally, God swore to make Christ a priest forever, and because of this oath, he is the sole mediator and surety of the New Covenant. As the author of Hebrews puts it, “Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (7:26; emphasis mine). If Christ is a priest forever, then he does not take vacations. If Christ is a priest forever, then he does not retire. If he is a priest forever, then Christ does not require successors. If Christ is a priest forever, then our salvation is forever secure. If Christ is a priest forever, then his priestly ministry is not limited by space and time. And if he is a priest forever, then Christ is always representing us. The priesthood of Christ suffices to meet all our spiritual needs, for all eternity. Consequently, we can be sure that our faith in him is not in vain.