What is a Priest?

What is a Priest?

If you read through the book of Hebrews as a whole, you cannot help but notice the central place that the concept of priesthood has for the author of the book. His metaphors come strongly from the tabernacle or sanctuary service, and especially the wilderness version. Where he refers to these things he doesn’t reference the second temple or even Solomon’s temple, but the original tent. Some believe this means he wrote after the temple was destroyed, but I would suggest that there must be a greater motivation than that. The wilderness tabernacle itself was not in existence either. I would suggest that his interest in the tabernacle is because he sees this version as the pristine form, the inaugural form, if you will, and because it is the form described directly in Torah. He is working on a contrast of the person of Jesus with the whole of Torah, so he takes his illustration from the Torah as directly as possible. (We will note when we discuss his use of the Old Testament that he works from the LXX to some extent.)

The problem for modern readers is that we do not hear the same things by these words as he probably did. Terms like priest, high priest, sacrifice, pure, impure, and even worship don’t necessarily mean the same thing to us simply because we live in a vastly different cultural context. The sacrifices fit well into their cultural context and served a teaching purpose. I was energized by studying through Leviticus with Jacob Milgrom’s 3 volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series (see my review).

[For those who are working through my study guide, you might stop at this point and work with the advanced question on priests, ministers, and interccors, and fill in the chart on page 29.]

Milgrom suggests two key functions of the priest. These are not the only functions, but they are critical. First, according to Leviticus 10:10-11, the priests are to be teachers, and the key element that they teach is distinguishing sacred from common and pure from impure. (I could write an entry on that, but I will refrain for the moment. Milgrom’s key comments are on pp. 615-618 of Volume 1 of his series.) This function is restated and reemphasized in Ezekiel 44:23-28. This pair of distinctions is pervasive through the book of Leviticus, and it is made clear that the priests are to know them, to be able to render judgments about them, and to teach them.

Secondly, priests, and particularly the High Priest, were to carry and/or carry away sin. This is illustrated at Exodus 28:38, but could well be expanded from many other passages in Exodus and Leviticus, looking at how sin is handled in connection with sacrifices. (Again, Milgrom comments in his first volume, pp. 622-625.) So we have these two functions that we often do not think about in connection with priests and the tabernacle–teaching and bearing sin and impurity. (Note these two are not identical, something Christian readers often miss.)

The tabernacle, and particulary the priestly service as carried out in it, is the central metaphor of Hebrews, the means by which he conveys his message. If we don’t understand his metaphor, we’re not going to understand what it means. This is something we will work on through several posts.

Do these two key elements of the priestly function play a role in the book of Hebrews? Indeed they do.

First, the learning of distinctions:

14Solid food is for the mature, for those who through practice have exercised their understanding to distinguish good and evil. — Hebrews 5:14 (from the TFBV project).

This single reference would not be nearly as important as it is if it did not occur in a section leading up to one of the key points of the book. At the end of chapter 5 our author is explaining why he can’t go deeper into certain things: Believers need more maturity to understand. The key requirement of maturity is a well-trained discernment. Isn’t it interesting that one of the key things the priests were to teach the Israelites through the sanctuary service was precisely this? All those weird rules about which animals to eat and which not to, and what to touch and what not to were, at least in part, an exercise in learning how to make distinctions.

We are frequently hesitant to make distinctions in the church, fearing the dreaded accusation of “discrimination.” But our author here is affirming that there are right and wrong actions, and that the mature Christian has a mind trained to choose between them. We must guard against a critical spirit or nitpicking on non-essentials, but there is a place, and apparently a fairly substantial one, for making distinctions.

Second, bearing sins . . .

4 . . . it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to carry sin away. — Hebrews 10:4 (TFBV)

This is again a key problem addressed by the book of Hebrews. His answer is the once and for all sacrifice for sins by Jesus who is able to bear away the sins of many once and for all.

27And just as it is the nature of men to die one time, and after that the judgment, 28so also Christ will appear again without sin, having offered himself to bear the sins of many, to those who wait for salvation. — Hebrews 9:27-28 (TFBV).

So two key elements of the book of Hebrews are based on these two functions of the priesthood as taught in Exodus, Leviticus, and Ezekiel. In future entries, I will discuss the characteristics that our author believes make Jesus the perfect High Priest.

6 thoughts on “What is a Priest?

  1. This site is very interesting. It make bible studies more expository.

  2. I like this format also.

    You have done a good job here of lifting out the profile of the priestly office from Scripture. I’d like to add that the priest not only carries away sin, he also carries away guilt and anxiety about sin.

    My background is in cultural anthropology and I explore the primeval origins of the priesthood in 3 related essays at http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/

    You might be interested in reading those essays. Best wishes to you!

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