This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. The Edenic origin of the priesthood.
In Eden, God created mankind in his image to reflect his glory. In this setting, God crowned man with glory and honor (Ps. 8:5), authorized him to subdue and rule (Gen. 1:28), and gave him priestly instructions for serving in his garden-temple (Gen. 2:15; cf. Num. 3:8). This is the prototype of royal priesthood from which all other priests will be molded. In other words, when the priesthood is legislated in Israel, it will pick up language and imagery from Eden. At the same time, the Law of Moses divided the royal and priestly roles originally united in Adam. Thus, only a second Adam can unite priesthood and kingdom in a manner similar to Eden.
2. The cosmic fall of the priesthood.
When Adam sinned and fell short of God’s glory (cf. Rom. 1:21–23; 3:23; 5:12, 18–19), God expelled him from God’s garden-sanctuary (see Ezek. 28:11–19), destroying any chance of Adam serving God as priest-king. In the fall, Adam’s sin made sacrifice necessary, as indicated by the events of Genesis 4. Because death was the punishment for sin, blood must be shed. To be certain, the full consequence of sin and the need for a priest would require later revelation to explain (see Leviticus), but it is worth noting the original intent and downfall of the priesthood. For the rest of the Bible, we find a search for someone who could stand before God and serve as a mediator (cf. Job 9:33–35).
3. The fraternal development of the priesthood.
From Eden to Sinai, priestly ministration continued, but in a very ‘itinerant’ fashion. In the days of the Patriarchs, firstborn sons grew up to be mediators for their families. Job is a good example of this (Job 1:5), as is Abraham. In the Abraham narrative (Gen. 11:27–25:18), we find Abraham building altars (Gen. 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18), interceding for others (Gen. 18:22–33), and obeying God by offering a sacrifice (Gen. 22:1–18). While Abraham and his sons lacked the title of priest, these “priests” play an important role in understanding the earthly “priesthood” of Jesus—a priest in function, but without legal title. At the same time, the priestly service of firstborn sons helps explain Israel’s role as a royal priesthood (Ex. 19:6).
4. The legislated formation of priesthood.
The return of priestly glory begins at Sinai, when God chose the sons of Aaron to stand before him and serve at his altar. As Exodus 28 describes, these priests were clothed in beautiful apparel that matched the glory of the tabernacle. Stationed in between God and man, the sons of Aaron received the privileged position to draw near to God. Throughout the Old Testament, drawing near to God has priestly connotations. And in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, we learn how the priesthood of Israel is formed.
First, God installed the sons of Aaron, and then after the Golden Calf, God gave the Levites to Aaron’s sons to assist them in guarding God’s house and serving God’s people (see Num. 3:40–51). Often, we conflate priests and Levites today, assuming that all Levites are priests, but actually, the Levites assisted their brothers the priests, but they never could draw near to God’s altar—not without severe consequences. In fact, any time a priest (Lev. 10), Levite (Num. 16), or king (Uzzah in 2 Chronicles 25) drew near to God without authorization, wrath resulted. Accordingly, Jesus’s high priesthood awaited his ascension, when God invited him to sit at the right hand of the Father (see Heb. 5:1–10).
5. The mediating role of the priesthood.
In Deuteronomy 33:8–11, Moses outlines the service of the priests and the Levites, focusing on the priests, their access to the altar, service in the tabernacle, and mediation for the people enabled God to dwell with Israel and Israel with God. In particular, Leviticus stresses the role that priests played to apply the blood of the sacrifice to the altar (Lev. 1–7), to teach the covenant people (Lev. 10:10–11), to purify the house of God (Lev. 16:1–34), and to communicate the blessings of God (Lev. 26:1–46; cf. Num. 6:22–26).
In sum, the priests played the significant role of standing guard in God’s house, making sacrifices for God’s people, and instructing the people so that they could enjoy God’s blessings. When priests did their job, God blessed his people, but when they failed, God’s curses fell on the people. Throughout Israel’s history, this pattern repeated, showing the role that priests played and why a new and better priest(hood) was ultimately needed.
6. The sinful deformation of the priesthood.
Beginning in the days of the Judges, and even before Judges in places like Exodus 32 (Aaron) and Numbers 16 (the Levites), the priests showed themselves unfaithful. Most completely, however, the fall of Levi’s house is seen in the early days of Israel’s monarchy, when Eli’s sons invite the judgment of God, and a prophet predicts their demise (1 Sam. 2:31–35). Thereafter, the fate of Israel is tied to the vacillating efficacy of the priesthood.
Because death was the punishment for sin, blood must be shed.
In the context of this undulating decline, the priesthood received specific blame when Hosea condemned Israel of sinning like Adam (Hos. 6:7–9). Similarly, when the priests failed to teach the people, they wickedly exposed them to impurity, sin, and death (Hos. 4:6). Then, in the climax of God’s anger with the house of Levi, Malachi 2:3 tells how Yahweh would defile them by smearing their faces with dung (cf. Nah. 3:5–6). In general, the story of Israel’s priesthood is a sad tale of dishonor, which ultimately led to the departure of God’s glory from the temple (see Ezek. 8–10).
7. The promised reformation of the priesthood.
In response to wicked priests (Hophni and Phineas), God promised to raise up a new priesthood. The first promise of a new priesthood is found in 1 Samuel 2:35. And the rest of the Old Testament increases with expectation for a priest to atone for the sins of Israel and bring God’s people into his glorious presence. Thus, as the glory of the priesthood falls (with occasional revivals) during Israel’s history, the promise of a greater priest rises.
Zechariah 3:1–10 is the most dramatic presentation of this promise. In this post-exilic prophet, we find Joshua the high priest unclean and accused by Satan. Yet, instead of destroying him as he could have (cf. Lev. 10:1–10), God mercifully purifies him and reappoints him to service. In this passage and Zechariah 6:9–15, the future expectation of a priest-king is confirmed. Thus, the Old Testament finishes with a glorious expectation of a king who will serve as a priest (Ps. 110) and a high priest on the throne (Zech. 3:5; Zech. 6:13). To be sure, this combination of priest and king was not allowed under the Law of Moses, but that’s the point. God was going to bring a new covenant, by means of a new royal priest (see Jer. 30:21).
8. The personal climax of the priesthood.
The fulfillment of all these promises comes into focus in the life, death, and exaltation of Jesus Christ. As Jesus enters the world in humiliation and obscurity, his priestly glory is veiled. Moreover, as a law-keeping son of Judah, he cannot be the high priest under the old covenant. But as the New Testament unfolds, his priesthood reflects his perfect sonship and his perfect sonship proves the superiority of his priesthood.
In fact, as Hebrews 5 recounts, Jesus' high priesthood is established by his sonship. And as Hebrews 7 explains, Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek who is given the right to sit at God’s right hand because of his perfect life. In short, Jesus’s greater priesthood ratifies a new and better covenant (Heb. 7:12), a covenant sealed by his blood and the final atonement for sin (Heb. 8:1–10:25). This is what the whole Bible anticipated.
9. The Spirit-empowered continuation of the priesthood.
The glory lost in Eden by Adam’s failure to be a faithful priest-king is recovered through the royal priesthood of Christ. Yet, recovery is not the end, reproduction is. And when Christ ascends on high as a royal priest in heaven, he sends forth his Spirit to anoint a people for priestly service. That is to say, just as the Spirit anointed Jesus for his priestly ministry when he was baptized in the Jordan, so now, after Pentecost, Jesus baptizes his disciples with the Spirit, sealing them in their salvation and empowering them for a priestly service of evangelism and discipleship (see Rom. 15:16). The Holy Spirit, therefore, is the one who makes the church a holy nation and royal priesthood sent out to proclaim the mercies of God (see 1 Pet. 2:1–12). In this way, the priesthood of Christ produces a family of royal priests, purified by his blood and qualified for service by his Spirit.
10. The most important book on the priesthood.
While priesthood is a theme that runs through the Bible, the most important book for understanding the priesthood is Hebrews. Pulling all the threads of the priesthood together, Hebrews weaves a tapestry that shows why a priest is needed and how Jesus, a son from the tribe of Judah (not Levi), could be priest. As the argument of Hebrews goes, it is Jesus’ perfect sonship that qualifies him to be the everlasting high priest, the royal priest after the order of Melchizedek. And even more, as Hebrews begins by identifying Jesus as the royal and priestly son of God (Heb. 1:1–3), it finishes in the same way—showing how all those who are united to Christ by faith are made to be sons of God (Heb. 12:1–18), heirs of the kingdom (12:19–29), and priests of God who offer sacrifices of praise (Heb. 13:1–19).
Gloriously, there is a lot to unpack in Hebrews, but a proper understanding of that book will assist you to understand the rest of the Bible and what it says about the priesthood.
David S. Schrock is the author of The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God.
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