Jesus Acts like a Priest
If the Gospels made only passing comments to Jesus’s priesthood in their opening chapters, we may not have confidence that Jesus is a priest in the Gospels. Yet, when we look at these four books, we see Jesus doing what priests do throughout. He teaches the law, purifies the unclean, cleanses the temple, forgives sins, and prays for his disciples. His actions also include the sacrifice he offers to God. For now, we will see how these five activities form a priestly composite of Christ in the Gospels.
1. Jesus’s teaching points to his priesthood.
For instance, Jesus’s gospel of the kingdom is a message with a priestly center. Instead of bringing a message of political change, Jesus pronounces forgiveness of sins (Matt. 9:2; cf. Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10; etc.). Likewise, his ministry of teaching (Matt. 4:23–25; 9:35) reflects what priests did (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 17:9–11; 33:10; Mal. 2:6–7). Levitical priests separated the clean from the unclean; so too Jesus’s teaching separates those purified by faith from those defiled by unbelief (Matt. 15).1 As Nicholas Perrin puts it, “The making of ritual pronouncements of clean and unclean, holy and profane, was fundamentally . . . a priestly activity.”2 In fact, we will even see this taking place on the cross, as Jesus hangs between two thieves—one who believes, one who does not.
Getting into specifics, Jesus begins with eight beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3–10). These words of blessing recall the type of priestly benediction Aaron would give to Israel (see Num. 6:24–26). More precisely, the first four beatitudes (Matt. 5:3–6) contain literary connections to Isaiah 61, a passage that promises a new priesthood (Isa. 61:5–6). Next, Jesus calls his disciples “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). This peculiar description harkens back to the covenant of salt made with Levi (Num. 18:19; cf. Lev. 2:13; 2 Chron. 13:5).3 And in the Lord’s Prayer, which invites Jesus’s disciples to address God as “Father,” we find the petition, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matt. 6:9, 11). Both the prayer and the provision of daily bread are suggestive of the priesthood (Lev. 24:5–9).4 All in all, when considering Jesus’s ministry of the word, we should remember the role priests played in teaching, because in Jesus’s teaching we discover that he is more than a prophet; he is also a priest.5
Luke also highlights the teaching ministry of Jesus. When Jesus returns to Galilee from his temptation in the desert, he enters the synagogue on the Sabbath and reads from Isaiah 61:1–2:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:17–19)
Jesus then offers these shocking words: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Isaiah 61 is loaded with priestly imagery. Just a few verses earlier, Isaiah spoke of the Redeemer coming to Zion to bring salvation (59:20), and this divine warrior is clad in priestly attire (59:17). Similarly, just a few verses after the text that Jesus quotes, Isaiah 61:5–6 reads,
Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God.
By stating that this passage has been fulfilled in their hearing, Jesus reveals how Isaiah’s new covenant promises are coming true. In Christ, we find a Spirit-anointed servant whose atonement for sin will produce sons and daughters that are simultaneously fellow priests. This is the vision of Isaiah, and when we read Jesus’s words and his ensuing calls for discipleship in light of Isaiah, we can see how the disciples are more than religious followers—they are a family of priests brought into the kingdom by the priestly ministry of Christ’s word.6
2. Jesus’s ministry of healing is a priestly activity.
Going beyond teaching, Matthew 8:1–4 recounts the time Jesus heals a leper. Placing this after the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew continues his focus on his priestly role.7In Leviticus 13–14, God assigned priests to render a verdict on leprosy. Now something similar occurs in Matthew 8. Instead of issuing a judgment, however, Jesus puts his hands on the leper and makes him clean. Whereas lepers would defile anyone they touched under the old covenant—including priests—here Jesus, as the harbinger of the new covenant, communicates his cleanness to this man through physical touch.
After Jesus’s heals this leper, he sends him to the priests. But why—what is the message Jesus wants this cleansed leper to bring to the priests? Namely, that a new priest is in town and he has the power to make lepers clean.8 Just as Ezekiel 44:19 promised, Jesus’s healing brings holiness.9 In this way, healing is a glimpse of the new creation and an indication that Jesus’s offer of forgiveness is accompanied by power to heal, or even raise the dead (Matt. 9:18–26).
3. Jesus is able to purify the temple.
As we saw in 1–2 Chronicles, priests sanctified the Holy Place of God. After unrighteous kings brought idols into the temple, righteous kings employed the priests to purify God’s house so that God’s people could worship again. Strikingly, Jesus does the same when he drives out the money changers in Matthew 21:12–17, only he does not outsource the purification to someone else. Rather, picking up words from Isaiah 56:7, Jesus says, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13). In his enacted parable, Jesus declares the temple unclean, even as he drives out those defiling its precincts. In this cleansing, Jesus acts like a priest purifying God’s house.
4. Jesus’s authority to forgive sin demonstrates his priesthood.
In Mark 2 Jesus forgives a paralytic, inciting the scribes to ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7). Proving his authority to forgive sin, Jesus replies, “‘That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home’” (vv. 10–11). Clearly, this passage identifies the divinity of Christ. God alone can forgive sins, and his pronouncement of forgiveness vividly affirms this truth.
In Christ, we find a Spirit-anointed servant whose atonement for sin will produce sons and daughters that are simultaneously fellow priests.
At the same time, Jesus’s pronouncement of forgiveness is also priestly. In Israel, God pronounced forgiveness through the priests (cf. Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10; etc.).8 And here Jesus is shown to possess an authority superseding the priests—he is able to forgive and heal. While the Levitical priests granted forgiveness, they could not grant life. According to Leviticus 21:14–24, priests could only exclude the crippled; they could not bring them into God’s holy spaces. Yet Jesus enables the forgiven man to rise, pick up his bed, go to his house, and then reenter covenant life in Israel. Importantly, this episode demonstrates how Christ’s authority to forgive is a shared property of his two natures—as God the Son, Jesus has authority to grant forgiveness by nature of his divinity and by nature of his priestly vocation.
5. Jesus prays for his people.
Though prayer alone does not make Jesus a priest, it is one of the aspects of his priesthood. Throughout his life Jesus is observed praying.9 When he selects his twelve disciples, he prays (Luke 6:12–16); when he reveals his identity to Peter and the disciples, he prays (Luke 9:18–20); when he reveals the glory of his kingdom, it is in the context of prayer (Luke 9:28–36); and in the hours leading up to his arrest, he prays fervently in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36–46).
In particular, we find Jesus praying for his people according to their needs. For instance, he prays for Peter, to protect him from Satan when the evil one seeks to sift Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31–32). Like wise, Jesus intercedes for those who put him to death (Luke 23:34).10 And most marvelously, we find Jesus’s “high priestly prayer” in John 17. In this elongated prayer, Jesus prays for his disciples and for those who will believe their message (v. 20). Like the priests of Israel, who brought the names of the people into the Holy Place by means of their priestly attire (Ex. 28:29), so Jesus prays for his own—those whom the Father has given him from out of the world (John 17:6).11 And he prays for their endurance and sanctification (vv. 15, 17).
Finally, Jesus’s priestly ministry of prayer is seen when he raises his hands like the high priest of old to bless his people in Luke 24:50. Granted, this prayer occurs after his death and resurrection, but the point remains—Jesus blesses his people like a priest.
In sum, these five actions—(1) teaching the law, (2) purifying the unclean, (3) cleansing the temple, (4) forgiving sins, and (5) praying for his own—demonstrate Jesus’s priestly vocation. Again, in these actions Jesus is not called a priest, nor does he assign himself that title. Yet, for those who know what priests do, his actions are unmistakable. In his earthly life, Jesus acts like a priest, and now as we turn to his cross, we will see Jesus in his most priestly action yet—the offering of himself as a sacrifice for sin.
- Matthew 15 contains a debate with the Pharisees and the scribes about what makes someone clean. Jesus shows how priestly traditions have polluted the law (vv. 1–9) and how faith purifies the heart (vv. 10–28).
- Perrin, Jesus the Priest, 111 (emphasis his).
- Perrin, Jesus the Priest, 112–28.
- These observations only scratch the surface of all the priestly elements of the Lord’s Prayer. Perrin, Jesus the Priest, 17–53.
- It may help to know that when Jesus is presented as a prophet, he is a prophet like Moses, who was both a prophet and a priest.
- John 6:45 is another place where Jesus’s ministry of teaching surfaces. Citing Isa. 54:13, it reads, “And they will all be taught by God.” This promise highlights the greater efficacy of the new covenant that Jesus will bring (cf. Jer. 31:31–34)—a new covenant inaugurated by his priestly sacrifice and his priestly ministry of teaching.
- As Matt. 4:23–25 and 9:35 bookend Matt. 5–9 with summaries of Christ’s teaching and healing, these intermediate chapters illustrate how his teaching and healing stand together.
- Nicholas G. Piotrowski and David S. Schrock, “‘You Can Make Me Clean’: The Matthean Jesus as Priest and the Biblical-Theological Results,” Criswell Theological Review 14, no. 1 (2016): 3–14.
- Observe the way Matt. 9:20–22 shines a light on Christ’s (priestly?) garment when the bleeding woman touches the fringe of his robe (cf. Num. 15:37–38). Leviticus 15:19 declares a bleeding woman unclean, but by her contact with Christ’s clothing she is healed. In contrast to the priests’ fringes, made long to make others think highly of them (Matt. 23:5), Jesus’s fringes bring healing to bless others (Matt. 14:35), just as Ezekiel promised (42:14; 44:19)
- In Israel, God grants forgiveness through the cultic system of worship. Forgiveness is procured by a sacrifice for sin, it is granted at the temple, and it is pronounced by a priest. In this instance, Jesus’s pronouncement of forgiveness outside the temple violates the strictures of the law and invites the anger of the scribes. This reading of Mark 2 doesn’t deny Jesus’s deity; it explains how the God-man grants forgiveness.
- Examples of Jesus praying can be found in Matt. 14:23; 19:13; 26:36–46; Mark 1:35.
This article is adapted from The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God by David S. Schrock.
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