Did Christ Institute A Ministerial Priesthood?

The underlying question for many Evangelical’s is: did Christ institute a ministerial priesthood for His church?

Many object, and in aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, did reject the idea of an ecclesial order of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, citing 1 Peter 2:5 as justification for jettisoning the three-fold office saying “we are all priests.” While Anglicans and other catholic churches certainly affirm a common, universal priesthood of every believer, this doesn’t exclude Christ having instituted a ministerial priesthood, or new covenant priesthood.

THE PRIESTHOOD OF THE BELIEVER

First, the new testament ministerial priesthood finds its origins or pattern in the Old Testament priesthood instituted by God, who set apart the sons of Aaron and the Levites to specifically perform cultic or priestly functions on behalf of Israel. In fact, we see continuity in St. Peter calling the Christian faithful “a royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2.9) which echoes Exodus 19:6 where the Lord calls his chosen people, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Peter sees continuity between the Israel of God and the Christian church. St. Paul himself identifies Christians as “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16), not that God has abandoned physical Israel, but that covenantal relationship with the Father is now determined by union with Christ and no longer by ethnic relationship with Abraham: Jesus is the inaugurator a better covenant: “but now hath he [Jesus] hath ordained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which is established upon better promises (Heb 8:6). The comparison between the Israel of God in the Old Covenant and the Israel of God in the New is important 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. Continuity of the Testaments would argue for two priesthoods in the New Testament church as well: a general priestly designation upon all faithful Christians and those men called out to perform the priestly cultic functions in the church.

THREE-FOLD OFFICE OF MINISTERS

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 31:30—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.” Peter, an apostle, understands Jesus to be the Bishop, the high priest of the New Testament church, "For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (1 Pt 2:5). We see Jesus institute twelve apostles (each representing a tribe of Israel) as priests, giving to them the authority to bind and release sins on earth, "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Mt 19:18-19)” Hereby giving to men the priestly authority to forgive sins on behalf of Christ in his absence. Not that they had an innate power but were entrusted with Divine authority as ambassadors of Christ on earth. To the Apostles he gave the words of institution, how they as priests would observe and continue the weekly offering of Holy Communion, which is the central act of worship Christ instituted in his church. St. Paul received from the Lord the very words (rite) by which his church was to worship and offer its sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord,

"For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 For 2:27-29).

To the apostles Christ gave these ordinances that they might maintain and perform on behalf of the church that worship Christ instituted in the New Covenant. Note that weekly holy communion isn't a 're-sacrificing' of Christ, but a commemoration, a remembering, a celebrating of Christ's once for all, sufficient sacrifice which the church re-enacts in praise and thanksgiving for the completed work of Christ.

Next we see in Acts, the Apostles ordaining deacons which assisted the Apostles in the ministry and worship of the New Testament church. So we see Christ as the Bishop, the Apostles ordained by Christ into priestly service, and Deacons ordained by the Apostles (who functioned as priests but also served as Bishops as they ordained men like Timothy, Titus, Clement, etc). The three-fold office of bishop, priest, and deacons in the new testament are the reality to which the High priests, priests, and levites pointed towards (a better priesthood of a better covenant).

I would add that one must see continuity from the OT to the New in Holy Communion being the central act of worship at an altar (which would infer a priest or presbyter), which is why the historic churches and Reformation churches (Anglican, Lutheran, etc) have altars in their sanctuaries. The Apostle Paul (or whomever wrote Hebrews) says of Christians, "We have an altar, whereof they [the Jews] have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle" (Heb 13:10). And lest we desire to overly spiritualize the centrality of Holy Communion as the act of Christian worship, remember that the same apostle spoke of the priestly act of blessing the cup and bread in worship, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 For 10:16). Surely the Apostle has in mind an actual cup and actual bread (note that he understands these to be the body and blood of Christ).

So from the New Testament we see Christ institute (continue the pattern of God's people of the first covenant) earthly ministerial offices which the Apostles and the earliest churches continue right to this day. One must see continuity in the covenant worship and structures which God has ordained. One must also see that Christ himself gave ministerial authority and the way in which Bishops, Priests, and Deacons are to perform these duties: again, to his disciples he gave the order and words for holy baptism and holy communion, the two ordinances given by Christ for salvation and participation in the new covenant.

Finally, is this the only way in which churches should order its ministers? Obviously not as we see so many variations in the different branches of Christ church. However, it would be difficult to argue for why churches would choose to order its ministers differently. The three-fold office of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons is not the only way, but certainly has the weight of scripture, tradition, and history. God sets men apart as shepherds, bishops, priests, deacons, to steward His people as the cultic leaders of the Christian church which is a '"royal priesthood a holy nation."