The Priesthood, Hebrew and Christian

From the Orthodox Study Bible (Old Testament):

OLD TESTAMENT PRIESTS

The Hebrew word for “priest” is kohen. He is the Levite who stood as intercessor for the people before God. Old Testament priests offered up gifts and sacrifices to the Lord on behalf of the people, that they might be reconciled to Him.

The Lord directed Moses to construct the tabernacle (Ex 25:1-27:21). Then He established a permanent, hereditary priesthood, beginning with Moses’ brother Aaron and continuing through Aaron’s sons (Ex 28:1). The priests were sanctified, or consecrated, with holy oil (Ex 30:22-30). Their holy garments of finely woven and richly decorated material were for the honor and glory of God (Ex 28:2-39).

After Aaron’s death, “the Lord separated the tribe of Levi [Aaron’s tribe] to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord, to minister to Him, and to bless in His name” (Dt 10:8). Besides the various sacrifices, the priests blessed the people (Nm 6:23-25), maintained the tabernacle (later, the temple) and its grounds (Nm 18:1-7), received tithes and offerings (Nm 18:8-32), supervised purification procedures (Lv 13:1-14:57), acted as judges (Dt 17:8-13) and taught the Law (Dt 33:8-11). Only male Levites administered the liturgical rites.

NEW TESTAMENT PRIESTS

From the Christian perspective, the authority of the levitical priesthood ended when Christ willingly offered Himself up to the Father as a perfect sacrifice on the cross, typified by the curtain being torn asunder in the temple (Mt 27:51).

Orthodox Christians believe the priesthood of the Church is Christ’s priesthood, with the Eucharist as the first-fruit offering. Concerning the Eucharist, St. John Chrysostom notes, “It is not men who sanctify this offering. It is the Same One who sanctified the first one [the Last Supper] who also sanctifies this one . . . Christ even now is present, and even now acts.” In the Divine Liturgy, the celebrant prays, “Thou Thyself art the One who offers and is offered, who accepts and is distributed.” The Church retains the male priesthood because the Man Christ Jesus, the Son of God, officiates at every Eucharistic service in and through His bishops, priests and deacons. The clergy do not serve in the place of Christ; rather, Christ Himself serves in them.

St. John Chrysostom marvels at how the “fearful and awe-inspiring symbols” of the levitical priesthood are now “outshone by a splendor greater still” (see 2Co 3:10), namely the new covenant priesthood. He writes:

When you see the Lord sacrificed and lying before you, and the priest standing over the sacrifice and praying, and all who partake being instilled with that precious blood, can you think that you are still among men and still standing on earth? Are you not at once transported to heaven? . . . He who sits above with the Father is at that moment held in our hands, and gives Himself to those who wish to clasp and embrace Him . . . how great is the honor which the grace of the Spirit has bestowed on priests.

While the ordained priesthood serves on behalf of all, every believer – baptized and anointed – is a member of God’s royal priesthood. This priestly calling of all believers is foretold in Exodus 19:6: “You shall be to Me a royal priesthood and a holy nation” (see also Is 61:6), and finds its fulfillment in the Church, the new Israel: “You are . . . a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1Pt 2:9; see also 2:5; Rev 1:5, 6). Thus, all Christians are called to offer all of creation back to God, with praise and thanksgiving. And in this work, man and creation become evermore reconciled with God.