Since the time of the Reformation, the word priest has taken a back seat and is no longer used in a large part of Christendom. Actually, the term is an abbreviated form of the Greek word presbuteros (elder), from which Presbyterians derive their name. However, the Reformers taught (properly) that Jesus fulfills the threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King. As Prophet, He ministers the Word of God to His people; as Priest, He represents His people before the throne of God, and as King, He rules over all His citizens in His kingdom. John refers to Jesus as Prophet, Hebrews designates Him as Priest, and Matthew describes Him as King in His kingdom.
If we check the term priest in a concordance, we notice that the word never refers to Jesus in the gospels. The same goes for the book of Acts; the epistles of Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude; and the book of Revelation. But the epistle to the Hebrews, in all its 13 chapters, directly and indirectly alludes to Jesus as Priest. It truly is the epistle that spells out in great detail the priesthood of Christ. In His providence, God added this epistle to the Scriptures to complete the canon.
For Jewish people, the thought of calling Jesus a priest was out of the question because He was born into the tribe of Judah, which is known as the royal tribe, and not into the tribe of Levi, which God designated as the priestly tribe. For them to accept Jesus as priest was unthinkable and contrary to the teaching of Scripture.
But when the Holy Spirit empowered the writer of Hebrews to compose his epistle, He gave him the insight and wisdom to portray Jesus as Priest. Perhaps this happened decades after the city of Jerusalem was devastated, the temple destroyed, and the Levitical priesthood terminated. If he had written while the priesthood was still functioning in Jerusalem, the author would have faced mortal danger. He wrote in his epistle that the law of the priesthood was no longer valid because it was weak and useless; he even added that the law made nothing perfect (Heb. 7:18–19). If there were ever cause for crying foul and issuing an arrest warrant, it would be these statements. After all, Stephen was stoned to death for merely talking about the temple (Acts 7:48–60), and Paul was almost torn limb from limb at the temple grounds when he was falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the temple area (Acts 21:27–32).
But if the writer wrote his letter to Jewish Christians in Rome decades after the devastation of Jerusalem, he was relatively safe. He knew that he had to write about the priesthood of Christ and teach this essential doctrine still lacking in the Christian church.
The author of Hebrews based the doctrine of Christ’s priesthood on the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly the books of Genesis and Psalms. These books speak about the priesthood of Melchizedek. To their shame, the Jewish clergy had to admit that they had never studied this aspect of Biblical theology. They were of the opinion that Melchizedek lived in the days of the patriarch Abraham, about two thousand years before the birth of Jesus (Gen. 14:18–20). Abraham had gone into battle north of Damascus to rescue his relative Lot and other captured people, and to recover Lot’s possessions. When he came back, he met Melchizedek the king of Salem (Jerusalem), who was also priest of God Most High. This king blessed Abraham, and in return the patriarch gave Melchizedek a 10th of the spoils.
The Jewish rabbis disregarded the priesthood of Melchizedek, seeing the Genesis 14 account as a tidbit of history that had no significance apart from Abraham. They pointed to the fact that some five hundred years later, Moses instituted the Levitical priesthood, which overshadowed and nullified the earlier one of Melchizedek. But their thinking was faulty and contradictory, because David composed Psalm 110 another five hundred years later (about A.D. 1000). In Psalm 110, he wrote that God spoke and ordained the Messiah to be a priest forever in the priesthood of Melchizedek (v. 4). David added that God issued this decree with an oath that could never be revoked or nullified. Thus, the decree would be valid forever.
The writer of Hebrews quoted Psalm 110:1 and 4 to illustrate the Messiah’s kingship and His priesthood. The psalm begins with these words: “The Lord [Yahweh] says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet'” (NIV). Clarifying this point and applying it to Himself, Jesus asked the Pharisees two days before His death: “What do you think about the Christ [the Messiah]? Whose son is He? ‘The son of David,’ they replied. He said to them, ‘How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls Him “Lord”‘? For he says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?'” (Matt. 22:42–45, NIV). The Pharisees’ honest reply should have been: “The Lord is the Son of God. He is the Christ, the royal descendant of David, and he is king.” Instead, they were unable to answer Him.
The Jewish clergy should have known that Jesus was both King and Priest. David wrote about his priesthood in Psalm 110:4: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek'” (NIV). But the Jewish scribes, the teachers of the law, and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day purposely ignored this psalm. They refused to acknowledge that it had direct references to the Messiah’s royalty and priesthood. They despised Jesus of Nazareth and refused to listen to His explanation of Psalm 110.
Thus, the Spirit of God used the writer of Hebrews to formulate the doctrine of Christ’s priesthood for the benefit of all Jesus’ followers and to make it meaningful to them, especially when they partake of the bread and wine at a communion service. After Jesus’ ascension, the apostles began the practice of observing the Lord’s Supper. They called to mind that on the night Jesus was betrayed, He instituted this sacrament and gave them these words: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20, NIV). With this formula that would be uttered every time the Lord’s Supper is observed and celebrated, Jesus purposefully pointed to His priestly sacrifice on Calvary’s cross.
As Priest, Jesus offered Himself once for all as a sacrifice for sins. No one else could have done this, for the Aaronic high priest was a sinner who first had to sprinkle the blood of a bull to atone for his own sins and then sprinkle the blood of a goat for the sins of the people of Israel. The high priest had to do this annually on the Day of Atonement. This observance had become an external ceremony that made the worshipers outwardly clean but left their consciences unaffected.
By contrast, as the sinless one, Jesus offered not the blood of an animal but His own body and blood on the cross once for all. He was both Priest and sacrifice at the same time. He did this once, for all His people. The effect of His one-time offering is not an external event but an internal experience for all believers. Sin is an internal matter that originates in our hearts. Jesus said that out of the heart come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly (Mark 7:21–22). Through His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus cleanses our consciences from sin and sets us free from the burden of sin.
That is why the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is so significant for the individual believer who repents from sin. Every time we partake of the holy elements of bread and wine, we hear Jesus address us personally. In effect, He says, “John (or Mary, or whatever your name may be), this bread signifies My body that was broken for you; and this cup signifies My blood that was poured out for you for the remission of all your sins.”
When we partake of communion, we signify thereby that we have confessed our sins, that we have put our faith in Jesus, and that we stand before God forgiven, cleansed from sin and guilt as if we had never sinned. God not only forgives our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus, He also forgets them (Heb. 8:12). He accepts us in Christ, who has paid it all as the Priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Nineteenth-century hymn writer Robert Lowry put it succinctly in these lines:
For my cleansing this I see—
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
For my pardon this my plea—
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.