“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Although there are tens of thousands of priests in the Catholic Church, there is, in the most proper sense of the word, only one Priest, and that Priest is Jesus Christ. All other priests, however, many thousands there may be, are sharers in that one priesthood of Christ. They truly share in the priesthood of Christ, but only Christ himself has the fullness of the priesthood. And this is because only Christ is, himself, the Victim and the Priest who offers the Victim. As St. Paul expressed it, “There is one mediator between God and man, the Word of God who is himself a man, Jesus Christ” (1 Tim 2:5). To adapt the simile of Jesus himself, and apply it to the priesthood, we might say that Jesus is the vine, and the other priests are branches; that is, every ordained priest draws his priestly power from the one Priest, Jesus Christ. Jesus has the fullness of the priesthood as the source from which others, precisely as ordained priests, have obtained the fullness of their priestly power, and by which they are sustained, from day to day, in their priestly functions. The ordained priest shares in the fullness of Christ’s priesthood and in the unique mediatorship of Christ.
In the ancient temple at Jerusalem, Levitical priests sacrificed animals as sin-offerings in expiation for the people’s sins, and for the restoration of peace with God. The death of Christ—because it is the death, not only of a man in his created human nature, but also of a man whose Person is the very Son of God himself—far surpasses these ancient sacrifices, which were only a dim foreshadowing of the sacrificial death of Christ. The sacrifice of animals could not take away sin, but could only remind people that they needed to repent of their sins, asking God for forgiveness. This was a forgiveness that was, in fact, granted only through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross; a forgiveness that applied to all sins, those which preceded as well as those which followed upon the sacrifice of Christ.
It is, in fact, this offering of his life on the cross, which essentially constitutes Jesus as priest, our great high priest. “Every high priest is taken from among men, and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins….. In the same way, it was not Christ who glorified himself in becoming high priest, but rather the one who said to him: ‘You are my son; this day I have begotten you’; as he says in another place: ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek’” (Heb 5:1, 5-7).
Yes, Christ is our priest, our high priest, called a high priest because it is his own priestly offering that is given to the Father, his unique sacrifice of his life on the cross, offered in atonement for man’s sins, and in reparation, to the honor and glory of God.
All other priests are lesser priests than Christ in the sense that, while they are ordained to offer Christ’s sacrifice sacramentally, they do so as having received this power from the priesthood of Christ, which he gave to his Church, beginning with Peter and the other apostles, which they then handed on to their successors. Yet, when ordained priests in the Roman Catholic Church exercise their priestly power, e.g., offering Mass, they exercise the same priestly power as that of Christ himself.
This priesthood of Christ is eternal: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:7). Christ is a priest forever because he is such by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed. Even death could not destroy the life of Christ. That is, not only his life as a divine Person, the very Son of God, but also his life as a man, which is forever joined in his human body and soul to the Son of God, in a personal union that cannot be destroyed. This perpetual, personal union of the Son of God with his manhood—his individual human body, and soul—is guaranteed by the oath of God, who has said: “The Lord has sworn, and he will not repent: ‘you are a priest forever’” (Ps 110:4; Heb 7:21). Hence, not even death can destroy that priesthood of Christ; a fact attested to by Christ’s resurrection from the tomb on the third day, after he suffered death, and was buried.
Accordingly, we may place our complete trust in the effects of Christ’s priesthood in our lives, in the life of each one who believes in Christ. For the epistle to the Hebrews goes on to state: “Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). This eternity of Christ’s priestly prayer for all those who approach him—drawn by the power of God’s grace and the Holy Spirit—is an indication that Christ continues to operate and function as our great high priest, doing so even for those who have attained the glory of heaven.
It is true that Christ makes intercession for us to obtain the mercy of God, and forgiveness for our sins, while we are in the state of wayfarers on earth. During our earthly sojourn, we are always subject to temptation, and, hence, always able to fall into sin, unless prevented by the grace of God—obtained through Christ’s priestly intercession for us—or pardoned through his intercession after we have again fallen.
However, once we have attained to the vision of God, face-to-face, then we can no longer be tempted, no longer sin, no longer die. We might question whether, in this blessed state, we still need the intercession of Christ, the High Priest. We no longer need the grace to avoid sin, or the pardon of God after our sin, but rather we will be continually filled by the glorious presence of God. Another way of putting this is to ask the question: Is Christ’s priesthood eternal? Once sin and death have been permanently destroyed, at the second coming of Christ, do we still need Christ as our priest, since he no longer needs to offer the sacrifice of his life for our sins?
To reply, it might be pointed out that the epistle to the Hebrews unequivocally states that Christ lives forever to make intercession for us. Although he had only to die once, and then needed to die no more, nevertheless, his human body and soul—joined in a personal, substantial union to the Son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity—is a perpetual offering to the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. On earth, Christ’s human will was joined in perfect love and obedience to the will of the Father. That perfect love and obedience, having been tested through his suffering and death on the cross, continues now as an eternal, never-ending sacrificial offering on the part of Christ to his heavenly Father. In a true, though analogous sense, the sacrifice of Christ may be said to continue even after his death (cf. Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1988, art. 60, par. 42). Christ offers a sacrifice of praise and thanks to the Father in his manhood, and continues to offer the Father all the dispositions of his human heart—past, present and future—as mankind’s continual gift to the Father. Since this gift is continual, it may be truly said that Christ lives forever, to make intercession for mankind—the whole human race, past, present and future, whether on earth, or in purgatory, or in the state of glory. He intercedes according to our needs. In our state as wayfarer, he intercedes for us in order to obtain pardon for our offenses, and to communicate the grace needed for our meritorious actions. In the state of the blessed, he intercedes for us by offering, through his manhood, the gift of praise and thanksgiving to the Father. This is an offering which is also our offering to the Father, as we will continue to be joined to Christ in our state of beatitude. Even in the beatific vision, all people will be joined to Christ as branches to the vine. All will depend upon, and share in, his eternal offering of praise and thanks to the Father. Christ is our leader in glory, as he is our leader now in the faith. It is only by sharing in the fruits of his eternal priesthood, that human beings may share with Christ the light of glory.
The statement in the Epistle to the Hebrews, that Christ lives forever to make intercession for us, is entirely true. Even after sin and death have been destroyed, at the time of Christ’s second coming, those who are “blessed ones” will continue to share in his intercession. But they will do so in an entirely different way than they do now, while living on earth. During this earthly existence, humans need the grace of the Holy Spirit: a grace which also obtains pardon for our sins and the spiritual strength to resist temptation. In the state of the blessed, the glory of God, in the beatific vision, replaces the grace of the Holy Spirit, which guided them while on earth. Just as Christ, as our high priest, obtained by his death and resurrection, the gift of the Holy Spirit for his elect, so, too, in the state of blessedness. Christ obtains for his blessed ones the beatific vision—together with the gifts of perfect adoration, praise and thanksgiving—joining them to him in unceasing acts of knowledge and love. In the state of the blessed, the glory of God in the beatific vision, replaces the grace of the Holy Spirit which guided them while on earth. Just as Christ, as our high priest, obtained by his death and resurrection, the gift of the Holy Spirit for his elect, so in the state of blessedness, Christ obtains—through his priestly intercession for his blessed ones—the beatific vision, together with the gifts of perfect adoration, praise, and thanksgiving, joining them to him, in unceasing acts of knowledge and love, of the most Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This union, in blessedness of Christ with his elect, is also an exercise of his eternal priesthood, forever interceding for them in the presence of His Father.
Yes, Christ, as our eternal high priest, always lives to make intercession for us, both in our state of grace as wayfarers, and in our future state of blessedness. In the latter state, all sin and death are taken away, so that our sharing with and in Christ’s intercession, will be accompanied by unclouded joy. And this joy cannot be taken away from us, because Christ has an eternal priesthood, of which “The Lord has sworn and he will not repent, ‘You are a priest forever’” (Heb 5:7).