New Testament Witness

Detail, Ordination of St. Stephen by St. Peter, by Fra Angelico (1447-49).

The faith of the early Christians in Jesus and the Kingdom of his Father constituted them as a community or Church. If it was their shared faith that formed them into a community, who and what they believed in would be the decisive factor in shaping their shared life as a community and their self-understanding as a Church. The self-understanding or their ecclesiology had to be shaped by their Christology, their theology of Jesus.

Christology and Ecclesiology

In both his Gospel and in the book of Acts, Luke associates the resurrection experience very closely with the notion of “giving witness.” In the speeches of both Peter and Paul that are narrated in Acts, this is a recurrent theme: “This Jesus God raised up, and, of that, we are all witnesses” (2:32; see also 3:15; 5:32; 1:31). In one passage, Peter sees the reason for the resurrection experience in the fact that they were chosen by God as witnesses: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses …” (10:39-41). In his Gospel, Luke makes this association in the final conversation between Jesus and his disciples, where Jesus tells them that they are to be “witnesses of these things” (24:48).

Moreover, the role of giving witness is associated, not only with the resurrection experience, but also with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the Gospel account of the final conversation, the disciples are told to stay in the city until they are clothed with the power which the promise of the Father will bring (24:49). In the Pentecost event itself, the Spirit comes in the symbols of fire and a rush of mighty wind, and Peter stands to speak and give witness (Acts 2:2-14). The power which they received from the Holy Spirit was, in a special way, the power to give witness.

These associations of both the resurrection experience and the Pentecost experience with the call to give witness and the power to give witness suggest that Luke’s theology, both of the resurrection and of Pentecost, was formulated within the context of the delay of Jesus’ coming, and are Luke’s theological solution of this problem. Luke’s theology of the Ascension also makes sense within this context. When Jesus did not come in power and glory as they expected, his power and glory was portrayed as his heavenly exaltation “at the right hand of the Father.” The manifestation of his power is that power which comes with the outpouring of the Spirit. The opening scene in Acts shows the interrelationship of these various elements in Luke’s theology: the disciples are not to inquire about “times and seasons” for the coming of the Kingdom, but they are to receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and they are to be his witnesses, and after saying this, Jesus departs from them. It was his absence that made witnesses necessary, and made the role of the Spirit in empowering to give witness so central.

The disciples, then, were constituted witnesses to Jesus through the resurrection experience and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. What the nature of their witness was to be, however, and what all it was to include were things that they had to learn. Luke brings this out in Acts in the story which he tells about Stephen, who was one of the seven deacons chosen to take care of the daily distribution to the widows. We are told that Stephen was “full of grace and power, and did great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). So great were the wonders and signs, that they began to cause trouble for Stephen with the synagogue. Members of the synagogue began to dispute with him, but when they could not withstand the “wisdom and spirit” with which he spoke, “they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes” and had Stephen arrested (6:12).

There follows the story of Stephen being brought before the High Priest and the Council, and his lengthy speech about the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets, ending with the account of Jesus, whom Stephen calls the Righteous One, being betrayed and put to death (7:52). Unlike similar speeches by Peter and Paul, there is no mention of the resurrection, nor is Stephen ever mentioned among those who had the resurrection experience. His “experience” or “vision” is different from the others that are recorded:

But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (7:55-56)

He sees the Son of Man, not coming on the clouds in power and glory, as he is elsewhere portrayed, but standing at the right hand of God. This he saw through the power of the Holy Spirit. The earlier resurrection—second coming eschatology—has now become resurrection, exaltation, and power of the Spirit in Luke’s “revised” eschatology.

But this is not the end of Stephen’s witness. The Jews cried out against him, and taking him out of the city, they stoned him to death. As Stephen is dying, he commends his spirit to Jesus, and ends with a prayer for the forgiveness of his persecutors: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60). The parallels between Luke’s account of Stephen’s death and the accounts which we have of the passion and death of Jesus himself are striking, and they are too numerous and too close to be unintentional or accidental. Some of these parallels are in the account of Stephen’s trial: he is accused of blasphemy before the Jewish leaders, false witnesses are brought in to accuse him, and one of the things that he is accused of is saying that “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place” (6:11-14). In the death scene itself, Stephen prays as did Jesus, that his “spirit is received.” It is in Luke’s account of the passion and death of Jesus, and only there, that these last two details about the death of Jesus are recorded. What is the significance of Luke’s making the details of the death of Stephen and the death of Jesus so parallel?

Stephen’s death is a new way of giving witness, a new aspect of what it means to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. The disciples were called upon to be witnesses, not only of the resurrection of Jesus, but also of his death, to be witness of his resurrection precisely in the context of, and in association with, his death: it was not any man, but this man Jesus of Nazareth, whom you put to death, that God raised on the third day. The disciples learned from events that their witness was to be given, not only by words, but also by deeds, and in the case of Stephen, by the actual giving of his own life. This was the ultimate witness of faith, of whether one really believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead, the test of being willing to die with him. Not only Stephen, but many of the early Christians, including most of the apostles, had to give this ultimate witness to their faith. When Luke speaks of giving witness at the end of his Gospel, he portrays Jesus explaining the Scriptures to the disciples at Emmaus (24:27), and then to all the disciples (24:45), showing that the Christ had to suffer, and thus enter into his glory, and saying that they were to be witnesses to all these things. But they were “slow of heart to believe,” to believe not only in the resurrection, but also in the cross, to believe that the cross leads to the resurrection, first, in the life of Jesus, and, then, in the life of the disciple who is called to give witness.

What we find within the structure and context of Luke’s theology can be found expressed in a variety of theological ways throughout the New Testament. There are, for example, the words which Jesus says to Peter at the end of John’s Gospel, after Peter protests his love for the Lord and is told to feed his sheep:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” This, he said, to show by what death he was to glorify God. And after this, he said to him, “Follow me.” (21:18-19)

The literal sense of this “following” becomes clear in view of Peter’s death and the kind of witness he was called upon to give.

There is also in John’s Gospel the interpretation which Jesus gives of his actions in the opening scene of the Lord’s supper. After Jesus had girded himself with a towel and washed the feet of his disciples, he told them:

For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you, if you do them. (13:15-17)

Like the bread and wine symbolism of the synoptic Gospels, the action of Jesus in taking the role of the servant is an allusion to his death the following day. He had said to Peter, “what I am doing, you do not know now, but afterward, you will understand” (13:7). The symbol becomes clear in the event that was symbolized. The slowness of the disciples to “know” and to “understand,” which Luke referred to as their slowness of heart to believe, is a recurrent theme in the New Testament.

John, like Luke, associates this “knowing” and “understanding” with the work of the Holy Spirit:

These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (14:25-26)

Whoever receives the Holy Spirit and believes, will do the same works that he is doing, “and greater works than these will he do” (14:12). Jesus gives them a warning about what to expect when he is gone:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you … Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. … But when the Counsellor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning. (15:18-27)

Then he says that he is telling them all this to keep them from falling away, for “they will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think that he is offering service to God. … But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes, you will remember that I told you of them” (16:1-3). Finally, Jesus says that he has many other things to tell them, but they cannot bear them. But when the Spirit of truth comes, “he will guide you into all truth” (16:12-13).

These warnings and encouragements are reminiscent of similar warnings in Matthew’s Gospel. There is, for example, the reply of Jesus to the mother of the sons of Zebedee, who asked if her two sons could sit at either side of the Lord in his Kingdom:

Your do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink? (20:20-22).

When they reply that they are able, he assures them that they will indeed drink the same cup. A little further on Jesus warns all of the disciples of the things that are to come: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (24:9). Matthew also associates the Spirit with their role as disciples and witnesses. Jesus told them to “beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (10:17-18). But they are not to be anxious or afraid of what to say:

When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (10:19-20)

All of this, they were to learn from the Spirit, and they were to receive from the Spirit the power to give witness in this way. Luke emphasizes their slowness to see and to understand, perhaps, most pointedly, in connection with the cure of the blind man sitting by the roadside near Jericho (18:35-43). Before the cure takes place, Jesus tells the disciples that they were going up to Jerusalem, and that he would be mocked and scourged and put to death:

But they understood none of these things; this saying was hid from them, and they did not grasp what he said. (18:34)

This was the truth that the Spirit was to lead them to, and remind them of, a truth about Jesus and a truth about themselves as witnesses. It was the power of this truth that we see first in the story of Stephen dying as witness and martyr, and then, of the others, called to give witness as Jesus did.

Stephen’s particular way of giving witness must be seen as something which, in a more general way, applies to all the believers and disciples of Jesus, and which belongs to the very nature of discipleship. This theme runs through all the synoptic Gospels. Marks tells us that Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man had to suffer many things and be put to death, and after saying this, he called the disciples and the whole multitude to him and said:

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For, whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s, will save it. (8:34-35)

The same scene is described in Matthew. Jesus tells them what lies in store for him, and then says that anyone who would be a disciple must take up his cross and follow him (16:24). Finally, Luke tells the same story with the addition of the word “daily”; the disciple must “take up his cross daily” (9:23).

It is in connection with this theme that Paul develops his theological understanding of baptism. Twice in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus refers to his passion and death as a “baptism.” In Mark’s version of the request by the sons of Zebedee, here, made by them, and not by their mother, Jesus asks them if they are able to drink the cup that he will drink, “or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (11:38). The same notion appears in Luke in another context. While giving his disciples a series of warnings and exhortations about the coming Kingdom, Jesus says to them:

I come to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished. (12: 49-50)

Jesus speaks of his coming passion and death as a “baptism,” and Paul associates the baptism, with which the believer is initiated into the community, with the death of Jesus and their own share in that death. He write to the Romans:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried, therefore, with him by baptism into death, so that, as Christ was raised from the Dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (6:3-5)

He also tells the Colossians: “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12). Anyone who is united with the Lord in this way “becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor 6:17), a spirit which unites him not only with the Lord, but also with one another:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all united in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28)

They are all one because, in baptism, they have all received the same Spirit, as he tells the Corinthians: “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (l Cor 12:6).

Other images which Paul uses to describe this association with the death and resurrection of Jesus through baptism include that of the new creation: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17); and that of a living temple: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” (1 Cor 6:19). This is true of them not only as individuals, but all of them together form the temple:

So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22)

Their association with the death and resurrection of Jesus through baptism and their reception of the Holy Spirit are what enable them to cry with him, “Abba! Father!”: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons and daughters of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of sons and daughters” (Rom 8:14-15).

Paul derives his theology of baptism from his understanding of the Church. Just as “witness” is a formal term and must derive its concrete context from that to which one gives witness, so, too, is baptism as the rite of initiation into the Church. What one is being initiated into determines the nature and the meaning of the initiation. If the Church is the communion of the faithful who believe in Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus who gave his life and was raised by God from the dead, then, to share his life and his Spirit is the process of dying and rising with him, and being baptized is being initiated into association with his dying and his rising. Paul’s theology of baptism includes both the theology of the cross and the theology of glory in their intrinsic relationship. This is the structure of the life of Jesus, and the structure of the lives of all who are baptized into him, into his death and into his resurrection. The Paschal mystery of Jesus’ passage through death to life is also the mystery of Christian faith, and it is, therefore, constitutive of the life of the believing community.

The life of the believer and of the disciple and of the witness, then, is a life of assimilation to, and association with, the life of Jesus, more precisely, with the Paschal mystery of his life and death. The starting point for a theology of the Church is the theology of the life of Jesus. A “kenotic Christology” of the self-emptying/giving of Jesus that leads to his glory would have, as its parallel, a “kenotic ecclesiology,” an ecclesiology that understands the Church as the community of those who share this life of Jesus through the power of his Spirit, and in faith and trust in the Father and in his Kingdom. The Church does not exist for itself, but to give witness to that which lies beyond itself. It preaches and proclaims, not itself, but Jesus and his Father’s Kingdom, which Paul tell the Corinthians is “proclaiming his death until he comes.” In a kenotic ecclesiology, Jesus’ death must not only be proclaimed, but shared, indeed, it is the sharing that is the real proclamation. Such a kenotic ecclesiology emphasizes that the life that is shared in faith through the Spirit is the whole life of Jesus, his dying and his rising, his self-emptying/giving and his glorification. It emphasizes that the Paschal mystery, which is the mystery of the life of Jesus, is also the mystery of the Church as the community of those who share his life in the power of his Spirit. The power of his Spirit is the power to give witness to this mystery.

The Power of Jesus

The image of Jesus as powerful, in the sense of exercising unusual or preternatural powers over the forces of nature, is a common image of Jesus, found in the Gospel stories. It is the image which is at work in the miracle stories, such as when he cured the sick or brought the dead back to life. But when his life reached its climax in the decisive moments of his passion and death, it is not the image that is at work in the passion narratives of the evangelists. He is portrayed as rejecting this image, such as when he is taunted to come down from the cross and save himself as he saved others (Mk 15:29-32). The power that he exercised in these moments was power of another kind, the power of being able to love “unto the end,” and to lay down his life for his friends. It was this power that proved to be of decisive significance in his life. For the power of love was the power of life over death itself, as comes to expression in the resurrection. The Paschal mystery of cross and resurrection expresses the true nature of the power of Jesus.

In the evolving and developing Christology of the New Testament, this comes to expression in religious imagery and symbols from the Old Testament. In the Isaian image of the suffering servant, Jesus is portrayed, not only as servant, but as a weak and powerless servant, whose power lay in being willing to suffer, and to lay down his life for his friends. The same kind of evolution and development is discernible in the ecclesiology of the early community as well as in its Christology. Peter appears at the beginning of Acts as a miracle worker, in a story strikingly similar to, and patterned after, the miracle stories about Jesus (3:1-10). But power in this sense proved no more significant or decisive in the life of Peter and the Church than it did in the life of Jesus. It was not possessing this kind of power that constituted Peter’s “following” of Jesus or his preeminence in the early community, but his willingness to give witness in the ultimate way that Stephen did. This was Peter’s fullest share in the life, Spirit, and power of Jesus, a power to give witness in the Spirit as Jesus had promised.

This parallel between the life of Jesus and the life of his believing community is brought out very clearly in one of the later books of the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews. The author introduces a new religious category within which to understand and interpret the life and death of Jesus, one that is used nowhere else in the New Testament. He calls Jesus “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1). In the sense in which the terms “priest” or “high priest” were normally used in the time of Jesus and in the time of his apostolic Church, Jesus was not a priest or a high priest. During the time of the life and ministry of Jesus, there was a priesthood and a high priesthood, but Jesus was not a member of, or associated with, either. The priests had the responsibility for offering the sacrifices in the temple, the cultic or ritual sacrifices of the Jewish people. From the New Testament, it is clear that Jesus was not a priest in this cultic or ritual or liturgical sense. Insofar as he fitted into the religious categories of his time, he would have been a prophet or a rabbi, and he is called both in the New Testament literature, but is never called priest.

Hence the author of the Letter to the Hebrews in introducing a new religious category by which to interpret the life and work of Jesus, and he takes great pains to distinguish his use of the term “high priest” in relation to Jesus from the usual sense of the term that would have been familiar to his Jewish readers. The priesthood of Jesus is not the Levitical priesthood or the priesthood of Aaron (7:11), and the covenant he mediates between God and humankind is a new covenant (8:7). His new priesthood and his new covenant is presented by the author as the abolition of the old. But what constitutes the difference between his priesthood and the Levitical priesthood in the old covenant? As high priest, he offered “not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood:

He entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking, not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (9:12)

At another point, the author says that he has no need like the other priests to offer sacrifice daily, for “he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (7:27).

The difference between the priesthood of Jesus and the Levitical priesthood is not that it replaces the old cult with a new cult, or that it abolishes the old cultic priesthood or cultic sacrifice at all. He did not offer the blood of goats and calves, but “his own blood” or “himself.” The introduction of the term “high priest” to understand and interpret the life and work of Jesus, then, is the introduction of a new term, but when the author distinguishes his use of it from its usual meaning, its content is very close to other Christological images, especially that of the suffering servant. The author’s description of Jesus as priest echoes this theme:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. (5:7-8)

He goes on to emphasize that Jesus did not offer blood inside the sanctuary as the Jewish high priest did, but Jesus suffered and offered his blood “outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood (13:12). The priesthood of Jesus, then, is not related to the offering of a cultic sacrifice by a cultic priest, but to the offering of self-sacrifice by the martyr or by the suffering servant of the Isaian tradition. The author of Hebrews introduces the notion of priesthood in order to say that Jesus has given the notion of priesthood a new meaning, and that Jesus was a priest in an entirely different sense from the priests of the old covenant.

The author immediately draws the implications of his Christology and his theology of priesthood for ecclesiology and for the priesthood of the Christian Church as distinguished from the Jewish temple:

Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, and share his shame. (13:13)

He tells his readers to look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1), who despised shame and endured the cross for the joy that was set before him:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (12:3-4)

Finally, he reminds them of the leaders from whom they received the faith:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. (13:7)

For “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8), and faith in him and the implications of faith in him remain the same.

The only others places in the New Testament where the category of priesthood is associated with Christian faith is the First Letter of Peter and in the book of Revelations. The author of the former uses the term twice in relation to the Christian community. He tells his readers that Jesus is the living stone, and they themselves, like living stones, are to “be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (2:5). Later in the same chapter, he repeats the term:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wondrous deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (2:9)

If we interpret the notion of priesthood here in the light of what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says is the difference between the priesthood of the old and the new covenant, and in the light of Paul’s theology of their baptism as a being baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, as a sharing in, and an association with, the Paschal mystery of the life and death of Jesus, then their “holy and royal priesthood” is not like the cultic priesthood of Aaron, nor like any cultic priesthood, but is a sharing in the priesthood of Jesus. It is the priesthood of the witness and of the suffering servant, who offers,, not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood: “therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, and share his shame.” Their priesthood is the priesthood of “making up what is wanting in the sufferings of Jesus,” that of dying with him in order to rise with him.

That which is true of the use of the term “priesthood” in the First Letter of Peter is also true of the use of the term “priests” in the book of Revelations: it is used in reference to the whole community of the faithful. The author says that Jesus “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom of priests to his God and Father. …” (1:5-6). The same term is repeated a little later in the words of a hymn:

Worthy art though to take the scroll and open its seals, for thou was slain and by thy blood didst ransom people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priest to our God, and they shall reign on earth. (5:9-10)

Finally, those who share in the “first resurrection” are said to be “blessed and holy,” for “over such, the second death has not power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years” (20:6). Here, as in the first Letter of Peter, the “priests” of the new covenant are the believers, who constitute a new “kingdom,” as in Peter, they constitute a new “nation” and a new “people.”

In the New Testament, then, the terms “priest” and “priesthood” are used in only two connections. The Letter to the Hebrews uses and reinterprets the term “high priest” in relation to the self-sacrifice of Jesus, and l Peter and the book of Revelations use the terms “priesthood” and “priest” in relation to the whole community of believers. No office in the Church at this time was referred to by the term “priesthood,” and no official in the Church was called by the term “priest.” There were leaders in the earliest communities, and they are variously referred to as “elders” or “bishops,” and when they gathered for the “breaking of bread” or their Eucharistic meals, someone undoubtedly had the role of leader at the meal. Jesus was their “high priest,” and this term is applied, even to him, only in the Letter to the Hebrews, and his people are a “royal and holy priesthood” or a kingdom of “priests,” and this usage too is infrequent in New Testament literature.

The priesthood, in which all the faithful share through baptism, which is their initiation into the Paschal mystery of the life of Jesus and the Paschal mystery of the life of the Church, and through which, they become one through the reception of the same Holy Spirit, is the original, fundamental, and essential meaning of Christian priesthood. To deny this is to deny the distinction between the priesthood of the old covenant and the priesthood of the new covenant, which the Letter to the Hebrews takes great pains to make. Such denial means that the formal difference between Christian and Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament would disappear. It means that Jesus would simply have replaced an old cult with a new one, and abolished an old ritual sacrifice with a new one. But he would not, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, have replaced a cultic sacrifice with a real sacrifice, not only with regard to the sacrifice of Jesus and his priesthood, but also with regard to the sacrifice and the priesthood of those who are baptized into the Paschal mystery of his life and death.

Priest as Witness

To derive a theology of the Church from a theology of the life of Jesus, and a theology of the priesthood of the Church from what constitutes the uniqueness of the priesthood of Jesus is to see both the Church and its priesthood within the context of, and function of, the Kingdom. The center and focus of the preaching of Jesus was the coming of his Father’s Kingdom. The giving of his life and the self-sacrifice that constituted his priesthood was for the sake of the Kingdom. The early Church continued the preaching of Jesus, for they, not only preached the risen Jesus, but did this in the context of the Kingdom, and the significance which their resurrection experience had in the light of the Kingdom. The resurrection experience and the power of the Holy Spirit that was given them was a power to give witness, witness to Jesus as the preacher of the Kingdom who had been vindicated. In the early Church, this witness was given in a variety of ways, in the preaching of Peter and other Apostles, in the missionary journeys of Paul and Barnabas, in gathering for the “breaking of bread,” and in “sharing all things in common,” in Stephen’s witnessing with his life.

All of this took place in the power of the Spirit which Jesus had promised them and which they had all received in baptism. Paul speaks of the variety of spiritual gifts or charisms which are all received from the same Spirit, gifts which are for the common good of the community and for the community’s common task of giving witness. But whatever gift one has, be it that of Apostle or prophet, administrator or teacher, the gift is of no avail if the one essential thing is missing. For Paul says that the gift of tongues or prophecy, and even having faith so as to remove mountains, or giving one’s body to be burned are of no value if love is missing (l Cor 13:1-3). Paul does not use the term “priest” to describe either the life or the work of Jesus or the life of the community of believers, but the death of Jesus as a self-sacrifice and the life of the believer as a dying with him is priesthood, as it is defined by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. When he speaks of love as “bearing and enduring all things,” he is speaking of the same reality as the Letter to the Hebrews when it speaks of the endurance and suffering of Jesus as constitutive of his priesthood.

Christian priesthood, then, when it is defined as it is in Hebrews as a self-giving and a self-sacrifice, is the same reality that Paul speaks of as the greatest gift of the Spirit, and which Jesus speaks of as the greatest of the commandments. It is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples in the farewell discourse in John’s Gospel, that all men are to know them as his disciples by their love, and that the commandment that he leaves with them is the commandment to love one another as he has loved them. All of these different ways of speaking about what is central and most important in the life of the believer and of the believing community are different ways of speaking of one and the same thing. Love is not one particular gift of the Spirit, but is the gift of the Spirit, which must pervade all the gifts and give them their value. This love is the essential way of sharing in the priesthood of Jesus, a priesthood which is constituted by the fact that it was an offering of himself and of his own blood.

Jesus, of course, says the same thing in terms of the bread and wine at the Last Supper. The giving of the bread and wine represents the real giving of his body and blood which takes place the next day. The new covenant, which he is inaugurating, is to be signed with his own blood, not the blood of goats and calves. The Last Supper speaks about the real sacrifice of Jesus’ offering his own body and blood. The new priesthood, which he inaugurates at the Last Supper, is this kind of priesthood, both for himself and for those who share in it. Anyone who would be a believer must share in it, for he has given an example, and the disciple is not above his master. Every believer is called to share in his priesthood: “If you would come after me, take up your cross and follow me.”

It is in this following that one gives witness, both to Jesus and to that which Jesus gave witness, his Father and his Father’s Kingdom. There is a variety of ways of giving witness, a variety of gifts of the Spirit, but they are all sharing in the same Spirit and in the one power of the Spirit. The Christian community is not composed of those who have the power of the Spirit and those who do not, but all have received the power of the Spirit to give witness in a variety of ways. This is the primary power of the Christian priesthood, a power to be part of what the Eucharistic bread and wine express, a part of the life of Jesus and of his priesthood. The power of the priesthood is the power to proclaim his death until he comes, to give witness to his death by dying and rising with him.

When the Church is understood as existing for its own sake, and not for the sake of the Kingdom, and the priesthood of the Church is not understood in the context of the priesthood of Jesus, then the cult and ritual and liturgy of the Church lose their roots in history, the history of Jesus, and the history of his living body, the Church. The Church’s cult and ritual are rooted in the divine and historical life and reality of Jesus; they have the same intrinsic relationship to the coming of his Father’s Kingdom. The Church’s sacramental activity expresses that of Jesus at the Last Supper. It is genuinely expressive of the life of Jesus and of the community that professes faith in him and is living by the power of his Spirit.

The priesthood of the Church is exercised wherever and whenever and by whomever that which the Church’s sacramental symbols express is taking place. For there, the life and ministry of Jesus is being continued, and there, is a dying and rising with Jesus and a sharing in his Paschal mystery, and his priesthood is taking place. Whoever does this is achieving genuine union and communion with Jesus in his Spirit. The cult and ritual and liturgy of the Church brings this to expression, thereby giving expression to what is actually going on in the life of the Church.

The priesthood is a real sharing in the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the power to live and die as he did. The real power of the Spirit that was given to the disciples was primarily the power to share his sacrifice, and, in sharing it, to represent it and make it present, to make it present in life and history. The Eucharistic symbols are not just an empty memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but an expression of the life Jesus is giving to his community.

They express the Paschal mystery of Jesus that is alive in his community and in the lives of its members as the community that is actually living in the Spirit of Jesus. When the community gathers, he is there in their midst, and this presence and his union and communion with his community come to expression in the sacramental symbols of bread and wine, sacramental representations of the real union of his life and the life of his community.

The sacramental symbols that we have been considering here in relation to baptism and Eucharist are real symbols of the union of the Church with Jesus. They are real symbols of the Church’s real life. This is equally true of all the sacramental activities of the Church. The Spirit that was poured out on the disciples in the Easter and Pentecost experiences was also a power to forgive sins. On the first Easter night, Jesus breathed on his disciples and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). In Acts, Peter says that God raised and exalted Jesus “to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (5:31), and, later, he says of the Gentiles too: “To him, all the prophets bear witness, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43). Paul tells the synagogue at Antioch: “Let it be known unto you, therefore, brethren, that through this man, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (13:38). The power to undo sin, that is, to reconcile persons to God and to one another is the power of the Holy Spirit that was promised to all who believe. It is the power of a real sharing in the priesthood of Jesus. For reconciliation will not be achieved and the division and walls and prejudices will not be broken down without the real self-sacrifice that constituted the real priesthood of Jesus. It cannot be achieved by the blood of goats and calves, but by the real sacrifice of those who profess faith in Jesus and are living by his Spirit.

For the only effective reconciliation comes through compassion, the compassion which is repeatedly said to have been characteristic of the life of Jesus, and the compassion of those alive with the Spirit of Jesus. The sacramental reconciliation of the Church is a real reconciliation, a real sign of grace, when it brings to expression what is really happening in the life of the Church.

The cult and ritual and liturgy of the Church, all of its sacramental activity, is symbolic of both the life of Jesus, and of the life of the Church that is living by his Spirit. Sacraments are real signs of real grace only for those who believe, and this belief makes the sacraments a real sign of real grace, not in the sense that it causes God to be gracious, but in the sense that it is a real response to the graciousness of God. Jesus insisted on this faith when he spoke of the Kingdom: “Repent and believe, for the Kingdom is near.” This faith is belief in him and in the Kingdom that he announced, and in the Spirit who was to continue his work and his power. Such faith does not cause the Kingdom to come, but opens one to receive it, and makes one eligible to be part of it.

Fr. John Navone, SJ About Fr. John Navone, SJ

Fr. John Navone is an emeritus professor of theology at the "Gregrorian" in Rome, the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he taught from 1967–2010. He is now at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Pope Francis acknowledged the impact of Fr. Navone's "theology of failure" on his thought in his interview with S. Rubin and E.F. Ambrogetti, Il Nuovo Papa Si Racconta, Milano, Salani Editore, p. 65. Articles published March 29th in both Italy’s Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio also made note of it. Pope Francis had read the book in the Italian translation, La teologia del fallimento, Paoline, 1978). Navone is the author of more than twenty-five books; his most recent is Atheism Today: A Christian Response (2012).


  1. Thank you, Fr. Navone, for this wonderful essay, especially with its focus on the essential relationship between Christology and ecclesiology.