Minister in the Sanctuary

Christ’s High Priesthood in the Letter to the Hebrews

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” – Hebrews 4:14

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews advocates a novel manner of approaching the Old Testament — as typologically speaking of Christ. He demonstrates how there exists a truly eloquent continuity to all of Sacred Scripture, particularly when considering that, even from the Old Testament, God continually reveals himself in and through his Word, covenanting himself to his creation, as he did with Abraham (Gen 15:18) and, through Moses, with all of Israel (Ex 24:8). Drawing his people unto himself, God continued to reveal himself in both word and deed to them. The oikonomia of the Trinity is seen throughout Scripture to be a consistent revelation of God as he truly is: one, living, and true. It was within this plan of salvation that God willed for man to come to experience him. He accomplished this by revealing himself in material time, by speaking to them, covenanting himself to them, ministering to them, and, ultimately, becoming one with them (Ps 21:28–29; 95:1–3; Is 2:1–4; Jer 3:17). By making of his people a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation (cf. Ex 19:6; 1 Pt 2:9), God paved the way for Israel to eventually become a kingdom of priests to him (cf. Rev 1:6; 5:10), priests who ministered in the covenants God so graciously showered upon man, the last of which he instituted in and through his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. This New and Eternal Covenant and its priesthood called for a new and eternal high priest who would eternally minister it — a covenant role God had prepared for his Son since the beginning of Salvation History. It is in this light of a hermeneutic of continuity between the Old and New Testaments that this article explores the theme of this high priesthood of Christ in the Letter to the Hebrews.

A High Priest Who Is One with Man

The inspired author first evokes the theme in chapter two, wherein he writes that Christ “had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). Among the many reasons that Salvation History had to take place as it did, one of the reasons for Christ to have had to become incarnate and undergo his passion, death, and resurrection, was so that Christ could then be the definitive covenant mediator of man — the only truly effective mediator between God and man. Christ became the best representative for all of humanity by taking on human flesh and living, suffering, and dying as a man. Thomas Aquinas expounds on this exquisitely by describing how, because Christ did not come as “an angel but [assumed] the seed of Abraham, it behooved him in all things to become like unto his brethren.”1 Aquinas further argues how, while in all things Christ did share with man as his brethren, he did not share in their guilt, but in the punishment thereof. Hence, it was fitting for Christ to have a nature that could endure suffering — which is precisely why the inspired author pens the words “one tempted in all things as we are, without sin” (Heb 4:15). By virtue of that, nonetheless, Aquinas posits how Scripture also demonstrates that Christ is like the brethren as to grace, citing “behold, what love God showed to us: that we should be called and be sons of God” (1 Jn 3:1) and “those whom he foreknew and predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). Aquinas quotes these texts in his Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews to demonstrate how created man cannot “claim that God does not understand human suffering and human longing for restoration and peace, for the suffering he himself passed through while being put to the test enables him to help others when they are being put to the test.”2 As such, Christ has left man a witness of life and a veritable example to be followed, for Christ demonstrated nothing less than perfect, unconditional, self-sacrificial love. To Aquinas, this love of Christ “is the healing salve for a wounded world in which we are called to love as He loved.”3 This love becomes a call for disciples of Christ to “take up [their] cross and follow [him], for Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in his steps” (cf. Mt 16:24; 1 Pet 2:21).4

With this syllogism drawn between Christ’s witness of life compelling emulation, in chapter four, the author proceeds to exhort his readers — as mentioned briefly earlier — in writing: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Heb 4:14–15). To Aquinas, this verse necessarily illustrates Christ’s role of mediator of man in two functions. These are, firstly, that it sets him over the whole human race as judge, for God “gave him power to do judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (Jn 5:27); and, secondly, in relation to God, before whom Christ continually intercedes for us “as our advocate.”5 Aquinas posits that “in a judge mercy is desired particularly by the guilty; but in an advocate fidelity.”6 Christ exhibited both these qualities, not only in life, but through his passion, death, and resurrection, and thus showed himself to be a high priest like unto his brethren in mercy. For mercy, per Aquinas, “consists in having a heart grieved at another’s misfortune: in one way, by merely recognizing the misfortune, which is the way God recognized our wretchedness without suffering; in another way, by experiencing our misfortune, which is how Christ experienced our misery, especially during the Passion.”7 As if that were not enough, Christ stands as faithful advocate of man before the Father, most of all so that, by becoming the Paschal Lamb of the New Covenant, Christ might become, once and for all, and eternally, a propitiation for the sins of the people, for whom He willed to die. This latter theme will be discussed later in the article.

Accordingly, when the inspired author writes that Christ himself has suffered and been tempted, it is to be understood that Christ demonstrates the utility of suffering and temptation as man. For, in the assumption of fallen human nature, Christ experienced all that man experienced so that “our cause [would be] His own.”<8 Hence Aquinas establishes the reality that because Christ suffered and was tempted like man, he is able to offer succor to man in their hour of temptation and suffering, for he has a “kinship to mercy.”9 Scripture further asserts this reality that Christ’s suffering did not do away with temptation and suffering for man, but, rather, that man would come to a deeper sense of kinship with him in and through their suffering, as they suffer in his footsteps (cf. 1 Pt 2:2; 1 Pt 4:1).10 Exploring the concepts of the priesthood of Christ in this regard, it is paramount that the Old Testament Aaronic priesthood be brought into the discussion. Regarding the Aaronic priesthood, it is clear that if one is truly to be considered a mediator between God and man, one must inevitably be man. The fundamentality of this necessitated the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity inasmuch as only then would he truly be able to be a priest for man unto God, that he might fulfill the mission of a priest. On the other hand, a man cannot, by his own power, declare himself to be a mediator for God. Nay, the priesthood demands divine ordination, “authorization, institution, and only by truly belonging to both spheres the divine and the human can he be a mediator, can he be a ‘bridge.’”11 Hence, Pope Benedict XVI illustrates that the priest’s mission is “to combine, to link these two realities that appear to be so separate, that is, the world of God far from us, often unknown to the human being and our human world.”12 The symphonic convergence of this mission with the person of Christ is that Christ embodies the fullness and the perfection of the mission of the priest, being both man and God, for Christ alone is consummately able “to be a mediator, a bridge that connects, and thereby to bring human beings to God, to his redemption, to his true light, to his true life.”13

Christ, the High Priest of the New Covenant

The Incarnation of Christ, which, while on the one hand allowed for Christ to truly fulfill the role of high priest over creation, on the other hand demanded a covenant liturgy for that priesthood. Chapter six of the Letter to the Hebrews chronicles the promises that God had made to the patriarch Abraham and how, in the course of Abraham’s life, after his own proof of fidelity to God in the Aqedah event, God elevated those promises into covenant oaths. Swearing oaths unto Abraham simply entailed that God was covenanting himself to Abraham (cf. Gen 22:18). Looking back at the words of God to Christ in the Letter to the Hebrews, the author writes how God said unto Christ, “Thou art my Son. Today have I begotten thee” (cf. Heb 5:5–6). The continuation of that, however, is a startling covenantal awakening, for the author writes elsewhere regarding the person of Christ, “thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 7:17; Ps 110:4). The logical equation of this implies that “to be God’s Son is like the same thing as being a priest after the order of Melchizedek.”14 Readers of the Letter to the Hebrews would be well versed in the Old Testament covenant liturgy, wherein the priesthood that was practiced was the form of the father-son priesthood, conferred from high-priest fathers unto their firstborn sons, who would serve as priests under their authority. The implication for the mysterious character Melchizedek in the Old Testament (cf. Gen 14:18–20) was that he came from this family pattern; i.e., the father-son priesthood. Ancient Jews and early Christian fathers who read this text understood this almost naturally. On a slightly tangential note, it should be mentioned that a Hebrew tradition typically identified Melchizedek as Shem, the firstborn son of Noah.15

Because Christ was not descended from the tribe of Levi, he could not possibly be deemed a priest per the terms of the Levitical and Deuteronomic covenants that developed as a result of the golden-calf incident. The Letter to the Hebrews does not negate this fact, nor is its author ignorant of it. Instead, the author draws his readers back to events prior to Israel breaking the covenant with God by calling to mind the punishments that the Israelites suffered for their rebellion against God. The first noted rebellion of the people of Israel against their God and Father was the golden calf incident at Mt. Sinai. The punishment that ensued from this event was a grave blow to the covenant identity of the Israelites, for the father-son covenant priesthood, a blessing that they had enjoyed since the time of Adam, was taken away from the firstborn sons of Israel. This priesthood was then conferred to the tribe of Levi. Yet, this arrangement was always meant to be temporary. The author of Hebrews is proposing here that Christ, being God incarnate, is the only one who is righteous enough to bring restoration to the originally conceived father-son family model of the priesthood, principally because “this is a divine family that God, through Christ, is adopting [all man] into through the sacrifice of Christ.”16 The author continues to state that “on the one hand a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness, for the law made nothing perfect. On the other hand, a better hope is introduced through which we draw near to God” (Heb 7:18). One of the main issues with all former forms of priesthood after the fall of man is addressed here, namely that because of death, none of them were able to continue eternally in their office of priesthood. As such, there resulted many “priesthoods.” Christ, however, is “the same, yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8). Therefore, because, as God, he lives and reigns forever, Christ’s priesthood is both one and eternal. This singleness and eternality of his priesthood naturally establishes his divine high priestly office as able to bring salvation to all whom he ministers to, who come to God in and through him. He lives and is eternally making intercession for all God’s covenant children.

The author then progressively and articulately builds the case for the predominance of the New Covenant that Christ had instituted, referring to the prophet Jeremiah, “The days will come says the Lord when I will establish a New Covenant with the House of Israel” (Jer 31:31). He references Jeremiah’s verse 32: “not like the covenant I made with your fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. That covenant, they broke” (Heb 8:9). The author once again draws the readers to the golden-calf incident. The stark contrast of this New Covenant as opposed to that (i.e., the Mosaic) covenant, is that, principally, this covenant will remain eternal, for the firstborn Son through whom this covenant will be instituted will never break it. Consequently, the Letter to the Hebrews posits that, by virtue of Christ’s institution of this New Covenant, he not only perfects and fulfills the Old Covenant, but also fulfills the prophecy of Jeremiah, who stated, “this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts and I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33). The final verse of chapter eight in Hebrews goes on to state determinatively that “by calling this covenant ‘new,’ [Christ] has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Heb 8:13). This statement must be treated within proper context of covenant theology. The Catholic Church makes clear that this text “cannot be understood to mean that God has revoked his covenant with the Jews.”17 The verse must never be misunderstood, as has been the case in many Christian traditions, as saying the covenant with Israel is abrogated. Rather, the proper interpretation of it is that “the former covenant remains but has been surpassed by a better covenant.”18In contrasting the covenants, Dr. Scott Hahn highlights a crucial point in this text, i.e., that “the Old Testament only uses [the phrase] ‘New Covenant’ one time, [whilst] Jesus in the gospels [also] only uses the phrase ‘New Covenant’ one time . . . at the Passover [meal] . . . in the Upper Room . . . to institute the Eucharist.”19 In that Eucharistic framework, the whole Old Testament religious world, which continually offered sacrifice, was simply a semblance of a priesthood “that is in search of the true priesthood, the true sacrifice, [which] finds in Christ its key, its fulfillment.”20 Hebrews thus presents its readers with this key to interpret the whole of the Old Testament, typologically proving how “the religious law abolished after the destruction of the Temple was actually moving towards Christ.”21 Ergo, it is coherent that the Old Covenant was not truly abolished as much as it was “renewed, transformed, so that in Christ all things might find their meaning.”22 The inspired author, in chapter nine, then contrasts the nature of the sacrifices for both the covenants, illustrating the capacity of only the New Covenant sacrifice of Christ to perfect the conscience of the covenanted believer before their God. One can simply surmise, then, that even in the New and Eternal covenant, it is the re-presentation of this sacrifice that continually purifies and perfects the consciences of those who worship God. Consequently, in and through Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection as our Passover sacrifice, one which he is constantly presenting unto God the Father as he ministers in the heavenly sanctuary, the “consciences [of the baptized] are cleansed as [they] offer and receive [the fruit of that ministry in the Holy Eucharist] down here below on earth,”23 for “in Christ himself everything is recapitulated, purified, and led to its term, to its true essence.”24

Christ the New Melchizedek

In chapter eight of Hebrews, the author writes, “Therefore, he is the mediator of a New Covenant” (Heb 8:15). This statement, while almost inconsequential to Christians who are accustomed to hearing this text read often, would have noticeably stood out to the intended readers of the letter, for the precise reason that Christ, during his earthly life and ministry, only ever used the word “covenant” once. That one time, as mentioned above, was during his Passover meal, wherein he instituted the Holy Eucharist. At that meal, by offering the material gifts of bread and wine to be transubstantiated into his Body and Blood, Christ effectively established himself as the new Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews then goes so far as to not only evince this fact that Christ is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb 5:5–10; 6:20; 7:1–17; cf. Ps 110:4), but also to contrast this “order” of Christ’s priesthood as greater than the “order of Aaron” (Heb 7:11).

Here, again, the question of the identity of Melchizedek is at issue. For the purpose of this discussion, the above argument, that Melchizedek was Shem, the firstborn son of Noah, will be upheld. What canonical Scripture does, in fact, tell us is that Melchizedek was an individual whom the patriarch Abraham encountered in a very brief event documented in Genesis 14:17–20. Scripture describes him in the following ways. Firstly, Melchizedek is touted as “King of Salem” (Gen 14:18; Heb 7:1–2). Secondly, the etymology of his name is translated as “king of righteousness/justice” (Heb 7:2). The word “Salem,” however, can also mean “peace,” thus, Melchizedek is called “king of peace” (Heb 7:2). Thirdly, Melchizedek is described in Sacred Scripture as a “priest of God Most High” (Heb 7:1; Gen 14:18). It must be highlighted, however, that Melchizedek was in no way a “Jewish” high priest, not in the strict sense of the word. In fact, if the theory of Melchizedek being Shem were to be considered credible, then Melchizedek had been alive for a considerable amount of time before the call of Abraham, let alone before the institution of the Levitical priesthood among the Israelites. Hence, because Melchizedek is not described, at least in canonical Scripture, as having any genealogy or descendants after him, Scripture awards him the office of “a priest forever” (Ps 110:4; Heb 7:3). In the Genesis narrative, Melchizedek offers bread and wine to God, peculiarly unlike the animal blood sacrifices of the priests in Old Testament history (Gen 14:18). The author of Hebrews typologically characterizes this sacrifice of Melchizedek’s as prefiguring the Holy Eucharist. The ensuing events wherein Melchizedek blesses Abraham (Gen 14:19–20; Heb 7:1) and wherein Abraham offers a tenth of his spoils to Melchizedek (Gen 14:20) substantiate, at least covenantally, how Melchizedek stood in some form of superiority to Abraham, for “without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater” (Heb 7:7). Here, the argument of Melchizedek being Shem would be given credence, as the blessing Melchizedek pronounces over Abraham mirrors the act for the conferring of the covenant, father-son priesthood.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews did not desire to stop short of this typological parallel, but, instead, wanted to draw the syllogism to a further conclusion. Quoting Psalm 110 [109]:4, “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek,” he asserts the fact that Jesus fulfilled not only the promises enshrined in the Davidic Covenant, which most Christian Jews were ready to believe at the time — i.e., that of being both king of Israel and king of the world — but also fulfills the perfection of the Davidic priesthood. Old Testament covenant promises, particularly the Davidic Covenant, carried expectations of one who would fulfill the role of priest-king, and that the two roles would not necessarily be separate but be united in one person. The inspired author of Hebrews, with this realization, demonstrates how these promises come to their full perfection in the person of Christ.25 In that regard, the reader beholds how, in chapter seven, the author carefully narrates Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek (Heb 7:1–10). The author of the letter lays out everything that Sacred Scripture states about this encounter, “except one main fact: that Melchizedek offered bread and the wine.”26

This point is pivotal to the doctrine of Christ as the New Melchizedek, for when Scripture postulates how Christ is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, the utilization of the word “order” is taken to mean the manner in which Melchizedek exercises his priesthood. As such, by contrasting the Levitical priesthood, the author presupposes the reader’s understanding that the latter had to continue to offer animals in sacrifice. They were literally obligated to kill millions of sheep, goats, and cattle, shedding immeasurable amounts of blood that would be poured out in the Temple. In contradistinction, the priesthood of Melchizedek, as King of Peace, demanded not these animal sacrifices. It becomes evident, then, that the entirety of the tradition that developed from the Davidic Covenant had the hearts of the Israelites acclaiming, “Here is the place, Jerusalem is the place of the true worship, the concentration of worship in Jerusalem dates back to the times of Abraham, Jerusalem is the true place for the proper veneration of God.”27

Christ the Eternal Heavenly High Priest

“Now the point in what we are saying is this. We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb 8:1). The Christ who is mentioned here is also the Lamb who is spoken of in the Book of Revelation (Rev 5:6). This Christ is the one same Lamb of God, the firstborn Son and the heavenly high priest who ministers in the celestial sanctuary. He is continually ministering in the true tabernacle that God, and not man, has constructed, “for every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices. Hence it is necessary for this priest to have something to offer” (Heb 8:3).28 Among its infinite facets of significance, one of the most important aspects of the faith to be considered in the Eucharistic sacrifice is that the faithful should realize “here is gathered together all human prayer, all human desire, all true human devotion, the true search for God that is fulfilled at last in Christ.”29 As the inspired author writes,

So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. With his own blood — not the blood of goats and calves — he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. (Heb 9:11-15a)

Therefore, finally and permanently, heaven is opened up to man, and true worship by the baptized of the one, true God is removed of its veil of mystery: “it is no longer enigmatic, in relative signs, but true.”30 Hence, what the inspired author of the Letter to Hebrews writes rings ever true: “our priest . . . is seated at the right hand of the throne . . . in the sanctuary, the true tent which is set up . . . by the Lord” (cf. Heb 8: 1–2).31 As the heavenly sanctuary has been opened unto man, man by himself, in turn, does not truly offer something unto God. Rather, man, in the divine liturgy, by virtue of Christ’s eternal ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, truly becomes one with God. This is liturgical worship in its truest sense — where God and man become one in peace.32

  1. Thomas Aquinas, “Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews,” accessed June 12, 2017, dhspriory.org/thomas/english/SSHebrews.htm#24, 150.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 152.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 152–54.
  11. Pope Benedict XVI, Lectio divina in meeting with the parish priests of the Diocese of Rome (February 18, 2010), accessed June 14, 2017, w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2010/february/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20100218_parroci-roma.html.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Scott W. Hahn, “The Eucharist as the Meal of Melchizedek” (1996), accessed June 14, 2017, ewtn.com/faith/teachings/euchc4.htm.
  15. For more on this, please see M. M. Ninan, “Who is Melchizedek?,” accessed June 14, 2017, instituteofcatholicculture.org/who-is-melchizedek/.
  16. Hahn, “Meal of Melchizedek.”
  17. Mary Healy, Hebrews, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016), 160.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Hahn, “Meal of Melchizedek.”
  20. Benedict XVI, Lectio divina.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Hahn, “Meal of Melchizedek.”
  24. Benedict XVI, Lectio divina.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Hahn, “Meal of Melchizedek.”

    Benedict XVI, Lectio divina.

  27. Ibid.
  28. Hahn, “Meal of Melchizedek.”
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Benedict XVI, Lectio divina.
  32. Ibid.
Marcus Benedict Peter About Marcus Benedict Peter

Marcus Benedict Peter hails from Malaysia, and has had over nine years’ experience in faith formation, missionary work, and evangelization. He has ministered in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, India, and the United States. He is currently pursuing his MA in Theology at Ave Maria University, Florida.

Comments

  1. This reflection on the letter of Hebrews and the tracing of Jesus Christ the eternal high priest through the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek and ultimately through the tribe of Judah and not Levi is so well thought out from start to finish. It was excellent.
    We know and have it repeated many times reading through scripture that Aaron and Moses of the levitical priestly class received the law from God and instruction as to how to construct the sanctuary a holy place set apart for the Nations, of which Israel being the first, can come and worship God.
    Israel under the supervisor of Aaron missed the whole point of being in right relationship with God. Even before the law given to Moses by God to govern over the Israelites could begin to impact the lives of the people of God, they had broken the first law of God do not worship false Gods but The lord God alone. Obviously the law was not internalized.

    I think to this day that has been the problem with the priesthood. I do not think we ever got past the impact of false worship or superficial worship of God since Aaron made that golden calf . Yet God’s plan was never in my humble opinion to reform or transform the priesthood as it was handed down through the levitical priestly tribe. It was to actualize the eternal Father Son priestly covenantal relationship through the eternal Spirit of God originating in the Melchizedek eternal highpriest order.
    I believe all the missing pieces to appropriately celebrate the Holy Eucharist and its effect to make Holy the people of God is very likely a reality today.

    Yet I am concern the priesthood is in crisis, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist has become more of a social gathering than a true entering into the real presence of God. If the priest are not living holy lives the people cannot obtain salvation.

    There are some of us who are looking for that particular Church that holy priest who has got it right in being in right fellowship with God. I am afraid though That place is truly going to come down to Our bodies being the true temple of the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the Jacob’s well , that there are those who worship what they do not know unlike Jesus who worships God whom He does know. He also made the statement that the time is coming when we would worship God not on Mt.Zion or Jerusalem but in Spirit and in Truth.

    Thank you.

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