“...the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but He [Jesus] holds His priesthood permanently, because He continues forever.” Heb 7:23Protestants often like to appeal to this verse (and other similar ones) to argue that the Catholic Church is in error because we still have priests. They argue that this verse clearly teaches that we no longer need priests, because Jesus is now our One and Only High Priest. What’s more, they appeal to verses like 1 Pet 2:9 and Rev 1:6 claiming that we are all priests and therefore no longer have need of a priesthood.
Unfortunately, as well-meaning as their arguments might be, they are not accurate. For example, Israel was also a “kingdom of priests” (see Ex 19:6), and yet they still had a ministerial priesthood. The Church teaches that all Christians are indeed priests, by virtue of our baptism; but, there is a difference between this common priesthood of all believers and the ministerial priesthood:
Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church "a kingdom, priests for his God and Father." The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ's mission as priest, prophet, and king. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are consecrated to be a holy priesthood. (CCC #1546)
The ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests, and the common priesthood of all the faithful participate, "each in its own proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ." While being "ordered one to another," they differ essentially. In what sense? While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace --a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit--, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church. For this reason it is transmitted by its own sacrament, the sacrament of Holy Orders. (CCC #1547)But what about Heb 7:23 quoted above? The Scriptures can sometimes be a funny thing – they can easily be twisted to teach almost anything that you want them to teach (2 Pet 3:16). Which is why St. Peter warns that the interpretation of Scripture is not a private affair (2 Pet 1:20). Rather, the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15) – as such, it the Church is entrusted with the right interpretation of Scripture.
The common Protestant interpretation of Heb 7:23 is just one such misinterpretation. In fact, the way this verse is often used against Catholics is actually taken out of context. The point the author of Hebrews is trying to make starts a few verses earlier.
Beginning in Heb 7:11, the author of the Epistle talks about the Levitical priesthood according to the “order of Aaron”. He goes on to make the point that Jesus was not of the line of Aaron, so He could not be a Levitical priest. But, he argues, this is not a problem because God made a promise that the Messiah would be of the “order of Melchizedek”. He goes on to show how the “order of Aaron” was not an eternal arrangement; but the “order of Melchizedek” was.
At this point, we need to take a bit of a detour before proceeding because we need to understand what the “order of Aaron” and “order of Melchizedek” actually refer to.
Melchizedek lived a few hundred years before the time of Moses and Aaron. According to Gen 14:18, he was the King of Salem (later Jerusalem) and also the “priest of God Most High”. He seems to appear out of nowhere to bless Abram (later Abraham) after Abram won a battle to rescue his nephew (Lot). Throughout the book of Genesis, we see that this kind of blessing was familiar to the Patriarchs – it was the blessing conferred to the eldest son to take up the mantle of the father; and he would in turn bless his eldest son as his death drew near. Now, what was this all about?
Before the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, there was already a priesthood in existence. It began with the first man (Adam) and was passed on by the priestly blessing to the firstborn son – and so the priesthood was perpetuated. Without going into too much detail, Melchizedek is none other than Shem (the son of Noah) who passed on the priestly blessing to his descendent, Abram (presumably because his death was imminent). This same blessing was passed from Abram, to Jacob, to Isaac, and so on down until we reach the time of Moses and Aaron.
So if there was a priesthood before and leading up to Aaron, why was it changed? Again, without going into too much detail, the Levitical priesthood was instituted because of the failure of the then-existing priests (i.e. the firstborn sons) in the incident of the Golden Calf (see Ex 32). The Levites alone were willing to take up God’s challenge to dispel the idolaters within Israel (Ex 32:25-29), and for this reason they were instituted as the “new” priesthood.
“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.” (Ex 32:29)Notice especially that their ordination as the new priesthood is made in the context of a blessing replacing the old priesthood (hence the reference to the “son or brother”).
In summary, the “order of Aaron” refers to the priesthood that replaced the priesthood of the firstborn – the “order of Melchizedek”. And this is where Jesus Christ comes into the picture. The Son of God became a Man to reverse the sins of mankind, beginning with the sin of Adam. So, in Christ, the “order of Aaron” is no longer necessary because the “order of Melchizedek” is restored in Him – the only begotten and firstborn Son of God.
Now, how does this relate to my original comment on Heb 7:23? It still doesn’t necessarily prove that priests are still required for God’s people today. Having established the foundation of the author’s argument, let us proceed now to the verses that follow. Here is the reading in full:
The former priests were many in number,
because they were prevented by death from continuing in office;
but he [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently,
because he continues forever.
Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him,
since he always lives to make intercession for them.
For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest,
holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners,
and exalted above the heavens.
Unlike the other high priests, he has no need
to offer sacrifices day after day,
first for his own sins, and then for those of the people;
this he did once for all when he offered himself.
For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness,
but the word of the oath, which came later than the law,
appoints a Son, who has been made perfect forever. (Heb 7:23-28)
It is clear, from reading the passage in its entirety that the priesthood of Jesus Christ, after the “order of Melchizedek”, is in the context of Him being instituted as the new and eternal High Priest. In the “order of Aaron”, the high priest was replaced whenever he died – but Jesus lives forever, so He will never be replaced – He is the Eternal High Priest. In this context, Heb 7:23 is not referring to priests in general; rather it it is referring particularly to the office of the high priest.
This fits with what the author says in the very next verse:
Now the main 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 the heavens (Heb 8:1)
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews goes on to remind us that the worship of the Old Covenant, including its priesthood, was “a sketch and shadow” of heavenly worship (see Heb 8:5). If God never changes (Heb 13:8), then we can expect that the heavenly worship owed to Him never changes. So, if the Old Covenant worship, as a shadow of heaven, included a ministerial priesthood, then we can expect that there should continue to be a ministerial priesthood in the New Covenant. [This is another reason why Catholic and Orthodox liturgy looks more like Old Testament worship than does your typical Protestant service – with things like vestments, incense, altars, etc. Catholics and Orthodox understand that our earthly liturgy is nothing less than heavenly worship.]
At this point, the Protestant might say “OK – fair enough. But for a priesthood to be valid, there must be sacrifice. But there can’t be sacrifice, because Heb 7:27 tells us that Jesus offered Himself ONCE FOR ALL. There is no more sacrifice – therefore, there can be no more priests.”
Without realising it, in arguing this way, the Protestant actually proves too much because, if there is no more sacrifice, and hence no more need for priests, then there is also no more need for a high priest – including the eternal High Priesthood of Jesus.
At first glance, Heb 7:27 may appear to say that sacrifice has ceased; but if we look more closely at what the author to the Hebrews is saying, we find that there is more than initially meets the eye. Yes – the Sacrifice of Jesus offered on the Cross was offered once for all. But that is not the end of the story. In Heb 7:25 we are told that Jesus makes intercession on behalf of sinners forever. So whilst the Sacrifice of Calvary was offered once for all, it is perpetually re-presented by the Son in intercession to the Father for the sins of the world.
If earthly worship is a reflection of heavenly worship, it makes sense that the priests on earth, acting in union with the Eternal High Priest (i.e. in persona Christi), offer that same once-for-all Sacrifice in the Holy Mass. As the Catechism says:
The sacrifice of Christ [on Calvary] and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different. (See CCC #1367)
So, contrary to Protestant objections, the Catholic priesthood is a God-ordained priesthood in the “order of Melchizedek” with Jesus Christ as the Eternal High Priest.
How does this relate to the other readings for today – the First Reading (Deut 6:2-6) and the Gospel Reading (Mk 12:28-34) – where we are reminded that the greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love our neighbour as ourselves?
If we really examine ourselves, it doesn’t take long to see that we fail dismally on both accounts – we don’t love God will absolutely every fibre of our being as we should. And how often, in our dealings with others, are our motives self-centred – proving that we still love ourselves more than our neighbour?
Again, this is where our Lord Jesus Christ comes into the picture. He loved His Heavenly Father and His neighbour so perfectly, that in obedience to the Father, He offered up His life as the ransom for humanity on the Cross of Calvary. As pointed out above, this once-for-all Sacrifice is perpetuated in the Blessed Eucharist in which Jesus gives Himself to us in His fullness so that He can draw us up into Himself. And so, as we worthily receive our Blessed Lord – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – in Holy Communion, we will also see Him transform our lives as we grow in our love for God, and for our neighbour.
Thanks be to God for the great gift of Jesus in the Eucharist! And thanks be to God for the great gift of priests who continually offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for love of Him and love of neighbour!