Christ: Priesthood is Self-emptying Life and Ministry

Light of truth

Question: Peter D’Cruz

Was Jesus Christ a priest? How does He become a priest?

Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS

Was Jesus Christ a priest? Did He offer sacrifices like other priests? These and other related questions are discussed again and again. Such an inquiry about the priestly dimension of the reality of Jesus is often raised probably not because of any special theological interest in this matter but because of serious consequences that follow from the affirmation or denial of the priesthood of Christ. At the time of reformation such questions were raised about the priesthood of Christ because of the evil of clericalism and abuse of power by those in the hierarchy. The higher clergy at the time of the reformation despised the lower clergy who in turn despised the laity. The sacred sacrifice of the Eucharist and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist were abused as they were misused to secure financial gains. The strongest reaction of the Reformers against such abuses was to deny the legitimacy of the hierarchy and priesthood as divinely instituted and affirm the common priesthood all the believers. The Reformers did not deny the priesthood of Christ and the universal priesthood of the people of God as founded on the priesthood of Christ. According to the Catholic tradition both the common priesthood of all the baptized and the ministerial priesthood of those who are called to serve the people of God are founded on the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. But the question is, “Was Jesus Christ a priest?”

Experience of Christ as truly God and Human
Many theological problems and controversies arise because of a literal reading the New Testament. Unlike Muslims who would never critically study their Holy Quran and literally believe that it was dictated to Prophet Mohammed by God through angel Gabriel, the Church allows a critical study of the Holy Scripture. The Church believes that the truth revealed in Jesus Christ can never be destroyed by a critical study of what is articulated in the New Testament. What is written in the Scripture has God as its original source or author but it is articulated by human authors who use their language to express their transforming experience of Jesus Christ after they experienced Him as Lord and God after His resurrection. Some of those experiences they pushed back into the historical life of Jesus to show that He was Lord and God during His earthly life too and did not suddenly became God after resurrection. But during His earthly life nobody could have recognized Him as Lord and God because they were strict monotheists or they believed that Yahweh alone was God.

We know how we struggle to express the experience of any physical pain to others who have not experienced it. No language can adequately express any experience. It is still more difficult if one has to express a spiritual or mystical experience. Sometimes great mystics use a romantic language to express their experience of the divine. So we use symbols, metaphors, approximate expressions of truth while communicating our experience of spiritual or transcendental realities. This is true also of the apostles’ experience of Jesus. For them Yahweh alone was God. They could never have imagined that God could become human! It is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the transformation they experienced through this event that made them proclaim boldly that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9).

From the transforming experience of resurrection they began to look at the reality of Jesus of Nazareth and the events that took place in His public ministry and interpreted His life and message according to the needs of their addressees. For example, evangelist Matthew writes the gospel for his Jewish Christian community and therefore he emphasizes the truth that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah. Mark writes to the persecuted Christians of Rome and presents Jesus as the Crucified Messiah or one who was humiliated and suffered like them. Luke presents Jesus to the Gentile Christians as the liberator and saviour. John writes addressing people of all cultures and languages and therefore emphasizes that Jesus is the Saviour of the world. From the beginning to the end of the gospel John emphasizes the divine dimension of Jesus. So the reader of the gospel according to John may get an impression that everybody who believed in Jesus during His earthly life knew that He was God and forget the fact that the Jewish people were strict monotheists and for them Yahweh alone was God. While the gospel according to Matthew, Mark and Luke present Jesus’ human dimension with the narration of some events like Tabor experience which was a resurrection experience to show that He was Lord and God though He was human, John gives more importance to the divine dimension of Jesus. If Jesus was only human He was only a prophet as Muslims believe that He was and if he was only God then He was pretending to be human or appearing as human as Docetic heresies (similar to avatara philosophy) taught, then God has not become truly human and our salvation is in peril. Therefore, the Church affirms and confesses its faith that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human. This was the experience of the disciples of Jesus too. They experienced Him as really human and after His resurrection experienced Him as their Lord and God.

For the Christians of today, it is easy to believe that Jesus is God but difficult to believe that He was human like any other human but committed no sin. It is easy to adore Him as Lord and God in Liturgy and through other devotional practices but to live a human life like Him in communion with self, God, others and nature is difficult. To be like Jesus of Nazareth one has to challenge himself or herself to be authentic, prophetically challenge oppression, injustice, discrimination and all forms dehumanization as Jesus did and be ready to suffer the consequences of living like Jesus. One who lives in communion with God and gives himself/herself to others in bringing them to that transforming communion is a priest in the true sense of the word. It is a commonly accepted belief in all religions that a priest is basically meant to be a mediator between God and humans!

A Prophet against Cultic Priesthood
It is certain that during His earthly life the contemporaries of Jesus did not recognize Him as a priest. He was not born into a priestly family. According to the Old Testament the head of the tribe or the head of the family or a king was a natural priest and he could offer sacrifices. Then there were professional priests in certain sanctuaries. Some of the professional priests were elected, some were appointed and some were priests by heredity. When Jesus came into the scene, Jewish priesthood had become a cultic priesthood their only function being offering of sacrifices. Jesus did not belong to the priestly class. He belonged to the working class and He worked as a carpenter. In the Gospels the figure of Jesus appears as non-clerical and anti-clerical. After His transforming experience at baptism by John the Baptist He realized His prophetic mission and proclaimed the Kingdom of God with an authority unknown to His predecessors. He was recognized and acknowledged by His disciples as “a prophet mighty in deed and word” (Luke 24:19).

With prophetic courage Jesus denounced oppression, injustice, marginalization and dehumanization. His just anger blazed against the priestly class that manipulated religion to secure spiritual and temporal power. He named the Scribes and the Pharisees for misusing the laws of religion to discriminate people and condemn them to a life of fear and servitude. They made use of religion to divide people into pure and impure, righteous and unrighteous. In fact, Jesus was anti-clerical in the sense that He could not tolerate the abuse of power by the so called priests of His time. With prophetic courage He makes a critique of the cult. “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Matthew 9:13). Jesus associated freely with the ritually or cultically impure people which none of the Jewish priests of His time would ever do (Matthew 9:10). Jesus does not use any imagery from priestly ministry in His teaching but used the imageries from the ordinary life in a secular world. When He used any priestly imagery it was only to show the inhuman attitude of a priest and a Levite who did not care for the man who was the victim of a cruel attack of the robbers and was helped only by a Samaritan who was an outcaste! According to George Soares-Prabhu, a well-known biblical theologian, Jesus never called Himself a priest and He never called His disciples priests! Then why was Jesus recognized and accepted as a priest?

Jesus Christ the Priest
The New Testament does not present Jesus as belonging to a priestly family and does not associate Him with Levitical priesthood as the priesthood of His time was reduced to sacrificial cult. Along with the evolution of the cultic priesthood in the OT there was a unique understanding of priesthood different from the surrounding cultures, namely, the entire people of Israel as a priestly people (Exodus 19:6).The fulfilment of the Messianic hope is the universal priesthood, “You shall be called priests of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:6). The OT priesthood included not only the mediating function of cultic sacrifices to God and bringing God’s message and blessings to people but also instructing people on the Law and giving leadership to the community. In the course of time we see a trend to spiritualize the sacrifice. “Behold to obey is better than sacrifice and to hearken than the fat of rams (I Samuel 15:22). The Prophets preached about such spiritual sacrifices (Isaiah 1:10-20). According to the Psalmist, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit…(Psalm 51:17). When the Letter to the Hebrews interpreted the life, mission and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice and Jesus Christ as the only High Priest, the Old Testament spiritualization of sacrifice finds its full meaning and actualization as the only sacrifice offered once and for all. This sacrifice was acceptable to God.

Hebrews 10:5-10 affirms that Jesus Christ’s life and death was indeed a sacrifice of the new covenant, “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure. 7 Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’ as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.” When He said the above, “Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), he added, “Lo, I have come to do thy will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” The total self-gift of Jesus was interpreted by the early Church in terms of the true spiritual sacrifice of the Old Testament. This can be seen also in the gospels. “The Son of Man came to serve and not to be served and give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself is interpreted as an expiatory sacrifice “for you” in Mark 10:45; Luke 22:19; and John 1:11,15. All the Eucharistic texts affirm that His blood that is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins is the blood of the new covenant.

The sacrificial value of the death of Jesus is emphasized in various texts of the New Testament, “the saving blood of Christ (Romans 3:5, 5:9; Ephesians 1:7 etc and Paul’s comparison of Jesus Christ with the paschal lamb (I Cor. 5:7) which John would take up as a witness of John the Baptist, “the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). The Letter to the Hebrews develops the theme of Christ’s priesthood in a systematic way and shows that Christ is the High Priest and in him both the natural priesthood and the professional priesthood of the Old Testament are fulfilled as he is the Son of the Father and he was appointed as priest. In the gospel according to John we find Jesus presented as the High Priest who consecrates Himself and His disciples (ch.17). I Tim 2:5 affirm that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humans and thus indirectly states that He is the only priest. Christian priesthood, both the common priesthood of the people of God and the ministerial priesthood of those who serve the people of God, is the actualization of the One priesthood of Christ. In the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation presents Jesus Christ in priestly garments (Revelation 1:13).

The New Testament affirms that the early Church experienced Jesus as a prophet mighty in word and deed as well as the good shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep. His prophetic and pastoral functions are also essential to His priestly function of offering His life as a sacrifice for the reconciliation of the world (2 Corinthians 5:18). The early Church encountered the risen Christ as the only mediator or priest between God and humans whose life and mission and self-sacrifice they interpreted using the symbols, imageries and concepts of priesthood of the Old Testament in a radically new way. The priestly, prophetic and pastoral function of Jesus is continued in the world through His Church both in the common priesthood of all the faithful and in the ministerial priesthood of those commissioned or ordained to be servants of the people of God to make present the mediation of Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice, to be a prophet and shepherd the people of God with a servant-leadership.

The Challenge of Christ’s Priesthood
Jesus was murdered or killed for standing for a God for whom humans were more important than cultic sacrifices, temple and laws of purity and impurity. He was prepared to give up His life rather than give up the values that He experienced through His intimacy with His Father and actualized in His public ministry. When He was encountered by the early community as their Lord and God after His resurrection they could understand, interpret and proclaim that His mediating and reconciling function in terms of a priesthood that is unique, once and for all. His eternal priesthood makes all other priesthood obsolete. Actualization of His priesthood in history opens the way for all who believe in Him to fulfil their vocation as priests of reconciliation and communion. Mere cultic sacrifices without accompanying self-sacrifice of the one who offers the sacrifice and without accompanying prophetic commitment to the values of the Kingdom and self-emptying servant leadership would empty the cross of its power and the Jesus’ sacrifice its true meaning. Further it would be manipulated to acquire power and create systems to oppress and enslave the weak. The heart of Christ’s priesthood and Christian priesthood is self-emptying life and ministry that others may have life and have it in abundance for true communion!

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