What is priesthood?

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The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is considered to be the end of God’s priesthood. But is that really so? Because in the Bible priesthood is already mentioned ages before Moses erected the Tabernacle. Some even think that Adam was God’s first priest. So, is this office really dependent on the existence of the Temple of God and what is priesthood according to Scripture?

A priest represents a god or gods and is mediator or middle-man between a god or gods and man. Because of their direct contact with the divine they (are assumed to) have special knowledge. Before coming into office they have received a consecration to that god or gods. They have special privileges amongst the (believing) humans and it asks of them all kinds of contributions. Not only since they often have no income from society, but even more so they will thereby make the god or god’s to become ‘present’. Their state of separation becomes clear from special clothing and in handling special utensils and materials. They perform special acts and have access to religious places and buildings (temples) and sections thereof, like altars and their utensils, which are off-limits for normal people. Thereby they earn respect.

Word study
The Hebrew word kohen comes from the root kahan – to intercede (between the God of the Bible and man). The Greek word for priest is hiereus, but this meaning is limited to priests which brought offerings unto demigods in a pagan temple. The word hiereus is connected with holiness – hagios and also with purity/cleanness – hagnos.

The Greek/Roman word for priest thus puts emphasis on the holiness of the person, what he does and touches. This points to magic or at least towards the occult/mystical side of his office. This stands in sharp contrast with the Biblical concept of kohen, of who is stated that even he needed to perform offerings for his own sins. Kohaniem could be killed or cursed by God if they brought forbidden, improper of wrong offerings or performed the offering in the wrong way. Kohaniem are required to be both mentally and physically focused and devoted to God.

In Biblical sense holiness only originates from God. So, only that made the Temple, its attributes, its utensils and the kohaniem holy. Still, holiness can be transferred [1]. In the same way as impurity is ‘contagious’. In the following a difference is made between a kohen (Biblical priest) and a priest (pagan priest).

Pagan ‘priests’
In the Bible it seems that pagan priests are mentioned for the first time in the story of Josef in Egypt (Gn 41:45). The existence of such priests not in the service of God points to the existence of idolatry. But also the awareness of human vulnerability for the ‘higher powers’, like the dependence on Creation. But still, there is more. It proves that evil powers are at work. In Egypt they were able to also perform several of the wondrous signs that Moses performed as commanded by God (Ex 7:11, 22; 8:7). For a heathen that was proof that higher spiritual powers actually existed and that they could be manipulated. That is the real justification for the existence of pagan priests and their influence. Rulers, kings, and rich people always find it not enough to have dominion over the physical. They have the quaint need to also have dominion over the non-physical: to be among the ‘gods’.

Kohaniem of God
These kohaniem already existed preceding the moment that Moses dedicated the kohaniem from the tribe of Levi. The difference between the kohaniem of God and the pagan priests is that the kohaniem represented God (Gn 4:26). These were believers who longed for God, revered Him and wanted to bring that across to others. Some of them were also prophets, healers, teachers and judges. They distinguished and identified matters, but also ensured spiritual health and growth. They dedicated themselves to God and He confirmed that.

It seems Adam also brought offerings to God, because the Hebrew root ’avad (Gn 2:15) can also mean worshipping through offerings. However, to view Adam as a kohen is ridiculous. Since a kohen needed to be dedicated to intercede between God and a community. Adam would have to be self-sufficient living in direct contact with God. In the Bible it is described that the sons of Adam, Cain and Abel, also brought offerings to God. They seem to have followed their fathers’ example. But also they can hardly be seen as kohaniem. Noah brought offering to God, but these gave reconciliation for the creatures (Gn 8:21). So he can be seen as a kohen [2].

A very different example is Melchizedek (Gn 14:18), king of Salem. Even the patriarch Abram accepted him as kohen [3] by giving him a tenth of the spoils the Abram had captured (Gn 14:20). The origin and background of Melchizedek’s office as kohen is, contrary to the offspring of Eber (The Hebrews [4]; Gn 10:21), obscure (Hebr 7:3) [5].

What makes someone kohen is that he brings about blessing and curse on others (Gn 12:3). A kohen also intercede for (believing) people. Defined like that, then also Abraham was kohen (Gn 18:23-32). Also Jakob proved to be kohen when he confronts (believing) people with the truthful religion, cleansed them and sanctified them (Gn 35:2). Therefore it is not surprising that in the Bible it is written that kohaniem already were in place under the Israelites the day God took them out of Egypt (Ex 19:22, 24) [6]. It has to be clear that these kohaniem were already sons of Levi (Ex 32:26). Through the covenant of God, which was mediated unto the Israelites by the Moses, a son of Levi, the tribe of Levi was dived up into casts. From them only a specific family and their offspring could provide kohaniem [7] and receive anointment according the Covenant of Sinai.

That anointment marks that they received the Holy Spirit for their office in the Sanctuary. The office became boxed in and regulated. From that moment on it became a dynastic office (determined by family line). The other Levites were only allowed to perform special responsibilities in the Sanctuary (Nm 3-4). The Levites became God’s Own property. From then on any outsider [8] who interfered with the office of kohen was to be killed or died on the spot (Nm 3:10; 4:19-20). When Israel had become heir of the promised Land Levites went out to all cities and towns and probable also to the Israelites in the Diaspora. There they performed religious responsibilities, like the application of various customs.

Christian kohaniem or priests?
Amongst the first followers of the Lord Jesus there were quite some Levites and kohaniem (Acts 6:7) [9]. The is fitting, since they are supposed to be the most zealous believers having also the most knowledge about the religion of Israel. It must be clear that once they became disciples they were no longer regarded as Levites according to traditional Judaism. They were seen as disqualified for their office in the Temple [10]. But did they also lose their elevated position amongst believers? This seems not evident (Mt 8:4), but this is not very relevant [11].

Important is the question whether the office of kohen was continued in the New Covenant. This is certainly the case, since the Head of the believers, the Lord Jesus, offered Himself up for the sake of believers, thereby testifying that He was actually a kohen. Also He received the office of kohen gadol (High priest of Israel) in the Temple of God in heaven (Hebr 9:11). Therefore His servants have to be directly connected with the His office as Kohen. God’s community of believers [12] surely cannot exist without the Temple service of the Lord Jesus.

Due to the Bible interpretation that the community of Christians had replaced Israel as people of God [13] already early in history Christians decided to appoint Levites and priests, just like there were in the Temple in Jerusalem. These brought offerings and ministered Christian customs in special temple buildings (churches) [14]. God would have wanted that. However, there is no justification from the Bible to do this and therefore this kind of priesthood was not commanded by God. Their priesthood is not only useless, but most of all illegal and blasphemous [15].

The need of Christianity to substitute the office of kohaniem stems from the understanding that something is missing from the New Covenant. The Christian priesthood is meant to camouflage that ‘gap’. However, it would be better to face the facts of the discrepancies in the New Covenant. God’s Covenant is stagnated and unfulfilled as long as the Temple service on earth is not reinstated. But in the Bible it is explicitly written that only the Messiah is allowed to do that. But since the Messiah foremost comes to restore Israel, it seems that the New Covenant can only then become fully functional when Israel is again added to the people of God. Only then the New Covenant will be fulfilled: when the Messianic Kingdom is established over all nations of the earth.

Office of kohaniem of all believers
In Christianity there is much interest for the notion of the priesthood of all believers which is mentioned in the Bible (Ex 19:6; 1 Pe 2:9). However, this is about:
• Being member of the people of God and the service to Him
• Obedience and working along with the service of the Kohen Gadol (Israelite High Priest) of God, the Lord Jesus.

The priesthood of all believers is however something rather different that the official kohaniem which God assigned since the Covenant of Sinai. Also there were quite some conditions for the kohaniem, of which the most important are mentioned in this article. It demands quite something, like spiritual maturity and pastoral talent. One has to have understanding the community of believers such as purpose, functioning and reason of existence. It is evident that only advanced believers were appointed kohen (Nm 4:35). It is clear the christocentrisme (narrow vision on the Lord Jesus) is a hindrance for priesthood [16].

Still, there are believers who exercise the office of kohen, but they mostly do that spontaneous, without a special dedication of honor. It would not surprise that some of them exercise a (church) office. Whoever they may be, God will bless that office of kohen, confirm it and give it authority. The believers who pay attention will identify them in their midst.

Future of kohaniem
In the Bible the restoration of the Temple service in the current, imperfect world is announced. That has to mean a restoration of the official kohaniem for the New Covenant of God. It will be restored in the tribe of Levi, but the office shall no longer be limited to that tribe [17]. Even non-Israelites will be permitted officially to that office (Is 66:21). Everything points towards sustenance of the office of kohen until the coming of the perfect world [18].

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[1] Mostly in an unfavorable sense.
[2] But probable not the first.
[3] Melchizedek is the first which is called kohen in the Bible. So, he cannot be seen as a pagan priest, although some state that.
[4] On whom is the focus in the Bible.
[5] The office of kohen which was held by the father in law of Moses is also obscure (Ex 2:16, 21). That seems to suggest that it is only God Who assures their service and nothing else.
[6] So, before God commanded the office of kohen according His Covenant of Sinai (Ex 28:1).
[7] The dedication of pagan priests is an act of man to worship their demigods to accommodate their own needs. There naming them magi is fitting. They wanted to manipulate their demigods for their own selfishness and for those that hired them.
[8] Also Levites.
[9] Mary, the ‘mother’ of the Lord Jesus, belonged to the tribe of Levi and seems to have been a daughter of the kohaniem (Lc 1:36). Also John, the son of Zebedee, seemed related to the kohaniem (Jh 18:15) and then also his brother Jakob. Matthew, the son of Alpheus, was originally named Levi (Mc 2:14; Lc 5:27) and his brother Jakob thus also was a Levite (Mc 3:18).
[10] Later they were excommunicated out of Israel as apostates.
[11] The Temple service in heaven became pivotal.
[12] Amongst them those which are called ‘Christians’.
[13] This interpretation is based on a right assumption about the people of God, but was wrongly acted upon and is used to distance themselves from the Jewish people. Because the future restoration of Israel within the people of God is ignored, despite there are prophecies about that in the Bible. It also ignores the fact that, according to the Bible, Israel cannot be replaced as a nation.
[14] These are designed to reflect the Temple of Jerusalem.
[15] An accusation brought forward especially during the Reformation.
[16] For example, nowhere is the worship of (a kohen gadol, like) the Lord Jesus mentioned in the Bible. But it is mentioned that the Lord Jesus commands to only worship God (Mt 4:10; 19:17).
[17] The Lord Jesus has altered and improved the office of kohen forever.
[18] The new Creation.