The Priest King

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The letter to the Hebrews is often summarized as a comparison between the old and new covenants, with emphasis placed upon the fact that the new covenant is superior. “Better” is often underscored as the key word of the epistle. And such is certainly true. But a closer look at the discussion will reveal a focus upon Jesus as our High Priest. He is introduced in the first chapter as the “express image” of God Himself, incarnate for the purpose of revelation and victory, and enthroned as King at the right hand of God. Yet before the second chapter is concluded, this Jesus, “crowned with glory and honor” (2.9), is pictured in His role as “a merciful and faithful High Priest” (2.17). And the remainder of the argument in Hebrews is consumed with this function of Jesus’ work. Note that every “better” comparison – whether family position (ch.3), rest (ch.4), priestly tribe (ch.7), law (ch.7), covenant (ch.7-8), tabernacle (ch.8-9), sacrifice (ch.8-10), or testament (ch.9-10) – in some way revolves around Jesus as “High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (6.20).

Unless we have grown up in connection with Catholicism or certain Eastern religions, most of us have little practical understanding of the concept of priesthood. 1 Tim.2.5 notes that there is “one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus,” and as American culture is quite familiar with “protestant” Christianity, most of us would see no need for a man to stand between us and God (though some “pastor” systems seem to trend in that direction). At any rate, our failure of appreciation for priesthood in the Bible can result in a failure of appreciation for one of the most unique roles of Jesus Christ – He is the Priest King.

A priest in the Bible stood between men and God. A good summation of his function, at least in the Mosaic covenant, is found in the latter chapters of Exodus and in Leviticus. He was to “minister to” God (Ex.28.1f); make atonement for the people (Lev.1f); bear the names of God’s people before the LORD (Ex.28.12,29); bear the judgment of God’s people (Ex.28.30); “bear the iniquity of the holy things” (Ex.28.38); care for the bread, lamps, and incense in the tabernacle (Ex.30); teach the people (Lev.10.11); make judgments regarding cleanness (Lev.13-14); etc. The High Priest was to represent the people to God, and God to the people. No one could enter into Yahweh’s tent except the priest. He was vital to a man’s relationship with God.

Prior to the Mosaic covenant, priesthood appears to be a part of the patriarchal function (to some extent). This is evident in Job 1.5 where Job offers sacrifices on behalf of his children. Similarly, throughout Genesis it is the patriarch who is generally portrayed as offering sacrifices or performing circumcision (Noah; Abraham; Isaac; Jacob). Even Moses appears at times to submit to his father-in-law Jethro as being an appropriate mediator (Ex.18). It is interesting that we are introduced to the first person designated as a priest during this era. In Gen.14.18f, Abraham is blessed by Melchizedek who is described as king of Salem and “the priest of God Most High.” We are given little information about him, though it might be assumed that he served in both roles for the people of Salem. Perhaps such implies that Salem, like many early towns, was essentially a family community, and that Melchizedek was the patriarch of the family. Clearly, priesthood in the patriarchal era was family centered, and that concept is retained in the Mosaic era as the Levites were brethren to the Israelites that they served. While the appearance of Melchizedek is almost obscure, it is this man who will become the type of the Priest King Jesus.

As the Bible story unfolds, we are introduced to numerous priests and kings, though the functions are never combined among God’s people. Perhaps the reason that the roles are separated primarily has to do with God’s intention that He be recognized as King over Israel, though He clearly knew that His people would one day request a human figurehead (Deu.17.14f). Such a request should probably come as no surprise, given that the early national leaders of Israel were forerunners or perhaps foreshadows of the king. Moses, Joshua, and the judges are noted for their military victories and appear to be singular figureheads that often unite the tribes. Moses does appear to presage the eventual combination of prophet, priest, and king, given his de facto leadership, his Levitic lineage, and his role as lawgiver. Yet, as God eventually appoints first Saul and then David and his descendants as temporal rulers, He avoids the tribe of Levi, anointing first a Benjamite and then ultimately one from Judah as king (dismissing, of course, the northern kingdom with its menagerie of unsanctioned despots). And, while the family of David exercised rule over Israel for hundreds of years, even they could not approach God without an intercessor (note the sin of Uzziah in 2 Chron.26.16f). The kings ruled, but they could not stand between God and His people.

On the other hand, God appointed the descendants of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi, to function as mediators for His people (Ex.28; Num.3-4). Though not as well known as the kings, there is an impressive list of Bible characters who served God’s people as priests, including Phinehas, Samuel, Eli, Ahimelech, Abiathar, Zadok, Jehoiada, Azariah, Hilkiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joshua, Eliashib, Zacharias. It is not without significance that John the Baptist was from this lineage as well. While these men were often involved in momentous events in Israel’s history, their function was first and foremost that of mediation between God and man. They could represent Israel to Yahweh, and Yahweh to Israel, but they did not rule, lead in battle, pass judgment, or make decisions for the nation. Their function was exclusively spiritual.

Speculation can offer a variety of possible reasons that God distinguished the roles of rule and mediation for His people. It appears that other nations often saw their king as the visible manifestation of their god, and thus the idea of access to the god demanded access to the king. Such a system places almost infinite power in the hands of one man, and it is clear from the story of Esther that access to the king/god was dangerously limited. The historian Herodotus (iii.118, 140) confirms this. As in so many other ways, Israel was distinct in separating God from a human king. Or consider the possibility that kingship centered upon the ideas of law and justice while priesthood was more concerned with mercy and forgiveness. Again, perhaps the roles are separated in order to more clearly underscore the fallible nature of man when placed in any position of influence, whether governmental or religious. The OT is rife with examples of corruption among both kings and priests. God simply does not offer an explanation for the separation.

But it is clear that mediation and rule are distinct in the Mosaic system. It is thus all the more significant that we are introduced to Melchizedek in Gen.14 as a king and a priest. And it is exceptional that David would note that the Messiah would not only serve as God’s King, but also as God’s Priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps.110.4). Is there any more powerful testimony to the inspiration of scripture than David referring to the obscure mention of Melchizedek when speaking of his descendant who would rule God’s people? Under no circumstances could anyone of David’s lineage serve as priest in the Mosaic system, yet here is David witnessing God’s assignment of priesthood to the victorious King, sitting at the right hand of God.

The practical value of our King also serving as our High Priest forms the essential argument of Hebrews. While we may not consider it often, we rely upon this dual role of Jesus on a daily basis. Everything that the Levitical priest did for Israel on the earth, Jesus does/has done for us in heaven, yet with all power to rule, judge, and forgive on His own authority (Mt.28.18). He came to live as we do so that He might experience suffering, temptation, and death “that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest” (Heb.3.17). Surely God in His omniscience could appreciate our life experiences without incarnation, yet our appreciation for our King and Priest is enhanced as we understand that He lived like we live. He didn’t need that experience – we do. We can never say, “God is God and doesn’t understand my life.” Moreover, our King Priest is our kin, older brother to those sons brought to glory (Heb.2.13) and Son over the household of God (Heb.3.6). When we speak to Him and through Him, we are speaking to family. Again, our eternal rest is guaranteed by His faithfulness – a faithfulness which He calls for in us in spite of our weaknesses and temptations. He blazed the path of such in His life and now sits upon the “throne of grace”, bidding us “come boldly” to Him so that we can benefit from His sovereign power to help us (Heb.3.6-4.16). Even more, our Priest King “learned obedience by the things which He suffered” so that He was “perfected” and able to accomplish our forgiveness (Heb.5.7-10). Appointed by God to thus serve as our High Priest, His coronation ushered in a new priesthood, a new law, and a new hope, centered upon His resurrection to eternal life wherein He “always lives to make intercession” for us (Heb.7.17-25). Such means that He speaks for us every day. As a High Priest who also overcame temptation – one who is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Heb.7.26) – He could offer Himself as a single and eternal sacrifice for sin. This sacrifice both provided forgiveness and ratified a new covenant which offers mercy and redemption (Heb.8-10).

We are thus invited to boldly enter into the very throne room of God Almighty, wherein Jesus of Nazareth sits upon the throne of power and yet speaks on our behalf to the Eternal Father. He ever ministers for us; bears our name before God; has borne our iniquity; bears our judgment; speaks for us when we pray; teaches us; proclaims our cleanliness. All that the Mosaic High Priest did in a figurative sense, Jesus has literally accomplished for us. The One who represents us is the same One Who saved us, guides us, protects us, forgives us, speaks for us, represents us, rules over us, and will judge us.

The Hebrews writer ultimately calls us to trust Him – to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…” (Heb.12.1-2). Given that our Priest is our King and our God and our Brother and our Savior, how could we ever imagine that He does not care, that He would not help, that He will not forgive and save? He has “been there, done that.” He wears a crown. And invites us to come and wear one too.

–Russ Bowman