The Priesthood of Christ by Myles M. Bourke from ‘To be a priest’

The Priesthood of Christ

by Myles M. Bourke

from To be a priest, pp. 55-62,
edited by Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban T. Holmes, Seabury Press, New York, 1975.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

Myles Bourke is Pastor of Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, New York, and adjunct professor of New Testament at Fordham University. He has been president of the Catholic Biblical Association.

Any discussion of the priesthood of Christ in the New Testament is, of course, principally a discussion of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Perhaps at the time when Hebrews was written there was already in the Christian Church a fairly widespread current of thought which conceived of Jesus as priest; I do not think so, but the suggestive work of Gerd Theissen, which supports that view, cannot be set aside without serious consideration.(1) Briefly, Theissen’s thesis is that the First Epistle of Clement and the letter of Ignatius to the Philadelphians show that the authors of each drew on a common tradition about the priesthood of Jesus which the author of Hebrews set himself to correct, not, indeed, by denying that priesthood, but by locating it solely in the cross, and by attacking the “mystery-piety” of the tradition that made Jesus the high priest of the Church’s Eucharist. Regardless of the outcome of that discussion, it cannot be questioned that Hebrews, whether a corrective of an existing tradition or, on the contrary, the source of the development found in First Clement, is the fullest treatment of Jesus’ priesthood available to us in early Christian literature.

I should like to deal with three aspects of the epistle, each of them important for the topic: (1) the union of a high Christology and an unusual emphasis on Jesus’ humanity; (2) the view that the locus of Christ’s sacrifice was not only the cross, but the cross and what the author calls the heavenly tabernacle; and (3) the conception that that sacrifice is a present offering of the exalted Christ. While there is general agreement that the first is an undeniable element of the epistle, many scholars think either that the other two are quite absent or that their presence is doubtful. In my opinion, all three are to be found in Hebrews, and all must be taken into account if one is to grasp the writer’s understanding of Jesus’ priesthood.

High Christology and Emphasis on Humanity

The sonship of Jesus is presented in a manner which is, at first, puzzling. On the one hand, Jesus is the pre-existent Son of God. What had been said of divine wisdom is said of him: he is the “refulgence” (apaugasma) of the Father’s glory; he bears the “very stamp” (character) of the Father’s nature (Hebrews 1:3; cf. Wisdom 7:26); through him God created the world (Hebrews 1:2). In the ensuing comparison between the Son and the angels, the author of Hebrews does not hesitate to apply to him the address of the psalmist to God: “Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thy hands” (Hebrews 1:10; cf. Psalms 102:25). At the same time, Jesus’ identification with those he came to save is a constant theme of the epistle. “It was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. . . . Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature” (Hebrews 2:10, 14).

It is this oneness of Jesus with his brethren that enables him to become their high priest: “Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). “Flesh,” the designation of man in his weakness—that existence the Son shared. The days of his mortal life are called “the days of his flesh”: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death… . Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9). As pre-existent Son he is still such in “the days of his flesh”; the author in no way supports the curious notion of a kenosis in which the entrance of the pre-existent Son into the fullness of man’s existence involves his ceasing to be what he had been. Yet his humanity must be drawn into the fullness of the divine life, and the author can say that it was only after suffering and death had been experienced by the human Jesus that he became Son of God; the words of Psalms 2:7, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee” are addressed to him at his exaltation in Hebrews 1:5.

These two aspects of Jesus’ sonship are indeed in a certain tension, but one which does not defy resolution. As certain as the author is of Jesus’ pre-existence as Son, he is also certain that his humanity was no sham. It was, on the contrary, the means whereby he was able to show that perfect obedience by which true sonship is proved. He entered ‘into the human condition, and he became, as man, both Son of God and high priest. For his obedience consisted supremely in his total devotion to the Father, even unto death. “A body thou hast prepared for me” (Hebrews 10:5). These words of the Septuagint version of Psalms 40[39]:7 are placed by the author on the lips of the incarnate Son he enters the world. “Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God’ . . . . And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:7, 10). He who became like his brethren in every respect (Hebrews 2:17) did so that by his obedience unto death he might lead them out of their alienation from God into his own new life. There is only one thing in which his human life differed from theirs—yet what a difference! “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Hebrews 4:15).

In his valuable study, The Humanity and Divinity of Christ, John Knox struggles at length with the concept of Jesus’ sinlessness, and says: “The point which I have been trying to make in all this is that while this author to the Hebrews cannot bring himself to speak, or even to think, of Jesus as a sinner (any more than we can), nevertheless his whole understanding of the story of the Christ and of the role of the human Jesus in it logically requires that the latter should have shared completely in our human lot—without any reservation at all, even this one.”(2) It seems to me that Knox does not give sufficient weight to the other side of the picture which the author of Hebrews has drawn: Jesus, the pre-existent Son, whose closeness to the Father is such that sin in him is utterly inconceivable. He can and does share man’s existence in its fullness; that is, so to speak, the stuff of his sacrifice. But there is one point in which he cannot be like his brethren; namely, in their rebellion against God. “Lo, I have come to do your will”; it is under the sign of obedience, however painfully learned, that the whole human life of the Son of God is lived. And, in fact, it is only such a perfectly obedient one who is able to lead his sinful brethren out of their bondage to sin: “It was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26).

The Locus of Christ’s Sacrifice

While the entire earthly life of Jesus was one of perfect obedience, it is only his death which Hebrews interprets in terms of sacrifice. Does that interpretation mean that the author regarded Jesus’ death and his sacrifice as conterminous, and the exaltation of the crucified one merely as the sequel to his completed sacrifice? An affirmative answer to that question is given by many scholars. I think that the answer, so far from being correct, is based in some instances on a mistaken notion of Old Testament sacrifice, and in others on an ignoring of the way in which the author applies Old Testament sacrificial concepts to the redemptive work of Jesus.

It is obviously impossible to attempt here to give an adequate treatment of sacrifice in the Old Testament. But it is generally agreed by students of the subject that the slaughter of the animal victim was by no means the principal part of the sacrifice. The animal was slaughtered in order that its blood might be released. The blood was the element in which life was thought to reside (Leviticus 17:11, 14); as the bearer of life it had a sacred, a divine quality. By reason of its sacred character when poured out on the altar or sprinkled on the place of expiation the blood was an effective symbol of purification of sin and of the re-establishment of union between God and man which had been broken by sin. As W. D. Davies puts it: “By the outpouring of the blood, life was released, and in offering this to God the worshipper believed that the estrangement between him and the Deity was annulled, or that the defilement which separated them was cleansed.”(3) We may pass over the question whether it is accurate to say that the blood ritual was regarded precisely as an “offering.” Whatever view is held on that, there is no doubt that the ritual was the essential element of the sacrifice, for the atoning power of the sacrifice was attributed to the blood manipulation: “The life of the creature is in the blood, and I direct you to place it upon the altar, to make atonement for you; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life” (Leviticus 17:11).

Even with due regard given to those considerations, it might still seem possible to hold that Jesus’ sacrifice was simply his death on the cross. For was it not there that his blood was poured out, and that atonement took place? But the picture drawn in Hebrews applies the blood ritual to Jesus’ sacrifice in a way that goes beyond his death. In the ninth chapter of the epistle the author makes a comparison between the sacrificial worship of the Old Covenant and that of the New, and contrasts principally the sacrificial activity of the Hebrew high priest and the sacrifice of Jesus. He speaks of the “earthly sanctuary,” the Mosaic tabernacle, with its two parts: the “outer” tabernacle into which the ordinary priests entered continually to perform their ritual duties; and the “second” tabernacle, behind the veil, into which the high priest alone entered, and that but once a year, with the blood “which he offered for himself and for the errors of the people” (Hebrews 9:7). The high priestly ritual there referred to is, of course, the ritual of the Day of Atonement (cf. Leviticus 16:1-16). On that day, the blood of the animal victims was sprinkled directly on, and in front of the propitiatory which was over the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:17-22).

This entrance of the high priest into the holy of holies with the sacrificial blood, and the blood sprinkling within that inner tabernacle, is the Old Testament model which the author of Hebrews uses in his portrayal of the sacrifice of Jesus. But the contrast between the high priest of the Old Covenant and Jesus is not only the enormous difference in the blood which was brought in, but that the sanctuary of the Old Covenant was an earthly sanctuary. The expiation there effected could never cleanse the conscience of the worshippers (Hebrews 9:9, 14) the ritual was only “a shadow of the good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1). “But when Christ appeared as high priest of the good things that have come,… he entered once for all into the sanctuary,… not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, and achieved eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12). The sanctuary into which Jesus entered was no earthly one: “Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, that he might appear before God now on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24).

The heavenly sanctuary where Jesus’ sacrifice is brought to completion is the “true” one, in contrast to the earthly sanctuary of the Old Covenant. The conception that the earthly sanctuary reflects a heavenly model has both biblical and Platonic origins. Moses was commanded to construct the tabernacle according to the model shown to him by God (Exodus 25:9-40). But although the idea was certainly a Semitic one, it is paralleled in the Platonic conception that all earthly reality is simply a shadow of the “true” heavenly world. The affinity of the epistle with the thought-world of Alexandrian Judaism suggests that it is the Platonic influence that is dominant here. In any case, what is important for the question of the locus of Jesus’ sacrifice is that Hebrews portrays that sacrifice as coming to its completion not on earth but in the heavenly world. No matter how important the cross is, one cannot take the extended comparison of Hebrews 9 seriously without realizing that the author does not make Jesus’ sacrifice end with his death. Just as the Day of Atonement cannot be conceived of except as including the blood sprinkling in the holy of holies, so it is impossible to regard Jesus’ entrance into the heavenly sanctuary as the consequence of his sacrifice completed on the cross, rather than as part of that sacrifice which began on earth and reached its climax in heaven with Jesus’ exaltation. Since the author draws an exact parallel between the entrance of the high priest into the inner tabernacle, and the entrance of Jesus into heaven, it is difficult to see how F. F. Bruce can say: “There have been expositors who, pressing the analogy of the Day of Atonement beyond the limits observed by our author, have argued that the expiatory work of Christ was not completed on the cross.. .”(4) The limits observed are precisely the reason why one must look for the heavenly counterpart of the high priest’s sprinkling of the blood, which was not a sequel to the sacrifice but an essential part of it. Hebrews conceives Jesus’ sacrifice as spanning earth and heaven. It is only with his exaltation and entrance into the heavenly sanctuary that he “achieved eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).(5)

The Permanence of the Sacrifice

Does the author of Hebrews think that the once accomplished sacrifice is now over? There are certainly some texts which seem to say that he does (e.g. Hebrews 10:12), and the constantly repeated insistence upon the “once-for-all” and definitive nature of the sacrifice (Hebrews 9:12, 26, 28; 10:10) have been taken as ruling out any interpretation which would see the sacrifice as a present reality. The heavenly intercession of the exalted Jesus (Hebrews 7:25) is commonly understood as a pleading before God of the merits of the eternally effective but past sacrifice. Yet there are other considerations which suggest a different conclusion.

When the author gives what he calls the “chief point” of his argument (Hebrews 8:1-2) it is that “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tabernacle which is set up not by man but by the Lord.” Is that undoubtedly present ministry of Jesus different from his sacrificial offering? Because of the way in which the author conceives the entrance of Jesus into the sanctuary as the climactic point of his sacrifice, it seems, on the contrary, that the present ministry of Jesus and the sacrificial offering are the same. An action completed in the earthly sphere would be an event of the past, but that is not so of one completed in the heavenly order. For one of the qualities of that order is its eternity. It is no accident that Hebrews, which insists on the heavenly character of the completed sacrifice of Jesus, is no less insistent on the eternity of his priesthood (Hebrews 6:20; 7:24).

To appreciate the force of that fact, I think that one must seriously consider the relation between the epistle and the thought-world of Alexandrian Judaism. Is it simply coincidental that Hebrews has so many points of contact with the writings of Philo? S. Sowers has claimed that “the writer of Heb. has come from the same school of Alexandrian Judaism as Philo, and . . . Philo’s writings still offer us the best single body of religionsgeschichtliche material we have for this N.T. document.”(6) In spite of the differences between Philo and Hebrews, mainly in respect to eschatology, there is good reason to agree with that opinion. It certainly offers a satisfactory solution to the problem of why there are in the epistle texts which speak of the eternity of Christ’s priesthood and others which speak of his sacrifice as completed. Instead of being to conclude that the author conceives of Jesus as eternal high priest in every respect except the one which is central to priesthood, namely the offering of sacrifice, one has a consistent picture of the eternal priest and his eternal offering. There is a comment of Philo which sheds much light on how the author of Hebrews conceived of the latter. Following the Platonic distinction of aion as timeless eternity chronos as the successive time of this world, Philo says: “The true name of aion is ‘today’. ”(7) Since Jesus’ sacrifice comes to its completion in the heavenly sanctuary which belongs to the eternal order, that sacrifice, in its climactic moment, is not an event of the past but one which is present in the eternal “today.” Obviously, the death of Jesus is a past event. If his sacrifice and his death were conterminous, there would be no possibility of conceiving the sacrifice as present, except in its enduring effect. But if it is impossible to find in Hebrews any such equivalence of sacrifice and death, and if the sacrifice begun on the cross comes to completion in the heavenly sanctuary, it seems impossible to take that depiction of the sacrifice seriously without admitting its eternal presence.

What, then, of the texts of Hebrews which appear to suggest, by insisting that it is completed and unrepeatable, that the sacrifice is over? One must, in the first place, recall the situation in which the author writes. He is contrasting the sacrifice of Christ with those of the Old Covenant, specifically with the annually repeated Day of Atonement sacrifices. The “once-for-all” nature of Jesus’ sacrifice is asserted in contrast to those constantly repeated and ineffectual sacrifices which were simply a foreshadowing of his perfect self-offering. That Jesus’ sacrifice is definitive does not mean that it took place once and is now over and done with, but rather that it is once-for-all and definitive because it is eternally present and eternally being presented to God.

Secondly, one must recognize that different images used in Hebrews overlap. To claim that such a text as Hebrews 10:12 precludes the Present reality of Jesus’ self-offering because he is there pictured as having completed his sacrifice and being seated in majesty, is to forget that the author wishes to claim that Jesus is not only priest but reigning messianic king. It is only when the images are taken as pointers to a temporal time sequence that they are mutually exclusive. To impose such a time sequence upon the thought of the epistle is to ignore the contrast which the author makes between the earthly and the heavenly order. For him, eternity is a quality of all heavenly reality. It is important to remember, of course, that while the author thinks in the same tradition as that in which Philo stood, he is faithful to the time sequence of Jewish eschatology. Thus, for him, the heavenly sanctuary existed eternally, but Jesus’ sacrifice is eternal because what had begun on earth at a determined point of time was inserted into the heavenly order with the exaltation of the crucified one and his entrance into the heavenly sanctuary.

I am aware that the understanding of Christ’s priesthood here presented is not without its difficulties, and a far more extensive study than this would be necessary if one wished to deal with them adequately. I believe, however, that it does represent the thought of the epistle. I should like to say, finally, that what the author of Hebrews wrote is not to be rejected out of hand as the remnant of a world view which the modern Christian cannot in any way share. Certainly, a translation of the epistle’s images is necessary. But when the heavenly sanctuary is understood, not as a place beyond the clouds but as a symbol of the new existence which came to Jesus with his resurrection-exaltation, an existence which can be shared by those who believe in him and obey him, the epistle can still be a source of strength and nourishment for the Church of today.


1. Gerd Thiessen, Untersuchungen zum Hebräerbrief (Gütersloh, West Germany: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1969).

2. John Knox, The Humanity and Divinity of Christ (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1967), p. 49.

3. W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 2nd ed. (London: S.F.C.K., 1958), p. 235.

4. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 200.

5. As will be evident, this translation takes the Greek aorist participle of the verse as an aorist of contemporaneous action.

6. S. Sowers, The Hermeneutics of Philo and Hebrews (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1965), p. 66.

7. Philo, De fuga, no. 57, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 5, p. 40.

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