The Priesthood

I used to think that in order for someone to be authorized to act on behalf of the Lord as a church leader or in some other capacity he or she needed to have that authority conferred by the laying on of hands by someone who had previously been authorized in such a manner. The problem with my logic was that I assumed that priesthood lineage of authority was necessary. It seemed that if a person took it upon himself to start a church without such lineage backing him up, then he would have only established his own church, not the Lord’s church. In other words, he would only have created a man-made church. But what I didn’t realize is that I was using "in-the-box" thinking. This is the kind of thinking that results in man-made doctrines. I had my spiritual "blinders" on. I was making an unstated assumption that is only an assumption, not a fact. Yet, I was unconsciously treating it as one of the most fundamental of all God’s laws.

In reality there is no Biblical justification for priesthood lineage of authority. Not only is there no justification for treating it as necessary, there is no justification for treating it as valid. Passing leadership authority from man to man is a common tradition among most organizations of the world. It is so intuitive among people, that they naturally expect it in all organizations. So it is not surprising that it is also the method of assigning authority within most religions. But there is no justification for it in the Bible, and thus it is not part of Christ’s church, where authority is conferred upon individuals directly from God – not through middlemen.

So, when someone undertakes the task of starting a local church, the question is not whether he has been authorized by another mortal, but whether he as been authorized by God.

As a Biblical neophyte in my youth, I didn’t understand the difference between ordaining to a calling and conferring priesthood authority. When a person lays his hands on the head of another person in a ordination, he is not conferring authority, he is commissioning or setting apart that person for a calling. He is participating in an ordinance that is recognizing the consecration of that individual to that calling. In the Christian church the calling is received from God. The ordination is recognition of that calling by people. The ordination is not based on authority, and it does not transfer authority from one person to the other. As I will show in greater detail in the following paragraphs, the authority for the individual to function in a calling is received directly from God through faith in Christ. Keep in mind that when Jesus personally lays his hands on someone’s head to ordain him, God is performing that ordination Himself, since Jesus is a member of the Godhead. Such an ordination obviously has nothing to do with priesthood lineage of authority.

To discover what the Bible says about priesthood and authority, we can begin in chapters 7 and 8 of Hebrews. It explains that the priesthood changed between the old covenant the new covenant, and it explains the prophecy about the priesthood of the Messiah contained in the Old Testament: "…Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek." (Psalms 110:4) It begins by explaining that Melchizedek was the king of Salem and priest of God Most High (Heb 7:1).

Hebrews states that Melchizedek had three very unusual characteristics:

  1. His name means "king of righteousness", and his title, king of Salem, means "king of peace". Thus he was the "king of righteousness" and the "king of peace", as is the Savior. (Heb. 7:2)
  2. Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. Genesis rarely omits the genealogy or death of a major individual. (Heb. 7:3)
  3. He was extremely important. Even the great patriarch Abraham, with whom God established a key element of the old covenant, recognized Melchizedek as both his king and his priest. Thus, he is both a king and a priest, as is the Savior. (Heb. 7:4)

Because of these three characteristics, Melchizedek is a forerunner for Christ. This is similar to Isaac, who was nearly sacrificed on Mt. Moriah, but saved by the promise that God would provide a lamb of sacrifice. (Gen. 22) It is similar to Jonah who was recovered from the belly of the fish after three days. (Jon. 1:17-2:10) It is similar to Moses who, after being saved from a king who killed male infants, freed his people from bondage by taking them through the water. (Ex. 1-14) We know that Psalm 110 refers to Christ because Jesus referred to Himself when He quoted it in Luke 20:41-43.

Melchizedek did not hold the Levitical (Aaronic) priesthood because Levi, from whom the Levites descended, was not yet born in the days of Melchizedek (Heb. 7:6-10). In the days of the Levitical priesthood, there was one tribe for the priesthood (the Levites) and one tribe for royal kingship (the Jews). Unlike the Levitical priests, Melchizedek was both a priest and a king.

A change in the law from the old covenant to the new covenant would require a change in the priesthood (Heb. 7:12). Jesus has become the high priest forever under the new covenant (Heb. 7:21-22). Thus, since He is of the royal lineage of Judah, Jesus is both a priest and a king, like Melchizedek.

Unlike mortal priests, which must be called to the priesthood on an on-going basis, because they die and must be replaced, Jesus lives forever, and has a permanent priesthood. "Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood." (Heb 7:23-24) Thus, Jesus is the high priest of the new covenant:

Such a high priest meets our need - one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests (of the old covenant), he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law (the old covenant) appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath (the new covenant), which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven. (Heb 7:26-8:1)

As a mediator He is superior to the priests of the old covenant. "But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises." (Heb 8:6) As the high priest of the new covenant, He as made the priesthood of the old covenant obsolete. "By calling this covenant 'new,' he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear." (Heb 8:13)

Therefore, the priesthood of the new covenant is the priesthood of Christ, the priesthood of God Most High, the eternal priesthood. By contrast the Aaronic priesthood is the obsolete priesthood of the old covenant, which was a priesthood of mortal men as high priests. All of the children of the new covenant can receive the blessings of the Lord’s priesthood and may invoke the powers of this priesthood through faith in Jesus Christ and are thus called a "royal priesthood" by the apostle Peter. Not just men, and not just descendants of Levi or Aaron. Peter wrote part of his first general epistle to men, part to women, and the rest to all of the saints. He wrote, "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God," (1 Peter 2:9) in the section of the epistle that was addressed to both women and men. The old covenant included mortal men serving as mediators (under the title of priests) between people and God, but the new covenant provides direct access to Christ, eliminating the need for mortal mediators.

Jesus explained, "if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." (Matt 17:20) Therefore, faith is all we need under the new covenant to receive all of the power and blessings of heaven.

People sometimes misinterpret the scripture verse, "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you that you ye should go and bring forth fruit…" (John 15:16 KJV) as verification that Jesus conferred a priesthood power and authority on mortal men that they might pass on to others. However, the word ordain is simply an old English term that means to commission or to call. This statement is more clearly translated, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit…" in the NIV translation of the Bible.

The story of Samson and Delilah is an example of how people can misunderstand power from God. When Delilah arranged for Samson's hair to be cut off, he lost his immense power and was captured by the Philistines. One might be inclined to think that God had conferred power on Sampson that was supernaturally tied to his hair and that Sampson lost his power because the power that was somehow in his hair was lost when his hair was cut. But that is not the case. God commanded first Samson's parents and then Samson not allow his hair to be cut as a form of obedience to God. (Judges 13:5; 16:17) When his hair was cut he lost his power, not because of the hair, but because his covenant with God was broken, and God withdrew from him. (Judges 16:20) The power was directly from God, not from Samson's hair. Later, when his hair was growing back, Samson asked God to grant him special power so that he could overcome the Philistines and free his people. God granted his wish, not because of his hair, but because of his renewed commitment to God. (Judges 16:28) Similarly it is possible to mistakenly think that when God calls someone to the priesthood, that individual is somehow personally imbued with special power and that power can be conferred on someone else. But that is not the case either. When a priest acts, the power and authority for those actions come directly from God as they are performed. So a priest does not receive his or her power from another priest or from some lineage of authority or from a church, but rather directly from God.

Authority does not come through men, but from God through the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost) by faith. "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8) Take for example God's authorizing of the first king of Israel, Saul in 1 Samuel chapter 10.  The prophet Samuel anointed Saul who had been chosen by God. But God's power did not enter Saul as a result of the Samuel's anointing, blessing, or ordaining.  These steps were only symbolic and served as a request or prayer to God on behalf of Saul.  Instead, Saul received power when the Holy Spirit came upon him.  Samuel explained to Saul, "The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person." (1 Sam 10:6) Later, when Samuel responded to God's call of David to replace Saul, again he anointed the new king, and again the power came not from the anointing, which was only a symbolic request to God, but from from the Holy Spirit.  So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power.  (1 Sam 16:13) Samuel did not hold within himself royal or kingly authority.  He had been authorized to serve as a prophet, not a king.  Accordingly, he did not have the royal authority to pass on to Saul and David. Anointing, blessing, and ordaining by human hands are only symbolic requests to God. In other words they are forms of prayer.  But authority does not pass from one mortal man to another. God's authority enters a man when the Holy Ghost comes upon him.

The concept of authority being passed from man to man, the conferral of priesthood authority from one man to another by the laying on of hands, may be found in some religions, but it is not found in the Bible. The Bible does provide a case of a person attempting to obtain the power of the priesthood from other men. This is the story of Simon the Sorcerer who attempted to purchase the priesthood from other men in Acts 8:9-24. But of course Peter rebuked him because the priesthood is not passed from man to man and cannot be purchased.

The Lord may call a person to an assignment either directly, as in the case of Moses (Ex. 3:10) and Paul (Acts 9:5-6), or through other men, as in the case of David (1 Sam 16:12) and Matthias (Acts 1:24-26). In either case the authority for that individual to serve in his calling is received from the Lord through the Holy Spirit.

The laying on of hands is for commissioning, ordaining, and setting apart (Deut. 34:9; Num. 8:10; Acts 6:6), blessing (Gen. 48:18; Matt. 19:13-15; Acts 8:17), and healing (Matt. 9:18), not for conferring power. Note the ordination of the Levites as bearers of the priesthood of the old covenant: "You are to bring the Levites before the LORD, and the Israelites are to lay their hands on them." (Num 8:10) It is clear that this ordination did not confer authority from the Israelites, the other eleven tribes, who laid their hands on the Levites because the Israelites did not hold the priesthood themselves. The Levites were brought before the Lord, because the power and authority came from the Lord.

As another example, consider Paul who was called by the Lord to be an apostle, and who began functioning in that calling before meeting any of the other apostles:

"Paul, an apostle - sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. …But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus." (Gal 1:1, 15-17)

When confronted by the earthly high priest and the ruling priesthood organization of their time, Peter and the other apostles said, "We must obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29)  Power and authority come from God, not from men. All authority on earth is in Christ, not men. (Matt 28:18) The church is where men and women work together in God's work, but it is not the repository or distributor of authority. The priests of the new covenant have direct access to God. All men and women who are believers have that direct access and are thus priests of the new covenant. We can seek and receive power from God apart from anyone else.

© 2009 William C. Hamer