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The Present Work of Christ — Part V: The Present Work of Christ in Heaven (Part 3)

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Christ, The High Priest and the Royal Priesthood

The Scriptural revelation of the work of Christ as our great High Priest is one of the most important aspects of His present work. Frequently it is considered to be the total of His present work, and other ministries, such as are here being discussed, are made subdivisions of His larger work as our High Priest. It is clear, however, that the priesthood of Christ is one of a number of figures which reveal to us the present work of Christ. Actually His priesthood is something more than a mere figure or symbol of truth as Christ is, indeed, a priest in a more literal sense than He is a vine or a shepherd, although the priesthood of Christ is revealed in type and antitype throughout the Scriptures. The Epistle to the Hebrews is its principal exposition in the New Testament. The truth relating to this area of divine revelation falls into four divisions: first, the nature of His high priesthood; second, His sacrifice as High Priest; third, His intercession as High Priest; fourth, the royal priesthood of the believer related to Christ the High Priest.

The Nature of the High Priesthood of Christ

The essentials of priesthood. In order to understand the nature of priesthood, it is necessary, first of all, to define what is meant by a priest. W. G. Moorehead defines a priest in this way: “One who is duly qualified to minister in sacred things, particularly to offer sacrifices at the altar, and to act as mediator between men and God.”1 According to Scripture, Christ fulfilled all of the essential qualities of a priest. He ministered in sacred things (Heb 5:1). His life and ministry were concerned with “things pertaining to God.” Christ was made a priest by God Himself (Heb 5:4-10) in contrast to contemporary high priests who were elected under authority of the Roman government in a manner unrecognized by the Scriptures. According to 1 Timothy 2:5, Christ was a true mediator. He offered sacrifice to God (Heb 9:26). On the basis of His sacrifice, Christ offered intercession to God (Heb 7:25). In all of these respects, it is evident that the priesthood of Christ unquestionably is established as valid and fulfilling the full-orbed ministry of a priest.

Christ in His priesthood as the antitype of Melchizedek. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ fulfilled that which was anticipated in Melchizedek, the priest, to whom Abraham gave tithes. Many similarities can be traced between Melchizedek and Christ, which are brought out in the argument of Hebrews supporting the teaching that Christ is superior to and supplanted the Aaronic priesthood.

1. According to the general argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ is supreme over all other priesthoods and especially superior in every way to the Aaronic priesthood. The ministry of Christ as priest, both in His person and work, was not an improvement of the Aaronic system, but a new order entirely. Christ in His work as a high priest fulfilled much that was anticipated in the Aaronic priesthood. Christ in His person and order as a priest fulfilled that which was anticipated by Melchizedek. The supremacy of Christ’s priesthood is supported by its principal characteristics, namely, that it is eternal, untransmissible, and based on supernatural resurrection.

2. The eternity of the priesthood of Christ is in contrast to the Aaronic priesthood which had a beginning when God appointed Aaron and his descendants to be priests for Israel. In the eternal quality of His priesthood, Christ fulfilled that which was anticipated in part in Melchizedek, who according to the Scriptures was “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like unto the Son of God, abideth a priest continually” (Heb 7:3). Although some have thought that Melchizedek was actually a theophany, that is, an appearance of Christ in the form of Melchizedek to Abraham, the more probable view is that Hebrews means only that Melchizedek, unlike Aaronic priests, had no recorded genealogy. He was a priest independent of his father or his successor. In other words, he was not dependent on his genealogy, in sharp contrast to the Aaronic priesthood which depended upon it completely. The predecessors and successors of Melchizedek are not mentioned in the Bible, and the validity of the Melchizedek priesthood does not rest upon this background.

Typically, Melchizedek represented an eternal priesthood, such as is fulfilled in Christ, whose priesthood is not dependent upon either predecessors nor successors. The eternal priesthood of Christ in the Melchizedek type is brought out in Hebrews 5:5, 6, 9 which states that Christ fulfilled Psalm 110:4: “Jehovah hath sworn, and will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” It is for this reason that Christ is revealed to be “the author of eternal salvation” (Heb 5:9). According to Hebrews 7:16-17, Christ’s priesthood is “after the power of an endless life.” In like manner, in Hebrews 7:23-26, in contrast to the Aaronic priesthood, Christ is revealed to continue eternally in His office as a priest as well as in His work of intercession. It is for this reason that He needs no successors.

One of the problems which are raised concerning the eternal priesthood of Christ is the question of the point in time when Christ assumed His priestly office. Probably the most common tendency has been to assume that His priestly work began with the cross and the glorification that followed His resurrection. As William Milligan points out: “Such writers as Tholuck, Riehm, Hofmann, Delitzsch, Davidson, and Westcott admit with more or less distinctness that the High-priesthood of our Lord began with His Glorification; but they cannot allow that the death upon the cross was not ‘an essential part of His Highpriest’s work, performed in the outer court, that is, in this world,’ and they are thus driven to the expedient of saying that, Highpriestly as that act was, the Priesthood of Christ only attained its completeness after His resurrection. This distinction, however, between incompleteness and completeness cannot be maintained; and the true solution appears to be suggested by our Lord’s own words. It began upon the cross, and the cross was the beginning of His glory.”2

It is clear from Scripture, however, that Christ long before His dying on the cross served as a priest in the sense of interceding for man and acting as mediator. On occasion He prayed all night, and specifically, according to Luke 22:32, Christ declared of Peter, “I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not.” Inasmuch as intercession is a priestly function, Christ was doing the work of a priest.

Another suggestion which has been offered is that the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist was His induction into the priestly office, fulfilling that which was represented in the induction to the Aaronic priesthood of the Old Testament where the priest was given a bath. Still others point to the incarnation as the beginning of His priestly work in that the union of God and man was necessary for Christ to be the true mediator. While each of these points of view has some factors to commend it, the solution seems to be that Christ’s priesthood is eternal as to its office, and temporal in its fulfillment as far as ministry is concerned. It is true that the priesthood of Christ depended upon His incarnation, sacrifice, and glorification, all of which was prerequisite to His work as priest at the right hand of the Father. The office of Christ as priest, however, can be considered eternal in the same sense that Christ is the Savior eternally. In support of this point of view, Psalm 110:4 is quoted in Hebrews 7:20-21: “Jehovah hath sworn, and will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Here the argument is that Christ as a priest was so constituted, not by ordinary appointment in time, but was made a priest by the eternal oath of God. As Psalm 110 was written a thousand years before the birth of Christ, it would seem at that time that Christ was already regarded as a priest and hence, His priesthood did not begin at some later time, such as the time of His incarnation, baptism, or death on the cross. The priesthood of Christ, then, instead of resting on an earthly lineage, historic beginning, ordinances, or sacrifice, instead, originated in the eternal oath of God.

3. Not only was Christ’s priesthood eternal, but it also was untransmissible. In other words, it was not passed on to another as was characteristic of the Aaronic priesthood. An eternal priesthood is by nature based on the eternal oath of God, a priesthood which cannot and is not passed to a successor. This is the thought of Hebrews 7:24, “But he, because he abideth for ever, hath his priesthood unchangeable.” The argument, however, hinges in part on the word unchangeable (aparabaton). Westcott insists, however, that the word does not mean untransmissible, but only inviolable, and he would translate the passage, “He, because He abideth for ever, hath His priesthood inviolable.”3 Thayer, however, while admitting the force of the argument of Westcott believes the context indicates that the word here is used in the sense of being “unchangeable and therefore not liable to pass to a successor.”4. Cp. also Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, s.v. aparabatos. Even Westcott agrees that Christ’s priesthood is, as a matter of fact, not transmitted and only argues that the verse itself does not say this in so many words. The discussion which immediately follows in Hebrews 7:25 states the fact that the resurrection of Christ makes possible His eternal function as a priest and intercessor: “Wherefore also he is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near unto God through him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” Most orthodox scholars consider it self-evident that the priesthood of Christ is never transmitted to another and that this therefore contradicts the Roman Catholic concept of the idea of priests and succession of popes as proceeding from Christ, the High Priest. The priesthood of the believer as delineated in the Bible is based not on succession of priesthood, either by birth or by action of a church council, but on the believer’s position in Christ assured to him from the moment of his conversion. The nature of Christ’s priesthood which is based on the eternal oath is eternal in its nature, and therefore cannot be passed on to another. No one else is a high priest in the sense that Christ is.

4. The continued high priesthood of Christ is based according to the Scriptures on the fact of His resurrection. The Melchizedek type calls special attention to this while affirming that the work of Christ in sacrifice is the basis for all of His priestly work. The resurrection of Christ is the first step of His glorification which leads to His present exercise of His priesthood in heaven. This is brought out also in the symbolism of the ceremony recorded in Genesis 14:18-19 where it is recorded: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth.” The bread and wine as indicated in the Lord’s Supper had the thought of a memorial rather than a sacrifice, and therefore refer to His present work in heaven rather than to the work of Christ on the cross. Melchizedek is not recorded to have offered any sacrifices because he depicted the present work of Christ in contrast to that work of Christ when He died on the cross as the Lamb of God.

The priesthood of Christ as the antitype of Aaron. In the Epistle to the Hebrews’ the Aaronic priesthood is discussed as the type of which Christ’s priesthood is the antitype. The emphasis is on the similarity of their work with Christ revealed to be superior to and superseding Aaron in His offering of sacrifices. Just as Aaron met the requirements of a priest based on genealogy and divine appointment, so Christ is revealed to be a priest because He possessed the spiritual qualifications for a priest. In every respect Christ was superior to Aaron in the duration of His priesthood, in the method of His induction into the office of priest by God, and in the fact that He possessed an untransmissible priesthood. By contrast, Aaron’s priesthood terminated, had to be succeeded by those who followed him in the priestly office, and was a temporary instead of an eternal office.

Christ is the fulfillment of the Aaronic priesthood in that it fulfills all that was anticipated in the functioning of the Aaronic priesthood. Hence Christ is said (1) to minister in the heavenly sphere as did Aaron (Heb 8:1-5); (2) Christ served the realities rather than the shadows (Heb 8:5); (3) Christ administered a new and better covenant than the Mosaic covenant (Heb 8:6); (4) Christ offered a final and complete sacrifice for sin rather than the daily offerings of Aaron (Heb 7:27). In a word, Christ fulfilled all that Aaron was and did. It should be borne in mind that the principal concept here is not that Christ’s priesthood was designed to fulfill Aaron’s, but rather that the Aaronic priesthood was designed by God in the first place as that which would point to Christ and which would require the sacrifice and work of Christ as priest to fulfill completely. Hence, the work of Christ as a priest does away with the former Aaronic system completely and replaces it. This is important to the argument of Hebrews, which is to demonstrate that Christ is superior to all others, be they angels, Moses, or Aaron.

One of the concepts emphasized in the Aaronic type of priesthood is that Christ is presented in His true humanity as the last Adam. According to Hebrews 4:15, Christ knew temptations except those rising from a sin nature: “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” It may be admitted that Christ knew weakness and limitations which were unmoral in character, such as is natural to the humanity. There was, however, no involvement with sin, which led to the fact that He could “bear gently with the ignorant” (Heb 5:2). He did not have a sin nature and could not be tempted precisely as a Christian is tempted today who has a sin nature. The temptations of Christ, however, on the other hand, far exceeded those which a Christian faces today, as He made choices and faced alternatives which a Christian does not have to face. Christ, because He was human, knew agonizing prayer and suffering, and for this reason can sympathize with those who struggle (Heb 5:7-8). Christ is a part of the human race while He acted as high priest much in the same sense that Aaron remained a part of Israel while he served them as their high priest. The humanity of Christ is therefore an essential part of His priesthood.

The Work of Christ as the Great High Priest in His Sacrifice

The work of Christ as our great high priest was fulfilled in two major aspects: first, His work in His sacrifice on the cross; and, second, His work of intercession which includes His ministry as our Advocate. In His sacrifice Christ is both the sacrificer and the sacrifice as He is both the Lamb and the Priest. As all of His priestly work depended upon His sacrifice, it is most important that this be carefully examined and the nature of His offering be fully realized.

The nature of the offering of Christ. In the discussion of the death of Christ, His sacrifice was presented objectively as fulfilling three major works. First, Christ in His sacrifice accomplished the redemption which God demanded in that He paid the price of ransom from sin involved in the purchase, deliverance, and freedom of sinners from sin. Second, Christ in His sacrifice is revealed to be our propitiation in that He met all the righteous demands of a Holy God relating to judgment upon human sin. In this connection, Christ fulfilled that which was anticipated in both the sweet savor and the non-sweet savor offerings which atoned for our guilt and provided a righteous basis by which God could receive the believer in Christ. Third, Christ in His sacrifice accomplished reconciliation in a provisional sense for the entire world, making it possible for a believer to be placed in the new creation wherein all ground for separation from God is removed and a new living and eternal union of man to God is effective. The offering accomplished once and for all on the cross has its resulting benefits continuing forever. It is important to the concept of redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation to recognize that these were completely and finally wrought by Christ when He died on the cross and declared, “It is finished.”

The false doctrine of perpetual offering. One of the familiar doctrines of Roman Catholic theology is the belief that not only the priesthood of Christ but also the sacrifice of Christ are perpetual, inasmuch as they hold that sacrifice is an essential function of priesthood and therefore continuous offerings for sin must be made. Support for this fallacious position is found in a mistranslation by Jerome of the key passages of Hebrews 1:3; 8:3 ; 10:11 . In its early history, the Roman Church held that the doctrine of the mass representing the sacrifice of Christ was in fact a continual offering. They supported the concept of the mass on the ground that sacrifice was unsuited for heaven and that therefore priests on earth representing Christ could hold the mass on the earth, in effect reoffering His sacrifice. Their position shifted later to the point of view that Christ offered a perpetual offering in heaven and hence an earthly representation of the sacrifice in the mass is permissible and in fact required. Their whole position, however, depends upon support for the theory that there is of necessity a perpetual offering if there is to be a perpetual priesthood.

Although the Roman Catholic Church has been the principal propagator of the doctrine of perpetual offering, it has raised a sympathetic chord in certain Protestant scholars. For instance, William Milligan takes the position that the work of Christ in sacrifice cannot be limited to earth and therefore has an element of continuance in his present ministry in heaven.5 In a similar way, Henry B. Swete, although he accepts the idea of a sacrifice once for all, believes that the process of propitiation is in some sense continued and thereby detracts from the concept of the work of propitiation as finished on the cross.6

However, in defense of the concept that the offering of Christ was finished once and for all, a number of solid works can be cited, such as that by Arthur J. Tait7 and two works by Nathaniel Dimock,8 which in their entirety support the concept of a finished propitiation on the cross.

At least seven arguments can be advanced in refutation of the Roman Catholic position.

1. The Roman doctrine of perpetual offering is based on a wrong premise. It is not true that a perpetual offering is essential to perpetual priesthood. If Christ was a priest from all eternity past without making an offering for sin in anticipation of the completion of that offering on the cross at the close of His life on earth, it should be clear that His priesthood was not dependent upon continuous offering. As a matter of fact, Old Testament saints were forgiven and given mercy in anticipation of that future sacrifice which had not yet been enacted. Up until the time that Christ died on the cross, all forgiveness anticipated the future one act of Christ dying, and His sacrifice according to Romans 3:25-26 justified God in His forgiveness of the Old Testament saints. If it were possible for God to anticipate the act of Christ on the cross from eternity past in planning the redemption of man, it is also possible for God to look back on the one act of sacrifice on the cross as sufficient for all future dealings with men.

2. In the Roman Catholic theory, there is confusion of the offering or sacrifice with the intercession which follows the offering. Although both sacrifice and intercession are essential to priesthood, they are not one and the same ministry, that is, the sacrifice in itself is not intercession and intercession is not in itself sacrifice. It is rather that intercession is based on sacrifice.

3. The Roman theory also confuses the offering with the offerer. The presence of Christ in heaven does not in itself indicate the presence of the offering in heaven. While Christ is both the priest and the sacrifice the entities must not be confused.

4. The Roman theory also confuses typology by making the priest and the sacrificial lamb the same. While this is an outgrowth of the confusion of the offering with the offerer, in the Old Testament the types are clear, distinguishing the lamb which is offered and the priest who offered it. The priest, indeed, identified himself with the offering when he laid his hands upon it, but everyone understands that this is identification by imputation, rather than making them one and the same. The lamb died and the priest did not.

5. The theory of perpetual offering is refuted by direct statements of the Bible which affirm that Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice once for all. According to 1 Corinthians 15:4, the gospel included not only that Christ died for our sins, but that He was buried, signifying completion of the act of sacrifice. According to Hebrews 1:3, Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice first and on the basis of the completion of the sacrifice was seated on the throne: “Who being the effulgence of his glory, and the very image of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had made purification of sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

6. The theory of perpetual offering is directly contradicted by Hebrews 8:3 which supports the previous references to the one sacrifice of Christ: “For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is necessary that this high priest also have somewhat to offer.” In the translation of this verse , the copula “it is” is omitted in the Greek, and it has to be supplied as is commonly done in many other instances. It is probable that what was intended was the past tense, “it was,” as it is found in the ancient Peschito Syriac version.9 John Owen also holds that the past tense is intended here, that is, that the necessity of the offering is now past, citing Beza as well as the Syriac version as proof.10 Even if the present tense were inserted, however, it would not be destructive to the doctrine that Christ died once for all, but would be stating simply a general truth.

In Hebrews 10:10-14, in the discussion of the priestly work of Christ, it is clearly stated in verse 14 that Christ by His one act of dying provided an eternal basis for forgiveness, “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” This concept is provided additional support in Hebrews 7:27 where it is stated explicitly: “Who needeth not daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people: for this he did once for all, when he offered up himself.” It should be obvious from these many references that, if the Scriptures are allowed to speak, their witness is clearly against the concept of perpetual offering and in favor of a sacrifice completed by Christ on the cross.

7. The supposed support of the typology of Hebrews 9:7 has also been cited in favor of the theory of perpetual offering, according to the Roman version and by some Protestant theologians. Christ took His blood into heaven when He entered it by ascension. This is seemingly supported by Hebrews 9:7: “But into the second the high priest alone, once in the year, not without blood, which he offereth for himself, and for the errors of the people.” This passage is related to Hebrews 9:24: “For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us.” Based on these references to the work of the high priest on the Day of Atonement, who offered sacrifices and then brought the blood into the holy of holies, it is assumed that Christ also brought His blood into heaven itself, which would seem to support the idea that offering in heaven was a part of a sacrificial ministry.

While the explanation of these passages is not simple, a number of facts help to demonstrate that Christ never offered His blood in heaven in any physical way and that the sacrifice of His blood was complete on the cross. The proper interpretation is that in the Old Testament the high priest completed the sacrifice on the altar and took the blood with him merely to make application of the sacrifice. Hence, while the priest took the blood into the holy of holies according to the Old Testament ritual, it was to be considered a means of entrance rather than a completion of the sacrifice. In the Epistle to the Hebrews there is careful avoidance of the thought of bringing blood into heaven. The word for offered (propherei) in Hebrews 9:7 does not mean offering in the sense of a sacrifice, but rather of bringing near. While the blood was brought into the holy of holies in the Old Testament ritual, it was not in a sacrificial sense. Sustaining this contention is the fact that the high priest in the Old Testament was allowed to enter the holy of holies on the ground of a completed sin offering on the altar in the open air. In other words, the sacrifice was complete before he entered.

The uniform manner of reference in the Epistle to the Hebrews is that Christ entered through His blood, rather than with His blood. In Hebrews 9:12 and 13:12 the use of dia with the genitive is found. A similar expression can be noted in the use of en with the locative (Heb 9:25; 10:19 ; 13:20 ). The thought is that Christ entered not as one bringing blood to complete a sacrifice, but as one who is clothed in blood, entering on the basis of the sacrifice. Dimock concluded accordingly: “Is it too much to say—and to say with confidence—that, in full view of the teaching of this truth, the idea of anything like a sacrificial oblation, or offering for sin by the Saviour in Heaven is quite inadmissible—is, to the soul fully enlightened by this truth, utterly inconceivable?”11

From these arguments and the precise use of prepositions in the New Testament, it may be concluded that the sacrifice of Christ was completed on the cross once and for all, that Christ did not present literal blood in heaven any more than His literal blood is applied to the believer now (cp. 1 John 1:7), that all cleansing in earth and heaven is on the basis of the blood shed on Calvary, and that the work of Christ in sacrifice was finished when He died.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 W. G. Moorehead, International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, “Priest.”

2 William Milligan, The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of our Lord, p. 81.

3 Westcott, Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 192.

4 Thayers Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, s.v. aparabatos

5 William Milligan, The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord, pp. 133-34.

6 H. B. Swete, The Ascended Christ, p. 50.

7 Arthur J. Tait, The Heavenly Ascension of Our Lord.

8 Nathaniel Dimock, The Sacerdotium of Christ and Our One Priest on High; cp. B. F. Westcott, Epistle to the Hebrews. which also supports the concept of a finished offering.

9 N. Dimock, Our One High Priest on High, p. 9.

10 The Works of John Owen, XV. 28.

11 Dimock, op. cit., p. 49.