The Priesthood According to The Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul teaches us that the priesthood has its origins in the High Priesthood of Christ after the Order of Melchizedek.

The Hebrew people since their escape from Egypt had a priesthood as commanded them by God where certain families were set apart from birth as ancestral priests (Aaron’s line) and Levites. Yet, well before this the Holy Scriptures describe a priest, a high priest called Melchizedek.

“For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of kings and blessed him; and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is king of Salem, that is king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.” (Heb 7:1-3)

This mysterious High Priest was a prefigurement of Jesus Christ who Himself is “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” As the “priest for ever,” Jesus offers the very perfect sacrifice, the perfect offering, and that offering is himself; it’s his own body, his own blood, his own flesh and blood, which he offers “for the life of the world.” (John 6:51).

The High priest of Jesus does not preclude the sharing of his ministry here on earth. For he has appointed the Church a priesthood of believers. St. Paul teaches that the entire body of Christ share in a Royal Priesthood (1 Pet. 2:4) namely, as St Paul teaches, “by offering unto God your bodies as a living sacrifice which is your living, spiritual, rational worship.” (Rom 12)

Further Christ specifically sets apart out of the priesthood of believers men to share in His own High priestly ministry.  In the Orthodox understanding, the Priesthood is a sacred sharing in the charisma of the Lord’s own high Priesthood which He gives to certain elected members of His own flock – the office of priest.

The office of the priest, also known as a presbyter or elder in the scriptures, is one that is charged with the overseeing a congregation on behalf of the local bishop (who is the true representation of Christ). St. Paul states, “For this reason I left you (Titus- a Bishop) in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders (priests) in every city as I commanded you” (Titus 1:5).

Knowing that the priest is an extension of the Bishop, the faithful are exhorted to:

“Obey your Bishop and the presbyters (priests) with an undivided mind.” St Ignatius of Antioch

The priest who share in the ministry of Christ are an icon of the Lord’s single high priesthood, never separated from it, never understandable in any sense apart from it. It is a most honored and sacred mystery of grace to be elected into such an exaltation of office, but it is charisma that is always empowered by the priestly grace of Christ Himself.

“Standing between God and men, the priest in the priestly invocations is an imitation of Christ. For the apostle [Paul] says: ‘there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2.5) ‘. Thus the priest is an icon of Christ.” St Theodore the Studite

It should be noted that many in the Christian world today call for a female priesthood, but it is not possible according to Scripture, Tradition, and the canons of the Church. Further the very icon (image) of Christ would not be manifested with the female priesthood. Since the priest is an icon of Christ; and since the incarnate Christ became not only human but a male it is necessary that the priest should be male. The Lord himself choose men to follow him in this capacity.

“Since the beginning of time a woman has never served God as priest…God never appointed to this ministry a single woman upon earth.” St. Epiphanius

Those ordained take part in a Sacramental Priesthood are, in Saint Paul’s words, “ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4:1). Priests manifest and realize the unique priesthood of Jesus in the community in a sacramental way through the Grace of the Holy Spirit sent down upon them at their ordination.

“Through the offering of these sacraments (mysteries) the priest directly share in this unique ministry of Christ. “By means of the priesthood God accomplishes great and redeeming works among mankind…He converts bread and wine into the purest Body and Blood of the God-Man Himself; He marries people and makes marriage honorable and the nuptial bed pure; He absolves sins, heals illness, converts earth into heaven, unites heaven with earth, the human being with Himself; He joins angels and men in one gathering. What do they not lack, the people who have no priesthood? They are deprived of salvation. It is not in vain that the Lord, the Accomplisher of our salvation, is called the Chief Priest.” St John of Kronstadt

St. Paul teaches that priests must be pastors of the flock of God just as he was…. “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more… I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22-23)

St. Paul tells the pastor to “Be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5) and above all “Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity”. (1 Tim 4:7)

Let the Presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those who wander, visiting the sick – and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor. St. Polycarp

A Priest is a man of prayer. Saint Paul exhorts his disciple, Timothy, “that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men” (I Timothy 2:1). And in Thessalonians St. Paul reminds the whole of he Church beginning with the ordained to “Pray without ceasing”. (I Thessalonians 5:17).

“Priest of God! Believe with your whole heart; believe always in the grace given to you from God, to pray for God’s people. Let not this gift of God be in vain in you, for by it you can save many souls. The Lord speedily hears your heartfelt prayer for His people, and is easily inclined to have mercy upon them, as He had at the prayers of Moses, Aaron, Samuel and the Apostles. Avail yourself of every opportunity for prayer – in church, when you celebrate the divine service or a sacrament, in private homes, at the ministering of sacraments, during prayers and thanksgivings; everywhere and at all times think of the salvation of God’s people, and you shall also obtain great grace of God for yourself.” St John of Kronstadt

In carrying out his duties, the priest must, first of all, preach the word, in accordance with one of the qualifications enumerated by St Paul, “apt to teach,” and in obedience to the same Apostle’s instruction to St. Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, [and] out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine”. (II Timothy 4:2).

Paul tells his priests to “give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.”(1 Tim. 4:13) Paul pleas for the upholding of the “traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (2 Thess. 2:15) He wishes this all to be done by “speaking the truth in love”. (Ephesians 4:15)

Teaching is necessary because a good example of living a noble life is not always enough. “The ultimate aim of their teaching is to bring their disciples, by what they do and say, to that blessed state of life which Christ commanded. Example alone is not enough to instruct others.” St. John Chrysostom

St. Paul establishes the model for the priest as Spiritual Father, in writing to the Corinthians regarding their behavior he states, “I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me.” (1 Cor. 4:14-16) And to the Thessolonians, “But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children” (1 Thess. 2) .

As Pastor, Priest are servant in imitation of Christ and the Apostle himself who identifies himself as “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” (Rom. 1:1)

“God has given greater power to priests than to natural parents, not only for punishment, but also for help. The difference between the two is as great as between the present and the future life. Parents bring us into this life; priests into the life to come. Parents cannot avert bodily death nor drive away the onset of disease; priests have often saved the soul that is sick and at the point of death, by making the punishment milder for some, and preventing others from ever incurring it, not only through instruction and warning, but also through helping them by prayer. They have authority to remit sins, not only when they make us regenerate, but afterwards too. ‘Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.’ Again, natural parents cannot help their sons if they fall foul of the prominent and powerful, but priests have often appeased the anger of God Himself, to say nothing of rulers and kings.” St John Chrysostom

St. Paul teaches that a Priest should be supported by his congregation. “Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock?… Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel.” (1 Cor 9:7-14)

But any material aid for a pastor must proceed from the care and love of the flock, not as a matter of extortion. “Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches.” (Gal. 6:6). “Let the elders [priests] who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.” (1 Tim. 5:17).