Louis Berkhof

Systematic Theology:

II. The Priestly Office


1. THE TERMS USED IN SCRIPTURE. The Old Testament word for priest is almost without exception kohen. The only exceptions are found in passages which refer to idolatrous priests, 2Ki_23:5; Hos_10:5; Zep_1:4, where the word chemarim is found. The original meaning of kohen is uncertain. It is not impossible that in early times it could denote a civil as well as an ecclesiastical functionary, cf. 1Ki_4:5; 2Sa_8:18; 2Sa_20:26. It is clear that the word always denoted someone who occupied an honorable and responsible position, and was clothed with authority over others; and that it almost without exception serves to designate an ecclesiastical officer. The New Testament word for priest is hiereus, which originally seems to have denoted "a mighty one," and later on "a sacred person," "a person dedicated to God."

2. THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN A PROPHET AND A PRIEST. The Bible makes a broad but important distinction between a prophet and a priest. Both receive their appointment from God, Deu_18:18 f; Heb_5:4. But the prophet was appointed to be God's representative with the people, to be His messenger, and to interpret His will. He was primarily a religious teacher. The priest, on the other hand, was man's representative with God. He had the special privilege of approach to God, and of speaking and acting in behalf of the people. It is true that the priests were also teachers during the old dispensation, but their teaching differed from that of the prophets. While the latter emphasized the moral and spiritual duties, responsibilities, and privileges, the former stressed the ritual observances involved in the proper approach to God.

3. THE FUNCTIONS OF THE PRIEST AS INDICATED IN SCRIPTURE. The classical passage in which the true characteristics of a priest are given and his work is partly designated, is Heb_5:1. The following elements are indicated here: (a) the priest is taken from among men to be their representative; (b) he is appointed by God, cf. Heb_5:4; (c) he is active in the interest of men in things that pertain to God, that is, in religious things; (d) his special work is to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. But the work of the priest included even more than that. He also made intercession for the people (Heb_7:25), and blessed them in the name of God, Lev_9:22.

4. SCRIPTURAL PROOF FOR THE PRIESTLY OFFICE OF CHRIST. The Old Testament predicts and prefigures the priesthood of the coming Redeemer. There are clear references to it in Psa_110:1 and Zec_6:13. Moreover, the Old Testament priesthood, and particularly the high priest, clearly pre-figured a priestly Messiah. In the New Testament there is only a single book in which He is called priest, namely, the Epistle to the Hebrews, but there the name is applied to Him repeatedly, Heb_3:1; Heb_4:14; Heb_5:5; Heb_6:20; Heb_7:26; Heb_8:1. At the same time many other New Testament books refer to the priestly work of Christ, as we shall see in the discussion of this subject.


The priestly work of Christ was twofold according to Scripture. His foremost task was to offer an all-sufficient sacrifice for the sin of the world. It belonged to the office of a priest that he should offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.

1. THE SACRIFICIAL IDEA IN SCRIPTURE. The sacrificial idea occupies a very important place in Scripture. Various theories have been suggested as to the origin and development of this idea, of which the following are the most important:

a. The gift-theory which holds that sacrifices were originally presents to the deity, given with the intention of establishing good relations and of securing favors. This is based on an extremely low conception of God, one that is altogether out of harmony with the Scriptural representation of God. Moreover, it does not explain why the gift should always be brought in the form of a slain animal. The Bible does speak of offering gifts to God (Heb_5:1), but only as expressions of gratitude and not for the purpose of courting the favor of God.

b. The sacramental-communion theory, based on the totemistic idea of reverencing an animal which was supposed to share in the divine nature. On solemn occasions such an animal would be slain to furnish a meal for man, who would thus literally eat his God and assimilate the divine qualities. There is absolutely nothing in the book of Genesis, however, to suggest such an utterly unspiritual and crassly material view. It is totally at variance with the Biblical representation as a whole. This, of course, does not mean that some pagans may not have held that view later on, but it does mean that it is entirely unwarranted to regard this as the original view.

c. The homage-theory, according to which sacrifices were originally expressions of homage and dependence. Man was prompted to seek closer communion with God, not by a sense of guilt, but by a feeling of dependence and a desire to render homage to God. This theory does not do justice to the facts in the case of such early sacrifices as those of Noah and Job; nor does it explain why this homage should be rendered in the form of slaying an animal.

d. The symbol-theory, which regards the offerings as symbols of restored communion with God. The killing of the animal took place only to secure the blood, which as a symbol of life was brought upon the altar, signifying communion of life with God (Keil). This theory certainly does not square with the facts in the case of the sacrifices of Noah and Job, nor with those in the case of Abraham, when he placed Isaac upon the altar. Neither does it explain why in later days so much importance was attached to the killing of the animal.

e. The piacular theory, which regards sacrifices as being originally expiatory or atoning. On this theory the fundamental idea in the slaying of the animal was that of vicarious atonement for the sins of the offerer. In the light of Scripture this theory certainly deserves preference. The idea that, whatever other elements may have been present, such as an expression of gratitude to God, or of communion with Him, the piacular element was also present and was even the most prominent element, is favored by the following considerations: (a) The recorded effect of Noah's burnt-offerings is expiatory, Gen_8:21. (b) The occasion for the sacrifice of Job lay in the sins of his children, Job_1:5. (c) This theory accounts for the fact that the sacrifices were regularly brought in the form of slain animals, and that they were bloody, involving the suffering and death of the victim. (d) It is fully in harmony with the fact that the sacrifices which prevailed among heathen nations generally, were certainly regarded as expiatory. (e) It is further in perfect agreement with the undoubted presence of several promises of the coming Redeemer in the pre-Mosaic period. This should be borne in mind by those who regard the piacular idea of sacrifices as too advanced for that time. (f) Finally, it also fits in well with the fact that, when the Mosaic sacrificial ritual was introduced, in which the expiatory element was certainly the most prominent, it was in no way represented as something entirely new.

Among those who believe that the piacular element was present even in the pre- Mosaic sacrifices, there is a difference of opinion as to the origin of this type of sacrifices. Some are of the opinion that God instituted them by a direct divine command, while others hold that they were brought in obedience to a natural impulse of man, coupled with reflection. The Bible does not record any special statement to the effect that God commanded man to serve Him with sacrifices in those early days. And it is not impossible that man expressed His gratitude and devotion in sacrifices, even before the fall, led by the inner promptings of his own nature. But it would seem that the expiatory sacrifices after the fall could originate only in a divine appointment. There is considerable force in the arguments of Dr. A. A. Hodge. Says he: "(1) It is inconceivable that either the propriety or probable utility of presenting material gifts to the invisible God, and especially of attempting to propitiate God by the slaughter of His irrational creatures, should ever have occurred to the human mind as a spontaneous suggestion. Every instinctive sentiment and every presumption of reason must, in the first instance, have appeared to exclude them. (2) On the hypothesis that God intended to save men, it is inconceivable that He should have left them without instruction upon a question so vital as that concerned in the means whereby they might approach into His presence and conciliate His favor. (3) It is characteristic of all God's self-revelations, under every dispensation, that He discovers Himself as jealous of any use by man of unauthorized methods of worship or service. He uniformly insists upon this very point of His sovereign right of dictating methods of worship and service, as well as terms of acceptance. (4) As a matter of fact, the very first recorded instance of acceptable worship in the family of Adam brings before us bleeding sacrifices, and seals them with the divine approbation. They appear in the first act of worship, Gen_4:3-4. They are emphatically approved by God as soon as they appear."38 The Mosaic sacrifices were clearly of divine appointment.

2. THE SACRIFICIAL WORK OF CHRIST SYMBOLIZED AND TYPIFIED. The sacrificial work of Christ was symbolized and typified in the Mosaic sacrifices. In connection with these sacrifices the following points deserve attention.

a. Their expiatory and vicarious nature. Various interpretations have been given of the Old Testament sacrifices: (1) that they were gifts to please God, to express gratitude to Him, or to placate His wrath; (2) that they were essentially sacrificial meals symbolizing communion of man with God; (3) that they were divinely appointed means of confessing the heinousness of sin; or (4) that, in so far as they embodied the idea of substitution, they were merely symbolic expressions of the fact that God accepts the sinner, in lieu of actual obedience, in the sacrifice which expresses his desire to obey and his longing for salvation. However, Scripture testifies to the fact that all the animal sacrifices among Israel were piacular, though this feature was not equally prominent in all of them. It was most prominent in the sin- and trespass-offerings, less prominent in the burnt-offering, and least in evidence in the peace-offerings. The presence of that element in those sacrifices appears (1) from the clear statements in Lev_1:4; Lev_4:29; Lev_4:35; Lev_5:10; Lev_16:7; Lev_17:11; (2) from the laying on of hands which, in spite of Cave's assertion to the contrary, certainly served to symbolize the transfer of sin and guilt, Lev_1:4; Lev_16:21-22; (3) from the sprinkling of the blood on the altar and on the mercy-seat as a covering for sin, Lev_16:27; and (4) from the repeatedly recorded effect of the sacrifices, namely the pardoning of the sins of the offerer, Lev_4:26; Lev_4:31; Lev_4:35. New Testament proofs could easily be added, but these will suffice.

b. Their typico-prophetical nature. The Mosaic sacrifices had not only ceremonial and symbolical, but also spiritual and typical significance. They were of a prophetical character, and represented the gospel in the law. They were designed to prefigure the vicarious sufferings of Jesus Christ and His atoning death. The connection between them and Christ is already indicated in the Old Testament. In Psa_40:6-8 the Messiah is introduced as saying: "Sacrifice and offering thou hast no delight in: Mine eyes hast thou opened; burnt-offering and sin-offering hast thou not required. Then said I, Lo, I come; in the roll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do thy will O my God, yea thy law is within my heart." In these words the Messiah Himself substitutes His own great sacrifice for those of the Old Testament. The shadows pass away when the reality, which they adumbrated, arrives, Heb_10:5-9. In the New Testament there are numerous indications of the fact that the Mosaic sacrifices were typical of the more excellent sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There are clear indications, and even express statements, to the effect that the Old Testament sacrifices prefigured Christ and His work, Col_2:17, where the apostle clearly has the whole Mosaic system in mind; Heb_9:23-24; Heb_10:1; Heb_13:11-12. Several passages teach that Christ accomplished for sinners in a higher sense what the Old Testament sacrifices were said to effect for those who brought them, and that He accomplished it in a similar way, 2Co_5:21; Gal_3:13; 1Jn_1:7. He is called "the Lamb of God", Joh_1:29, clearly in view of Isa_53:1-12 and of the paschal lamb, "a Lamb without blemish and without spot," 1Pe_1:19, and even "our Passover" that was slain for us, 1Co_5:7. And because the Mosaic sacrifices were typical, they naturally shed some light on the nature of the great atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. A great many scholars under the influence of the Graf-Wellhausen school deny the penal and substitutionary character of the Old Testament sacrifices, though some of them are willing to admit that this character was sometimes ascribed to them during the Old Testament period, though at a comparatively late date and without sufficient warrant.

c. Their purpose. In view of the preceding it may be said that the Old Testament sacrifices had a twofold purpose. As far as the theocratic, the covenant, relation was concerned, they were the appointed means whereby the offender could be restored to the outward place and privileges, enjoyed as a member of the theocracy, which he had forfeited by neglect and transgression. As such they accomplished their purpose irrespective of the temper and spirit in which they were brought. However, they were not in themselves efficacious to expiate moral transgressions. They were not the real sacrifice that could atone for moral guilt and remove moral pollution, but only shadows of the coming reality. Speaking of the tabernacle, the writer of Hebrews says: "Which is a figure for the time present; according to which are offered both gifts and sacrifices that cannot, as touching the conscience, make the worshipper perfect", Heb_9:9. In the following chapter he points out that they could not make the offerers perfect, Heb_10:1, and could not take away sins, Heb_10:4. From the spiritual point of view they were typical of the vicarious sufferings and death of Christ, and obtained forgiveness and acceptance with God only as they were offered in true penitence, and with faith in God's method of salvation. They had saving significance only in so far as they fixed the attention of the Israelite on the coming Redeemer and the promised redemption.

3. SCRIPTURAL PROOF FOR THE SACRIFICIAL WORK OF CHRIST. The striking thing in the Scriptural representations of the priestly work of Christ, is that Christ appears in them as both priest and sacrifice. This is in perfect harmony with the reality as we see it in Christ. In the Old Testament the two were necessarily separate, and in so far these types were imperfect. The priestly work of Christ is most clearly represented in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the Mediator is described as our only real, eternal, and perfect High Priest, appointed by God, who takes our place vicariously, and by His self- sacrifice obtains a real and perfect redemption, Heb_5:1-10; Heb_7:1-28; Heb_9:11-15; Heb_9:24-28; Heb_10:11-14; Heb_10:19-22; Heb_12:24, and particularly the following verses, Heb_5:5; Heb_7:26; Heb_9:14. This Epistle is the only one in which Christ is called priest, but His priestly work is also clearly represented in the Epistles of Paul, Rom_3:24-25; Rom_5:6-8; 1Co_5:7; 1Co_15:3; Eph_5:2. The same representation is found in the writings of John, Joh_1:29; Joh_3:14-15; 1Jn_2:2; 1Jn_4:10. The symbol of the brazen serpent is significant. As the brazen serpent was not itself poisonous, but yet represented the embodiment of sin, so Christ, the sinless One, was made sin for us. As the lifting up of the serpent signified the removal of the plague, so the lifting up of Christ on the cross effected the removal of sin. And as a believing look at the serpent brought healing, so faith in Christ heals to the saving of the soul. The representation of Peter, 1Pe_2:24; 1Pe_3:18, and of Christ Himself, Mar_10:45, corresponds with the preceding. The Lord plainly tells us that His sufferings were vicarious.

4. THE PRIESTLY WORK OF CHRIST IN MODERN THEOLOGY. As was said in the preceding chapter, the doctrine of the offices of Christ does not meet with great favor in present day theology. As a matter of fact it is generally conspicuous by its absence. It can hardly be denied that the Bible speaks of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, but it is commonly held that these terms, as applied to Christ, are only so many figurative descriptions of the different aspects of Christ's work. Christ is not regarded as a real prophet, a real priest, and a real king. And if any one of the aspects of the work of Christ is made to stand out as pre-eminent, it is the prophetical rather than the priestly aspect. The modern spirit is quite averse to the official Christ, and while it may be greatly in love with the self-denying and self-sacrificing Jesus, it absolutely refuses to recognize His official priesthood. In view of this it should be emphasized at the outset that, according to Scripture, Jesus is a real priest. As over against the priests of the Old Testament, who were merely shadows and types, He may be called the only real priest. He was revealed among men as the truth, that is, the reality of all the shadows of the Old Testament, and therefore also of the Old Testament priesthood. The seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews stresses the fact that His priesthood is vastly superior to that of Aaron. Consequently it is a sad mistake to assume that He is priest only in some figurative sense, in the sense in which devotees of literature and art are sometimes called priests. This is an entirely unwarranted use of the word "priest", and one that is entirely foreign to Scripture. When Jehovah swore, "Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek," He constituted the Messiah a real priest.