We find priests in the Old Testament and in the Catholic Church. Do we find priests in the New Testament? One of the main differences between Catholics and most Protestants is that Catholics have priests, but Protestants usually have only pastors or ministers. A priest is, by definition, someone who offers sacrifice, and Catholics aren’t the only ones throughout history who have had them. For example, ancient pagans had priests, and so did the Israelites in the Old Testament. In ancient times, priests usually offered animal sacrifices, but Catholic priests are different. They offer the sacrifice of the Mass, which is the re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. In other words, at every Mass, Jesus’ sacrifice to the Father is made present to us (hence the term “re-presentation”), and the priest leads us in offering it to the Father again. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:
When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present…The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit. (CCC 1364, 1366)
This makes the leaders of the Catholic Church fundamentally different from most Protestant leaders. The majority of Protestants don’t believe that the Eucharist makes Jesus’ sacrifice present again; for them, it is simply a memorial of his death. As a result, they do not have anything to sacrifice. Thus, their leaders are not priests. We Catholics, on the other hand, do believe that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, so we need priests to offer it.
An Uphill Battle to Find Priests in the New Testament
But this belief causes a problem for us: nowhere in the New Testament are the leaders of the Church explicitly called priests. If you don’t already assume the Catholic view, you could read through the whole New Testament and never once get the idea that the Church is led by anything other than administrators or teachers. Because of this, we Catholics face an uphill battle when we try to explain or defend the Church’s teaching about the priestly nature of our clergy. It is really easy for someone to argue against this belief by simply saying that it is not in the Bible. People can claim that we have no record of the earliest Christians believing this, so it is dubious at best.
To respond to this line of reasoning, we have to look below the surface of the New Testament. We need to read it carefully and deeply, always keeping an eye out for clues to deeper meanings. When we do that, we find that Scripture does in fact teach that the leaders of the Church are priests. Specifically, the Apostles were given a priestly role by Jesus at the Last Supper, and that role has been passed on to their successors in every generation.
In the New Testament:“Poured Out”, A Priestly Sacrificial Act
To see this, let’s start by looking at Luke’s account of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)
This passage has a few interesting elements, but for our present purpose we’re interested in just one: Jesus said that the cup was “poured out.” Many translations say that Jesus’ blood was poured out, but in the original Greek, the adjectival phrase “which is poured out” agrees grammatically with the word “cup,” not the word “blood.” Most scholars assume that this has to be a mistake on Luke’s part, but if it is, it is a very puzzling one. Luke’s Greek was quite good, so we would not expect him to make such an egregious grammatical error. Because of this, I would suggest that Luke almost certainly knew what he was doing when he wrote this verse. The text says that the cup was poured out, and that is exactly what he meant.
There is, however, a big problem with this translation. Jesus did not actually pour out the contents of the cup, so it seems that the phrase in question has to refer to his blood instead. This is a serious challenge, but it is not insurmountable. In fact, in this context, a difficulty like this is not entirely unexpected. In this same saying, we read that the cup “is the new covenant,” which is simply nonsense when taken literally. A cup cannot literally be a covenant, so this has to be a somewhat figurative way of saying that the new covenant was to be established through Jesus’ blood. Now, if Jesus could speak that way once in this context, he could do it a second time as well. Consequently, for the cup to be “poured out,” he did not have to mean that he was literally going to pour it out onto the floor; rather, he was using sacrificial language from the Old Testament. In ancient Israel, when the priests would sacrifice an animal, they would often pour its blood out onto the altar (for example, see Leviticus 4:5-7, Deuteronomy 12:26-27).
Thus, by saying that the cup was “poured out,” Jesus was subtly teaching that the Eucharist is a sacrifice. More specifically, it is the very same sacrifice that he would offer to the Father on the cross the next day. This is clear from the timing of the Last Supper (it is right before Jesus is arrested and crucified, when his blood is literally poured out as a sacrifice) and from Matthew’s expansion of this phrase to “poured out…for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28), which links the Eucharist with the purpose of Jesus’ death. The Eucharist that he instituted looked forward to his crucifixion, so when he said that the Eucharist itself was a sacrifice, it could only be a pre-presentation (a slight variation of the word “re-presentation”), or an anticipation, of that very same sacrifice, and every subsequent Eucharist is thus a re-presentation of it.
The New Testament Priest as “One Who Serves”
But that only gets us halfway there. The next step is to show that the Apostles were ordained to offer this sacrifice too, and for that we need to read on a bit. Right after Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the Apostles started to argue about which one of them was the greatest, and in response to this foolishness, Jesus taught them what true Christian leadership is supposed to look like:
The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)
Jesus was saying that even though “one who sits at table” is usually thought to be greater than “one who serves,” it’s the other way around in his kingdom. He is both the head of the Church and the “one who serves.” Moreover, he was also telling the Apostles that their future leadership over the Church was to be modeled on his, so just like him, they too would be called to serve.
Now, this is an interesting teaching because Jesus used the example of table service while he and the Apostles were eating a meal together, and that is not a coincidence. He had just finished handing out the bread and wine of the Eucharist to his Apostles, so he was literally the “one who serves” at that table. This is clearly more than just a metaphor. Jesus was subtly telling his Apostles that presiding over the Eucharist was part of his role as king in God’s kingdom, and since their future leadership would be modeled on his, they too would be called to preside over the Eucharist in the Church.
In the New Testament: Sharing the Priestly Kingdom
But there’s more. Just in case the Apostles did not get it, Jesus went on in the very next verses to explicitly tell them that they would share in his kingly role. He said:
You are those who have continued with me in my trials; as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:28-30).
With this, we have our smoking gun. The Father appointed a kingdom for Jesus, and Jesus appointed that very same kingdom to the Apostles. In other words, the Father gave Jesus a kingly role, and then Jesus passed that very same role over to the Apostles. Now, as I said before, if Jesus’ kingly role included presiding over the Eucharistic sacrifice, so too did that of the Apostles. Simply put, Jesus was a priest-king (remember, a priest is someone who offers a sacrifice), and so were the Apostles.
Moreover, we can extrapolate even further from this. Jesus passed his leadership role over to the Apostles because he was not going to be around forever, so the Apostles must have done the same. They also passed their leadership role, including the priestly element, over to their successors in the next generation, and that role was passed down again to every generation afterwards. Those successors are the Church’s bishops, and the priestly element of their ministry is shared by “regular” priests (priests who aren’t bishops) as well.
Priests Below the Surface in the New Testament
Admittedly, the fact that our leaders are priests is never explicitly stated in the Bible, making it hard to find if we limit ourselves to a surface reading of the text. Nevertheless, if we read the New Testament closely, we will see that the teaching is in fact there; we just to know where to look. In Luke’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus described the cup as “poured out,” subtly teaching that the Eucharist is in fact a sacrifice, and he passed his priest-kingly role over to the Apostles (and, by extension, their successors), implying that part of their mission was to be priests, to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice just like he did.