God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of the Priesthood (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew S. Malone. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.
Summary: A study of the biblical material on priesthood, considering both God’s individual priests, and the corporate priesthoods of Israel and the church, and some implications of this material for our contemporary understanding of priesthood.
The language of priesthood can mean quite a number of different things in church circles. We may think of ordained religious workers who lead the church in its liturgical and eucharistic functions, particularly in Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox settings. Depending on what part of the Christian family we are part of, we may regard this favorably, neutrally, or unfavorably. Then there is this stuff about the “priesthood of all believers” that particularly arose out of the Reformation, contending that every believer has access to God through Christ, and may minister for God in the world.
The purpose of this work is to look at the biblical theology of priesthood. That is, looking at the passages that speak about priesthood in Old and New Testaments, and formulating from this, the Bible’s teaching about priesthood, mindful of other doctrines and how they intersect with the truths we uncover.
The book divides in two parts reflecting two major threads in the biblical material about priesthood. The first are individuals who are set apart by God both to represent God to people, and to act on behalf of people with God. The second set of references are corporate in character, referring first to Israel, and later the church as a “kingdom of priests.” After an introductory chapter, the book devotes four chapters to individuals as priests, and two chapters to corporate priesthood, with concluding reflections on the relevance of this material.
In Part One, Malone focuses first on the Aaronic priesthood of Exodus, and the clear restriction of that priesthood to Aaron and his familial descendants. Only they may approach, under strict commands, the Lord. But they act such that other Israelites, may “draw near” God, and that through them, God communicates with Israel. Then Malone steps back and considers antecedents to the Aaronic priesthood including a fascinating section on Eden as a garden sanctuary, Adam and Eve as priests, priestly behaviors of the patriarchs, Melchizedek, other priests, and the priestly activity of Moses. Particularly, the activity of setting up altars and the offering of sacrifice certainly antedates the Aaronic priesthood.
The story of the priesthood after entering the land is one of decline, with occasional exceptions, prophetic denunciations, and a glimmer of hope for the future. The priesthood continues into the New Testament period, often portrayed in conflict with Christ and the nascent Christian movement. He studies the hints of Jesus as priest in the gospels (the Son of God, the Holy One of Israel, the prayer of John 17, and the connection between Jesus and the Temple). Clearly, Hebrews represents the culmination of the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as great high priest, superior in every way to the priesthood that had gone before it.
Part Two turns to corporate priesthoods beginning with that of Israel in Exodus 19:5-6:
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:5-6, NIV).
The question is whether this priesthood derives from the Aaronic priesthood. In fact it precedes that priesthood, and Malone suggests “perhaps God instituted a class of priests in order to illustrate what the nation’s corporate identity might look like.” As a people, they had a “priestly” role in representing the character of God by the character of their national life to the nations. Sadly, much of the story is one of failure to fulfill this destiny.
Attention then turns to the church’s priestly commission, particularly the echoes in Peters words in 1 Peter 2: 4-10 of Exodus 19:6, the regal priesthood language of Revelation, and the access to God Hebrews speaks of through the priestly work of Christ. Perhaps most fascinating is his exploration of the priestly language Paul uses in describing his ministry to the Gentiles. The sense throughout is not taking the place of Christ as mediator, the great high priest, but fulfilling the priestly mission of the people of God among the nations, both representing God to the nations and bringing the nations to God.
So what may be concluded? First of all, he contends that the corporate priesthood of the church derives, not from the individual priesthood of Jesus, but as the fulfillment of the priesthood of Israel. What then of the contemporary priesthood as a vocation for individuals? He addresses the lack of basis in the biblical accounts–the priesthood of Jesus is unique and a class of those who mediate, as in the Aaronic priesthood are not necessary. He also observes the difficulty of language, where our usage of “priest” derives from the word used for elder (presbyter) rather than the biblical idea of one who offers sacrifices. His argument is not that the church leaders who are set apart under this term are not important but that a vocational priesthood, in the same sense as the term is used in scripture has problems with aligning with the biblical usage of the term because of the definitive work of Christ. Rather, the work of such individuals is one of calling the whole church to its holy priestly mission in the world.
Certainly, some of this might arouse a fierce response on the part of some who would defend the ordained priesthood. It is significant that Malone writes this as a member of the Anglican communion where this terminology is used. What I found in his writing was great exegetical care throughout to claim neither more nor less than could be established from the biblical texts. I found this especially in his handling of gospel texts that some might press further in arguing Jesus’ priestly role. He is content to focus on Hebrews as well as some material in Revelation, where this is more clearly established. He is also careful to not derive the priesthood of believers from Jesus, where evidence of this is lacking.
Yet the effect here is not to arrive at a place of simply telling us what the Bible does not say. Rather, the conclusion I derived is a deepened appreciation of both the high priestly work of Jesus that fulfilled where the Aaronic priesthood failed, and the noble calling of the church as a holy kingdom of priest, representing God’s reconciling work to the world. There is plenty here both for worship, and our work in the world.