Q&A: What Is the Difference Between the Priesthoods of the Old and New Testaments?

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A priest is a person who is devoted to the worship of God and who serves as an intermediary between God and man. The first person described as a priest in the first portion of the Bible, the Old Testament, is the enigmatic Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17-20). When most people think about priests in the Old Testament though, they usually think about the priesthood that began when the Law of Moses was instituted at Sinai. Let’s give an overview of priesthood in the Mosaic age and then compare it with the priesthood of the New Testament.

The Law of Moses called for only a portion of the covenant people of God, the Israelites, to serve as priests. Israel was a nation divided into twelve tribes, and the portion God selected as priests came exclusively from the tribe of Levi. Levites were separated to the Lord (Numbers 8:14) which effectively made them what one commentator called “an Israel within an Israel.” They lived separate, holy lives that were different than their Jewish brethren, a people who had themselves been called to be separate and holy in relation to the world around them. Among other differences, they lived in cities scattered throughout the tribes rather than on land allotments (Numbers 35:2-8) and were exempted from military duty (Numbers 1:47-54).

In terms of the service to which they were called, Levites were teachers and worship leaders in Israel (Deuteronomy 33:8-11). They alone took care of the places of worship and objects used in worship, whether at the tabernacle (Numbers 1:50-53) or at the temple (1 Chronicles 9:27-29). Not all Levitical families offered sacrifices and led in worship; those with that duty came from the lineage of Aaron, the brother of Moses (Exodus 29:9). Anyone else who came near “was to be put to death” (Numbers 3:38).

Aaronic priests’ duties regularly brought them into the first part of the tabernacle/temple to worship (Hebrews 9:6). Access into the second portion of the tabernacle/temple called the most holy place (Exodus 26:33; 1 Kings 6:16) was limited to a specific priest from the family of Aaron called the high priest. He could only enter this place once a year and had to do so with the blood of a sacrifice made for both himself and the people (Exodus 30:6-10; Hebrews 9:7-8). Sacrifices on that day and throughout the year consisted of foodstuffs and animals identified by the Law of Moses as clean.

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is identified as a High Priest (Hebrews 2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15; 5:5, 10; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:11; 10:21). Since Jesus came from the tribe of Judah and not Levi, His status as High Priest is indication of a Divine change both in priesthood and in the law that undergirds it (Hebrews 7:12-14). The first God-given Law, the Law of Moses, was taken away so that Jesus could “establish the second” (Hebrews 10:9), which the New Testament identifies as the Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). Interestingly, Jesus is said to be a priest after “the order of Melchizedek” as was prophesied (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11-28). Melchizedek prefigured Jesus as he was a priest greater than Abraham and thus greater than the Levites who would descend from Abraham (Hebrews 7:1-10).

Under the old law, priests offered imperfect animal sacrifices for sin year after year (Hebrews 10:1-4). Jesus however offered His body “once for all” as a perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10), eliminating the need for ongoing sacrifices for sin. There are no animal sacrifices under the New Testament and no need for them.

God’s people under the Law of Moses were divided into priests and believers. What about under the Law of Christ? While some denominational churches keep the distinction found in the old Law (sometimes describing the priests as “clergy” and the believers as “laity”), the Bible teaches that every Christian has been made a part of a kingdom of priests (Revelation 1:6 – ASV, ESV, NASB) or what Peter calls a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9).

Rather than live differently than other believers, since all Christians are priests, they are only called to be different from the world around them (Romans 12:2). Unlike the Levites who lived very differently than others did, Christians remain in their worldly vocations (1 Corinthians 7:20), living what many might consider to be normal lives but doing so in such a way so as to bring glory to God and declare allegiance to Him (Matthew 5:13-16; Philippians 2:15-16; Colossians 3:17, 23; 1 Peter 2:9).

Thanks to the “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus, Christians no longer have to offer animal sacrifices either for sin or in worship. Instead, they are called to offer their bodies as “a living sacrifice… to God” (Romans 12:1). Christians are called to offer some specific things in worship as sacrifices, namely, the fruit of their lips in praise (Hebrews 13:15) and their financial contributions to the cause of Christ (Philippians 4:15-18).

While Christians might not be worship leaders like their Old Testament priestly counterparts, they are to be teachers (Matthew 28:18-19; Mark 16:15-16). Like Old Testament priests, Christians stand between God and man but specifically between God and unbelievers, imploring them “on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

The priesthoods of the Old and New Testament feature many differences, and the priesthood of the New Testament is undeniably better. Thanks be to God for our High Priest Jesus Christ, and the glorious priesthood He ushered in!
-Patrick Swayne