THE HOLY SACRAMENT OF THE PRIESTHOOD
The traditional Eastern Church gives the following explanation of the sacrament of priesthood:
“From the very beginning of church history, spiritual authority in the Church, that is the power of preaching, performing the sacraments, and leading the church, was given to the apostles, who received their authority from the Savior, as we have earlier specified (Mt. 18:18, 28:19-20; Jn. 20:21-23). This power Christ has given to all his disciples-apostles in equal measure, not more, not less… When the Church grew so much that the apostles could not be everywhere at once, they ordained with laying on of hands bishops as their deputies, whom are called by the grace of the Holy Spirit and are taught the fullness of their apostolic authority. In addition to bishops, the apostles also ordained presbyters and deacons.”
“The clergy is composed of the offices of deacon, presbyter (priest), and bishop (His Grace). The bishop (His Grace) has the right to perform all of the sacraments, to teach the believers, and to manage the Diocese entrusted to him by the Church; the presbyter (priest) has the right to perform all the sacraments except the Holy Sacrament of Ordination. He can manage his own parish, which the bishop can delegate to him by laying hands on him. Deacons cannot independently perform the Holy Sacraments. They help (minister) with the bishop and priest in performing the sacraments. These are three types of clergy: deacons, priests, and bishops… The ministry of the priest is the direct extension of the ministry of the Apostles. The Holy Priesthood possesses direct apostolic succession in ministry and authority. It has received from the Savior the unique right to ministry, which can be claimed by no other person neither on earth nor in heaven in the Church of Christ.”
“It is well known that the Roman Church has a direct historical relationship with Christ and His apostles. Without a doubt, it is a fact that the Catholic Church descended from apostolic times… It is also a fact that the clergy of the Roman Church bears apostolic succession, which neither can be denied nor has anyone ever denied.”
So, these excerpts allege that Christ and the apostles founded the church hierarchy, the “clergy”. The clergy consists of a bishop, presbyter and deacon. Also, there is “apostolic succession”, i.e. direct lineage and inheritance from the apostles. This means that the priests of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have the same powers as Christ gave the apostles (“forgiveness of sins” and others). By this succession, the flow of grace conferred by laying on of hands is purported to have continued uninterrupted for two thousand years, allegedly having dated back to the bishops of the First Century, e.g. the twelve Apostles themselves. The doctrine of “Apostolic Succession”, among other things, supposedly guarantees the veracity of Christian teachings and interpretations of Scripture by the anointed teachers of this “only Holy and Apostolic Church” because the Holy Spirit Himself guides them. This aforementioned clergy, according to Orthodox doctrine, has the authority to perform the holy sacraments, thus allowing people to enter the kingdom of Heaven.
A detailed study from the Bible and historical sources will demonstrate that the Eastern Orthodox Church, to her shame, does not follow truth and is inconsistent with the teachings of Christ and the Apostles on this issue. Before doing that, let us examine the role of Jewish priests in the Old Testament, for this is an important topic to study in order to understand priesthood.
The Role of the Old Testament Priesthood
There is no argument with the fact that the Bible recounts in many places of priests and their religious activities within the framework of God’s people. Also the pivotal role of the priest within the Old Testament time period (which ends with Christ’s death and resurrection) is undeniable.
However, starting from the book of Acts in the New Testament (which describes the birth of Christ’s Church and the development of Christianity in the middle of the First Century after Christ) and beyond, the Bible mentions Jewish priests only in terms of their conversion from Judaism to Christianity (Acts 6:7). The Bible also mentions them in connection to the expiration of their ministry, which found its fulfillment in Jesus’ ministry as the exclusive, final, and eternal High Priest (Heb. 8). As this study will clearly demonstrate, New Testament Christianity based on the Apostles’ teaching and church practice knows no such thing as a special institution of “clergy”, especially not the hierarchy that exists today in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches with all their powers. However, let us proceed with the study.
Even before He gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites through Moses on Mount Sinai, God declared all the descendants of Jacob who were rescued from Egyptian bondage to be a holy nation and a royal priesthood (conditional upon their obedience to His law):
“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.”
According to the commandments of God, all the firstborn males from all twelve tribes of Jacob’s descendants belonged to the Lord as dedicated offspring of His holy people. However, as a replacement for dedicating all of the firstborn sons of all the Jewish tribes, God ordained an entire tribe to serve Him in special ministry. This was the Levites:
“The LORD also said to Moses, ‘I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether man or animal. They are to be mine. I am the LORD.’”
These Levites had the job as assistants to the priests and fellow ministers in the structure of the ministry of the Tabernacle, such as taking care of the vessels and other objects in the Holy Tabernacle. On the other hand, the priests themselves belonged to the tribe of Levi, but unlike the other Levites, they had to be direct descendants from Aaron and his sons. During the time of King David, the priests (descendants of Aaron through the sons of Eleazar and Ithamar) were divided into 24 priestly orders. Each order had its schedule of carrying out the service. With regards to the ministry of priests in the Old Testament, it was clearly defined by the Lord’s will. God required the priests to wear clothing specially made that differed quite a bit from that worn by people who were not priests. The ministry of Aaron and his descendants consisted of offering daily animal sacrifices before the Lord on behalf of the people either in atonement of their sins or out of gratitude to God for His gifts. The Old Testament book of Leviticus gives a detailed description of the Levitical ministry. For our purposes regarding the priest and the details of his ministry and performing sacrifices, we will consider only what is most relevant for our theme – that which is symbolic of the entire Old Testament system of ministry before the Lord.
The Symbolism of the Old Testament System of Ministry To the Lord
The New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews is a comprehensive source of information about the entire Jewish ministerial system of sacrifices in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) as fulfilled in the sacrifice of the God-man Jesus Christ, after which the Old Testament ceased to be valid.
Let us examine the physical place where the ministry took place (the Tabernacle and its yard). The Lord’s commandment regarding the Tabernacle and its objects for worship ministry mandated the construction of a tent that was supposed to be divided into two rooms – “the Holy Place” and “the Holy of Holies.” In the first room, there were the gold and gold items:
A table set with 12 loaves of bread (representing the number of the tribes of the descendants of Jacob. Only the priests are permitted to eat this bread. The loaves of bread are replaced every Saturday with new ones. Leviticus 24:5-9);
A seven-branched lamp stand (Ex. 25:31) on which the priests were supposed to burn incense day and night (Lev. 24:2-4).
The altar made of acacia wood (Ex. 30:1-8) where holy incense (aromatic substances) was to be burned daily. In the second room of the tent, only the High Priest dares to enter only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) to offer the blood of animal sacrifices. There was the Ark of the Covenant which contained the two plates with the writings of the Ten Commandments that the Lord had given to Moses. The Ark had a cover with cast golden images of cherubim. The two rooms inside of the Tabernacle were each divided by curtains on which were sewn inscribed representations of heavenly angelic beings – cherubim (Ex. 24:1, 31-33). On the porch in the outer courtyard at the front of the tent were built a sacrificial altar and wash basin (cast out of bronze, that is copper metal, or “brass”, per Ex. 30:18; 40:29-33). We will have more to say about these Old Testament symbols in the chapters on the Virgin Mary and veneration of the holy icons. As discussed earlier in this chapter, Jesus Christ served both as High Priest and the sacrificial victim.
As the perfect Son of God and the High Priest of a new covenant, Jesus as God’s presence takes the place of the sanctity of the Holy of Holies located in the earthly Tabernacle. He entered into heaven through His own blood and not that of animal sacrifices. (Hebrews 9:24 to 10:17);
Unlike the Jewish priests who offered sacrifices every single day, Jesus brought only one sacrifice – Himself, which lasts forever (Heb. 10:11-14);
The curtain that divided the “holiness” of the “Holy of Holies” and also symbolized Christ’s body that was to be killed on the cross (Heb. 10:19-22) was torn to mark the time of His death (Mt. 27:51);
The lamp stand with burning incense was a symbol of Christ the God-man, who
says of Himself, “I am the light of the world,” (Jn. 8:12, 1 Jn. 1:5) and represents the symbol of the Holy Spirit (Rev. 1:4, 4:5);
The loaves of bread put out were also a symbol of Jesus Christ, who said of Himself: “I am the bread of life.” (Jn. 6:32-35);
The golden altar of incense was a symbol of Christ before Whom all the prayers of the saints are brought to God every day (Heb. 7:25, Rev. 8:2-4);
The bronze basin where the priests perform ceremonial washing (Ex. 30:18-21) symbolized “washing” or the cleansing of sins of all who believe in the vicarious sacrifice of Christ (1 Jn. 1:7, Titus 3:5);
The bronze altar on which were offered the daily sacrifices in the Old Testament
represented the cross, the place of suffering of Jesus Christ – this is the altar of the New Covenant (Heb. 13:10-13).
But perhaps someone might ask why take the time to mention all these details of the Old Testament priesthood when the Orthodox Church denies that its clergy has any connection with the priests of the Old Testament. The reason is simple. In fact, as I previously pointed out, the New Testament does not know the institution of a special Christian clergy (hierarchy) like that which exists in the Orthodox and Catholic churches. This is because after the death of Jesus Christ, there no longer exists any need for the offering of sacrifices for sins. God accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as complete and final, once and for all. Yet, the Eastern Orthodox Church still argues that the existence of the clergy in the Church of Christ is still necessary and was instituted by Christ Himself. In the next section, we will examine the subject of priests in the Church of Christ as revealed by the apostles in the New Testament Scriptures inspired by God.
The Holy Priesthood in the New Testament
The sacred writings of the New Testament clearly show that after the establishment of the Church, the Lord called all his believers “a holy nation and royal priesthood.” Orthodox teachers derive their doctrine of the priesthood from “Sacred Tradition” which ends up being foreign to the Bible. Consequently, these Orthodox teachers humiliate and mock evangelical Christians for claiming themselves to be the “holy universal priesthood” before God. In light of this, it is worthwhile for us to thoroughly investigate what the Word of God teaches and to contrast this teaching with the arguments of the Orthodox. Lazar Milin gives one example of an attack on the “sinful sectarian teachings on the priesthood”:
“This sectarian interpretation is extremely superficial and contrary to the principles taught by the cited passages from the Holy Scriptures which clearly and undoubtedly demonstrate that Christ founded the hierarchy of his Church, contrary to the practice of sectarian religious communities.
First of all, these words came from the Apostles Peter and John, and it is not possible to imagine that they did not know the power they had just received from Christ, because we know that they implemented apostolic authority: they preached, baptized , established the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, laid hands on the newly baptized, prayed for the believers, and ruled the church. Thus, all this constitutes their clerical role in the Church, the role that they passed on to their heirs through prayer and laying their hands on them. Therefore, it would have been impossible for them to deny these words that come from the authority and teaching of the Lord.
What do the apostles mean when they mention the “universal priesthood”? It means that Christians are God’s people. People regardless of nationality are assembled by the sacrifice of the Savior, the High Priest, which compare with other people exalted before God as kings and priests. We should especially pay attention to the writer of Revelation about the future age after the resurrection, which says in chapter 20, verse 6: ‘Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.’ It is obvious that they will be priests after the resurrection of Christ and not before the resurrection.”
Thus, according to Mr. Milin, the teaching by the evangelical church about the “common priesthood of all Christian believers” is wrong. He believes the Bible upholds his position. Milin asserts that the apostles did not contradict themselves. Milin claims they knew there was a clerical hierarchy in the church. While admitting this fact, Milin also alleges the apostles could also declare there to be a universal priesthood among all believers. This Orthodox apologist cites certain Bible verses that he, not the sectarians, correctly interpret. In fact, here is what they say in context:
“As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him- you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
“…To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.”
“And they sang a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.’”
“Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.”
Contrary to the claims of Milin, these Scripture verses of the apostle Peter in his first epistle and of John in Revelation, particularly the last chapter, speak in relation to the past tense when these verses were written. That is, the events Peter and John described had already occurred from their perspective. Thus, one must conclude based on these verses that New Testament Christians had already been made (past tense) royal priests in God’s kingdom. Of course, after the “First Resurrection” (i.e. the resurrection of the righteous at the beginning of the future millennial kingdom of Christ) and the return of Christians from the past years of the church age to earthly life in their glorified bodies, they will literally reign with Christ and be God’s priests to offer sacrifices acceptable to Him. It is quite obvious that Peter and John in their texts do not mean that Christians are “a royal priesthood” after His resurrection, but that those made at the time of his faith and justification through faith in the Savior. Milin in his book bases his conclusions only on selective interpretation of the Bible and consideration of only those verses that seem to suggest the reader’s need to affirm Milin’s belief (specifically examining Revelation 20:6). If the reader examines all the verses and makes an intellectually honest effort to analyze their literal and grammatical sense, it becomes clear that the reader must reject the claims the Orthodox theologians have made for the case of the clerical hierarchy. Of course, Milin attempts to read into these verses the meaning that the apostles received from Christ the clerical hierarchy and were fully cognizant of it. Nowhere in Scripture can the Orthodox sacrament of the priesthood be found. The Orthodox apologist can only truly cite the teachings of “the holy fathers” to support his position.
Finally, it is crucial to note something else that will demonstrate even more clearly the errors in the Orthodox interpretation on this issue as well as their misuse of the biblical texts.
Namely, any student of the Orthodox confession knows of its sacred doctrine of the “universal resurrection of the dead” (the believers and unbelievers at once) on the Day of God’s Judgment. They do not believe in two future separate resurrections, which Scripture in Revelation 20 describes as “the first (for believers before Christ’s millennial reign unto eternal life) and the second resurrection (for unbelievers during the Last Judgment unto eternal damnation)”. So, when Milin mentions “the first resurrection” in its literal meaning of actual resurrection from the dead, it sounds very strange, especially because official Orthodoxy does not believe this teaching! Here is how Milin departs from the traditional Orthodox belief in his comments on Revelation 20, where he attempts to justify the Orthodox belief in the “general resurrection” versus evangelical Protestant belief that is based on the Bible that the resurrection of the just and the unjust must be separate:
“We should especially emphasize that the Holy Scriptures considered a sinner to be spiritually dead (Luke 15:32), because ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23). Thus, repentance and baptism are equivalent to resurrection. ‘You who were baptized in Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ’ (Gal. 3:27) and death no longer rules over that person since he has been resurrected with Christ (Rom. 6:9). Therefore, the ‘first resurrection’ is actually baptism. That is why the passage states: ‘Blessed is he who shares in the first resurrection, because over him the second death has no power’, and thus he is not condemned by God on Judgment Day during the second coming of Christ. The ‘second resurrection’ describes the general resurrection when all the dead shall rise from their graves alive and transformed spiritually into their incorruptible bodies.”
So here we see Milin’s polemic against what he perceives as the sinful “sectarian” belief in the universal priesthood (under which all Christians became priests after Christ’s resurrection). He resorts to arguing that the “first resurrection” is not Christ’s resurrection, but rather Christian baptism. Milin now denies the Orthodox teaching of the future double resurrection of both sinners and saints! In fact, Milin contradicts himself in the same book by interpreting the “first resurrection” as baptism on page 294 and then changes his mind by interpreting it completely differently on page 333!
If we still want to follow Milin’s logic in combining both interpretations, then one would be forced to conclude that Christian believers become priests immediately after their baptism (which certainly is not what the Orthodox priest wanted to say).
Thus, in the end we must conclude that Orthodox theology has no evidence that the first century Church established a clerical hierarchy. Instead, the clerical hierarchy arose from the teaching of the “Holy Fathers” and today is defended by their successors. Even a blind man can see the visible distortions and manipulations of the holy texts by Orthodox apologists such as Milin.
Now that we have already seen the failure of Milin to attack evangelical Christian beliefs, let us further examine this topic.