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Jesus Christ, Messiah Priest

General Audience — February 18, 1987

—    Sacrifices of adoration and atonement
—    An eternal priesthood

The name "Christ" is, as we know, the Greek equivalent of the word "Messiah" and means "Anointed." Besides the royal character, which we treated in the previous reflection, it also includes, according to Old Testament tradition, the "priestly" character. As elements pertaining to the messianic mission, these two aspects, though differing among themselves, are nonetheless complementary. The figure of the Messiah outlined in the Old Testament embraces both elements by showing the profound unity of the royal and priestly mission.

This unity has its earliest expression as a prototype and an anticipation in Melchizedek, king of Salem, the mysterious figure in the Old Testament at the time of Abraham. We read of him in the Book of Genesis that in going out to meet Abraham, "He offered bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, 'Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth'" (Gen 14:18-19).

The figure of Melchizedek, king and priest, entered into the messianic tradition, as indicated especially by Psalm 110 (the messianic psalm) by antonomasia. In this psalm, God-Yahweh addresses "my Lord" (i.e., the Messiah) with the words: "'Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool.' The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes!" (Ps 110:1-2).

These expressions which leave no doubt about the royal character of the one addressed by Yahweh, are followed by the announcement: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, 'You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek'" (Ps 110:4). As is evident, the one whom God-Yahweh addresses by inviting him to sit "at his right hand," will be simultaneously king and priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

1.  Sacrifices of adoration and atonement

In the history of Israel the institution of the Old Testament priesthood traces its origin to Aaron, the brother of Moses, and it was hereditary in the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

In this regard, it is significant that we read in the Book of Sirach: "(God) exalted Aaron, the brother of Moses...of the tribe of Levi. He made an everlasting covenant with him and gave him the priesthood of the people" (Sir 45:6-7). "[The Lord] chose him out of all the living to offer sacrifice to the lord, incense and a pleasing odor as a memorial portion, to make atonement for the people. In his commandments he gave him authority in statutes and judgments to teach Jacob the testimonies, and to enlighten Israel with his law" (Sir 45:16-17). From these texts we deduce that selection as a priest is for the purpose of worship, for the offering of sacrifices of adoration and atonement, and that worship in its turn is linked to teaching about God and his law.

In this same context the following words from the Book of Sirach are also significant: "For even [God's] covenant with David...was an individual heritage through one son alone; but the heritage of Aaron is for all his descendants" (Sir 45:25).

According to this tradition, the priesthood is placed "alongside" the royal dignity. However, Jesus did not come from the priestly line, from the tribe of Levi, but from that of Judah. Hence it would seem that the priestly character of the Messiah does not become him. His contemporaries discover in him, above all, the teacher, the prophet, some even their "king," the heir of David. It would therefore be said that the tradition of Melchizedek, the king-priest is absent in Jesus.

It is, however, only an apparent absence. The paschal events revealed the true meaning of the "Messiah-King" and of the "king-priest after the order of Melchizedek" which—present in the Old Testament—found its fulfillment in the mission of Jesus of Nazareth. It is significant that during his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus replied to the high priest who asked him if he was "the Christ, the Son of God," by saying, "You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God..." (Mt 26:63-64). It is a clear reference to the messianic Psalm 110 which expresses the tradition of the king-priest.

It must be said, however, that the full manifestation of this truth is found only in the Letter to the Hebrews which treats of the relationship between the levitical priesthood and that of Christ. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews touches the theme of Melchizedek's priesthood in order to say that Jesus Christ fulfilled the messianic pre-announcement linked to that figure who by a higher predestination was inscribed in the mission of the people of God already from the time of Abraham.

We read of Christ who "being made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek" (Heb 5:9-10). Then, after recalling what was said about Melchizedek in the Book of Genesis (cf. Gen 14:18), the Letter to the Hebrews continues: "His name when translated means king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever" (Heb 7:2-3).

Using the analogies of the ritual of worship, of the ark and of the sacrifices of the old covenant, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews presents Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all the figures and promises of the Old Testament, ordained "to serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary" (Heb 8:5). Christ, however, a merciful and faithful high priest (cf. Heb 2:17; 3:2-5), bears in himself a "priesthood that continues for ever" (Heb 7:24), having offered "himself without blemish to God" (Heb 9:14).

It is worthwhile quoting completely some particularly eloquent passages of this letter. Coming into the world, Jesus Christ says to God his Father: "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me. In burnt offerings and sin offerings you take no pleasure. Then I said, 'Behold, I have come to do your will, O God'" (Heb 10:5-7). "For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest" (Heb 7:26). "Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people" (Heb 2:17). We have then, "a high priest...who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning," a high priest who is able "to sympathize with our weaknesses" (cf. Heb 4:15).

Further on we read that such a high priest "has no need, like the other high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself" (Heb 7:27). Again, "when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come...he entered once for all into the Holy Place...taking his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (Heb 9:11-12). Hence our certainty that "the blood of Christ who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, will purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God" (Heb 9:14).

This explains why an everlasting saving power is attributed to Christ's priesthood whereby "he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb 7:25).

2.  An eternal priesthood

Finally, we can note that the Letter to the Hebrews states clearly and convincingly that Jesus Christ has fulfilled with his whole life, and especially with the sacrifice of the cross, all that was written in the messianic tradition of divine revelation. His priesthood is situated in reference to the ritual service of the priests of the old covenant, which he surpasses as priest and victim. God's eternal design which provides for the institution of the priesthood in the history of the covenant is fulfilled in Christ.

According to the Letter to the Hebrews, the messianic task is symbolized by the figure of Melchizedek. There we read that by God's will "another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life" (Heb 7:15). It is therefore an eternal priesthood (cf. Heb 7:3-24).

The Church, faithful guardian and interpreter of these and other texts contained in the New Testament, has reaffirmed over and over again the truth of the Messiah-priest, as witnessed, for example, by the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431), that of Trent (1562) and in our own time, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

An evident witness of this truth is found in the Eucharistic sacrifice which by Christ's institution the Church offers every day under the species of bread and wine, "after the order of Melchizedek."