And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. (Exodus 19:6)
In the Bible, some things carry over from the Old Testament into the New. Some things don’t. Certain laws were specifically for the Old Testament Jews and for a specific limited time in history. For example, grain and animal sacrifices… certain ceremonial, clothing and dietary laws… and the tabernacle and its furnishings are all only types and shadows of Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 10:1). Those things were just for the Old Testament Jews to follow and they don’t carry over into the New Testament. They were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:17; Romans 10:4). Another practice that is not intended for the New Testament is the “ministerial” priesthood, where only certain “ordained” men using certain ceremonies and rituals could mediate between man and God.
But the Catholic Church will insist that there is indeed a New Testament ministerial priesthood (like in the Old Testament) and one Catholic argument that they use to try and prove this is the “three-fold priesthood.” This brief article is to specifically address this (and only this) three-fold argument. The Catholic reasoning goes something like this:
1) In the Old Testament, the Jews had a high priest (Leviticus 21:10).
2) In the Old Testament, the Jews had ministerial priests (Exodus 19:22).
3) In the Old Testament, the Jews also had a universal priesthood [one that makes every believer a priest] (Exodus 19:6).
4) Conclusion: Therefore, since the New Testament also has a High Priest like the Old Testament does, and it also has universal priests like the Old Testament does, it would make sense if all three of these same positions would carry over into the New Testament. If the Old Testament has three types of priest, so should the New Testament.
We could possibly agree with our Catholic friends if, AND ONLY IF, the premises were all correct. Now, we agree with the first two premises, but not the third. Therefore, we don’t reach the same conclusion, either.
Many who read Exodus 19:6 still don’t realize that the Old Testament did NOT have a universal priesthood. Why would we say this after reading that verse? Well, a universal priesthood was indeed promised by God to the Jews, but it was a CONDITIONAL promise (i.e., it was dependent on the Jews’ obedience). Read it in context. Just one verse before, God said:
Exodus 19:5 - “Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people: for all the earth is Mine:”
Please notice the “IF ye will obey My voice” part. Catholics seem to always miss this point - that the Jews first needed to be fully obedient to God’s covenant in order to obtain such a special priesthood. But we all know of Israel’s failure (as a nation) to obey God’s voice in the Old Testament. They were clearly and willfully disobedient over and over again. Therefore, the Jews never got to enjoy this status of being a universal priesthood.
For the Old Testament Jews, the promise of a universal priesthood was dependent on THEIR obedience to the Law. For New Testament believers (both Jew and Gentile), the promise of a universal priesthood is dependent on our faith in JESUS’ obedience to the Law, and on HIS work on the cross.
Exodus 19:6 is still a valid promise to the Jews and they will indeed enjoy that privilege one day (Isaiah chapter 61). There are many, many promises to the Jews not yet fulfilled, and Exodus 19:6 is only one of them.
So, the bottom line in this priesthood debate is this: There were only two functioning priesthoods in the Old Testament – a high priesthood (Leviticus 21:10) and a ministerial one (Exodus 19:22). And there are only two in the New Testament, as well - the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:17; 3:1), and a universal priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6). No other Christian office of priest is mentioned in the New Testament. Since there are only two in each Testament, and since the high priesthood is common to both, it follows that our New Testament universal priesthood has taken the place of the Old Testament ministerial-type priesthood.
Therefore, Catholics can’t use this “three-fold argument” to support the Catholic priesthood. Not only does this apply to Catholics, but this also applies to the Orthodox Church and certain Protestant groups, as well. It affects any group who claims to have such a “sacramental” or ministerial-type priesthood for today.
As stated earlier, this article was written specifically to address this one Catholic argument. For a fuller treatment of the priesthood issue, see here: