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Letter to the Hebrews: The Emerging Priesthood
By Ronald D. Witherup, P.S.S.
During this Year for Priests, a biblical scholar and former seminary professor takes a look at the priesthood's biblical roots.


A People Persecuted
Jesus Christ, the High Priest
Hebrews and the Theology of Priesthood
John Paul II's Contribution
Six Ways Hebrews Helps Today
The Priesthood of Jesus
How Can the Laity Help?

DURING THIS YEAR FOR PRIESTS, there is one place in the Bible where we can perhaps learn the most about where our ideas of priesthood came from. That is the Letter to the Hebrews.

Its unique presentation of Jesus Christ as the great High Priest has inspired Christians through the ages to reflect upon what God has given the world in the gift of his own Son.

A People Persecuted

Many scholars consider the Letter to the Hebrews a sermon or homily. Although the date, authorship, source and destination of Hebrews are contested, it was probably written sometime between 60 and 100 A.D. The author was likely an educated, Jewish Christian, who was addressing a community in danger of experiencing apostasy, the defection of some of its members from the faith.

Written in elegant Greek (the best in the New Testament), Hebrews has only the loose form of a letter and is best described in its own terms as "a message of encouragement" (13:22, New American Bible) or a "word of exhortation" (13:22, New Revised Standard Version). Remaining Scripture quotes in this article are from the NRSV.

There can be no doubt about the respect the author has for the Word of God, which indeed is "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword" and "able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (4:12). The argument he presents is thoroughly rooted in the Old Testament traditions of Israel.

This isn't theology for its own sake, though. The author desires to exhort, to encourage, to strengthen and to bolster a community being tested. With the persecutions comes a temptation to renege on the faith in the face of danger.

We see that, for example, in Chapter Two of the letter when Christ's priestly identity is already stated. Christ's suffering is acknowledged precisely because "he is able to help those who are being tested" (2:18).

The final chapter is also strongly encouraging and is oriented toward our heavenly future: "For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come" (13:14). In Hebrews, talk of a heavenly future (what scholars call eschatology) and strong encouragement (exhortation) merge.

The goal: to keep the focus on hopeful anticipation as we make our way toward perfection. That's a prominent theme in Hebrews, following Jesus the High Priest himself. Hebrews can consequently be considered a document of hope, something to which Pope Benedict XVI calls attention with great frequency in his 2007 encyclical, Spe Salvi (In Hope We Are Saved).


Scholars generally agree that the main contribution of the Letter to the Hebrews is its unique and highly developed notion of Jesus Christ as the great High Priest. Hebrews begins with the announcement of Jesus as the Son of God, a "high Christology" that shows Jesus as higher than the angels, those divine beings who surround God and act as his messengers. Jesus is now the messenger "much superior to angels" (1:4).

Although Hebrews acknowledges implicitly Jesus' divine Sonship in terms of incarnation (Jesus coming into the world), exaltation after the sacrifice of the cross is most relevant in this New Testament book.

Jesus' Sonship is intimately connected with his priesthood. As a faithful Son whose identity comes from his Father, he is nonetheless made a priest, a man called, set apart and imbued with holiness, to make intercession for humankind.

Jesus suffered death, Son though he was, and in doing so was made perfect through suffering (2:8b-10). He offered himself as the sacrificial victim. He tasted death for all (2:9b) and was one like us in everything but sin (4:15). His experience, then, was intimately close to our own, which enabled him both to understand us and to assist us in our struggles.

One cannot exaggerate the influence of this letter on the Catholic Church's theology of the priesthood. From its liturgical rites of ordination to its Catechism to its official documents on the priesthood, the Church has used the theology of Hebrews to great effect.

We should note, however, a striking truth. In the development of its theology of the priesthood, the Church has gone where Hebrews itself never went. Nowhere in Hebrews (or in the New Testament) is there an application of the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ to the ministerial priesthood!

Indeed, when leaders in the community are mentioned in Hebrews, the terminology used is much more vague. They are called "leaders" (Greek, hegoumenoi [13:7,17,24]), and no description of their duties is given. They are not called "priests," a term that in the New Testament is never applied to Christian leaders, but only to Old Testament figures and to Jesus.

In the Old Testament, priests are by definition intermediaries ("ones in the middle") between God and humanity, between the spiritual and the secular. They are by nature called to a special holiness, set apart for service, which allows them to perform their cultic rites, their sacred duties, as intermediaries. They are supposed to be avenues to the divine.

Whereas in the past there were priests (plural) to take on this role, now in Jesus Christ there is but one priest, the great High Priest who, as God's Son, fulfills this role perfectly.

Yet there are good reasons that the Church came to apply this same terminology to its ministers. Believing in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, over time the Church came to use the term priest (another word for presbyter from the Greek presbyteros, "elder") for its ministers by analogy, or close resemblance.

That is to say, the priesthood today is a participation in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. This participation, of course, is a part of every Christian's Baptism, but, as we will see, the priest participates in a unique way.

Our use of the Letter to the Hebrews obviously does not provide a total theology of the priesthood, but we should note its fidelity to the spirit of that letter, especially in the balance between the humanity of the priests and their sacred duties. Jesus Christ is the model; he is the one who provides the sanctity we ourselves can never provide.

Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II's 1992 Apostolic Exhortation on Priestly Formation, quotes or alludes to Hebrews more than a dozen times. The opening paragraphs of Pastores Dabo Vobis (PDV) immediately connect the title in Hebrews of Christ, "the great shepherd of the sheep" (13:20), to God's promise recorded in Jeremiah to give shepherds for the flock (Jeremiah 3:15; 23:4) and to the image of the "Good Shepherd" from John's Gospel (John 10:11; see 21:15-19).

Pope John Paul also emphasizes in this document the human dimension of the ministerial priesthood. He does so by using two quotations from Hebrews (5:1; 4:15), stating explicitly at the beginning of Chapter One: "The Letter to the Hebrews clearly affirms the 'human character' of God's minister."

Pastores Dabo Vobis is the first official teaching of the Church to emphasize human formation as one of the four main pillars of priestly formation and, in fact, as foundational to forming good priests. This orientation in Pastores Dabo Vobis is quite remarkable, not only for its emphasis on the human qualities needed for priestly ministry, but also for its fidelity to Hebrews, which, as we saw earlier, in fact blends well the human and divine aspects of the ministry of Jesus the High Priest.

Church teaching emphasizes the necessity of priests being formed by other priests. There is no substitute for good role modeling.

That, however, does not mean laity play no role in priestly formation. On the contrary, the U.S. bishops' Program of Priestly Formation (Fifth Edition) recognizes the significant contribution laity can make to priestly formation (#308, 349-350).

Laywomen and laymen contribute to priestly formation in at least three ways. First, there are some professionally trained lay experts who teach in seminaries. They provide important input for future priests in many areas, such as theology, catechetics, counseling and pastoral ministry.

Second, many seminarians working in parishes or other pastoral assignments benefit from lay support groups organized to offer encouragement and constructive criticism as they learn concretely about the demands of pastoral ministry.

Third and most important, the laity can promote priestly vocations through prayer and careful discernment of young men who may have the capacity and the call to the priesthood.

In addition to this basic stance, Pastores Dabo Vobis also applies Hebrews quite directly to the ministerial priesthood in three other important ways:

Ministerial priests are configured to Christ, shepherd and head of the Church, and thus participate in mediating the direct access to God that Christ has achieved as High Priest. Christ fulfilled the Old Testament roles of mediation previously performed by kings, priests and prophets; ministerial priests now share this ministry (PDV #13; Hebrews 8—9, especially 9:24-28).

Priestly vocation is a mysterious call by God's grace which must be answered with full freedom. Christ makes up for our weaknesses even as we are called to perfection (PDV #20; Hebrews 7:26).

Christ is the definitive Word of God. Priests should be formed well to communicate faithfully the true wisdom of God (PDV #53; Hebrews 1:1-4).

It is noteworthy that Pastores Dabo Vobis develops much more thoroughly a theology of the priesthood that puts flesh on the bones and provides a greater understanding of Vatican II's teaching. While it is filled with doctrinal insight, its pastoral sensitivity is equally apparent. It's a style that blends well with the character of Hebrews. In what follows, we'll look at some of the letter's messages for today's Church.

First and foremost, in Hebrews the focus is on Jesus. The call to perseverance in the faith is accompanied by the invitation to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (12:2).

Nothing could be more important today in the life of priests. Jesus surely is our model for the priesthood and its perfect embodiment. Hebrews helps us to understand this in a contemporary, yet traditional theology of the priest as "another Christ" (in Latin, alter Christus).

A second application stems from the unique emphasis on the kind of priesthood Jesus had. Unlike the priests of the Old Testament, Jesus' priesthood was not hereditary. It was rooted in the mysterious call of his Father, in the mold of Melchizedek, who had no lineage but was a chosen king and priest.

Our theology of priesthood rightfully emphasizes the mystery of a vocation. Ministerial priesthood is not self-chosen, but rather a call to which we respond.

A third lesson concerns the balance between the human and divine, the sacred and profane, that one finds in Hebrews. On the one hand, as we have noted, Hebrews has one of the highest Christologies (interpretations of Christ) of the New Testament. On the other hand, the letter insists that Christ was like us in all things but sin. Even this High Priest, unique Son of God that he is, is chosen from among men and can identify with our frailties, our sufferings, our limitations. Priests are at one and the same time called to a particular—not higher—holiness while acknowledging their human limitations.

Fourth, Hebrews can teach our priests about the wisdom of being "pastoral theologians," for that is what I, as a biblical scholar, think Hebrews' author was. That is what priests are called to be. The subtle blending in Hebrews of profound doctrinal depth and sublime theological understanding about Jesus Christ himself was not simply a lesson in theology. It served to inspire, encourage, strengthen and challenge the people for whom the message was first written. It does the same for us, priests and laypeople.

A fifth teaching in Hebrews stems from its eschatological, "end-times" orientation, the context of trial and tribulation that is an undercurrent in the letter. The theology of Hebrews was pronounced as a message of encouragement to a community under stress. That community faced the danger of apostasy in light of impending persecution or severe trials.

Hebrews exhorts the faithful to remain steady in their stance of faith as they journey toward perfection. The goal is the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22). Hebrews is intended to impart hope to its hearers and readers. The message obviously is phrased in various ways but always with a combination of challenge and encouragement.

Finally, just as Jesus was both priest and victim, priests today should reflect on the radical nature of their call to serve others. This message, of course, is rooted in Jesus of Nazareth's own teaching that he came to serve and not to be served (Matthew 20:26-28; Mark 10:43-45).

In Hebrews, Jesus as victim is tied to his offering of his blood and his flesh (incarnation), his sacrifice on the cross (crucifixion), and his subsequent vindication (resurrection) and exaltation at God's right hand (glorification).

Priests today, naturally, do not make the same sacrifice. But priests do make it present through the power of the Holy Spirit in the daily celebration of the Eucharist.

Priests, nonetheless, are called to selfsacrifice, to surrender to the will of the Father and to follow the call of discipleship—even though it may lead to suffering. We need to become, in a sense, "victims" surrendering to the Father's will.

Sadly, the language of high priesthood (alter Christus, "another Christ," etc.) and the exalted nature of priesthood sometimes lead to feelings of entitlement—" the world owes me"—rather than to selfless service.

Some priests seem to lack the capacity for true empathy with those who suffer. Others, when things are simply not going their way or when they meet great challenges in pastoral ministry, fall into the human trap of giving up, losing hope or walking away. (Those are temptations in any committed lifestyle.)

Worse for priests, perhaps, is falling into the trap of clericalism—being in a privileged class—which is a distortion of the true priesthood.

Priests sometimes begin to see themselves in this way. And it seems there are always plenty of people—lay and clergy alike—willing to put us on a pedestal. This is a corruption of the genuine call to the priesthood in the mold of the High Priest, Jesus Christ.

The Letter to the Hebrews maintains the balance between the beauty, even the marvel, of leading the Church, and that of humbly serving the down-to-earth needs of the people. Priesthood, after all, is about ministry. It's about serving others in the person of Christ.

For more on the priesthood today, see "The Priesthood Today: We're All in This Together" by James Martin, S.J.

When the author of the Letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus' priesthood (4:14—5:10), it is in these terms:

• He exercises his ministry from heaven, where he has already passed to exaltation and sits at God's right hand (4:14; also 1:3,13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).

• He sympathizes with our weaknesses because he is exactly like us, having been taken from among human beings, but without sin (4:15; 5:1).

• He has not chosen his own identity but was called by God and sent on mission (5:4; 3:1).

• Just as the High Priest of old entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement and offered sacrifices for the sins of the people (9:7), so Jesus Christ has entered a heavenly sanctuary, having offered sacrifices for sin, offering himself as victim (5:1; 9:12,14,25; 10:10).

• Jesus learned obedience through suffering (5:8).

• His sufferings made him "perfect" and the source of salvation, redemption, purification, forgiveness, sanctification and perfection for all (5:9; 10:18,22).

• As High Priest, chosen and exalted by God his Father, Jesus is our forerunner (6:20).

• His royal priesthood has made him mediator of a new and better covenant (7:22; 8:6,13; 12:24).

In essence, Jesus' priesthood both fulfills the Old Testament priesthood and abolishes it in favor of a new priesthood, modeled after Jesus himself (7:18; 8:13-14; 9:14; 10:9).

Ronald D. Witherup, P.S.S., is currently worldwide head of the Sulpicians, a group of priests devoted to the formation and training of priests. A Scripture scholar, he is the author of several books and numerous articles, including the Catholic Update "Introducing St. Paul the Apostle: His Life and Mission" (C0708), and the St. Anthony Messenger Press retreat book St. Paul: Called to Conversion.

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