That the New Covenant would include priests was prophesied in the Old Testament countless times. For this post, I’m looking only at the Levitical prophesies: the times when God prophesies that within the New Covenant, He will set apart some (but not all) Christians to serve as His priests, as the new Levites.
I. Genesis 22 and Jeremiah 33
The role of the Old Covenant was to use Israel to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. They were chosen to be a nation which was set apart and which ministered to the world. This is clear from the inception of the Covenant in Genesis 22:15-18,
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said,
“I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have
not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your
descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.
Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
So because Abraham was willing to sacrifice even his son and sole heir for God, God created a Covenant in which He would sacrifice His own Son, the descendant of Abraham, for the redemption of the world. In Jeremiah 33, God foretells the New Covenant. Here’s Jeremiah 33:14-16,
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it* will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.”
Again, very Christological. The “it” is a genderless pronoun which may mean “She” (Jerusalem” or “He” (the Branch, Christ) – both ways make sense (although the second is much more obviously Christological, it was understood by the Jews to mean Jerusalem). Jeremiah 33:17-18 continues,
For this is what the LORD says: ‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, nor will the priests, who are Levites, ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.’ “
This portion of the prophesy is fulfilled specifically in Christ: He is the King of Kings and the eternal High Priest. This prophesy also identifies Him as the embodiment of the Levitical line. This is fundamental: Christ was from the line of Judah, not Levi. So Christ is a Levite spiritually, but not biologically. But the prophesy doesn’t stop there. God promises further in Jeremiah 33:22, “I will make the descendants of David my servant and the Levites who minister before me as countless as the stars of the sky and as measureless as the sand on the seashore.” As before, the primary descendant in question is Christ – the Branch sprouting from David’s line; the other descendants are Christians, the spiritual sons and daughters of Abraham and David. And the prophesied Levites are the spiritual heirs of that line of priests. As you can see from v. 22, the priesthood is wrapped up directly into the language of the New Covenant – there’s the parallel language to Genesis 22:17 about the descendants as countless as the stars. This is Covenant language. And it not simply Christ who is a Priest, just as it is not simply Christ who is a Descendant, although He is certainly the unique Priest and unique Descendant. Rather, this prophesy makes it clear that there will be countless Levitical priests.
This part of the Covenant is absolutely eternal. Jeremiah 22:20-21,
“This is what the LORD says: ‘If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant with David my servant—and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me—can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne.
So as long as God is in control of day and night, as long as Christ – the Branch of David – sits on the Throne of God, there will be Levites ministering before God. This has to be a New Covenant prophesy, because the Old Covenant Levitical priesthood was wiped out in 70 A.D. No longer do biological Levites minister before God in the Temple. So if God is faithful, the biological Levites weren’t what He was referring to.
II. Isaiah 66
Isaiah 66:18-21 is part of another New Covenant prophesy:
“And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory. I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations—to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations. And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the LORD -on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels,” says the LORD. “They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the LORD in ceremonially clean vessels. And I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites,” says the LORD.
That this is about the coming of Christ is obvious: He says it is about His Coming at the outset (v. 18). He’s coming to gather all nations and tongues into one Church, fulfilling the Old Covenant promises of Genesis 22. This passage is also about the Eucharist: the “grain offerings.” And it’s also about the priesthood. The selecting of “some of them” in the last sentence is absolutely vital. It says three things which are important for this discussion:
- God is selecting some to become Levites. That should raise all sorts of red flags. The Old Testament Levites were the biological descendants of Levi. You weren’t “selected” to be a Levite, you were born into it. But God is talking about taking some believers, and selecting them to become Levites. He is making it quite clear that He’s not dealing with the biological Levitical priesthood, and that the Levites He has in mind are ones which He chooses, and sets apart from the people, but who aren’t born Levites. So we’re talking about a spiritual priesthood here, clearly. Note also that being a brother doesn’t automatically make you a Levite: you still have to be selected.
- There’s multiple priests within the New Covenant. Some Protestants argue that since Christ is our sole High Priest, that there’s no need – or room – for any other priests, but this passage is clear that (necessary or not) there are other priests besides Christ. These other priests are obviously subservient to Christ, but that’s obvious. The Old Covenant Levites served as priests under a single high priest. The New Covenant Levites do the same, which is why Hebrews 5:5 calls Christ “High Priest.” He’s not the only Priest, He’s the Priest that the other priests work for: just as He’s the Good Shepherd who the other shepherds work for.
- Not all Christians are Levitical priests. Another idea popular within Protestantism is the notion that Christianity includes a “priesthood of all believers,” based upon 1 Peter 2:9. 1 Peter 2:9 says of us Christians that we 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.” Compare that to its Old Testament parallel, Exodus 19:5-6, in which God says of Israel, “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Very similar language. And so it is true that in a sense, all members of both Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church are “a priestly people,” called to minister to non-believers in the manner in which our priests minister to us. But the fact that we’re a priestly people doesn’t diminish the reality of a separate, Levitical priesthood. This was illustrated dramatically in Exodus 32, the creation of the Old Testament Levitical priesthood. While Moses was on Mt. Sinai, the Israelites made the golden calf idol and worshipped it. When Moses came back, he made an ultimatum: “‘Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.’ And all the Levites rallied to him” (Exodus 32:26). The pro-God group (the Levites) then fought and killed the pro-idol group, which included their “brother and friend and neighbor” (Exodus 32:27), all members of Israel, the Kingdom of priests. After the Levites win, Moses says to them in Exodus 32:29, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” In Isaiah 66, we have a similar setting-apart. God says He is selecting “some of them,” and the “them” in question refers to “your brothers,” the believers who are worshipping Him.
III. Malachi 3
Likewise, Malachi 3 prophesies the coming of new “Levites” who will offer a pure Sacrifice to God. It’s situated clearly within the New Covenant. Here’s Malachi 3:1-4,
“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.“
The messenger before Christ was John the Baptist, as I discussed in Part II here and which is made clear by Jesus’ statements in Matthew 11:14 and Matthew 17:12. What’s striking is that God promises that the messenger “will prepare the way before me.” It’s a straightforward prophesy of the Incarnation. And when Christ came, He promised to “purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver,” and to “have men who will bring offerings in righteousness.” The prophesies in Malachi were frequently used by the Church Fathers to explain how the Mass is a Sacrifice, specifically Malachi 1:11-12, which connects a New Testament “pure offering” with “the Lord’s Table.” Implicit within this notion of Sacrifice is that those offering the Sacrifice were the New Levites, although that was apparently too obvious to the Fathers to warrant explaining. In any case, Malachi 3 has now spelled it out: those who will be bringing the New Testament Sacrifices will be a purified version of the Levites.
From these prophesies, we can see that God promised that:
- The New Covenant would include Levitical priests offering pure Sacrifices: grain Sacrifices.
- These New Levites would be Levites spiritually, not necessarily biologically;
- Christ is the Incarnation of the Levitical Priesthood, but not the only priest;
- Some – and only some – of the faithful worshippers would be selected to become Levitical priests.
All of this strongly affirms the Catholic Church’s views on the relationship between priests and laity, those who have been baptized (members of the priesthood of all believers) and those who have received Holy Orders (members of the new Levitical line).