And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 21:16-17; ESV)
Maybe I am an exception, but growing up as a young person in Jewish communities in the Canadian city of Montreal, I didn’t know that priests were part of our religion. I knew there was something distinct about Jewish people with the last name “Cohen” (which is the Hebrew word for “priest”); that they had certain restrictions that didn’t apply to our people in general. But priests, as in sacrificing animals, offering incense, etc., really? I thought that was only for prehistoric tribes and only in the movies—no insult intended toward Jewish or pagan priests—I was ignorant.
The existence of the Jewish priesthood should come as no surprise to regular synagogue attendees where the Torah (Books of Moses) is read weekly or to any regular Bible reader. For the priestly activity is central to biblical Judaism. God gave the priesthood an essential aspect of the Sinai covenant to, in many ways, maintain the life of the nation. Not only did they perform sacrifices and other rituals, they also made various crucial health and safety decisions and acted as judges and teachers. But the essence of their role was that they represented the people before God and were God’s instruments of bestowing blessing upon the people.
Biblically speaking, do we have priests today? In Judaism, since the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish priesthood lost most of its functionality. Jewish priests retain a special role in synagogue services, and some continue to follow God's commands with regard to their unique marriage regulations (see Vayikra/Leviticus 21:7) and their not being in the proximity of the dead (see Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1). However, their teaching and decision-making roles have been taken over by the rabbis. This is similar to many in Christian traditions, where the ministers or pastors are the main teachers and spiritual leaders. In fact some Christian ministers carry the title “priest.” With the exception of some Christian traditions, these leaders would not see their roles as priestly, especially in the Torah sense, since offering sacrifices is not part of their job descriptions. However, they all mirror the ancient Jewish priesthood far more than they might care to admit, since in almost every case, they possess special status within their communities—that special status being their relationship to God.
The ancient Jewish priesthood did for the people what they could not do for themselves. The rest of the community could not approach God. Sacrifices were given by the people to the priests to offer on their behalf. While neither in Judaism nor Christianity are literal sacrifices being offered today, rabbis and ministers don’t merely function as leaders and teachers, but as the people’s representatives before God and God’s representatives to the people, as priests in other words.
But under the New Covenant there is no special priestly class. Those who have been made right with God by trusting in the Messiah Yeshua are all priests:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
In Yeshua there is no unique priestly class. Because of the Messiah’s sacrifice and his resurrection, all who trust in him are authentic representatives of God. This doesn’t mean that ministers don’t have special roles within their communities; they do. But no one follower of Yeshua is closer to God than anyone else. Yeshua resolved our alienation from God. He broke down the barriers that the ancient Jewish priesthood illustrated for us. Now all believers may approach God freely. All believers can be conduits of his blessings to others. We all can pray for one another.
So do we have priests today? We sure do. If you truly know God through the Messiah, you are a priest...really!