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The Difference Between a Prophet and a Priest

In his outstanding article "The Priesthood of Christ in the Epistle of Hebrews," Geerhardus Vos explained the chief difference between the office of prophet and priest--specifically as it relates to the fulfillment of both offices in Christ:

The first and most general element entering into the author’s conception of a priest is that of  leadership based on identification with those who are led. A priest is one who stands at the head of  others and thus mediates their approach unto God. Thus the movement of the priestly function is  in a direction opposite to that of the prophetic function. The prophet officiates from God to man,  represents God with man; the priest officiates from man to God, represents man with God. In the  passage 5:1-10, which sets forth the qualifications of a high priest, this is expressed by the words: “Every high priest is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God (τα προς τον θεον,  cf. 2:17). Priesthood, however, is not leadership in general; it is distinctly leadership based on and involving identification of nature and experience. The rendering of the term αρχηγον in 2:10 and 12:2 by either “author” or “captain” is inadequate precisely for this reason, that it leaves the element of identification in experience unexpressed. While αρχηγον etymologically and according to usage may mean both “author” and “captain,” the writer in the two passages cited attaches to it a more specific sense. The αρχηγον της σωτηριας is one who leads others unto salvation by himself treading the path of salvation before (cf. 5:1); the πιστεως αρχηγον is one who leads others to faith by himself exercising faith in an ideal manner. Similarly the αρχηγον της ζωης in Peter’s speech, Acts 3:15, is not merely the Ruler of life, but the one who first entered into life for His own person and now dispenses life unto others. That the author of Hebrews uses the term with this specific connotation appears from the fact that elsewhere, where the content requires no reference to it, he contents himself with employing the quite general term, αιτιος (5:9), “author of salvation.” The word προδρομος in 6:20 so shares with archgoj this reference to identification in experience, the “forerunner” being one who not merely leads and opens access, but also anticipates in himself the enjoyment of the access he mediates to others. Back, however, of the identification in experience lies the more fundamental identification of nature. The priestly leadership is such that it cannot be performed by the one who stands outside of the circle in whose interest he serves. The author accordingly emphasizes in the  definition of 5:1ff. that a high priest must be εξ ανθρωπων λαμβανομενος, “taken from among men.” The force of the present participle should be noticed: “one who is constantly, in each case, taken from among men,” the permanent force of the requirement thus being brought out, as Westcott has strikingly observed. In this respect the priesthood differs from the prophetic and in general the revealing office. Angels can be and have been revealing agents. In connection with the revealing work of Christ the author nowhere reflects upon the fact, of which the modern Christian consciousness is so apt to make overmuch, viz., that in order to perform this work properly Christ needed to be man. On the contrary, here all the emphasis is thrown upon the thought that the Son’s unique greatness, His difference from, His exaltation above man constitutes His chief qualification for the revealership. As a revealer He represents not man but God; therefore the nearer He stands to God the better He is qualified. As a priest, on the other hand, He represents man and His qualification is measured by His nearness to man. It is of importance to notice this point, because in Judaism a tendency prevailed to place intermediate angelic beings between God and man, because direct contact between God and the world had come to be regarded as derogatory to the divine majesty. This tendency showed its influence not merely with regard to the manward movement of revelation, but likewise with regard to the Godward movement of religious approach, as, e.g., when the archangel Michael is represented as ministering at the altar in the heavenly sanctuary. Our author not merely makes the high priest a man, but insists upon it that the very nature of his office requires him to be a man.

1. Geerhardus Vos  "The Priesthood of Christ in the Epistle of Hebrews," (The Princeton Theological Review 5:423-447, 579-604. [1907]).

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