There was a great debate in England during the sixteenth century over the use of the word priest as a designation for the ordained clergy. There is a definite difference between the Roman church’s use of the word priest and ours. The word derives from the Greek presbuteros and the subsequent Latin presbyter, meaning “elder.” (This is the word the New Testament uses to speak of the elders in the Christian church.) The Church of Rome traces its priesthood from the presbyters of the New Testament, but the emphasis is altogether different.
When Roman Catholics ordain their priests, it is primarily for a sacerdotal function. That is, the primary job of the Roman Catholic priest is to stand at the altar and offer the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross for those under their care. Indeed, when a Roman Catholic priest is ordained, he is handed a paten (holding a consecrated host) and a chalice (holding wine and water). The ordaining bishop then says, “Receive the power to offer sacrifice to God, and to celebrate Masses for the living and the dead, in the name of the Lord.”
In striking contrast, when an Anglican priest is ordained, he or she is handed a Bible and the bishop says, “Take thou authority to preach the Word of God, and to minister the holy Sacraments in the Congregation, where thou shalt be lawfully appointed thereunto.”
Why all of this historical fuss and word parsing? For the same reason the author of Hebrews goes to such lengths to show the surpassing greatness of Jesus as the great High Priest, whose own sacrifice has taken away the sins of the world.
Jesus’ death on the cross is a once and for all act that has now eliminated the need for sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, or any other altar that man might set up in order to create a false (and failing) ladder to heaven.
And before we become too self-righteous, we might remind ourselves that even though we (Anglican/Episcopal) don’t see ourselves as sacrificing priests, we are just as apt to think we can sacrifice in a way that brings us favor. When we do a good deed, we may think that God owes us. When we seemingly begin to master a certain sin, we believe that God is more pleased with us than when we were mired in the struggle.
Hebrews reminds us that our attempts at sacrifice are “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13)—not that they are simply ineffectual, but that they are ineffectual because atonement has already been made for us. That is the good news! In all of our striving to measure up, we have already been reckoned as righteous.
We should keep close to our hearts the words from Psalm 146: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth” (Ps. 146:3-4a) —whether this trust be in another, or in ourselves.