What is the Bible’s Big Story? Part 7

This is Part 7 of Dr. Ronn Johnson’s guest series. If you would like to catch up with any of the previous installments, the archive is located here.


It was great to meet many of you at the first annual Naked Bible Conference in Dallas. I hope to see you next year as well. In email conversations I have been having with readers of this series, I sense that I am often causing questions which will be answered in future posts. This is good, and I have enjoyed practicing some of my thoughts ahead of time in my email replies. It shows that we are probably going somewhere worthwhile. It also prods me to move at a faster pace, and toward that end I will try. These next three bricks are pivotal to where I’m eventually going, however, so I want to take some time with them.

Priestly actions in the OT (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) played a role in OT salvation

Many evangelicals would be surprised to see this brick on their wall, and most evangelical scholars would deny that this idea has ever been made into a brick at all. Our tradition has been careful to avoid saying that an OT priest—or any priest for that matter—could affect the spiritual state of a worshipper. Put positively, we are Protestants; we believe that a person in both testaments can be right with God only through their individual faith, and that bare rituals or ceremonies play no role in a person’s salvation (e.g., “Animal sacrifices, of course, cannot ultimately save” [Thomas Schreiner, “Penal Substitution View,” in The Nature of the Atonement [IVP, 2006], 85). I agree with our tradition on this point. So how can I make the claim that evangelicals do believe that priestly actions in the OT played a role in salvation?

The answer comes in noticing that this brick quietly functions as a support to another just above it, a shiny brick which gets a lot of attention. It reads Jesus’ priestly actions (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) played a role in human salvation. We will talk about this brick shortly. The logical connection between these two bricks becomes clear as we realize that the higher brick is taking its cue from the lower: since Jesus’ priestly actions in the NT were salvific—principally in his atoning sacrifice—it stands to reason that OT priestly actions must have been salvific as well. We can assume that the evangelical is trying to be consistent in describing what a priest did, or the effect that his actions carried, across both testaments.

(I hope you catch the specificity of this point. I am not comparing the effectiveness of Jesus’ priestly sacrifice to the ineffectiveness of OT animal sacrifices, as the author of Hebrews does in 10:1-4. I am instead considering the meaning of sacrifices in general. What were they meant to accomplish? What did they mean to the life of the OT Israelite? What did they accomplish in the mind of God? Most importantly, did sacrifices play a role in salvation?)

The challenge to this brick is fairly obvious. The OT nowhere ties righteousness (Heb., tsedaqah) to priestly activity and numerous OT stories tell of people who were considered righteous without a priest or tabernacle in sight (Noah, Gen 6:9; Abraham, Gen 15:6; the inhabitants of Sodom, Gen 18:23; exiles in Babylon, Ezek 3:20, etc.). Evangelicals must give theological account for the long stretches of time (the exile is our best example) when Jewish priests and their sacrifices were not available to God’s people. In believing that righteousness was by faith we are forced to admit that access to a priest did not affect one’s ability to be right with God. I am not aware of any argument by evangelical scholarship that contradicts this rather simple point. So I believe it is safe to toss this brick aside and deal with another closely related to it.

Priestly actions in the OT (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) prefigured Jesus’ future priestly actions

Most evangelicals put a lot of thought, even a lot of weight, into this idea. Here is a sample quotation: “The citation in Heb 10:6-8 [of Ps 40] is particularly significant where burnt offerings, in association with other offerings, are shown to be inferior to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who offered himself as a sacrifice for sin once for all (Heb 10:1-4, 10). This suggests that the sacrificial system and particularly the burnt offering foreshadows or typifies the death of Christ for sins” (Mark Rooker, Leviticus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Scripture [2000], commenting on Lev 1:4). Rooker uses the words “foreshadows” and “typifies” where I am using the word “prefigured.” The larger point is that evangelicals have traditionally interpreted OT priestly activity as predicting what Jesus would someday do, and they believe it is important for the reader of the Big Story of the Bible to catch this connection.

But there is a potential problem with this idea, or at least something to think about. It is probable that the idea of a priest—a person acting as a divine/human intermediary or arbiter —was not invented by God at all. Instead, the idea seems to originate along with sacrifice and other religious practices within ancient cultures which pre-dated Israel (see Part 5 in this series). Recall that divorce law got into Torah not because God invented divorce but because human experience led to the need of clarifying the practice (Deut 24:1-5; cp. Matt 19:8). The same can also be said for the origin of slavery law (cp. Exod 21:2) and polygamy law (cp. Deut 21:15). The point is that many things find their way into Torah which were not of divine design, but of human design needing correction.

And recall where priests show up in the biblical story: like sacrifice, they appear well before Moses (e.g., Melchizedek in Gen 14:18; Joseph’s father-in-law in Gen 41:45). Add to this that the instructions for the priesthood in Torah compare closely with earlier pagan law codes (Code of Hammurabi, etc.), and we are led to the likely conclusion that the origin of the role of a priest is simply religious tradition. It was how humanity decided to establish and maintain contact with the world of the gods, and not how God decided to establish his contact with mankind. So how does this realization affect our understanding of this brick?

In a word, priests are not as important to the biblical story line as we have traditionally made them out to be. A man like John the Baptist, whose father was a priest (Luke 1:5), could completely withdraw from Temple/priestly activity and still function as a righteous man (Matt 11:11; 21:32). Jesus instructed a person to visit a priest on a few occasions (cp. Matt 8:4), but this was never for the purpose of getting right with God. All this happened before the crucifixion, of course, which negates the common argument that Jesus’ death fulfilled or abolished the need for future priests. The relative unimportance of the priesthood becomes a developing (but clear) story within the Bible’s larger narrative, extending well back into the days of the OT.

So I think this brick can remain, but its wording should be softened a bit: Priestly actions in the OT will be compared to Jesus’ future priestly actions. The connection between Jesus and the priesthood is that of simple association, not fulfillment (we will deal with Hebrews 5-10, the lone passage that makes this association, later; we should note that the author of Hebrews never uses the word we commonly associate with fulfillment [pleroma] anywhere in his book). Of course, we do have many NT passages which seem to describe Jesus performing priestly functions on our behalf (1 Pet 2:24, “[He] bore our sins on the tree”), and for those we must give account. So let’s get right to our next brick—the shiny one I had mentioned earlier.

Jesus’ priestly actions (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) played a role in human salvation

Almost every gospel presentation you have ever heard has been based on this brick. When someone says that Jesus “paid for your sin” or “propitiated God’s wrath” or “bore your penalty of hell” he is appealing to what he believes to be the primary effect of Jesus’ priestly work on your behalf. (This is commonly referred to as the “finished work of Christ,” a concept which traditionally investigates the meaning of Jesus’ death as opposed to his life.) As stated, this brick claims that Jesus’ actions as a priest make a difference to our spiritual status before God, even our salvation. This is quite an assertion. So let’s consider this idea more carefully.

It is good to remember that Jesus was not a Jewish priest. He did not qualify for the office, born of Judah instead of Levi, and he never referred to himself as a priest (cp. “Go show yourselves to the priests,” Luke 17:14). Nowhere in the book of Acts, nor in the writings of Paul, is Jesus referred to as a Jewish priest. Writers of the NT often describe Jesus acting as a priest, however, especially when interpreting the meaning of his death. As a matter of history, by the way, I think a Jesus-acting-as-priest idea would not have been surprising to the original audience of the NT, even if they knew Jesus did not qualify for the office. Herod’s temple was full of non-Levitical (and even non-Jewish!) priests, as the king had imported Egyptian and Mesopotamian priests to serve out their functions. The office of the high priesthood was no better, with the position known to go to the highest bidder. So no one would have been theologically offended to hear of Jesus the carpenter acting as a priest even if he failed the ancestral test.

So where does the NT say that Jesus performed priestly functions? Producing such a list involves a few judgment calls since some ancient concepts like redemption are at times associated with the Jewish priesthood, while at other times they are not. But we need not split hairs on this matter. For now, let’s think of as many passages as possible where Jesus appears to function as a priest:

“The Son of Man came to give his life as a redemption [lutron, cp. Luke 24:41] for many” (Mark 10:45)

“The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)

“It is expedient that one man should die for the nation” (John 11:50)

“For [the disciples’] sake I sanctify myself” (John 17:19)

“He obtained [peripoieo, cp. 1 Tim 3:13] the church with his own blood” (Acts 20:28)

“Whom God set forth as a place of mercy [hilasterion, cp. Heb 9:5] by his blood” (Romans 3:25)

“Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6)

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)

“Having now been justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9)

“Reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10)

“Through him we have now received the reconciliation” (Romans 5:11)

“On account of sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3)

“[God] did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all” (Romans 8:32)

“Paul, to those who are sanctified by Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2)

“You are washed, you are sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 6:11)

“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3)

“One died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14)

“God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:18)

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Corinthians 5:19)

“He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13)

“In Him we have redemption