ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: You know after traveling so many years into the future, one of the most curious things I see is the modern priesthood in the West.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: My friend, we do not have priests.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: So who was the man giving the sermon during your service; I did not recognize most of your service except for the sermon.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: That was our pastor.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: A pastor is a priest.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: No, he is not.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am a bit confused, my friend. How is your pastor not a priest?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Because pastors are not priests.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Is that how you think? How did you arrive to such a conclusion?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Based on the Bible.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am a bit dumbfounded? Can you explain what you mean further?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Absolutely! I would be happy to! I know my Bible very well. There is only one priest in the New Covenant, and that is Jesus. The old priesthood has been fulfilled in Christ because He is the “priest forever.” There are no other priests.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: That Scriptural reasoning is not right. You have many things confused.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Is that so?! How do you know?
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Well, I lived in the early church for one, and we had priests, and all generations before us had priests going back to the Apostles and to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: I am sorry, but I cannot accept that.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Why not?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Because the New Testament would have said something about priests if it were so.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: It does.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: You know what, you’re right! I do remember now that the New Testament refers to all believers, not some, but all believers in Christ as priests. For example, in 1 Peter 2:9, it calls us “a royal priesthood.” This is further echoed three times in the Book of Revelation beginning in 1:6 calling us “priests to His God and Father” and again in 5:10 as “priests to our God,” and finally in 20:6 where it says, “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” So yes, the New Testament said something about priests four times, that is all of us who believe in Christ are priests.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: But what about the man who gave the sermon? He was clearly of a different rank than the rest of the congregation?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: That was the pastor, not a priest. We are all priests to God; there are no ranks in Christianity.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Is that pastor the only one who gives sermons or does any member of the congregation give sermons also?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: No. Sometimes other pastors give sermons; the congregation does not.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: But you said you do not have ranks.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: We don’t. Otherwise we would not all be priests.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: So how come only the pastors give sermons?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Because that is their ministry.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Perhaps this is where we should start the discussion on what I mean by the Christian Priesthood. And more importantly, we should define our terms.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: What do you mean?
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I mean your interpretation of all the above verses is correct. All Christians are priests to God, but that is the general priesthood of all believers. This refers to us as the ones who bear Christ in us in order to preach Him to the world and to “let His light shine through us. Yet, there is another priesthood which is the one I was referring to, which is the sacramental and pastoral priesthood which is reserved for only those who are called and is not open to anyone.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: I have never heard of such a priesthood in the Bible. That is something the Roman Church invented in the Middle Ages.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am not Roman, and I did not live in the Middle Ages. Yet we had priests. Also, the Bible does indeed talk about this priesthood.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Show me then.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Let’s begin by defining terms. It is important that we agree on terms before we begin the discussion. Do you agree?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Of course. The last thing we want is confusion.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Good then. The word we used to refer to priests in the early church was presbyteros.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Oh yes. That word means “elder.” We have a council of elders at our church.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Really?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Yes.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Was your pastor one of them?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Yes.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: So all of them are pastors?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Oh no. They do things like manage the money of the church, determine which of the poor need the most help, and look over the church properties and things like that.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Well, that is not what presbyteros meant in the early Christian church.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: What did it mean then?
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: It meant….
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Tell me.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: If you may, please don’t interrupt me. Please let me begin and finish what I have to say before asking questions. Fair enough?
MODERN CHRISTIAN: Yes. Go for it.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: The word presbyteros (which does indeed originally mean elder) was used in the early church to refer to our priests. The word presbyteros did not simply mean “elder” in the context of early Christians, but it took on a specific technical meaning as can be seen in the New Testament. It was used to describe a Christian office, which was ordained by the laying on of hands. That word entered Latin as presbyter, then it shortened in the Germanic languages to presbyt, then prest, from which we get the English word priest.
However, this word is different from the Greek word which was used to describe the priests who served in the Jewish Temple or even pagan priests. That word is hierus. This is the word that was used to describe all Christians as priests as you referenced in 1 Peter and Revelation. Yet never have all Christians been called presbyteroi. That office was reserved for certain people having met certain qualifications and having been ordained by the laying on of hands.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: That is interesting, especially the etymology of the English word for priest from the Greek presbyteros. Yet, that is not a complete justification of how this is related to the priesthood of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I will get there, but at first I had to define the terms. The word priest in English describes those who administer sacred rites, yet the word comes from the Christian technical term for elder, not any word which etymologically means priest. Why is this? What this means is the Christian elder had some connection to sacred rites, and ones which were not done by all other Christians, but only the presbyters. It is for this reason that in English the word to describe priests of any kind comes from the Greek word presbyteros because for the Christian community, they could understand the idea of priest from their presbyters.
MODERN CHRISTIAN: It still remains for you to prove that.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Well, the word which properly means priest in Greek like the priests in the Jewish Temple is hierus. The Temple is called hieron, which comes from the same root word in Greek. The priest was the one who worked in the Temple leading worship and prayer, teaching, and offering the sacrifices of the people. He performed sacred rites. In addition, the type of sacrificial, liturgical worship which the priests administered was called leitourgeia in Greek, and the priest presiding over that worship was called a leitourgos in Greek.
So the language used to describe priests in the Temple was hierus (priest), leitourgeia (liturgical worship, ministry), and leitourgos (liturgical minister).
We will find the same duties given to presbyters in the New Testament, and this can further be confirmed by the study of early Christian history. Presbyters were an office in the early church and it was not simply a distinction given to those who were aged. This word thus takes a technical meaning. What that meaning is we can begin to figure out by looking at the First Epistle to Timothy. In 1 Timothy, Timothy, the Apostle Paul’s disciple is described as a youth in 1 Timothy 4:12 and is further told to shun youthful passions in 2 Timothy 2:22. Yet he is called an elder, and that he received the eldership by the laying on of hands in 1 Timothy 4:14. How can this word simply refer to an aged person when the person holding this title was a youth and received it by the laying on of hands? It is because this was an office and was ordained in the same way that the Apostles Paul and Barnabas received their ministry and how the deacons were ordained according to Acts 13:1-3 and Acts 6:1-6 respectively.
Every single time in the New Testament this word is used to describe Christians, the word does not simply mean elder in the context, but it refers to a technical meaning.