Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Good Friday Readings and the Priesthood of Christ


(Holy Thursday commentary is below; scroll down if you are looking for it.)

Every year on Good Friday, we read St. John’s account of the Passion from John 18-19.

One of the themes that runs through this reading is the Priesthood of Christ.  I’ve traced this theme through the Good Friday Readings in previous years.  Here, I repost my earlier comments with some additions, especially concerning the First Reading:

There is priestly language already in the First Reading, from Isaiah 52 & 53, the famous “Suffering Servant” Song:


See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
Even as many were amazed at him
so marred was his look beyond human semblance
and his appearance beyond that of the sons of man
so shall he startle many nations,
because of him kings shall stand speechless;
for those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.

This poetic prophecy is remarkable for its abrupt juxtaposition of the exaltation and humiliation of the servant.  First, the prophet says the servant shall “prosper, be raised high, and be greatly exalted;” but the next line speaks of him being “marred beyond human semblance.”  What gives, Isaiah?  How can you move between two such statements without any transition or explanation?  This is one of many exegetical cruces in the Old Testament that only make sense in the light of the cross.  The dynamic here of simultaneous exaltation and humiliation is taken up and developed throughout the Gospel of John, which is marked by the paradoxical irony that “the hour” of Jesus’ glorification (John 12:23) is actually the hour of his passion and crucifixion (John 17:1).  Why is the cross a glorification?  Because it is the extreme expression of love; only a God most truly worthy of love and worship would and could undergo such radical self-sacrifice for our sakes.

Who would believe what we have heard?
To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him,
nor appearance that would attract us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by people,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom people hide their faces,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.

These verses remind us that the Christ, when he walked on earth, did not succeed in winning everyone to his cause, even though he performed many and frequent miracles.  Rather, he was “held in no esteem.”  Surprisingly, he did not even convince all of his own disciples, the men he had in formation under him, that he was the Messiah and Son of God (think Judas).  Sometimes we have a tendency to think that if we just had the right argument, the right evangelistic technique, or the power to perform miracles, we could convert all of society.  Yet society disbelieves not because there are not adequate arguments for the existence of God, or strong enough historical evidence for the life and ministry of Christ, nor for want of miracles: many have been documented.  People disbelieve because they want to disbelieve.  The message of Jesus is too challenging, requires too much of us.  We would prefer it to be untrue.

Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
each following his own way;
but the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.

Here the servant is described like a sacrificial animal, who died vicariously for the sins of the worshiper.  The “laying of guilt” upon the Servant reflects the sacrificial practice of laying hands on the head of the animal to transfer sin and guilt onto the victim.

Though he was harshly treated, he submitted

and opened not his mouth;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
or a sheep before the shearers,
he was silent and opened not his mouth.
Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away,
and who would have thought any more of his destiny?
When he was cut off from the land of the living,
and smitten for the sin of his people,
a grave was assigned him among the wicked
and a burial place with evildoers,
though he had done no wrong
nor spoken any falsehood.
But the LORD was pleased
to crush him in infirmity.


The English translation makes it sound as though it gave God pleasure that the Servant was crushed, but such is not the case.  The Hebrew is an idiom often used for royal decrees or decisions, indicating that it was God’s will, but not necessarily that He found in enjoyment in it.

If he gives his life as an offering for sin,
he shall see his descendants in a long life,
and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.

Because of his affliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.
Therefore I will give him his portion among the great,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
because he surrendered himself to death
and was counted among the wicked;
and he shall take away the sins of many,
and win pardon for their offenses.

Isaiah speaks of the servant “making himself an offering for sin,” “justifying many,” “bearing their guilt,” “taking away the sins of many,” and “winning pardon for offenses.”  These were primarily priestly roles in the Old Testament, because the priesthood bore the guilt of Israel and took away their sins through the sacricial liturgy (Lev. 4:30,36,32 et passim; 5:5; 22:16).  The Servant is simultaneously priest and sacrifice.

Turning to the Gospel Reading in context, we note that priestly themes precede the passage we read in Mass (Jn 18-19), beginning already in the Last Supper complex (Jn 13-17).  For example, the discourse on the Holy Spirit in John 16:4-15 contains priestly concepts.  Holy Spirit is sent to empower judgment of guilt vs. innocence, which reminds us of the tribunal of confession (cf. Jn 16:7 with Jn 20:22-23).  The Holy Spirit is upon Jesus, and will be given to the apostles, for the purpose of forgiving sin and making moral judgment, which in the Old Testament was the prerogative of the priests (see Lev 4:20; Deut 17:9).

The Holy Spirit, furthermore, is sent to the Apostles to lead them into truth—the charism of truth shared by the successors of the apostles.

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (16:13).

 However, it is important to note that this promise is given, in the first place, to the college of Apostles as a group, not to each Christian operating as an individual.  John 16:13 does not mean every Christian can just pray and become infallible. 

Jesus is shown to be a High Priest in the so-called “High Priestly Prayer” of John 17.

The High Priesthood of Christ is foreshadowed earlier in the Gospel of John.  John 2:21 says, “But He spoke of the Temple of his Body.”  When we ask, where in Judaism is there precedent for a man’s body being the Temple?—we find the precedent is given by the High Priest:

Wisdom of Solomon 18:24: For upon [the High Priest’s] long robe the whole world was depicted, and the glories of the fathers were engraved on the four rows of stones, and your majesty on the diadem upon his head.

Philo, Life of Moses 2:143: Then [Moses] gave [the priests] their sacred vestments, giving to his brother [Aaron, the High Priest] the robe which reached down to his feet, and the mantle which covered his shoulders, as a sort of breast-plate, being an embroidered robe, adorned with all kinds of figures, and a representation of the universe.

Philo, Life of Moses 2:135: The High Priest “represents the world” and is a “microcosm” (brachys kosmos).

Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 3:180: for if anyone do but consider the fabric of the tabernacle, and take a view of the garments of the high priest, and of those vessels which we make use of in our sacred ministration, he will find … they were every one made in way of imitation and representation of the universe.

In other words, the garments of the High Priest marked him as the “cosmic man,” a man whose body represented the universe.  And in Jewish thought, the whole universe was the cosmic Temple.

This theme is picked up later in John in this throw-away line: “His tunic was without seem, woven from top to bottom.” (John 19:23).  The only known seamless garment in ancient Judaism was worn by the High Priest:

Josephus, Antiquities 3:159-161: “The high priest is indeed adorned with … a vestment of a blue color. This also is a long robe, reaching to his feet …  Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck …”

Returning to John 17, “The High Priestly Prayer,” we note that it is Parallel in Structure to the Day of Atonement ritual, as we see in Leviticus:


Lev. 16:17: “There shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he enters to make atonement in the holy place until he comes out and has made atonement (1) for himself and (2) for his house and (3) for all the assembly of Israel.”

This is also Jesus’ pattern in John 17, as he prays first for himself, then for the Apostles (his household), and lastly for “all those who will believe through them,” i.e. the whole Church, the new Israel.

In an important theme in John 17 is the revelation of the divine name from Jesus to the Apostles: “I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world.” (John 17:6)

The divine name (YHWH) was not spoken in Judaism (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:1: “Whoever speaks distinctly will have no share in the world to come.”)  But on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest pronounced it three times (Mishnah Yoma 3:8, 4:2 and Sirach 50:20; Num 6:22-27).

In John 17:17–19, Jesus requests that God the Father “sanctify” or “consecrate” the Apostles.  In the Old Testament, what kind of men did you sanctify/consecrate (hagiazo)?  Almost exclusively the priests.  See Ex 19:22; 28:41; 29:1,33,44; 30:30; 40:13; Lev 8:11-12; 21:8.

But what kind of High Priest was Jesus, to pass on this priesthood to the disciples?  The Book of Hebrews identifies him as a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb 5:10; Ps 110:4). Jewish tradition considered Melchizedek as Shem, son of Noah, who inherited the primordial priesthood from Adam in succession from father to firstborn son through the generations.  David later entered this Melchizedekian succession when he became king of Melchizedek’s city, Jerusalem (called “Salem” in Genesis 14; see 2 Sam 5 for David’s conquest of Jeru-Salem).

In the view of Hebrews, Jesus’ “Priesthood of the Firstborn” is original and superior to the Levitical/Aaronic Priesthood, which was the result of the sin of Israel (see Exod 32).  Thus it is so appropriate that our Second Reading is a passage from Hebrews 4 describing the nature of Jesus’ priesthood.

Finally moving to Good Friday’s Gospel, in John 18 we see a contrast between Jesus the High Priest vs. Annas the “High Priest.”  John points out the problems with the legitimacy of Annas and Caiaphas as High Priests.  In John 18:13: “High Priest that year,”—pointedly showing the Sadducees collusion with Roman oppressors, allowing the Roman governor to appoint the High Priest on a yearly basis even though it was a lifelong office.  In Jewish law, it was illegal to have two high priests. But in John 18:24, we see that both Annas and Caiaphas are sharing the role.

Neither follows the Jewish law faithfully.  A night trial is extremely dubious (see John 18:19-27).  Jewish law never condoned abuse of defendants (Jn 18:22).

Not to mention Annas/Caiaphas had the wrong lineage, as neither was true descendant of Zadok, through whom, according to Ezekiel, the High Priestly line should come (Ezek 40:46).  This was the controversy that divided the Qumran Essenes from participation in the Jerusalem Temple.

No clear charge is made against Jesus during his trial (Jn 18:30).  Thus, John 18 is showing that the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas is a sham.  You have to switch to the priesthood of Jesus to find real authority.

The culmination of the priestly imagery comes at the cross in John 19.  John 19:23-24 says that Jesus tunic was not torn:

But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom;  so they said to one another,  “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.



We note this is in keeping with Jewish law for the High Priest: Lev 21:10: “The priest who is chief among his brethren .. shall not … tear his clothes …”
 Caiaphas violates this command during Jesus trial (Mark 14:63).

In John 19:39, we read of the perfumed body of the Lord being taken from the cross:

Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight.



This recalls the practice of anointing the High Priest with precious perfumed oils: Exod 30:22-33 “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh … and you shall anoint Aaron and his sons …”

In John 19:40, we see Jesus wrapped entirely in linen:


They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.


Linen was the only licit fabric for the High Priest to wear:

Lev 16:4: “He shall put on the holy linen coat, and shall have the linen breeches on his body, be girded with the linen girdle, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments.”

Jesus is then laid in a virginal tomb:


John 19:41-42: Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid.  So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.



Mosaic Law specified the High Priest only to give himself to a virgin:

Lev 21:13-14 “He shall take a wife in her virginity … a virgin of his own people.”

The virginal tomb of Christ represents the virginal womb of the Blessed Virgin and of the Church she embodies.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a mystical relationship between the womb and the earth (see Psalm 139:13,15!).

John is showing us Jesus as both High Priest and Sacrifice.  We close with this remark of the author of Hebrews:


Heb. 9:11-12: But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.




11 comments:

Susan Moore said...

I have to find a way to cut out your paragraph that begins, “These verses remind us…” and ends with, “We would prefer it to be untrue” so as to laminate it and keep it handy in my pocket. That way, when I tell someone my testimony, about God miraculously healing me, and they call me a heretic or curse at me, before I roll my eyes at them I can take out your words and read them again. God healed me 11/10/2008, and I have come to the same conclusion you have come to, but yours are the first words I have read or heard, outside the Bible, that affirm that truth.
Thank you, Jesus.
And thank you, Professor Bergsma, for the added notes on Melchizedek. I will add them to my stash.
More to come later. But in the meantime, have you ever wondered what it must have been like for Isaiah, or Daniel, or any of the prophets –to be living in the world and yet say and do the bizarre things they did? Bizarre by the world’s standards, that is. But at times it must have sounded bizarre even to their own ears. What kind of faith is that?

John Bergsma said...

Yes, I have wondered what it must have been like!

Susan Moore said...

Part 1 of 5
“The Servant is simultaneously priest and sacrifice” ties in, it seems, to the largest theme; the theme of God being both the beginning and the end. Another component of that largest theme is Jesus being both the seed that grows and the seed that is consumed.
1John 1:1 refers to Jesus as the word of life, and in John 1:1 the word of life is God. Luke 8:11, informs the word of God is the seed.
In John 17:17 Jesus prays, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth…My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Susan said...

Part 2 of 5
So, we have the seed of truth who is Christ planted in us by the Spirit of truth (John 16:23). And once that seed, that word of God, living and active, is in us –it grows!
Genesis 1 tells us that God made his living things to reproduce in their own likeness, therefore we grow to become more like –Christ (who is both our Priest and our sacrifice. Therefore, if we are His priestly people, we will, by our new nature that was given truth, repent and live sacrificially, too).
All of that was to ask: Is not Jesus the seed of Abraham? If so, then how else would God make His good point but to lay His Seed in a manger?!

Susan said...

Part 3 of 5
Because I could not keep track of time due to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I could not understand the chronology of the Bible. I did not have the linear memory that understanding chronology of events requires. Instead I had a circumstantial memory: my brain lumped things together by similarities. For instance, I knew that Sarah, Elizabeth and Mary had prophetic births, but as far as I could understand, they had their births at the same time (and was not Jesus from David’s family?), it was not until God healed me 5 years ago that I saw chronology for the first time.

Susan Moore said...

Part 4 of 5
Jesus was not thrown off by my issue, He taught me to understand the Bible through its linguistic metalanguage, the Common Language of God, as I call it. When He healed me I was excited to finally be able to be in a community of believers and study the Bible together this longitudinal way, I did not know there was a different way, the cross-sectional way that is popular today.
Anyway, you are the first person whose writings I have read that lead me to think you may know this longitudinal way. It is a better way to know the Bible, because once it is understood it makes easier discerning truth from the cross-cuts. The analysis of a cross-cut has to fit into the longitudinal webbing the linguistic metalanguage forms around the interrelated themes in the Bible, or the analysis in not true –it is neither a relevant nor valid analysis- and is therefore false.

Susan said...

Part 5 of 5
Because the Bible has been reduced by some, and this linguistic metalanguage, or any relevant and valid longitudinal approach, is denied, we have in this world a high prevalence of relativistic beliefs about God and the Bible. He does not oppose His own house: He does not both miraculously heal, and refuse to miraculously heal, for instance.
Do you see any of that, too?

John Bergsma said...

Thanks for sharing, Susan. I'll have read your comments over several times to see if I can follow what you mean. I'll get back to you.

Susan Moore said...

Thank you. Please ask the Franciscans, friars and religious, to pray about this. To pray for receptivity to learn more about this linguistic metalanguage. Imagining its existence is not something a human (let alone a ignorant, psychotic child) is capable of doing. Please ask.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Bergsma,

I have asked about atonement elsewhere with other experts in the blogosphere, Orthodox and Catholic, but I thought I might as well ask since we're on this topic here.

Forgive me if this is a complicated post. Probably the best reading on the atonement I have ever read is Athanasius' "On the Incarnation." As I understand it, sin and idolatry alienates humanity from God plunging him into history as we know it. This subjects him to the power of sin manifested chiefly in death, a kind of slavery. At the same time, death follows like heat from fire from sin - a decree of God, if one may say so, which cannot be abrogated. As such, death's conditions are fulfilled by the solidarity of the Word in the glorified New Adam/New Israel which has an eschatological destiny with God, a microcosm and template of Temple, High Priest, and true human being - while at once the Divine Warrior trampling down death.

So far, so good. Yet on the face of it Jewish sacrifiicial laws have little to do with death. As I gather from Milgrom, Margaret Barker, and Mary Douglas, the Land is made impure by the sins of Israel - and the world by the world's sins, leading to a kind of death-in-life where God leaves His Temple or must wipe it away as in the Flood of old. The Temple acts as a sin barometer by proxy - microcosm of the world as it is, the High Priest himself recapitulating the world and the archetypical man. At least some parts of the Temple are hinted as coming directly from its celestial archetype revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. At least according to Mary Douglas (in her essay, "Eucharist"), even the sacrificial animal is representative of the Temple. The blood of the animal is sprinkled and washes away ritually like a detergent the accumulated sins of the entire world before YHWH can enter triumphant and be enthroned. Milgrom hinted that these sins are in some way associated with the demonic similar to how Azazel is driven out of Israel (not unlike the treatment of Mastema in Jubilees). Alternatively, I've also seen where the animal represents the worshipper in the sense of being the locus where sin is destroyed - which could make sense if Mary Douglas' symbolism is applied and there is a triple correspondence between the World/Israel-as-World, Temple-as-World, and Animal-as-Temple which are all simultaneously purified.

How can the "washing" model of Yom Kippur be reconciled with the destruction of the sin in the animal? Milgrom makes it sound as though the animal's death is only incidental to obtaining the blood of purification.

Furthermore, I've also read, via Scott Hahn, that blood sacrifice fulfilled the conditions of a violated covenant by ritually enacting the death of the violating party. If that is the case, how can that be reconciled with the "washing" model of Milgrom et al.?

It seems as though there are different functions of blood sacrifices in the ANE, and I'm wondering how they all play off one another and how this informs "atonement" as we understand it: familial-covenantal (Hahn), animal as vicarious locus of sin, Temple-as-World purification (Milgrom, Barker et al.)

Thank you.

daphne said...

Great post! Now, your personalized Priesthood Line of Authority is beautifully laminated featuring the classic portrait of Jesus Christ by the renowned artist Greg Olsen.