The Non-transferable Priesthood
hath an unchangeable priesthood. (Heb. 7:24, KJV)
Hebrews 7:24 states that Jesus' priesthood is permanent and non-transferable (Gk., which passeth not from one to another; "unchangeable" is the rendering of the KJV). But if this same priesthood, which is "after the order of Melchizedek," cannot be given to another, according to Hebrews, how then do Latter-day Saints claim to bear the Priesthood of Christ?
I contend that the New Testament writers did not use the term priesthood in the same developed way that modern LDS members do. In the LDS idea of priesthood several elements are integrated into one:
1. Priestly duties (healing the sick, laying on of hands, etc.)
2. Authority (keys, etc.)
3. Divine Power
To bear the priesthood, in Mormon thought, is more than merely performing the responsibilities of the ministry. The individual also possesses keys of authority -- the authority to act in the name of God, and to work with the power of God. So one does not describe the Latter-day Saint as "going into the ministry." Instead, it is said, he "holds" the priesthood, because he bears not only responsibilities, but also power and authority.
The New Testament does not appear to use the term priesthood with the same developed understanding. In fact, outside of the Revelation to John, we do not read in the New Testament about any Christian priests, except in a metaphorical sense. Yet there was certainly a "work of the ministry." An organized system of church officials certainly existed, which included deacons, bishops, elders and apostles. But they are never called "priesthood holders." In the Bible we find the same elements of the composite priesthood as defined in Mormonism--power, authority, priestly duties--but never combined under the term "priesthood." We read in the New Testament about Jesus giving the Apostles both power, authority and duties, but these elements are never drawn together and called "priesthood."
To understand why this is so, one must realize that at the time the New Testament books were written there was not a decisive break between Christianity and Judaism. The earliest Christians considered themselves Jews. They were the group of Jews that believed that the Messiah had come. They continued to worship in the temple. Their priests officiated in the temple. Their priesthood was the Jewish priesthood.
To the early Christian, the term priesthood referred the "role" of the Jewish Levitical priests. If someone was referred to as a priest, it was not because he was considered to have power or authority, though he may have possessed such gifts. It was because he carried out priestly duties. A person's "priesthood" was not the mystical composite that he "held." A person's priesthood was his duties, his priestly calling. When the New Testament writers spoke of priests they were, with few exceptions, always referring to the Jewish priests who officiated in the Jewish temple. An Apostle, Bishop or Deacon would never be spoken of as having the priesthood, because he did not perform the duties of a Jewish priest.
Before Christianity could have a priesthood of its own, a division had to take place between Judaism and Christianity. Only after Christianity considered itself separate from Judaism and the Levitical priesthood, could it refer to its ministerial officials as a "priesthood" body.
The decisive event that helped to cause this separation was the destruction of the temple in 70 a.d. It was after the fall of the temple that the question of the effectiveness and meaning of the Levitical system was added to the question of why Jesus died. It was at this time that the book of Hebrews appears to have been written and attempts to give meaning to both catastrophic events. The entire thrust of the book is to show the supremacy of the new system over the old.
Jesus was not a priest in the Levitical sense. Yet, it was argued, He performed a work far more permanent and far more important than any Levitical priest could have. The Levitical priests' work had to be repeated by a succession of priests, because it was not permanent. Jesus, in contrast, performed a supreme and holy work that continues to be effective because it is eternal and everlasting. His priestly act is once and for all, whereas the Levites must offer their sacrifices daily, weekly, and from generation to generation.
When Hebrews 7 refers to Jesus as having a priesthood, it means that he had a holy calling, a priestly duty to perform. There is no attempt to describe the mystical composite priesthood which is "held" by ecclesiastical leaders in Mormonism and traditional Christianity.
23) Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24) but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25) Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
26) Such a high priest meets our need--one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27) Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. (Heb. 7:23-27, New International Version)
Christ here is not described as having power and authority or "keys". The focus is upon how he lived (holy, blameless, pure, ie., like a priest) and the work he performed (sacrificed for sins). It follows that Christ's mission (i.e., his priesthood) is one that no one else can fulfill. Christ's priesthood (his priestly work) is unique to Him. It cannot be given to another. I don't believe any LDS priesthood "holder" would wish to fulfill Jesus' unique priestly calling. It is an "unchangeable," "non-transferable" priesthood (Heb.7:24).
The epithet "after the order of Melchizedek" in verses 11 and 15 is used to describe the eternal nature of Christ's sacrifice. Melchizedek is a character that shows up here and there in the rabbinic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc., where everyone wants to make him a super being. His person is shrouded in mystery. Even Mormons speak of the priesthood having been named after Melchizedek "because he was such a great high priest." But this is only part of the picture. What was of particular significance to the author of Hebrews was the fact that "eternity" was associated with Melchizedek--perhaps because of the phrase "without father or mother....." Some ancient people thought of Melchizedek as a being that popped in and out of the world and lives on still. Christ's priestly duty, then, was "after the order of Melchizedek," meaning (in Hebrews) that Christ's sacrifice was eternal (like Melchizedek). His role as true high priest and mediator has not been given to another, because (like Melchizedek) "he lives" (Heb.7:8,25).
In conclusion, The Letter to the Hebrews is not concerned with whether Christians may act in the name of God, perform ecclesiastical duties, or be endowed with power from on high. The book is strictly contrasting the Jewish Levitical system and the destruction of the temple to the work of Jesus Christ. Although the LDS Church today has a structured, ecclesiastical priesthood, bearing the titles Aaronic and Melchizedek, which names were given by revelation and not without reason, the perpetuation, function and duties of these priesthoods do not have a direct correlation to the issues discussed in Hebrews 7.
Notes: For a discussion of Melchizedek and the "eternity" connection, see George Wesley Buchanan, To the Hebrews, AB 36, 121. See also John Welch, The Melchizedek Material in Alma 13:13-19.