Monday, May 2, 2011

Milligan on the Priesthood of Christ

Milligan, W. “The Melchizedek or Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord. Part I.” Expositor. Third Series, 8 (1888): 277-96.

Milligan, W. “The Melchizedek or Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord. Part II.” Expositor. Third Series, 8 (1888): 337-59.

In part one Milligan explores the question, when did the real priesthood of Christ begin.  This question cannot be resolved without first exploring what it means for Jesus to be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  This conception is taken from the central verse of Psalm 110.  The author identifies two prerequisites for that Jesus fulfilled for priesthood: 1) He is called of God; 2) His ability to sympathize with humanity.

Our understanding of Jesus’ priesthood is based upon our understanding of Melchizedek’s priesthood: 1) As king of righteousness and king of priest, he embodies the two greatest blessings to humanity; 2) He is free from all limitations of space and time; he has no beginning or end and is without genealogy; 3) His priesthood existed prior to the Jewish priesthood before there was any distinction between Jew and Gentile; hence his priesthood is more universal; 4) His priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood as is evidenced by the fact that he received tithes from Abraham (and thus Levi through him); 5) He pronounced his blessing upon Abraham and hence the Levitical priesthood.

These considerations demonstrate that Jesus could not have been priest before his glorification since he could not fulfill the conditions of the Melchizedek priesthood in a material human body.  Nor could he have belonged to the Aaronic priesthood on earth since he was from the tribe of Judah.  Nor could Jesus have acted as an Aaronic priest in heaven since the author of Hebrews says that the Aaronic priesthood had nothing to do with the heavenly sanctuary.

But a difficulty arises.  If Jesus became a priest only after his resurrection, how could he offer himself upon the cross which was a priestly act?  Milligan resolves this difficulty by appealing to John 12:32.  He takes υψωθω to mean “lifted on high” and the preposition εκ to mean “out of” – Jesus was lifted on high out of the earth.  Hence, Jesus’ glorification begins not with his resurrection but his crucifixion.  The crucifixion and glorification go together in John’s Gospel.  Milligan claims that the same idea is found in Hebrews.  He says, “The Crucifixion breaks the bond to earth; it is the introduction to the full reign of spiritual and heavenly power” (290).  The incarnation and earthly life of Jesus was the preparation for his work upon the cross.  He learned obedience and was made perfect for his role as priest.

He concludes by highlighting the main characteristics of the heavenly high priesthood: 1) It is one and unchangeable; 2) It is spiritual, i.e., it could cleanse the conscience; 3) It is universal; 4) It is everlasting.

In part two Milligan discusses Jesus’ priestly work of offering, intercession, and benediction.  He begins by reiterating his main conclusion: that Jesus’ crucifixion was the beginning of his priesthood after the order of Melchizedek “because it broke the bond by which He had been bound to earth, because it was the introduction to the full reign of spiritual and heavenly power” (338). 

Jesus’ offering was one of life, not death.  Jesus is raised to a higher state of existence and this begins before his death and it continues afterward.  Milligan explains that it was not the sacrifice of the animal that brought atonement for sin, but atonement occurred only after the blood was offered and sprinkled on the mercy seat.  The blood, he argues, was not seen as death, but the life.  Likewise, Christ’s blood, as shed, is the life given to God for men, and as offered, the life of Christ given to men.  The offering of Christ on the cross was not the finish, but the beginning of his work.  His life “was liberated on the cross, that His true offering might be made by the surrender of that life to God in a perpetual service of love, obedience, and praise” (344).

Milligan identifies several characteristics of the offering of Christ.  As an offering of life, 1) His offering accomplishes all the separate offerings of the law (e.g., the sin-, peace-, or burnt-offerings); 2) His offering is complete, embracing in its efficacy the whole life of man (labor, suffering, temptation, death etc.); 3) His offering is everlasting; 4) His offering is made once for all and cannot be repeated.

Christ’s second priestly work is intercession which is accomplished by one who is already at the right hand of God in his heavenly abode.  Milligan uses John 17 as an example of the type of intercessory prayer Jesus is doing.  Finally, Christ’s third priestly work is benediction or blessing.

While it is possible that the author of Hebrews saw the crucifixion and glorification as one event, I do not find Milligan’s solution persuasive.  He interprets Hebrews through the lens of the Gospel of John, but Hebrews should be interpreted on its own terms.  Nowhere do I see Hebrews say that the crucifixion broke the bonds of earth.

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