WHEN did Christ begin His priestly ministry? Did He enter it before His ascension to heaven?
It is written concerning Christ that "he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted" (Heb. 2:16-18). It appears, in the light of this statement, that it was essential that Christ should become incarnate as the Son of man in order to become our priest in the strict sense of the term.
Jesus is a compassionate intercessor, a merciful and faithful high priest. He, the Majesty of heaven —the King of glory—can look upon finite man, subject to the temptations of Satan, knowing that He has felt the power of Satan's wiles. "Wherefore in all things it behoved Him to be made like unto His brethren (clothing His divinity with humanity), that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that He himself suffered being tempted, He is able to succor them that are tempted" (Heb. 2:17, 18).— Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 275.
Indeed, we read concerning His dedication at the Temple by Joseph and Mary several weeks after He was born: "He was the true 'high priest over the house of God,' the head of 'an unchangeable priesthood,' the intercessor at 'the right hand of the Majesty on high' (Heb. 10:21; 7:24; 1:3)." —The Desire of Ages, pp. 52-55.
Christ was the antitype of both the common priests and the high priests of the Aaronic priesthood (Heb. 8:1-5). In the ministration of the ancient sanctuary of Israel "the people were taught each day, by means of types and shadows, the great truths relative to the advent of Christ as Redeemer, Priest, and King."—Prophets and Kings, p. 684.
The functions of many duties besides inside the sanctuary the priest included those he performed proper. That is, he ministered also outside the building. Failure to keep this fact in mind has led some ministers to adopt a view of Christ's priestly ministry that is too limited.
For example, the priest functioned as a teacher of the people by instructing them in the things of God. "For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts" (Mai. 2:7). Hence we read of the ministry of the "teaching priests" in Old Testament times. (Ibid., pp. 191, 337, 392, 613.)
Christ was pre-eminently a teacher of the people, instructing them in the things of God during His public ministry on earth. "He who seeks to transform humanity must himself understand humanity. Only through sympathy, faith, and love can men be reached and uplifted. Here Christ stands revealed as the master teacher; of all that ever dwelt on the earth, He alone has perfect understanding of the human soul. 'We have not a high priest'—master teacher, for the priests were teachers—'we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but One that hath been in all points tempted like as we are.' Heb. 4:15, R.V."--Education, p. 78.
Concerning the prayer that Christ offered shortly before entering the Garden of Geth-semane the evening prior to His death, as recorded in John 17, we are told: "Thus in the language of one who has divine authority, Christ gives His elect church into the Father's arms. As a consecrated high priest He intercedes for His people."—The Desire of Ages, p. 680.
According to that statement, Christ was "a consecrated high priest" interceding for His people at that time.
Of Christ's experience in Pilate's judgment hall, we read: "The blood drops of agony that from His wounded temples flowed down His face and beard were the pledge of His anointing with 'the oil of gladness' (Heb. 1:9) as our great high priest."—Ibid., p. 734.
Again, in reference to His sufferings on the cross, it is said: "In His humiliation He as a prophet had addressed the daughters of Jerusalem; as priest and advocate He had pleaded with the Father to forgive His murderers; as a loving Saviour He had forgiven the sins of the penitent thief."— Ibid., p. 752.
The priest had certain duties to perform in the court of the sanctuary, particularly at the altar of burnt offering (or brazen altar), where he presented daily the morning and evening sacrifices for the nation, the sin offerings of the people, et cetera. This work was done by the priest outside the sanctuary building proper.
Christ likewise performed a part of His priestly ministry outside the heavenly sanctuary. "For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer" (Heb. 8:3). However, He "need-eth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his oxvn sins, and then for the people's: for this he did once, when he offered up himself" (Heb. 7:27). In His capacity as priest, Christ offered Himself as the sacrificial victim for the sins of men. He "offered himself without spot to God" (Heb. 9:14), and thus "put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb. 9:26). And "this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God. . . . For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" (Heb. 10:12, 14).
Where did Christ, as priest, offer Himself as the one great sacrifice for the sins of men? When did He perform this priestly ministry for men? He did it on the earth during His mission here, prior to His ascension to heaven to begin His priestly ministry inside the sanctuary there.
"As the high priest laid aside his gorgeous pontifical robes, and officiated in the white linen dress of the common priest, so Christ took the form of a servant, and offered sacrifice, Himself the priest, Himself the victim."—The Desire of Ages, p. 25.
"As in the typical service the high priest laid aside his pontifical robes, and officiated in the white linen dress of an ordinary priest; so Christ laid aside His royal robes, and garbed Himself xvith humanity, and offered sacrifice, Himself the priest, Himself the victim."—The Acts of the Apostles, p. 33.
It appears clear, therefore, that Christ's priestly ministry has consisted of two phases —one before and one after His ascension to heaven. "He fulfilled one phase of His priesthood by dying on the cross for the fallen race. He is now fulfilling another phase by pleading before the Father the case of the repenting, believing sinner, presenting to God the offerings of His people."—Ellen G. White manuscript 42, 1901. (See Questions on Doctrine, p. 686.)
"The infinite sufficiency of Christ is demonstrated by His bearing the sins of the whole world. He occupies the double position of offerer and of offering, of priest and of victim."—Ellen G. White letter 192, 1906. (See Questions on Doctrine, p. 667).
Inasmuch as the first phase of Christ's priestly ministry was performed during His mission on earth, as indicated by the evidence given above, it appears that He began priestly ministration when He began His public ministry right after His baptism by John the Baptist in the autumn of a.d. 27, for He was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power for the performance of His public ministry among men. (See Acts 10:38.) While it is certain that He was man's intercessor, mediator, and priest-designate (Ps. 110:4; Zech. 6:13; Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:15-17, 21) during the centuries prior to His nativity in Bethlehem, we find no specific evidence definitely showing that He was priest of His people, in the strict sense of the term, during those times.