A Concise Theology of Ordination


By Stephen Terry




“Then bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance to the tent of meeting and wash them with water. Take the anointing oil and anoint him by pouring it on his head.” Exodus 29:4, 7  NIV


Perhaps the first ceremony that could be clearly called an ordination in the Bible is that of Aaron as high priest for the wilderness tabernacle. Accounts of this ordination are found in Exodus, chapters 29 and 40, as well as Leviticus chapter 8. That ordination was a ceremony consisting of three key elements. First, Aaron was washed with water; second, he was anointed with oil, and third, sacrificial blood was applied. In each reference to the ceremony these elements are present. Water in conjunction with the tabernacle service was figurative of cleansing. In spite of the institution of the sacrificial services of the tabernacle in a dry, parched land, copious amounts of water were required for cleansing of both priests and sacrifices. Oil was figurative as well. It was associated with the presence of the Holy Spirit (See 1 Samuel 16:13), and this is what imparted holiness to the service of the priesthood. It is through the presence of God that holiness becomes an attribute of anything. Examples would be the holiness of the ground around the burning bush (See Exodus 3:5), and Mount Sinai where God presented the Ten Commandments to Moses (See Exodus 19:23). The blood of course represented the need for an atoning death to complete the office of grace.


Ordination then seems to be a cleansing with water, an imparting of the Holy Spirit, and an application of the redeeming blood. Symbolically this was demonstrated many times throughout the Old Testament. A more obvious example would be the passing of the entire Israelite host through the Red Sea and the presence of the Lord in the camp with the pillar of fire at night and smoke by day, followed by the establishment of the blood rites of the sacrificial system. In a sense, the Israelites were set apart or “ordained” to be God’s holy people before the nations. The Bible says as much, “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” Deuteronomy 7:6, NIV


We also see a similar symbolism with the ordination of Elisha. Passing through the water with Elijah can be seen as representing a figurative cleansing with water followed by an anointing with the spirit as Elijah had promised him. Whether or not those accompanying them recognized the symbolism of the water crossing, they certainly recognized that Elisha had received the anointing of the Holy Spirit (See 2 Kings 2:15). The blood came when Elisha slaughtered his oxen when Elijah called him to ministry. Called from behind the plough, Elisha fully embraced the calling to service his ordination empowered.


Maybe the most significant example of cleansing and anointing with the Spirit is found in the ordination of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to John the Baptist for ordination. Recognizing that Jesus had no need of cleansing, John protested. However, Jesus responded, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Matthew 3:15, NIV  The record of His ordination in Matthew, chapter 3, goes on to say that after He was baptized, “At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him,” (verse 16). While John may not have understood the full significance of the ceremony, Jesus certainly knew that both elements were necessary for His ordination. The third element, the blood, Jesus carried within Him. It would be shed on Calvary and was the blood not only of His ordination but of ours as well.  John needed to perform the cleansing with water as part of the ordination because Jesus was inaugurating a new priesthood. Prior to this, the people looked to the Aaronic Priesthood for the services necessary for salvation. However, Jesus was ordained as a high priest according to the order of an older priesthood, that of Melchizedek (See Hebrews chapters 5 – 7).  As Hebrews points out, the Aaronic priesthood was a mortal priesthood, but that of Melchizedek (literally “King of Righteousness”) is eternal. Through Jesus the mortal priesthood was replaced by the immortal, just as one day the mortal existence of His followers will become an immortal one (See 1 Corinthians 15:53-54).


Along with that immortality, Jesus extends the offer of ordination to each of us. In the Gospel of John, chapter 3, we read of Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night. Jesus speaks cryptically to him that he must be born again. Not understanding, Nicodemus asks for clarification. Then Jesus appears to identify rebirth with ordination for He uses the same symbols: cleansing with water, receipt of the anointing of the Spirit, and the blood of His upcoming sacrifice when He would be “lifted up.”  Nicodemus quibbles, but Jesus responds with a mild rebuke that being a teacher in Israel, he should understand these symbols.  John, who recorded this interview with Nicodemus, remarked about these same three elements of Jesus’ ministry, “This is the one who came by water and blood —Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.  For there are three that testify:  the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” 1 John 5:6-8, NIV  However, though Jesus’ own disciples baptized people, even they did not begin to have a fuller understanding until Pentecost.


Once they received the Holy Spirit in special measure by Pentecostal fire, they began to proclaim the offer of ordination to ministry to all. Peter said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38, NIV  Those who came to God needed to recognize that they had a need to be cleansed, they were to be cleansed with water, and they would receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The blood of Jesus Christ would set them apart as a holy people. Notice that Peter did not say they might receive the Holy Spirit if they were good enough or important enough. He said they “will” receive it. There was no doubt in his mind that the gift of the Holy Spirit as a result of baptism was as assured as the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at His baptism.


Today, we tend to see baptism as a separate, distinct ceremony from ordination. However, the symbolism appears consistent with making all baptized believers ordained to ministerial service.  Baptism then would be only one portion of what takes place when the new believer repents and accepts the sacrifice of Jesus on his or her behalf.  The other two portions of the ordination symbology would be the imparting of the Holy Spirit and the application of the blood of Jesus.


This ordination appears also not to mean being ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood, but to the Melchizedekian Priesthood with Jesus as High Priest. Since this is an eternal priesthood, that ordination would contain the promise of eternal life for those who receive it.  This could imply that the ordination continues after “the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” 1 Corinthians 15:53, NIV   


Peter also saw Christians as ordained priests as evidenced by his later words. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” 1 Peter 2:9, NIV The ministering service of this priesthood is not the ministry of offering and encouraging sacrifices, for all sacrifice for righteousness was accomplished on the cross. Instead it is a ministry of declaration and of calling as many as will come to be ordained into this priesthood as possible. Every ordination is a calling and the calling of this one is, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19, NIV


Once this eternal priesthood was inaugurated, the concept of a specialized clergy with a holier, unique relationship to God became obsolete. There was no longer a basis for God’s people to sit in pews waiting for permission from an ordained clergy to engage in ministry. Instead, each has their calling and empowerment from the Holy Spirit. Instead of seeking to be ministered to by a clerical order tempted to see themselves as singular avenues of grace to a subordinate laity, they are each accountable to God directly for the fruits of their ordination. Like the unfaithful servant who had buried his money in the ground (See Luke 19:11-27), we will be accountable for our failure to use the ordination granted to us.


Some might be opposed to those who are called to ministry in this way as not being in accord with the commonly accepted ordination paradigm. That paradigm was built up over hundreds of years through the consolidation of ecclesiastical power into the hands of a select clergy who controlled the avenues to grace.  They would have much to lose should the concept of a universal ordination be accepted by very many.  A gateway to salvation thrown open to all does not need a select clergy to keep it under lock and key.  The easier salvation becomes to attain, the less need there is for such a clergy to overcome any difficulty along the way.  


Jesus was often challenged by those who had the most to lose by the concept of a universal priesthood, those who considered themselves a separate and holy priesthood and saw themselves as guardians of who should and should not be saved. We certainly should be careful of being tempted to fall into that way of thinking today. Not only will we hinder the working of the Holy Spirit, but it appears it could cost us our own eternal life. This is especially important when we consider what universal means. There is no exclusiveness in the word universal.


Those who would set themselves up as gatekeepers and hinder this universal ordination may one day be called to account. Paul wrote to the Roman church, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” Romans 14:4, NIV   Perhaps opposition to this ordination from God might even be the oft mentioned “sin against the Holy Ghost.” It is in the context of a challenge to Jesus’ ministry that this sin is mentioned. “‘Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.’ He said this because they were saying, ‘He has an impure spirit.’” Mark 3:28-30, NIV


When Peter called the people to accept ordination in the Kingdom of God at Pentecost, he did it in the context of the words of the Prophet Joel in Joel 2:28-32. The first part of that passage reads “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” Joel 2:28-29, NIV  As we have seen, Peter quoted Joel as a foundation for his calling of the people to ordination. He perhaps saw the pouring out of the Spirit as descriptive of the Spirit to be received with baptism. This is the only offer of the Holy Spirit he made in this context.


Also, an important point here is the inclusiveness of Joel’s words. The phrase “on all people” can be seen as parallel to “on my servants.”  Among the “all people” of His “servants,” how many does that exclude? None it appears. Joel’s description makes a fair case for recognizing the ordaining gift of the Holy Spirit without regard to age or gender. Today, the church struggles with the inclusive aspects of ordination. Perhaps this is because we don’t really understand the universal nature of ordination that Christ established. Perhaps we do not see the continuity of the symbolism of ordination from the obsolete Aaronic Priesthood to the Melchizedekian Priesthood of the present. Perhaps we do not really understand the significance of the water, the Spirit, and the blood


Have we gone too far down the road of compromise with secular powers to be able to step back into a more Biblical understanding of ordination? When we might be tempted to think we cannot return to a more sure footing for ordination, we should remember, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Mark 10:27, NIV






This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry




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