The Holy Mysteries (Sacraments): The Mystery (Sacrament) of Priesthood

Hieromartyr Metropolitan Seraphim of Chichagov

Hieromartyr Metropolitan Seraphim of Chichagov

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

[Source: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky]

The Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Priesthood

Presbyters (literally "elders") were both in Apostolic times and in all subsequent times--and are today--the second degree of the hierarchy. The Apostles Paul and Barnabus, as the book of Acts relates, going through Lystra, Antioch, and Iconium, ordained Presbyters in each Church (Acts 14:23). For the resolution of the question about circumcision, an embassy was sent to Jerusalem, to the Holy Apostles and the Presbyters at Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). At the Council of the Holy Apostles, the Presbyters occupied a place together with the Holy Apostles (Acts 15:6).

Further, the Holy Apostle James instructs: "Is any sick among you? Let him call for the Presbyters (Elders) of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord" (St. James 5:14). From the instruction of the Holy Apostle James we see that (1) Presbyters (Priests) perform the Church's sacred rites, and (2) in the early Church there could be several Presbyters in each community, whereas only one bishop was appointed for a city and the region around it.

In the 21st Chapter of the book of Acts, it is related that when the Holy Apostle Paul returned to Jerusalem after his third Apostolic journey and visited the Holy Apostle James, all the Presbyters came, signifying that they made up a special Church rank. They repeated in the hearing of Saint Paul the decree of the Apostolic Council concerning the noncircumcision of the pagans; but they asked him to perform the rite of his own purification, so as to avoid the reproach that he had renounced the name of Jew.

In the Apostolic writings the two names of "bishop" and "presbyter" are not always distinguished. Thus, according to the book of Acts the Holy Apostle Paul called to himself in Miletus "presbyters of the Church" from Ephesus (Acts 20:17), and instructing them he said, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops (overseers), to feed the Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). However, from these and similar expressions one cannot conclude that in the age of the Holy Apostles the two ranks--bishop and presbyter--were joined into one. This shows only that in the first century Church terminology was not yet as standardized as it became later, and the word "bishop" was used in two meanings: sometimes in the special meaning of the highest degree, and sometimes in the usual and general meaning of "overseer," in accordance with the Greek usage of that time. 

The hierarchical ministry in the Church, especially that of bishop and priest, is a special ministry, an exceptional one: it is a ministry of Grace. Here we find the shepherding of the flock of God, the highest example of which was given by the Lord in His earthly ministry. "I am the good shepherd, and know My sheep, and am known of Mine. The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep" (St. John 10:14, 11). Here we find a standing before the Lord in prayer not only for oneself, but also for the people. Here we find the guidance of the souls of men on the path of their attainment of the Kingdom of Heaven. The clergy, on behalf of the whole people, offer the Bloodless Sacrifice in the Divine Liturgy. An if in every good work we ask the blessing of God and the help of God, can we imagine entering upon such an exalted and responsible pastoral ministry--entering upon it for one's whole life--without the invocation of God's Grace which blesses this labor, which cooperates with it and strengthens the future pastor? This blessing does indeed take place. It is brought down upon the one who approaches with sacred trembling to the reception of the gift of sacred ministry in the Mystery of Priesthood, through the laying on of hands by a bishop who himself bear by succession the Grace of the Priesthood, accompanied by the prayer of the entire congregation of clergy and people who are present at the Divine service. It is called likewise the Mystery (Sacraments) of cheirotonia.

The Sacred Scripture gives direct and clear indications that the placing in the rank of Priesthood is the communication of a special Grace-giving mystical gift, without which this ministry (diakonia) cannot be fulfilled.

Cheirotonia in the Ancient Church

According to the expression of the Acts of the Apostles, when the Holy Apostles, who acted in everything according to the instruction of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, found it necessary to place deacons in the Church in order to serve tables--first ordinary tables, and later also the Lord's Table--in order to lighten the service of the Holy Apostles themselves, they first of all offered to the gathering of their disciples to choose from amongst themselves seven tested men filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. And when they had been chosen and placed before them, "when they had prayed, they laid hands on them" (Acts 6:2-6). Here with absolute clarity and distinctiveness are set apart from each other, as two distinct acts, the election of certain persons for the ministry of deacon and the laying of hands over them with prayer. The election is something merely human, while the laying of hands is a sacred action especially intended for this aim, and an act of Divine Grace.

In the same book of the Acts of the Apostles we find an indication of the laying on of hands as a sacred act by means of which presbyters also were ordained in the early Church. Speaking of how the Holy Apostles Paul and Barnabas went preaching through the cities of Asia Minor--Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch--increasing in them the number of Christians, the writer of the book, the Holy Apostle Luke, inform us: "And when they had ordained (cheirotonisantes) for them elders (presbyters) in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord" (Acts 14:23). Here the laying on of hands is presented, on the one hand, as a sacred act known to all, by means of which presbyters were ordained for one church or another, and on the other hand as a sacred act which had a special importance, as is apparent form the fact that it was performed by the Holy Apostles Paul and Barnabas themselves. It is clear from this that this ordination was not merely a rite or a sign, but was the communication of a special gift. And this is precisely testified to later with full emphasis by the same Apostle Paul, when in his farewell conversation with the Presbyters of the Church of Ephesus he thus expresses himself concerning them: "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers (bishops), to feed the Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). That this placing by the Holy Spirit was through the Apostolic laying on of hands or ordination is evident from the above-cited text (Acts 14:23).

Finally, in the Epistle (Letter) of the Holy Apostle Paul to Holy Apostle Timothy we have a direct and clear indication of ordination as a Grace-giving sacred action through which bishops (Episkopoi) were appointed. Thus, in the first epistle to Saint Timothy, who was bishop of the Church of Ephesus, the Apostle writes: "Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery" (I Timothy 4:14). In his other Epistle to him he writes: "I put thee in remembrance, that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands" (2 Timothy 1:6). By putting together these two passages, we see that Saint Timothy was ordained by the presbytery and by the Holy Apostle Paul himself, or what is the same thing, by an assembly of the eldest clergy under the presidency of the Apostle Paul; and likewise, that in this sacred action there was communicated to Timothy the gift of God, and this gift of God is to remain with him forever as his inheritance. Of him is demanded only one thing: not to neglect it, but to keep it warm. That the laying on of hands here means nothing else than episcopal ordination is entirely confirmed by the further instructions to Timothy: from them it is evident that he was clothed with the authority to ordain others (I Timothy 5:22), to have supervision over those presbyters who were in his jurisdiction (I Timothy 5:17, 19),  and in general to be a builder "in the House of God, which is the Church of the living God" (I Timothy 3:15).

Next: "Election" and "Ordination" in the Ancient Church


Please note: Many Orthodox Christians, either through ignorance or influenced by Protestantism, have a wrong concept of the Orthodox Mystery (Sacrament) of the Priesthood. It is very clear that our Orthodox Christians need to be re-educated and informed of the sacredness of this most important Ministry (Diakonia) of our Holy Church. Due to the misunderstanding and distortions that exist throughout the Church, the Sacred Priesthood has been demeaned over the years. The priest has been reduced to a clerk, an employee of the local parish. In some cases the priests have been persecuted by their own people and treated with disrespect and hostility. Other times they have been treated as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in the local parish. Tragically, I have heard of someone of great importance refer to the priests of the Church, as a "necessary evil." That statement had to come from an evil person.

The Lord speaking to His disciples says, "Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know Him Who sent Me" (St. John 15:20-21). Also, "These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the Synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me" (St. John 16:1-3).

Making any priest one's enemy, conspiring against one's priest, slandering one's priest, hating one's priest, hurting one's priest, making one's priest suffer is satanic and commits a grave sin...There is absolutely no justification for any, so called "Christian," to treat his/her priest in this most vicious and vile manner. What kind of an accountability will this evil person give to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at the Final Judgment? How can an evil person like that approach Holy Communion to receive the Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord and believe that he/she is receiving His grace, remission of sins and eternal life? An evil and hate-filled person receiving the Holy Eucharist unworthily, receives instead, damnation! A person like that is not a Christian, but an instrument of the devil.



The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


"Glory Be To GOD For Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George