“And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things. And when the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.” But He answered and said to them, “You give them something to Eat.” And they said to Him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?” But He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they found out they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then He commanded to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and fifties. And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all. So they ate and were all filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish. Now those who had eaten the loaves were about five thousand men” (Mark 6:34-44).

When we come to the New Testament, we find a royal priesthood that is hierarchical, virtually identical to Jethro’s. Consider the passage at the beginning of this chapter. The context and details parallel Moses’ situation in the wilderness.

Christ calls the disciples out into the wilderness, a “deserted place” (Mark 6:31, 35). When the crowd becomes hungry, He feeds them as God did in the Old Testament, bringing quail for the Israelites in the desert. He gives them fish, but we must keep in mind that the quail provided in the wilderness were “flesh from the sea” (Numbers 11:31), since the birds were brought in over the sea. Both groups were fed from the sea.

Christ, however, addresses the disciples, who are the twelve analogous to the twelve tribes of Israel. He distributes through the twelve. The parallel is too coincidental. The twelve disciples are the replacements of the twelve tribes. Out of them will come the new “tribes,” churches. Christ gives in such abundance that twelve baskets ”full of fragments and fish” are left over (Mark 6:43). Why twelve baskets of leftovers? For whom are these leftovers provided? This food has to be provision for others to come at a later date, the Gentiles under the twelvefold leadership of the Apostles. The reference has to refer to a shift in inheritance. What belonged to the tribal system of the Old Testament will be transferred to the Apostolic system of the New Testament. They are used to provide new food divided proportionately among the groups. Thus, the disciples were the first level of captains in the hierarchy of Jesus, representing a new hierarchy to come based on the organizational structure of the Old Testament, Jethro’s.

The Exodus Eighteen Structure

Christ breaks down the hierarchy into Jethro size groups. He places disciples in some kind of hierarchy over the others. He commands the disciples to have the crowd sit down and organizes them in ranks, a common grouping for meals. Perhaps there is some reference to the military grouping of Israel by the number of loaves used to feed the crowd, five (Mark 6:38), as well as the number of representative heads of households mentioned, five thousand men (husbands). Israel marched in military array five abreast.5 They walked into war with this kind of structure. They were organized as a military force. Jesus may have intended for this concept to be recalled in the minds of the disciples. He may have been indicating something else. Whatever the significance, it is another interesting coincidence about the passage. If Jesus is using the number of loaves to point back to the military structure, He is only using it as an allusion to another Old Testament system of organizing.

For certain, however, Jesus commanded the disciples to arrange the people in groups of hundreds and fifties (6:40). He didn’t give the disciples the option. He was deliberate in His structure. He apparently had a model in mind to which He wanted the disciples to comply. Does His organizational structure look familiar? It should, because Jesus organizes His followers in the same numerical hierarchy as the structure the Old Testament royal priesthood. Why? Remember, Jethro was a Melchizedekkal priest. He counseled Moses according to his priesthood. Since Christ is a priest after the order of Melchizedek and not Aaron, He establishes the same organizational hierarchy. The similarity is quite glaring.

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We should not fail to see another level, probably the lowest level of the hierarchy. When the text says that five thousand men were fed, it indicates a numbering system by households. This would make sense. Israel applied the sacrament of circumcision by households, each male member representing the female, and each male head of the household representing the whole household. The same household numbering system carries into the New Testament. Christ fed five thousand men, households. But, after the death of Christ, Luke records conversions by heads of households, particularly male heads of household, in the same manner as documented by Mark’s Gospel. Luke says,

“Now as they spoke to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of men came to about five thousand” (Acts 4:1-4).

What this means is that the organizational system is the same after the death of Christ, and the feeding of the five thousand is a prophetic anticipation of the New Testament structure. Luke’s method of recording by household also implies that the household was the smallest organizational unity in the hierarchy. We should not overlook this aspect of the lowest level of the system either in Christ’s feeding of the five thousand households or in the conversion of the five thousand families in Jerusalem. Once again we see a remarkable parallel to the organizational structure of the hierarchy of the Old Testament and the hierarchy of the New Testament.

The Kind of Hierarchy

What does the hierarchy of Christ mean? Did it mean that individuals had to come through the disciples and others in the hierarchy to get to Christ? No, people came directly to Christ with their problems. Later in the Gospel of Mark, parents bring their children to Christ for a blessing. The disciples “rebuked those who brought them” (Mark 10: 13). No apparent reason is given, except that the disciples stood between the parents with their children and Christ. And Christ did not approve. Why did they think that they should forbid the children? Perhaps they thought that the structure set up by Christ at an earlier point was to be utilized to prevent people from having direct access to Christ. Jesus makes clear to them that the hierarchy was not for this purpose. He says to them, “‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter.’ And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them” (Mark 10:14-16). By using the child as an analogy of how people are to come to Christ, He was in effect saying that anyone had and has direct access to Him. The hierarchy of the royal priesthood is not to prevent this kind of immediate and direct approach to God.

Rather, the earlier situation of the feeding of the five thousand tells us exactly how the hierarchy is to be used. It is a pastoral setting. The organization that Jesus provides is for the pastoral oversight of the administration of needs among the people. They are hungry and in need of food. The disciples function diaconally by distributing what Christ provides. They carry the provision to the various people.

Christ’s hierarchy has sacramental ramifications. The food that Christ provides is analogous to the manna in the wilderness of the Old Testament. In John’s Gospel, the feeding is explicitly compared to the wilderness feeding of the manna. Immediately following the miracle of the feeding, which has the same important details as Mark’s account, John says,

Therefore they said to Him, “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:30-33).

The apostle Paul calls the food in the wilderness, “spiritual food,” Christ Himself (1 Corinthians 10:1-3). Thus, there can be no mistake. The feeding of the five thousand was a picture of a greater and truer sacramental food, the Lord’s Supper at a later point. As the disciples helped in the distribution of the food in the feeding of the five thousand, so they would also help distribute sacramental food of the Church. When Christ ascended into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of God. From that point forward, He needed others to administrate and distribute His sacraments. If He needed assistants to help distribute before He ascended, how much more afterwards? Did this mean that man could not come directly to Christ? No, man would be able to come directly to Jesus for salvation. He would be able to talk directly to Christ through prayer. He would be able to walk into God’s temple. He would be able to come forward and kneel at the communion table. The Holy of Holies would no longer be blocked to the common man. The Cross gave man more access than he had ever had before. But this didn’t mean that there would not be some kind of hierarchy for the distribution of the sacraments. As a matter of fact, it is the same structure as the Old Testament, except that the tribal system was changed, being replaced by the disciples.

The replacement of the tribal system has to do with the administration of the kingdom under apostles and other officers, making Jesus’ hierarchy of a governmental nature. From a practical point of view, Jesus needed the disciples to function on His behalf in the feeding of the five thousand. On other occasions, He sent the disciples out two-by-two. He also commissioned the seventy for a comparable task. He was thereby setting up a structure that would come into full effect when He ascended into heaven. The Jethro organization served a similar function to Him as it did to Moses, except Christ was at the top and not Moses. When Jesus ascended into heaven, leaving the disciples, like Moses, on earth and in charge of a large body, the international Church, the twelve required a hierarchy to help them in the oversight of the Church. We see this at a number of places in the Book of Acts. The conflict of the widows, where Deacons were ordained, enabled the Apostles to continue in prayer and the ministry of the Word. The Jerusalem Council, where a dispute affected the Church all over the world, put the Jethro system into a court setting.

Thus, Jesus’ hierarchy extended the Jethro organization into the New Covenant, transforming the old tribal system, a family controlled hierarchy, into an apostolic structure. It was not to prevent personal access to Christ in any way. It did, however, set up a pastoral, sacramental, and governmental hierarchy, facilitating the administration of His kingdom. Jesus provided through this system for the pastoral needs of His sheep to be met on the largest scale ever in His kingdom. He ordained the oversight of thousands of communion tables all over the world. He also established that the officers of His Church would oversee His ministry on the earth governmentally.

As we are hopefully provoked to examine the New Testament hierarchy with this Melchizedekkal background, we shall see that all of the principles of Church Government are therefore similar to the government of the Old Testament. We do discover, however, greater development in the hierarchy of the New Testament because after all, Christ came in history, bringing His intense presence to the people of God in a way that it had not been before. And, the people of God were no longer a nation but nations, an international priesthood. Therefore, using the Jethro model that is confirmed and continued by Christ in the feeding of the five thousand, let us examine the same basic four aspects of the Old Testament hierarchy in the New Testament.

  1. James Jordan, The Sociology of the Church (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Ministries, 1986), pp. 214-217.  (back)
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The Most Rev. Dr. Ray Sutton
The Most Rev. Ray R. Sutton serves as the Presiding Bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) and the Ordinary of the Diocese of Mid America. He is also the Dean of the Province and Ecumenical Affairs of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), of which the Reformed Episcopal Church is a founding member and special jurisdiction. Bishop Sutton often lectures at ACNA and Reformed Episcopal Seminaries, and is a popular retreat speaker.