The First Epistle of Peter
Extracts from the Bible Study Monthly
A Royal Priesthood
On the priesthood of all believers
The sheer wonder of the New Testament Christianity is that in its simplicity it is sublime. The words "Ye are a…royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9) were addressed to a very ordinary people, who by reason of their relationship to the King‑Priest were constituted a royal priesthood. Every Christian a priest with the inestimable privilege of direct access into the Divine Presence, is a fundamental New Testament principle. It clearly teaches the priesthood of all believers. Alas! ritualistic Christendom has drifted—tragically drifted—from the apostolic position.
It may help us if we consider for a moment how we first came to read of the priest in the Old Testament. When man rebelled against God, the personal intimacy which he had enjoyed with God came to an abrupt conclusion, and so there arose the necessity of finding some means for the re‑establishment of communion with God. Since access into the Divine Presence became possible only by way of sacrifice, the sacrifice demanded a priesthood.
In patriarchal times, the head of each family was the household priest. For example, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built altars and offered sacrifices to Jehovah. After the flood, Noah offered representatively on behalf of those who were saved in the Ark. Job offered sacrifices for his sons. So the story continued until the priesthood became a most elaborate system. At last we see the priestly class quite distinct from the remainder of Israel: its members alone could draw near to God, and no other Israelite had such a privileged position. But when our Lord, the great High Priest who offered himself as a sacrifice for sin, came, all such distinctions were removed: "the veil of the temple was rent in twain" (Matt.27:51): the former order had passed away. Now all believers have an equal right and privilege to draw near to God.
New Testament Christianity recognises no special distinctive priesthood—all Christians are alike priests. Observe that in 1 Peter 2:9 Christian believers are spoken of together, and together they make up one indivisible priesthood. A distinctive sacerdotal (ecclesiastical) class, in contrast to the rest of the believers, is not only unknown to the New Testament, but contradictory to its whole spirit. When the apostles founded churches, they never linked them up with any priestly conceptions such as had obtained in the Old Testament. We never read of priests and people, but of bishops (elders), deacons and saints. So that when a man claims for himself that he is a priest, beyond and above the sense in which all Christians are so, we must reject his pretensions.
We must be careful to distinguish between the priestly privileges which are the right of all believers, and the calling of those qualified to be shepherds and teachers of the Christian assembly. Their distinction is one of gift rather than privilege.
It is vital that we should lay hold of the thought that ALL Christian believers are constituted a priesthood. Peter was not addressing a privileged class when he said "Ye are a royal priesthood"; when we are in Christ, we have our priestly functions to fulfil. This royal priesthood is not made up of those who could plead any merit in themselves or declare any derivation of grace from men by apostolic succession and the like. It is composed of all those who have been united to the great High Priest. This is not some outward and visible order, but is of a much nobler fashion.
The priests of Aaron's line were priests by birth and so are we—by a high spiritual birth which brings the priesthood with it. Were they anointed? At their consecration the blood was sprinkled on ear, hand and foot (Lev.8:24). We assume our spiritual priesthood by the anointing of the Spirit of God, which dwells in us.
Have we not the listening ear which waits to respond to his voice? And have not hands and feet come under the same binding act of consecration? That is why we sing—
"Take my hands, and let them move
For us there are no priests save those who are in Christ, and of ALL who are in him we say, indeed the New Testament says, that they are priests. To us all is given the right of access into the presence of God. "For through him we…have access by one Spirit unto the Father" (Eph.2:18). "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need." (Heb.4:16). "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus....let us draw near…" (Heb.10:19,22).
This, then, is what we understand by the doctrine of the priesthood of believers.
Now it will follow that in our thinking we develop this truth of profound significance and thus come to see what our priesthood means to us personally, and how it enables us to function in the interests of others. To us personally, our priesthood should mean worship, confession and sacrifice.
Worship! To worship God aright, it is not essential to have altars, candles, images and vestments. "The heart of worship is worship (or adoration) in the heart." All the ritualistic trappings of men are a sign of spiritual retrogression. As men drifted spiritually, they came more and more to rely upon externals. Said our Lord, "the true worshippers…worship the Father in spirit and in truth". (John 4:23)
We worship God as priests whenever in our hearts we think magnificently about God. And this we may do when far removed from any earthly temple. But how much do we know of genuine spiritual worship, that adoring contemplation which causes us to cry out "My God, how wonderful thou art"?
Confession! It is significant that though the apostles had received a unique Divine commission, they never heard confessions as such, and never pronounced absolution. The confession of our sins is essentially a personal matter. And the promise is given, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Let there be with any son of Adam's race a sincere confession with the resolve to amend his ways; to him there is given pardon full and free. We have no need of a priest; we are members of the priesthood.
We sometimes hear evangelists speak of a lack of sense of sin in the world today. That is not the real problem. The problem is within the Believers. Is it not because of our own inadequate conception of the holiness of God that we do not perceive the exceeding sinfulness of sin? We may rejoice in the fact that we do not need a priest to act in our interests, but do we fulfil our own priestly functions for ourselves? There will never come a time in the life of any one of us when we shall not need so to do.
Sacrifice! That is a priestly function—to offer up sacrifices. "Ye also, as lively (living) stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 2:5). These are spiritual sacrifices as opposed to the literal. We bring no oxen, sheep, goats, and so on. He became the perfect sacrifice "to put away sin". We offer up spiritual sacrifices.
We offer the sacrifice of ourselves. "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service." (Rom.12:1). The word "present" in this verse is a technical word for a priest's action. And is there not a very real sense in which this is exemplified in the New Testament practice of Baptism? It declares that our lives should be lived as a continual offering to God, with a continual denial of self.
We offer the sacrifice of praise. "By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name." (Heb.13:15) The singing of a hymn of praise is a solemn and significant act: it is a priestly offering. How can our lips be mute and our attitude careless and indifferent during the singing of a hymn to God's praise? Needless to say, the sacrifice is invested with deeper significance when the singer is being beaten about by the contrary winds of life.
We offer the sacrifice of all good works as a priesthood. "But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased." (Heb.13:16). Let us consider then how our priesthood enables us to function in the interests of others, as Intercessors, as Messengers and as Benefactors from God.
Intercessors! There is the privilege of not only praying for ourselves, but the responsibility of praying for others. The priests of old were set apart to speak with God on behalf of the rest of the congregation. Now, the word comes to the royal priesthood, "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men" (1 Tim.2:1)
We must needs pray for the Church of Christ, members of which we ourselves are, both with regard to its life and its witness; surely there will also be a special concentration of priestly intercessory prayer for any who have slipped from their earliest steadfastness. If we are in line with New Testament teaching, we shall pray too for all who are in positions of authority in national and civic life. (1 Tim.2:1‑2). In fact, the scope for the priestly exercise of intercession would seem to be almost boundless. And if this be so now, how much more will it be true during the Millennial reign of Jesus Christ, when the privilege will be ours of using our priestly office so as to assist all families of the earth attain their right relationship with their God?
Messengers! We have no right to forgive sin, but it is ours to proclaim the gospel of pardon. We are to awaken others to a deeper sense of their responsibility to God, and to the doing of his Will. In Old Testament times, the priests had the keeping of the silver trumpets. They were to arouse the people. It was theirs to sound the trumpet on the new moon, to proclaim Sabbath and jubilee. They gave the alarm of war. In the wilderness, the trumpets summoned the tribes to march or bid them halt according as the Lord commanded. So we are to proclaim the message Jesus committed to his disciples, and so to us. (Mark 16:15‑16). Yet while proclaiming this message now, we must not forget that "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it". (Matt.7:14).
Benefactors from God! The people of Israel were blessed after the priest had been in the presence of God, and the New Testament teaches that the royal priesthood is to go forth into the world as benefactors from God. That is to be our function and ministry in every place. "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith." Gal.6:10).
We may think of God's priests as working in the office, in the factory, the shop, the school, or wherever they may be. They live in the presence of God, and go forth to bless all whose lives they touch.
May the thought ever be with us that we are not only a royal priesthood when we meet together in our place of worship. We carry our temple with us since the body itself has become a temple of the Holy Spirit, and we are arrayed in priestly garments as we do his Will.
What dignity God has placed upon us! Are we of the royal priesthood? Then let us ever "walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye (we) are called". Eph.4:1).
(March April '86)