When we hear of “priests,” we typically bring to mind the image of a religious figure: most often that of a Jewish priest, oft encountered in our biblical studies, or a Catholic priest, with whom most are at least somewhat familiar. Although, in general, these individuals are viewed with a certain amount of respect for their lives of service to God and mankind, they are also quite often viewed with disdain for the many abuses that have arisen among the priesthood (whether in ancient Judaism or over the centuries in Catholicism). William Cowper (1731-1800), one of the most popular English poets of his day, once opined that “a priest is a piece of mere church furniture at best.” Not a ringing endorsement, to say the least. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, was even more disparaging: “Once we had wooden chalices and golden priests, now we have golden chalices and wooden priests.” Let’s face it: some of the negative criticisms over the centuries of “the clergy caste” are quite valid, for these religious leaders have not always been paragons of virtue, or living examples of Christlikeness, or devout ambassadors of God’s love, mercy and grace.
My focus in this article, however, is not on priests or the priesthood as it is usually envisioned (whether Jewish or Catholic). Rather, I want to direct our thoughts to a concept not often promoted by the established clergy (regardless of religious persuasion): the priesthood of ALL believers! In this present dispensation of grace, every true believer is regarded by the Lord as a priest engaged in priestly service. And yes, that includes women! There are no exclusions based on gender, race, nationality, or social standing. If you are saved by grace through faith, if you are “in Christ Jesus,” you are a priest in God’s sight. You are a fully functioning member of His priesthood, and you are called to serve Him and others in that capacity. Isaiah prophesied about “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2) which would come upon the people of God (a prophecy with more than a single and/or immediate fulfillment, but one that would be applicable to both present and yet-to-come dispensations), saying, “You will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God” (vs. 6a). Although this certainly had meaning and application for the ancient Jews, it also looked to the era of the new covenant. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). “You, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (vs. 5). For the Lord Jesus “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His God and Father” (Revelation 1:6, NIV).
As for the all-inclusiveness of these called-ones in the new dispensation, the prophet Joel gave us a glimpse: “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. On my servants, both men and women, I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29). Peter declares to the crowds on the day of Pentecost that this prophecy was being fulfilled in their presence, saying that what they were witnessing “is what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). “The time of the new order” (Hebrews 9:10b) had arrived; it was a time of great change. As Jesus declared to the Samaritan woman, “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship Him that way” (John 4:23, NLT). Yes, it is a new day; things have forever changed, and changed dramatically! In this new order we who are in Christ are ALL priests before our God, performing priestly service. The rigid religious restrictions and exclusions of the past are gone; the era of a new sanctuary and a new priesthood has arrived (Hebrews 9:1-10)! The way into the very presence of God by ALL believers, entering through the veil as priests serving before God under our great High Priest Jesus Christ, has been opened unto us (Hebrews 10:19f). We are indeed a chosen and blessed people; a royal priesthood; freed from bondage to oppressive law; living in the freedom of God’s grace.
As the people of Israel made their escape from their centuries of bondage in the land of Egypt, they were led to Mount Sinai. It was here that the Lord God entered into a gracious covenant with the Israelites. “You shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). Although the people were initially thrilled with this prospect, their history would be one of repeated detours from this “highway of holiness” laid out before them. By these deviations from God’s will for them, the people of Israel would fail to rise to the regal reality to which their God had called them. Although there were a number of bright moments, spiritually speaking, in their long history as a nation, it would not be until the era of the new covenant that God’s redeemed ones would truly become, in the way anticipated by the Lord, “a kingdom of priests.” In Revelation 5:9-10 we find the four living creatures and the 24 elders singing a new song, declaring of the Lamb of God, “Worthy art Thou to take the scroll, and to break its seals; for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And Thou hast made them to be a kingdom of priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” It would be a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36), Jesus told Pilate, but a spiritual kingdom in which the Spirit of God would dwell within His subjects: thus, while living in this world, we would nevertheless not be of this world.
In the new dispensation there would be no need for a literal physical structure (a temple) in which religious, ceremonial acts would be performed, for God would now dwell within the sanctuary of our hearts. There would be no further need for a priesthood (after the pattern of the Levitical priesthood who ministered in the Jewish temple), for every person who was in Christ Jesus would be a priest performing priestly duties. God’s temple is now the church, and the sanctuary (the “naos“) is our hearts. “Do you not know that you are a temple (literally: a “naos” = sanctuary) of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, c.f., 1 Corinthians 6:19). The “temple” of this new dispensation of grace is not a building made by human hands, but a spiritual edifice (the church) made up of living stones (i.e., individual believers). We are the household of God our Father, “having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple (literally: “naos” = a sanctuary) in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22). “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5), for “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (vs. 9). Yes, our Lord Jesus Christ “has made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Revelation 1:6). “What Israel was to be, Christ made us to be” [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation, p. 46].
No longer is the Lord’s priesthood limited to a specific people (the Jews), and a specific tribe (the Levites), and a specific gender (males only). The priesthood of God under His new covenant is open to all who are indwelt by His Spirit. Men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, rich and poor — ALL may serve Him within this priesthood of all believers. “Thus, the Church is an unlimited priesthood to offer upon the altar of the consecrated, dedicated heart of the believer spiritual sacrifices, not animal sacrifices as in the case of the Levitical priests, but the activities of the human spirit of man energized by the Holy Spirit” [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 2, p. 53]. This priesthood of all believers is “one of the basic premises of the New Covenant: He invites all of us to be members of His royal priesthood; all of us have been called to ministry; all of us have both the joy and the responsibility of serving Christ and each other” [Dr. Paul Cedar, The Communicator’s Commentary: 1 & 2 Peter, p. 143]. He is King of a kingdom “that transcends all geographical borders or political differences” [ibid], one in which we reign with Him by virtue of being in Him, “seated with Him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6; c.f., 2 Timothy 2:12). Further, we are a kingdom of priests, a priesthood that transcends both nationality and gender. We are truly, in every sense of the word, a universal church of our Lord Jesus Christ: all are welcome; all may serve in whatever capacity God has called them and equipped them! “The distinction of priests and people, nearer and more remote from God, shall cease” [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1528]. “All believers alike, and not merely ministers, are now the dwelling of God and priests unto God” [ibid, p. 1471]. “Each member of Christ shares in His eternal priesthood” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22, p. 4]. “Natural descent and all other differences are obliterated” [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, p. 99].
“The whole body of Christians is in fact a priesthood. Everyone is engaged in offering acceptable sacrifice to God. The business is not entrusted to a particular class to be known as priests; there is not a particular portion to whom the name is to be especially given; but every Christian is in fact a priest and is engaged in offering an acceptable sacrifice to God. … The term ‘priest’ is applicable to all Christians alike” [Dr. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. “Collectively,” writes Homer Hailey, “the redeemed are a kingdom; individually, they are priests” [Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 101]. Within this new covenant kingdom, brought into existence by the Messiah, we find some significant changes from the kingdom of the old covenant, but one of the most prominent, and to some: problematic, is the fact that ALL disciples are priests before God. Indeed, efforts have been made throughout the history of Christendom to exclude certain disciples from realizing this new reality. “This truth of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ however, was rediscovered and restressed during the Reformation” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 230]. Offering up sacrifices unto the Lord God was no longer restricted to the Levites, nor even to male “priests” alone (as seen in some “high church” denominations). “Every Christian can offer up spiritual sacrifices” [Dr. B.W. Johnson, The People’s New Testament with Explanatory Notes, p. 359]. “Under the law of Moses, the priests constituted a special class empowered to officiate in worship; inasmuch as all Christians are authorized to engage in the worship of God, all Christians are priests, and thus together constitute a priesthood of believers. … Such are a priesthood, because empowered to officiate in worship; and the priesthood is a ‘royal’ one because of its relationship to the King” [Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the NT Epistles of Peter, p. 58, 63].
Burton Coffman, in his Commentary on Revelation, noted that “Christ has made us a kingdom, each member of which is a priest unto God. This is not some far-off thing that will happen in some so-called millennium; it is the status of things now in Christ’s church” [p. 23]. The kingdom of our God and Father — His forever Family; His blood-bought Church universal — is made up of believers who are also commissioned as priests to offer up sacrifices unto Him. And yes, this transcends race, culture, nationality, and even gender! “Every stone – son and daughter – being a spiritual sacrificer or priest, all offer up praise and thanksgiving to God through Christ; and such sacrifices, being offered up in the name and through the merit of His Son, are all acceptable in His sight” [Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 6, p. 851]. Where too many get “hung up” here is in their view that our priestly functions occur primarily within a church building in an official “worship service” during which we perform regulated “acts of worship.” And of course: No Women Allowed!! The phrase “worship service,” however, NEVER appears in the Bible …not even one time!! We have created a monster by taking a beautiful spiritual relationship with our Father and turning it into a rigid, regulated religion. By organizing and institutionalizing this relationship we have lost sight of the Father’s universal spiritual Family, and all we are left with is a host of warring religious factions, sects, and denominations (and, yes, that includes my own denomination: Churches of Christ = one of a number of warring wings of the Stone-Campbell Movement). Frankly, it is shameful what has happened in Christendom over the centuries, which is why many of us are seeking to awaken our wayward brethren and bring about a much-needed spiritual reformation and transformation.
God is little concerned with what happens within our buildings during a “worship service.” Those times are for our own edification and encouragement, primarily. Where you and I truly serve as new covenant priests is in our daily lives as we offer up the sacrifice of Jesus-focused, grace-centered, love-motivated lives in service to others (to His glory). “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and well-pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). Did you notice that Paul spoke of our priestly “service of worship,” NOT of our partisan “worship services”? We, as kingdom priests under the new covenant, no longer offer ceremonial and/or bloody sacrifices in a physical structure (temple), but rather spiritual sacrifices motivated by the Spirit indwelling God’s people: the new “naos” (sanctuary) of God. We are not only the “temple/sanctuary” … we are not only the “priesthood” … we are also in an incredibly special way the “sacrifice” being offered. “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote, “Among spiritual sacrifices the first place belongs to the general oblation of ourselves, for never can we offer anything to God until we have offered ourselves (2 Corinthians 8:5) in sacrifice to Him. There follow afterwards prayers, giving of thanks, alms-deeds, and all exercises of piety.” “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Hebrews 13:15-16). Our spiritual sacrifices are “not actual ceremonial observances,” but are rather exemplified in our daily “pattern of social conduct” [Dr. J. Ramsey Michaels, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49, p. 101].
Little wonder, then, that James, the brother of our Lord Jesus, observed, “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). This prompted John Wesley (1703-1791), in speaking of our duty as priests of God, to say, “You are to offer up your souls and bodies, with all your thoughts, words, and actions, as spiritual sacrifices to God” [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Brethren, let’s cease the endless sectarian strife over what we may or may not do in a church building during a “worship service.” We have divided over such nonsense long enough. Let us rather focus on our “spiritual service of worship,” and, as priests of God, let us offer up ourselves in daily godly living as ambassadors of His grace and representatives of His love. In this way we fulfill our commission as a kingdom of priests.