The topic of “priesthood” is one which has divided the church down through the ages. The issue was brought to the fore by Martin Luther, perhaps more than any other, in his challenge of the Roman Catholic system which led to the Reformation. It is therefore important to see what the Bible says about the topic, right from the beginning, in order to obtain an accurate overview.
The first mention of priesthood is in Exodus 19, when giving the Law to Moses was proposed. “If you will indeed obey My voice, and keep My covenant, then you will be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex.19:5-6 NKJV).
God’s communication to Moses displays His original intention, that the whole nation of Israel should all be priests, in a theocracy in which He ruled over all, a kingdom which was different and distinct from the other nations. All the people were to form part of His special treasure; all should be holy (or set apart for Him), and all should have direct access to Him.
But there was a big if, and it proved the undoing of the nation. It was a conditional priesthood, only able to operate if the people obeyed the Lord’s voice and kept His covenant, nationally. Sadly, they utterly failed. The Lord of all was left with a tarnished treasure; His earthly people, the Jewish nation, lost the immense privilege which was being offered to them. The national priesthood never materialized, because national disobedience became the order of the day. Instead, a much more limited form of priesthood was instituted.
Because the nation as a whole failed in its uptake of priestly privileges, the Lord chose one family, Aaron’s, and he and his sons were ordained to officiate as a special priesthood. “Now take Aaron, your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister to Me as priest” (Ex. 28:1).
Because Aaron and his sons belonged to the tribe of Levi, it became known as the Levitical priesthood. Aaron was the first high priest, so it is sometimes known as the Aaronic priesthood. The priestly office was now exclusive, rather than inclusive as originally intended, and access to the Lord was strictly regulated. The common people could not come directly into the presence of the Lord with their offerings. They had to bring them first to the priests, who offered the required sacrifices on their behalf. Worship was mediated through other men.
No other family dared usurp the roles and responsibilities of the descendants of Aaron, on pain of most severe penalty. Even kings were not exempt. King Uzziah was refused permission to burn incense on the altar in the temple of the Lord, and became angry with the priests. He was instantly struck with leprosy on his forehead! Even though he was the king of Judah, he was forced to live in an isolated house to the end of his days as punishment (2 Chr. 26:16-23).
This priesthood was in operation right through Old Testament times, and still in force until the coming of the Lord. Even at His trial, Jesus faced Caiaphas, the high priest who examined Him, and pronounced his flawed and unjust judgment.
But something remarkable happened at the moment of Christ’s death on the cross: a tremendous earthquake vibrated through the supernatural darkness; dead people came alive and rose up out of their graves; and, as if by unseen hands, the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom (Mt. 27:50-53). It was this curtain which separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, the inner shrine in the temple where the high priest went only once a year to make atonement for the sins of the people during the past year.
The significance of this earth-shaking event is made clear in Hebrews: “Having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:19-22).
There is a deep symbolism in all this. The veil represented the body of Christ, torn in death upon the Cross. The old exclusive order of priesthood was dramatically done away with. A new inclusive order of priesthood had begun, with Christ Himself as the High Priest. Direct access to God in the very holiest place of all was now open to every child of God who believes in Him. The contrast between the old and the new could not be more striking.
Aaron and his descendants: were sinners, and knew failure just like the rest of mankind; operated in an earthly sanctuary (first the tabernacle, then the temple); offered animal sacrifices, which could only postpone the judgment for sins of the Jewish people, but never take them away altogether; needed to offer sacrifices first for their own sins, before they were in a position to act on behalf of others; all eventually died, with their priesthood coming to an end, before being passed on to their descendants.
Christ, our High Priest: is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Heb. 7:26); maintains a spiritual, heavenly priesthood (Heb. 8:1-2); offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice, once, for all, to make atonement for the sins of the whole world (Heb. 9:14); was the sinless Son of God, who knew no sin, had no sins, and did not need to offer anything to God prior to His perfect atoning sacrifice on behalf of others (Heb 10:11-12); is still alive, and will never die again, and so has a permanent, unchangeable priesthood (Heb. 7:24-25).
What is the net result of all this for the Church today? Simply this: Ever since the death and resurrection of Christ, Christians have been able to fulfill God’s original intention for the Jewish nation of being “a kingdom of priests” (Rev.1:6). The wheel has turned full circle, and now every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ has direct access to God. We are believer priests, each of us able to approach Him in prayer, praise and worship. This is an unconditional priesthood, and our right does not depend on obedience to a set of regulations. There is no if here, as there was for the Jews, but we are expected to maintain a holy lifestyle.
But being “holy” is not the same as being “sinless.” Only one person fell into that category – our Lord Himself. The Bible does not teach that once we are saved we are no longer able to sin. However, it clearly teaches us that once we are saved we are able not to sin. There is a big difference.
Bearing this new status in mind, it is important to recognize our rights and responsibilities. First, we are to be worshipers. As worshipers, believers can offer spiritual sacrifices, the praise and adoration of their hearts: “You also are … a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). This is one of the few things we can actually give God, in response to the multitude of things He gives to us. Worship does not depend on having a particular God-given gift, such as that of evangelist, pastor, teacher, or even a less conspicuous gift such as administration, or helps (1 Cor. 12:28). In a word, it is gift-independent. All believers, no matter what their gifts, have the right and responsibility to offer spiritual sacrifices of praise and worship to Him.
In order to do this we must first give ourselves to Him (Rom. 12:1). Intelligent, acceptable worship cannot spring from an unredeemed heart. The very meaning of the word worship – “bowing down towards another” – makes that clear. The Samaritan leper healed by the Lord is a good example. He glorified God publicly, then fell at Jesus’ feet, in deep gratitude for all that had been done for him. He gave thanks and worshiped the Lord with his face to the ground (Lk. 17:16). Unbelievers can certainly participate in a church service, and even be moved by it, but they can never really worship in true gratitude and thanks for something they have not yet experienced.
The concept of a holy priesthood is well explained by comparison with the Old Testament priesthood. The priests needed to pass through an initial ceremonial washing, to make quite sure they were clean for the serious responsibility which they undertook on behalf of the people. This only took place once (Ex. 29:4); afterwards they just needed to wash their hands and feet (Ex. 30:19).
The New Testament parallel to this is found in Titus 3:5 and illustrated in John 13. There the disciples, especially Peter, needed to learn the difference between the two washings. For us today, the immersion of new birth in Christ (regeneration) only occurs once, at conversion; the daily cleansing from defilement (renovation) can and should occur often. Our Lord was at pains to make the difference clear when He said to Peter, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet” (Jn. 13:10). The original Greek words for “bathed” (immersed) and “washed” are different.
The priests were also consecrated by applying ram’s blood on their right ear, thumb and big toe (Ex. 29:20). This fitted them for the role of priestly worship and service to the Lord. In the same way, the precious blood of Christ, the heavenly Lamb, consecrates believer priests for their service today. We need to hear God’s word (via the ear), do His will (via the thumb), and walk in His ways (via the big toe). The symbolism is clear and striking.
Believers are also spoken of as belonging to a royal priesthood. We are specially selected servants of the King of kings. “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). As such, believer priests have a responsibility to others. As holy priests, their worship is directed vertically, God-ward. As royal priests, their service is directed horizontally, manward.
Both are in view in Hebrews 13:15-16. As holy priests, we should offer to God the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, regularly, continually. As royal priests we should do good to those less fortunate than ourselves, sharing what we have (including money) with others in need. The priestly service of prayer for others falls into this category. Priests are not just worshipers, but intercessors. Just as Christ is our heavenly Intercessor, praying for us as our Great High Priest (Heb. 7:25), so we on earth are to intercede for others. This includes praying for our government and those in authority in our communities (1 Tim. 2:1-2). The Old Testament priest bore the burden of the people’s sins upon his heart; so today, concerned and compassionate believer priests feel deeply the difficulties and sorrows (as well as the sins) of the Lord’s people, and pray earnestly for them.
Public testimony is another function of our royal priesthood. Believer priests need to proclaim God’s praises in a public way. The Old Testament priests were responsible to hoist the ark (representing God’s presence with His people) upon their shoulders, and carry it from place to place. For example, they walked around the city of Jericho, protected by a military detachment, and blew trumpets before the ark, calling attention to it. In the same way, believer priests elevate Christ (of which the ark speaks) holding Him high in their estimation, and blowing the gospel trumpet, calling people’s attention to the Savior and the need to come to terms with Him if they are not to suffer eternal judgment.
It is clear from the above that being a believer priest is not just a male prerogative. Many of the roles and responsibilities of believer priests apply to women as well. Much of the compassionate care and prayer in the Church down through the ages has been carried out by devoted women. But there are scriptural bounds in speaking publicly in the assembly, and these should be observed. As believers meet together in church fellowship, particularly in relation to the memorial known as communion or the Lord’s Supper, men have a special audible role in leading the praises and the worship. But note, when the ark was brought back by David to the tabernacle in Jerusalem, prior to the building of the temple, “All the people said, ‘Amen,’ and praised the Lord” (1 Chr. 16:36).
Let’s be serious about our privileges as believer priests, remembering the Lord regularly, and pouring out our hearts in worship to Him. After all, it was the very last request of the Lord to the disciples, that they do this in memory of Him.
By Ian Livingstone
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org