STUDY SIX: THE PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIEVERS

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2011

 

At the time of the Reformation Martin Luther recalled Christian lay people to an understanding of their identity in Christ:

‘It is pure invention that pope, bishop, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the temporal estate. This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 that we are all one body, yet every member has its own work by which it serves the others. This is because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike …

‘… we are all consecrated priests … as St Peter says in 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm’. The Apocalypse says, “Thou has made us to be priests and kings by thy blood” [Rev. 5:9-10].

‘ … there is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the state of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate, all are truly priests, bishops, and popes. … they are all of one body of Christ the Head, and all members of one another. Christ does not have two different bodies, one temporal, the other spiritual. There is but one Head and one body.’
To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in Three Treatises, p12-15

In this treatise Luther taught what became known as ‘the priesthood of all believers’. This understanding expresses the equality of all believers, and their equal right and responsibility to serve God; it does not accept any differentiation in nature and essence between clergy and laity. This understanding of the priesthood of all believers sees any clergy/laity differentiation to relate only to the role being fulfilled, and to cease as soon as the role is no longer occupied.

In this study we will be looking at what the Bible teaches about this ‘priesthood of all believers’. More contemporary terms for the concept are ‘every member ministry’, or ‘body ministry’, but neither of these has the richness of the concept of the ‘kingdom of priests’ or ‘royal priesthood’ of the Scriptures.


A. GOD’S PLAN – A KINGDOM OF PRIESTS

The verses from both Old and New Testaments below describe those who believe in God as a kingdom of priests, a royal priesthood, whose God-given purpose in the world is to serve God and to praise God, the King.

Task: Check out these scriptures. What is God’s plan for his people in these verses? To whom does this plan apply – to a select elite, or to all who belong to the Lord?

Exodus 19:5-6

 

 

1 Peter 2:9

 

 

Revelation 1:6

 


Revelation 5:10

 


To understand the significance of the concept that every believer is a ‘priest’, we need to first look at the Old Testament.

 

 


 

B. THE ROLES OF PRIESTS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

The following table captures the Old Testament roles and characteristics of the priests.

Scriptures

Information about priests

Significance for Christians

Consecration to God

Exodus 28:3-5 [expanded in verses 6 to 43

Consecration to God required garments prescribed and defined by God. The priest was not able to perform his duties without these garments

 

 

Christians are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, have been consecrated to God by the Holy Spirit; the purpose of that consecration to God is that we should serve him in this world.

 

Exodus 29:1-46

Consecration of the priests took place by means of [1] sacrificial sin offerings, [2] ritual washings, [3] being clothed in the special garments, [4] anointing with oil, [5] sprinkling with blood

Exodus 28:3,4,41; 29:1,44

The purpose of their consecration was to serve God

Representation of the people in the presence of God

Exodus 28:9-29

[NB verses 10-11, 21,29]

The high priest had the names of the leaders of the tribes of Israel on his shoulders and his breastpiece when he entered the presence of the Lord. In this way he interceded with God on behalf of the whole nation.

It is the privilege and duty of all believers to pray for one another in the name of Jesus Christ. This is evident in the Lord’s Prayer, in the example of Paul and in the commands of the NT letters

 

Offering of sacrifices

Leviticus 1 – 7

The priests offered sacrifices to the Lord on behalf of the people.

Every believer is to offer to the Lord, not blood sacrifices for sin – only Christ fulfils that symbolism. Rather, believers offer themselves as ‘living sacrifices’ [Romans 12:1], and the sacrifice of service and praise to God [Phil 2:17; Heb 13:15].

 

Reconciliation

Leviticus 1 – 7; 16

The priests, by offering sacrifices, and the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, worked to establish reconciliation between sinners and the Holy God.

In proclaiming the Gospel believers are involved in the ministry of reconciliation [2 Corinthians 5:14-21]

 

Access into the presence of God

Exodus 26:31-34;

Leviticus 16:2 etc

Of all the people of Israel, only the High Priest had access into the Holy of Holies [the Most Holy Place] behind the curtain, which symbolised the presence of God. Even then this access was only once a year, and under strict conditions.

Through Jesus Christ, every believer has confident and constant access into the very presence of God [Hebrews 4:14-16; 10:19-22]

 

 

C. THE NEW TESTAMENT PRIESTHOOD OF BELIEVERS

C.1 Prayer and worship as a priestly activity
In the Old Testament priests offered incense offerings to the Lord. These were very costly offerings which only the priests were allowed to offer, and which indicated acknowledgement of the one true God. [One of the repeated accusations which the prophets brought against Israel was that incense was being offered to false gods.]

As acknowledgement of God, incense offerings were also associated with prayer:


‘May my prayer be set before you like incense;
may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.’ [Psalm 141:2]

This association continued into New Testament times:
‘And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside’ [Luke 1:10].

In the Book of Revelation, this association between incense and prayer is revealed as symbolism:

‘Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.’ [Revelation 5:8]
 
‘Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.’ [Revelation 8:3,4]

In the Old Testament priests offered incense to the Lord: in the New Testament Christians pray to the Lord. The former is the prophetic symbol of the latter.

As Christians we express our identity as a ‘kingdom of priests’ and as ‘a royal priesthood’ whenever we engage individually or corporately in prayer and worship. We do not leave prayer and worship to ‘professionals’; it is the responsibility and privilege of every believer.

 


C.2 Sacrifice as a priestly activity
Just as one of the key roles and responsibilities of Old Testament priests was to offer sacrifices to God, so every Christian believer is commanded/expected to offer themselves as a sacrifice to God.

 

Task: What do each of these texts teach about Christian sacrifice?
Romans 12:1,2

 


Philippians 2:17

 


Hebrews 13:16

 


1 Peter 2:5

 

 

As Christians we express our identity as a ‘kingdom of priests’ and as ‘a royal priesthood’ whenever we offer ourselves to God for his service, whether it is service in a ministry team or mission, or the service of obedience in the day to day choices and attitudes of our lives. We do not leave sacrificial living to ‘professionals’; it is the responsibility and privilege of every believer.

 

 


C.3 Praise as a priestly activity
Connected to the concept of sacrifice is the concept of praise as sacrifice, and here, even in the Old Testament, the boundary between priest and people is removed.

‘I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you;
I will praise your name, O LORD, for it is good.’ [Psalm 54:6]

‘… the voices of those who bring thank offerings’ [a form of sacrifice] ‘to the house of the LORD, saying, “Give thanks to the LORD Almighty, for the LORD is good; his love endures forever.’ [Jeremiah 33:11]

The New Testament captures this connection between sacrifice and praise:


‘Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name’ [Hebrews 13:15].

As Christians we express our identity as a ‘kingdom of priests’ and as ‘a royal priesthood’ whenever we engage individually or corporately in praise. This praise is not in word only, but is woven into the fabric of our lives. We do not leave praise to ‘professionals’; it is the responsibility and privilege of every believer.

 


C.4 Financial giving as a priestly activity
By defining financial giving as ‘a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God’ [Philippians 4:18] Paul identifies it as a priestly activity.

As Christians we express our identity as a ‘kingdom of priests’ and as ‘a royal priesthood’ whenever we give of our finance or possessions out of a genuine love for God. We do not leave giving to ‘professionals’; it is the responsibility and privilege of every believer.

 


C.5 Permanent access in the presence of God
Only the High Priest, once a year, had access to the symbolic presence of God behind the tabernacle or temple curtain. The New Testament teaches that every genuine believer has permanent, present, unimpeded access and acceptance in God’s presence. Every person who believes in Jesus Christ is at this very moment in the presence of God, with no threat and no possibility of rejection.

 

Task: Discuss and describe the implications of these verses for our access and acceptance in the presence of God.

Ephesians 2:6

 

Ephesians 2:18

 


Colossians 3:1

 


Hebrews 4:14-16

 


Hebrews 10:19-22


As Christians we express our identity as a ‘kingdom of priests’ and as ‘a royal priesthood’ by a sure and certain confidence in our present, permanent and unimpeded welcome in the presence of God because of Jesus Christ. We do not for a moment think that ‘professionals’ have a greater right of entry for themselves and their prayers and their offerings and their service than we ourselves.


C. 6 Every member ministry
The New Testament teaches that every member of the body of Christ has a role to play within that body. There are no ‘useless’ or ‘redundant’ members. As we saw at the beginning of this study God has made us all his people, his royal priesthood, his kingdom of priests so that:

• We may declare his praises and live in this world in such a way that people will glorify God [1 Peter 2:9,12]
• To serve the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ [Revelation 1:5]
• To serve our God [Revelation 5:8]

The New Testament encourages every believer to fulfil this God-given priestly service, and to express a mutual recognition of the responsibility and privilege of every member service within the body.

 

Task: Discuss and describe the concept of ‘every member ministry’ taught in these verses

Romans 12:3-6

 

 

1 Cor 12:7,11,14-31

 


Ephesians 4:7-8

 


As Christians we each express our identity as a member of ‘kingdom of priests’ by serving God with whatever natural talents, learned abilities or spiritual gifts he has given us. We do not leave service to ‘professionals’.

 

 

 

 


 

D. DISCUSSION POINTS

Task: Answer these questions:

To what extent is the priesthood of all believers operating in your local church?

 

 

 

To what extent are you personally fulfilling your role and responsibility as a member of this priesthood?

 

 

 

What can we do, individually and corporately, to encourage each other to serve as priests of the King?

 

 

 

Task: Discuss the following comment from M.C. Tenney:

‘… in the language of the New Testament itself there would seem to be little to support either a priesthood among the ministry or a general priesthood of believers. Rather the whole church has been brought to God through the high priestly ministry of Christ; and the ‘royal priesthood’ of the Church is the high privilege of mediating Christ to the world.’ [Zondervan Encyclopaedia of the Bible, p852].

How does this compare/contrast with the statement from Luther quoted earlier?