The Priesthood of all Believers
Sinclair Banks, York Street Hall, Peterhead, Scotland.
The entrance of sin into the world had many tragic consequences. One of these was the breakdown of fellowship which man had enjoyed with God in the garden. It is one of the great truths of the Bible that, in spite of sin, God still desired communion with mankind. However, sin could not be ignored. Sacrifice was required to allow access into the divine presence, and, as Frederick. A. Tatford wrote, ‘Sacrifice . . . quite clearly necessitated a priesthood’.
Initially, priesthood was practised in families. Men, such as Noah, Abraham and Job, offered up sacrifices. In the case of Job, there was a very definite familial dimension, as in Job chapter 1 verse 5 we read, ‘Job . . . offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all: for Job said, “It may be that my sons have sinned”’.
In due course, God established a system of priesthood which centred upon the nation of Israel. It was the desire of God that Israel should be a nation of priests, ‘and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation’, Exod. 19. 6. Sadly, the nation was disobedient, it failed to keep the covenant, and it was not possible for the divine intention to be implemented.
In order that the nation may yet have dealings with God, the Levitical priesthood was established. Men were drawn from the tribe of Levi to represent the nation before God in priestly capacity. Initially, Moses and Aaron were chosen and then, from the sons of Aaron, priests were consecrated from generation to generation. Thus, the Aaronic priesthood was in place until the time of our Lord’s sojourn on earth. Zacharias was one such priest at that time, Luke 1. 5.
Many principles can be learned from the Levitical priesthood, which stand us in good stead when considering priesthood in the present dispensation. Among the lessons we learn are the vital necessity for holiness and its closely associated truth of consecration, love, obedience (contrast Nadab and Abihu, Lev. 10. 1-2), and reverence. It is not without significance that the High Priest changed from his regular garments to enter the Holy of Holies, Lev. 16. 4. May we learn this lesson in a day of increasing casualness and a move to ‘dress down’ as we enter the presence of divine Persons in assembly capacity! It is not to our credit that we have forgotten many of these lessons from the Levitical priesthood.
The death of Christ brought to an end the ceremonial system of priesthood connected with the nation of Israel. It is good to remember that what God desired for Israel, Exod. 19. 6, will, however, be realized in a coming day. They will be a nation of priests in the glorious millennial reign of Christ, Isa. 61. 6; 66. 21.
No longer does God deal through one nation. The middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile has been broken down, Eph. 2. 14, and God has made ‘in himself of twain one new man, so making peace’, Eph. 2. 15. Thus, the distinction between Jew and Gentile has been abolished and we are living in the dispensation of ‘the church, which is his body’, Eph. 1. 21-22, incorporating Jew and Gentile.
In this church, established on the ‘day of Pentecost’, Acts 2. 1, there is no longer an exclusive nation and no distinctive priesthood. All believers are priests, Rev. 1. 5-6, ‘Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father’. Peter addresses his readers as ‘lively stones . . . built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ’, 1 Pet. 2. 5. He further addresses them as, ‘A chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him’, 2. 9. Thus, we are priests individually and collectively a priesthood, being ‘a spiritual house’ comprising all believers of this dispensation. It is important to notice that reference is made to ‘an holy priesthood’ before ‘a royal priesthood’. We learn from this the vital importance of ministering God-ward before ministering man-ward. All those who teach and preach should keep this principle in view. There must be exercise in worship and prayer before standing upon a platform to preach.
Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to undermine this glorious truth. A system of distinct classes in the church was very soon established, of which Tatford writes, ‘It was not long before the ministerial or clerical class who assumed this distinctive position felt it incumbent upon them also to separate themselves from secular employment, thereby virtually ignoring the injunction laid upon all Christians of a priestly consecration of the whole life. Once spiritual and secular things were separated and a closer relation to God envisaged in the former than in the latter the conclusion of separation from secular things for a privileged few was inevitable’ (emphasis mine). It is not that it was or is wrong in itself to separate from secular employment to serve the Lord without that distraction. But what was and is wrong is the elevation of the few as being closer to God, and the exclusion, as a consequence, of the many from the privilege of engaging in some aspects of priestly worship or service. There have been varying degrees to which this system has been implemented in Christendom, most notably perhaps in Roman Catholicism, but we must guard against it to any degree in assembly life.
In the early assemblies it was not very long before some were saying in the words of Luke chapter 5 verse 39, ‘The old is better’. Some were trying to introduce distinct classes into assemblies and, even in the first century, the risen Lord had to address the Ephesian assembly and say, ‘But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate’, Rev. 2. 6. He also addresses Pergamos and says, ‘So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate’, Rev. 2. 15. It is very likely that the deeds and doctrine (note the order – the reverse of the scriptural order!) of the Nicolaitans was the elevation of a distinctive class over the laity (the mass of people as distinct from those of elevated rank). And we must remember that the Lord hates such a practice. Let us not be drawn into the popular and increasingly common practice of ordained ministers or official paid pastors (as distinct from shepherds, which are vital in every assembly). We cannot defend ‘any man ministry’, but it has to be observed that it is about ‘one man ministry’ that the risen Lord expresses His hatred. The elevation of one man, or indeed a few men, is an affront to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
There are at least two further extremes which can damage our appreciation of the truth of the priesthood of all believers. Some, perhaps, view it or teach it only in respect of assembly life. Others (and this is much more common today) prefer to see it as though it has little bearing on assembly life. The former arises from an over-zealous desire to restrict the truth to assembly activity. The latter arises from an increasingly common and much more prevalent view that assembly gatherings are relatively unimportant. This can arise when we separate the concepts of our personal life from our life in the assembly. The Bible, rather, views our lives as a whole, and we should consider our personal and assembly responsibilities as being inextricably linked and not as competing ideals.
As priests we have the inestimable privilege of drawing near into the divine presence, ‘Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water’, Heb. 10. 19, 22. This confidence to enter is available to all believers, at all times, and at any time. However, we must note the conditions which are required for this access!
In the divine presence, we have the opportunity to worship and praise our God in prayer. ‘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’, 13. 15. How it delights the heart of God to hear His people extol the attributes, virtues, and work of divine Persons. It should be our exercise, personally in private and corporately as assemblies, to give a prominent place to such an exercise. No doubt we can extend the priestly privilege of prayer to supplication and intercession, whereby we can express need for fellow believers as well as ‘for all men’, 1 Tim. 2. 1.
A further aspect of priestly activity can be seen in 2 Corinthians chapter 2 verses 12-16. The preachers of ‘Christ’s gospel’ are presented by Paul as being ‘unto God a sweet savour of Christ’, v. 15. What a dignity is therefore attached to gospel preaching! It is also clear from Malachi chapter 2 verse 7 that teaching God’s word is connected with priestly men. May we, therefore, be freshly challenged by the honour as well as the responsibility which is conferred upon all who handle the Holy Scriptures!
How lovely to observe the high and lofty character attached to the sending of a gift in Philippians chapter 4 verse 18. It is described in terms of ‘an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God’; a priestly act indeed. From the example of our Lord, we can see that other priestly activities include sympathy, recovery and bearing burdens. May we have fresh desires to be marked by priestly activity in every area of our lives!