Paul the Priest - Part 1
Stephen Fellowes, Skibbereen, Ireland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
In these few articles we purpose to trace some of the references and allusions to the Old Testament priesthood throughout the writings of the apostle Paul.
Under the old economy of law, priesthood was restricted to those who were not only of the tribe of Levi but also of the house of Aaron, Lev. 8. 2. In contrast, in the present dispensation of grace, priesthood is the common privilege of every child of God, it is their birthright. Peter tells us that we are ‘a holy priesthood’ and ‘a royal priesthood’, 1 Pet. 2. 5, 9. As a holy priest we have complete freedom to enter into the presence of God and ‘offer up spiritual sacrifices’; indeed our place by divine grace is that of a purged worshipper within the veil, Heb. 10. 19-22. Then, as a royal priest, we bear responsibility to tell forth God’s praises in keeping with the dignity and honour conferred upon us,
1 Pet. 2. 9.
Our thoughts are often occupied with active service, whether in the preaching of the gospel, exposition of the scriptures, or whatever service we feel the Lord has fitted us to perform. It is essential to understand that all service for God needs to be carried out in a spirit of worship, and it must be accompanied by a priestly touch. The language of Paul is pregnant with this thought when he says in Romans chapter 1 verse 9, ‘whom I serve with (in) my spirit in the gospel of his Son’. He served worshipfully, not seeing it as a mere act of duty but with an inward devotion prompted by love for his Master. We do well to challenge our own hearts – do we do the same? Is our service for the Lord merely mechanical; going through the motions or does it stem from a worshipping spirit?
Further, notice that the two ideas of worship and service go hand in hand, they are not to be divorced. Sometimes we speak of worship fitting a person for service, and while this is a safe principle in itself, it does nevertheless need some qualification. It is not that, having worshipped, we then leave worship behind and go forth to serve as if they are separate entities. The two must be synchronous; we should endeavour to serve in the attitude of worship, as Darby helpfully puts it, ‘All true service must flow from communion with the source of service’.
Presentation at the altar
‘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 imagery and language here is borrowed from the sacrificial work of the Aaronic priesthood, the service of which is summed up as ‘daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices’, Heb. 10. 11. Paul speaks of the priests as ‘they which wait at the altar’, 1 Cor. 9. 13. He was a man whose whole life and service was connected with the altar.
Here, at the commencement of Romans chapter 12, Paul brings us to the altar and appeals to every believer that his life should be on that altar for God; our lives should be marked by total consecration. This is not something for a select company of supposed ‘super-Christians’, an exclusive circle that most of us will never be part of, rather this is the normal requirement for all the saved. If every saint has been a recipient of God’s mercies, then every saint should be a living sacrifice to God.
The basis of the appeal is the ‘mercies of God’. These mercies are the tender compassions of God that have been shown towards us in sovereign grace. Exactly what the ‘therefore’ of our verse connects with is a question that has often been raised. In the immediate context there is an obvious link with the end of chapter 11, where God’s providential dealings have opened up the way for Him to show mercy to all, Rom. 11. 30-32. This is doubtless a cause for gratitude towards God.
However, because chapters 9 to 11 of Romans are somewhat parenthetical, some see the link with the end of chapter 8, Rom. 8. 35-39, where the apostle rejoices in our inseparable union with divine love. Both the love of Christ expressed at Calvary and the love of God, the great fountain-head of divine love, are eternally binding and nothing in the universe is able to sever us from them.
These two suggestions are equally valid but rather than choose one of them and reject the other, why can we not include them both with the whole of the Epistle from chapter 1 to chapter 12 and see that ‘the mercies of God’ are wide and most comprehensive; they embrace every blessing that has flowed to us through the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Such blessings include justification, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, salvation, sonship, heirship, glorification, and more; the list of divine bestowments goes on and on, and as the believer consciously stands as the unworthy recipient of all of this he can only do one thing, that is, present himself to God.
The substance of the appeal is mentioned next, namely ‘that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice’. The Old Testament priest put many things upon the altar, including bullocks, birds, sheep, and flour, but of course it would be unthinkable to put himself upon it. Paul now appeals to the saints to give themselves and nothing less. The Macedonian saints ‘first gave their own selves to the Lord’, 2 Cor. 8. 5.
The subject of the body features large in the Roman Epistle, from its dishonour in chapter 1 to its dedication in chapter 12; indeed it is one of the great themes of the book. In chapter 6 verses 12 to 23, we are reminded that in our unconverted days we served sin with the members of our bodies. We need only look at the list in chapter 3 verses 10 to 18, to see how accurate the word of God is, demonstrating that our tongues, our feet, our eyes, have all been fully committed to serving sin. Now, having been converted, says Paul, we are to present that same body in the service of God and ‘yield (our) members servants to righteousness unto holiness’, Rom. 6. 19.
It is a sad indictment on us that all too often we don’t put into spiritual things the effort, commitment and dedication that we happily applied in our unconverted days to the pursuits of the natural man. But let us come even closer and ask ourselves, do we apply ourselves as much to spiritual things as the legitimate, natural things of life? Do I consider my house, my car, my clothes, my hobbies to be more important to me than the things of God? We can all too easily hide behind the ‘legitimate’ things of life to the neglect of the things which really matter.
The sacrifice is described as ‘living’, an obvious contrast to the sacrifices that were killed under law. Those animals were killed once and for all, but the nature of the Christian sacrifice is that it is living, it is a continuous, ongoing thing. Ideally God desires that this presentation be done once and for all, but many saints who seek to live for God often feel the need to renew their commitment to spiritual things.
It must be ‘holy’ because only then will it be ‘acceptable unto God’. All that is offered to God must bear this fundamental characteristic. ‘God is light’, 1 John 1. 5, His holiness is unsullied. He cannot overlook sin or compromise with it. As we move through an increasingly defiling world may God keep and preserve us in purity because only then will we be of any use in His service. ‘Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire’, Heb. 12. 28, 29.
Yet for all the distinctiveness of New Testament priesthood compared with the Old Testament, there is a certain parallel with the consecration of the priests as recorded in Exodus chapter 29 verses 19 to 21. When the blood of the ram of consecration was slain it was taken and applied to the tip of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand and the great toe of the right foot. The application is all too obvious but let it speak to us again! The blood of Christ has claimed us for Himself, the ear reminds me of the claims upon what I hear; my ear should be open to the word of God, and it alone should be my guiding principle. The blood also has claims upon what I do, as indicated in the hand, and upon my pathway as seen in the foot. Remember the words to the carnal Corinthians, ‘What! Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s’, 1 Cor. 6. 19, 20.
The reasonableness of the appeal
It is called our ‘reasonable service’ or ‘intelligent service’ JND, because it is the reasoned judgement of the child of God as a new creature in Christ, conscious of the fullness of divine mercies received. The only spiritually reasonable thing to do in light of these mercies is to present himself.
This he does as an act of worship, for the word for ‘service’ is basically akin to the word mentioned in chapter 1 verse 9, where Paul serves ‘with (his) spirit’, worshipfully.
The sense of it is captured succinctly in the words of John Douglas from Scotland, ‘I am on the altar for God in Romans 12, because Christ is on the cross for me in Romans 3’.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Stephen Fellowes, originally from Belfast, is in fellowship in the assembly in Skibbereen, West Cork, Ireland. Married to Rachel, they reside in Skibbereen with their three young children. Stephen is active in the little assembly and in gospel outreach work throughout this needy part of Ireland.