Peter undoubtedly has the Temple priesthood in mind when he says, “Ye also … are … an holy priesthood ;..”. As the Temple could not function without a priesthood, so its counterpart of today, “a spiritual house”, must have one, and hence the reason for Peter’s brief statement on believer priesthood For the background, we need to look at the priest-hood of the Temple, with which the addressees of his Epistle were familiar.
The Courses of Priesthood. The Lord revealed to David not only the plan of the Temple, for which he did much preparatory work, but he also received “by the spirit" details of “the courses of the priests and the Levites”, into which they were to be organized ready for officiating in the Temple, i Chron. 28. 12-13.
Although David was approaching the end of his reign, the aged king displayed amazing administrative ability in first taking a census of the Levites who numbered 38,000, then organizing them into courses and allocating duties to them, 1 Chron. 23-26. Of this number, 24,000 belonged to the priestly families, and David arranged them into twenty-four courses, each course having a chief priest who was the head of his family. Of course, there was only one high priest. The priests were of Aaronic descent, and there were sixteen courses belonging to the house of Eleazar and eight to Ithamar, 1 Chron. 24. 1-19. Apparently, the purpose of the courses was to facilitate a monthly rota of priestly duties.
After the Babylonian captivity, only four courses of priests returned to Jerusalem, Ezra 2. 36-39; Neh. 7. 39-42, but, in the time of Christy twenty-four courses were functioning again, and apparently Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, was a priest of the eighth course of Abijah, Luke 1. 5; cf, 1 Chron. 24.10.
Hereditary Priesthood. For Solomon’s Temple, the priesthood was hereditary, namely transmitted from father to son, as it had been for centuries since the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests.
Later, during the second Temple era, hereditary succession was displaced by “the formal admission alike of the priest and of the high priest… by investiture” (Edersheim). This meant that priesthood was by man’s appointment and not hereditary, as ordained originally by God. This [change from hereditary succession to investiture foreshadows what has transpired in Christendom during the present church age.
Believer-Priesthood. The New Testament teaches that all believers are priests, and the basis for believer-priesthood is one of regenerative relationship between God and the believer, and it is not an appointment by another party. As priests were born into a priestly family under the old economy, so we, when born again, are immediately priests in this day of grace, which means that the new birth is the only relationship- basis for believer-priesthood.
A born-again believer, when, displaying spiritual maturity for which there is no set age physically, should enjoy the privileges and discharge the responsibilities of his priestly position. The lack of priestly exercise amongst some of us may be attributable, at least in part, to spiritual immaturity, for some believers remain “as newborn babes” feeding upon “the sincere milk of the word”. With the strong meat of the Word, we mature spiritually, enabling us to function as priests before the Lord.
In the early church, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was accepted and practised, but “by the end of the second century, distinctions had arisen … It was not long before the ministerial or clerical class, who assumed the position, felt it incumbent upon them also to separate themselves from secular employment …” (Tatford). In conse-quence, the priestly position of all born again believers was soon superseded by ordained priests. History shows that ordination is invariably adopted in an atmosphere of spiritual declension, just as the Temple priesthood was by investiture in times of apostasy during the second Temple era.
With ordination, priests in Christendom hold office until retirement. Similarly, when priests took office in the second Temple by appointment, they later retired from office. In the first Temple, there was no provision for retirement from the priesthood, but the priests continued to minister before the Lord until death.
The difference between the priests and the Levites in the Temple needs to be noted. The priests officiated at the brazen altar and at the golden altar, and in their duties they came “into the house of the Lord”, drawing near to the Lord, 1 Chron. 24. 19, prefiguring us as worshippers of the Lord. The Levites were precluded from entering the Temple, but they waited on the priests at the brazen altar, opened and closed the Temple doors daily, and guarded the court entrances at night, all of which was a “work of the service of the house of God”, 1 Chron. 23.28, and so they are figurative of believers as workers for the Lord.
Under the law, each week of work ended with the sabbath for worship. Under grace, we start the week with worship on the Lord’s Day, from which we proceed to work for the Lord. Therefore, the order now is: first worship and then work. For the Aaronic priesthood, the veil in the Temple was a barrier to the holy of holies, but for us it is a means of access into the holiest of all, the presence of God, Heb. 10. 20. The sphere of our worship is “within the veil”, and the object of our worship is the Lord Himself. From the sanctuary, on the first day of the week, we go out and work for the Lord, say, in the Sunday school or Bible classes, or preaching the Gospel, and other ways during the week. Work can be tiring but worship is refreshing and so, having worshipped the Lord as believer-priests, we work for the Lord as believer-Levites, being refreshed by worship and empowered by His Spirit.
The Temple priests never retired, and we as priestworshippers never retire from worshipping the Lord! The Levites retired at fifty, and we as Levite-workers may have to withdraw from the Lord’s service, owing to advanced age or ill-health! If we are obliged to curtail our work for the Lord or discontinue it, on account of physical weakness, let us not withdraw from worship of the Lord! We continue to exercise and enjoy our priestly rights until called home to be with the Lord.
Let us not set aside and trample under foot this privilege of believer-priesthood, as it has been by the unscriptural practice of derisy for many centuries, for we are indebted largely to men of God who re-discovered this great truth and practised it during times of refreshing in the nineteenth century. Even in this time of apostasy in the twentieth century, let us continue to follow in their footsteps, as they, in turn, were subject to God’s Word.
To be continued.