In Revelation chapter 1 verse 6 the Saviour is said to have made those whom He loved, and freed from their sins by His own blood, ‘priests unto God and his Father’. In the Old Testament the only way to become a priest was by being born into the tribe of Levi. In the New Testament all believers – male and female – are priests when born again from above at conversion. In the Old Testament, the tasks of the priest were principally to help in carrying out animal sacrifices, to teach God’s people to observe the words of the law, and to act as an intermediary between men and God. In the New Testament, the tasks are similar – the believer is to offer up spiritual sacrifices, to be holy, and to intercede for others.
There are two main roles for the believer as a priest. Firstly, he/she brings an offering to God. In the Old Testament, believers brought animal sacrifices, but the offerings in the New Testament are spiritual sacrifices.1 The nature of these sacrifices is described in other scriptures, for example:
a) Romans chapter 12 verse 1 – Paul beseeches the brethren to ‘present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service’. The sacrifice the believer brings is not the bodies of slain animals, but his/her own living body. Under the old covenant, God accepted the sacrifices of animals, but, following Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, these sacrifices are no longer required, Heb. 9. 11-12. A different type of sacrifice is introduced, and that is for believers to offer themselves as living sacrifices. As the burnt offering on the altar was surrendered wholly to God, so the body with all its members should be consecrated to His service, not as slain, but as ‘a living sacrifice’ with an on-going commitment of our life to God. We should offer, then, our entire person, our whole being, all the powers and faculties of our minds and bodies to the service of God.
b) Hebrews chapter 13 verse 15 – The author writes, ‘By him [our Lord Jesus Christ] therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name’. Another spiritual sacrifice is that of continual praise to God, the fruit of our lips. Whenever we praise the Lord, we glorify Him, Ps. 50. 23. We have every reason to do so, and that continually, for He loads us daily with blessings, Ps. 68. 19. In times of difficulty and sorrow, this may indeed be a real sacrifice, something that requires a determined effort on our part, when, humanly speaking, we do not ‘feel’ like praising. It may be that the praise we offer in times of great stress is especially precious to the Lord. Note that this verse teaches that we approach God by Christ, and we bring to God our appreciation of Christ as we give thanks. We should, therefore, as believer-priests, meditate on Him, and prepare precious thoughts of Him to offer to the Father. May God help us to be prepared worshippers, to offer the sacrifice of praise.
c) Hebrews chapter 13 verse 16 – The writer says, ‘To do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased’. We are to use our material resources to do good, to share with those who are in need. It is the opposite of accumulating for self. ‘Doing good’ can cover a multitude of actions: sharing food with the needy; transporting people to and from church, or other places; sharing of wealth; being a helpful neighbour; praying for the sick; passing on books, money, etc. The gifts of believers ascend to God as ‘an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God’, Phil. 4. 18.
When we took that basket of fruit over to that sick child of God whom everyone had forgotten about, we were acting as a priest, offering a sacrifice to God. It was well pleasing to Him – He took delight in our doing that. ‘For with such sacrifices God is well pleased’ – He is pleased with the sacrifices of prayer, and of praise, with the offerings of a broken and a contrite heart, but He is especially pleased when that leads us to doing good to others. God is pleased with this because it shows us to be in a right state of mind, in agreement with His own nature. He does good continually, and so He is pleased with all who display the same spirit.
The second characteristic of the believer as a priest is that he/she has direct access to God. In the Old Testament, access to God was the privilege of the few. However, through Jesus Christ that access to God is the privilege of every Christian.2 In the Old Testament tabernacle and temple, there were places where only the priests could go, and even the High Priest could only go behind the veil once a year on the Day of Atonement. Following Jesus’ death upon the cross, all believers now have direct access to the throne of God, and can proceed with a holy boldness through Jesus Christ our great High Priest,3 no other person being necessary to intercede for us. What a privilege this is to have direct, immediate access into the presence of God! This means all believers can go before the Lord in worship and prayer, not only for their own needs but also on behalf of other Christians. Any brother leading with a hymn, or prayer of thanksgiving, or worship is acting as a priest representing the whole assembly.
But we can also go to God on behalf of non-Christians. We can build a bridge through prayer for others to come to God. One very practical note is to ask ourselves whether we go before God on behalf of the lost? Do we represent the Lord Jesus Christ to those who do not know Him?
In the Old Testament any priest who handled holy things before washing was sentenced to death.4 This is a solemn reminder that we must be spiritually and morally clean before entering any service for the Lord.5 Just as it was vital for the Old Testament priests to maintain their purity to fulfil their priestly duty, so we can never have true communion and fellowship with God unless personal holiness is maintained.
In 1 Peter chapter 2 verse 5 believers are described as ‘holy’ priests, and this is an essential requirement for all priests – to be ‘holy’, pure, and morally blameless, set apart for God’s use. One might be a child of God, and, therefore, a New Testament priest, but if unconfessed sin is allowed in our lives then there can be no communion with God. A great incentive for us to ‘cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit’, 2 Cor. 7. 1, is the Lord’s return, and the subsequent appearing at the judgement seat of Christ. Those that have that certain living hope of seeing the Lord, purify themselves, ‘even as he is pure’, 1 John 3. 3. Another encouragement is that God wants to act like a Father to us and treat us as sons and daughters.6 He is, of course, our Father following the new birth, but He wants us to know fellowship with Him in a more intimate way.
In 1 Peter chapter 2 verse 9 believers are said to be ‘royal’ priests, proclaiming the excellencies of God. We are a royal priesthood because of our relationship to Jesus Christ, who is both king and priest. The word ‘royal’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘king’; the priests of the Old Testament were priests, but they were not ‘royal’ priests. The New Testament believer is a priest; the church is a kingdom of priests. Priests lead men into the presence of God.
As ‘holy’ priests, we worship the Lord. As ‘royal’ priests, we go out into the world to witness, to ‘shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’, 1 Pet. 2. 9. The order of these descriptions of the priesthood in 1 Peter chapter 2 is important to recognize. Before we go proclaiming the gospel and the virtues of God publicly, we should be those who have offered ourselves as ‘living sacrifices’. Before we can be ‘royal’ priests, it is essential that we are ‘holy’ priests. God is unlikely to use an individual to do His work who has unconfessed sin. However, ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’, 1 John 1. 9.
As believers we must not misuse our position as priests. For example, not every brother is gifted by the Spirit of God to speak God’s word, or preach the gospel. Believing sisters, though they are priests, should remain silent in the assembly, neither teaching nor usurping authority over the men.7 But all of us can offer spiritual sacrifices, all of us have direct access to God, all of us should have a determination to be holy, and speak and live lives that are worthy of our Lord Jesus. The believer is indeed a priest.
The believer is privileged to be a priest and we should joyfully recognize the wonderful position that we are in. Worship that is acceptable to God is a privilege unique to the Christian. We might not think there is anything special about us, but let us continually remind ourselves that each one of us is a chosen person, a royal priest, a member of a holy nation, a person that belongs to God. May we join with fellow believers each Lord’s day as they gather to honour His name. God will be looking for us!