All quotations are from the Revised Version
Under the dispensation of law, the distinction between priests and people was of God’s appointment. Only one tribe was set apart in Israel for priestly service. None other than those of the tribe of Levi were permitted to engage in that work. With the introduction of the dispensation of grace, and the formation of the Church, a new order of priesthood was constituted. From Pentecost onward no such distinction as had existed formerly was in the divine intention. There is not a hint in the New Testament that either any single man or set of men was appointed of God to act in a priestly capacity for the other members of the Church. The distinction between clergy and laity is foreign to the New Testament. That there are divinely-appointed elders, overseers or pastors, is quite another matter. As to the service of priesthood, the apostle Peter shows clearly that in the Church priests are numerically co-extensive with the Christians who constitute it. He describes all believers as first, ‘a holy priesthood’ and then, ‘a royal priesthood’. Addressing all saints, he says, ‘Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy
priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ … Ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may shew forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’, I Pet. 2. 5, 9.
Any humanly ordained or select priesthood in the Church is contrary to the mind of God and dishonouring to the High-Priestly service of Christ. And for this reason especially, for any man to stand as a priest between his fellow-men and God is to usurp the position and function of Christ. He alone is our means of access to God; there is ‘one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus’, 1 Tim. 2. 5. Having a High Priest over the house of God we can draw near to Him. We have boldness to enter into the holiest by His blood, Heb. 10. 19, 22. Any other supposed means of approach is a delusion and a snare. ‘Will a man rob God?’ Yet that is what those do who, with their ecclesiastical assumption, endeavour to act as priests between God and man, and thus presume to stand in the place only possible for His Son. He is the one mediatorial High Priest. The only other priesthood embraces every believer, and is quite distinct from His. Thus the apostle John says in the opening doxology of the Apocalypse: ‘Unto him that loveth us, and loosed us from our sins by his blood; and he made us to be a kingdom, to be priests unto his God and Father; to him be the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen’. That doxology is the praise of all saints.
The Character of Priesthood
Characterized as holy, our priesthood is Godward; we are to offer up spiritual sacrifices to Him. Characterized as royal, our priesthood is manward; we are to display to the world the excellencies of Christ. In each case, whether Godward or manward, our service is rendered to God. Let us consider first the service of our holy priesthood: ‘Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood’. Accordingly believers arc both a temple and priests in the temple. As holy priests we arc appointed to offer up spiritual sacrifices. These are varied in character. In the Old Testament they frequently stand out in contrast to the sacrifices on the altar. Spiritual sacrifices are constantly mentioned in the Psalms. There are the sacrifices of righteousness, 4. 5; 51. 19, the sacrifices of joy, 27. 6, the sacrifice of thanksgiving, 50. 14; 107. 22, the sacrifice of a broken spirit and a contrite heart, 51. 17. Hosea exhorts apostate Israel to return to God, acknowledge their iniquity, and ‘render as bullocks the offering’ of their lips, 14. 2. In the Epistle to the Hebrews we are exhorted to offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, ‘that is, the fruit of lips which make confession to his name’. We are also not to forget to do good and to communicate: ‘for with such sacrifices God is well pleased’, 13. 15, 16. In this the church at Philippi set a good example. Paul speaks of the gifts they sent to him through Epaphroditus as ‘an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God’.
Behind all these must come the presentation of our bodies ‘a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service’, Rom. 12. 1. This we are to do constantly. If we ourselves are not devoted to God, our other sacrifices are valueless. When the churches of Macedonia sent a gift of help to their poor brethren in Judea, they first gave their own selves to the Lord, 2. Cor. 8. 5. The spirit of the giver determines the character of the gift.
The saints are also constituted, as we have observed, a royal priesthood. Shortly after the people of Israel had been brought out of Egypt, the Lord declared to them through Moses, that if they obeyed His voice and kept His covenant they would be a peculiar treasure to Him, a kingdom of priests, an holy nation, Exod. 19. 5, 6. Their failure to fulfil the conditions has resulted in their temporary rejection. They will yet become an earthly kingdom of priests to God, but meanwhile the kingdom has been taken from them and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. That nation is the Church, the holy nation of which the apostle Peter speaks. As we have already noticed, Christ has made us to be a kingdom, to be priests unto His God and Father, Rev. 1. 6. Christ as King-Priest
The sovereign power of that kingdom is not yet in exercise by the Church. Paul charges the saints in Corinth with attempting to reign before the time. He says: ‘Ye have reigned without us: yea and I would that ye did reign, that we also might reign with you’, I Cor. 4. 8. In the coming age, kingship and priesthood will be per-fectly combined. They are already combined in the priesthood of Christ. His priesthood is after the order of Melchisedck, who was both king of Salem and priest of the Most High God. Hence, when God sets His king upon His holy hill of Zion, and the world that still rejects Him bows beneath His sway, ‘He shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both’, Zech. 6. 13. That is to say, kingship and priesthood will be joined in com-plete harmony; see Rev. 20. 6.
Rulers of nations have again and again endeavoured to combine in themselves the imperial and priestly functions and so control both the affairs of men and their consciences. Were it an absolutely certain attainment, the combination would be the strongest possible. But in every case failure has resulted. Men have constantly sought to establish a state church, and so to unite political and religious power, but instead of the counsel of peace being between them, the history of nations in this respect has been one of constant friction or open warfare. The Son of God alone will harmonize the two. His throne will be that of a King-Priest in the perfect exercise of the double function. His servants associated with Him, whether Israel on the earth, or the Church in the heavenlies, will be a kingdom of priests. In the present age we are a royal priesthood, not for the wielding of governmental power, but to show forth the excellencies of Christ. As a holy priesthood we are called to render service unmarred by defilement. As a royal priesthood we are in our service worthily to represent Him to the world. Thus it is that we shall be prepared for that day when, in the full display of the powers of His kingdom, we shall reign with Him as kings and serve Him as priests.
Appendix: the Greek Words
There arc two words in the original which, with their associated forms, described priestly service (though their use is not entirely confined to that meaning): latreia (with its verb latreuo, I serve) and leitourgia (with its forms leitourgos, a minister, and leitourgeo, I serve). Of these two the latter was used especially to denote priestly service. Thus in Luke 1. 23, Hebrews 9. 21, 10. 11, it refers to the service of the tabernacle. In Hebrews 8. 2 and 6 it is used of the High-Priestly work of Christ. Then in the broader view of the various forms of service which believers render as priests, it is used of the ministry of prophets and teachers in the Church, Acts. 13. 2, of Gospel ministry, Rom. 15. 16, of fellowship in the Gospel, Phil 2. 25, 30. Latreia originally signified the work of a hired servant, as distinguished from the compulsory service of a slave, but in the course of time it largely lost that significance, and in its usage in Scripture there was added to free obedience the thought of adoration. From the spiritual standpoint, used of service to God> it thus received the idea of a service characterized by worship; see e.g., Phil. 3. 3; Heb. 8. 5; 9. I, 6, 9; 13. 10. Thus in Hebrews 9. 14 it refers to the priestly service of all believers; see also Rev. 7. 15; 22. 3.