What Does it Mean That We Are a Royal Priesthood?

That requirement for holiness is not limited to the Old Testament priests. God’s royal priesthood today is also expected to be holy. To be set apart from the rest of the world. A sacred offering to our Lord. A holy priesthood.

Contributing Writer
Published Oct 31, 2022
What Does it Mean That We Are a Royal Priesthood?

In 1 Peter 2:5, Peter referred to his readers as a holy priesthood. And then, in 1 Peter 2:9, he identified them as a royal priesthood. Who was it that Peter identified as a royal priesthood? And what does it mean to be a holy and royal priesthood?

Roll of the Priest

In the ancient world, a priest was responsible for leading the ritual worship of a deity, especially in correctly offering the proper sacrifices.

The people surrounding Israel in the Old Testament and throughout the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament worshipped many gods. Each of these religions had its distinct priesthood. But all of them functioned similarly to Israel’s priests.

Hebrews 5:1 refers to the Jewish high priest, but it illustrates the general role of a priest, regardless of the deity they served. Here we are told that priests were “selected from among the people” and are “appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.

This passage tells us, first, that priests are distinct from ordinary people. They have been selected, or set apart, for service to God. They are doing something that other people are not allowed to do.

And that something they are set apart for is to represent the rest of the community in matters related to God. In particular, the offering of gifts and sacrifices to God.

The Old Testament defines several gifts and sacrifices that the priests offered. And as we will see, the New Testament also identifies sacrifices that believers should make.

Israel: A Kingdom of Priests

This language of a royal priesthood is first heard in Exodus 19:5-6 when God established his covenant relationship with Israel. In that passage, God told Israel that if they obeyed and kept his covenant, they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation belonging to God.

Israel had a priestly line distinct from the rest of the nation. But that was not the priesthood that God referred to in Exodus 19. In this passage, the whole nation would be priests, not just the descendants of Aaron.

As God called the Aaronic priests to be distinct and set apart from the rest of Israel, so he called on Israel to be distinct and set apart from the rest of the nations.

And, as the Aaronic priests represented the community before God, Israel should also have served to represent the other nations before God.

The Church: A Royal Priesthood

In 1 Peter 2:9, we find Peter using the language of Exodus 19:5-6 but applying it to the church instead, saying, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.”

The relationship between Israel as a kingdom of priests and the church as a royal priesthood is controversial and beyond the scope of this article. But the similarity of the language between the two is certainly not coincidental.

The “you” in this passage is second person singular. So, the descriptive terms used in the passage refer to the church as a whole rather than to each member of the church. The church, as an organic whole, is the royal priesthood.

Peter identifies the church as the royal priesthood. But, as members of God’s church, we each are a part of that priesthood and have priestly responsibilities. And according to 1 Peter 2:5, that involves “offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.

Offering Spiritual Sacrifices

It is not uncommon for Christians to claim that Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross eliminated our need to offer sacrifices. And while it is true that he was the ultimate atoning sacrifice for sin, it is not true that we no longer have sacrifices to offer.

1 Peter 2:14 goes on to say that the church is a royal priesthood so that we “may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Hebrews 13:15 calls this “a sacrifice of praise.” This sacrifice is not of an animal like you would find in the Old Testament. But it is pleasing to God (Hebrews 13:16).

Declaring the praises of God is more than just some words we say during a worship service. We declare the praises of God by telling of his goodness and his offer of salvation to a lost and dying world.

And we declare his praises by honoring him as Lord in all we are and do. Demonstrating to the world what a difference God makes in our lives.

Hebrews 13:16 describes a second spiritual sacrifice we can offer. The author of Hebrews tells us to “not forget to do good and to share with others.” And, like the sacrifice of praise, this is a sacrifice that pleases God.

Paul expressed something similar as he thanked the Philippian church for their love offering to him. He called it a “fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.

In Romans 12:1, Paul tells us “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship.” The best sacrifice that I can offer to God is that of myself. A living sacrifice that he can use in whatever way he wants. To be holy, set apart for his use.

Holiness Requirement

Holiness is not optional for a priest. Under the old covenant, the tribe of Levi was set apart from the rest of the nation and dedicated to God’s service. And within that tribe, one family was set apart to serve God as priests.

God called on the whole nation of Israel to be set apart, to be holy. But the priests were called to a higher standard of holiness because they had contact with the sacred items used in the worship of God. They were also responsible for properly administering the sacrifices offered to God.

The priests came into the presence of God. And if they were not holy, they would bring their defilement before God and suffer the consequences.

That requirement for holiness is not limited to the Old Testament priests. God’s royal priesthood today is also expected to be holy. To be set apart from the rest of the world. A sacred offering to our Lord. A holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5).

A Royal Priesthood

One last thought about this priesthood is that it is a royal priesthood. This note of royalty is not to distinguish us from other priesthoods but to identify whom we serve.

In 2 Samuel 20:25-26, we see three priests recognized: “Zadok and Abiathar were priests, and Ira the Jairite was David’s priest.”

You could identify Ira here as a royal priest. Ira served as a priest for the king. Even so, as a royal priesthood, we are dedicated, or set apart, to serve God, the king.

What Does This Mean?

As Christ’s church, we are a royal priesthood to declare the praises of God. And each of us, as a part of that royal priesthood, is responsible for offering sacrifices pleasing to God and representing God to the world around us. Being a part of this royal priesthood is both a privilege and a responsibility.

For further reading:

What Does the Bible Mean by a Priesthood of All Believers?

How Can Our High Priest Empathize with Us?

What Does it Mean That Jesus Is Prophet, Priest, and King?

Why Do We Need Jesus as Our High Priest?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/diego_cervo

Ed Jarrett headshotEd Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.


Christianity / Life / Bible / What Does it Mean That We Are a Royal Priesthood?