When people hear the term “priest,” many different images and associations come to mind. What does the Bible mean by a “priesthood of all believers”? What is the context in which this phrase appears? How does our understanding of the phrase impact our lives as Jesus followers?
What is a Priest in the Bible?
In the Old Testament, the term priest refers to designated religious leaders of Israel, primarily descendants of Aaron from the Jewish tribe of the Levites. In Exodus, God commands Moses:
Now take Aaron, your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister to Me as priest, Aaron and Aaron’s sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. So you shall speak to all who are gifted artisans, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron’s garments, to consecrate him, that he may minister to Me as priest. (Exodus 28:1-3 NKJV)
The word priest is also sometimes used for religious leaders of other tribes or idolatrous nations, such as in 1 Samuel 5:5, “Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor any who come into Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.”
Sometimes, God refers to the entire nation of Israel as priests as in Exodus 19:5 NKJV, “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”
What is the Role of a Priest?
The role of the priest was, in general terms, to represent God before humanity and to intercede for humanity before God. Of course, every religion of ancient times that engaged priests also had specific tasks that priests carried out. They generally acted as keepers or teachers of religious information, holy writings, and religious history. They performed rituals, sacraments, blessings, sacrifices and led the people in worship. They offered prayers on behalf of people and interceded for peoples and nations.
In modern times, the term priest is more closely associated with clergy in certain Christian denominations such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheranism.
In modern Judaism, there are varying schools of thought depending on the level of orthodoxy regarding kohen, the Hebrew word translated as “priest.” In some practices, the kohanim continue to have a specific role. Other less-orthodox practices see the hereditary nature of the kohanim problematic, so they rely more on rabbis and local leaders.
There are Buddhist and Hindu priests who perform functions on behalf of their followers, while Islam relies on imams or muftis who are more comparable to Jewish rabbis than priests.
How Did Jesus and His Followers Understand Priests?
To understand the biblical phrase “priesthood of all believers,” it’s essential to think about the Ancient Jewish understanding and role of priests as described in the Old Testament. Jesus and His first followers would have had this specific role and function in mind since Jesus and His disciples were Jews.
It’s also helpful to mention another Old Testament priest: Melchizedek. Melchizedek appears in Genesis 14 following Abraham’s rescue of Lot. Melchizedek appears, and this is what the scripture records about him:
Then Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” (Genesis 14:18-20 NKJV)
Melchizedek’s priesthood pre-dates the institution of Levitical priests. His priesthood is essential in understanding the priesthood of Jesus carried out in the New Testament.
Where Does the Bible Talk about the Priesthood of All Believers?
The writer of Hebrews makes the case, in Hebrews 7, that Jesus has become our high priest, not in the order of the Levitical priests, but in the order of Melchizedek. This writer, inspired by the Holy Spirit, purports that the Levitical priesthood was imperfect and could not, through sacrifice, attain perfection for humanity.
So, it was necessary for another priest from a different order to arise. The writer states that there has been a “change in the priesthood” and that Jesus has become a priest, not based on biological heredity but, like Melchizedek, “by the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16 NKJV). Jesus, then, is a high priest forever and does not need to offer sacrifices because the sacrifice He made sufficed once, for all. Jesus is now the One who represents God to humanity and represents humanity before God as He is God and man.
The Apostle Peter, who knew Jesus, loved Him, followed Him, watched Him die on the cross, rise again, and then ascend to heaven, writes about the priesthood of believers in his letters to the church. In Matthew 16, Jesus promised to build His church on Peter, the rock, and that he would give Peter the keys of the kingdom. Peter writes as the leader of this new way of living.
What is the Context of 1 Peter 2:9?
Peter, the rock, writes as leader of the early church about Christ the cornerstone and the people of God being built up into a spiritual house.
In 1 Peter 2:4-5 NKJV, Peter states, “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
He continues with this verse:
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. (1 Peter 2:9 NKJV)
As Peter writes, there is increasing persecution of the young church. They face rejection from other Jews who don’t accept Jesus as Messiah. They face being ejected from their families, synagogues, jobs, and homes. Further, they are becoming scapegoated by Rome as troublemakers—many are being arrested, imprisoned, and martyred for following Jesus.
Peter writes to encourage them to see the new work God is doing. He wants them to see that Jesus was rejected first but that He is also first in a new order: the royal priesthood of all who follow Him. Now, every individual who follows Jesus requires no human mediary to access God but only Jesus. Now, every one of us represents God before humanity and can intercede for humanity before God. This is the ministry of the church.
Peter is calling the followers of Jesus to a life set apart and holy, just as the priests who came before them lived set apart and holy lives. He writes to assure believers that even while they face widespread rejection and trial, they belong to this royal priesthood in Christ. They have a purpose. Their lives have meaning. They are not alone.
How Christians Live as a Royal Priesthood?
Being part of a royal priesthood sounds like a high calling, and indeed, it is. None of us can fulfill this calling without the power of Jesus Christ.
It’s brilliantly encouraging that Peter is the one to write of this concept. We see Peter’s growth curve in following and understanding Christ throughout the gospels. We witness his sad choice to deny Jesus in Jesus’ final hours before the cross. But we also see Jesus’ forgiveness of Peter, His installation of Peter as the rock on which He would build His church, and Peter’s sermon after the coming of the Holy Spirit. Peter’s life is evidence that through Christ, each of us has the power to live up to the calling we have in Him.
So, how then do we live?
First, we live holy lives, set apart, and anointed by God as described in the apostles’ letters. By loving and obeying Jesus, we find ourselves living and loving differently than those who reject Him. These actions tell a story to others and testify to God’s power in us.
Second, we intercede for others – our family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, community, and the world. We make prayer a priority and pray, not only for our own needs but also for the needs of others. This is likely why Paul urges us to pray without ceasing in 1 Thessalonians 5.
Third, we remember that we represent Jesus Christ to others and seek opportunities to share the gospel’s truth. To share it, we must know it. So, part of the life of every believer is to read God’s Word, receive sound teaching, and fellowship with mature believers so we might grow in understanding and practice of a life lived for Christ empowered by Christ.
Fourth and finally, we find our identity in Christ. Following Jesus isn’t just about what we do: it’s about who we are. We belong. Our lives have meaning and purpose. And none of us lives to ourselves alone. We are part of something greater – a royal priesthood.
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Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.
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