MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 18, 2001
Seventh in a series on Christ’s church
This morning, as we continue to look at the church of Christ, we come to one of the designations for the church that was, for more than a millennium, all but lost to the body of Christ. The doctrine of the church as the “priesthood of believers” all but vanished from the church until Martin Luther and the other reformers recovered it from the pages of sacred scripture. The priesthood of believers is a designation celebrated by Protestants in general and stands as one of the hallmarks of what it means to be Baptist in particular. As Protestants, we believe that because of the work of Christ, we each have equal access to God. There is no special, elite class of believers who uniquely enjoy the privilege of coming into the presence of God. All true, born again believers are equal in terms of their capacity to relate to God. This doctrine also teaches us that the ministry of the church is not primarily to be done by a small number of paid specialists who do the ministry while the others sit around and watch. Ministry is for all believers. Anytime we knowingly or unknowingly set up any kind of artificial, two-class system of clergy and laity in the church, we become guilty of turning our backs on this vitally important scriptural teaching on the priesthood of the believer.
Before we can understand what it means for the church to be a priesthood of believers, we must first review what the bible means by “priesthood” and in order to do that, we will need to spend some time studying that truth as it is presented in the Old and New Testaments. The concept of the priesthood actually began in Genesis, but we don’t see it in any developed form until we come to the covenant God made with Moses at Mount Sinai. There, in the Mosaic covenant, the stipulations regarding the Old Covenant priesthood are presented. God’s original intent for His Hebrew people was, according to Exodus 19:6, “you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” God wanted Israel to be a nation or kingdom of priests—everyone being able to approach him and have the both the privileges and responsibilities of priests of the Most High God. You’ll recall, the Jews balked at this commission in Deuteronomy five. They were assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai and were overwhelmed by the awesome voice of God speaking His Ten Commandments to His people out of the fire and the cloud and the deep darkness. They were so overcome with fear and terror at this spectacle that they begged Moses to go up on their behalf and act as a go-between or mediator for them as they related to God and as God related to them. They felt certain that if they, as a people, were to relate to God on this level of intimacy, they would surely die. God graciously permitted Moses to act on their behalf, but it was not his original intention. Out of this context, the Old Covenant, Levitical priesthood was born.
There were numerous stipulations attached to this priesthood, but among the most basic were, all priests were to come from the tribe of Levi—Jacob’s third son. Aaron was of that line and he became the first High Priest. One scholar has divided the priests main duties into three areas. First, they ministered to God before the altar of God—presenting various kinds of offerings to God. As these offerings burned on the altar, it was intended that the smoke from these offerings of worship would ascend to God and be a pleasing aroma to him. In other words, the Levites were the appointed, formal worshippers of God on behalf of the Jews. They were intended to formally express the Jews’ love and adoration to God. Second, the Levites or priests would burn sacrifices for the purpose of atoning for sin. The Jews, like all fallen humans, were sinners and God will not relate to sinners within a covenant unless their sin is dealt with. The priests followed the various laws surrounding the sacrifice of animals. They would kill the “innocent” animals and place them on the altar to God as an offering for their own sins and the sins of the people. In doing this, they represented the other sinners before God. These offerings were not adequate to completely erase the sin of the Jews, but they were enough to maintain the covenant relationship with Yahweh. Finally, the Levites taught the law of God to the people. In this way, the Levites spoke God’s words to His people, expressing his will for his covenant people. Do you hear the way the priests mediated the covenant relationship between Yahweh and the Jews? They acted as God’s representative to the nation and the people’s representative to God.
When we get to the New Testament and the book of Hebrews in particular, we discover that the Old Testament, Levitical priesthood was intended by God to be only a shadow of the reality of God’s ultimate priesthood and that priesthood was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. If we think about it in terms of these three Old Testament, priestly duties, Christ worshipped God perfectly by offering his perfect obedience to the Father every day of his life. He lived a perfect, consecrated life in praise to the Father. Second, he offered the perfect sacrifice to atone for sin when he presented himself on the altar of the cross. Hebrews 10:10-12 says, “…we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Day after day every [Old Testament] priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for the atonement of sin. Third, Jesus was the teacher of the law par excellence. Even hardened Roman soldiers, when they heard him teach in John 7:46 said, “no one ever spoke the way this man does.” Mark one tells us that “He taught as one who had authority.” In three years, Jesus said more about the law of God than any other teacher before Him. Jesus is the ultimate High Priest of God and completely fulfilled every aspect of the priestly office. He is the perfect and eternal High Priest of God.
Now, Christ has ascended to the Father, but those who follow Him point back to Christ and continue certain aspects of His priestly ministry. We are called to be like him and that includes doing some, but not all, of his priestly functions. We certainly do not atone for sin—He has done that once and for all. We confess sin to each other and we forgive each other for their sins against us, but we do not atone for sin—only Christ performed that priestly duty. First Peter 2:9 is perhaps the best known New Testament text that speaks of our identity as priests of God. Peter says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God…” The church is a priesthood. There is no authorization in the New Testament for an elite group of people who are called “priests”; the entire church is made up of priests. We are a royal priesthood simply because we have been adopted by the King of the universe and we are royalty through our sonship relationship with the King of kings. If a king adopts you, you become royalty.
With that as background, now let’s focus on the church as the royal priesthood by asking two questions. First, what do New Testament priests do? Second, how do they do what they do? Let’s look at this question of what do New Testament priests do? The broad answer is given in 1 Peter 2:5 where Peter says, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Notice that as priests we are in the business of offering spiritual sacrifices to God. That’s broadly what priests do but it begs the specific question—what is included in “spiritual sacrifices?” For one, Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name.” This text tells us that giving praise to God is part of our spiritual sacrifice as priests. This would include worship in a corporate setting, but also speaks of any utterance of our lips that exalts God—that magnifies him. Priests of God praise the Lord not only in church, but whenever they want to express their love for God with their lips. Remember, priests are worshippers and if we claim to be a priest, but do not have a heart filled with worship for God; there is something very wrong with us. We should sing praise to God in our cars with our families, in the shower, as we do house work, as we mow the lawn—that’s part of what it is to be a priest.
In Romans 15:16, Paul highlights another priestly function. Beginning in verse 15 he says, “I have written to you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Paul considers missions and evangelism to be “priestly duties.” As one called to preach the gospel, he represents God to the Gentiles as a priest and then, when the Gentiles respond to the gospel, he brings them as a priest of God and presents them to him as an offering. Do you hear how Paul is simply saturated with this priestly sense of his identity as it relates to his ministry? He goes out to preach FOR God and he brings the harvest back TO God. Do we look at missions and our own personal evangelism this way? We should. We see this again in 1 Peter 2:9. Peter says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God [to do what?] that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Are we declaring the praises of God to others? This isn’t simply praising God—this is declaring those praises to anyone who will listen. Faithful priests do that.
Another priestly function is seen in Philippians 4:18. The Philippians had sent Paul gifts and money while he was under house arrest in Rome. Notices the language he uses in thanking them in verse 18. “I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” Clearly, Paul sees this gift from the Philippians as an offering to God on his behalf from the priests in the church at Philippi. Paul is saying that the money and gifts sent to him are given by priests as a fragrant aroma to God. So these Philippians, in God’s sight, were not simply sending Paul Roman coins and blankets and wine, they were offering God a pleasing sacrifice. Notice how, though the gifts went to Paul, they were offered as unto to God. That’s the way a priest ministers—in this GOD-centered way. We must see ourselves as priests because that is clearly the way God does and Paul reflects that.
Another form of this spiritual sacrifice is in Hebrews 13:16. The author says, “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Again, the Hebrews are reminded to, “do good” which, in the context probably means to serve others and to “share with others.” As we serve others and share our food, money, home and supplies with others, we are offering sacrifices to God that are pleasing to Him. Again, we hear the sacrificial, priestly tone here. In Revelation 5:8 John is speaking of the four living creatures and the 24 elders and says, “Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Revelation 8:4 continues this idea as John takes us into God’s throne room. He says, “The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angels hand.” Prayer is a huge part of our priestly duty before God and he receives our prayers as incense offerings. What a beautiful picture. When we pray, its as if we, as priests, are waving brass incense containers before God and our prayers arise to him as incense which he collects in bowls—they are precious offerings made to God. Is this the way we conceive of our prayers? Its how God does.
A final text is one we looked at when we studied Romans. Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” This text tells us that we are to offer up our bodies to God. Do you see how we are called to be BOTH the priest AND the sacrifice offered to Him? In answer to the question, “what do New Testaments priests do?” Paul here answers the question with, “everything.” Everything we do is to be offered to God as an offering because we are to offer our bodies to him. Everything we do is in some way connected to our bodies. If we offer our bodies to Him, that means everything we do in these bodies is to be offered to him. We must see ourselves as priests offering up worship to God as we do the laundry, change diapers, wash dishes, cut the weeds, plant the garden, do the taxes, work our jobs, taxi our kids, sleep, eat, EVERYTHING. Everything we do, we do as priests before God. All of life is worship to God and should ascend to Him as such. That leads us to our second question and that is:
How do we do these priestly duties before God? The first answer is, with intentionality. Paul’s word to us is we must offer our bodies to God. That word “offer” means that we are to stand before God and with intentionality give it to him. Who ever heard of an unintentional offering? If you misplace a 20-dollar bill on the floor and your child finds it 20 minutes later on the floor, he doesn’t, unless he is deluded, assume you have offered it to him. You have to give him the money for it to be considered an offering. Likewise, we are not to be willy-nilly living our lives without any consideration of God and his rule in our lives and then on Sunday morning in a fit of inspiration say to Him, “Oh God, by the way, this last week of life I’ve lived, I give it to you.” How would a wife like it if on her birthday she found a blouse in the back of her closet her husband had bought for her two weeks ago which she’d forgotten she had. She’s quite pleased at this discovery and her husband, seeing her pleased reaction says, “Honey, just take that as my present to you this year—happy birthday.” What an insult. That’s not a true offering. We want someone who’s giving us something to put some thought and effort into it. There are no accidental or incidental gifts or offerings. So here we are as priests before God—are we living our lives consciously as priests, offering everything we do to God as an expression of worship to Him? There is to be this radical, vertical orientation to our lives as we live before God as priests, pouring out our lives as offerings to him. We must live our lives intentionally as priests before God.
Hebrews 12:28 gives us more insight into this question of how to live as priests of God. The NASB more literally preserves the strong priestly tone of the original. It says, “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe.” Once again, we see that we are to offer this priestly service to God but notice two truths this text shows us about HOW to do this ministry to Him. First, we must serve him with reverence and awe. One of the blessings of being a priest is having direct access to God. We don’t need any other fallen human to come to God on our behalf—we can come confidently into his throne room. That’s important for us to know but it’s just as important for us to know that approaching God with confidence does nothing to take away our fear and awe of God. The amazing truth about being a priest of God is that we can come into the throne room of the infinitely holy, omnipotent, sovereign, majestic king of the universe with confidence. But that confidence doesn’t change one iota his character and we must recognize his holiness, his power, his sovereignty and his rule over us when we come into His presence through prayer. This confidence before God can be there in part because we, unlike Old Testament believers, do not need to fear death when we enter into the holy of holies into God’s presence. We should be confident before Him, but we should also fear God with reverence and awe. We offer our lives to him with reverence and awe.
Second, we serve him as priests with grateful hearts. “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude…” Because of what God has done for us in giving us an unshakable kingdom, we are to come as grateful priests before Him. We see the same truth in Romans 12:1. “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices…” Notice we are to serve God in response to His mercy to us. Because God has been merciful to save us from our sin, because God has been so gracious to give us an unshakable kingdom—those are the truths that should stoke the fire in our hearts with gratitude. As priests, we offer our lives to God with much gratitude for what he has done for us. One way to induce within ourselves this much needed gratitude is to regularly meditate on how sinful we are. We should ask God to show us the darkness of our hearts so that we can appreciate how much God has forgiven us. Jesus says in Luke 7:47, “He who has been forgiven little, loves little.”
In the New Testament teaching on the priesthood of believers, the overwhelming stress is placed on the blessing that as priests, it is our nature and our responsibility to minister to the Lord. In a North American church, where 80% of the people do 20% of the ministry and 20% of the people do 80% of the ministry, the priesthood of believers is, from that statistic, a very unfaithful priesthood. That’s not to say that all ministry is done within the local church—there are countless ways to minister in our neighborhoods and jobs and other venues. But if we truly saw ourselves as priests, called to offer our lives to God in sacrificial, grateful, ministry the statistics on local church ministry would be much different.
The question is—what about me? Do I live my life intentionally as a priest of God, offering to Him my life and everything in it as a sacrifice? That’s what priests are called to do. Often, the priesthood of believers is wrongly stated in the church to mean, “Because everyone has access to God, therefore everyone in the church has a voice in how things are run.” That’s false. Just because someone has direct access to God does not mean they are in touch with God’s will and only His will is to be done in the church. I have direct dial access to everyone here through the phone in my house, but that doesn’t mean I have called you lately. Equal access to God does not mean equal intimacy or even equal familiarity with God. As one of my seminary profs. said, “being part of the priesthood of believers does not mean everyone in the church has a voice. The priesthood of believers means everyone has a job, a ministry, a service.” Are we living as priests of God? May God give us this persistent awareness of our identity as priests and may we faithfully, reverently and gratefully minister before him for His glory.
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