Brothers, everyone is part of the priesthood

I am so thankful for a handful of authors and theologians who ministered to me, through no knowledge of their own, at the beginning stages of my career in Biblical Archaeology. One such author was John Piper, who’s short essays in Brothers, We are not Professionals both challenged and encouraged me as I began my studies. Chapters like “Brothers, Bitzer was a Banker” and “Brothers, Show Your People Why God Inspired Hard Texts” would inspire me when I wasn’t sure all this cultural backgrounds data was even relevant to the core of faith and ministry. May Piper be blessed for the good this book will do for countless seminarians as they begin their pastoral careers.

That being said I would like to add my own reminder to the Christian pastorate:

While we may not be professionals, Brothers, everyone is part of the priesthood.

From the beginning of God’s interaction with the nation of Israel he meant for its people to be a collection of priests. Indeed, in the first reference to Israel as a kingdom, God, at Sinai, calls Israel a “kingdom of Priests” (Exodus 19:6). This was radical for the ancient world.

This sign lies on the northern plateau of Tel Shiloh and possibly marks the location of the semi-permanent tabernacle during the time of Eli, Hannah, and Samuel.

Sometime after the Israelites had settled the land of Canaan, priestly activity centralized around the semi-permanent sanctuary located on the northern edge of  Tel Shiloh. It is here that Eli failed to recognize Hannah, and it is here that Samuel began and fulfilled his priestly training.

In the ancient world, priests mediated between the realm of the divine and humanity. Elsewhere in the ancient Near-East the role of the high priest became conflated with that of the King. The King became the primary mediator between the gods and the people to the point that the king himself became deified.

This was not the case for Israel, a kingdom of priests. The Israelites didn’t need a divine-king to speak on their behalf to God; they were all responsible, individually, as well as collectively, for ensuring a proper relationship with God. What’s more, as a kingdom of priests, they were charged, individually and collectively, with mediating God’s revelation to the other nations, a foreign policy issue normally reserved for kings in the ancient near-east.

In practice, the Israelite priesthood was made up of specific individuals (Aaronic priests, Levites, and Nazarenes) who were given specific authority to deal with the day to day functions of the temples and sanctuaries. By the time Israel had established a state in the land of Canaan, the priesthood was the primary bankers, tax collectors, and assessors of the entirety of that which Yahweh had granted to the nation of Israel. In this capacity, the priesthood ensured that the state properly used and thanked God for the blessings of land and livelihood. In order to do this, priests were required to:

  • Teach the people in the proper stewardship of the land to the benefit of God and the state
  • “Certify” the ritual purity of individuals and households entering the temple
  • Process and collect sacrifices at the temple for the proper recognition of God’s blessing
  • Redistribute goods from the temple among the state’s dependents

We must always remember however, that an elect priesthood was the practice. The ideal, set up at Sinai, was for every Israelite to be a priest, able to discern ritual purity and maintain proper thankful offering to Yahweh.

Christians also came under the charge of becoming a kingdom of Priests,” once they were “grafted in” to the people of Israel. Indeed, Peter in his letter to the churches of turkey writes, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5 ESV). He later calls the group of faithful followers “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV)

Your pastor is a priest, I am a priest, that other person in your small group is a priest, you are a priest;  and that has a number of very important implications for the church today:

1. You are your own mediator with God

 Being a priest is an empowered position. By making Israel a kingdom of priests, Yahweh empowered individuals to be both good stewards of his blessing and be capable of determining the ritual purity of their own sacrifices. The implication is that if we are all priests we are all responsible for our own relationship with God. The king can’t mediate for you, your pastor can’t mediate for you, your family can’t mediate for you, and your church can’t mediate for you.

2. There is no “lay person,” or “lay body.”

If Pastors are not “professionals” and everyone is a priest then we should not talk of lay persons or the lay body. Instead, we are all called to be as equipped as possible, to study, discuss and teach the story of God’s redemptive history. Pastors, likewise, would do well to remember that their congregations may be equipped as part of the priesthood. The episode between Hannah and Eli in 1 Samuels 1-2 is a perfect example of this. Consider the irony of Eli, the priest, calling Hannah a drunkard, when he is in fact the one stumbling along unable to discern the purity of Hannah’s intent. The fact that he attempts to remove Hannah from the temple court when in fact his own sons should be removed further emphasizes this irony. Eli is no priest and his household suffers for it; on the other hand Hannah’s role in the priesthood is endorsed as she is blessed with a son, Samuel.

3. We are not spectators

All too often, Christianity has become a spectator sport. By not considering ourselves priests we leave a lot of activity up to those who we have elected to be priests. But, a kingdom of priests is a collection of active individuals, making offerings, redistributing goods, assessing the state of the individual, household, family and community, serving where necessary and being representatives of God. This means that it is not enough to allow your particular pastor, minister or priest to do the heavy lifting for you; we must all be equipped to represent God to the “ends of the earth”

4. You have a responsibility with high standards

As a kingdom of priests, charged with mediating between God and the nations, God held Israel to a higher standard throughout the course of redemptive history. When Israel failed to live up to this standard, when Yahweh no longer felt he was being properly represented to the nations it was ruinous for the Israelites and their kings. As part of the “royal priesthood” we need to recognize our responsibility to represent God well, either in missions or in daily life.

Join the discussion below: What are some of the practical ways we can become a kingdom of priests?

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