Descriptive Terms of Christians: Priests

By Mike Willis

In 1 Pet. 2:5,9, the apostle wrote, “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . you are a . . . royal priesthood.” Thus, in our consideration of descriptive terms of Christians, we need to consider the significance of being called a priest. Like the term saint, the term priest is not usually ascribed to all Christians; instead, it is usually reserved for a sacerdotal class in contrast to the laity.

Catholic Usage

In Catholic theology, a priest is a person, distinct from the ordinary Christian, who administers the sacraments and pronounces absolution. Here are some quotations that might be useful in clarifying the Catholic concept of a priest:

“The Church has a sacrifice; so she needs priests to offer that sacrifice. The Mass is a continuation of the sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ, the great High Priest on Calvary. . . . The Church must teach the Gospel of Christ to all men; so she needs priests to continue the preaching of the Master.

“The Church has the sacraments, Instruments of sanctity, the means of bringing the graces of Christ to all men. So she needs priests to administer these sacraments, to serve as agents of the Savior” (Monsignor J. D. Conway, Facts of the Faith, p. 236).

Despite the existence of this highly developed clergy system, the New Testament knows nothing of a clergy-laity distinction. Instead, Jesus condemned the wearing of special religious clothing to be seen of men and the usage of special titles (Mt. 23:5-10). There is absolutely no hint that a special class of Christians are needed to administer the Lord’s Supper nor that the Lord’s Supper is a continuation of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (cf. Heb. 7:26-27). Forgiveness of sins is not administered through any individual other than Christ.

One of the basic tenets of the Protestant Reformation was the priesthood of all believers. This principle asserts that every individual has direct access to God and, therefore, does not need to approach God through a priest because every individual Christian is himself a priest. The principle is amply supported by the Scriptures (see Rev. 1:6; 5:9-10; 20:6; 1 Pet. 2:5,9).

A Study of Priesthood

In the Patriarchal period, men were able to approach God directly (cf. Gen. 4; 6:20; etc.). There were also some priests who officiated in religious worship (e.g. Melchizedek, Gen. 14:18-24). With the giving of the Mosaical Law, God regulated the priesthood. The background from which the New Testament draws when discussing the priesthood is the background of the Levitical priesthood. Therefore, in considering the priesthood of the Christian, one needs to start with a background in the Mosaical Law.

The Mosaical Law said this regarding the Levitical priests: “They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they present the offerings by fire to the Lord, the bread of their God; so they shall be holy” (Lev. 21:6). The primary work of the priest was the work of offering worship to God. Before a person could offer worship, he had to meet certain requirements. (1) He had to be a desceadent of Levi (Num. 3:6). (2) He must have no physical defects (Lev. 21:7ff). (3) He must be married in accordance with special priestly requirements (Lev. 21:7-9,13-14). Providing that a person met these requirements, he could be consecrated to serve as a priest. A special ceremony set him apart to serve as a priest. In that ceremony, the priest came before the altar in full ceremonial attire. His head was annointed with oil,, A bull and a ram were offered to God. A second ram was slain; part of the blood from this second ram was smeared on the ear lobe of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot. After the consecration ceremony was completed, the Levite was qualified to serve as priest. However, if he later became unclean (e.g. through contact with a dead person), he was disqualified from serving God until he was again pronounced ceremonially clean.

The setting apart of the Levitical priest was necessary because of his function in the worship of Israel. The priest offered the worship to God. He was charged with taking,care of holy things, the tabernacle and all of its furniture.

The New Testament Priest

Every New Testament Christian is a priest; his primary function is, like that of the Levitical priest, to offer spiritual worship to God. The act which makes us a Christian sets us apart to serve God-it consecrates us as a priest to Him. Like the Levitical priest, we become “holy unto the Lord.” Even as the Levitical priest could become disqualified because of uncleanness, so might the priest today become disqualified to offer acceptable worship to God through uncleanness. The defilements which affect us today are the contaminations of sin (Mt. 15:17-20) and not ceremonial defilements. The man who is walking in darkness cannot offer spiritual worship to God; he must put aside his wickedness and seek the Lord’s forgiveness before he is qualified to offer worship again.

The main point of comparison between the Levitical priest and the priesthood of all believers is, not his consecration and defilement, the fact that both offered worship to God, Peter said that we are “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). Our sacrifices are different from those offered under the Mosaical system; we do not administer at the literal altar, burn incense, etc. He-e are some channels through which we can offer sacrifice to God:

(1) The fruit of our lips, “Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15). The fruit of our lips is called a sacrifice to God, Thus, whenever a Christian sings, prays, or teaches God’s word, he is offering to God a sacrifice of his lips.

(2) Good works. “And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:16). The good works which a Christian does are called a sacrifice to God. Everytime that we engage in an act of benevolence or some other good work, we are sacrificing to the Lord.

(3) Supporting a preacher. As Paul wrote concerning the financial support which lie had received from the congregation at Philippi, he said, “But I have received everything in full, and have ail abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (Phil. 4.18).

(4) Our living bodies. Paul said, “I urge you therefore, brethien, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom. 12:1). Thus, the entire life of a Chrisfian is a sacrifice to God; it is not a life lived to the fulfillment of every fleshly desire but one which is dedicated to pleasing God. Ours is a sacrifice which is not offered once for all, as was the nature of the slain animal, but a sacrifice which is offered day by day to His service.

(5) Our martyred bodies. Another type of sacrifice which a Christian is sometimes called upon to make is the sacrifice of his life because of his faith in Christ. Paul called this an act of sacrificial worship.

As he wrote from prison to the church at Philippi, he said, “But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all” (Phil. 2:17). Shortly before his death, he wrote to Timothy as follows: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith-, in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who love His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). As John witnessed the opening of the fifth seal, he saw “underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God” (Rev. 5:9). The picture of the souls under the altar emphasizes that their death was a sacrifice to God.


Perhaps there are other aspects relevant to our priesthood which should have been considered but these suffice to emphasize that, as New Testament priests, we are to be constantly engaged in offering spiritual sacrifice to God. Every Christian is a priest, therefore, every Christian must be engaged in these acts of worship. Are you offering the sacrifices to God which we have described above? If not, you are not a Christian!

Truth Magazine XX: 35, pp. 554-556
September 2, 1976