By Robert F. Turner
Church scholars generally agree that the nature of the church began to change very early in its history, and that this change was directly related to the development of a bishopric system. This soon became more than a change in church government. It resurrected the essence of the priestly system of Judaism and put an elevated class of brethren (the priests) between the “lay” member and God. This ruling class became “the church”; so that by them “the church” acted, authorized, approved or forbade. “The Church” (the priesthood) controlled the sacraments (“channels of grace”); and became the only means by which salvation may be obtained (cf. Catholic Encyclopedia). It is not surprising therefore, that in the very early efforts of the Protestant reformers the priestly system was much discussed, and the “priesthood of believers” became a rallying cry. The sufficiency of the Scriptures, the importance of one’s conscience, and Jesus Christ as sole mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5) – all are violated by a priesthood (or “church”) that officially interprets, and though whom the “laity” must approach God. When the reformers declared that all saints are “priests” with all rights pertaining thereto, they were hitting at the very heart of the apostate church. Today we are so far removed from the essential elements of this ancient conflict that its principles seem poorly understood, and seldom evoked. So, we study “priesthood.”
Vine says a priest is “one who offers sacrifice and has charge of things pertaining thereto.” Westcott goes deeper, saying man’s consciousness of sin, variously realized, hinders his approach to God (the unseen power), and promotes a shrinking from it. He seeks harmony with God, and “the provision of this access is the work of the priest.” From very early times heads of families served as priests with God’s approval. We have examples in Israel’s patriarchs: Abraham (Gen. 12:8), Isaac (26:25), and Jacob (35:1). But there were others also: Noah (Gen. 7:20), Melchizedek (14:18), Job (Job 1:5), and Jethro (Ex. 18:1,10-12). Even in pagan societies, perhaps by degeneration from the original concept, there has been the shaman, “medicine man,” or guardian of an oracular shrine. These mediate and serve at an altar on behalf of others.
Just prior to the giving ot the Law, and before the Aaronic priesthood was established, God said Israel should be unto him “a kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:6). This seems related to an earlier command: “Sanctify unto me all the first-born” (Exod. 13:2). However, later, when the Levites were set apart, it was “instead of all the first-born” (Num. 3:12,41; cf. 8:15-18). The Israelites were so filled with fear at the giving of the Law that they asked for a mediator between them and God (Deut. 5:23-27), and some scholars suggest Israel forfeited its general priesthood by rebellion and lack of faith. Whatever the case, we know the Aaronic priesthood was established to represent the people of Israel before God and their access to God was via these priests. But messianic prophecies foretold a more general priesthood (Isa. 61:1-6) and suggested that men of other nations would be taken “for priests and for Levites” (Isa. 66:18-21).
In the New Testament the language of Exodus 19 is applied to Christians. We are “a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ . . . an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:5,9). This better priesthood is both royal and holy for Christ our High Priest is both King and Priest, after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7). John says Christ “has made us kings and priests” (Rev. 1:6; 5:10, KJV), or “a kingdom and priests” (ASV). Paul writes: “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service” (Rom. 12:1, AS). Clearly, “a kingdom of priests” finds its realization in spiritual Israel.
The Hebrews writer tells us the figurative nature of the Aaronic priesthood is replaced by the real thing, and explains that Christ entered not into the holy place made with hands “but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:9,24). He concludes that we should have boldness to “enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus” or “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” being sanctified by his blood (10:19f). We may “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (4:15f). Christ made possible a direct relationship between each saint and his God. No “priestly order,” no “church” stands between the child of God and his Father. He is a priest, and his prayers and service go directly to heaven’s throne.
Now, what are the consequences of this direct priestly relationship which true saints have with God through Jesus Christ? It does not negate their obligation to one another – to assemble, work and worship together, to show concern for one another, and to function collectively in a local church. Rather, it negates the institutional concept of “church” and emphasizes our individual responsibility to the Lord. There can be no proxy worship or service. Each saint (priest) is obligated to “offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually … to do good and communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13:15-16). Understood and practiced, this would erase the “audience” concept of “attending church,” and make us a vibrant serving priesthood.
If all are priests this eliminates clergy-laity distinctions. There can be no hierarchy in the church for “one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:8). All members, even preachers, are brethren, and neither “Brother” nor “Reverend” are preacher titles. Scriptural overseers and deacons have different tasks to perform, and should be esteemed “for their work’s sake” (1 Thess. 5:13), not for rank that puts one over another (Matt. 20:25-28). All priests can baptize, serve the Lord’s Supper, teach, etc., dictated only by work abilities and orderly arrangement (1 Cor. 14:40), and not as official “administrators.” Neither “the church” nor some special bishopric system is needed to authorize or validate our worship – as taught by Roman Catholicism. Little wonder the “priesthood of believers” was a critical issue in Reformation history.
That same Reformation history, records shameful perversions of this principle: by civil authorities, as they escaped “church” control, and by peasants who rebelled against authority in general. Today some use individual equality to deny scriptural oversight, orderly worship, even the local church itself, but such selfish abuses must not cause us to compromise this all important fundamental. Divine control and priesthood are fully compatible, and should result in more dedicated service according to God’s pattern. The priestly types of Judaism were strictly regulated and “no man . . . that hath a blemish shall come nigh to offer the offerings of Jehovah” (Lev. 21:21). Shall we of the antitype be less concerned about purity and the responsibility this places upon us?
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 24, pp. 741, 753
December 21, 1989