The concept expressed by the noun priest is a dual one for it answers to the urge of the human heart, and to the divine provision made to meet that urge. Men who by sin broke relationship with God, being conscious of God, out of this inherent consciousness, seek after God, “if haply they might feel after Him” (Acts 17:27). God in His grace provides such a means of approach.
The Hebrew word for priest, “kohen,” suggests a mediator between God and man, one who represents each to the other. Hebrews 5:1-2 may be considered in this light as a definition of a priest. He is taken from among men in things pertaining to God … He is one who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way. A priest, therefore, has a ministry both Godward and manward. This is as true of the Christian priest as of the Jewish priest.
There are three important sections to this lesson on priesthood: biblical priesthood in general, the New Testament spiritual sanctuary, and the Christian priesthood.
Priesthood in General
God has placed in man an exclusive aspect of life that raises him far above the animal; He has given him a spirit, an eternal existence, and it is this that urges him to approach God, even although this may be in fear. Because of this inward urge there have been priests seeking after God among all peoples; pagan, Jewish, Christian, for the human heart is ever the same. Let us consider briefly the different aspects of priesthood that appear in the Word of God.
The antediluvian priest: From the fall to the deluge, it would seem that every man was a priest and had access to God. Cain acted as a priest, so also did Abel; both functioned in a priestly manner and offered before the Lord (Gen. 4:3-16), and by means of their sacrifices sought to approach God.
The patriarchal priest: In post-diluvian, patriarchal times, it appears that the head of each family became the priest for the household, and offered sacrifices to God and received revelations from God. This was true, not only among the fathers of Israel: Abraham (Gen. 12:7-9), Isaac (Gen. 26:24-25), and Jacob (Gen. 35:6-8); but of Noah (Gen. 8:20), Job (Job 1:4-5), Melchisedec (Gen. 14:18), and no doubt others. Job’s actions as recorded in chapter one of his Book provide an excellent illustration of the patriarchal priest.
A nation of priests (Ex. 19:1-6): One of the promises made to Israel under the terms of the Mosaic covenant was that if they as a nation would obey the Lord and keep His covenant, they would be a peculiar treasure, a kingdom of priests, an holy nation. We know that they broke God’s covenant, that they did not obey His voice, and that consequently they were not a kingdom of priests. Instead of each individual possessing the personal right of approach to and acceptance with God, each needed to come to God by an intercessor, an appointed priest, or remain at a distance.
The Aaronic priesthood (Ex. 28:1): Although nationally Israel failed, God in grace provided a priesthood for them; He chose Aaron of Levi and his family for this ministry. He clothed and fitted these to represent God to them as a nation, and to represent them as a nation to God. Although this office functioned for many centuries, the continuity of service was frequently interrupted by death (Heb. 7:23).
The priesthood of Christ (Heb. 8:1-6): A reference to the Aaronic priesthood naturally suggests the priesthood of Christ for it was a type of His present ministry for us.
Christ in His priestly capacity ministers both Godward and manward. Godward, He ministers in the true tabernacle which the Lord pitched and not man, and there offers gifts and sacrifices (Heb. 8:1-3). Manward, He appears in the presence of God for us (Heb. 9:24). Furthermore, He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Heb. 4:15).
The Christian priesthood: Chronologically the priesthood of all believers fits here, but we merely mention it now for we intend to deal with it more fully later.
The Millennial priesthood (Ezek. 44:15-31): That there will be a priesthood, a temple, and an offering of sacrifices during the millennial reign of Christ presents a grave problem in the minds of some of the Lord’s people. At least part of a solution to the difficulty may be found in two important facts. First: The priestly func- tions and sacrifices of the old dispensations were anticipatory; they were intimations of the first advent of our Lord, of His sufferings and death. The priestly functions and sacrifices during the future millennium will be commemorative; they will demonstrate that the Son of Man now reigning in glory does so because He suffered and died; that His kingship rests upon His redemption.
Second: The priesthood of the glorious millennium will be of the descendants of Zadok. Although Zadok was of the house of Aaron, he seems to have been chosen of the Lord to head a new phase of Israel’s priesthood. It is interesting to notice that in the immediate pre-Christian centuries, Israel’s priests were considered as the descendants of Zadok rather than of Aaron. History records that Antiochus Epiphanes “interfered with the legitimate priesthood of the Jews replacing the descendants of Zadok by Menelaus.”
Aaron was the head of that phase of priesthood that had to do with the wilderness. His priesthood actually began and ended in the wilderness (Ex. 28:1. Num. 20:23-29). Zadok began his priestly ministry during the victorious reign of David (I Chron. 24:3) and continued it during the magnificent reign of Solomon (I Chron. 29:22). A prince of the house of David will be enthroned ruler over the nation of Israel in her restoration and glory (Ezek. 37:25; 45:7), and a priest of the seed of Zadok will be her high priest (Ezek. 44:15). The nation with her king and priest will all be glorified in that day.
The Spiritual Temple
There are two detailed descriptions of the spiritual temple that God is raising today by His Holy Spirit. The one description shows the building under construction; the other shows it as complete.
The building under construction (Eph. 2:20-22): In order to carefully follow the logic of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, it is necessary to pay attention to his use of pronouns, particularly in the doctrinal section (the first three chapters). When he wrote, “We who first trusted in Christ” (1:12), he meant, we Jews. When he wrote, “In whom ye also trusted, after ye heard the word of truth” (Eph. 1:13), he meant, ye Gentiles. In chapter two the Apostle presents the way in which God brought Jews and Gentiles together in one spiritual edifice. “And you (Gentiles) hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (V. 1). “Ye (Gentiles) who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ” (V. 13). “Ye (Gentiles) are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints” (V. 19). “In whom ye (Gentiles) also are builded together” (V. 22).
Let us now view the building in at least four different phases: First, the foundation and Corner-Stone. This spiritual edifice is “being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the Corner-Stone” (V. 21. N.T.). Second, the progress in construction: “In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth into an holy temple in the Lord” (V. 21). Third, the material used in construction: “In whom ye (Gentiles) also (that is, even as we Jews) are being builded together” (V. 22). Fourth, The future use of the building: “An habitation of God” (V. 22). This is the Church since Pentecost.
The building completed (I Pet. 2:1-9): Since the Christian priesthood requires a building in which to function, this building must be complete and ready for use. In one respect the Church is incomplete and awaits Eternity for its highest and fullest service; in another respect, she is complete and definitely has a present service. This latter is the picture given by Peter. At Caesarea Philippi, the Lord gave him the revelation of the true foundation of the Church (Matt. 16:17-18), and somewhere along the way, the Spirit of God gave him a revelation of the superstructure, and of the building in use. Three points suggest themselves for study: the architecture of the building, the material in the superstructure, and the use of the finished edifice.
Its architecture: There is a foundation of which the Lord Jesus is the Corner-Stone, the key stone. There is a superstructure upon the top of which there is a Cornice-Stone, the Head Stone of the corner, again, the Lord Jesus. Christ is the prominent stone in the foundation; He is also the supreme ornament of the Church. Christ is the First and the Last of all Church doctrine and of all Church history. He is the Alpha and the Omega in all Church affairs.
Its material: This is composed of living stones to which Christ as the Living Stone has imparted life, and has imparted even His preciousness (“To you therefore which believe is the preciousness” N.T.). This is a beau- tiful building for all the material is of similar quality-alive, precious.
Its use: Within this building, the Church beautiful, the Christian priesthood functions. This is the Church of God on earth at any given time.
The Christian Priesthood
Any consideration of the Christian priesthood requires a survey of its institution, extent, character, and purpose. All these are dealt with by the Holy Spirit in I Peter 2:1-10.
Its institution: It will readily be seen that verse nine is a quotation from Exodus 19:5-6. There the Lord promised to His ancient people that under the condition of obedience to the old covenant, Israel would become a kingdom of priests. This was not fulfilled to them because they did not comply with the condition, obedience. It seems so befitting that to Jewish believers whose ancestors had failed under law, Peter, by the Spirit of God, asserts that through grace on the terms of the New Covenant, God’s people today are a kingdom of priests, a personal possession, and an holy nation. They are these without any imposed condition because they have tasted, experienced, that the Lord is gracious (V. 3), and because they have obtained mercy (V. 10). The Christian priesthood is instituted because of, and it rest upon, the grace of God alone.
Its extent: Obviously, the Christian priesthood is coextensive with the holy nation, the chosen generation, and the people for a possession as these are mentioned in verse nine. It is therefore all-inclusive, embracing all the people of God in the dispensation of grace. Among these priests therefore there is no distinction relevant to position or order.
Its character: A careful reading of this passage (I Pet. 2:1-10) shows that the Christian priesthood appears under two aspects, the holy (V. 5) and the royal (V. 9). It is holy, set apart, sanctified and made sacred because “by one offering He (Christ) hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). It is royal because God not only saves men and women from ruin but elevates them and gives them a distinctive place in His presence.
Its purpose: The priesthood of all believers is holy because of its standing in Christ (Eph. 1:4; 5:27). As Aaron and his sons were set apart and consecrated by ceremony (Exod. 29:1-14), even so Christian priests are set apart to their office in Christ.
The purpose of the holy priesthood is to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God. Three such offerings might be mentioned: the offering of praise (Heb. 13:15. Psa. 50: 23; 141:2), the offering of possessions (Heb. 13:16. Phil. 4:18), and the offering of persons (Rom. 12:1. II Cor. 8:5). This is worship.
The purpose of the royal priesthood: Under the broken Mosaic Law there could not have been a royal priesthood. This is a matter that is exclusively Christian. Under the Law priesthood belonged to the tribe of Levi; whereas, royalty belonged to the tribe of Judah. Grace has brought kingship and priesthood together and invested these in the same person. The Church will praise the Lord in Heaven that He has made her “kings and priests,” and that she shall reign on the earth (Rev. 5: 10). What dignity and honour! God is saving men and making them priests in Christ, and elevating them to a place of authority and distinction in His presence.
The real purpose of the royal priesthood is to shew forth the praises, the excellencies, of Him who hath called us out of darkness into His marvellous light.
There might be here a delicate allusion to the Mount of Transfiguration. In II Peter 1:16-18, Peter makes a direct reference to the excellent glory seen on the Mount, here he writes about the marvellous light. By grace man is brought from darkness, ignorance, into the excellent glory, the marvellous light of the gospel; it is, therefore, his duty and privilege to shew forth the praises of the One who accomplished so much for him; and this by both character and conduct. Creation gives us a great example of this, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth His handiwork” (Psa. 19:1).
An apostolic priest: The Apostle Paul in his own language (Rom. 15:16) pictures himself as a royal and holy priest. A paraphrasing of this unusual passage may better elicit his true meaning: “That I should be the administrator of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, priestly ministering, as a royal priest, the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles as they are dedicated by me as an holy priest, may be acceptable to Him through the Holy Spirit.”
As Epaphroditus, according to Philippians 2:25, administered to Paul’s needs (The same word is used in both the Philippian and Roman passages), so Paul administered Christ to the needs of the Gentiles; and as Aaron offered the Levites before the Lord for an offering of the children of Israel (Num. 8:11), so the Apostle as an holy priest offered up his Gentile converts.
The ministry of the Christian priesthood is by the preaching of the gospel to bring men to Christ as Saviour, and to have them yield themselves as living sacrifices to God in His sovereignty.
May we, like the Psalmist who wrote, “I will extol Thee, O Lord, for Thou hast lifted me up” (Psa. 30:1), extol the Lord for He has made all believers members of a chosen generation, an elected spiritual race, the declared generation of the crucified Saviour (Isa. 53:8), the seed that shall serve Him (Psa. 22:30). Let us conduct ourselves in an honourable manner as an holy nation, a pure and sacred nation, gathered out from among all nations, separated to God alone. Let us ever rejoice that all Christians are a peculiar people, peculiarly God’s possession, for Christ gave Himself for us all, that He might redeem every one of us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a people for a possession (Titus 2:13-14).
Tests on This Chapter
1. What passage of Scripture gives us a description of a priest?
2. What is the double function of a priest?
3. How many phases of priesthood are found in the Old Testament, and how many in the New?
4. Name some of these phases.
5. How much of the Church is visualized in the spiritual temple now under construction?
6. What part of the Church is pictured by the complete building?
7. How extensive is the Christian priesthood?
8. Name the different aspects of the Christian priesthood.
9. Name the dual purpose of the priesthood of believers.
10. Which of all the apostles pictures himself as a priest?