The Priesthood of All Believers

“On the 1st of March, 1546, a scaffold was erected before the Castle of Saint Andrew in Scotland and foggots of dried wood were piled around it…When all was ready two deathsmen brought George Wishart from his prison…He knelt down and prayed before the pile; then exhorted the people to love the word of God and to suffer patiently…as he was tied to the stake he announced, “for the true Gospel which was given to me by the grace of God, I suffer this day by men, not sorrowfully, but with a glad heart and mind.” (1) Devout men of a bygone era were not characterized by the doctrinal indifference that ofttimes plagues the present generation. These men were willing to suffer greatly, indeed, and even die for the truths of the Word of God. The conviction and cry of their hearts concerning biblical truth was—“for this will I die.” One of the great doctrines for which great men of God died was the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer. This doctrine set forth the truth that every believer, by virtue of the death of Christ, has access into the holy presence of God to offer up spiritual sacrifices of worship unto God. This doctrine was a foundational truth of the Reformation, standing side by side with solo fide (salvation by faith alone), solo scriptura (scripture alone), and solo gratis (salvation through grace alone). These Reformers spoke loudly and boldly concerning this truth. Martin Luther (1483-1543), that intrepid warrior, was one who outshone other Reformers in the proclamation and the defense of this important doctrine. In a time when the majority of Christendom opposed the priesthood of all believers, Martin Luther stood as an impregnable fortress. When his very life and livelihood were threatened for the truth of God”s Word, he remained steadfast. When the scholars of the day argued that only a trained class of ordained clergy were permitted to serve God as priests, he stood unmoved upon the bedrock of Scripture. He declared that the Scriptures stated that, “All Christians are altogether priests, and let it be anathema to assert there is any other priest than he who is Christian; for it will be asserted without the Word of God, on no authority but the sayings of men, or the antiquity of custom, or the multitude of those that think so.” (2) Ready weapons in their defense of truth were the words of the apostle Peter and other New Testament writers.

God”s Divine Plan of Priesthood

The apostle Peter was uniquely chosen by God to set forth the New Testament charter for the priesthood of the believer. He explained, “You…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”; and later , “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood…that you should show forth the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9). In the New Testament every believer, regardless of scriptural knowledge or area of service, stands as a priest, divinely appointed, to offer spiritual sacrifices unto God. Every believer has the privilege of access into the presence of God by virtue of the death of Christ. However, to better understand the New Testament”s teaching on the believer-priesthood, we must go back to the Old Testament where God”s plan for a spiritual priesthood began with Israel. In the beginning, Israel was formed by God to be a priestly nation; the entire nation of Israel was called a “kingdom of priests” at Sinai (Ex. 19:6). But because of her spiritual failure, God set aside her national priesthood and raised up a special limited number of priests that would represent the nation before Him. The Aaronic priesthood continued to fulfill priestly duties for generations until the death of Christ, who offered Himself as the fulfillment of all Levitical sacrifices. But during this present age the Aaronic priesthood has been set aside and the church has been appointed to function as God”s priestly people. However, in future day Israel will once again function as a priestly nation (Isa. 61:6, 66:21).

The Priesthood Defined

Despite the fact that the word “priest” is the most frequently used title today to refer to religious leaders, much confusion still remains concerning the role of the priest. What is a biblical “priest”? The basic term for priest in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word Cohen. The root meaning of this word is “to stand”; and therefore, this word indicates that a priest is one who stands before God and serves. The Greek word for priest in the New Testament is Hiereus . This word means “one who offers sacrifice”. So included in both the Old and New Testament words for priest, is the idea that a priest is one who stands before God to offer sacrifices and to serve. In the Old Testament the sacrifices consisted of the ritual offering of animals to cover the guilt of sin; but in the New Testament, believers offer the spiritual sacrifices of praise, worship, and service. W. E. Vine, the respected Greek language authority, writes, “Hierateuma denotes a priesthood, a body of priests, consisting of all believers, the whole church, called “a holy priesthood”; this term is associated with offering spiritual sacrifices. The “royal priesthood” speaks of the royal dignity of showing forth the Lord”s excellencies.”” (3) However, associated with a detailed and doctrinal understanding of the “priesthood”, comes spiritual responsibility. Therefore, Christians have the holy charge to take up the duties and privileges of New Testament priesthood with great seriousness.

The Responsiblities of Believer Priests

God”s high and holy plan that every believer would be also a priest unto God was never fully realized in the Old Testament. It would have to wait until the days of the New Testament dispensation to be more fully set forth and enjoyed by believers. But within a very short period of time, ritualism and clerisy had so dominated the teaching of the New Testament church that the truth and practice of the believer”s priesthood had all but disappeared. Ignatius of Antioch (110AD), and other early church leaders vigorously taught that the authority of a single bishop was paramount. The early leaders love for power was so great that even a baptism or agape meal could not be conducted without their presence and authority. Thus the joyous praise and contagious worship of the believer priests was soon quieted. This theological error cast a thick, dark fog over true biblical worship. Sadly, this silence in collective worship continued for hundreds of years, until the light of truth began to shine again first in Germany, and then in greater Europe. However, even then the truth of the believer”s priesthood was still not fully revealed. Yes, believers had learned that they did not need a priest as a mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). Yes, Reformation Christians were taught that every believer was a believer priest unto God. They were also taught that, contained in the “royal” priestly duties was service to the world in the proclamation of the gospel. But still, the truth of collective worship as believer priests was suppressed. Church leaders still maintained that only a special class of priests could publicly offer worship. The church was still silenced before God. Unfortunately, this is not at all what God had originally intended. New Testament priestly worship is not only individual and personal, but also public and collective in the life of the gathered church. William MacDonald writes: “This sacrifice of praise should be both individual and collective. The latter—collective worship—in which believers are at liberty to take part in public praise, has been practically eliminated by the stereotyped, controlled services of our day. The result is a generation of dumb (non-functioning) priests—a state of affairs nowhere contemplated in the Scriptures.” (4) Christians should never take lightly the preciousness of this doctrine to the heart of God, nor its great personal cost to Christians throughout history. Unforturately, there are many well-meaning churches which still suppress the liberty and heart-felt worship of multitudes of believer-priests. It is still a small special class that lead in worship and prayer while large numbers of believer-priests sit silently. Nevertheless the simply beauty of priestly worship is still practiced, often by small groups of Christians in far-flung corners of the world.

Simplicity of the New Testament Believer Priesthood

The priestly worship of ancient Israel was characterized by elaborate ritual, dress, and ceremony. The Jewish priests were obligated to wear designated headdress, outer garments, and undergarments. There were special days for worship, there were ritual laws for worship, and there was a designated place for worship. How different and how simple is the worship of believer priests in the New Testament! There are no vestments, no holy days, no one central geographic place for worship, no ritual laws, no special class of priests. However, this worship is no less beautiful and no less affecting to the heart of God. From the earliest days of the first believers in the book of Acts up to the present day, believers have enjoyed collective worship in utmost simplicity. T. E. Wilson (1902-1996), drawing from his experiences as a missionary in central Africa, describes the simple beauty of New Testament believer-priesthood. He labored eight years in the Chitutu region of Angola before he saw the first fruits of his gospel labor—three Chokwe young men came to a saving knowledge of Christ and were baptized. Immediately, after the baptism of these young men, it was the desire of those who were gathered for the baptism to remember the Lord in the breaking of the bread. The wine for the occasion was purchased from a Portuguese trader in a settlement about five miles away; the bread was baked in a hole in the earth lined with hot ashes. The meeting room was a simple open-air wooden shed with a grass roof and a bare dirt floor. At the first breaking of bread seven gathered together to remember the Lord, four white missionaries and three Africans. At this simple service, the newly saved and veteran believer-priests offered their hymns of praise and their prayers of worship in both the Chokwe and Songo languages. Despite these inconveniences, in those early times of remembering the Lord in the breaking of the bread, the Lord”s presence was very real and most precious. (5) May we resist the conventions of popular Christianity and stand for the truth of the believer-priesthood which was framed in the eternal counsels of God and purchased through our Lord”s death upon the cross. May a new generation of Christians be raised up who might join with Martin Luther and the early Chokwe Christians in saying—Upon this truth will I stand as an immovable rock.

(1) Andrew Miller, Miller’s Church History, (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1986), p. 998
(2) William Hoste, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, (Scotland: John Ritchie, 1988), p. 67
(3) W. E. Vine, Dictionary of New Testament Words, (Old Tappan, NJ : Revell, 1980), p. 212
(4) William MacDonald, Christ Loved the Church, (Kansas City, KS: Walterick, 1956), p. 58
(5) T. E. Wilson, Angola Beloved, (Neptune, NJ : Loizeaux Brothers, 1967), p. 157