For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.
-- 1 Timothy 2: 5--6 (NSAB)
I've been contemplating the concept of priesthood recently. Part of that is because I've no longer been gathering with "brethren," but have been attending services in a liturgical church. I don't bring that up to rub salt into any wounds or anything, but to be open about it. I wanted to share some scattered thoughts about priesthood.
Like all protestants, I believe (or claim to believe) the "priesthood of all believers." That is, all Christians function as priests. This is honestly interpreted differently by different people: Baptists take "priesthood of all believers" to mean every Christian is responsible for the Scriptures: you need to read and understand the Bible for yourself. "Brethren" take that to mean there ought to be no clergy in the assembly: every Christian is (at least officially) on the same level, anyone in the assembly can preach or pray. Lutherans take it to mean anyone can pray, and you can confess sins directly to God. I suppose all those interpretations are correct, although whether they sum up the concept is debatable. I think there is more involved than that.
As far as I've been able to find, believers are only called priests in 1 Peter (chapter 2) and the Revelation (chapters 1, 5, and 20). Darby groups Hebrews 13:15 as another "priesthood" verse, but the word "priest" is not explicitly used in that passage (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 10, pp.209--212, "Who is a Priest and What is a Priest?"). I am convinced from 1 Peter that all believers are priests: there is no exception clause in 1 Peter that I can find. Hebrews, while not explicitly naming all believers as priests, certainly makes the point rather clearly that we are to function that way: we're called to worship in the Holiest, which is strictly a priestly function.
The first priest mentioned in Scripture is Melchisidec. He appears for just a few verses of Genesis 14, then disappears until Psalm 110. After that, the Scripture is once more silent about him until Hebrews, which he becomes central to the explanation of Christ's present ministry as our High Priest in Heaven. But the narrative of Melchisidec is instructive:
18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High.So Melchisidec, the proto-priest, does four things.
19He blessed him and said,
"Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
20And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand."
He gave him a tenth of all.
-- Genesis 14:18--20 (NSAB)
- he provides Abram with physical food (bread and wine),
- he blesses Abram,
- he blesses God Most High, and
- he receives a tithe from Abram.
It is significant, as Darby points out (see "The Melchisedec Priesthood of Christ", Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 2), that Melchisidec never makes an offering for sin. That is, where we tend to see priesthood as primarily one who offers sacrifice for sin, the original priest did not. He was a priest who stood between God and man and blessed them both. Aaron's priesthood consisted largely of sacrificing for sin: Melchisidec's apparently did not.
Christ, according to Hebrews, has acted in fulfilment of Aaron's priesthood, but His priesthood is "after the order of Melchisidec" (see Psalm 110, Hebrews 5:6). That is, His priesthood is of a greater, higher, and more permanent nature than Aaron's. Christ's offering for sin has happened once according to Scripture, "And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high," (Hebrews 1:3, NASB), "but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD" (Hebrews 10:12, NASB). There can never be another offering for sin. The very best that can possibly be offered has already been offered: there is nothing else to do, no other offering to make. But Christ's having offered Himself for us does not imply His priestly ministry is over: on the contrary, Hebrews makes a great deal of His acting as our High Priest to bring us to God.
Now, our having a Great High Priest means that we have constant, irrevocable access to God. We are certainly all priests, but that priesthood is practiced under the auspices of the Son of God, who is sitting at God's right hand. He welcomes us to come into Heaven, worshipping God there. We can come in as worshippers because He is there: His sacrifice has dealt with our sins permanently "By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Hebrews 10:10, NASB). His body was offered for us, His blood is our "new and living way" to come into God's presence. He represents us in Heaven, but the urging of Hebrews is not to be satisfied with that (as it were), but to actually go in there and worship ourselves.
Since we are priests of God, and since our Great High Priest is sitting at God's right hand, we have no need of another priest to stand between us and God. No one else can do a better job than the Son of God who became Man, we don't need anyone else's help to come into God's presence.
If I am brought to God, I do not want a priest: to go to Him for me. If the veil is rent, and I am told by God to enter into the holiest through that new and living way, I do not want another to go there because I cannot — another who could not go either if I cannot.That is, there is no need of a priest to stand between me and God. Or more accurately, there is already a perfect Priest who stands between me and God, and I don't need anyone else.
--J. N. Darby (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 10, pp.209--212, "Who is a Priest and What is a Priest?")
But having said all that, there is a sense where we act as priests for someone else. That is, we intercede for others. When we ask another Christian to pray for us, we are asking that person to be our priest. Priesthood is not (or ought not to be) limited to what happens in the gathering. It includes what we do throughout the week: in our daily lives, we are to stand before God for one another.
When someone in a "brethren" assembly stands and prays, he is acting as a priest for everyone sitting there. But if that is the sum of his priesthood, he is falling far short. He ought also to be bringing others to the Lord throughout the week, interceding on their behalf. Similarly, when a Baptist prays for her pastor, she is effectively acting as his priest, representing his interests to God. When the Anglican priest asks the congregation to pray for the bishop, he is asking them to be the priests for the bishop: representing the bishop's interests to God.
Again, this priesthood is practiced under the auspices of the Great High Priest in Heaven, but it is priesthood nonetheless.
There is another function of the priest under Levitical law: the priest is to eat the sacrifice on the altar.
Then the LORD spoke to Aaron, "Now behold, I Myself have given you charge of My offerings, even all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel I have given them to you as a portion and to your sons as a perpetual allotment.It is certainly true that we participate in the sacrifice of Christ by eating the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 10:15--18). But there is a sense where eat the sin offering for one another too. That is, when there is sin that has crept into the assembly (not formally, but in the sense that another believer has fallen into sin); part of our acting as priest for that believer is to eat the sin offering. We stand in place of that believer and intercede for him or her with God, but we also eat of the sin offering. That means, we are affected by their sin: we can be dirtied by it, but we can also come into a sense of fellowship with their forgiveness.
"This shall be yours from the most holy gifts reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, even every grain offering and every sin offering and every guilt offering, which they shall render to Me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons.
"As the most holy gifts you shall eat it; every male shall eat it. It shall be holy to you.
"This also is yours, the offering of their gift, even all the wave offerings of the sons of Israel; I have given them to you and to your sons and daughters with you as a perpetual allotment. Everyone of your household who is clean may eat it.
-- Numbers 18:8--11 (NASB)
We can't offer sacrifices for sins: there is no more sacrifice since Christ has offered "once for all time." But there is still eating from the altar: this is partly to feed us (John 6), but it's also an expression of fellowship, of communion. And that's not only fellowship in a "good" sense, but in a "bad" sense too. There is the common responsibility and care for one another: the responsibility we have to one another as fellow-members of the household of faith.
As I've been contemplating the role of believers as priests, I've been struck that all the priesthood I need comes from the Great High Priest in Heaven: the Son of God is there to represent me and my interests to God. But there is any number of other priests, functioning as His under-priests, who are my priests too. Every Christian who prays for me, who takes my name to God, is acting as my priest. My wife and children pray for me, my family and friends, even people I've never met act as my priests when they get on their knees and pray to God for me after reading my blog. They can't act independently of the High Priest: Eleazar and Ithamar were priests under Aaron. All my priests are priests under Christ. But priests they are, and they take my interests to God.