The function of priest has existed as long as man has been a sinner. It was actually sanctioned to mitigate the grievous complications sin introduced. Although the term, in the Bible, first springs to our attention in Genesis 14:18 in connection with Melchizedek, the ministry predates his appearance. The very first acts of worship by the first children of the first man were priestly in nature. Thereafter heads of families such as Noah, Abraham, Job, and Jacob carried out priestly functions on behalf of their families. These were, however, not institutional acts. They were local, private and spontaneous aspirations to reach God by the God-fearing. The institutional form only emerged when the people of God coalesced into a religious institution and political entity; a nation-church under Aaron and Moses.

Prior to Aaron’s, other priesthoods existed. The earliest known institution of priests in history is that of the Egyptian priestly order, which thrived as early as 3500 BC, about 1,500 years before Melchizedek’s.

A priest is a religious figure whose primary function is to reconcile the offended God with man. The term literally denotes officiating. This implies a ceremonial activity vicariously performed. The four parties central to priestly activity are: (1) the sinner, (2) the priest, (3) the sacrifice, and (4) God. The priest, therefore, officially represents humans in presenting sacrifices to God. Hebrews 5:1 captures this cutely: “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”

The priest is a middle person, a mediator, and an intercessor. The sacrifices he offers vary according to divine prescription. They are meant to atone for sin, to secure the placation of God. In all their diversity, sacrifices symbolise the perfect sacrifice, Christ Jesus, the Son of God.

Generic priesthood

Reading the Old Testament, one gets the impression that the priesthood was an exclusive club only entered by scrupulous genetic connection. Outside the family of Aaron, hope to enter the priesthood was non-existent. Retention of the office was by observance of the highest levels of purity and piety.

The New Testament offers a radically different proposition. All believers in the Lord Jesus are inaugurated into this exalted office of priest. Their conversion enters them into this status. The anointing of the Spirit inducts them. This is succinctly stated by Peter, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellences of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9 ESV).

Misconceptions of generic priesthood

Does generic priesthood imply absolute uniformity in functions and total equality in authority? On the surface it may seem so. But this is not the case. Let me explain how:

  1. Generic priesthood does not negate the necessity of leadership

Equality in priestly status can coexist with a biblical leadership structure. The same Lord that declares us priests requires us to ordain elders and to submit to their rule. In any case, Levitical priests had a modest hierarchy headed by the high priest under whose oversight they served, besides the civic headship of Moses. Elders are the New Testament church leaders. All generic priests function under their rule. Any priesthood notions that negate leadership defy biblical teaching.

  1. Generic priesthood does not negate the place of the pastoral ministry

Among the priests of old, some like Jeremiah were prophets and others like Ezra were scribes. Dual portfolios should be perfectly normal. Similarly, in the New Testament church some of the priests are pastors, the overall leaders. In trying to employ the generic priesthood principle, some churches have banished the pastoral office, viewing it as a violation of the principle. Yet the man who said Christ has “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6 ESV), was at the same time an apostle, an elder, (2 John 1:1) and a generic priest. The pastoral office and the priesthood do not mutually exclude each other.

  1. Generic priesthood does not negate spiritual gifts and specialisation

In the church, the Lord has given spiritual gifts by which nourishing grace will be supplied to the believers until they attain the fullness of Christ. These gifts are from God (Eph. 4:7-13) to all believers (1 Cor. 12:11), or to all priests. A sound church must, therefore, defer to gifted persons to play their necessary roles during formal worship. Since not all are gifted to teach, preach, sing, lead, etc., not all must be allowed to do so, if edification is to be achieved. Where consideration blindly stilts towards fair play, inclusiveness, universal appeasement, and equality, the Spirit will soon be quenched and the souls of the saints famished after being driven to grouching. Mature, wise, bold leadership should be able to happily involve all believers, but in their respective roles of gifting and competence. The priesthood of all believers does not mean the saints are gift-less.

  1. Generic priesthood does not negate division of roles

In the church are roles based on competence (1 Tim. 5:17), maturity (Gal. 6:1), age (1 Tim. 5:1), gender (men/women: 1 Tim. 2:8-15; women: Tit. 2:3, 4), relationship (1Tim. 5:4, 8), etc. There is absolutely no discrimination, favouritism, or even cultural bias in the criteria used to select these roles. It is a derivative of divine wisdom and sovereignty. A sensible church must, therefore, not overplay the priesthood of all believers to a point where scriptural role-sensitivities are overthrown.

Let us remember that this is generic priesthood. Not being exclusive, it demands no specialised roles. All believers play the same priestly roles. And the priestly ministry is not exhaustive of all church ministries. This means that other non-priestly functions must be played by selected capable individuals.

Essence of generic priesthood

To appreciate the essence of generic priesthood, we must first recall the precise functions of the Levitical priestly ministry. The priest was principally engaged in two activities: offering sacrifices in the temple (Heb. 8:3) and teaching the people the law of God outside temple seasons (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 33:10). In a nutshell, it was about worship and service.

Under the notion of a shared priesthood, every believer can serve in the “temple,” which is the church of our Lord Jesus. In other words:

  1. All believers have direct access to God in prayer, on their own behalf and on behalf of others, without recourse to a professional priest.
  2. All believers have the privilege of ministering to other saints according to:
  • The office God calls them to, i.e. either as elder or deacon.
  • Their spiritual gifts and talents granted to them.
  • The roles assigned to them by the church.
  • The providential opportunities availed to them in the family, community, and church.

The practice of generic priesthood

The New Testament notion of offerings or sacrifices evolves from, although it differs from, the Levitical in the Old Testament. All the sacrifices of old (burnt offering, meal offering, sin offering, trespass offering, and peace offering) typified the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. With Christ’s atoning sacrifice offered, God is fully satisfied. Sin is fully atoned for and reconciliation of the sinner to God, through faith and repentance, is complete.

Does this therefore mean that the business of sacrificing is obsolete? With respect to dealing with sin, of course it is definitively done with. But with regard to worshiping and serving God, it has just begun. Therefore, the priestly sacrifices God expects of his sons and daughters now are not propitiatory or expiatory. They are acts of appreciative and celebratory worship. They are confirmatory of the faith. All are based on Christ’s sacrifice and are offered through him and for his glory. And they are pretty diverse in their kind.

  1. Body sanctity

As believers keep themselves from sins of the body, for Christ’s sake, they offer their bodies as a pleasing sacrifice to God. Body sins include: all forms of sexual immorality, sensual dressing, body filth, poor diet, poor health care, laziness, all body harm. This also means subduing our stubborn bodies to God’s use and service. Christians must recognise that their bodies are the temple of the Spirit in which spiritual sacrifices are to be offered (1 Cor. 6:19). The exhortation is “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). It is such wholesome bodies that are “living” (not dead) sacrifices. The starting point, however, is offering God a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17).

  1. Praising God

Of all creatures, the believer is most obliged to praise God. The greatness of the gift of salvation demands nothing less. Thanks, rather than grumbling, must resound at meal times, bed time, indeed at all times, for everything in all circumstances. Prayers must abound with thanks, and not mere petitions. Worship in song in the house of God must never be dull and uninspiring or lacking in lawful creativity whatever the singing culture of a people. How can this be? Well, I am sure we now appreciate the line “angels help us to adore him, you behold him face to face!” in the song “Praise my soul the King of heaven.” God deserves passionate, delightful praise. He requires it too: “Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name” (Heb. 13:15).

The language of sacrifice implies cost and loss. Worship that costs us nothing or little is not fit to be offered to God. Part of this cost may be loss of energy. Another may be praising God even when ill-disposed to on account of failure, pain, disappointment, tragedy, or loss, aware that he does all things well. Such praise powerfully magnifies his greatness and sovereignty.

  1. Proclamation

Proclaiming the triumphs of God’s grace is pivotal to the work of a priest. The world must know God, his word and his purposes. To announce this is part of every priest’s duty: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellences of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). This is a call to vigorously advertise the glories of salvation. Every priest must be under oath not to leave this world without family members, friends, schoolmates, workmates, neighbours, and all accessible strangers hearing the greatest news of salvation from sin and co-dwelling with God in glory, through Christ.

Roman Catholic friends should be lovingly helped to see that all their priests were declared redundant by Christ’s priesthood 2000 years ago and that their sins remain with them if still atoned by the sacramental sacrifices of redundant priests. May the privilege of being priests, leading the lost to Christ, enamour us as it did Paul, who declared: I am “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16).

  1. Christian care

Because God loved us, our reasonable duty is to love his people. This is how we confirm our love for God. The obligation is, therefore, ours not to incubate grudges, bitterness, cold vengeful hearts against any of our brothers or sisters, and any other people. We must strive to be at peace with everyone. Love positively expresses itself in practical good deeds and generosity. Paul described the material gift he received as a delightful spiritual offering: “…having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18).

None of the human needs that God opens our eyes to see must be allowed to go begging, as long as we have even the modest means to meet them. So important are good deeds that God esteems them acts of worship he delights in: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:6). Whoever professes to be a Christian but is without regular good deeds embraces a pseudo Christianity.

  1. Love for God

Of all Christian duties, love for God is the most important. It exceeds the value of all offerings: “To love [God] with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). We love God when we obey his commands and devote ourselves heartily to his service. Authentic love for his people uniquely affirms love for God (1 John 4:12, 20).

Conclusion

  1. To be called a priest in God’s house is to share in a most valuable privilege. Priests were deemed God’s closest friends, for they alone entered His presence, without risking destruction. But this comes by God’s grace through faith in Christ Jesus.
  2. This is a privilege with enormous responsibilities. As priests, first all, believers ought to constantly be bringing their fellow church members, name-by-name before God in prayer. Incessant intercession must characterise their lives. Second, the teaching role must be carried out vigorously. Priests have always been teachers of God’s word. All must, therefore, be keen students of the word. All must be in the routine of teaching some needy saint on a discipleship basis. Parents have their children to teach; the older have the younger; the mature, the novices; and novices, the unconverted. All must be ready to declare the truth to non-believers and erring believers. Third, all priestly service must be backed by a life of absolute purity, with enduring hearty praise and tangible love. This is achievable through God’s enabling Spirit and prayer. What a privilege to worship God through these bloodless sacrifices!
  3. The honour of being God’s priests is not exhausted until its eschatological dimension is realised. “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:6). Maranatha!