What is the Priesthood of all Believers?
A penny for your thoughts: Why did God take Israel out of Egypt? God heard the cry of His people and sent Moses to bring them out of Egyptian bondage. Besides their obvious freedom from oppression, the question is why? (Hint: yes, this is all about the priesthood of all believers).
Most people would answer this question by saying, “God took His people out of Egypt to take them to the Promised Land”. But this is only half the story. The land of Promise was certainly a blessing God desired for His people, but the reason He delivered His people out of Egypt was to reveal Himself to them (Exodus 3:18). And Moses, having encountered God through the burning bush at Mount Sinai, was determined to march right back to that very spot so the people could encounter Him too!
Not yet convinced? Continue reading as we unlock this critical theme from Sinai to the Cross.
So, what’s the priesthood of all believers?
Over and over again, Moses told Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness’” (Exodus 5:1; 5:3; 7:16; 8:1, 8, 20, 25-28; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 24-26; 12:31). God delivered His people so that He could reveal Himself to them and to affirm His covenant with them – and as an added blessing, give them the land of Promise. This was similar to what He did in His revelation to Abram. Although He gave Abram numerous blessings, He reminded him: “I am … your exceedingly great reward” (Genesis 15:1).
After the ten plague blitz of Egypt, and several other Hollywood-type special effects thrown in the mix, an essential part of God’s intention to reveal Himself unfolds when He finally gets the people to Mount Sinai. This is powerful. First, God affirmed the people of Israel: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself” (Exodus 19:4). Then God unpacked His intentions for them: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me … And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5, 6). Wow!
God desired an entire nation of priests … “a kingdom of priests”! It was not His desire to have just one tribe of priests. Notice too that the Mosaic Law had not yet been given. God did not call them to essentially keep His commands (The spirit of the Law); He called them to keep His covenant (The Spirit of Love). This was God’s open-hearted invitation to all His people to embrace an essential, first-hand relationship with Him! He invited us all into a Divine dance.
How did they respond? In another display of glory and power – that would make Hollywood nasty with envy – God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai. Moses just got a burning bush; Israel got a blazing mountain! “Now all the people witnessed the thundering, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking…” (Exodus 20:18).
The people’s response? “And when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, ‘You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die’” (Exodus 20:18, 19). They misunderstood God and missed his invitation to a first-hand love-relationship. Their slave mentality could not compute a God of love. They mistook God’s demonstration of power as an expression of domination; they could not conceive that their Deliver desired to be their Lover. And they made the fatal mistake of every religion since: “you speak with us, and we will hear”. They settled for a mediated, second-hand relationship with God. They rejected God’s invitation to intimacy and settled for religion1.
Moses pleaded with them: “Do not fear; for God has come to test you and so that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20). In other words, Moses tried to explain that there was no reason to be afraid of their Deliver and Lover; only they needed to walk before Him with the appropriate godly reverence. The appeal fell on deaf ears: “the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near … where God was” (Exodus 20:21).
Did you catch the tragedy and horror of this moment? God delivered His people to bring them all – every single one of them – into a first-hand love-relationship with Himself, to make them a “kingdom of priests”. Instead they chose religion; they settled for a mediator between them and God, in essence: “Moses … you get it from God and we will get it from you”. It is our opinion that this sad attitude prevails within the modern church more than we care to admit: “Pastor … you get it from God and I’ll get it from you”.
In response to the peoples’ choice, God set up the Levitical priesthood as a sad, second-best option. But the great news is that God has His desire fulfilled … in you and me! Not at Mount Sinai … but at the cross! In John’s Revelation of Jesus, he catches a glimpse of the heavenly activity around the Throne of God. He witnesses the four living creatures – Jim Henson’s workshop would be proud – and the twenty-four elders worshipping Jesus, making this triumphant declaration: “You are worthy … For you were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God…” (Revelation 5:8-10). This phrase, “kings and priests” could be translated a “kingdom of priests” and is a direct reference to God’s expressed desire back in Exodus 19!
God’s ecclesia is a Kingdom priesthood of all believers.
Peter captured this theme so well too. He taught, using Old Testament language, that we “as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). He then, marvellously, declared: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The language is unmistakable … God’s desire expressed in Exodus 19:5, 6 is fulfilled in us!
What would you say is the purpose of a priest?
My guess is that nine out of ten people would incorrectly say, “The purpose of a priest is to minister to people”. From the expressions of God’s desire in the verses we have already looked at, it should be clear that this is not the purpose of the priesthood. But God did not give us the room to mistake Him on this matter.
When He set up the Levitical priesthood, He made it clear: “Now take Aaron your brother … that he may minister to Me as priest” (Exodus 28:1). The purpose of a priest is to minister to God first and foremost! And just in case Moses forgot, God reminded him again: “And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister to Me as priests” (Exodus 30:30).
The purpose of a priest is to minister to God and, of course, any true ministry to God overflows in ministry to others. The Old Testament priesthood was certainly involved in all kinds of ministry to people, but the point is obvious: the priesthood exists first and foremost to minister to God, not to serve as mediators between God and others. While God tolerated the second-hand, mediated relationship in the Old Covenant; He does not in the New Covenant, a covenant sealed by the blood of His Son: the one and only Mediator. “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
The New Testament priesthood understood this so well. One example leaps out from Chapter 13 of the Book of Acts. In the city of Antioch, the church “ministered to the Lord” and in so doing, encountered His Presence and received a clear apostolic mandate that would change the planet’s course forever: “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (vv. 1, 2). Powerful things happen when we, as His priesthood, minister to Him.
Also notice the jealousy of God. God has this distinct feeling that we belong to Him … completely! He ordained the priesthood to minister to Him; He set apart Barnabas and Saul to Himself … and even when Jesus called the twelve disciples, it was first, “that they might be with Him” (Mark 3:14). God is far more interested in us than what we can do for Him. We are not expendable pawns on His chessboard, sacrificed for the next check-mate move. We’re called to be “sons” for the “praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:3-6). Out of this essential, first-hand relationship with God He invites us to participate in His unfolding plan for mankind. Only in calling the disciples to Himself, did He then “send them out to preach” and do His work (Mark 3:14, 15). This is the divine order: worship then service.
The New Testament priesthood certainly did not wear dog-collars, depressing black garb and gloomy faces. Rather they ministered to God with great freedom and joy; knowing that, on the one hand, their consecrated lifestyles were a continual sacrifice bringing pleasure to God’s heart (Romans 12:1; Philippians 3:3). On the other hand, they knew that their thanksgiving, praise, prayer, fasting and celebratory worship was their New Testament “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5; also see Ephesians 5:18-21; Colossians 3:16, 17; Hebrews 13:15). Thus, in the way God always intended it: “A fire shall always be burning on the altar; it shall never go out” (Leviticus 6:12, 13).
So what are the core implications?
Firstly, there is no “special” priesthood or clergy in the New Testament; thus, there are no second-class believers in Christ. While we are all at different stages of maturity and while we all have different God-given gifts, every believer is a priest or minister to God. This means we are all invited to enjoy a first-hand relationship with God; we need no earthly mediator.
Secondly, from this essential relationship with Him, we are all called and gifted to minister to others: “as each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). Without the contribution of all we are notably weaker.
Not only is this a core value of the New Covenant, it is one of two reasons why the early church blazed a trail of love and freedom through the first century. God’s people shook their world because of His power (Acts 1:8) and His priesthood (Acts 8:1, 4).
As persecution lashed into the early church (Acts 8:1), it served to jumpstart the apostolic heart of God’s people. Jesus had promised: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Now that persecution had spoilt the early day fulfilment of this promise and crashed their party, “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).
However, an often overlooked incident needs to be spotlighted. Luke tells us that all these early believers left Jerusalem to carry the fire to the world, “except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). Except the apostles? Huh? Were they not the ones supposed to light up this invasion of fire into the known world?
Luke does not explain why they remained, only that they did. And this choice proved ingenious. It meant that the early church exploded into the known world on the priesthood of all believers, empowered by the Spirit of God. It was not a leadership directive … it was not controlled from the papal headquarters. The Great Commission had given them permission to go and had invited them to a life of adventure. The Head of the Church poured His life out through His body to reveal His glory to a destitute, thirsty world.
Once the fire of God had swept through the known world, the apostles – discovering their role – began to add the components necessary to facilitate the life that was already flowing. Only once the river was in full flow did they pick up their apostolic role to build the banks of spiritual leadership to channel this healing river to the nations (Ezekiel 47:1-12).
The ways in which we view leaders and believers today is often radically different from how the early church viewed them.
- The early church viewed believers as initiators, Spirit-led, active ministers. Today we too often view believers as followers, man-led, passive attendees.
- The early church viewed leaders as fathers, servants, resourcers and equippers who said, “Go, we will train you”. Today we too often view leaders as directors, visionaries, gatherers and ministers who say, “Come, we’ll minister to you”.
Thus, in the early church, God created life through believer-ministers; servant-leaders supported and channelled this Spirit-led initiative (Acts 8:5ff; 11:19ff). The result? A spontaneous, organic and often explosive flow of God’s life.
Leadership today, acting as minister-leaders, too often reinforces the idea of the clergy-laity divide by playing mediator, trying to create life and then attempting to envision believer-audiences to do what they initiate. The result? An unconscious, unintended lid is often placed on the people of God.
Too much of the modern church is overly dependent on leadership. While most people nod at the idea of the priesthood of all believers, too often in our practice it is not freely expressed. As a senior pastor myself, over a decade ago, I taught on the priesthood regularly but, if I’m honest, the message communicated went something like this: “every believer is a minister but ought to minister within the constraints of our organisational construct”. I didn’t realise I was, in a sense, clipping the bird’s wings even while teasing it with potential flight2.
I remember the moment of sober yet holy revelation when Father God healed my blindness.
The expectation many have of the “pastor” – that he be a man of prayer; that he know God’s Word; that he have sure sense of his calling; that he be a man of integrity; that he be led by the Spirit; blah, blah, blah – God desires of each one of us!
If we’re going to shake the twenty-first century we undoubtedly need God’s power, but we also need to see a fresh release of God’s priesthood.
1 The word “religion” means, one’s “system of beliefs” and, as such, is a neutral word. James actually uses the word in a positive sense in describing true faith (James 1:27). However, we use it here in a negative sense in reference to the tragic moment when we, so easily, turn our focus from the One in whom we believe to the system of beliefs itself.
2 Please see the article, How did your story begin? <The Story of Us> for our grateful origins into setting the bird free.