I grew up in southern Florida in the era BAC (before air conditioning). So, almost every summer we spent several weeks in the western North Carolina mountains. One of my favorite places that we frequently visited was called “The Old Rock Shop,” which was located along the highway west of Franklin, North Carolina, on the grounds of an abandoned ruby mine. One of the things one we liked to do was to buy a bucket of dirt from the old mine, take it to the stream, and pan for rubies.
One day, after unsuccessfully panning for rubies, I went into the gift shop. It was filled with rare rocks from all over the world. I noticed a bowl of small, polished stones on the counter. The sizes ranged from about one to three inches in diameter. They were so highly polished that a myriad of colors was clearly visible and incredibly beautiful.
I asked the old man behind the counter where these beautiful stones come from. He said, “We got them from the stream outside.” I didn’t want the old man to think I was some rube from Florida, so I quickly informed him that I had been in his stream and there were only ugly rocks there.
After several more questions, the old man gave up and took me to the back of the shop and showed me what he called a rock tumbler. It was a large cylindrical container set on electric rollers that turned the cylinder over and over.
He said that when he put the rocks in the tumbler and let it run for about a month, they came out like the rock on the counter. I did not quite believe him, and I asked if that was all he did. The old man laughed and said, “We do one more thing. We pour some special oil into the tumble with the rocks.” He laughed again and told me that one time he forgot the oil, and when we opened the tumbler, it was full of dust.
The Priesthood of All Believers
I have often thought there is no better illustration of what God does with us than a rock tumbler. God picks us out of the stream and changes our inward hearts, but we still look like ugly rocks. Then he puts us into a local church where we have to rub against other Christians. Fortunately, God adds his secret oil, the Holy Spirit, which over the long run turns us into beautiful stones. This idea was captured by Martin Luther in what we today call the priesthood of all believers.
The priesthood of all believers was one of the central teachings of the Reformation, but unfortunately, today, it is largely ignored. Luther wrote in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church that “all we who are Christians are priests,” therefore no believer has greater access to God than anyone else.
While pastors and elders are selected to teach the Word of God (1 Tim. 3:1–7), they do not represent us before God. It is Jesus Christ who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf (Heb. 7:25) and now intercedes for us as our Great High Priest before the throne of God (Heb. 4:14-16).
The Apostle Peter writes that we are all to be part of “a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). He goes on to say we are like living stones being built into a spiritual house of which Christ is the cornerstone (Eph. 2:19-22).
Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has three important implications for us today:
- First, church leaders and Christians who sit in the pews are both justified by faith alone in Christ alone. We are to respect leaders in the Church but realize we all have important roles to play. All of us are to pray for one another, hear each other’s confession, and assure one another of divine forgiveness (Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:16). We are to offer ourselves as “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1).
- Second, this doctrine destroys the spiritual/secular divide. Luther argued for dignity in all vocations that our whole lives were to be lived out in worship of God (Rom. 12:1).
- Third, Luther encourages us to remember that as priests, we are called to be the Lord’s approved workers who accurately handle the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:15).
In the Context of Church
All of this begins in the context of the local Church, which is why the author of the book of Hebrews writes, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Heb. 10:24-25).
As Art Lindsley writes:
If we recover our identities as full-time followers of Christ, regardless of where we work, we will be willing to prophetically confront the problems in the Church and in the world. We will be able to live our faith both through our direct participation in the Church, through our professions, and through our engagement in work and society. We will be agents of reconciliation, ambassadors, and mediators; in other words, we will be “priests” in our society. Luther’s hope that “priest” becomes as common a self-designation as “Christian” may never be realized unless Christians work to appropriate this truth so that it becomes part of their lives and identity.
The priesthood of all believers is a call to the Church, to ministry, and to service for us all. As Timothy George writes, “It is a barometer of the quality of the life of God’s people in the body of Christ and of the coherence of our witness in the world, the world for which Christ died.”