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Unpacking the Priesthood of All Believers (and What It Means for Our Lives)

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There is an important biblical idea that has great implications for our personal spirituality and public life in the church and in the world: the idea that every believer is a priest, regardless of his or her full-time occupation.

This notion is known as the “priesthood of all believers.” Martin Luther wrote in The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained that “this word priest should become as common as the word Christian” because all Christians are priests. 

When Luther referred to the priesthood of all believers, he was maintaining that the plowboy and the milkmaid could do priestly work. In fact, their plowing and milking was priestly work. There was no hierarchy where the priesthood was a “vocation” and milking the cow was not. Both were tasks that God called his followers to do, each according to their gifts.

This has enormous implications for how Christians live their daily lives. Here are four ways to unpack the priesthood of believers in your own life.

The Privilege of Direct Access to God

In the Old Testament, only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies. Today, we have the privilege of direct access to God through Christ. We can come boldly unto the throne of grace.

According to Ephesians, it is because of Christ that “we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him” (Eph. 3:12). Hebrews tells us to have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus: “Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:19, 22).

This is a tremendous privilege, yet it is so easy for us to neglect it. In his classic, Practical Religion, J.C. Ryle says:

Nothing seems to be too great, too hard, or too difficult for prayer to do. It has obtained things that seemed impossible and out of reach. It has won victories over fire, air, earth, and water. Prayer opened the Red Sea. Prayer brought water from the rock and bread from heaven. Prayer made the sun stand still. Prayer brought fire from the sky on Elijah’s sacrifice. Prayer turned the counsel of Ahitophel into foolishness. Prayer overthrew the army of Sennacherib. Well might Mary, Queen of Scots say, “I fear John Knox’s prayer more than an army of ten thousand men.” Prayer has healed the sick. Prayer has raised the dead. Prayer has procured the conversion of souls. “The child of many prayers,” said an old Christian to Augustine’s mother, “shall never perish.” Prayers, pains, and faith can do anything.

When we fail to utilize this privilege, the consequence is spiritual decline. Ryle articulates it well:

Bibles read without prayer, sermons heard without prayer, marriages contracted without prayer, the daily act of private prayer itself hurried over or gone through without heart, these are the kind of downward steps by which many a Christian descends into a condition of spiritual palsy, or reaches a point where God allows him (or her) to have a tremendous fall…We may be sure that many fall in private long before they fall in public.

The Privilege of Spiritual Sacrifice

We are still to offer sacrifices. These are no longer offerings of bulls and goats but sacrifices such as prayer, praise, thanksgiving, repentance, justice, kindness, and love. 1 Peter 2:5 spells out this function. We are a holy priesthood in order to “offer up spiritual sacrifices wholly acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

In Romans 12:1, we are to offer our lives as “living sacrifices,” and in Philippians 2:17, “a sacrificial offering of faith.” Philippians 4:18 says the “services of love as a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

In Hebrews 13:15, the spiritual sacrifice is praise and thanksgiving: “Through him let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.” Above all, believers can be confident that God will accept their sacrifice.

The Responsibility of a Prophetic Role

As a royal priesthood, one of our responsibilities is to “declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). There are about thirty terms used in the New Testament to describe different kinds of prophetic proclamation: announce, explain, say, testify, persuade, confess, charge, rebuke, admonish, exhort, etc. Everyone can and should bear witness to Christ in some way—according to their gifts.

John 16 says that the Holy Spirit was sent in order to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). This certainly does apply to evangelism. We need the Spirit’s help in personal proclamation. However this “convicting of the world” can also apply to public prophetic proclamation in politics, business, law, and other arenas where believers need power to speak about their cause. It is a great challenge to speak publicly about sin, righteousness, or judgment, but we can ask for the Spirit’s help.

In order to proclaim rightly, we need wisdom. Hebrews 5 tells us that we should not remain babes needing milk but go on to solid food. Hebrews 5:14 is a concise summary of the process of growth: “But solid food is for the mature who, because of practice, have their sense trained to discern good and evil.” Wise, powerful, prophetic proclamation is a responsibility of those who are part of the “royal priesthood.”

The Responsibility to Be Agents of Reconciliation

We must mediate Christ’s love into a dark and troubled world. Just as priests are agents of reconciliation to God and others, so are we to be such mediators.

1 Timothy 2:1 says that believers should offer prayers, supplications, and intercessions for all men, particularly for rulers. We should pray, in other words, not only for the church but for the state. The Apostle Paul was called to proclaim Christ to Gentiles, Jews, and kings. Ananias prophesied that Christ “is a chosen instrument of mine, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Clearly, the prayers and proclamations are to influence the highest levels of our nation.

God is the one who initiates the process of reconciliation: “All this is from God, who has reconciled himself through Christ, and has given us a ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). John Stott quotes William Temple in Cross of Christ, saying, “All is of God; the only thing of my very own which I contribute to my redemption is the sin from which I need to be redeemed.” Christ is the one who carries out the task of reconciliation. We are reconciled through Christ and in Christ.

Because of what God has done in Christ, we are given a task. We now have a ministry of reconciliation. We are entrusted with the message of reconciliation, and we are ambassadors for Christ with the new message: be reconciled to God.

Christians have a new title as ambassador or priest so that they might have the status to carry a message. Christians are to use this status to minister to others in a way that leads people in the Church and in the world to be reconciled to God and to each other. If Christians were not appointed, chosen, or ordained to this role of ambassador or priest, we might be reluctant to take the responsibility that is ours.

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