by Bud Houston
The great reformer, Martin Luther, said, “...the word priest should become as common as the word Christian.” Why? Every Christian is a priest. The priesthood of the believer was a truth rediscovered during the Protestant Reformation. Even still, there is little teaching or writing on the priesthood of the believer and even less practical application.
The fog is clearing and people are starting to see how the elevated role of clergy and the imaginative sacred-secular divide has produced a church culture of passivity, consumerism, and a lack of missional engagement which functionally limits access to God in the places we live, work, and play. Likewise, the lack of corporate understanding of the priesthood of the believer creates mission strategies that don’t prioritize swift healthy church formation. This lack of understanding also functionally limits access to God because there is no long term local presence to own the core missionary task.
I want you to discover that misunderstanding and misapplying the idea of the priesthood limits access to God. We see this in the scriptures and in history. Let us recognize the significance, adjust our wineskins, as needed, and pursue the core missionary task until there is #NoPlaceLeft.
How does the Bible talk about priesthood?
You may be familiar with the Levites and their role as priests in the Old Testament. We see in the Old Testament there were a people, a tribe, elevated to the specific task of priest. Furthermore, we see the elevation of some to “High Priest”. This pattern was not God’s original design. He gave all the people of Israel the opportunity to be His kingdom of priests.
Exodus 19:5-6 (ESV)
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
God gave the opportunity for all Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Don’t miss this, God was inviting all of Israel to be a Kingdom of priests. This invitation was not just an individual invitation. He didn’t invite priests, but Israel to be a kingdom of priests. God wanted the entire nation of people set apart to give him glory. Then, Israel would be "a holy nation"—a people set apart for God and dedicated to serving him in all of life. This plan was first revealed to Abraham, to whom God said, "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12:3b). The holy nation of Israel was part of the plan, for as Jesus himself said, "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22).
God was inviting Israel into a corporate priesthood. It wasn’t individual. Israel, however, was disobedient, and a hierarchy was set up where individuals were given the task and role of priest. The result of their failure? Access to God was limited and mediated through the few. This is what Peter is alluding to when he brings this idea of priesthood and applies it to believers:
1 Peter 2:4-10 (ESV)
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 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. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
We too are a precious people, saved out of all the nations to be a kingdom of priests proclaiming the path for unlimited access to God through Jesus.
God made us his treasure, bringing us from slavery to royalty, by setting us apart for his holy service. Since we are saved for God's glory, our service is to worship God. We glorify him by declaring his praises among the nations.
Now the interesting, and again often unnoticed, aspect of this passage is the corporate understanding. We rightly apply this individually, but let's look at the corporate understanding. First, remember that Peter is reaching back and hyperlinking the Old Testament. The Exodus passage is clearly referencing the corporate identity of Israel. Secondly, in verse 4-5, Peter gives this beautiful picture of Jesus as The Living Stone. Then he contrasts believers as individual living stones built up as a spiritual house (the corporate).
1 Peter 2:5 (ESV)
“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.”
Third, the language of verse 5 is plural in the Greek. For example, the “you” is in the plural. One way of thinking about this for us in the Southern United States would be “Y’all”. Y'all are living stones put together as a spiritual house. The Greek word for house there is oikos (οίκος). Our spiritual household or spiritual sphere of influence. Perhaps another way of thinking about it is our local church. Don’t get confused, it’s not talking about the church building, but rather the people who make up a local body of Christ. Corporately, we are a royal priesthood and holy nation.
Why is it important to understand the corporate understanding of priesthood?
The spiritual house (church) is built up collectively into a priesthood to spur the individual to function as a holy priest where he lives, works, and plays. The individual function grows the church into its fullness. The individual and corporate understanding cannot be separated. The Apostle Paul speaks to this idea in his letter to the Ephesians, but using different language.
Ephesians 4:11-16 (ESV)
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
There are different individual functions in the body (spiritual house). Yet, what is the purpose? To build itself up into the holy nation of royal priests that proclaim his excellencies. The shepherd has the responsibility to equip the spiritual house, set apart for God in worship and service. Not only is his role to equip, but if I am reading this correctly, each part makes the body grow. So the shepherd equips others who will then equip others so each part works properly. The corporate body builds itself up in love, unity, and to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. I pay special attention to shepherds because it is the most common demonstration of function in the 21st century church. But, this also applies to each part: the apostle, the prophet, the evangelist, and the teacher. Their role is clearly equipping the saints (priests) for the work of the ministry. A church that doesn’t embrace one part of the APEST ministry roles will find itself lacking. Do you see the implications? Church is important! Believers function in their priestly role within the spiritual house that built up as a royal priesthood.
Some of you, like me, are apostolic types that contribute alongside some of the normal or legacy church structures. Hear this clearly, get to church quickly! Not go to a church, but get to the identity of church quickly. As people come to faith and you bring them into a group disciple-making setting. Cast vision for church early and often. Why? Church is important! These new believers are priests, but they need to function in the context of church. Apostle, you typically want to run solo. Cast vision for what you can all do together. The priests are better together. You need prophets, evangelists, and shepherds as the local body takes on full form. You are better together.
What happens when you don’t get to church? I would argue that access to God is limited because a sustained and covenanted people isn’t owning the core missionary task locally.
Now some of you reading this are more shephed/teachers. You likely operate within the structure of a legacy church. If that’s you, realize that you are to allow and encourage every believer in your flock to operate in their priestly role. That may require totally shifting your leadership structure, your gathering format, and even your meeting space. It sounds extreme, I know, but your flock will not be as it should when there are only a few people functioning in their priestly role while others sit on the side lines. The church you lead must have a corporate sense of priesthood. Your gatherings should be focusing on casting vision for individual priestly responsibility, giving them permission and releasing them to operate as such, and equipping them with the tools to, as Paul says “to attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Pastor, your heart bends to care and teach. You need apostles to press forward and outward, you need evangelists to spark evangelistic tendencies in every believer. Although this will mean that you might need to release control and step into a shared leadership structure, you can see the fullness of the every willing member of body equipped and mobilized into their priestly role.
Corporate identity flows through individual application.
Think about it this way. The language of the passages we’re discussing is “priesthood”. Similarly, we use “hood” in the context of neighborhood. Which is made up of neighbors. Neighbors have individual personalities, but corporately they make up the neighborhood. If your neighbors are great your neighborhood is great. If your neighbors throw trash in the front yard, then your neighborhood looks like a dump, no matter how clean you and a few super neighbors keep their yard. Likewise, the collective identity of the priesthood applied to the church is made up of individuals exercising their responsibility as priests.
What happens when individuals within a church don’t operate in their priestly responsibility? Access to God is limited.
"In an effort to strengthen the authority of pastoral leadership, the church has weakened the responsibility of all believers to function as priests. Professional leadership in the church has resulted in a reduction of those who feel qualified to minister. The net result is a weaker church, one that does not have the infrastructure to multiply, expand, or grow."
- David Watson, Contagious Disciple Making
Friend, if you aren’t a pastor and don’t know if you’re apostolic, press in now. If you are in Christ, you are a priest. A priest is a mediator between God and people. You go to God on behalf of people, and you go to people on behalf of God. We proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. The Apostle Paul writing to the Corinthians appeals to the idea again with slightly different language:
2 Corinthians 5:20 (ESV)
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
What does an ambassador do? Oxford Dictionary defines an ambassador as “a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity.”Do you see the parallel? As an Ambassador-priest we are allowing God to speak through us as we are filled with the Holy Spirit. We are proclaiming the excellencies of God, telling our story of how He rescued us from darkness and brought us into His marvelous light, and then calling our hearer to be reconciled to God through Christ.
Let’s come back to the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic church had fallen into much of the same failure as Israel. God had purposed them to be a Kingdom of priests, not a hierarchy of priests that ultimately caused limited access to God.
The Protestant Reformation was a reformation of theology. I think we are in great need of a reformation of structure. Our church structure limits access to God by not mobilizing every member into their priestly role. Likewise, there are some mission structures that never get to church, and thus are ultimately limiting access to God. The local church (in all its forms) is the means God has ordained to reach the world.
Matthew 16:18 (ESV)
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Brother and sister in Christ, you are a royal priest. Individually, you have the role and responsibility to be an ambassador-priest to a world that is far from God. Although, don’t overlook the corporate significance of the priesthood of the believers together in the corporate body we call church. I believe that you never want to limit access to God because of a ministry model. Would you evaluate your life and ministry? Would you ask yourself these questions:
What do I need to stop doing?
What do I need to start doing?
What do I need to keep doing?
Bud Houston is the husband to Jessica and the dad to 5 awesome kids. He serves as North American Hub Director for East West Ministries International,
seeking to impact lostness and create multiplying CPM learning communities across North America and into the ends of the earth.