For most of us in the free church tradition the idea of serving as a priest is a bit foreign to our thinking. Yet the idea of the priesthood of believers is one of the most precious and powerful images of Scripture. What then does it mean to be a priestly people? Does it mean that I have the right to interpret Scripture without any concern for the historic belief of my church or denomination? Does it mean that I can obstinately vote "however I please" with little regard for the needs of others or the interest of the church? Does it represent nothing more than my right to pray without a human intercessor? I often hear "priesthood of believers" discussed in these terms as if it is only an issue of privilege without any regard for the responsibility of priestly duty.
Let's take a closer look at the marvelous privilege and opportunity inherent in the call to be a priestly people serving the King of kings. Here's how Peter states this incredible calling - But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
Peter begins his letter by reminding the readers of the incredible blessings they have received as recipients of the grace of God. Listen: According to His great mercy, He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1:3). The new birth assures us of an inheritance which is imperishable, uncorrupted, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (4). If those truths aren't sufficient to cause you to blush with wonder, he declares that we are being protected by God's power until our salvation promises are fully revealed.
These wonderful blessing calls for disciplined, holy living (13-16). Such language seems ancient and the idea of holiness and service seem out of date in our "please yourself" culture. But believers are marked by a Kingdom worldview. Thus, we are not surprised that Peter reminds us that the Father will judge each of us impartially based on our works during our time of temporary residence on earth (17). We sometimes live this life as if it is all of life. We forget that we are created and redeemed for the coming Kingdom. Peter now employs three distinct but interrelated images to challenge Christians of every age to live as a royal priesthood.
A Spiritual House
The basic image of this section is that of a spiritual house or temple where acceptable sacrifices are presented to the King. This idea is consistent with Paul's teaching that believers are the present-day temple of God - the place of worship and service. Don't you know that you are God's sanctuary and that the Spirit of God lives in you (1 Corinthians 3:16). In 1 Peter the body of believers is pictured as a spiritual house being built up by God Himself. Individual believers are the stones by which God constructs His spiritual house. While God empowers the growth, individual believers (living stones) are vital to the process.
Peter begins his discussion by picturing Christ as a living stone - He is the chief cornerstone (2:6). Christ is not one living stone among many; He is the unique stone which gives life and meaning to the entire house. Notice that one's acceptance of the Cornerstone (7-8) is the means by which he is joined to the spiritual house of God, the church. We do not join the church so much as we are "reborn" into it by virtue of our personal relationship to the Cornerstone.
When we take seriously the image of the spiritual house, we will see ourselves as living stones, integrally joined to the prophets, apostles, and other great leaders of past generations. Can you imagine a stone with your name engraved placed in a building with the stones of the great priests of years gone by? Are you doing your part and giving your best to build God's spiritual house?
A Holy Priesthood
The picture now shifts slightly as if we are viewing a beautiful diamond from a slightly different angle. Christians, first pictured as stones in the construction of the temple, are now seen as priests serving within the temple itself. Since the temple exists solely for service to the King, it must be populated with a priestly people who offer up sacrifices acceptable to Him.
In Exodus 19:5-6 we find that the entire nation of Israel was called to priestly ministry. Now if you will listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, you will be My own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is Mine, and you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation. Tragically, Israel saw their special calling more in terms of privilege than responsibility. They consumed the blessings of God rather than conveying them to reach the nations.
The concept of a "priestly community" made little headway while the Levitical priesthood was in existence. With the absence of an official priesthood in the early church, all chances of confusion were gone. Now the theme of a priestly nation can be directly applied to the church. This same idea is repeated in the final book of the Bible (Revelation 1:6; 5:9-10). In the final passage, John speaks of a priestly community made up of a redeemed people from every tribe, language, people, and nation. Can you imagine being part of a community that inextricably links you to Christians of every age and every land and that prepares us for ministry in the Kingdom to come! Do you see now why we cannot be apathetic or casual about our present service to the King?
With so much at stake, we need to pause to think about our responsibilities as a priestly people. Peter tells us we are to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (2:5). You may be wondering if Scripture provides any help in determining the sort of sacrifice that is acceptable to God. Yes, indeed! Let me suggest five sacrifices as a place of beginning.
• Our own bodies (Romans 12:1). We inaugurate our priestly ministry by offering ourselves to God. Our earthly body, with all its potential, was created by God for service to Him.
• Our ministry (Romans 15:16). Paul spoke of his ministry to the Gentiles as an offering sanctified by the Spirit. As we participate in a specific ministry based on our giftedness, we offer to God an acceptable sacrifice.
• Our praise (Hebrews 13:15). Christians should be regularly involved in the worship services of their church where they lift up songs of praise that reflect the integrity of their heart. But the sacrifice of praise goes beyond the singing of hymns and choruses; it involves our efforts to share Him with those who cannot praise Him as their King.
• Our good deeds (Hebrews 13:16). While good deeds cannot earn salvation, they do express it. Paul speaks of believers being created for good works, which God prepared ahead of time. Did you know that before you were born, God prepared good works for you to accomplish for His Kingdom?
• Our financial stewardship (Hebrews 13:16). When Paul wrote to the Philippians to thank them for their financial support of his ministry, he referred to their gift as a fragrant offering, a welcome sacrifice, pleasing to God (4:18b). When we give our tithes and offerings through our church, we place it before God as a holy sacrifice.
You may have noticed that the emphasis is on function of priesthood rather than on status. We must commit ourselves to perform our priestly duties rather than claiming priestly status only in terms of a selfish assertion of privilege.
May I offer two words of caution? First, the concept of the priesthood of believers is plural and not an individual one. I don't function as a priest independent of the body of believers. I cannot brazenly argue that I am a Christian but I don't need the church to express that commitment. Second, I hear people talk as if the concept of the priesthood of believers and the role of the pastor as leader of the congregation are mutually exclusive concepts. The fact that all believers, as priests, are gifted to serve does not negate the truth that some persons (pastors) are called to leadership functions. Take a moment and read Hebrews 13:17.
A People for God's Own Possession
Finally, Peter declares that we must be a holy people because God Himself desires to possess us. Listen with awe: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (2:9).
We are corporately God's people because He purchased us with the blood of His own Son. Now He desires to fully indwell us so that we might proclaim His praises. Peter immediately follows this declaration with the call to abstain from fleshly desires since we are temporary residents of this present kingdom. Our conduct will then enable the nations to observe our lives and glorify God when He returns.
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the SBC national EKG strategist.