Christians as Priests
By Nathan Pickup
In his first letter, the apostle Peter describes Christians as a “priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5, 9). This concept wasn’t a rhetorical invention of Peter’s, but rather was God’s creative purpose for His people from the beginning (Ex 19:6).¹ This designation of our role as the people of God is brimming with meaning, but only if one is familiar with the role of the Aaronic priests from which Peter draws his comparison. I would like to explore two aspects of the Aaronic priest’s role that shed light on how Christians are a “priesthood” for God today.
After they were consecrated to be in Yahweh’s presence, priests were then tasked to work in God’s dwelling place, whether that be the tabernacle or the temple.² They were not given their special status so that they could sit back and relax. On the contrary, they were constantly hard at work slaughtering animals, cleaning, counting utensils, mixing spices, burning incense, preparing showbread, tending to the golden lampstand, etc. (Ex. 27:20-21; 1 Chron. 9:28-32). In short, the priest’s life was one of sacrifice—not merely the preparation and execution of sacrifices at the altar, but also a life of sacrificing one’s time and energy in the service of God’s kingdom.
When Peter refers to Christians as a “priesthood” in 1 Peter 2, he is revealing the same expectation of sacrificial work. We have been purified by God (1 Cor. 6:11), not so that we can sit back and relax, but so we can be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Peter reveals as much when he says we are to “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). We should not be neglecting to “do good and to share what (we) have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:16; see also Phil. 4:14-18). We should be walking in love, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2), offering up “a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name” (Heb. 13:15). We work to present our very bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1). Our priesthood means we should be working in His presence, for we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). If we are wearing the name of Christ, but not sacrificially working for His kingdom, then we are failing to fulfill our role as priests. An Aaronic priest could not accept his privileged status while neglecting the duties inherent in his position. Likewise, we cannot accept the privileged status of Christian and then neglect the duties inherent in it. As a priesthood to God, our lives should be one of continual work and sacrifice in His presence.
Besides working in God’s presence, priests were also tasked with teaching God’s commandments. They were to “distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that Yahweh has spoken to them by Moses” (Lev. 10:10-11). “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of Yahweh of hosts” (Mal. 2:7). As a priesthood to God, Christians have been tasked with the same responsibility; we should be teaching people to observe all that God has commanded (Matt. 28:20). We are meant to distinguish between the unclean and the clean (2 Cor. 6:14-18), taking no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead exposing them (Eph. 5:11). We are the salt of the earth, meant to teach others the ways of God (Matt. 5:13). When a priest fails to teach others God’s commands, God does not view that lightly. In Hosea 4:6, God reveals His feelings toward priests who have neglected their God-given task of teaching: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me.” We would not want to hear similar words on the Day of Judgment for neglecting our own priestly duty to teach our fellow man God’s commandments.
The priestly status bestowed on us is a gift of God’s grace, but it comes with responsibilities. We must constantly be working on behalf of God’s kingdom, and teaching God’s commandments to the people around us. Those who failed to fulfill their priestly function incurred God’s wrath, as evidenced in God’s words to the priest, Eli: “‘I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,’ but now Yahweh declares: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt’” (1 Sam. 2:30). May we recognize the responsibilities our priestly status confers upon us, as well as the severity of judgment that will befall us if we spurn those responsibilities in our Christian living.
1 This concept possibly goes back to creation itself. Genesis 1 may be intending to depict Eden as a temple sanctuary for Yahweh, where Adam and Eve serve a priestly role by working in God’s presence and caring for the “temple” of the Garden. See John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One for a presentation of this view.
2 For the lengthy ritual that consecrated the priests before they could serve—necessary to make them holy for their position—see Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8-9. The severity of this ritual consecration is revealed when Moses states that its purpose was “so that you do not die” from being in God’s presence (Lev. 8:35).