Have you heard of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers? It is one of those things that began with New Testament Christianity, and it was recovered during the reformation. Sadly, many of us have not thought much about it, and that costs us in our understanding of the beauty of the gospel.
In Old Testament times, the nation of Israel had one priestly tribe, the Levites. Even as the nation traveled in the wilderness, the Levites had the job of serving as a tribe of priests before the Lord. They were physically to camp closer to the tabernacle, surrounding it and guarding it from the other tribes. In simple terms, the tribe of Levi served as a protective barrier, keeping the people of the other 11 tribes from coming too close to the holy things and incurring the wrath of God.
Numbers 1:53 But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.”
The priesthood was a barrier of protection between the people and God. They kept the people from bringing the profane to the tabernacle. They also kept the people from experiencing the deadly holiness of God. This system was necessary to prevent the wrath of God from breaking out against the nation in such a way as to destroy all the people and put an end to the promises of God.
But, in the New Testament, under the New Covenant, the priestly system is done away with. There is no longer a class of citizens who serve as a barrier between the believer and his or her Lord. There is no longer a go-between to communicate to God on our behalf or to return God’s responses to us. Believers have direct access to the Lord God through our one great high priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, God in the flesh himself.
Ephesians 3:11-12 – 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
1 Peter 2:9 – 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.
With the gospel came a new system for relating to the Lord. No longer are the people of God to approach a special class of people who shelter them from the Lord and from whom the Lord is kept at a distance from them. Instead, because of the blood of Jesus and the indwelling Holy Spirit, every believer is united in a common priesthood of all believers. Every believer has the right to approach the Lord God in worship, prayer, and obedience. Every believer has the right to read and learn from the word of God.
The danger of over-interpreting this doctrine should be apparent. God designed the church to work together as a body. This doctrine is not “the priesthood of the believer” but “the priesthood of all believers.” It is not an individualistic freedom to determine new doctrines based on whatever pops into your head. It is not an allowance to live to yourself, separated from the body of Christ, and constantly warped by your own limited understanding. Rather, the doctrine implies that we will unite in a community, a family, a body, a flock, a living temple of believers who all may approach the Lord in worship and prayer as we honor the Lord together, encouraging, teaching, and correcting one another.
Neither is the priesthood of all believers a call for every individual Christian to serve as a pastor. James warns us quite sharply that not all are to be teachers (James 3:1), and the standards for elders found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 clearly prevent some from serving in this role. Church elders are called by God to study the word of God and rightly handle the word of truth as they proclaim the Scripture to the body of Christ.
The beauty, however, is that no person in the congregation is any less a part of the community of the priests than a pastor or other church worker. A computer programmer, a stay-at-home mom, a retiree, a police officer, a carpenter, a judge, a flight attendant, all are part of the priesthood of all believers. Every person in the body may access the word of God. Every part of the body may come before the Lord to pray God’s good on all the rest of the body. Every person, even as he or she does his or her job, may honor the Lord through the work that he or she does. Teaching the word, catching criminals, debugging code, or changing diapers all may honor the Lord in the lives of his family of priests.
So, let us give God thanks for taking away the dividing barrier between his people and himself. Because of the final and perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are no longer separated from personal communion with the Lord. No, let this not make you individualistic about your faith. But, yes, let it remind you that you may approach the throne of grace in the freedom and confidence of Christ’s finished work.