The Priesthood of All Believers: A Call for All to Proclaim the Gospel
Now that the veil has been torn, all children of God are given access to pray and to present Gentile converts to the Lord as living sacrifices. Wonderfully, such a ministry does not require a seminary degree or a clerical robe. It does require that the knowledge of the Lord would be on our lips and that we would prayerfully share Christ with others.
When we think of the priesthood of believers, we often think of 1 Peter 2:5, 9–10, and rightly so. In addition to defiling the high priest’s servant when he cut off his ear (N.B. Jesus does not heal Malchus in John’s Gospel), Peter also picked up the sword of the Spirit to positively articulate a vision of the church as a royal priesthood. And in what follows, I will reflect on his thoughts from his first epistle.
At the same time, Paul too had a vision for the priesthood–a vision for priesthood that is often under-appreciated. And so, in the second portion below, I will highlight the one place where he uses the word “priest,” actually “priestly” (hierourgounta). From his usage, and Peter’s, we learn a key lesson, that the priestly ministry of the church means evangelism for all. Let’s consider.
Getting into the Priesthood
As the true and better high priest, Jesus is doing what the unfaithful priests of Israel never did—he is ensuring that all his people hear the good news of the new covenant (cp. Isa. 54:13; John 6:45). Through the evangelistic witness of the church, Jesus is circumcising hearts, and through the Holy Spirit, he is purifying a people for his own possession—a people who will serve as priests.
It is to these evangelistic matters that we turn, in order to show how Christ’s priestly service impels the church to carry out their priestly service.
Royal Priests Preach the Gospel (1 Peter 2:5, 9–10)
In the New Testament, there are six explicit references to the priesthood of believers (see Rom 15:16; 1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). The most famous of these may be 1 Peter 2, where Peter tells the “elect exiles” that they are individually “living stones” who “are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (v. 5).
Then, just a few verses later, he reiterates the same point, “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” (vv. 9–10). Don’t miss what the priests do—they proclaim the mercies of God.
Significantly, the priestly role is not just related to the tabernacle/temple and sacrifices for atonement, as in 1 Peter 2:5. Rather, like the priests of old taught the people the Law of Moses (see Lev. 10:11; Deut 33:8–11), new covenant priests will proclaim the gospel—the law fulfilled in Christ.
Wonderfully, the priests depicted here are those who will pronounce the good news to those who were once not a people (i.e., the Gentiles estranged from the covenant promises of God). Thus, the ministry of these priests is not defined by sacrificial offerings, nor temple access, but by gospel proclamation. What does it mean to be a kingdom of priests today? It means that the citizens of the kingdom go into all the nations and proclaim the true king.
Priestly Service Offers the Gentiles as Living Sacrifices (Romans 15)
An evangelistic understanding of the priesthood is not restricted to Peter either. In Romans 15, Paul makes the same point, as he declares himself “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God.” Here, more than any other place in his letters, Paul equates the ministry of the gospel with that of a priestly ministry. As John Stott comments,
Paul regards his missionary work as a priestly ministry because he is able to offer his Gentile converts as a living sacrifice to God. . . . All evangelists are priests, because they offer their converts to God. Indeed, it is this truth more than any other which effectively unites the church’s two major roles of worship and witness. It is when we worship God, . . . that we are driven out to proclaim his name to the world.
Surely, Stott is on solid ground when he says that “all evangelists are priests,” but let’s look at the surrounding context, where we discover that all priests are evangelists and that all of us are priests.
Looking at the context of Romans 15:14–21, we find a number of related statements that develop the ministry of the church as a band of gospel-proclaiming priests. First, in the preceding verses (15:1–13), Paul details the way that the gospel has been “confirmed” to the Jews and offered to the Gentiles (v. 8). This is the explicit point of verses 9–13, which quotes four Old Testament texts. Remarkably, while each is taken from a different section of the Tanak (Hebrew Old Testament), they all affirm the gospel reaching the “Gentiles.”
Accordingly, these opening verses (vv. 1–13) function as the foundation of Paul’s own ministry to the Gentiles. The significance for our considerations is that the context of Romans 15 speaks directly to the issue of the gospel moving from Israel to the ends of the earth. In other words, this crucial passage explicates the relationship between priestly service and the universal offer of the gospel.