Who Is a Priest and What Is a Priest?

 •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 8
IN the New Testament the Jewish priests are often spoken of and their high and chief priests too. The priest of Jupiter is spoken of, who would have offered sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas as gods. Melchisedec and his priesthood are spoken of. Christ Himself is spoken of as a priest in general and as high priest. All this is simple enough and needs no particular comment for our present purpose. But others also, men on earth, are spoken of as priests and a priesthood. (1 Peter 2:5, 95Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)
9But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: (1 Peter 2:9)
.) The first passage says, “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ;” the latter, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” These words are addressed, beyond all controversy, to the whole of the Christians to whom Peter addresses his Epistle, and whom he is instructing and encouraging in their trials. All Christians, therefore, are a holy and royal priesthood. Again in Rev. 1:5, 65And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 1:5‑6) we find, “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests to God and his Father.” Here again all Christians are priests. This is in the introduction, before the prophetic part of the book. In chap. 5: 9 we read, “Thou art worthy to take the book and to open the seals: for thou wast slain and hast redeemed us1 to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation, and hast made us unto our God kings and priests.” In chap. 20. 6 we read, “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.” These passages tell us that all Christians are priests to God. Another passage, though the word is not used, alludes to it. “By him (Jesus) therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving praise to his name.” (Heb. 13:1515By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. (Hebrews 13:15).) This calls on all Christians to exercise their priesthood and shows how they are to do it. There is not in the New Testament one passage which speaks of, or alludes to, a priesthood upon earth, save as every Christian is, or supposes the existence of a priesthood on earth save that of all Christians. No one on earth is ever called a priest, save the Jewish priests, and once a heathen one, save when Christians in general as such are called so. A distinct class of priests on earth amongst Christians is totally unknown to the New Testament. Our great High Priest is gone to heaven. And all Christians are priests in a spiritual and heavenly way, for praises and intercessions under Him. The New Testament does not know or own a class of Christians on earth who are priests in a distinct office from other Christians. Such a thought is unscriptural and false in every way.
If it be asked, then, who are priests under the Christian revelation, I reply, (because the word of God replies,) Christ is the great High Priest. All Christians are priests, and no other priesthood than this is owned among Christian men in the New Testament.
Next we may inquire, what is a priest? And more exactly, what are the principles on which earthly priesthood, where it is established amongst men, is founded? A high priest from among men is thus described in the Epistle to the Hebrews. “Every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sin.” Other priests had the same office when priesthood was established upon earth. Certain functions belonged to the high priest only, but gifts and sacrifices for sin were offered by all the priests. Hence when priests are officially established now, there is always either the formal institution of a sacrifice, as that of the mass, which is quite consistent; or the hankering after one, and the effort, on the part of those called priests, to turn the Lord's Supper into one, from the sense of inconsistency, and of what they ought to be about, if they are really priests.
But this whole system denies the force and efficacious truth of Christianity altogether. The Epistle to the Hebrews carefully assures us that there remains no more sacrifice for sin, now that Christianity is established, founded on the one perfect sacrifice of Christ, whose value and efficacy are eternal. But let the reader turn his attention to what the system of an earthly priesthood supposes, what it means, and he will readily see that the idea of a priesthood on earth, acting for men in things pertaining to God, is a denial of the whole truth of Christianity. I do not say every one that believes there are consecrated priests, desires to do so, but the system he maintains does so.
The establishment of a class of priests to offer gifts, or sacrifice, or prayers, is the public declaration that other worshippers cannot directly approach God with their gifts, and sacrifices, and prayers. They must stay at a distance and the more favored class approach for them. The character which God assumes in such an order of things was distance from men, shutting Himself up in a hidden sanctuary, where none could approach freely. There was in the Jewish system one vail, inside which the priests went to offer incense, then another inside which even the priests could not go, and where God's glory was enthroned between the cherubim. Into this the high priest alone went, only once a year, with the blood of propitiation to put upon the mercy-seat, and even then enveloping himself in a cloud of incense lest he should die. Thus God was hidden within the wail. “The Holy Ghost,” the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, “this signifying that the way into the holiest was not yet manifested, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing.” Even to the altar, which was outside the two veils, the worshipper could not approach to offer his gifts or sacrifices. The priest received the gifts, or the victim's blood at his hand, and he offered them. All this system taught that men could not approach God; He dwelt in the thick darkness, and even those who were nearest to Him. This own priests, could not approach close to Him; they must remain without the vail. Christianity is the opposite of all this, though beautiful figures of truths as to Christ are found in it. By it God has revealed Himself. He does not dwell in the thick darkness. “The darkness is past,” says the Apostle John, “and the true light now shineth.” And for a blessed and simple reason. The Word has been made flesh and come among us: perfect grace has been manifested to the chief of sinners. Instead of our not being able to approach God, God has approached us. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them.” “In him (Christ) was life, and the life was the light of men.” The record of God is that “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life.” “The grace of God which bringeth salvation hath appeared.” The chief of sinners was welcome to the Lord Jesus. The leper, whose defiled state excluded him from the camp of Israel and every one that touched him, (an image of sin,) Jesus laid his hands on and touched him. Gracious goodness has visited us. God has shown Himself “the friend of publicans and sinners.” But this is far from being all; for though God visited the sinner thus in grace, the sinner could not approach Him in His holy habitation uncleansed. Hence the blessed Jesus not only lived but died. And now mark the effect of His death.
The vail of the temple was rent in twain, from the top to the bottom. That was the vail behind which God was previously hidden and unapproachable. But that which rent the wail, (that is, the death of Christ,) put away sin perfectly from every one who believes in Him. He has borne their sins. His blood cleanses them from all sin; and not only have they found that God is perfect love, has commended His love to them, in that while they were yet sinners, Christ died for them, but they have found, if they believe in the efficacy of that sacrifice, what has purged their sins, for it was “When He had by Himself purged our sins,” and not till then, that “He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Hence, the blood of Christ purges the conscience, makes it perfect, (Heb. 9:1010Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:10).) and God remembers our sins and iniquities no more. Hence, also, “there remains no more sacrifice for sins,” because they are remitted; and that “by one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” The Epistle to the Hebrews, from which I quote these statements, gives two striking reasons why there could be no repetition of the sacrifice, nor any more sacrifice for sins. First, without shedding of blood there is no remission—therefore, Christ must have suffered often, if there were any besides that accomplished on the cross. Further, it is added, the Jewish priests stood offering oftentimes the same sacrifice, which could never take away sins, but this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins, forever sat down; for by one offering He hath perfected forever them who are sanctified. Such is the plain and blessed language of scripture. God would show His goodness and grace towards us, but He could not bear sin, nor receive what was defiled and guilty into His presence, in His holy habitation; and hence, gave His Son to put it away, that we might draw nigh, with full assurance of faith. But this work is accomplished once for all. We have, therefore (it is the conclusion drawn in Heb. 10.), “boldness to enter into the holiest by a new and living way which He has consecrated for us, through the vail, that is to say his flesh.” There no priest could enter (save the high priest, once a year, as we have said) when there were priests. And now every Christian can enter with boldness, under the great High Priest, who is over the house of God. Believers are that house. We are those priests, as I have already shown. No priest can go further than entering into the holiest; and there I do not want him, for I can go boldly myself. If I get him to go for me, I am denying my own right and Christian character, and the efficacy of Christ's work. He who sets up a priesthood on earth, between the believer and God, is denying the efficacy and truth of the work of Christ. He has “died the just for the unjust, to bring us to God.” If I am brought to God I do not want a priest to go to Him for me. If the vail is rent, and I am told by God to enter into the holiest through that new and living way, I do not want another to go there because I cannot—another who could not go either, if I cannot.
The essence of Christianity is to reveal God, and to bring us to God, to give us holy, happy liberty, as children in His presence, into which we can enter, as cleansed by the precious blood of Christ. The essence, of a distinct human priesthood is to say we cannot, but must get others to, go into God's presence, to offer our gifts and sacrifices for us. It is a denial of the whole efficacy of Christianity, and the place in which all Christians are set who, if Christianity be true, are all God's priests on the earth, to offer up spiritual sacrifices—the fruit of their lips, giving praise to his name.
But, I add more:—It is false and useless. The vail is rent, God is manifested in His holiness, the light has gone forth, and you, my reader, must “walk in the light, as He, (God) is in the light,” or you can have nothing to say to Him. You cannot have a hidden God, as in Judaism, for a priest to go to, who yet could not reach Him. The light shines, and you must walk in it yourself. There is no vail over the glory of God now; there may be over your heart, but then you are an unbeliever, and no priest can represent you before God. You have to stand before God, in the light, yourself. If you have come through the blood of Christ, the light will only show so much the more that you are perfectly clean through it. But you cannot even be dealt and another go in to God's presence for you. If you are clean, you are a priest and have to draw nigh yourself.
The work of Christ is a perfect and divine work, but you cannot approach God by a proxy here below. You cannot have another person clean or holy for you on the earth. If Christ has answered for you, all is well. Go boldly to the throne of grace yourself. If not, no one else can do it for you. You must have to do directly with God, now He has been revealed. No doubt that will be in condemnation, if you do not come to Him through Christ; but you must come yourself: the state of your own conscience is in question, directly between you and God. If you do come to God by Him, no human priest can interfere, nor do you want any.
I repeat, then, the establishment of a human priesthood, as a class distinct from all other Christians, is the denial of the truth and efficacy of Christianity.
All Christians are priests, according to the New Testament: their offerings are spiritual offerings of praise to God's name.
1. I am aware that this is read otherwise by critics, but it does not affect the present subject at all, and I give it therefore as usually read.