The Priesthood of All Believers
A sermon by Coty Pinckney on Leviticus 8:1-3, preached at Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, on 9/6/98
Is there anyone here this morning who would like to become a priest? Do we have any volunteers for the priesthood?
Or is there anyone here this morning who needs a priest?
When most of us hear the word "priest" we think of Roman Catholic clergy; we think of someone wearing a particular type of clothing, someone who will offer absolution from sins after we attend confession. And to say we need a priest tends to imply that we are about to die.
But these conceptions are not biblical. Typical Roman Catholic usage has distorted our conception of the word "priest," just as it has distorted our conception of the word "saint." According to the Bible, saints are not special, super-Christians: every believer covered by the shed blood of Jesus is a saint. As the book of Ephesians says, every believer is chosen by God to be holy and blameless in his sight. The Greek words for "holy" and "saint" have the same root. All Christians are declared holy by God; all Christians are saints.
Similarly, priests are not special Christians called to full time ministry, priests are not a subset of Christians who have authority to forgive sins. Many Protestants tend to think of the word "priest" as another word for "pastor." Well, our pastor, Doug, is a priest -- but I am a priest, and Bryce is a priest. And the priesthood isnít limited to elders. Jim Conway is a priest, Jason Richard is a priest. And itís not limited to men! Every believer, every person who receives Jesus as Lord and Savior, is a priest before God.
Furthermore, during the course of the morning I will suggest that every one of us here this morning needs a priest! Not because weíre about to die, not necessarily because weíve engaged in some sin that requires confession to a human being, but because we live in a sinful, fallen world. God calls us to be priests so that we might shed the light of Jesus on every human problem, so that we might proclaim the truths of Godís word to everyone who struggles with the effects of sin.
So all believers are saints; all believers are priests; all believers need priests.
This morning, weíre returning to the book of Leviticus, this beautiful Old Testament picture of New Testament truth. For the next few sermons in this series, we will examine the role of the priests.
Recall our reasons for studying Leviticus. This book provides us with pictures, with illustrations of New Covenant truth. Recall also that the first part of the book records Godís provisions for dealing with manís weaknesses, and the last part of the book details Godís requirements. Thus far, we have covered chapters 1 to 7, which describe the five offerings that God instituted: the burnt offering, the present or grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering. We have seen how those offerings picture five fundamental human needs -- the need for love, for joy, for peace, for confession, and for reconciliation -- and how Jesusí death on the cross meets those needs. Each of the offerings brings out a different aspect of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
Like the offerings, the picture of the priest found in Leviticus displays New Testament truth -- in a detailed form. Once again, Leviticus brings out a human need -- the need for a priest, the need for another human being to help us to see ourselves, and to apply biblical truth to our lives. The New Testament presumes our familiarity with the priesthood -- but many of us know little about it. So in this study we will learn about ourselves as priests, and, furthermore, learn about Jesus' role in our lives as high priest.
In this series of messages, we will consider chapters 8 & 9, where Aaron and his sons are ordained as priests, then offer their initial offerings to the Lord: chapter 10, when two of Aaronís son act presumptuously before God and are immediately killed; and chapters 21 and 22, which lay down requirements for those of Aaron's descendants who would serve as priests. I commend all of these passages to you for your personal study.
God's Plan for a Kingdom of Priests
Before we turn to Leviticus, I want to introduce this series by examining Godís plan for a kingdom of priests. The idea that the office of priest is shared among a large number of believers did not begin with the New Testament. From the time that the Israelites stood before God at Mt Sinai, this was Godís plan.
We see this first of all in Exodus 19:3-6:
3 And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: 4 'You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself. 5 'Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; 6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel."
God says, "If you obey my voice and keep My covenant, then you will be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation." Did they obey his voice and keep Godís covenant? No -- as we've noted before, God knew they could not keep this covenant; he had already planned to send His son to deal with manís sin. He instituted the entire sacrificial system because of manís weakness, foreshadowing what Jesus would accomplish on the cross -- meeting our need for acceptance, our need to respond, our need for peace, our need for forgiveness, and our need for reconciliation. The Israelites, like the rest of us, were not able to live up to Godís holy standard -- but God instituted the law as our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, to show us our need for a savior.
So Godís plan was to establish a kingdom of priests. But the nation of Israel did not and could not fulfill that plan. So God said through the prophet Jeremiah 31:
31 "Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them, "declares the LORD. 33 "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
In this new covenant, by writing the law on the hearts of his people, God would fulfill the plan laid out in Exodus 19, the plan to establish a kingdom of priests. Peter declares the fulfillment of this plan in chapter 2 of his first letter, beginning in verse 4 (by the way, this passage also shows that Peter understood that he himself was NOT the rock on which the church would be built):
4 ∂ As you come to him, the living Stone-- rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him-- 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says: "See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame." 7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, "The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone," 8 and, "A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall." They stumble because they disobey the message-- which is also what they were destined for. 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Peter tells us in verse 5 that we are being built up as a "spiritual house for a holy priesthood," and then in verse 9 he quotes directly the Greek translation of Ex 19:6: We are (right now! this is not future tense, but present!) We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for Godís own possession. Godís plan expressed at Mt Sinai and prophesied through Jeremiah has been fulfilled: Now God has a kingdom of priests.
John echoes this theme in Revelation chapters 1 and 5. Verses 4-6 of chapter one constitute Johnís greeting to the recipients of this letter, the seven churches in Asia. He concludes that greeting by saying, "To him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood -- and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father."
Note he did not say: "He has made SOME of us." or "He has selected from among us certain ones to be priests to God." All of us are priests.
So God from the beginning intended to create a kingdom of priests, a holy nation for his own possession. The Israelites thought that they could become that nation by obedience to the law, but they never did and never could. The purpose of the law was to show us our inability to be holy and righteous before God, to show us that we can only become holy and blameless by throwing ourselves on the mercy of God -- as David did in Psalm 51. We, like David, need for God to create in us a clean heart, we need God to wash us and make us clean, we need God to put His Spirit in us and to write his law in our hearts. And when God sanctifies us, when God saves us by the blood of Jesus, we become a kingdom of priests, dedicated to His service.
So, if you are saved by the blood of Jesus, you are a saint and you are a priest.
So we are priests: who now is the high priest? The book of Hebrews makes this very clear: Jesus himself is our "merciful and faithful high priest (2:17)." He is "our great high priest who has passed through the heavens (4:14). "He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (7:25)"
Therefore, we need no superpriests or human high priests today; Jesus accomplished everything necessary for our forgiveness and salvation. Indeed, the primary purpose of the Jewish high priest was to foreshadow Jesus himself.
So all believers are priests, with Jesus as our high priest. We will use these insights to help us interpret these five chapters on the priesthood in Leviticus. Statements about the priests in general are symbolically true of all Christians; statements about the high priest alone are symbolically true of Jesus.
Priests Are Not Lone Rangers
There is one more item to clear up, however, before we turn to Leviticus. I have been advocating here the reformation doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers." But this doctrine has been misunderstood in some American Protestant circles. I want to clear up that misconception before we proceed with the positive teaching on the priesthood from Leviticus.
We Americans grow up with the myth of the rugged individualist, the self-made man, and the Lone Ranger. We hold in high esteem the man who stands on his own against prevailing opinion. This mindset at times has affected our understanding of this most important doctrine.
The misconception of the doctrine goes like this: "Iím a priest. I have the Holy Spirit and I have direct access to the Father. Therefore, my interpretation of the Bible is as valid as yours. I donít need to listen to what you or anyone else says. My religion is between me and God."
Now, this misconception begins with true statements. All Christians are priests; all Christians have access directly to God. But our being priests does not imply that I am out from under any human authority. The very New Testament book that focuses on the priesthood says:
Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Heb 13:17)
Similarly, the Priesthood of All Believers does not imply, "My interpretation of the Bible is ok, your interpretation of the Bible is ok." As we have preached previously, God provides the gifts of teachers in the church so that we will not be blown around by every wind of doctrine, but will in all ways grow up into Christ (Eph 4). Elsewhere, Paul gives explicit directions to elders to "exhort others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).
As we will see, to use the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers as a license to go out and be a lone ranger, interpreting the Bible on oneís own, living your version of the Christian life on your own, is far, far away from the biblical model of priest. God makes you into a priest for a purpose, and that purpose is to serve. Leviticus itself will bring this out, but for now note that 1 Peter 2:5 and 2:9 which we just read provide us with the purpose of our priesthood: to offer "spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ," and to "declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light."
The Consecration of Priests
Letís turn now, at long last, to Leviticus 8, and see how God brings out these truths.
1 ∂ Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 "Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments and the anointing oil and the bull of the sin offering, and the two rams and the basket of unleavened bread; 3 and assemble all the congregation at the doorway of the tent of meeting."
Letís make seven, brief observations about what is going on here:
First, note that this is all done at the Lord's command. God is speaking through Moses, God is in control of this entire process. God chooses who will be priests, and he ordains the way their consecration shall proceed. The selection and consecration of the priests is God's work, through the agency of Moses, from beginning to end.
Second, note that God picks a particular man and his sons to serve as priests. No one else was allowed to assume that role. God didn't have Moses say, "OK, we need a priesthood. Any volunteers out there?" God didn't instruct Moses to put an ad in the paper, then have all applicants fill out forms, answer questions, and perform a trial sacrifice for Moses to evaluate. God didn't have Moses attempt to pick those who would be best for the job. No. God simply chose Aaron and his sons.
Why did God choose them? Because they were the best people around? Well, as we shall see in the weeks ahead, Aaron's sons violate God's instructions two chapters hence, with terrible consequences. If God were choosing priests based on their foreseen faithfulness, some other family might have been better.
All we can really say is that God chose them because he chose them. And other Israelites might have been dismayed: "Why didn't God choose me! I would have been a better priest than Nadab!" From a human point of view, that might be correct; there may have been others who, in some sense, were better qualified. But God's kingdom is not a meritocracy. God is sovereign. He chooses his priests.
Hundreds of years later, Paul would elaborate on this point when writing to a group of priests:
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. . . . 29 so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor 1)
Third, God tells Moses to bring the garments. Next week we will look into these garments in more detail, as they are described thoroughly later in the chapter. But note now that clothing is used many places in Scripture as a symbol for our character, or a symbol of our position before God. God provides the clothing for the priests just as he provides our righteousness; and the priests are to take care to dress themselves according to God's plan.
Fourth, God has Moses bring oil. In our discussion of the present or grain offering, we noted that oil in Scripture is a symbol for the Holy Spirit. When Samuel anoints David as king, he pours oil on his head, indicating that God's Spirit was now indwelling David. The priests have a sacred task to perform, and they cannot do it without the Spirit working within them. So the oil is a necessary part of their ordination.
Fifth, they brought all the requirements for the sacrifices. We have studied these sacrifices in detail already. God particularly notes the need for a sin offering, for these priests were not perfect. They too had failed. As we stated, God did not choose them because they were perfect, or even better than their fellows. So their sins need to be covered, before they can act as God's representatives in assuring others that they too can receive forgiveness for sins.
So the priests need to sacrifice a sin offering for themselves, and then to sacrifice offerings for the congregation at large. But remember from the earlier chapters that the priests also eat many of the offerings. The priests are to feed on God and His word, to nourish themselves with Him, to fill themselves with Him.
Sixth, note that God tells Moses to bring all the people together: young, old, male, female, rich, poor. This consecration of the priesthood was vital for all to see; everyone's participation was required.
Finally, note the place of the assembly: At the tent of meeting, at the tabernacle. This tent is the symbol of God in their midst, the symbol of God dwelling among them. The priests are to be a living representation of God living among them, so their ordination takes place at the tabernacle.
We will continue our examination of Leviticus 8 next week. But, in closing, let us consider both the privilege and the responsibility we have as priests.
As a priest, you have the privilege of approaching God directly, through the work of your high priest, Jesus Christ. As the author of Hebrews states:
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the son of God . . . let us boldly approach the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4)
This is your privilege: And what a privilege it is! You donít need to go through any other person, you donít need to approach a member of the clergy or some super-Christian -- God has called you to be His priest, and he says you yourself can approach his throne directly. Do so! Donít say, "Oh, Iím not good enough. I canít stand before God." Of course you canít! No one can!. But if you have received Jesus as Lord and Savior, God has declared that you are HIS, that you are HIS priest, and that you can pass through the veil into the inner court, into His very presence. And Jesus, the great high priest who understands your every need, your every temptation, is there, waiting to provide you with grace and strength. Look to him! Depend on him!
And along with this privilege comes a responsibility: You are Godís priest! You are set apart by God. And you are set apart for God. You are to be Godís representative to a hurting, fallen world. You are to provide that world with God's truths, accurately applied to the needs of those around you. And you are to live a life worthy of that calling.
As priests of God, you have the keys to the kingdom of heaven, you have the gospel message. You have access to the truths that can change lives; you have access to the throneroom of God, where all strength and power and might reside. Use it! Be what God intends! Be Godís priest!
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 9/6/98. I decided to preach a series of sermons on Leviticus after reading Ray Stedman's series, which is available at thePBC web site. I am heavily indebted to him both for his insights into Leviticus, and for all I learned about expository preaching from him. Two articles on the priesthood of all believers were also especially helpful: one by Timothy George and one by P.G. Matthew.
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