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"This word, priest, should become as common as the word Christian."[1]

This quotation, taken from Martin Luther's collected writings and sermons on 1 Peter, gives us a window into the Reformer's perspective on this oft-neglected Reformation concept. For Luther, all Christians are priests. In fact, all who have been united to Christ are called to a priesthood rooted in the church and situated between God an the world; a priesthood arising out of 1 Peter 2 that must be recovered for continued Christian witness in our increasingly diverse, biblically illiterate, post-Christian Western culture. 

Examining 1 Peter 2

The Church: Spiritual Household of a Holy Priesthood
In 1 Peter 2, the apostle makes two allusions to the Old Testament that would have resonated with the original hearers. The first of these is found in verses 4-5, where he refers to Christ, the living Stone, with whom the believers, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. Peter is drawing on the Temple, which was the house of God, his representative dwelling place among the Israelites. Then, in Christ, the Lord dwelt among his creation as never before: in the form of a man. And now, by virtue of their union with Christ, these believers--and you and me--are dwelling places of God's Spirit. Thus, the church--both the gathered people and space--becomes the spiritual household where God is present  

It is in this context--that of the church--that Peter explains they are to be a holy priesthood. Peter, and Luther for that matter, didn't view the priesthood of believers to be an individualistic thing, but rather something that took place in community. Reformation scholar, Timothy George, explains it this way:

For Luther, the priesthood of all believers did not mean, "I am my own priest." It meant rather: In the community of saints, God has so tempered the body that we are all priests to each other. We stand before God and intercede for one another, we proclaim God's Word to one another and we celebrate God's presence among us in worship, praise and fellowship.[2]

So the focus is on our offering ourselves up on behalf of one another for the building up of Christ's body, each individual part. 

Another way I've often heard it put is that the church is to be an embassy of the kingdom. What does an embassy do? It serves the people of that country in a foreign land. Thus, the church is to be a place where weary Christians and struggling saints can take refuge in the midst of a troubled world; a place that attracts the lost and the lonely, the poor and needy, the despised and rejected. The church is to be a place, and a gathering of people, of the Kingdom who extend the grace of God in word and deed to one another.

This means, as Christians, we have an obligation to one another as members of the church. We are to be priests standing before God and interceding for one another (prayer); speaking and performing God's Word into one another's lives (discipleship); and intentionally gather to praise the Lord and celebrate His grace as a community (worship). When it comes to the church, we must move beyond a consumer mentality to one of sacrificial giving, and view her not as a voluntary association of people with similar interests (not to mention socio-economic levels or ethnic background), but rather, a divinely gathered people called to do life together. 

Such a view has a significant impact on what shape Christian education takes, what resources we avail ourselves of, and how we teach and train up the next generation of the church to live as faithful followers of Christ on mission with God. 

The World: The Scope of Our Priesthood
However, there is another facet to the calling to be a priesthood. Once again, Peter employs language that would have been familiar to his audience: that of Exodus 19, in which God tells Moses that Israel will be his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. 

Israel, as a people, was to serve as a priesthood on behalf of the world. They were to intercede for, and offer themselves in service (both word and deed) to the nations. In this way, they would be a blessing to the world. Yet, throughout the Old Testament, we find Israel turning in on itself, forgetting her God, and forsaking the nations around them. And though there are glimmers of this priestly work found in Elijah and Jonah, the people largely fail in this calling.

However, Jesus Christ, as representative Israel, perfectly fulfills this role of intercession and sacrificial service on behalf of the world. Nowhere is this more clear than in his atoning work on the cross--dying to satisfy the debt of sin and rising from the grave to break the power of death and evil for (ultimately) people from all tribes, tongues and nations. 

Which brings us back to Peter. Having been united to Christ, or as the apostle puts it, built as living stones into him, the church has received this responsibility to universal priesthood on behalf of the world; a responsibility to proclaim to the nations the goodness and grace of our God who delivered us out of darkness and into His wonderful light. 

Another of the Reformers, John Calvin, understood this responsibility in terms of the church's participation in the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. The church, and each member of her, is called to be a representative of Christ in his redemptive mission in the world.[3] In his commentary on Hebrews, Calvin writes this:

All believers...should seek to bring others into the church, strive to lead the wanderers back to the road, stretch forth a hand to the fallen and win over the outsiders.[4]

In both word and deed, every believer is to go forth into the world, exercising their priestly ministry on behalf of their neighbor to the glory of God. We cannot simply sit back in our pews, waiting expectantly for our friends and family, neighbors and coworkers, to come into the church, be discipled, and worship the Triune God. Instead, as the State, nationalism, and self increasingly take the place of God in the lives of those around us, we must go to them, declaring the gospel in powerful words of beauty and truth, as well as in redemptive works of love. We must present a compelling, holistic vision of the Kingdom of God and invite those around us to enter in through the only way, Jesus Christ.  

Conclusion

If we are to be reformed and always reforming, we must take seriously this calling to be a holy priesthood. This is a difficult calling; one that stretches us. And, yet, as I look to the future, I am convinced it is the way to seeing the church in the West flourish; creating a theologically-rich, deeply attractive, culturally engaged, redemptive community. Furthermore, we can enter into this difficult duty knowing that:

[Christ] has made us a kingdom of priests
to serve our God,
and we will reign on earth.
God will be all in all,
righteousness and peace will flourish,
everything will be made new,
and every eye will see at last
that our world belongs to God.
Hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!

[1] Martin Luther, The Epistle of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained (New York, NY: Anson D.F. Randolph, 1859), 106.
[2] Timothy George, "The Priesthood of All Believers," First Things, last modified October 31, 2016, accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/10/the-priesthood-of-all-believers. 
[3] George, "The Priesthood of All Believers."
[4] John Calvin, Commentaries, Heb. 10:24.
[5] An excerpt from a Contemporary Testimony of the CRCNA, Our World Belongs to God

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