The Priesthood of All Believers: A Covenant Community in Christ

            The Lord through the prophet Jeremiah prophesied of a day when He would establish a new covenant for His people, a covenant unlike the old one enacted under Moses. It was under the Old Covenant where Israel was called to be a nation of priests to a watching world, a mediatorial son who would make Yahweh known to the nations. But God was clear: Israel had become adulterous; “they broke my covenant, even though I was their husband.” And so God promised that with the coming of this new covenant sin would be forgiven, the law would be written upon his peoples hearts, and “no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying ‘Know the LORD’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

            It was in Christ and his death upon the cross where this new covenant was cut and the author of Hebrews argues from this that now not only is Jesus Christ our great high priest, our better and sole mediator, but for those of us who are united to him by faith, we too - all of us from the least of us to the greatest - are priests in Him. We are now able “with confidence to draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace” (Hebrews 4:16). The old covenant priestly system is passé (Hebrews 8:13).

            Indeed, John himself see’s Christ’s death for us in this regard when he writes that in Him we have been “freed from our sins by his blood and made a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6). John is clearly echoing God’s redemptive purpose for Israel where God tells Israel that if they will “obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples... and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

            But alas, God’s law under Moses was written upon stone tablets and not upon the people’s hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3). A New Covenant was needed - Christ and Christ applied to us by His Spirit. “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

            Here Peter is perhaps the clearest as he applies this truth. What the law was unable to do under Moses, Christ by His Spirit is accomplishing now in the church. “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 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” (1 Peter 2:8-9).[1]

            It should go without saying that the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is fundamentally a doctrine that fits within God’s unfolding plan of covenantal redemption. But what does this mean for our everyday lives together today?

            In the history of the church the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has waxed and waned. Indeed, shortly after the death of the apostles a tiered and hierarchical view of the church began to (d)evolve. The loss of the idea of God’s covenantal purposes brought with it a loss of this doctrine and the church sadly returned to a polity flavored more by the old covenant than the new. It is not insignificant that with Luther’s rediscovery of the relationship between the law and the Gospel, and later with Calvin’s insights into the Bible’s covenantal storyline, there was also a retrieval of this precious doctrine.

            So as we think afresh about this doctrine today let us do so in light of covenant. And it is precisely here where I think we can find a sure footing for a responsible understanding. Many in the past, like Alexander Campbell, have appealed to the priesthood of all believers to justify unhealthy slogans like “no Creed but the Bible.”[2] Others have appealed to the doctrine to dismiss our need for church or for pastors and teachers.[3] But the believers priesthood is not a rampant individualism. If we keep and understand the doctrine in light of our covenant relationship in Christ then we can continue to maintain its communal and ecclesial benefits.

            Kevin Vanhoozer writes that “Luther never spoke of the priesthood of the believer, in the singular, and neither does the New Testament. The Reformers emphasized the priesthood of all believers not as isolated but as gathered individuals, baptized members of a local body anointed with the Holy Spirit.”[4]  Hence, according to our new covenant commitments we are as believers and fellow priests in Christ to “intercede for one another” (1 Timothy 2:1) and “address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19).

            This is why Calvin could write that “it is clear that every member of the church is charged with the responsibility of public edification according to the measure of God’s grace, provided he perform it decently and in order.”[5] And this is also why Paul could write that the “pastors and teachers are to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up of the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:12-13). In other words, here finally was this Covenant Community where no one would have to teach his neighbor or brother, saying “Know the LORD”, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

   



[1] Notice the renewed emphasis upon being a witness to the world for God.

[2] Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel. p.157.

[3] ibid. 157

[4] ibid. 158

[5] Calvin, Institutes, IV.I.12

 


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