Summary: What does it mean that we are all priests?
Priesthood of all believers
What’s in a label? What’s in a term for someone? Sometimes there is a lot and sometimes there is not much. What term do you use for me? How do you think of my role? Often when talking with people outside of a church context, and particularly outside of a protestant church context, people don’t know how to ‘label my role’. The other night Leni was picking up some take-away Thai food from the local church and the lady who worked there was asking about me. She wanted to know what I did. Leni was trying to describe my role. The place to start was by talking about a monk. I’m kind of link a monk – but different. At the Wests Tigers I often call myself the ‘priest’ because that is what most of them can relate to, although I don’t really think of myself as ‘the priest’. Why not? What is it about our church, or more specifically Protestant church culture, that means that I’m not a ‘priest’?
Context: Church History
In John chapter 4, John describes a discussion that Jesus has with a Samaritan woman at a well. She asks him a question about where is the right place to worship. Is it on the Mountain where the Samaritan’s worship or on the mountain where the Jews worship. Jesus answered that it because he had come it no longer mattered about the place where you worship but the way you worship.
One of the implications of Jesus answer was that there was no longer a need to maintain a place where ‘God lived’. No longer are we to think of God living in a certain place, but rather God is now to be seen as living in the hearts of those who followed him.
This had implications for the Israelite priesthood. They had a priesthood who looked after the temple, the place where God lived. It was their role. It was their duty before God. If there was no longer anything special about the temple then the role of the priests had changed. In fact there was no longer any differentiation between priests and normal people who followed God. All were priests. When we look at the twelve apostles we don’t find one being a priest and the others not. We find that they all have a relationship with God. There were all ‘priests’. They fulfilled the roles of priests according to the new revelation of God.
However, Jesus didn’t completely deal with sin in our lives this side of death and sin continued to try and work distance between people and God. People tend to feel fearful of God. We, like the Israelites at Mount Sinai, tend to want someone else to deal with God for us. So it didn’t take long for the church to start establishing a difference between those who were set aside to serve and the rest of the people.
A ‘new priesthood’ was established. Though it wasn’t completely the same there were some differences. However because the word ‘priest’ started to be used people read their Old Testament and started to project ideas on to the priests. And so while some of Jesus’ teaching about the loss of the role of priests was lost, not all was lost in Catholic or Orthodox theology, but it was often obscured by terms and people’s understanding of those terms, right or wrong. In time the new priesthood became very entrenched and took on laws, based on the Old Testament. We see this priesthood in the Orthodox Church and in the Catholic Church and even to an extent in the Anglican Church. Later theologians, such as Luther, rejected this priesthood. They saw it as being irrelevant for the life style of Jesus followers.
Why did the reformers reject what the establish priesthood had become? Today I want to have a look at some of the things that the reformers saw that they were re-establishing when they promoted the idea of ‘the priesthood of all believers’. This is again one of the distinctives for us as a Baptist church. It is a part of the foundation of our understanding of ourselves as a church. Therefore it is an important concept in understanding how the church works and why it does what it does.
The first aspect of this idea of priesthood of all believers that I wish to discuss tonight relates to access to God. We all (as priests in God’s sight) have access to God’s presence. In the Old Testament there was initially a tent where God lived and then later a temple. Now of course we all understand that God didn’t just live in a tent, or in a temple. Rather the idea was that God’s presence was in a special way in this tent / temple. They knew that God is everywhere. In Psalm 139:7-9 it says ‘where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.’ God was everywhere. But he was especially in the temple.