Priests, under Jesus our head priest.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 September 2016

Every Christian is part of God’s nation of priests. Elders especially.

Priest /prist/ n. Person able to perform a religion’s rituals, and therefore intercede between God and his followers.
[Priestlike /'pris(t).laɪk/ adj., priestly /'pris(t).li/ adj.]

Protestants tend to translate presbýteros as “elder,” by which we mean the senior Christians in a church.

Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and some Lutherans, translate it “priest.” Properly “priest” would be the Greek word yeréfs—but for the most part, I don’t disagree with this translation. Y’see, the elders of the church are our priests.

Technically every Christian is a priest, for it was after all God’s intention to create a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Ex 19.6, 1Pe 2.9 Jesus made his followers, us Christians, a kingdom of priests to our God and his. Rv 1.6, 5.10 Elders in particular happen to be able and mature enough to perform priestly functions. They can preach, prophesy, lead us in worship, perform baptisms, anoint sick people, distribute communion, lay hands on people for dedication or commission or anointing, intercede for others in prayer, and perform weddings.

Although the state tends to get picky about who can do that last one—separation of church and state regardless. It’s primarily for that reason certain churches only permit priestly duties to ordained elders, certain leaders who’ve been carefully selected and prepped. In those churches (and they aren’t just the Catholics, Orthodox, and so forth) not just any Christian can serve as a priest.

And a lot of us Christians are really picky about who can serve as priest. A new believer can anoint and heal a sick person, same as any elder. God can use anybody, y’know. But whenever we’re sick, and we want a fellow Christian to pray for us, whom do we usually go to? Right you are: An elder. A mature Christian. Not some newbie, who doesn’t yet have the hang of hearing the Holy Spirit; not some longtimer who lacks spiritual maturity. We want someone whom we know can minister to us properly. Some Christians won’t permit anybody to minister to ’em but an elder; and in a lot of cases they only want the senior pastor of their church, ’cause they’re sure that guy knows God. (Hopefully so.)

That’s why, when a newbie came running to the front of the church, hoping to preach a little something, they’re not automatically gonna get the microphone. We tend to keep priestly functions in the elders’ hands. We permit newbies to do it only under an elder’s supervision and training.

Or when there’s absolutely no one else available. Or when they’re the pastors’ kids. Or when nobody else knows how to play the piano so well. Or when they’re interns who’ve been really good at hiding their hypocrisy whenever the grown-ups are around. Let’s be honest; we’ve got cracks in the system. But generally we’ve screened people before the minister as priests.

I should add many of the same Christians who claim presbýteros means “priest,” never bother to translate the feminine presbytéra/“elder (woman)” 1Ti 5.2 as “priestess.” Relax. I’ll get to that.

Old Testament priesthood.

In ancient times—same as today—anybody could declare themselves a priest. Takes chutzpah to claim you know God, or how to access him and determine his will. Hopefully it’s true, but as we all know, it’s not always. The tricky part is getting other people to believe you, and come to you to be ministered to.

Anybody can claim God made ’em an apostle, and start a non-denominational church, but will anyone attend? Well, sometimes. Now, take these humble beginnings, wait a couple generations, and you’ve got an organized religion.

Ideally the religion would recruit kings, who made really influential followers. Of course, if we’re talking a fake religion, it wasn’t long before the kings realized how useful it was to run the scam, rather than be run by it. If they hadn’t already declared themselves gods (as did the Egyptian pharaohs), they often were priests, even head priests, of their religions. That’s what we see all over antiquity. There’s Melchizédek in Genesis, there are the Maccabee/Hasmonean kings of Jerusalem, there’s the emperor of Rome as pontifex maximus/“chiefest priest” of Jupiter.

Priesthood tended to be hereditary. Grandpa was a priest, Dad was a priest, and so were you, and your sons after you. Wasn’t necessarily because there was something special in your bloodline, but because that’s how all trades worked back then: Priesthood was the family business. In the Law, the LORD assigned the entire tribe of Levi to function as his priests. Nu 3.6 This was Moses and Aaron’s tribe. Aaron was made the head priest, and only Aaron’s descendants could receive that title.

Instead of land the Levites got cities, scattered all over the nation. Instead of working as farmers they’d perform priestly duties. The other 12 tribes were to support them with their sacrifices and tithes.

Priests were required to be physically perfect. They couldn’t intermarry with other tribes. They had to remain ritually clean. They were expected to keep the tabernacle (later temple) clean and ready; officiate at prayers, sacrifices, and dedications; declare people and things clean or unclean, guilty or innocent; and minister by performing all the rituals of the Hebrew religion.

Now, that’s the Law. We don’t know how well people stuck to it—and considering the Prophets’ complaints, I’m betting they didn’t. It appears there were priests who weren’t Levite. Fr’instance Samuel ben Elkanah, a descendant of Joseph, not Levi, was permitted to perform priestly duties on account of his parents dedicating him to the LORD and having the priests raise him. Maybe kids like Samuel were rare, but likely people left their kids to the LORD all the time.

The king of Israel was also a huge exception. Kingly and priestly duties regularly overlapped. In Psalm 2, we read of how the Israelis thought of their king (or at least how their kings thought of themselves): God “gave birth” to them, Ps 2.7 adopted them as his sons, and he had the right to ask his Father for anything—including “the ends of the earth.” Ps 2.8

No, the kings of Israel couldn’t perform all the priestly duties. King Uzziah ben Amaziah tried burning incense in temple, and God struck him down with leprosy, making it impossible for him to ever go to temple again. 2Ch 26.16-21 But like David ben Jesse, they could lead worship; like Solomon ben David, they could officiate at prayers, sacrifices, and dedications; like Hezekiah ben Ahaz, they could intercede with God for their nation. And all this applies to Jesus, the ultimate Messiah, who’s our head priest. He 6.20, 8.1

Christian priesthood.

As Messiah’s followers, we Christians fall under Messiah’s priesthood. As his followers, we’re his priests.

Whenever Christians use “priesthood” type language, the first thing people think of are our rituals. (And sometimes weird secret stuff—even though we Christians aren’t supposed to have any weird secret stuff. Blame the Mormons for this one.) Yeah, sometimes we do ritual stuff, like communion and baptisms. But most of the time we serve as priests simply through “being Jesus” to others: Since Jesus isn’t physically here, and we are, we function as his representatives. We demonstrate God’s kingdom through our good deeds. We share Jesus’s grace and forgiveness with the world. And one another.

Like I said, every Christian is meant to do this. We’re all supposed to grow into mature Christians, and serve one another and the world in “the priesthood of all believers,” as Protestants put it.

Problem is, this isn’t always what happens. The most obvious example: Those churches which refuse to permit women to minister.

Even though women apostles, Jn 20.17-18, Ro 16.7 evangelists, Jn 4.29, Pp 4.3 prophets, Ac 21.9 teachers, Ac 18.26 and elders 1Co 16.19, 2Ti 4.19, Pm 1.2 are in the New Testament, these churches pretend these examples were first-century flukes. Or even that the women aren’t even there, like when the NASB translates Yunián/“Junia” as “Junias.” Ro 16.7 Because Paul objected to women disrupting the worship services in Ephesus, these churches assume this means women can’t serve at all, or never in a way which puts them in charge of men. But really, they’re just choosing an interpretation which permits ’em to institutionalize sexism—and quench everything the Holy Spirit does through his daughters.

Forbidding women from ministry is a legitimate outrage. But more often, bellyaching comes from immature Christians who covet leadership positions, and wanna know why they can’t perform baptisms, lead prayers, or preach. Or why their fellow Christians never come to them for these things: How come when the pastor prays for the sick, it’s considered more significant, more meaningful, than when they do it? Really it’s because they figure these ministry positions come with authority, power, and honor, and that’s what they desire. Not to give, but receive.

Now, the immature Christians have a point: If all Christians are priests, of course they’re priests too. But as I’ve said, immature Christians make lousy ministers—as the leaders of our churches often learn the hard way. They’re loveless prophets. Graceless preachers. Performance-focused worship leaders. Hypocritical prayer leaders. Gossipy confessors. I’ve been burned by immature Christians many times. You don’t want such people in charge of anything, in positions where they’ll do real and lasting harm. Reserving these jobs for elders just makes sense.

So if you wanna function as a priest in your church, work on your maturity. Pitch in at your church. Develop spiritual fruit. Focus on getting the job done, not on the honor and praise you feel you merit because of your job title. Be like Jesus to other people. He came to serve, not to be served. Mk 10.45 Once people see Christlike maturity in you, they’ll seek you out.