This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
We Are Priests
Our role as priests—a role that includes both male and female—is a premier theme throughout Scripture. Watch for tabernacles, temples, sacrifices, cleansing, and any time that God comes close. Here are ten things you should know about the priesthood.
1. Priests are invited to draw near to the Lord.
Priests had a full job description, but the essence of their work was that they were invited to come into God’s house and enjoy his hospitality. Could there be anything better? Of course, priests didn’t just casually wander into the Lord’s inner room—the Holy of Holies, the throne room itself. The Lord always cleansed and dressed his priests when they had fellowship with him. Then they could wander around, confident in his earnest invitation and blessing.
Who among us feels worthy of such an invitation? No one. Our sin and shame suggest that we should be far from him. But he created us to draw near, and he will make a way for us to do that.
2. Adam and Eve were priests.
Any important human identity should appear early in Scripture, and the priestly identity appears in the beginning. Eden was the first tabernacle, the garden its first Holy of Holies. Adam and Eve were commissioned to work and keep the garden, and they enjoyed God’s presence. This same language is used for the priests who worked in the later wilderness tabernacle. Adam and Eve were a royal priesthood.
3. Israel was a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6); the Aaronic priests served in the tabernacle.
When we think about priests, we imagine bearded men. Israel, however, was a nation of priests. God walked among all of them. They were all intended to have communion with their Lord. His presence with them all was the distinguishing mark of the nation. Within Israel, there were those uniquely set apart to serve in the tabernacle. But the Aaronic priesthood was always meant to give way to a Holy of Holies that would be open to all God’s people.
4. Priests distinguished between holy, clean, and unclean (Lev. 10:10).
Here is Scripture’s basic taxonomy. It sounds ancient and irrelevant, but we still have an intuitive sense of the distinctions. Unclean means that there is something wrong with us and we are sure everyone knows it. Clean means that we are free to move about the community without painful self-consciousness. Holy, we think, identifies someone other than ourselves. The holy belongs to God and is close to him.
Think of these distinctions as distance. The unclean stayed outside the community until they were cleansed. The clean could come closer to God’s house, but not too close. The holy were brought into God’s house. We, God’s priests, are a holy nation (Ex. 19:6). We are cleansed, sanctified and brought close to him.
5. Priests worked in God’s house, and, like most any house, it can tell you a lot about its primary resident.
God’s tabernacle was minimalist, which brings attention to every feature, and it all revealed Jesus. When you walked into his courtyard, you passed the altar. There was no other way in. Then you reached the water basin from which you washed your hands and feet. Or more specifically, Jesus himself washed your feet (John 13). Next was God’s house itself. You passed through curtains that had angels embroidered on them—you were moving into the heavenly court. It is still worth making the trip.
6. Jesus is not only The High Priest, his image is etched on everything in his house.
The Gospel of John is the New Testament book that connects the tabernacle to Jesus in every way. John’s gospel was the only one written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D., and he wanted to assure his readers that temple worship would, indeed, continue in its fullness in Christ. With this in mind, the gospel begins with John the Baptist announcing, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus is the light, the bread of life, and the water of life—all these are temple references. Priests now have their house in him.
God walks among us through his Spirit who dwells in us.
7. In the New Testament, our priestly role is taken over by the word saint.
As we rummage through the New Testament looking for our priestly identity, it seems largely absent, except for Peter’s comment that we are a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). But we shouldn’t be surprised that, given the conflicts between Jesus and the priests of the day, the epistles chose the word saint to continue this theme. Saints are holy ones, and holy ones belong to God. They are close to him and he does not give them up. A typical New Testament greeting is, “To all the saints.”
8. The Apostle Paul writes that we are now the Holy of Holies.
A New Testament image for you and for the church is that you are a “living stone,” part of a “spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:4–5, also Eph. 2:19–22). That house is none other than the Holy of Holies itself. We are now the place in which heaven and earth meet. God walks among us through his Spirit who dwells in us. When those who had been to Jerusalem heard this, they remembered the temple, which by all accounts, was beautiful and glorious.
9. Scripture begins and ends with priestly images.
Our story as priests aims for the time when Christ will unite all things in himself (Eph. 1:10). The heavenly Holy of Holies will descend and infuse our spiritual house and earth itself in a way that all the earth will be his Holy of Holies (Rev. 21:15–17). Awe and intimacy, which are ours now in Christ, will be ours even more.
10. We now live out the priesthood of all believers.
Meanwhile, as we wait for the full descent of heaven to earth, we live as God’s priests—the body of Christ. We still have to work out local church structures and organization, but ordinary people now have the Spirit of God and do the work of ministry. Everyone is busy and needed. Our mission is to be close to the Lord, invite others to come closer to him, and speak words of blessing in the name of Jesus.
Edward T. Welch is the author of Created to Draw Near: Our Life as God’s Royal Priests.
Popular Articles in This Series
What does it mean that God condescended in Christ and dwells with us through His Spirit?
From the very beginning, Eden was not meant to be static; it was headed somewhere.
Thomas Schreiner shares 10 important things you should know about the biblical covenants—the backbone of the biblical story.
What is Christian ethics and what role should it play in the life of a believer?