Priests and the Priesthood

Priests and the Priesthood

In Exodus chapter 19 the children of Israel find themselves encamped in the Wilderness of Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain, and God gave him a message for the people. He said, ‘Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant…. ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.’ Exodus 19:5-6. God indicated that His ideal was for the entire nation of Israel to be priests, subject to the conditions being observed. It is well known that Israel did not ‘obey His voice and keep His covenant,’ and that the priesthood was confined to Aaron and his sons. This continued throughout the dispensation of law until Christ came. However, now that Christ has made His once-and- for-all sacrifice, all of the terms and conditions of law and its priesthood have been set aside in this Dispensation of Grace. God has now realized His original ideal in the Church, by bestowing upon all believers the honour and privilege of priesthood. It is the purpose of this article, to show how the priesthood functions in a personal and collective way.

Every son of Aaron was a priest by birth, and once he attained the age of 30 years, he was able to take up the responsibilities of priesthood, which primarily involved worship, in the presentation of sacrifices. Positionally, he was a priest the day he was born, but practical function required maturity and experience. It should be noted that some of the activities of the priest involved things that could be exercised personally, and others which required that his activities, should be coordinated in conjunction with other priests, and we will address the latter, later in the study.

In the Church Age, every true believer is a priest at all times, whether acting personally or collectively. Let’s consider some of the responsibilities that the New Testament intends that the priest should engage in personally. For example, in Romans 12:1, the apostle exhorts ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.’ The word ‘service‘ carries the thought of priestly service. Again the apostle wrote to the Corinthians ‘What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.’ 1 Cor. 6:19-20. This again is personal priestly exercise, closely related to the previous reference. Furthermore, he wrote ‘Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come…’ 1 Cor. 16:2-3. The apostle is referring to the collections taken in the assembly for the support of the work of the Lord, and this is also a matter of personal priestly exercise. These are a few examples of how the New Testament priest engages personally in acts of worship by giving of themselves and of their substance.

In the book of Leviticus, where instructions are given regarding the offering of sacrifices, it is noticeable that this was a joint exercise involving cooperation with others. First, the offerer came with his offering and killed it, but the next steps involved ‘the priests, the sons of Aaron,’ who then acted together, with skill and understanding, to dissect the sacrifice, and to place it on the altar in strict accordance with the instructions given to them by God, through Moses. Each knew the part he had to play, and each knew exactly when his contribution was required. It was a smooth, orderly, harmonious exercise undertaken by men in touch with God, and with each other. In this we are given to understand that functioning as a ‘priesthood,’ involves acting in cooperation with others.
While it is true that all believers are priests at all times, it is only when we come together in corporate capacity to worship, we are granted the privilege of functioning together as a ‘priesthood’. In this capacity, we do not act independently from each other, but with spiritual sensitivity as to the exercises of fellow priests. We do not come determined to offer what we have in mind, but ready to do so, if it contributes to the focus that the Spirit has established. For example, when Pharaoh finally gave Moses permission to go into the wilderness to serve the Lord, he asked that they should leave their flocks and herds in Egypt. Exod. 10:24. Moses response to Pharaoh was ‘Our cattle also shall go with us; there shall not an hoof be left behind; for thereof must we take to serve the LORD our God; and we know not with what we must serve the LORD, until we come thither.’ Exod. 10:26. In other words, they were to be prepared to offer, but what the Lord wanted would only become evident once they got there. Similarly, in our meditations on the person of Christ during the course of the week we accumulate material that could be useful in worship when we gather collectively. But once gathered, we must be sensitive as to the direction in which the collective worship is moving, and whether our thoughts will contribute to that focus. We have all experienced times when the worship is being directed along a certain course of meditation on the person of Christ, only to have it disrupted by some contribution which is out of touch with the activity of the other priests, and the focus that has been established.

As we have noted, acting as a priesthood involves worshipping in conjunction with others. That being so, who is it, and how is it, that the activities of the priesthood are coordinated and directed to avoid complete confusion? In modern days, due to lack of participation, and lack of cohesion in corporate worship, some have taken to prearranging the worship theme for the next Lord’s Day, and identifying those who should participate, and in what order. Sadly, this only deals with symptoms, and does not deal with the root cause. The problems described arise where the Holy Spirit being quenched, grieved, ignored or displaced in the personal and collective lives of the Lord’s people. It must be said that if the Spirit is not leading us personally during the week, He will not be doing so on Sunday morning. We must be living ‘ in the Spirit’ during the week, to be able so say with John ‘I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day’ Rev. 1:10. However that said, there is a difference between how the Spirit moves in us personally, and how he moves among us collectively. Going back to the book of Leviticus, the process of presenting the offering had to start with one of the priests, and afterwards the other priests made their contribution. So it is when we meet for corporate worship. It is of the utmost importance that the brother opening the time of worship, should be acting under the Spirit’s direction, and thus bring the assembly into focus upon Christ. When the Spirit moves some brother to worship with some particular focus on the person of Christ, intelligent priests will recognize this, and they will promote and perpetuate this focus accordingly.

In conclusion, the apostle John looked into heaven and he heard the four and twenty elders sing a new song saying ‘ Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests;…’ Rev. 5:9-10. Indeed what a privilege and honour has been bestowed upon us. It is hoped that these thoughts on the subject of priesthood will inspire more of our brethren to rise to their responsibilities as priests, particularly when we come together to remember our Lord Jesus Christ, and that there may be an increasing awareness of the need to act in conjunction with our brethren as led by the Spirit when we gather as a Holy Priesthood.

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William Burnett

William Burnett was born and raised in Scotland, and spent his entire professional life in the Oil refining industry. He was seconded to Canada by his employer in 1972, and accepted early retirement in 1994. He has been a "tentmaker," - working in business, whilst ministering among the assemblies - since his late teen years. Early retirement has enabled him to undertake a much wider sphere of itinerant ministry throughout North America, and abroad. He also sits on the board of Counsel Magazine, and contributes regularly to various publication, including Uplook, Precious Seed and the Choice Gleanings Calendar. He and his wife Beth reside in Oakville, Ontario, where they are in happy fellowship in Hopedale Assembly. They have three married sons, and eight grandchildren.