The soul, now summoned, a gentle voice hears;
A sound not sounding; an absence now near.
Martin Luther, among his many positive contributions, is known to have championed the idea of a “priesthood of all believers.” This was the idea that every person is called to a direct and personal relationship with God. That one could turn to God directly, worship him personally, discern his word without mediation. The Catholic Church would soften Luther’s somewhat polemical take on this idea; but, nevertheless, she agrees that there is such a thing as a “common priesthood,” a priestly calling and identity that is shared by every Christian (see the Catechism #1546-47).
These are not scandalous ideas. They receive ample treatment in Scripture and are worth a closer look.
I want to talk about this idea of the common priesthood today. I’m going to run through a string of verses, commenting on each, then I’ll summarize what we learned at the end. What I want to suggest is that we all have a magnificent call. Perhaps more lofty than we currently realize.
The First Priest
The first time we encounter a priest in the pages of Scripture is in the 14th Chapter of Genesis. A man emerges as though out of time, from a place called Salem. He is not Jewish. The Jewish nation doesn’t even exist yet, Abram is still called Abram, Isaac has yet to be born, and the covenant has yet to be sealed. Nevertheless, a priest graces the pages of Scripture, performs a prophetic liturgical act and extends a blessing to Abram:
“Then Melchizedek, King of Salem, brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Gen 14:17-20.
So, with these words, we note: Melchizedek is both king and priest. Central to his act of worship are gifts of bread and wine offered to heaven. Melchizedek blesses Abram. The act of a priest is thus to bless in God’s name. He also blesses God. Then he announces the deeds of God, the things God has done on earth. The things God has done for Abram.
I wonder: what is it about a blessing that it needs to be stated by a priest? Why does God not simply do the gracious act to Abram? Why does he need Melchizedek to give voice to His action? It’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I know the answer. Some questions you need to sit with for a while. What I can say is that, on earth, God does not simply engage in gracious action toward those he blesses. He gives voice to those actions through the mediation of priests. Through the blessing of a priest. Does the vocalization of God’s graces through the words of a priest serve as a mirror that better enables those blessed to perceive the blessing? Perhaps so. Perhaps words of blessing open the intelligence of those blessed to perceive and better receive the act of blessing.
A People of Priests
In any event, we move ahead to the story of the Jewish people, as recounted in the book of Exodus. By now Abram has become Abraham. A covenant has been sealed between God and Abraham. God promises to Abraham many descendants. Isaac is born as the seal of that promise; he is born of Abraham’s old age; a miracle child. Later, of Isaac is born Jacob and Esau. Of Jacob is born Joseph and 11 other brothers; they will form the 12 tribes of Israel. This name, Israel, is given to their father Jacob after he wrestles with an angel one dark night. They are now the people of Israel and, after the entire family is deeply tested, Joseph, the blessed son, moves them to Egypt. In time the Israelites are oppressed by the Egyptian Pharoah and then Moses is born, a child to deliver the people. When Moses comes of age, and comes to know personally the transcendant God of his fathers, he readies the people for a journey across the desert – their own time of testing. He is leading them into a covenant with this God, a journey into the promised land where that covenant will receive deeper expression.
In this context, God says, in the book of Exodus:
“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:5)
We learn some remarkable things here. The people of Israel are to be a people who hears God’s voice. A people in a covenant relationship with God. A people who are God’s own people, God’s own possession. They are to be a kingdom of priests. A holy nation.
A kingdom of priests. Not: a people led by a priest. But: a kingdom of priests. That is rather extraordinary.
What Is A Priest?
Here we might say: what is a priest, let alone a kingdom of priests? What is the central defining behavior of a priest?
We can discern the response to this question through the mission God gives to the members of the tribe of Levi. The Levites received, early in the Jewish nation, a special priestly calling and privilege. They were asked, I would say, to model for the people a path that others would one day be called to follow.
What were the Levites asked to do and how is it relevant to us? Let’s listen.
“God set apart the line of Levi, to carry the ark of covenant, to stand in his presence and serve him, to bless in his name. (Deut 10:8)
What we see here are the three essential priestly duties: (1) to carry the ark (the vessel which contained the word of God, some manna, and the priestly staff of Aaron); (2) to stand in God’s presence and to serve him; (3) to bless, as Melchizedek did, in God’s name. We should be able to perceive, here, a sense in which these tasks need not be exclusive to a priest. They are behaviors that, in the New Covenant, we may feel as being addressed to us. Namely: to carry the word of God in the heart; to be mindful of God and to serve Him; to bless others in his name.
With this idea in mind, we move forward to the psalms, where we read a dialogue between the Father and his anointed one:
“You are a prince from the day of your birth on the holy mountains; from the womb, before the dawn, I begot you. The Lord has sworn an oath he will not change. ‘You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchizedek of old.’ (Ps. 109:3-4)
This verse is understood as a prophecy that Jesus fulfills, when He realizes the ideal of a priesthood that is both priestly and kingly. A priest and king, like Melchizedek. It’s a concept we need to note here because it will be taken up by Peter as he presents the dignity and role of every Christian.
Meanwhile, we note, in passing, that Isaiah also perceived the priestly call of the people of Israel: “You will be called the priests of the LORD.” (Is. 61:6)
The Common Priesthood in the New Testament
Now I want to turn to the apostle Peter, who delivers the following remarkable injunction – not to his fellow apostles, or to those training to be apostles, but to all the Christians living in the Church of Rome:
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart to announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wondrous light.” 1 P 2:9
Read that verse again. It’s one of the most beautiful, elevated, sublime phrases ever uttered by a prince of the Church to us who stand in the congregation. To us who read our Bibles in our homes. Who labor in an office 40-60 hours a week. Who toil in the kitchen, cooking meals, reviewing homework. Who drive to and from sports practices. Who sit by the bedside of aging parents and grandparents. Who, as grandparents, help our children care for, drive and feed their own children. Peter is saying that we – somehow we: humble, secular, busy we – are a chosen race. A royal priesthood. A holy nation. A people who have been consecrated, set apart, marked by a special grace. The grace and the capacity to raise praises, from this dusty earth, up to heaven. To praise him who called us out of darkness into the splendor of his luminous light.
What’s noteworthy here is that Peter assigns to us the call and the identity of being a royal priest. That is, a kingly priest. One in whom both kingship and priestly-ness inhere. Only two figures in all of Scripture have merited this dual call and identity. Melchizedek and Jesus. Jesus fulfills the kingly priesthood that Melchizedek manifested as a kind of prophecy. But now, in Jesus’ wake, we all inherit this priestly and kingly call.
Let that sink in. You have a royal and a priestly calling.
This idea is further echoed in the book of Revelations. Again, in words that refer to all states of the Christian life, John cries out in praise to God:
“You made them a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” Rev 5:10
A kingdom and priests. Reigning upon the earth. This is what John and Peter mean: the life of love, faith and service that shines like a light from the witness of the humblest Christian home is no mere ordinary life. It is a kingdom. It is a reigning, a command, a triumph, a regal presiding over darkness and egoism. Over sin. It is a priestly life that gives praise to the one who called us, out of darkness, into His wondrous light.
Anna and the Priestly Heart
I leave you with one final image. An important and concrete indication, in Scripture, that the common priesthood is not reserved to men. This is perhaps an obvious point, but it is meaningful to see it in Scripture nonetheless. For there we see, even before Jesus assumes adulthood, a beautiful illustration of the common priesthood in the figure of Anna. Anna reveals the common priesthood as a kind of prophetic image we are all called to live.
We read this arresting phrase:
“Anna never left the Temple. She worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” (Lk. 2:37)
What does the figure of Anna and this verse tell us? What is true of Anna that is priestly, that might be a call to all of us? Well, what does Anna do?
She never leaves the Temple: what is that but to never leave the presence of God?
She worships night and day: is this not, like the Levitic priesthood, to stand in God’s presence and to serve Him?
She fasts regularly and prays: what is this but a continual thirsting of the soul for the higher things, the things of the Kingdom?
What Anna reveals is the disposition of a heart that loves God with all one’s heart, with all one’s intelligence, with all one’s soul, with all one’s strength.
Hers is a priestly heart. And I suppose we must add, with Peter: it is also a kingly heart.
The Temple of the Heart
Before we close, it’s good to remember here that, in the New Covenant Jesus establishes, there is a more important place to worship God than the Temple, a place more primary.
The human heart. This is a place so wondrous that God chooses to dwell there.
Amen, amen, I tell you, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, the day is coming – and is now here – when the true worshipers of the Father will worship him not in the Temple at Jerusalem nor upon the holy mountains of Samaria but in the human heart, in spirit and truth. (See Jn 4:21-23).
The heart is the Temple of the common priesthood. You could think of it as the common Temple. This is not to say that Churches are not important. But for those with the call of the common priesthood, the first Temple is in the human heart. In your heart. There it is that we are each called to carry God’s word in a delicate and modest tabernacle of flesh and bones; there is it is that we are to stand in God’s presence, to serve Him and to serve others. There it is – there where the living water from Jesus’ own heart bubbles up in us – there we are to draw and speak a word of love and blessing to those around us.
May we all hear this call of the common priesthood. And may we bless those around us: those in our kitchens, our carpools, our work places, our places of recreation and the hospitals we visit. May we bless in God’s name. And may we show His love.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, you call your disciples to share in your royal priesthood. To dwell in an uninterrupted communion with you, in the Father and the Spirit; to stand in your presence and serve you, to bless in your name. Amen. Have mercy on me a sinner.