Doctrinal Distinctives: Priesthood

And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Revelation 1:6

Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you.
1 Corinthians 4:8

feloki-logoThe first thing that you need to understand is that you are called by God to fill one of two roles in the Kingdom of God; either you are a King or a Priest. These roles were intended by God to work together towards a common goal, namely, the establishment of the Kingdom of God here on the earth.

We can summarize these roles simply by stating that Priests are called by God to supply the vision while Kings are called to supply the provision. A Priest without Kings will have plenty of vision without the resources or help to see it come to pass. A King without a Priest will have smaller results in the marketplace and lack the vision to supply where it is truly needed.

In the past, due to a faulty revelation regarding the system that God had established, neither the Kings nor the Priests have been able to operate at their full potential and as a result, the Kingdom of God has not been able to operate at its full potential either.

It shouldn’t shock you that satan would strive to undermine the government of God (and that is really what the church is). The last thing that he wants is for us to walk in the revelation of the church as the Kingdom and government of God on this earth. By sowing a false understanding of the roles that we are to play, he has wreaked havoc in the church. One of the ways that he has done this is in the modern church is through the overemphasis on the priesthood of all believers and a lessening, even an enmity, against the idea of a ministerial priesthood and its priests. The basis for the teaching of the priesthood of all believers can be found in 1 Peter 2:5, 9 it reads:

“Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ”. and “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”.

As this reads on the surface we are all priests, the entire group, which is true. Kings are also “priests” to a degree inasmuch as they share in the consecration of election. But in the Old Testament and the New, the priesthood is made up of three distinct levels. Not understanding this can be dangerous.

The trouble comes in when you begin to couple this idea of the priesthood of all believers with the modern worldviews of antinomianism (anti-law) or egalitarianism (communistic equality).

For example, take a widely misinterpreted section of scripture that has been much abused in modern times such as 1 John 2:27. This scripture seems to teach that you have no need of man to teach you. When improper interpretation of scripture is used to bolster anarchistic antinomian views, lawlessness enters and we get ourselves into real trouble.

We need to make sure that we are practicing proper Biblical interpretation when we study scripture. Exegesis is the practice of gaining an understanding out of the text, or what did the author intend for his original audience to understand out of what he wrote? On the other hand, eisegesis is when you read your own meaning into the text and this can be quite dangerous.

In the scripture referenced above in 1 John for example, the original audience would have understood that John was referring to the “secret knowledge” supposedly gained from going to one of the special Gnostic teachers, thus gaining the special knowledge that the Gnostic cult claimed would enlighten people to the truth. John was battling that heresy at the time and his readers knew exactly what he was talking about. John was claiming that the Gnostic mystics couldn’t teach them biblical truth and that they should immediately reject anything that could not be confirmed by what they had already been hearing through apostolic teachings.

When you choose to interpret scripture using a process of eisegesis however, it could seem that John was saying that we don’t need teachers because the Holy Spirit can teach you all that you need to know. When bad interpretation like this is coupled with a limited understanding of what Peter meant regarding the priesthood of believers, it has led many to embrace lawlessness and shipwreck both theirs and other people’s faith.

When Peter referenced that we were a royal priesthood and holy nation, did you know that he was equating the Christian Church with ancient Israel? In Exodus 19:5-6 it reads;

“Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel”.

Peter, being Jewish wrote what he did from the Jewish perspective and assumed that those who read what he wrote would understand his reference. Now, let’s ask a question that should be easily answered; did the statement that all of Israel was a nation of priests mean that they had no need of a ministerial priest class in Israel? Of course it didn’t.  It simply pointed at their consecration as a people.

All of Israel was called “the chosen people”, special in the earth. Thus, they were all consecrated to God. They spoke for God to humanity by the laws they followed, by their reverence to God, by their piety, by their traditions. Thus, they were called a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. But they still had priests who spoke to them for God, taught them, worked in the temple, etc.

How did this work in actual practice? In the Old Testament you could say that there were three distinct classes of priests. First was the nation of Priests, or all of Israel. Second were the ministerial priests, those who were called into particular service to God and the temple. Thirdly was the office of High Priest, who directed and oversaw the priesthood and offered the sacrifice in the Holy of Holies once per year.

Just as someone not of Israel could not be called a member of the kingdom of priests, a normal Israelite could not offer sacrifices or serve as a priest of God. Consequently, a member of the ministerial priesthood could not choose to do the job of the High Priest. So we see that though all of Israel was a nation of Priests, there were certainly differences in the roles that they played inside of God’s Kingdom.

When there is strife over honor due to those employed in God’s service, this is exactly the situation that presented itself before Moses and Aaron in Numbers 16. Korah and his group from the Levites determined that it was too much for Aaron and his sons to be “elevated” above them due to the fact that all of the people were holy, every one of them. God’s response to those who would rail against leaders or the calling and election of God was to swallow them up. How dangerous is it for us today to embrace this spirit of Korah and pit ourselves against God’s government?

We gladly accept the priesthood of all believers as a matter of consecration. We can also say with certainty that the Church has only one High Priest, Jesus Christ our Lord (Heb. 4:14). What we have lost in many circles is the honor due to those of the Ministerial Class of Priests, those who serve God in full time ministry.

In the Old Testament, the ministerial priests were Aaron’s sons and their male descendants (Exodus 28:1, Number 18:1, 1 Chronicles 24:1-19).  They are in charge of sacrificial duty, thus only priests can offer sacrifice in the sanctuary (Number 3:10, 18:1, 5, 7). They also give instructions from God and are His messengers (Malachi 2:7), they act as judges (Deuteronomy 17:8-9, 2 Chronicles 19:8-11, Ezekiel 44:24) and they can bless in the name of God (Number 6:22-27). They served as leaders (Joshua 24:31, Judges 2:7), as judges (Deuteronomy 22:15-19, 25:7-9), as representatives of the people (2 Samuel 8:4-5, 5:3) and they participated in the sacrifice (Leviticus 4:15).

They have a clear role to play in God’s service and that role is reserved to them by God. When Saul forgot his role as King and offered priestly sacrifices in 1 Samuel 13, God stripped him of the throne. So we can see that the class distinctions are not interchangeable. Kings need Priests just as Priests need the Kings.

What we have failed to see until now is that the original three-level system was intended by God to carry over into the New Covenant as well. We can see this in the Old Testament and in the New Testament and even in the writings of the Church fathers from the first few centuries of the Christian Church. Just as there is a general class of Priest (The believers), there is also a Ministerial Class and a High Priest.

We hold that the New Testament Ministerial priesthood replaces the Old Testament’s Levitical priesthood.  Thus, Bishops (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:2) and Presbyters or Parsons (interchangeable terms according to Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5,7) and deacons (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:12) are the New Testament’s priests and Levites, while the Old Testament Levitical priesthood is no longer functional.  In fact, after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD, the sacrificial system of Judaism came to end.  However the Old Testament has a prophecy saying that Levitical priests will never cease offering sacrifice.

“For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn cereal offerings, and to make sacrifices forever.  The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers.  As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me”.  Jeremiah 33: 17-22 (emphasis added)

Because the sacrificial system has ended, the Levitical priesthood of Judaism cannot fulfill this prophecy.  This does not mean that God has put an end to calling people to serve him exclusively as ministerial priests. The Old Testament also prophesies that God had intention to extend the Levitical priesthood to include non-Jewish people.  Isaiah chapter 66 describes the prophecy that God will gather all nations and tongues to see His glory (Isaiah 66:18) and then it goes on saying-

“And I will set a sign among them, and I will send those that escape of them unto the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, that draw the bow, to Tubal, and Javan, to the isles afar off, that have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles.
And they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the LORD out of all nations upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, saith the LORD, as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD.
And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the LORD. For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain”.  Isaiah 66:21 (emphasis added)

Thus priests and Levites would be no longer hereditary or even Jewish at all. In relation to this prophecy Malachi 1:11 also prophesies that in every place offering (Greek “thusia”) will be offered to God because His Name is great among the nations.  We believe that the prophecies in Jeremiah 33:17-22 and Isaiah 66:21 find its fulfillment in the ministerial priesthood where bishops and parsons (presbyters) are the priests and the deacons are the Levites.  Note that the Isaiah 66:21 says that only “some” will become priests and Levites, thus it is cannot be a prophecy of universal priesthood of all believers.

The New Testament gives a clear distinction between priestly roles. There are bishops (Greek “episcopos” 1 Timothy 3:1) and presbyters/parsons (Greek “presbuteros” Titus 1:5) as well as deacons (Greek “diakoneo” 1 Timothy 3:10). We won’t get into the different roles that each played in this section but suffice it to show that there are three levels of ministerial priest both in the Old Testament and the New as well as in early church history.

The fact that there is a clear distinction between these ordained ministers and the laity or general priesthood of believers can easily be seen in verses like 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves.

And also 1 Timothy 5:17-19; “Let the elders (presbuteros) that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward. Against an elder (presbuteros) receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.”

The reason why the New Testament never applies the title “priest” to Christian ministers is because Christianity in the New Testament times was still a movement within Judaism (Acts 22:19 and 26:11).  The first followers of Jesus both attended Jewish temple (Acts 2:46) and broke bread (Acts 2:46 and 20:7).  Breaking bread is the other name of Eucharistic celebration (Luke 22:19 and 24:30).  Peter and John went to temple to pray (Acts 3:1) and so did Paul and others in Acts 21:26 to give offering and to announce the days of purification after performing the ritual.  To the Christians in the New Testament times, “priests” were exclusively known as the Levitical priests in the Judeo-Christian world. Only after the destruction of the temple (c. 70 AD) Christianity’s break-away away from Judaism, did we have attestation of “priests” among the Christians as testified by the writings of the Church Fathers.  The earliest reference to three-levels of priesthood (High priest, priests and Levites) among Christians was recorded in the 1 Clement (written c. 96 AD).

“Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not.  For his peculiar are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites.  The layman is bound only by the laws that pertain to laymen”. 1 Clement Chapter 40

We also have the testimony of the early Christians that the ministerial priesthood already existed in the early Church.  Ignatius (died c. 107 AD), bishop of Antioch, wrote that the celebrant of the Eucharist must be a bishop or one he has entrusted and that a bishop ministered as a priest to God. Irenius (c. 115 to 202), bishop of Lyon wrote that all apostles of Jesus were priests who served God and the altar continually. Polycrates (late 2nd century), bishop of Ephesus, also wrote that the apostle John was a priest. Tertullian (c. 160 to 230), bishop of Carthage, referred to bishops as “chief priests” or Latin “summus sacerdos” and wrote that those chosen for sacerdotal (priestly) order must be men of one marriage. His successor Cyprian (died c. 258), wrote that a bishop is Christ’s priest and that presbyters are associated with the bishop in priestly honor. He also wrote that priests (bishops and presbyters) offer the same sacrifice Jesus offered to God the Father. Thus, the title “priest” was first applied to the apostles and then to bishops who were their successors and later was also applied to presbyters.

Ignatius wrote around 100 AD; “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.

Moreover, it is in accordance with reason that we should return to soberness [of conduct], and, while yet we have opportunity, exercise repentance towards God. It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil. Let all things, then, abound to you through grace, for you are worthy. You have refreshed me in all things, and Jesus Christ [shall refresh] you. You have loved me when absent as well as when present. May God recompense you, for whose sake, while you endure all things, you shall attain unto Him.

Nor is there any one in the Church greater than the bishop, who ministers as a priest to God for the salvation of the whole world. Nor, again, is there any one among rulers to be compared with the king, who secures peace and good order to those over whom he rules. He who honours the bishop shall be honoured by God, even as he that dishonours him shall be punished by God. For if he that rises up against kings is justly held worthy of punishment, inasmuch as he dissolves public order, of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who presumes to do anything without the bishop, thus both destroying the [Church's] unity, and throwing its order into confusion? For the priesthood is the very highest point of all good things among men, against which whosoever is mad enough to strive, dishonours not man, but God, and Christ Jesus, the First-born, and the only High Priest, by nature, of the Father. Let all things therefore be done by you with good order in Christ. Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father”. Ignatius, Epistle to Smyrnaeans

So we can see that there is a distinction between Kings and Priests. We can also see that in the priestly class, there are distinctions between the general priesthood of all believers, the ministerial class and the High Priest.

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