Τhe terms “priest” and “priesthood,” when relating to New Testament believers, only appear in 1 Peter (2:5,9) and Revelation (1:6; 5:10). We will look primarily at the two references in 1 Peter, as they provide for us all the information we need concerning the priesthood of believers.

First of all, I would draw your attention to the first readers of this wonderful epistle. They are described as “strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1).[1] It is evident that these were primarily Jewish Christians, living in a variety of communities in what is known today as Turkey. This epistle was not written to one particular church, but to believers scattered in a number of locations.

A Holy Priesthood

Peter describes them as “being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5 NASB). As individuals trust Christ, they are being added, stone to stone, to this building. This verse is not referring to a local church since these believers lived in different locations. The reference is to the Church of the dispensation, to which every genuine believer is added at the moment of conversion. The verse goes on to indicate that we have been added to the Church in order that we may function as “a holy priesthood.” In other words, every believer is a priest to God, regardless of what his or her church affiliation might be.

Peter goes on to teach that the purpose of this holy priesthood is that we might “offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Notice, then, that the first purpose of our priesthood is Godward. We do not offer animal sacrifices, but spiritual sacrifices. For example, in Romans 12:1, Paul exhorts “that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” The verb “present” and the noun “service” are terms that relate to the functioning of priests. The consecration of our total selves to God is the function of holy priesthood.

In Hebrews 10:19-22 we read, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near …” This indicates that, as holy priests, we can enter into the   presence of God as worshippers, both publicly and privately. Again, in Hebrews 13:15 we read, “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.” We have so much cause to offer praise to God. He has saved us from so much, has brought us into such an elevated place, and given us such a hope for the future. But in this verse we are told that in offering praise to God we are functioning as priests.

Then again, in verse 16 we read, “But to do good and to communicate [share] forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” In sharing what we have with those in greater need, we are actually offering up to God spiritual sacrifices and giving Him pleasure. Similarly, in Philippians 4:18, Paul refers to the gift that the Philippian Christians had sent to support him in prison in Rome as “an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God.” In seeking to support those who serve God, we are functioning as holy priests.

A Royal Priesthood

In 1 Peter 2:9 we read, “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 marvellous light.” In this verse we are given four descriptions that are true of all believers. First, we are a chosen generation (or race); that is, we share a common origin. Second, we are a royal priesthood; that is, we share a common function. Third, we are a holy nation; that is, we share a common loyalty. Finally, we are a peculiar people (a people whom He has acquired); that is, we share a common ownership. Paul tells us that “ye are not your own … ye are bought with a price” (1Co 6:19,20). For our purpose we will only look at “a royal priesthood.”

Notice that the purpose of this royal priesthood is “that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” The word translated “praises” appears five times in the NT. On four of those occasions, it is translated “virtue.” It has the idea of something that evokes admiration and would be better translated “excellencies.” It is always used in a moral sense in the NT.

If “a holy priesthood” emphasizes our responsibilities Godward, “a royal priesthood” emphasizes our responsibilities manward. Notice that the Lord had called these people “out of darkness into his marvellous light.” While this statement relates to a change in their standing before God, it is also indicating that God has effected a moral transformation in their lives. Hence, as a royal priesthood, our function is to display the beautiful moral qualities of the Lord Jesus to a world that has rejected Him. There are a variety of ways in which we can do this. We can do it in the public preaching of the gospel. We can do it by inviting people to attend a gospel meeting. We can do it by giving gospel tracts. However, the best gospel tract is displaying Christlike features in our lives.

Many years ago, an evangelist was having gospel meetings in a city in England. He was staying with a coal merchant. One day the coal merchant returned home from his work and mentioned to the evangelist that he had been giving out tracts that day. The evangelist said to him, “You should have told me earlier. I would have come with you to give out tracts.” The man replied, “Not these tracts.” He had been giving sacks of coal to poor people who couldn’t afford to buy coal. Selfless giving to the poor is the best tract that you can give. In this and other ways, even by the way we respond to ill treatment, we are functioning for God as royal priests.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.