Priestly Profiles: The Priesthood of Believers

The question of identity is a major preoccupation of contemporary Western society. It hardly demands any very penetrating insight to understand why this is so. The instability of the modern world, the erosion of the traditional markers of identity, and the seismic shifting of the foundations of society have left many people unsure of who they are or why they’re here.

As believers, we have the tremendous blessing of knowing that there is no rock like our God (1Sa 2:2). But even so, we are not immune to the trauma of unexpected events and unanticipated turmoil, and sometimes we, too, can find ourselves questioning our identity. That certainly seems to have been the experience of the believers to whom Peter addressed his first epistle. In a world turned upside down by the “fiery trial” of persecution (1Pe 4:12), these scattered and suffering saints must have struggled to make sense of their identity. This is not just guesswork. Peter’s epistle to these believers directly addresses their suffering and does so, in part, by reminding them of who they really are. He does this right from the beginning of the epistle. Its opening words are addressed, in a literal translation, to “chosen, strange, scattered ones.” That paradoxical description captures the manward and Godward aspects of these believers’ identity. As far as men – and perhaps as far as they themselves – were concerned, they were merely aliens: displaced refugees, without a patrimony, of no economic or political importance. But, as far as God was concerned, these believers were “elect,” with a unique and special place in God’s purpose. And none of this was by accident. Their entire situation – their status and their scattering alike – was “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.”1

This identity – who they really were – was given practical expression in their present standing “in the sanctification of the Spirit.” And it had a goal in view:   “for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (ESV). These expressions have been understood in a variety of ways, and Peter’s reference to “obedience … and … sprinkling” has been particularly problematic for interpreters. Many commentators have taken these terms as a reference to conversion. However, the word for obedience more often refers to the ongoing obedience of the believer and, in its noun form, is never used of conversion alone. In addition, the word translated “sprinkling” here is used elsewhere in the NT, not of salvation, but in relation to the inauguration of the covenant (Heb 12:24).2 It is, therefore, probable that Peter is referring, not to the conversion of these believers, but to an aspect of their relationship with God. Along these lines, some commentators have seen here a reference to Exodus 24 (the establishment of the covenant with the nation); others have seen an echo of Numbers 19 (the red heifer); still others Leviticus 14 (the cleansing of the leper). The contexts of these passages (Exodus 24, in particular) would fit the emphasis of 1 Peter 1. But there is another possibility, another occasion when, in the life of the nation, blood was sprinkled. That occasion was the consecration of the priests (Exo 29; Lev 8).

That Peter has this in mind is a possibility in chapter 1. As we move into chapter 2, however, we encounter a similar constellation of concepts that makes it seem probable that Peter has priesthood in view in chapter 1. In 2:4, Peter returns to the topic of election – not now of these believers, but of Christ. As in chapter 1, this election stands in opposition to the world’s  estimation – Christ is “disallowed indeed of men, but chosen [eklektos] of God, and precious” (2:4).3 Chosen saints, despised  by men, have come to a chosen Saviour,  despised by men, and have found their true identity in association with Him. In Him, they have found the One who was foretold in OT Scripture (Psa 118:22,23; Isa 8:14,15; 28:16).4 He is the “living Stone”; they have “also” become living stones. That identity stands not just in relation to Christ, but to each other; notwithstanding their physical and geographical dispersion, these saints “are being built up as a spiritual house,”5  brought together into a coherent and ordered structure. Although some have seen this house as the local church, it seems altogether more likely, in the wider context of the epistle and in the context of the argument that Peter is making here, that this house is the Church, the body of Christ.6 Our identity as believers is built on Christ, but it is also closely connected with every other believer (and not just those with whom we meet on a Lord’s Day morning).

As believers, we are living stones in a building. The solidity and stability of the imagery is obvious – this is no passing phase; we are here to stay. But we are more than just immobile stones, for Peter tells us not just who, but what we are, and what we do. We are “an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (2:5). It is telling that Peter speaks not of individual priests, but of a priesthood. Peter is the only NT writer to use this word (here and in 2:9) and it is best understood as “a collective singular noun that denotes the body of persons who function as priests.”7  This priesthood is holy, and Peter has already done a good deal in the opening chapters of this epistle to explain to us what holiness involves. As members of this priesthood, believers engage, not in the slaying, skinning and immolation of bullocks and rams and birds, but in the offering up of “spiritual sacrifices.” That these sacrifices are acceptable to God through Christ is a truth beautifully captured in the words of Mary Peter’s hymn, “To all our prayers and praises Christ adds His sweet perfume.”8

The contrast between those who reject Christ (and His people) and those who accept Him is further developed in the following section. On the one hand, we have those who “stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this stumbling they were also appointed” (2:8 LSB), those whose disbelief and disobedience mark them out for the fate that cannot be avoided by those who reject Christ. On the other, we have those to whom He is precious. Indeed, this beautiful expression might be more accurately rendered “the honor is for you who believe” (v7 ESV). This rendering is less familiar and perhaps less touching, but it fits the context of Peter’s argument well – believers “will never be put to shame” (v6 NIV) but receive honour because of their belief in Christ.

Peter picks up the theme of privilege again in verse 9: “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.” The language used here is strikingly rich, and echoes many of the distinctive privileges of Israel. In particular, the fact that Christians are described as “a royal priesthood, an holy nation” echoes the promise of God in Exodus 19:6. There is no thought here of any replacement theology. Peter is not saying that these believers have taken the place of Israel. Rather, the blessings and privileges of the elect nation are revealed as prototypes for the blessings and privileges of an elect people. Peter “used a series of designations that depicted their corporate identity (v9a), stated their divinely intended function (v9b), and concluded with a reminder of their changed position (v10).”9

Israel’s status as “a kingdom of priests” should have seen her announce the character of Jehovah to the world. In that task, she sadly, signally failed. But now “a royal priesthood” has been entrusted with the task of showing “forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” Those who go into the presence of God as holy priests go out as royal priests. Those who adore Him in the sanctuary announce Him in the world. And those poor scattered aliens whose world had been turned utterly upside down are reminded of the wonder of their true identity – God’s elect, set apart by His Spirit and, by the sprinkled blood of Christ, consecrated as priests. May we, like them, be enabled to grasp the wonder of our true identity as “chosen, strange, scattered ones.”

1 “Many translations and commentaries directly unite [this phrase and the two that follow it] with the term ‘elect’ … [T]hat connection … is not obvious from Peter’s word order. If that was the intended connection, then ‘elect’ should properly stand after ‘Bithynia.’ But since seven nouns intervene, that understanding is improbable …  It seems most natural to take the phrases as part of an entire dative construction that identifies the readers. The three phrases are not merely a closer definition of their election but relate to their total position as ‘elect sojourners of the dispersion.’” D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 2002). See also Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale NT Commentaries 17, (London: IVP Academic, 2009), 52-58.

2 “Sprinkling” in relation to the Passover in Hebrews 11:28 translates a different Greek word.

3 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

4 The relevance of Peter’s discussion of OT revelation in 1:10-12 should not be missed here.

5 ESV rendering. Some translations render this as an imperative – cf. the RSV: “be yourselves built into a spiritual house.”

6 See, for a fuller discussion, Mark Sweetnam, “Q&A Forum: Spiritual House,” Truth & Tidings, (2017) 68:12, ( Additional to the points made, there is the fact that Scripture more widely speaks of our building into the local assembly, not of our being built into it. Making this building the local assembly introduces an unhelpful incoherence to the way that the NT describes local assembly testimony.

7 Hiebert, 1 Peter, 133. The fact that there is only one priesthood supports the idea that a single house is in view.

8 New Believers Hymnbook, no. 565.

9 Hiebert, 1 Peter, 141-2.