Priestly Profiles: The Priesthood of Believers

Hebrews is a book of endings. It positions us “at the end of” those days when God “at sundry times and in divers manners spake … unto the fathers by the prophets” (Heb 1:1).1 It presents us with an old covenant “which decayeth and waxeth old [and] is ready to vanish away” (8:13), brought to an end in the comprehensive, climactic and concluding sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:26). He dealt with the sins “once, when he offered up Himself” (7:27). He “was once offered to bear the sins of many” (9:28). The “body of Jesus Christ” was offered “once for all” (10:10). The finality of that sacrifice is seen in its consequences for Christ: “He, having offered one sacrifice for sins, sat down in perpetuity at the right hand of God” (v12 JND). It is seen, too, in its consequences for those who believe: “By one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (v14). The sacrifice of Christ was the full stop to the sentence of Jewish ritual. It brought it definitively, decisively and permanently to an end.

But Hebrews is also an epistle of beginnings. The ending of the Old Testament phase of revelation has seen the inauguration of a new. God has “spoken unto us by his Son,” and the “so great salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, … was confirmed unto us by them that heard” (2:3). The ministry of the Aaronic high priest has ended, but a new high priestly ministry has been inaugurated: Christ has entered “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (9:24) and has consecrated for us “a new and living way,” so that we can “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:20,22). And, although Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for sin is final and complete, it has enabled the offering of a new type of sacrifices, by a new order of priests. The writer does not explicitly refer to believers as priests, but his exhortations in 13:10-16 make it clear not only that we have priestly responsibilities but that we are part of a priestly community, marked by priestly consecration and sharing in priestly communion.

It is noteworthy that the writer introduces the topic of our priestly service at the end of his epistle, as he moves to practical exhortations. This has at least three implications. Firstly, our priesthood is based upon, and made possible by, everything that we have learned about Christ’s priesthood in the epistle. His entry “within the veil” as our forerunner and pioneer (6:19-20), His inauguration “for us” of “a new and living way … through the veil,” and His consecration as a new type of high priest are all vital to enable us, who are not even Jews, never mind Levites, to engage in priestly service. Secondly, priesthood is a practical thing. It is impossible to read the Pentateuch without realising that the Aaronic priesthood then was not a business of swanning around in elaborate robes – it involved hard, hands-on work. It is appropriate, therefore, that this teaching about our priesthood is so firmly embedded in a section dealing with the day-to-day nitty-gritty of our lives; that is precisely where it belongs. Thirdly, we should note the variety of instructions that are given in this section. Some of them clearly have assembly testimony in view: those who had the rule and “have spoken unto you the word of God” in chapter 13 verse 7 clearly belong to that setting, as do those mentioned in verse 17. But the section also deals with the home (v2), marriage (v4), our relationship to material possessions (v5), and, if only negatively, our diet (v9). So, while our fellowship in a local church is clearly vital to the scriptural practice of our priesthood, there is no suggestion here that it is limited to that context.

The writer reminds us that we are part of a priestly community: “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle” (13:10). In the previous verse, believers were called to be different from “them that have been occupied” with meats – a reference that encompasses all those who have remained within the system of Judaism. Now, though, “those who serve the tabernacle” draws a tighter contrast between those priests who ministered in tabernacle and temple and a new community of priests, of whom the writer says, “We have an altar.” It is very clear that “we” refers to every believer – the writer uses “them” and “they” to speak about elders in verses 7 and 17, but there is no suggestion here that any subset of Christians is in view. As we have seen, the passage assumes that believers will belong to a local church, but this “we” is not limited to this setting – the writer as well as his readers together have the same altar, for they form part of the same priesthood.

The altar that “we have” is not to be understood as a literal altar in the heavenly sanctuary. Rather, the term is used to encompass all of the value of Christ and His death. It is upon this that we feed in our priestly communion. In this, we stand in contrast to those in verse 9 who were occupied with meats. The writer summarises all of Jewish ritual in this “preoccupation with foods.” His choice of language is deft, for it simultaneously stresses the way in which Jewish ritualism, expressed in scrupulosity about food, would impact every moment of an individual’s life, and sets up the contrast with our spiritual feeding on Christ. Under the Law, the right of consuming a portion of the offerings for sin (as opposed to the peace offering) was limited to the priests. Now, those who “serve the tabernacle” have no right to this new communion; it is limited to those who belong to this altar, and to whom this altar belongs.

This link with the altar requires priestly consecration, the severing of links with the camp, the gate and the city. In Exodus 33, the tabernacle was set up “afar off from” an idolatrous camp, and “every one which sought the LORD went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp” (v7). On that occasion, Levi had rallied to the Lord’s side, and had been rewarded with a special priestly status. But, as the writer emphasises, that place of priestly consecration is also a place of shame. There, “the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned” (Heb 13:11). To come outside the camp was a costly thing, but only by doing so could the Hebrews engage in priestly service. And while our context is very different to that of the Hebrew Christians, we, too, need to hear God’s call to consecration – to leave behind the camp of the religious world, the gate of its government, and the city with its sociality.

We must go “forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach” (v13), so that we might offer the sacrifices with which “God is well pleased” (v16). Those sacrifices involve praise and practice. The two imperatives – “let us offer” and “let us not forget” – bracket the two categories and the language of sacrifices unites them. “By [or through] him” has an emphatic position at the beginning of the sentence and reminds us, once again, that our priestly service is only possible because of Him; it is by Him that we are able to offer. Echoing the language of Hosea 14:2 (“so will we render the calves of our lips”), the writer exhorts a continual “offering up” of “a sacrifice of praise” – the fruit of lips that openly profess His name (Heb 13:15). Though our reflex is likely to associate this offering particularly with the breaking of bread, and while that association is certainly not inappropriate, it is clear that that weekly giving of thanks could not, by itself, constitute a continual offering, though the writer’s use of homologeō (“giving thanks”) does indicate that this “fruit of the lips” has more in view than simply inward praise. We offer words, not beasts. But we offer more than just words, for we must “not neglect doing good and sharing” (v16 LSB). The writer has already instructed his readers not to neglect hospitality. “Doing good” in this context echoes that earlier injunction; the writer is calling not just generally for “good deeds” but for acts of interpersonal kindness. The context of persecution would make such acts more costly but also more precious, not just to grateful recipients but to a well-pleased God.

Hebrews is an epistle of ends – the time for atoning sacrifices, praise God, is over. But the finished sacrifice of Christ calls for a worshipful response from those whom He has fitted to be priests, the thanksgiving and good-doing that are the proper produce of thankful hearts.

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