The account of man’s fall in Genesis 3 is immediately followed in Genesis 4 by the record of how sinful man must approach a holy God by means of a sacrifice. Coming to God in this way is the essence of priesthood—the priest “should have something which he may offer” (Heb. 8: 3). All this was a consequence of man’s fall—sacrifice was unnecessary in Eden where Adam, being sinless, was in unhindered communion with God.
Now if Abel was the first to exercise priestly service, Melchisedec is the first person in the Bible to be named as a priest (see Gen. 14: 18). However, we know absolutely nothing about how he came to be in this position. The first definitely appointed priests are given by Moses in Exodus 28: “And thou shalt take thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may serve me as priest” (v1). Prior to the setting up of this order of priests, a man would offer sacrifices on behalf of himself and his house (see Job 1: 5); now there was a distinct order of priests set up to perform the same function: “For every high priest taken from amongst men is established for men in things relating to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb. 5: 1). Before this time any of God’s people could approach God directly; now it was to be through another. This distinction between the ‘ordinary’ worshipper and the priest was rigorously enforced. Even a king of Israel could not take upon himself the functions of priesthood (see 2 Chron. 26: 16–21).
The establishment of a class of priests in Judaism to offer gifts and sacrifices was a public declaration that other worshippers could not directly approach God with their gifts and sacrifices. Now the position which God assumed in such an order of things was one of distance from men, shutting Himself up where none could approach freely. In the tabernacle there was one veil, inside which the priests went to offer incense, then another, inside which even they could not go. Into this inner sanctuary only the high priest went, and even then only “once a year, not without blood, which he offers for himself, and for the errors of the people” (Heb. 9: 7). God was hidden within the veil, “the Holy Spirit shewing this, that the way of the [holy of] holies has not yet been made manifest, while as yet the first tabernacle has [its] standing” (v8). Thus God’s people were kept at a distance from Him. He dwelt in “thick darkness” (1 Kings 8: 12), and even His own priests, those who were nearest to Him, must remain outside the veil.
Judaism can therefore be summed up in this way: Only a few of God’s people were priests, and even they could barely approach Him. The service of the priest was to stand “daily ministering, and offering often the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb. 10: 11).
In Christianity, however, all is changed. God has now revealed Himself as Father. He does not dwell any longer in the thick darkness. “The darkness is passing” says the Apostle John “and the true light already shines” (1 John 2: 8). Why? Because the Word “became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1: 14). Instead of our not being able to approach God, God has approached us. Thus “the grace of God which carries with it salvation for all men has appeared” (Titus 2: 11). When the Lord died, the veil of the temple was “rent in two from the top to the bottom” (Matt. 27: 51). This was the veil behind which God was previously hidden and unapproachable. Its rending was a declaration that God had come out in blessing to man.
Yet this is far from all, for though God has visited the sinner in grace, man could not reciprocate and approach God where He was. Man must first be cleansed, and thus the basis on which the believer can approach God is the death of Christ: “having made [by himself] the purification of sins … For by one offering he has perfected in perpetuity the sanctified” (Heb. 1: 3; 10: 14). God could not receive what was defiled and guilty into His holy presence, and hence gave His Son to put it away, that the Christian might “approach with a true heart, in full assurance of faith” (v22). The work being accomplished once for all, we have therefore “boldness for entering into the [holy of] holies by the blood of Jesus, the new and living way which he has dedicated for us through the veil, that is, his flesh” (vs. 19, 20). Can the believer go into the very presence of God? Yes, for Christ has dedicated for us, a new and living way through the veil. On what basis does he pass through that veil? The death of Christ, for the veil, says the writer, is “his flesh”.
However, if the Levitical system is really “a shadow of the coming good things” (Heb. 10: 1) how can the sanctuary now be open to all when previously it was restricted to the priests? The answer is that not only has the way into the presence of God been made manifest, but the priesthood has also been opened to include all belonging to the household of faith. Peter says, “yourselves also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ … But ye [are] a chosen race, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a people for a possession” (1 Pet. 2: 5, 9). Now these words are addressed, not to a select spiritual caste, but to ordinary Jewish believers “elect according to [the] foreknowledge of God [the] Father, by sanctification of [the] Spirit, unto [the] obedience and sprinkling of [the] blood of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1: 2). Thus all Christians are priests of God. Other Scriptures bear this out. The apostle John unites all the saints with him in his outburst of praise to Christ: “To him who loves us, and has washed us from our sins in his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and his Father” (Rev. 1: 5, 6). Significantly, this is in the introduction to Revelation, before the prophetic part of the book, and again, clearly refers to all Christians. But there are other references. In chapter 5: 9, we read “thou hast been slain, and hast redeemed to God, by thy blood, out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation, and made them to our God kings and priests”. In chapter 20: 6, we read “Blessed and holy he who has part in the first resurrection: over these the second death has no power; but they shall be priests of God”. These last two passages speak of a priesthood open to all redeemed by Christ’s blood and all who will have part in the first resurrection—every believer.
Now that Christ has been “once offered to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9: 28), the sin question has been settled forever. What then can I, as a priest of God, take as my offering into his holy presence? Another passage in the same book furnishes us with the answer: “By him” (Christ, our High Priest) “therefore let us offer [the] sacrifice of praise continually to God, that is, [the] fruit of [the] lips confessing his name” (Heb. 13: 15.). The youngest or simplest believer has the capacity for this. Men would make Christian priesthood into something mystical, the preserve of an instructed elite—God says all of his children can serve in his sanctuary. There is no ritual to be practised, and no form of words to be learned—it is simply “[the] fruit of [the] lips confessing his name”. What do I offer? A “sacrifice of praise”. And how much there is to praise him for!
If this is Christian Priesthood according to the Bible, how does it compare to what we see around us? Sadly, while Christendom may take the name of Christ, it has largely given up what is distinctly Christian, and gone back to the former revelation. Thus it has set up again a priestly caste to go between the believer and his God. But no priest can go further than entering into the holy of holies! Why then, would I want another to go there for me, since I can go boldly myself? If I get another to go for me, I am denying both my privilege as a Christian, and the efficacy of what the Lord has done in opening up the way into God’s sanctuary. If I want a human priest to go into God’s presence on my behalf then I am resting on something else other than Christ’s “one sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10: 12). It is either all who believe that can go in or none at all. Anyone who sets up a priesthood on earth to go between the believer and God now has not grasped the force of Christ’s work at Calvary. He died, “[the] just for [the] unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3: 18). If I am brought to God, then I do not need a priest to go to Him for me! Now that God has been revealed, we must have to do with Him directly.
I repeat, then, the establishment of a human priesthood, as a class distinct from all other Christians, is really a denial of the truth and efficacy of Christianity. According to the NT, all Christians are priests: their offerings are spiritual offerings of praise to God. To shrink from this duty and to give it to another is a false humility: it casts a slur on the efficacy of what Christ has done. Rather than being presumptuous, it gives glory to God to take up my high and holy privilege and enter “the [holy of] holies by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10: 19). This, is true Christianity.