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For the Record

This regular feature is an attempt to provide an elementary Biblical analysis of various topics in Christian theology and practice. We anticipate that this and future contributions will be helpful in explaining fundamental theological issues to those who may be relatively unfamiliar with them.

Trading Places: The Priesthood of All Believers

David Hagopian

So much for the tweed coat, button down collar, and loafers. Oh no, not for this professor. In his attempt to claim solidarity with the common man, he wears boots, disparagingly known as "longhorns" in the farmbelt, and thus spurns any accommodation to the evil capitalism that would actually pay him more than the janitor who cleans his halls at night. In fact, in a well-known article, this Harvard law professor once suggested that the janitors at the law school should trade places with the professors. Only problem: nobody bothered to ask the janitors if they wanted to trade places with the professors.

In a recent edition of Wall Street Journal, however, a Harvard law student did just that. What he found was that the janitors at the law school, on the whole, were not too pleased with this lofty professorial suggestion since lurking behind it was the arrogant assumption that being a Harvard Law School professor was somehow more desirable than being a janitor. So, while the good ol' professor may have tried to safeguard the dignity and integrity of the janitor as a person, he did so at the tremendous expense of denigrating the janitor's vocation. In the end, the professor's lofty suggestion ended up promoting what it ostensibly attempted to deny: that professors are better than janitors.

Over and against such pseudo attempts to preserve dignity and integrity among those who pursue various vocations, stands a clarion truth of Scripture: the Reformed doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This doctrine restores true dignity and true integrity to all believers since it teaches that all believers are priests and that as priests, they are to serve God -- no matter what legitimate vocation they pursue. Thus, there is no vocation that is more "sacred" than any other. Because Christ is Lord over all areas of life, and because His word applies to all areas of life, nowhere does His Word even remotely suggest that the ministry is "sacred" while all other vocations are "secular." Scripture knows no sacred-secular distinction. All of life belongs to God. All of life is sacred. All believers are priests.

Our Great High Priest

As priests, we must always remember that our priesthood, from beginning to end, is rooted and grounded in our Great High Priest whose priesthood was not ordained by man, but rather was ordained by God. In fact, God swore with a binding oath that Christ was, is, and will forever be our Eternal High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:6, 6:20, 7:26-27). And as our Eternal High Priest -- as the God-man -- Christ is the sole Mediator between God and man (I Tim. 2:5), having offered Himself as our sacrifice once and for all in order that He might expiate (cleanse) us from the guilt of our sin, propitiate (turn away) the wrath of God, reconcile us to God, and redeem us as His people.

But Scripture doesn't simply teach us that our high priest died on our behalf; it also teaches us that because of His death we have been made priests in Him. The same Priest "who loves us, and released us from our sins by His blood," also "made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father..." (Rev. 1:5-6). What a glorious truth: Christ as our High Priest not only atoned for our sins, but also, as Calvin so aptly put it, received us "as his companions" in this great priestly office (Institutes, II.XV.6).

Called as Priests

Thus, on the basis of His priestly work on our behalf, Christ has bestowed upon us a royal priesthood. This priesthood, however, would be meaningless apart from the fact that God richly bestowed His favor upon us, chose us for Himself, and called us to be His people and His priests. Put simply, we would not be priests were it not for the fact that God chose us to be His priests. That is why most every passage which speaks of us as priests also speaks of us as those who have been called by God, as God's chosen people.

In his first epistle, for example, Peter applies the attributes of the people of God under the Old Covenant to us as believers and explicitly proclaims that we are the people of God. In Scripture we learn that God mercifully called the children of Israel to be His people, and promised them that if they walked in obedience to His Covenant, they would be His "own possession", "a kingdom of priests" and a "holy nation" (Ex. 19:5, cf Deut. 14:2, 21). Conjuring up this imagery and applying these attributes to believers, Peter writes:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
In the same vein, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders in the fifth chapter of Revelation sing that the Lamb was slain and with His blood purchased for God "men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And Thou has made them to be a kingdom of priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth" (Rev. 5:9-10).

First Peter 2:9-10 and Revelation 5:9-10, then, teach us about the mercy and grace of God who called us to be His priests. In particular, we learn at least three important truths from these passages. First, God, by the blood of Christ, has mercifully called people of every tribe and tongue and nation out of darkness into His marvelous light. Second, as those called into His marvelous light, we are also called to be His chosen people and royal priests. Third, because we are royal priests, we are to serve God daily by proclaiming His excellencies and reigning upon the earth to His glory. Put simply, by God's grace we are royal priests and as such we are to serve God daily as we reign for Him.

Priests in Our Vocations

Since we are to serve God daily as priests, the priesthood of all believers should not be relegated to the status of a timeworn theological slogan. It is a cornerstone of Reformed theology which should change how we live our lives each and every day, including how we pursue our daily vocations. Properly understood, the priesthood of all believers teaches us that all believers are priests, no matter what their vocation -- their calling -- in life might be. Lutheran puts it so well:
A shoemaker, a smith, a farmer, each has his manual occupation and work; and yet, at the same time, all are eligible to act as priests.... Every one of them in his occupation or handicraft ought to be useful to his fellows... (Woolf, Reformation Writings of Martin Luther, I.116).
According to Luther, all believers have equally received the treasures which God has given, from the shoemaker to the farmer to the smith. No vocation stands over and above the rest. No vocation is more "sacred" than any other. No vocation is better than another. God has called all believers, without exception, to be His royal priests -- from the dockworker to the doctor, from the messenger to the manger, from the educator to the executive. No legitimate vocation is too lowly to be the vehicle through which God will do His work (Eastwood, The Priesthood of All Believers, p. 12).

The fundamental problem, though, is that many believers fail to understand that they are priests in their daily vocations and accordingly, fail to see that their vocations are vehicles through which God will do His work. As priests, believers are endowed with the incredible privilege of ministering for God daily in their vocations. But because many believers lose sight of their priestly calling, they slosh through their tasks day after day, without seizing valuable opportunities to serve God as priests in their vocations. Let us seize those opportunities and pursue our vocations with vigor and zeal, viewing them as an opportunity to serve our Great High Priest. Humbly recognizing the tremendous privilege God has bestowed on us through our Great High Priest, we should view our personal vocations as one of many spheres through which we exercise our priesthood.

As we exercise our priesthood in our vocations we must also remember that there is no room for arrogance amongst God's people. No believer has more privilege or status in the sight of God because of the vocation he pursues. From God's perspective, those who pursue all legitimate vocations are of equal dignity and integrity. As Barkley once put it, "All men are priests in their daily vocation. All are priests though their duties vary according to their calling" (Presbyterianism, p. 18). Indeed different vocations may impose different duties on those who pursue them and one vocation may even pay more than another.

Being Somebody

But just because one vocation pays more than another does not necessarily mean that the person who receives higher pay is endowed with more dignity or integrity than one who receives lesser pay. That's not what really counts. What really counts, what ultimately distinguishes one person from another, what really makes someone somebody is Christ. So eloquent was Barkley when he wrote:
The only real farmer is a Christian farmer; the only real doctor is a Christian doctor; the only real man is a Christian man; and the only real woman is a Christian woman; and so on covering every detail and aspect and station in life. Apart from Christ we are not what we ought to be (Presbyterianism, p. 18).
Indeed, apart from Christ we are nobody and can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). But by His grace we are somebody and can do everything (Phil. 4:13).

Thus, being "all you can be" doesn't happen in the armed forces or in any other vocation for that matter. Being all you can be comes as a direct result of being a Christian, of knowing the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Therefore, the priesthood of all believers should not only focus us inwardly to serve God as we vigorously pursue our respective vocations. It should also focus us outwardly to introduce those around us to Christ so that they too can really be somebody.

Being somebody -- enjoying true dignity and integrity -- doesn't come from trading places with others. Being somebody comes from knowing our Great High Priest who traded places with us by dying in our stead, bestowing His grace upon us, and calling us to be His royal priests.

And that's a message even our good ol' professor in longhorns needs to hear.

Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990
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