A Holy, Royal Priesthood

Sermon preached on 1 Peter 2:1-10 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/25/2020 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

“We are all consecrated as priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: ‘You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation’”. So wrote Martin Luther 500 years ago in 1520 in his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. There he taught the doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers calling the laity to rise up against an apostate clergy to seek reformation in the church. Luther grounded that doctrine in several passages, but especially our passage here for today from 1 Peter 2. While this doctrine was always true for Christians, that each of us are priests, that reality had over time been concealed by the clergy and therefore fell into neglect and disuse. As Luther also wrote 500 years ago (in On The Babylonian Captivity of the Church), Rome had kept the church in a captivity akin to the Babylonian exile. In the Babylonian captivity the priests had been removed from Zion and the temple destroyed and so they could not be about their priestly service in the temple. So too, Rome had been keeping the Christian laity who had been consecrated as priests from exercising their priestly service in the church as the spiritual temple of God. Today, we remember this important doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers that such a wonderful truth might never again fall into such neglect.

Our first half of today’s sermon is to consider that this priesthood of all believers is a holy priesthood. That is found here in verse 5. The context speaks of how all Christians are being built up into a spiritual temple, founded on the rock and cornerstone of Jesus Christ. It connects our being built into such a temple with the fact that we are a holy priesthood. Priests need a temple to serve in, and in the new covenant, Christians are both the temple and the priesthood. Again, there is no distinction being made here between ordained clergy and lay people. It does not say that just those who are clergy are the temple and priesthood. No, all Christians are this temple and priesthood.

But the point here is that this priesthood is a holy priesthood. The word “holy” is about something that is set apart, special, and distinct. Sadly, it is this sort of distinction that Rome was utilizing but in a very wrong way. Rome was claiming this distinction between clergy and laity in regards to the priesthood and its associated privileges and prerogatives. Luther wrote this:

It has been devised that the Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate, [whereas] princes, lords, artificers, and peasants are the temporal estate. This is an artful lie and hypocritical device, but let no one be made afraid by it, and that for this reason: that all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone. As St. Paul says (1 Cor. xii.), we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike. (Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation)

And so, by making this distinction, Rome is basically saying that the clergy are holy in a way that the lay people are not. Rome further advocated for this by their false doctrine concerning ordination. They actually claim that their priests upon ordination are impressed with a special indelible character so that they immutably possess the sacred dignity of priesthood. Luther writes:

But now they have invented the indelible character, and pretend that a priest after deprivation still differs from a simple layman. They even imagine that a priest can never be anything but a priest-that is, that he can never become a layman. All this is nothing but mere talk and ordinance of human invention. (Ibid.)

Luther describes there Rome’s view that ordination is a sacrament of Holy Orders that bestows this permanently on the person. And so for Rome, this distinction between priest and laymen runs even to the core of the clergy’s character – that by the sacrament their character has been permanently changed. The very name of this sacrament being “Holy Orders” even shows how they are distinguishing the holiness of the clergy over the laymen.

But going back to this text, we see Rome has missed the point here in verse 5 when it speaks of a holy priesthood. All Christians are this holy priesthood, and that is said to distinguish Christians from the rest of the world. You see, Rome is right that the concept of holiness is something that distinguishes one from another and sets one apart from another. But the holiness of the priesthood in the church is not something that sets apart some Christians from other Christians. Rather, it is how all Christians are set apart as holy compared to the unbelieving world. Ministers of the word are not more holy than the rest of the members in the church, nor are they more of a priest than any other Christian. The distinction of holiness here in 1 Peter is not between clergy and laity. It is between Christian and non-Christian.

So then, while the Christians together form a spiritual temple unto God, non-believers do not. They might come and visit a church service, and even sing the songs and hear the sermon, but they aren’t actually a part of this spiritual temple of God. They are outsiders looking in, but as long as they have not been baptized into Christ’s church, they aren’t priests and they aren’t part of God’s spiritual temple on earth. This is the distinction made here. And of course it is rooted in the holiness of God. True worshippers in Christ become a temple and priests for the All Holy God, and we are set apart – holy – for that sacred communion with the Holy God.

Likewise, when we see some of the descriptions here of what a priest does, we also acknowledge that this is something that is the right and prerogative of all Christians but not of non-Christians. So then, what do we see priests doing here? Verse 4 speaks of drawing near to God through Jesus, and drinking of the graces which are in him, described as coming from a fount of pure spiritual milk. By the way, while some English translations explain the spiritual milk as God’s Word, the Greek doesn’t state the “word”. While the word of God would certainly be a big part of this, I agree with John Calvin’s interpretation here that this likely has in mind a broader concept of all the divine graces and even God himself. This is something priests have the privilege to do, to draw near to God and his throne of grace to receive help and mercy for our various needs. That includes the privilege of prayer. It also includes the grace to receive the Word of God, read it and interpreting it. The world is not given such privileges of prayer and understanding of the Word – not in the way that the Christian has. Another thing we see that priests do is offer sacrifices to God, verse 5. Obviously these are not atoning sacrifices because that was offered now in these last days once for all the elect in the sacrifice of Jesus. But we do offer various sacrifices, things such as sacrifices of praise and offerings of financial gifts. In that, we have the assurance that unbelievers do not have – that our offerings are received in Christ and are pleasing to God. Another thing we see that priests do is proclaim the Lord – verse 9 references our proclaiming the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.

More could be said from other passages of our function as priests, but these are some helpful ways such is described in today’s passage. Though I will note that one application Luther made was that the function of such a priesthood included the right to speak up against false teachers, especially when those false teachers were the clergy who had taken over institutional control of the church. Rome denied such a right. Indeed the unbelieving world who is not of such a holy priesthood would not have such a right. But the holy priesthood of all believers does give such a right for the laity to rise up for reform when the clergy have forsaken their duty in view of their office to do so.

So that is our first point about us being a holy priesthood. Now let us turn in our second half and consider how we are a royal priesthood. This is verse 9. Notice the context for Peter saying this. There, in verse 9, the temple imagery fades into the background. There it calls us a royal priesthood in conjunction with being a chosen race and a holy nation. When it calls us a chosen race, the word for race is in the genealogical sense. It is calling us a people from a chosen lineage. Of course, we can think of that in the sense of being descendants of the chosen line of Abraham and Sarah, something which elsewhere the Bible speaks of how both Jews and Gentiles in Christ, and only in Christ, find their heritage now in Abraham and Sarah. When it calls us a holy nation, we think in collective civic terms, and yet notice how the idea of nation is described in the same way as the priesthood was previously described – that we are a holy nation.

So, these terms of us Christians being a specific people and a specific nation are adjoined to the concept of us being a priesthood. And here it describes that priesthood in terms of royalty – we are a royal priesthood. Of course, when you use the language of royal, it causes us to think in terms of a king and a monarchy. The term of royal fits very well when talking about us being a people and a nation. Christians are described as a spiritual country and the language of royal makes us think about how this country is governed. Ultimately, it is a monarchy. Christ Jesus is the king and head of this holy, spiritual nation and people which is the church. Yet, we as Christians are not paupers, peasants, or servants in this kingdom. We are not even simply nobility. We are royalty.

This concept of royalty inherently speaks of authority. In the church, all Christians are spiritual royalty and possess a certain authority as co-heirs with Christ. There is a parity of authority that exists among Christians. Yes, by virtue of office, some take on certain roles with delegated authority in the church. But such authority is rooted in an authority we all possess in parity as Christians.

I’ll give you an example of this from the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 17 described provisions for a human king in Israel if they ever desired such. That passage gave several restrictions on what the king was to be. It required that the king be of the same family lineage of Israel – part of the chosen race. But it also required that such a king have humility to not lift himself above his brothers as if he were inherently better than the rest of the people. Of course, we know that the prophet Samuel later warned Israel when they proceeded to ask for a king that this would be a great temptation for whomever was selected. Human leaders can be quick to lord their authority over others. That was not supposed to be the case in the holy nation of Israel under the old covenant, because even back then it was God’s design for them to be a kingdom of priests, Exodus 19:6 and Revelation 5:10.

Likewise, under the new covenant, yes, we have positions of authority within the church in terms of office. Elders do rule collectively in the church. But we also say it would be wrong for elders to lord their authority over the laity, and in fact some elders have been brought under church discipline because of that. But it stems back to the fact that all Christians are a royal priesthood. We all partake of the royal authority which is ultimately in Christ. Office in the church is something placed upon the officers, by which they are asked to serve certain roles. But it is wrong if they wield authority as if they have an inherent superiority. Luther also addressed this, writing:

Therefore the bishop’s consecration is just as if in the name of the whole congregation he took one person out of the community, each member of which has equal power, and commanded him to exercise this power for the rest; in the same way as if ten brothers, co-heirs as king’s sons, were to choose one from among them to rule over their inheritance, they would all of them still remain kings and have equal power, although one is ordered to govern. (Ibid.)

Bishops aren’t kings and the rest servants. Pastors and elders are not governors and the rest slaves. It is not just a priesthood that we are all a part of as Christians, but a royal priesthood. We are all royalty, even though some have been called by the church to serve in certain offices among us. This is why we follow the processes we do in the OPC for calling men to office. Our processes recognize that we are a royal priesthood.

This is relevant to the Reformation because Rome abused their clerical authority. They so elevated the authority of the clergy, and made the laity without any authority, such that no one but themselves could ever review them. And given the hierarchical nature of how they established their government in the Roman Catholic church, it had the Pope as essentially the king and head of their church. Add to this that they claimed that only the clergy and chiefly the pope could actually interpret Scripture, at that only the pope had the authority to call a council to deal with a question of doctrine. This all meant that at the end of the day, there was no mechanism available to the laity, or even the clergy more broadly, if the pope completely turned from truth and became an antichrist in the church. Luther wrote to this very point saying:

It may come to pass that the Pope and his followers are wicked and not true Christians, and not being taught by God, have no true understanding, whereas a common man may have true understanding. Why should we then not follow him? Has not the Pope often erred? Who could help Christianity, in case the Pope errs, if we do not rather believe another who has the Scriptures for him? (Ibid.)

Obviously this speaks of extraordinary circumstances and not normally how reform would be worked in the church. But those were extraordinary circumstances! Yet, Luther’s call for the laity to rise up in such times was not based on an authority the church members didn’t possess, but in the very royal priesthood bestowed upon them by Christ himself.

As we have thought here about a royal priesthood, it would be edifying to note how that is rooted in what Psalm 110 says about the Messiah. There it foretells the coming of the Christ who would be both a king and a priest. In our communion of the saints, all us who are in union with Christ share in his royal priesthood. Jesus is our ultimate temple, Jesus is our high priest, and Jesus is our high king. In union with him, we reign, serve as priests, and are the temple of God.

Saints of God, today’s teaching on the holy, royal priesthood made up of all Christians is a doctrine we must continue to safeguard and also not neglect its practical use. This means you have the responsibility and privilege to be faithful in serving as a royal, holy priest. That includes:
• Participating in the worship and service of the church
• Being that Berean that is constantly searching the Scriptures to see that the pastor’s teaching is being faithful to the Word
• Cultivating individual devotions of being in the Word and prayer
• Using your spiritual gifts of serving and/or speaking to the edification of the body of Christ
• Participating with wisdom in congregational meetings, especially when important matters are before the church such as voting on either calling a man to office or divesting a man from office.

Let us not just dutifully be about these things. Rather, may we take to heart the exhortation in verse 2 to “long” to be about such things. Long, crave, the pure spiritual milk as you come to the LORD as his priest. Long, crave, desire to receive his grace and be about his worship and service as you attend to the Word, Sacraments, and prayer.

Let us not neglect making use of this access to grace we have as priests when we remember the great cost by which such privilege was won for us. I am not here referring to the Protestant Reformation, but to the sufferings of Christ and his righteousness for us. Amen.

Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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