The General Priesthood—Christendom’s Forgotten Doctrine
“You are ‘ . . . a royal priesthood, a holy nation.’”—1 Pet. 2:9.
1. Why can the teaching of the general priesthood be called a forgotten and neglected doctrine?
THE Christian doctrine of the “general priesthood” is probably not one of those you learned about in school or Sunday school. In fact, to a great many this will be the first time they ever heard about it. It has, for good reasons, been Christendom’s forgotten and neglected doctrine. For centuries it was hardly mentioned from the pulpits, the young people did not learn about it during their preparations for confirmation, the students of theology found only a page or two about it in their voluminous dogmatics, and the layman could find very little or nothing about it in the religious sections of bookstores and libraries. Still, the first Christians knew it and lived it.
2. What change have the last years brought relative to the attention given to the general priesthood?
2 The last years have seen a change in this respect. In theological circles worldwide, the old doctrine of the general priesthood has been taken out, dusted off and put uppermost on the agenda together with such important subjects as the nature and unity of the Christian church. “Today,” says a professor of theology, “there is hardly another subject that has been taken up with so much energy and seriousness both in the Roman Catholic Church, which is taking the lead, and the Evangelical Churches.” What, then, is the general priesthood? To put it short: It is the Biblical teaching that every spirit-begotten Christian is a priest. To understand the full scope of this doctrine, some historical background will be a help.
3. (a) What is a priest? (b) What is the Levitical priesthood? (c) What were the two basic priestly duties of such Levites?
3 A priest is a minister of God. In the nation of Israel a priesthood was provided for by law. “The priests the sons of Levi must approach, because they are the ones Jehovah your God has chosen to minister to him.” That is why that priesthood is often referred to as the Levitical priesthood. Its official services were twofold, and Moses summed them up by the words: “Let them instruct Jacob in your judicial decisions and Israel in your law. Let them render up incense before your nostrils and a whole offering on your altar.” So when the Levites were “teaching in Judah, and with them there was the book of Jehovah’s law; and they kept going around through all the cities of Judah and teaching among the people,” they were ministers of God; and when the Levite sons of Aaron offered the sacrifices of incense, grain and animals on Jehovah’s altar in behalf of the people, they were ministers of God.—Deut. 21:5; 33:10; 2 Chron. 17:9; Mal. 2:7; Leviticus chaps. 1-7 and Le 16.
4. (a) What was foreshadowed by the animal sacrifices of the Levitical priesthood? (b) Why did the Levitical priesthood come to an end, and how did Jehovah show this?
4 In the letter to the Hebrews it is explained how this Levitical priesthood with its high priest, sacrifices, teaching and ceremonies in connection with the temple service, as well as the temple itself with all its features, were a type of something greater to come. Most of the sacrifices, and especially what took place on the atonement day, were pictures of the great sacrifice of Christ Jesus in giving his life as an atonement for man. Consequently, when Jesus died, was resurrected and ascended to heaven and the value of his life was accepted by Jehovah God in heaven as a ransom, the Levitical priesthood had played its prophetic part for the last time. That this was so was shown by the fact that the moment Jesus died, the big curtain in the temple that separated the two rooms called the “holy” and the “most holy” was miraculously rent from top to bottom. By rending that curtain, Jehovah showed that the atonement sacrifices offered by the Jewish high priest were no longer of value and thus there was no need for the services of the Levitical priesthood anymore, because that house or temple was now abandoned.—Matt. 27:51; 23:38; Heb. 9:1-15.
5. How was an actual stop made to the services of the Levitical priesthood?
5 Not understanding this, however, the Levitical priesthood continued to serve also after the death of Jesus and to bring its sacrifices of animals into the temple, but it was without any legal basis; the law covenant had no value in God’s sight anymore, and in the year 70 when the Romans conquered Jerusalem, God showed how superfluous they had become by putting an end to their priesthood also de facto. It was killed or dispersed and its temple destroyed, and another Levitical priesthood can never be reconstructed, because no Jew today is able to say from which of the tribes of Israel he originates.—Col. 2:14.
A NEW PRIESTHOOD
6, 7. Did the removal of the Levitical priesthood show that there should be no priesthood at all on earth thereafter? Prove your answer.
6 By putting the Levitical class of priests so absolutely out of existence, did God want to show that there was no need for a priesthood on earth anymore? Not at all! All that had happened was that a type, a picture or symbol had been removed, as the time for the antitype, the real thing, had come. So when the Levite priests rejected Jesus as God’s high priest, although of another order, and when they refused to acknowledge that their time was up and refused to enter into greater privileges, they had to be removed by force.—Heb. 10:1.
7 Paul comments on the change in priesthood and its legal basis, the law, with the words: “If, then, perfection were really through the Levitical priesthood, (for with it as a feature the people were given the Law,) what further need would there be for another priest to arise according to the manner of Melchizedek and not said to be according to the manner of Aaron? For since the priesthood is being changed, there comes to be of necessity a change also of the law.” The high priest of that new priesthood according to the manner of Melchizedek, rather than Aaron, is Christ Jesus, and as such he has underpriests on earth.—Heb. 7:11, 12.
8. Who took the place of the Levitical priesthood in God’s arrangement? Prove it.
8 Who are those underpriests? Who was going to be the antitype to the Levitical priesthood? In chapters 7 to 10 of his letter to the Hebrews, Paul first draws the parallels between Aaron, the high priest of the old covenant, and Christ Jesus as the High Priest of the new covenant. Then in chapter 10 he turns to the underpriests, the Levites, and their services and shows how they would be followed by a priesthood that would bring no animal sacrifices, and says: “Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness for the way of entry into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, which he inaugurated for us as a new and living way through the curtain, that is, his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with true hearts in the full assurance of faith, having had our hearts sprinkled from a wicked conscience and our bodies bathed with clean water.” By saying “let us approach with true hearts . . . and our bodies bathed with clean water,” alluding to the Levitical cleansing ceremonies, Paul calls on his Christian brothers to enter upon the succession to the Levitical priesthood. It is, therefore, the Christian congregation that stands identified as a new priesthood, God’s new class of earthly ministers offering up spiritual sacrifices of praises and good works.—Heb. 10:19-22; 13:15, 16; Lev. 16:4; Num. 8:6, 7.
9. How can it be said that the Christian is a minister like the Levite priest?
9 There are numerous parallels between the old and the new priesthood to confirm their relationship. The Christian is a minister of the Word of God just as the Levite priest was. “God . . . gave us the ministry of the reconciliation, namely, that God was by means of Christ reconciling a world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and he committed the word of the reconciliation to us. We are therefore ambassadors substituting for Christ, as though God were making entreaty through us. As substitutes for Christ we beg: ‘Become reconciled to God.’”—2 Cor. 5:18-20.
10. How does Peter show the parallel between the Levitical and the Christian priesthood?
10 It is, however, the apostle Peter, who, pointing to the parallels, directly calls the Christian congregation a priesthood. Making a comparison with the literal temple and the literal sacrifices of the Levitical priesthood, Peter explains to his fellow Christians: “You yourselves also as living stones are being built up a spiritual house for the purpose of a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . you are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for special possession, that you should declare abroad the excellencies’ of the one that called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. For you were once not a people, but are now God’s people.”—1 Pet. 2:5, 9, 10.
11 That those “spiritual sacrifices” offered by the Christian priesthood first of all are a ‘declaring abroad of the excellencies’ of God is corroborated by Paul, who calls them “the fruit of lips which make public declaration to his name,” in Hebrews 13:15, and he adds: “Moreover, do not forget the doing of good and the sharing of things with others, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” Note also how Paul, after having identified the new priesthood under Christ Jesus in Hebrews chapter 10, goes on in Heb 10 verses 23-25 and mentions at least three distinct priestly duties of that new priesthood: “Let us hold fast the public declaration of our hope without wavering, for he is faithful that promised. And let us consider one another to incite to love and fine works, not forsaking the gathering of ourselves together, as some have the custom, but encouraging one another, and all the more so as you behold the day drawing near.”—Rom. 12:1.
12. Why is the Levitical priesthood called a “special” priesthood?
12 In one respect, however, there is a difference between the two priesthoods. The Levitical priesthood was not what is known as a “general” but, rather, a so-called “special” priesthood. There was nothing general about it. The office of priest was restricted by birth and sex, confined as it was to the male members of the tribe of Levi, the office of a sacrificing priest even being confined to the family of Aaron, the first high priest. By law the priesthood was put in a class or an order by itself, not only in regard to office, but also in other matters. The Levites received no inheritance in the land, and special provisions were made for their livelihood. Their tribe was not counted among the twelve tribes of Israel after it was set aside for priestly duties; the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph, made the number full. The Levites were thus a special class or state or order within the Jewish society. There was a definite distinction between priesthood and people. Israel’s was a “special” priesthood.—Num. 8:14; 18:20-24.
13. (a) What is a “general” priesthood? (b) According to Peter, is the Christian priesthood a general or a special priesthood? How does Peter support your answer?
13 Not so with the new priesthood. Peter says: “You are ‘ . . . a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for special possession.’” He calls the Christian priesthood a nation. It is the new “Israel of God.” Priesthood and nation are identical. There is no division into “priesthood” and “people” within that nation. Every member of that nation is a priest. That is a “general” priesthood.—Gal. 6:16.
14. Give further proofs of the fact that the Christian priesthood is a general one.
14 The idea that there is no distinction between Christians is not new. We meet it in the picture of the Christian as a member of the body of Christ, in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is neither male nor female”; and we have it in the sonship of God that the Christian attains to and by virtue of which each Christian has direct access to his heavenly Father through the High Priest, Jesus Christ, with no man as a mediator or priest, because Jesus Christ is the Mediator himself.—Gal. 3:28; 4:5-7; Heb. 4:16; 1 Tim. 2:5.
ORIGIN OF GENERAL PRIESTHOOD
15. Who instituted the general character of the Christian priesthood? How?
15 It was Jehovah God himself who very forcefully established the general priesthood in the Christian congregation from its very beginning. On the day of Pentecost he poured out his spirit on the first ones who became members of the congregation. By receiving that spirit they were anointed to be underpriests and were helped to start performing their priestly duties right then and there, because under its influence they began offering up spiritual sacrifices by preaching about God and his purposes. Notice, God did not choose a few of those about 120 persons present to be a clergy or priesthood to do the preaching and the rest to be the listeners or laity, but “they all became filled with holy spirit and started to speak . . . about the magnificent things of God.”—Acts 2:4, 11.
16. How did Jesus prepare his followers for the duties of the general priesthood even before the day of Pentecost?
16 It is evident in many ways that the teaching of the general priesthood was understood and practiced in the early congregation. They were called upon to follow in the footsteps of their High Priest, Christ Jesus, and during his ministry on earth he not only performed the duties of the new high priest himself, but he made the priestly duties general by teaching his followers to do the same.—Luke 10:1-12.
17-19. How do we know that the missionary commission given by Jesus and recorded at Matthew 28:19 was not only for the eleven apostles?
17 Some call attention to the fact that when Jesus, for instance, gave the famous missionary commission, as recorded in Matthew 28:19, only the eleven apostles were present, and they therefore contend it was given to the apostles alone. But it is also understood that “upward of five hundred brothers” were there also. (1 Cor. 15:6) It is true that the apostles more than anybody else were busy establishing new congregations in many countries, but they were certainly not alone in that work. Everybody was helping. When Paul came to Rome for the first time, it was not to establish a congregation, for there was already a congregation there, and the brothers came out to meet him before he entered the city.—Rom. 1:8, 13; Acts 28:14-16.
18 The apostles themselves did not understand the missionary commandment to be for them alone. Notice Paul’s commending words to the brothers at Thessalonica: “The fact is, not only has the word of Jehovah sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith toward God has spread abroad, so that we do not need to say anything.”—1 Thess. 1:8.
19 Titus and Timothy were teachers, but they were teachers of teachers; they were not ministers who were sent to teach a laity. Paul wrote Timothy: “The things you heard from me with the support of many witnesses, these things commit to faithful men, who, in turn, will be adequately qualified to teach others.” (2 Tim. 2:2) This is in harmony with what we read in Revelation 22:17: “The spirit and the bride keep on saying: ‘Come!’ And let anyone hearing say: ‘Come!’” When the Hebrews were slow in making progress to the point of actively participating in the general priesthood’s duties, Paul was disappointed: “For, indeed, although you ought to be teachers in view of the time, you again need someone to teach you from the beginning the elementary things of the sacred pronouncements of God.” No laity was tolerated in that congregation.—Heb. 5:12.
20. How does history confirm the general priesthood of the early church?
20 History confirms the same. Danish professor Hal Koch says in his Church History: “Only in the days of the apostles and the decades immediately thereafter, do we hear of real missionaries, occupied with the dissemination of Christianity as their task and vocation. Otherwise, it was quite ordinary Christians, merchants, workmen, slaves and whatever social positions there were, who drew new members to the congregation.” There is no doubt about it: The general priesthood was a characteristic feature of the early Christian church; every member was a priest who considered it his duty to preach and teach about God inside and outside the congregation, and they were supported by the spirit of God poured out on them. There was no laity in that church. How did it, then, ever come about that the churches of Christendom today hardly know anything but a pulpit-preaching clergy and a passive laity?
A DEVILISH CHANGE
21. Did the congregational servants of the early church make up a priesthood?
21 Since the early Christian congregation was a working organization, it was necessary to appoint some of the members to special services. To be appointed to such service position, one had to be a mature, older man or so-called “elder” (Greek: presbýteros). From among the older men, congregation overseers (Greek: epískopoi) and their assistants or ministerial servants (Greek: diákonoi) were selected. Because of what we have just seen about the general priesthood within the early church, they were not appointed to make up a priesthood; they were simply the servants of their Christian brothers.—Acts 6:1-7; Titus 1:5; 1 Pet. 5:2, 3; Matt. 20:25-28.
22. How did congregational servants later get to make up a priesthood?
22 Paul, however, prophesied truthfully: “After my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among you and will not treat the flock with tenderness, and from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” One of the sad consequences of this rise to oppressive power of selfish men was the complete loss of the general priesthood. According to church history, during the second century the servants in the congregations were slowly but surely elevated to form a special priesthood. The congregational overseers or epískopoi put on the garb of a bishop, the elders or presbýteroi were changed from just being the mature, older men from among whom the servants could be selected, to be in the office of a priest, and the ministerial servants or assistants were made our day’s deacons. Men took to themselves positions by which they became a hierarchy that for centuries exercised a harsh spiritual and secular rule, lording it over a laity.—Acts 20:29, 30.
23. (a) What makes the Catholic clergy an outstanding example of a so-called Christian clergy that has changed from the general to the special priesthood? (b) Why was this change devilish?
23 The priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church is a striking example of this. Not only does this priesthood make up a distinct, separate class elevated over the laity in power, education and appearance, imitating the arrangement of a special priesthood, but it has built literal temple buildings with literal altars and dressed its members in special garments to distinguish them from the common church member. To make the return to the special priesthood complete, it claims to possess by special consecration the power to call Christ Jesus down on its altars at will, to sacrifice his literal flesh and blood in the Roman Catholic mass. The switch from the general back to the special priesthood could hardly have been more perfectly made, if a Christian appearance was still to be maintained. By depriving the members of the church of their right to be God’s active servants preaching his Word, by maiming them into a body of ignorant, often illiterate, churchgoers, the clergy quenched the spirit of God in the church and stripped it of its original dynamic force for spreading the good news and thus stripped it of the right kind of regeneration, by which the truth about God and Christ should conquer the world. That change was devilish.