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Universal Priesthood

The Sunday after Pentecost is the Feast of All Saints. This seems an appropriate time to think about the distinctive Reformation doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers. It may come as a surprise that this is also an Orthodox belief.

This priesthood is of course distinct from the New Testament office of elder or presbyter. It’s unfortunate and confusing that in English the one word “priest” is used both for pagan and Jewish offerers of sacrifice (Greek iereís), and for the New Testament office of elder or presbyter. My French Bible doesn’t confuse the two: Moses’s successors in offering sacrifice are les sacrificateurs, while New Testament presbyters are abbrebiated as les prêtres.

We see the unique Christian office of the presbyterate instituted in John 20:19-23, where – forty days before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all the Church at Pentecost, here the apostles alone “receive the Holy Spirit“ in a unique way empowering them to forgive sins. James 5:14-16 counsels the sick to call the presbyters, confess their sins, and receive healing. Paul and Barnabas ordained presbyters in every church (Acts 14:23), and Paul directed Titus as bishop in Crete to ordain presbyters in every city (Titus 1:5). See also Paul’s words to presbyters, bishops, pastors – for example Acts 15:6,23; 20:17-38; 1 Tim 4:14, 5:17; Jas 5:14-15.

But quite apart from the office of presbyters in the Church, every Christian is meant to be a priest (iereús): To stand before the Lord and intercede for the world; and stand before kings and classmates, judges, kids, baristas – and bear witness in truth to the goodness of God. Unless God has given you clairvoyance or the tongue of a Chrysostom, your testimony might be simply the hope and confidence that establishes your steps and the humility and kindness that is the fruit the Holy Spirit adorns you with. But God is faithful and will “bring you before kings” and bring to you people who hunger and thirst for righteousness – for the “fountain of living water” in the disciple’s heart. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”

The scriptures return many times to this theme: the calling of God’s people to be priests interceding and prophetically bearing witness to the goodness of God.

Saint Peter writes, “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood (ieráteuma), a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pt 2:9).

He’s referring to the plan of God back in Exodus: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6).

Isaiah saw this day coming: “It shall come that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and see my glory… and declare my glory among the Gentiles… And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 66:18-21).

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn. To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness… They will rebuild the ancient ruins and shall raise up the deserted places; they will renew the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations… And ye shall be named the priests of the Lord: men shall call you the ministers of our God” (Isaiah 61:1-6).

And at the end of time, St John hears the saints singing, “He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen… You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth… Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him.” (Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).

You and I, here and now, are being fitted to this role – not as lone rangers but as members of the whole Church: “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).