|From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase|
Part five (final) of a series. Read part four.
Rome says you must make your confession to an earthly priest who is a sinner like you. God's Word says that believers must come directly to the Father through the great and sinless High Priest, Jesus Christ. It was God's plan from eternity to have a kingdom of believer-priests.
The Roman Catholic church teaches that its priests, by receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders under the authority of the Pope, are given many special and exclusive powers. Rome says only its priests have the power to turn bread and wine into the real, physical body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Mass; the power to forgive sins (or withhold forgiveness) in the Confessional booth; and the power to pass sentence on the sinner in the "tribunal" of the Confessional, telling the individual what he must do to pay for his sins - the repeating of prescribed prayers, visiting so-called holy sites or shrines, making financial contributions to the church, etc.
Rome declares that its priesthood is the New Testament continuation of the Jewish priesthood of the Old Testament, continuing to offer sacrifices not of the blood of bulls and goats, but of the body and blood of Christ himself in the Mass.
The Roman Catholic church says that it subscribes to a "universal priesthood", but immediately contradicts this by saying, "The ordinary Christian cannot be a priest in the strict sense, for he can offer, not a real sacrifice, but only the figurative sacrifice of prayer." Rome says that only a special class of men with special powers have true priestly access to God.1
But what does Scripture say?
A Kingdom of Priests: God's Plan From the Beginning
The Bible does indeed speak of the priesthood of all believers - but in a sense very different from Rome's. God's plan for the universal priesthood of all believers is not merely a New Testament concept. God first made it known when the Israelites stood before Him in the wilderness at Mount Sinai:
And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel." (Exodus 19:3-6)
Note the stipulation: "If you will indeed obey my voice and keep My covenant...you shall be to me a kingdom of priests..." But Israel as a nation did not obey God's voice and keep His covenant. The holy and omniscient God knew this; He knew it from before the foundation of the world. But Ephesians chapter one tells us that the three Persons of the Godhead had already enacted the plan to send God the Son, Jesus Christ, into the world as the Great High Priest to offer full and final sacrifice for man's sin.
Why, then, did God institute the complex sacrificial system of the Old Covenant? He did so because of the need to avert the wrath of God against sin, until, in the fullness of time, Jesus would accomplish on the cross what the Levitical system foreshadowed, propitiating God's wrath forever. The Israelites, and for that matter all other human beings, were not able to live up to God's holy standard. But God instituted the Law and the Levitical system as our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith in Him (Galatians 3:24). But, Paul continues in the next verse of that chapter, "after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster."
A Kingdom of Priests: Further Explained in Jeremiah
God's plan from the beginning was to establish a kingdom of priests, as he stated at Sinai. But the nation of Israel did not and could not fulfill that plan under the Old Covenant. Thus God subsequently announced the New Covenant through the prophet Jeremiah:
"Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord, "when I will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
A Kingdom of Priests: The Fulfillment in the New Covenant
The New Covenant fulfills God's plan, first enunciated at Sinai. The New Covenant is not something yet future. It is now being fulfilled. We have this confirmed in the Holy Spirit's great commentary on the Old Testament, the book of Hebrews:
Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.
For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, "See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain."
But now He [Jesus] has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second.
Because finding fault with them, He says [here the writer quotes Jeremiah 31]: "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more."
In that He says, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people's sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience- concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.
But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
And for this reason He is the Mediator of the New Covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives.
Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you." Then likewise he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.
Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another - He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. (Hebrews 8:1-10:4)
When did that New Covenant fulfillment commence? Jesus announced it to His disciples at the Last Supper:
Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." (Matthew 26:27-28)
A Kingdom of Priests: Believers Today
Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declares this as well:
Coming to Him [Christ] as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, "Behold, I lay in Zion A chief cornerstone, elect, precious, And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame." Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, "The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone," and "A stone of stumbling And a rock of offense."
They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed. But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. (1 Peter 2:4-10)
In verse nine of this passage, Peter directly quotes the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) of Exodus 19:6, which we cited earlier. Believers are - present tense - a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own special people. God's plan, first articulated at Sinai and further explained in Jeremiah, is now being fulfilled. We - all believers, not a special class - are God's kingdom of priests.
The Apostle John reiterates this twice in the early chapters of the book of Revelation:
...Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 1:5-6)
And they sang a new song, saying: "You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, And have made us kings and priests to our God; And we shall reign on the earth." (Revelation 5:9-10)
If you are trusting in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone for your salvation, apart from any works or merit of your own, then the Bible says you are a priest of God, under the great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is our "merciful and faithful high priest" (Hebrews 2:17). He is "our great high priest who has passed through the heavens" (4:14). "He is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them" (7:25). "There is one God, and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time" (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
A Kingdom of Priests: Glorious Liberty
We need no special class of men to serve as priests, to offer bloody sacrifices, to extend or withhold forgiveness, or to require us to do anything in addition to what Christ has done to pay for our sins. Jesus shouted from the cross, "It is finished!" (John 19:30) - the Greek is tetelestai, literally, "paid in full."
And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the New Covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious.
Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech - unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart.
Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3:4-18)
The ultimate purpose of the Levitical priesthood was to foreshadow Jesus Christ's perfect work. Rome insists on an existence of bondage in the Levitical shadows. The leadership and followers of Rome still have the veil upon their hearts when they read God's Word. But the time of shadows and of veils is past. The reality, Jesus Christ, and the liberty He gloriously proclaims, has come once and for all.
1. "The Priesthood," Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12409a.htm; "The Sacrament of Holy Orders," http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11279a.htm; and "The Sacrament of Penance," http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm.