In Part One: a key step toward helping Christians practice shared church includes teaching them to self-identify as priests. But what do priests—those not paid to serve as church officials—do? Part Two takes on this question.
Priests Live and Work in God’s Presence
This tops the to-do list of the New Testament priest. In English versions of the Old Testament, the word priest translates the Hebrew word kohen. One scholar linked kohen to an Arabic root word meaning to draw near. Moses wrote that non-priests “must not go near” the Tabernacle (Num. 18:22). Only those from the priestly tribe could approach the immediate presence of God—and even they could do so only by following a complex set of rules.
But because Jesus died, rose, and returned to heaven, he has become our wide-open doorway to God. Jesus, our great high priest (Heb. 4:14), has drawn near to the Father. And because God has placed those who trust Christ “in him,” we too may draw near. The New Testament even urges us to do just that: “Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God” (Heb. 10:21-22). So, the first thing New Testament priests do is to live out our lives in the presence of God. We do so mostly in our homes, our neighborhoods, and our workplaces.
Priests Offer Sacrifices
Sacrifices? Aren’t they obsolete in the 21st century? Old Covenant priests served fellow Israelites by killing their animals and hoisting the carcasses onto burning altars. But what inward state did these outward actions reveal? A sacrifice meant giving up something valuable (an animal) for something considered even more valuable (being in right relationship with God). When Jesus said to his Father, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42), he was giving up his own valuable self-interest for something more valuable—the purposes of his Father. We Christian priests offer sacrifices when we say no to self-interest and take up our cross to follow and serve Jesus (Matt. 16:24).
Offering sacrifices flows out of living and working in God’s presence. Peter puts it this way: “You . . . are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 2:5). What “spiritual sacrifices” can we modern priests offer? The New Testament provides some examples:
- Praise and thanks (Heb. 13:15). Sacrificing time and attention to express our love for and gratitude to God.
- Care for the needs of others (Phil. 4:18). Putting the well-being of others ahead of our own wants and wishes.
- Faith (Phil. 2:17). Trusting God’s promises rather than relying on our own plans for self-rescue.
- Physical bodies (Rom. 12:1). Using the strength and energy of our brains, limbs, and organs to carry out God’s purposes for people, animals, and plants here on earth.
Priests Pray for Others and Hear their Confessions
Our traditions can make it seem as if these roles belong only to officials in the institutional church. For example, take the ministry of confession. Limiting Christian confessions to a formal “confession box” misses the point. Or take the ministry of praying in public. In some churches, just one person—the pastor—offers all the prayers in a Sunday meeting. In The Problem of Wineskins, Howard Snyder warns, “If the pastor is a superstar, the church is an audience, not a body.” However, New Testament one-anothering includes both prayer and hearing confessions: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (Jas. 5:16).
Priests Serve Fellow Priests
The Old Testament paints a word-picture that helps us see another role of New Testament priests. The Holy Place in the Tabernacle would have been pitch-dark except for the lampstand that held seven lighted lamps. Fueled by oil, these lamps needed constant care. “Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening till morning" (Ex. 27:21). Lamp-tending priests refilled the bowls with oil. They also trimmed and replaced the wicks.
Today, we are both priests and lamps. We need to tend and to be tended. When sin entered, our world went into spiritual blackout. Jesus, who came as the Light of the World, has made us the world's illuminators. He now lives in us so that we can shine his light into this pitch-dark world (Matt. 5:14). But, like those oil lamps, each of us needs constant tending and refueling: being prayed for, encouraged, built up, strengthened, comforted, refreshed, instructed, warned, and even—occasionally—rebuked. Without mutual “priesting,” our lights can flicker out.
We carry out these priestly roles in our weekday lives—but not only then. On Sundays, in churches that adopt a shared-church meeting format, we may also serve in the ways described above. As Greg Ogden puts it in The New Reformation, “We are priests to each other.”
"When you come together, everyone . . . " (I Cor. 14:26). In other words, we gather as an assembly of priests, not as an audience of spectators who simply look on while someone else carries out our priestly roles.