Who is a Priest and What is a Priest?

J. N. Darby.

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In the New Testament the Jewish priests are often spoken of, and their high and chief priests too. The priest of Jupiter is spoken of, who would have offered sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas as gods. Melchisedec and his priesthood are spoken of. Christ Himself is spoken of as a priest in general and as high priest. All this is simple enough, and needs no particular comment for our present purpose. But others also, men on earth, are spoken of as priests and a priesthood. (1 Peter 2:5, 9.) The first passage says, "Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ;" the latter, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." These words are addressed, beyond all controversy, to the whole of the Christians to whom Peter addresses his epistle, and whom he is instructing and encouraging in their trials. All Christians therefore are a holy and royal priesthood.

Again, in Revelation 1:5, 6 we find, "Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests to God and his Father." Here again all Christians are priests. This is in the introduction, before the prophetic part of the book. In chapter 5:9, we read, "Thou art worthy to take the book and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us* to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests." In chapter 20:6, we read, "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years." These passages tell us that all Christians are priests to God.

{*I am aware that this is read otherwise by critics, but it does not affect the present subject at all, and I give it therefore as usually read.}

Another passage, though the word is not used, alludes to it. "By him [Jesus] therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving praise to his name." (Heb. 13:15.) This calls on all Christians to exercise their priesthood, and shews how they are to do it. There is not in the New Testament one passage which speaks of or alludes to a priesthood upon earth, save as every Christian is; or supposes the existence of a priesthood on earth save that of all Christians. No one on earth is ever called a priest — except the Jewish priests, and once a heathen one — save when Christians in general as such are called so. A distinct class of priests on earth among Christians is totally unknown to the New Testament. Our great High Priest is gone to heaven. And all Christians are priests in a spiritual and heavenly way for praises and intercessions under Him. The New Testament does not know or own a class of Christians on earth who are priests in a distinct office from other Christians. Such a thought is unscriptural and false in every way.

210 If it be asked then, Who are priests under the christian revelation? I reply (because the word of God replies), Christ is the great High Priest. All Christians are priests, and no other priesthood than this is owned among christian men in the New Testament.

Next we may enquire, What is a priest? and more exactly, What are the principles on which earthly priesthood, where it is established amongst men, is founded? A high priest from among men is thus described in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "Every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins." Other priests had the same office when priesthood was established upon earth. Certain functions belonged to the high priest only, but gifts and sacrifices for sins were offered by all the priests. Hence, when priests are officially established now, there is always either the formal institution of a sacrifice, as that of the mass, which is quite consistent; or the hankering after one, and the effort on the part of those called priests to turn the Lord's Supper into one, from the sense of inconsistency and of what they ought to be about, if they are really priests.

But this whole system denies the force and efficacious truth of Christianity altogether. The Epistle to the Hebrews carefully assures us that there remains no more sacrifice for sin, now that Christianity is established, founded on the one perfect sacrifice of Christ, whose value and efficacy are eternal. But let the reader turn his attention to what the system of an earthly priesthood supposes — what it means; and he will readily see that the idea of a priesthood on earth, acting for men in things pertaining to God, is a denial of the whole truth of Christianity. I do not say every one that believes there are consecrated priests, desires to do so, but the system he maintains does so.

211 The establishment of a class of priests to offer gifts or sacrifice or prayers, is the public declaration that other worshippers cannot directly approach God with their gifts, and sacrifices, and prayers. They must stay at a distance, and the more favoured class approach for them. The character which God assumed in such an order of things was distance from men, shutting Himself up in a hidden sanctuary, where none could approach freely. There was in the Jewish system one veil, inside which the priests went to offer incense; then another, inside which even the priests could not go, and where God's glory was enthroned between the cherubim. Into this the high priest alone went, only once a year, with the blood of propitiation to put upon the mercy seat, and even then enveloping himself in a cloud of incense lest he should die. Thus God was hidden within the veil. "The Holy Ghost," the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, "this signifying, that the way into the holiest was not yet manifested, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing." Even to the altar, which was outside the two veils, the worshipper could not approach to offer his gifts or sacrifices. The priest received the gifts, or the victim's blood, at his hand, and he offered them.

All this system taught that men could not approach God: He dwelt in the thick darkness, and even those who were nearest to Him, His own priests, could not approach close to Him; they must remain without the veil. Christianity is the opposite of all this, though beautiful figures of truths as to Christ are found in it. By it God has revealed Himself. He does not dwell in the thick darkness. "The darkness is past," says the Apostle John, "and the true light now shineth." And for a blessed and simple reason. The Word has been made flesh and come among us: perfect grace has been manifested to the chief of sinners. Instead of our not being able to approach God, God has approached us. "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them." "In him [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of men." The record of God is that "God hath given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life." "The grace of God which bringeth salvation hath appeared." The chief of sinners was welcome to the Lord Jesus. On the leper, whose defiled state excluded him from the camp of Israel and every one that touched him (an image of sin), Jesus laid His hands and touched him. Gracious goodness has visited us. God has shewn Himself "the friend of publicans and sinners." But this is far from being all; for, though God visited the sinner thus in grace, the sinner could not approach Him in His holy habitation uncleansed. Hence the blessed Jesus not only lived but died. And now mark the effect of His death.

212 The veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom. This was the veil behind which God was previously hidden and unapproachable. But that which rent the veil (that is the death of Christ) put away sin perfectly from every one who believes in Him. He has borne their sins: His blood cleanses them from all sin. And not only have they found that God is perfect love — has commended His love to them, in that while they were yet sinners, Christ died for them — but they have found, if they believe in the efficacy of that sacrifice, what has purged their sins, for it was "when he had by himself purged our sins," and not till then, that "he sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high." Hence the blood of Christ purges the conscience, making it perfect (Heb. 9, 10), and God remembers our sins and iniquities no more. Hence also, "there remains no more sacrifice for sins," because they are remitted; and "by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified."

The Epistle to the Hebrews, from which I quote these statements, gives two striking reasons why there could be no repetition of the sacrifice, nor any more sacrifice for sins. First, without shedding of blood there is no remission; therefore, Christ must have suffered often if there were any besides that accomplished on the cross. Further, it is added, the Jewish priests stood offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which could never take away sins, but this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins, for ever sat down; for by one offering He hath perfected for ever them who are sanctified. Such is the plain and blessed language of scripture. God would shew His goodness and grace towards us, but He could not bear sin, nor receive what was defiled and guilty into His presence, in His holy habitation, and hence gave His Son to put it away, that we might draw nigh with full assurance of faith. But this work is accomplished once for all. We have therefore (it is the conclusion drawn in Hebrews 10) "boldness to enter into the holiest by a new and living way which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh." There no priest could enter (save the high priest, once a year, as we have said) when there were priests. And now every Christian can enter with boldness under the great High Priest, who is over the house of God. Believers are that house. We are those priests, as I have already shewn. No priest can go farther than entering into the holiest; and there I do not want him, for I can go boldly myself. If I get him to go for me, I am denying my own right and christian character, and the efficacy of Christ's work. He who sets up a priesthood on earth, between the believer and God, is denying the efficacy and truth of the work of Christ. He has "died the just for the unjust to bring us to God." If I am brought to God, I do not want a priest: to go to Him for me. If the veil is rent, and I am told by God to enter into the holiest through that new and living way, I do not want another to go there because I cannot — another who could not go either if I cannot.

213 The essence of Christianity is to reveal God, and to bring us to God, to give us holy, happy liberty as children in His presence, into which we can enter as cleansed by the precious blood of Christ. The essence of a distinct human priesthood is to say we cannot, but must get others to go into God's presence, to offer our gifts and sacrifices for us. It is a denial of the whole efficacy of Christianity and the place in which all Christians are set; who, if Christianity be true, are all God's priests on the earth, to offer up spiritual sacrifices — the fruit of their lips, giving praise to His name.

But, I add more: it is false and useless. The veil is rent, God is manifested in His holiness, the light has gone forth; and you, my reader, must "walk in the light as he [God] is in the light," or you can have nothing to say to Him. You cannot have a hidden God, as in Judaism, for a priest to go to, who yet could not reach Him. The light shines, and you must walk in it yourself. There is no veil over the glory of God now; there may be over your heart, but then you are an unbeliever, and no priest can represent you before God. You have to stand before God in the light yourself. If you have come through the blood of Christ, the light will only shew so much the more that you are perfectly clean through it. But you cannot even be clean and another go into God's presence for you. If you are clean, you are a priest and have to draw nigh yourself.

The work of Christ is a perfect and divine work, but you cannot approach God by a proxy here below. You cannot have another person clean or holy for you on the earth. If Christ has answered for you, all is well. Go boldly to the throne of grace yourself. If not, no one else can do it for you. You must have to do directly with God, now He has been revealed. No doubt that will be in condemnation, if you do not come to Him through Christ; but you must come yourself: the state of your own conscience is in question directly between you and God. If you do come to God by Him, no human priest can interfere, nor do you want any.

214 I repeat, then, the establishment of a human priesthood, as a class distinct from all other Christians, is the denial of the truth and efficacy of Christianity.

All Christians are priests, according to the New Testament: their offerings are spiritual offerings of praise to God's name.