At first, this can be a strange way to think of Christ and the Church because when we think of priests, many of our minds imagine a select few men in the more traditional churches today who walk around in fancy robes with tall hats and carry golden staffs in their hands. Or, we think of the Levitical priesthood in the Old Testament that offered animal sacrifices to God or maybe even the chief priests that Jesus seemed to always be arguing with. But when it comes to the New Testament Church, it teaches that each one of us ought to think of ourselves as spiritual priests who offer spiritual sacrifices.
In the Old Testament, the tribe of Levi (Levites) were responsible for the temple service and mediating on behalf of OT believers before God. But in the New Testament, because Jesus Christ is our High Priest who grants us direct access to God, we don’t need any more mediators as believers. Jesus is our only Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). Believers don’t need any priests but the One High Priest. However, in a sense, we should think of ourselves as “priests” who offer spiritual sacrifices and mediate between God and the unbelieving world.
Levites became priests through physical birth but believers through spiritual birth. Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer points out that in the Old Testament, a priest would be ceremonially cleansed through a once-for-all whole bathing (Exodus 29:4) and after that, he was required to be cleansed repeatedly by a partial bathing at the brazen laver to be prepared for daily priestly service.
In a similar way, when believers experience the new birth in Christ, they are also cleansed by the washing of the Holy Spirit and once-for-all forgiven (Titus 3:4-7). There is never again a need for “full baths” because we never lose salvation and never lose the Holy Spirt. However, like the priests, there is still need in our relationship with God to stay current with Him by confessing our sins and receiving cleansing (1 John 1:9). Jesus said "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” and “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean” (John 13:5-11).
Now let’s start looking at some of those spiritual sacrifices. 1 Peter 2:9 is a key text for this subject:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession; so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
Sacrifice #1 – The sacrifice of proclaiming good news about God.
God called each one of us out of darkness and into His marvelous light through the gospel of Jesus Christ, the truth that He died for our sins and all who believe are saved. This gospel that was proclaimed to us and saved us is what we as priests are to proclaim to others! Like 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 tells us, since we’ve been reconciled to God, He has now entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation (vv. 18-19). As His "priests" we represent Him to the world (and we don’t have to wear fancy robes to do that).
A couple more sacrifices are found together in Hebrews 13:15-16:
“Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”
Sacrifice #2 – The sacrifice and fruitful offering of praise & thanksgiving.
We could sum that up by saying we offer the service of worship! In a world where Christians are sometimes treated harshly as Peter is known for emphasizing, praise tells this world that we are not living for it. We have a hope and a new country (New Earth) and new city (the New Jerusalem) that we are living for and in this world we are strangers and exiles to it (Heb. 11:13-16; 13:14; Rev. 21:1-2).
We should be known for being thankful for all of God’s physical and spiritual provisions and for praising Him with the fruit of our lips. Giving thanks and praise pleases God and is an act that distinguishes us from the rest who don’t believe (Rom. 1:21).
Sacrifice #3 – The sacrifice of doing good and sharing.
Every “priest” should have the focus of serving God by serving others in love. These are the greatest commandments for every priest to live by. This comes by doing good through speaking the truth in love to bring spiritual restoration and sharing with those who truly need it, especially within the household of God (Gal. 6:10).
For a more complete look at how much this pleases God, it’s imperative to read Philippians 4:15-20 where Paul praises the church of Philippi for their support of his ministry. Paul was a man who worked hard to share the gospel with folks and faced hardship and imprisonment for it. Although he was content in any conditions, the church supported him anyway. Look how he describes their generous support:
“But I have received everything in full and have abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
Sacrifice #4 – The sacrifice of intercession.
In the tabernacle there was an altar of incense with four horns just like the sacrificial altar outside for animals but this one is for the sacrifice of prayer. Every priest was to be a man of prayer who interceded for the people and kept this incense burning. When you turn to the book of Revelation, one of the neat things we see is the heavenly version of that. The elders are seen holding golden bowls full of incense which are “the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8; 8:3). David prayed, “May my prayer be set before you like incense” (Psalm 141:2). As Zechariah the priest was offering incense in the temple in Luke 1:10, “all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.”
Because of our access to God through Christ, every believer-priest is to carry out the vital service of prayer on behalf of others (Eph. 6:18; Col. 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:1). Prayer is powerful and critical to the spiritual vitality and effectiveness of any church.
All of these sacrifices that we have looked at are only possible at a consistent level when we make the decision to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God.
Sacrifice #5 – The sacrifice of yielding our bodies as a living sacrifice.
The infamous verses of Romans 12:1-2 say,
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to the image of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
Lastly, we should look at how each sacrifice should be qualified because the priests were warned not to offer strange incense and fire to God.
Acceptable Sacrifices – Sacrifices offered according to God’s Word.
Exodus 30:9 says,
“You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar, or burnt offerings or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it.”
Just as the priests were required to do things according to God’s Word so that they didn’t offer strange fire, so it is important that we get to know His Word too so that we don’t do the same thing. When you know God’s Word, you get to know what sacrifices He is pleased with and those which He is not. Knowing God’s Word keeps the sacrifices of worship genuine and holy and pleasing. If you cross reference this with Leviticus 10:1, you find out as Nadab and Abihu did that God was serious about not offering strange incense before Him. They offered the wrong incense at the wrong time and paid for it. Another example is how God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s (Gen. 4:3-7).
When we think of strange fire today, maybe we can think of singing praises while dwelling on unholy things at the same time, repetitious prayers of those who think they’ll be heard for their many words (Mt. 6:7-13), emotional services that end with the same disobedient lives continuing (Isaiah 1:13-18; Amos 5:21-24), going through the motions of worship without a heart of worship (Matthew 15:18), false testimonies where faith is really in religious works and self-righteousness and not Christ alone (Luke 18:9-14), speaking in the strange and unedifying tongues of charismatic churches today, sacrificing monetarily for our own blessings, praying with wrong motives and for worldly desires (James 4:3-4), or maybe serving in church for self-adulation (Romans 12:3). Beware of the strange offerings by studying what a genuine offering is in the Word of God. Learn what is pleasing to God (Eph. 5:8-10).
If you’re a believer, consider thinking of yourself as a “priest” and yield your life to God who is your portion. OT priests had no share in the inheritance of fellow Israelites because the Lord was their inheritance, and He is our inheritance as well (Deut. 10:9; Lamentations 3:24). Live for Him as a wholly devoted "priest" today!
Cited: Nelson Miles, Theology 3: Ecclesiology, Frontier School of the Bible.