FOR many people
the organisation and traditions of religion create large barriers
to its acceptance. Believing that God can be worshipped acceptably
by an individual in a forest or on a mountain-places which bring
readily to mind His awesome creative power - they shy away from
grand robes and imposing buildings. When it is suggested that
somehow God cannot he properly worshipped other than through a
human intermediary and according to set rites, their worst fears
are confirmed. The hierarchy of priests (cardinals, archbishops,
bishops, canons, etc.), is confusing to them and also suggests
that there are two categories of worshipper - priests and lay
people. Possibly, even that those who claim to be ordained by God
are more favoured than everyone else.
Churchmen argue that priests and
the church speak on God's behalf; they interpret God's
commandments for men, and plead with God on man's behalf; only
they are allowed to bless the sacraments of communion: the bread
and wine shared by worshippers in remembrance of Christ's
sacrifice. They claim that today's priests are the rightful
successors to the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles; that God
speaks today through the church as He spoke in earlier centuries
through prophets and apostles.
What can we make of these claims?
Has God commanded that He should be worshipped only through the
mediation of human priests? Do men today have the right to speak
for God? Are there two categories of worshippers, the priests and
To answer these questions we need to have a reliable source of
authority, something that is totally trustworthy, having stood the
test of time. Priests speak with the authority they believe they
receive from their church. The churches claim their authority
direct from God Himself. But we are not interested in claims
alone. We need some reliable evidence.
If God has declared anything about
how He should be worshipped, that would surely be the reliable
authority we are looking for. And God has spoken! The Bible
claims to be the written word of God. Nor is this only a claim. If
it was, it would be no different from the churches' claim to speak
on God's behalf. God's word contains various tests so that His
claim can be proved.
God Does not Change
Primarily there is the evidence of fulfilled prophecy (for more
information on this subject see the booklet in this series: Bible
Prophecy). God revealed to His prophets certain events long before
they happened. Their words also had a further importance:
"If a prophet arises
among you . . . and if he says, 'Let us go after other gods,'
which you have not known, 'and let us serve them,' you shall not
listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams;
for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the
Lord your God with all your heart" (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).
Look how crucial this passage is.
In times past God revealed His mind to certain men and women.
Their words could be tested. What they spoke about future events
had to be fulfilled if they were truly speaking for God. More than
that, if they contradicted previous messages from God, they were
clearly false prophets - for God does not change This establishes
an important principle. God has revealed His purpose for mankind,
and this is verified by the tests He provided. Anyone who speaks
today and contradicts the teachings in His word cannot claim that
His authority lies behind what they say. The Bible thus becomes an
important source of authority on religious matters today - it is
the living Word of God.
This question of authority is
crucial to our consideration. True believers in Christ accept only
one authority, the word of God. Christ was "the word made flesh"
(John 1:14). He always upheld and never contradicted his Father's
word. His followers must aim for nothing less in their own
worship. Let us therefore approach God's Word reverently to see
what is revealed about the priesthood, and about the organisation
of believers in Christ. In this way the claims of churchmen for
themselves and for their churches can be tested.
Priesthood in the
In the beginning of the Bible record God spoke directly with some
men and women by means of His angels. He did not command the
establishment of a priesthood until after the descendants of Jacob
were delivered from slavery in pagan Egypt and led by Moses to the
land of Canaan. During their forty year journey, they were being
welded into a nation-and into a religious congregation. Stephen
spoke to the Jewish leaders of his day about "the church in
the wilderness" under the leadership of Moses, through whom God
provided laws to govern their national life (Acts 7:38).
"The church" was not a special
building for their worship, it is a term used to describe the
whole group of people separated to God. As it is a word connected
in modern use almost exclusively with a building, it may help to
understand its true meaning to learn that the word in the New
Testament's original language (Greek), was ekklesia. Our
English word "congregation" is a good translation of it: a group
of people gathered together for a special purpose. Because the
"congregation in the wilderness" consisted of God's people, all
their laws had a spiritual purpose, and were to be taught and
maintained by His representatives. God chose the tribe of Levi out
of their twelve tribes to fulfil this role.
The reason for choosing Levi was
important. Moses had been called up into a mountain to receive the
nation's laws. In his absence from their camp, the people called
for a festival. During their revelry they gave golden jewellery to
Moses' brother Aaron, and he made a golden calf, like the gods
worshipped in Egypt. Returning from the mountain when the orgy was
at its height, Moses was distressed by their behaviour, and
immediately took charge. Calling out, "Who is on the Lord's
side?", he determined to purge the camp of all the revellers who
had turned away from worshipping God to worship the golden calf.
Levi's sons responded immediately,
and Moses was able to say to them, "Today you have ordained
yourselves for the service of the Lord" (Exodus 32:29). The tribe
of Levi thus became responsible for instructing the nation in the
things to do with God and His ways. The nation had shown itself to
be weak and with a tendency easily to turn away from God. The
Levites had shown their faithfulness to Him in a time of trial and
now had to show the same judgement through their lives for the
benefit of others. They were to act as intermediaries between a
faithless people and a "God of mercy, yet of holiness".
Man Separated from
God indicated His close involvement with the nation of Israel when
the glory of His presence occupied part of the portable
Tabernacle, and later the more permanent Temple - centres for the
nation's worship. The Most Holy Place, as this part was called,
could not be entered regularly by anyone. It was a room wholly set
aside for God. Though He was among His people, the perfection of
His character and the sinfulness of theirs did not allow free and
open concourse between them. Just once each year the High Priest
was allowed to enter, but only after rigorous and careful
By the sacrifices and offerings
commanded under the law, and by the priests' involvement with
them, the people were constantly to be reminded of God's holiness,
and that He cannot be approached casually or insincerely. The
chief priest wore on his forehead a small gold plate inscribed
with the words, "Holiness to the Lord" (Exodus 28:36). Together
with his clothing, it was meant to represent the attitude of mind
necessary in priest and people if they were to be acceptable to
A close consideration of all the
Old Testament teaching concerning the priesthood reveals the
following important aspects:
- God is pure and holy - He cannot
be approached directly by sinful men and women.
- Angels were employed by God to
communicate with mankind.
- The priesthood was commanded by
God only when there was a group specially prepared to worship
Him, and with laws controlling that worship. These people formed
- The priest was a man from a
family chosen by God and separated from the people.
- Men and women who wanted to
repent of their sins and receive forgiveness had to employ the
services of a priest who would assist them to offer a sacrifice.
- The presence of God was located
in the inner portion of the tabernacle and temple. Only the High
Priest could enter once a year, after special preparation.
- The priest had to be washed
clean before he could mediate for the people, and he had to
offer for his own sins first.
This last aspect is specially
important. Though the Levites had shown great promise in the
matter of the golden calf, they were really as sinful as the rest
of the people. When Israel's history unfolds in the Bible record,
the priests become as involved in the nation's transgression as
those they were meant to be teaching, and often can be found
leading the nation in false worship. What was needed was a
representative for man, sharing all his propensities to sin, but
perfectly obedient to the commands of God. A man like that could
fulfil all the requirements for priesthood: chosen by God and
separated from the people.
Priesthood in the
The apostle Paul, commenting upon the law given through Moses in
his letter to the Galatians, described it as a "schoolmaster to
bring us to Christ' 13:24). In every aspect, the law declared its
inability to bring salvation to sinful mankind. A sacrifice had to
be offered every time someone sinned. All this did was
constantly to remind man that sin separates him from God. There
was no provision in the jaw for finally removing sin from the
earth. Anyone carefully meditating upon the law's significance
would realise the urgent need for a Saviour from sin.
This need was met when Jesus was
born. He was given that name, as an angel declared to Mary's
husband Joseph, because "he will save his people from their sins"
(Matthew 1:21). Jesus fulfilled all the requirements that the
priests under the law were unable to achieve. Where they were
weak, he was strong. He was subject to the same things that caused
their weakness: he knew the temptations they had to grapple with.
But they often gave in to temptation. Jesus never did. He shared
his physical nature with them: an ageing body, susceptible to
tiredness, injury, disease and, ultimately, death. But, instead of
focusing his mind on himself and his needs, as this weak nature
has for the rest of mankind, Jesus' mind was devoted completely to
the things of his heavenly Father. Where sin has ensnared all the
rest of humankind, Jesus never succumbed. Men have constantly
failed; Jesus was supremely victorious.
"All have sinned and fall short of
the glory of God", is how Paul described the state of mankind
(Romans 3:23). But Jesus "committed no sin; no guile was found on
his lips" (1 Peter 2:22). His victory over sin and death was
complete when God raised him from the dead - to die no more. He is
"a priest for ever" (Hebrews 7:17).
The Perfect Priest
Here is someone ideally fitted to be a priest:
- Jesus came into the world as a
human being and lived amongst men and women.
- He learned real obedience to the
Father through the suffering he endured.
- He overcame every temptation,
lived an utterly sinless life, and offered himself completely
when he submitted to death on the cross.
- Since Jesus was undeserving of
death, God raised him from the grave and gave him a nature that
cannot perish or die; he is now immortal, and lives and reigns
- Because he shared our humanity,
he can sympathise with our trials and problems.
- Having himself overcome similar
trials, he can offer a share in his victory to those willing to
associate themselves with him.
These factors set Jesus aside from
every other person who has ever lived. As these are the qualities
of true priesthood, there can only be one priest. The Jewish
priests of Jesus' day should have seen that he fulfilled the
requirements for priesthood where they had manifestly failed. With
a blinding pride, however, they saw none of this, and were among
the leaders of the group intent on putting him to death. Because
they should have known better, and should have taken the
responsibility of priesthood under the law more seriously, Jesus
called them "blind guides" and "whitewashed tombs" (Matthew 15:14;
He scathingly denounced them for
their hypocrisy. He warned the people against them, because they
"like to go about in long robes, and love salutations in the
market places and the best seats at synagogues at id the places of
honour at feasts" (Luke 20:46). Jesus' attitude to their pride is
part of the answer to our question about the justification for two
'levels' of worshipper; humility, not pride, must be the
characteristic of the true follower of Christ: "For every one who
exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be
exalted" (Luke 14:11).
The true church, based on Biblical
principles, is a congregation of men and women with no hierarchy,
devoted to the worship of God, and honouring the sacrifice made on
their behalf by the Lord Jesus Christ. Through him only can
they acceptably approach God in prayer.
In Jesus the Jewish law was both
fulfilled and replaced. His work had also been anticipated by the
provisions in the law, but its complete objective could not be
achieved by any of the Levite priests.
Christ in Contrast
to the Law
1. Jesus was chosen by God to be High Priest. After
Aaron had first been appointed High Priest under the Law of Moses,
all subsequent holders of that position were eldest sons, taking
over on the death of their fathers. They were thus chosen "by the
will of man", not by the will of God. They could only approach
into God's presence once each year. Jesus now lives for evermore,
and always sits in the presence of God:
"The former priests
were many in number, because they were prevented by death from
continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently,
because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all
time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he
always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:23-25).
2. Jesus offered himself as a
sacrifice, once and for all. Under the law sacrifices had
to be offered again and again. The Jewish priests had to recognise
their own sins by offering first for themselves before they could
officiate on behalf of the people:
"He has no need, like
those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own
sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all
when he offered himself" (verse 27).
3. Jesus was able to replace
the law by perfectly fulfilling it, and by being totally
obedient to his Father's will:
"Christ has obtained
a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the
covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better
promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there
would have been no occasion for a second . . . In speaking of a
new covenant he treats the first as obsolete" (Hebrews 8:6,7,13).
4. Jesus conquered sin,
and true believers can receive forgiveness of sins because of his
"Christ has entered,
not . . to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the
Holy Place yearly . . . for then he would have had to suffer
repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has
appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the
sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:24-26).
His priesthood is unique, and no human being can achieve what he
did. He said himself, speaking first of all to his disciples who
could have greater claim to represent him than anyone else: "No
man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6}. In
unmistakable terms, the apostle Paul confirms this true position:
"There is one God,
and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ
Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:5,6).
Furthermore, Paul wrote these words
in a section of his letter to Timothy dealing with the
organisation of the believers in Ephesus. Had he wished there to
be a category of believers with special duties to represent God to
man, here was the opportunity to say so. Instead, he clearly
states that Jesus alone fulfils this function.
Many churches today claim that only
an ordained priest can bless and distribute the bread and wine,
end that only bishops can ordain priests. The New Testament
certainly records the first occasion bread and wine were shared by
the disciples in Jesus' presence, and later how the apostles
described the believers' duty to meet regularly for this purpose.
But it never suggests that the person presiding over this memorial
service has to be specially ordained - in fact there is no mention
of such a person, only of the command to believers: "As often as
you eat this bread and drink this wine you proclaim the Lord's
death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26).
It must be noted that this command
specifically places a responsibility on individual believers,
whether meeting on their own or in company with others, to take
bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus' sacrifice. The practice of
some churches to restrict the sharing of wine to the priests only,
finds no place in the Bible record.
The Organisation of
the Early Church
Having seen that the Jewish priesthood was replaced by the work of
Christ, we must now turn to consider how the early believers
organised themselves. Did the Lord's apostles command the
establishment of a human priesthood modelled on that of Christ's?
Did they instruct that special buildings, intricately decorated,
should be erected; that there should be special robes, or special
phraseology to make worship acceptable? Were there to be special
functions for certain believers?
The New Testament account of the
early Christian church reveals an active, lively, and rapidly
growing community. Although believers performed many different
functions, there were no distinctions in terms of status:
"For as in one body
we have many members, and all the members do not have the same
function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and
individually members one of another" (Romans 12:4,5).
Through all that was written during
this exciting period, and while the gospel message was scorching
through the Mediterranean world assisted by the communication
systems provided by the Roman Empire, there was clearly great
concern that no one person, or group of people should dominate the
fellowship of believers. To suggest otherwise would effectively
dethrone their Lord, for:
"Christ is the head
of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour" (Ephesians
Service is the
Jesus' own words to his followers should be the guide in these
matters. He taught all of his disciples to be servants, and
there was to be no differentiation in terms of rank. He set the
example himself when he washed the feet of his disciples-in his
day the most menial task of the most insignificant slave: "I have
given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to
you" (John 13:15). He also warned his followers about the dangers
of treating some men or women differently from others. They had
seen, as he had, the corruption of the Jewish leaders in their
day. Jesus warned his own followers not to fall into the same
"You are not to be
called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren.
And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who
is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master,
the Christ" (Matthew 23:8-10).
Elsewhere in his teaching, Jesus
upheld the family unit, and spoke about the need for children to
respect their parents. He was therefore clearly talking on this
occasion about their religious organisation needing to be founded
as a brotherhood. His words here concerning fathers relate
to the practice of calling religious leaders "father", showing how
alien it is to Christ's ideal of the relationship between
believers. To do so in the face of Jesus' own teaching is an
affront to the majesty of God Himself.
The Family of
The idea of a family is a very useful way of understanding how the
early believers organised themselves in accordance with the advice
of Jesus and his apostles. God was their Father, and the Lord
Jesus Christ their Saviour, the head of their community. But like
a normal, human family with older and younger members, where those
who are more experienced take a greater share in the daily
responsibilities, so in the early Christian congregations there
were elder and younger members. Certain responsibilities were
given to the elders, but they were not to lord it over the rest of
the congregation. They were to "treat younger men like brothers .
. . younger women like sisters, in all purity" (1 Timothy 5:1,2).
Yes, there were different tasks,
and different responsibilities according to circumstance, but the
first century congregations knew nothing of the distinction
between priests and laymen, so common in today's churches. The
selection of elders to look after each congregation was the
responsibility of the members in that place. Paul wrote to Titus,
in Crete, and told him to: "appoint elders in every town" (Titus
1:5). It would presumably have been possible for Paul to have
given a list of appropriate names. But this would not have helped
believers elsewhere, or in a later age. So that the task could
subsequently be done by the members of any congregation, Paul set
down the qualities that fit a man to be an elder:
"Men who are
blameless, the husband of one wife, whose children are believers
and not open to the charge of being profligate or insubordinate"
Elders, Bishops and
These elders, sometimes called "bishops" (meaning shepherds or
overseers had, as we have seen, responsibilities towards their
fellow believers. The bishop's role was that of a shepherd. He was
not in Jesus' place in the community, but had to display the same
concern for the "flock" - of which he was also a part.
Other tasks, also of service, were
entrusted to men and women qualified to fulfil them. Whereas
elders' responsibilities were directed more to the spiritual needs
of believers, "deacons" were involved with their physical needs.
In the New Testament only the Lord Jesus Christ is recognised as a
priest. Nor do any of the descriptions of the work of elders,
bishops or deacons suggest that these had any priestly function.
None of the other church "offices" are Bible terms either: they
have all been invented by men.
Nowhere do the Apostles mention the
sort of building believers should meet in. On one occasion the
apostle Paul joined a group of worshippers who met by the
riverside. Everything he had to say about this group, and others
like them, commends their practices. Nor are special clothes
mentioned. The only time there are references to what worshippers
should wear, there are strong indications that clothes in
flamboyant colours or costly materials should be carefully avoided
(1 Peter 3:3,4, for example).
Another distinction between clergy
and laymen in many churches today is that the clergy receive
payment for their work. In the first century, those involved in
the spiritual welfare of the community were entitled in principle
to material or financial support. The apostle Paul wrote to the
Corinthians about this. He said: "Do we not have the right to our
food and drink? The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the
gospel should get their living by the gospel" (1 Corinthians
9:4-14). Nevertheless, Paul recognised the possibility of
corruption entering into the community through this provision, and
declared about himself: "I have made no use of any of these rights
in my preaching I make the gospel free of charge . . . I do it all
for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings"
The history of churches where
payment has been made to its clergy unfortunately bears out the
apostle's concerns. In the Middle Ages the churches were extremely
corrupt, and many priests became infinitely more wealthy and
powerful than the members of their congregations. The problem
still exists today. Scandals involving church finances occur only
too regularly. A return to the New Testament principle of "the
right to food and drink" for those "who proclaim the gospel" would
help to prevent many of these crimes.
The Work of the
It is important to recognise that these arrangements for each
congregation to elect ministers (i.e., servants) from within its
own membership were being made when the apostles of Jesus were
still active among the infant church. In the absence of a reliable
written account of the work and teachings of Christ (for the
gospels were not widely available in their present form until
towards the end of the first century A.D.), the apostles were
inspired witnesses of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. On them
rested the power of God, His Holy Spirit. It gave them ready
recall of all that Jesus did and said; and by it they were able to
work miracles to reinforce the truth of their teachings, as Jesus
Once the New Testament account was
complete, man had in his possession, together with the books of
the Old Testament, a book that contains all that is necessary to
teach him about God's offer of salvation:
the holy scriptures .
. . "are able to instruct you to salvation through faith in Christ
Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15).
Each believer becomes individually
responsible to God for the answer he makes to the call of the
gospel. As the Psalmist wrote: "None can by any means redeem his
brother, nor give to God a ransom for him" (49:7) Through the word
of God man learns of His offer of salvation. Others may assist him
to grow in his understanding. But once he comes to an appreciation
of the saving work of Christ and the faithful response he should
make, he stands on his own before God. His only mediator is the
Lord Jesus Christ.
But, it has been argued, the apostles were leaders of the Church;
they acted in Christ's place. To the extent that they witnessed to
him, and preached the same gospel message, this is true. But the
apostles, even though they had the power of the Holy Spirit, did
not act as mediators on behalf of other men and women, as priests
today claim for themselves. We have seen that the purpose of the
Holy Spirit in the apostles' lives was to guarantee the truth of
their witness. As this was no longer necessary once the scriptures
were complete, there was also no need to provide for a succession
of men to take on the role of apostles. Nowhere in the Bible
record can we find apostleship being passed on to a new
It is sometimes claimed that the
practice of "laying on hands" provided divinely appointed
successors to the apostles. But the term has a variety of
meanings, many of them unrelated to the idea of succession, such
as identification with an offering, or the award of a blessing.
When Moses was specifically
commanded to appoint Joshua to succeed him, God said: "Lay your
hand upon him . . you shall invest him with some of your
authority" (Numbers 27:18,19). The history of the nation soon
shows that the people were to look upon Joshua as they had once
viewed Moses. If the laying on of hands in the New Testament has
only this special meaning, we should expect to find apostles being
replaced as they died, if not before. But they were not. The
apostle James died quite soon after the ascension of Jesus (Acts
12:2), and there is no mention of a replacement for him. We have
already seen that the election and appointment of elders was made
specifically with the consent and approval of each individual
congregation, and not directly by the apostles.
After the Apostles
Evidence from early church history indicates that it was not until
the middle of the second century A.D. that the practice developed
of separating bishops from elders. Bishops were elevated to a
position where their role was that of master or lord rather than
servant. At about the same time there were signs of the emergence
of a separate priesthood which began to assume certain features of
the Jewish priesthood. Elaborate rituals developed connected with
religious services and in the ordination of church officials. Soon
there were the special buildings, clothing and language that so
mark out much of religious activity today Though contrary to Bible
teaching, this was not a wholly unexpected development. Even
during the period when the apostles were active there was a
constant struggle to prevent the intrusion of both Jewish and
pagan practices into the infant Christian community.
Jesus and his apostles warned about
the emergence of "false teachers", "false prophets", and even of
"false Christs", who would deceive many and turn away disciples
after them (Matthew 24:4,5,11,24). Paul showed that false teachers
would arise from within the church itself: "From among your own
selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the
disciples after them" (Acts 20:28-30). Towards the end of the
first century, the apostle John wrote: "As you have heard that
antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come" (1 John
2:18). The term "antichrist" refers not only to those who openly
oppose Christ's teaching, but also to those who claim to represent
him, yet who, by their teachings and practices, actually oppose
These warnings are just as
important today. Any survey of the history of Christianity shows
how the simple faith and practices of the apostles and their
fellow believers have been corrupted. The only way to ensure
compliance with them is to examine modern beliefs and behaviour in
the light of Bible teaching.
Learning that present believers do not act as priests, interceding
or offering on behalf of others, we can recognise only the Lord
Jesus Christ as priest for his church. However, there are aspects
that formerly were part of the priesthood that believers now have
to fulfil on their own behalf. As the Levites were "taken out" of
Israel to serve God under the law of Moses, so the believers in
Christ are "taken out" of the world to be a selected company to
offer praise unto God:
"Through him (Christ)
then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God,
that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name" (Hebrews
"Present your bodies
as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your
spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1).
These passages teach that so far as
the believer is concerned, there is to be no separation into that
which is "holy" and that which is "profane", for the whole of a
true Christian's life is dedicated to being "holy". What is
specially significant is that the believers themselves are
instructed to do the "presenting". No priest can do this for them.
Prior to their conversion, whether they were pagans or Jews, this
act of offering a sacrifice would have been the privilege and
responsibility of a priest. But Christ's disciples are to make
sacrifices now in acts of self-denial to demonstrate their
allegiance to Jesus and his future rule over God's kingdom on
earth. They forsake the things of the present world because of
their commitment to the world to come. Jesus' sacrifice, offered
once for the benefit of all who will avail themselves of it, is
the guarantee that a life of service now will be rewarded when he
comes back to the earth.
Most Bible quotations are
from the Revised Standard Version