The Priesthood of All Believers: A Call for All to Proclaim the Gospel

b02007a106a73b935c8de8eeb4be056cab88c37fLast year I wrote a book on the priesthood, and tonight I will teach a lesson on the priesthood of believers in Romans 15. And so in preparation for that lesson, I am dusting off a piece of my dissertation (edited) and posting it here. It’s on the priesthood of believers.


When we think of the priesthood of believers, we often think of 1 Peter 2:5, 9–10, and rightly so. In addition to defiling the high priest’s servant when he cut off his ear (N.B. Jesus does not heal Malchus in John’s Gospel), Peter also picked up the sword of the Spirit to positively articulate a vision of the church as a royal priesthood. And in what follows, I will reflect on his thoughts from his first epistle.

At the same time, Paul too had a vision for the priesthood–a vision for priesthood that is often under-appreciated. And so, in the second portion below, I will highlight the one place where he uses the word “priest,” actually “priestly” (hierourgounta). From his usage, and Peter’s, we learn a key lesson, that the priestly ministry of the church means evangelism for all. Let’s consider.

Getting into the Priesthood

As the true and better high priest, Jesus is doing what the unfaithful priests of Israel never did—he is ensuring that all his people hear the good news of the new covenant (cp. Isa. 54:13; John 6:45). Through the evangelistic witness of the church, Jesus is circumcising hearts, and through the Holy Spirit, he is purifying a people for his own possession—a people who will serve as priests.

It is to these evangelistic matters that we turn, in order to show how Christ’s priestly service impels the church to carry out their priestly service.

Royal Priests Preach the Gospel (1 Peter 2:5, 9­–10)

In the New Testament, there are six explicit references to the priesthood of believers (see Rom 15:16; 1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). The most famous of these may be 1 Peter 2, where Peter tells the “elect exiles” that they are individually “living stones” who “are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (v. 5).

Then, just a few verses later, he reiterates the same point, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (vv. 9­–10).  Don’t miss what the priests do—they proclaim the mercies of God.

Significantly, the priestly role is not just related to the tabernacle/temple and sacrifices for atonement, as in 1 Peter 2:5. Rather, like the priests of old taught the people the Law of Moses (see Lev. 10:11; Deut 33:8–11), new covenant priests will proclaim the gospel—the law fulfilled in Christ.

Wonderfully, the priests depicted here are those who will pronounce the good news to those who were once not a people (i.e., the Gentiles estranged from the covenant promises of God). Thus, the ministry of these priests is not defined by sacrificial offerings, nor temple access, but by gospel proclamation.[1] What does it mean to be a kingdom of priests today? It means that the citizens of the kingdom go into all the nations and proclaim the true king.

Priestly Service Offers the Gentiles as Living Sacrifices (Romans 15)

An evangelistic understanding of the priesthood is not restricted to Peter either. In Romans 15, Paul makes the same point, as he declares himself “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God.” Here, more than any other place in his letters, Paul equates the ministry of the gospel with that of a priestly ministry. As John Stott comments,

Paul regards his missionary work as a priestly ministry because he is able to offer his Gentile converts as a living sacrifice to God. . . . All evangelists are priests, because they offer their converts to God. Indeed, it is this truth more than any other which effectively unites the church’s two major roles of worship and witness. It is when we worship God, . . . that we are driven out to proclaim his name to the world.[2]

Surely, Stott is on solid ground when he says that “all evangelists are priests,” but let’s look at the surrounding context, where we discover that all priests are evangelists and that all of us are priests.

Looking at the context of Romans 15:14–21, we find a number of related statements that develop the ministry of the church as a band of gospel-proclaiming priests. First, in the preceding verses (15:1­–13), Paul details the way that the gospel has been “confirmed” to the Jews and offered to the Gentiles (v. 8). This is the explicit point of verses 9–13, which quotes four Old Testament texts. Remarkably, while each is taken from a different section of the Tanak (Hebrew Old Testament), they all affirm the gospel reaching the “Gentiles.”

Accordingly, these opening verses (vv. 1–13) function as the foundation of Paul’s own ministry to the Gentiles. The significance for our considerations is that the context of Romans 15 speaks directly to the issue of the gospel moving from Israel to the ends of the earth. In other words, this crucial passage explicates the relationship between priestly service and the universal offer of the gospel.

The Universal Priesthood of Believers (Romans 15:14)

Next, after Paul identifies the Holy Spirit coming to the Gentiles (v. 13), he describes his own personal ministry (vv. 14–­21). Yet, before identifying himself with priestly service, he identifies everyone as priest. Let’s look.

After spending the letter developing the theology of the gospel, Paul returns to the theme of gospel ministry. As in the beginning (Romans 1:8–17), so in the end (Romans 15:1–33)[3] Why does he do this? Apart from the literary reasons, it is worth remembering that Paul is not writing Romans as an exercise in theology; he is writing this letter to help Jews and Gentiles unite in the gospel and to join him in his proclamation of that same gospel.[4] Thus, the context gives us a clear indication of Paul’s theology of mission, the need for universal proclamation of the gospel, and the universal mission of the church. We are all to be priests, just as he says in verse 14.

Speaking to the saints of Rome, Paul writes, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (v. 14). While priesthood is so often associated with sacrifices, prayers, and temple service, teaching stood at the center of the office. As Malachi 2:5–7 speaks of the Covenant with Levi, a reference to the priestly covenant established in Numbers 25, the Lord’s messenger says this:

My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.

Do you hear the connection to Romans 15:14? It is not by accident that Paul calls these saints (see Rom.1:7) to teach one another. As saints (lit. “holy ones”) they have been commissioned by God, as priests, to teach one another in the household of God. Thus, Paul affirms in verse 14 the priesthood of all believers, and two verses later he specifies his own priestly ministry. While one of these references is more implicit (v. 14) than the other (v. 16), both are cut from the same holy cloth—all Christians are priests, and all priests have a word of instruction for one another. (N.B. This does not mean all priests are pastors or able to be pastors. Paul defines the pastoral office in another place with priestly imagery—1 Tim. 2:8–15).

Paul’s Priestly Ministry (Romans 15:16)

In Romans 15, there is an undeniable evangelistic theme and a priestly motif. And so, with that in mind, we are reading to see what Paul says in verse 16, the only place in Paul’s letters where he uses the work “priest.”

Building on a reflection of his ministry in v. 15 (“because of the grace given me by God”), Paul chooses to use cultic language to describe his ministry. He writes that he is “a minister (leitourgon) of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles maybe acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”  In addition to the word leitourgon, he makes four explicit references to the OT cult, including a reference to his ministry as that of a priest. These references include hierourgounta (“serving as a priest”), prosphora (“offering”), euprosdektos (“acceptable”), and hegiasmene (“sanctified”). Commentators puzzle over exactly what to make of these terms, but if we look at each of them, we can learn something of the whole.

First, leitourgon, is a hapax legomena that is not typically applied to priests, but in context is clearly referring to the priestly work. The priestly interpretation of “minister of Christ Jesus” comes from the unmistakable meaning of the participle hierourgounta. Paul has clearly employed the cultic image of himself “perform[ing] the work of a priest” in order to explain how he thinks about his “missionary work.”[5] While it is likely that Paul uses the priestly language metaphorically, it does not change the striking character of what he is saying.[6]

His gospel ministry supersedes the old covenant priesthood because it is based on the “gospel of God,” which he explicates in chapters 1–11. Moreover, his priestly ministry reaches beyond Israel to include the Gentiles, because his new covenant ministry of preaching the gospel to all peoples fulfills the prophetic intentions of the Law and Prophets.[7] In fact, when he speaks about the Gentiles in relation to his priestly ministry, he is not trying to bar them from the altar of God (as with the old covenant). Instead, Paul describes the Gentiles that he has won to the Lord as the “offering . . . acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” That the unclean Gentiles are now described as acceptable and holy offerings before God is remarkable. Still, to appreciate fully what that means, we need to examine the other cultic terms.

Next, Paul describes the Gentiles as an “offering” (prosphora) to God himself. With Isaiah 66:20 as the likely backdrop to Rom 15:16, prosphora is most likely used to describe the Gentiles as an “offering” to God himself.  “Paul brings the Gentiles as an offering to God,” because the new creation text at the end of Isaiah “envision[ed] an eschatological offering of the Gentiles.”[8]  Filling out this cultic picture are euprosdektos and hegiasmene, both of which are fitting for a cultic setting. The former, which speaks of the Gentiles as an “acceptable” offering, is often used to describe prayers or sacrifices offered to God, as in the case of 1 Peter 2:5.[9] And the latter term, “sanctified,” which describes the way in which these Gentiles are made acceptable “by the Holy Spirit”, “denotes the act of setting apart” and “dedicating to God.”[10] It is a term that is often used to describe sacrifices, priests, or the temple itself.[11]

Finally, Paul’s use of hierourgounta defines the nature of his gospel ministry.[12]  In relationship to Christ who called Paul and sent him to be an apostle, Christ’s priesthood works through Paul’s priestly service.  In this way, as Paul proclaims the gospel, Christ brings Gentiles to willful obedience, by regenerating their hearts with the message of the gospel (v. 18).  At the same time the exalted power of Christ works mightily through the Spirit to confirm the word with signs and wonders.  And finally, the gospel of Jesus Christ goes to the ends of the earth—just as Isaiah 38-66 said that it would when it prophesied of Christ’s suffering and the extension of the new covenant from Zion to the ends of the earth.

Taken together, it becomes clear that Paul’s missionary service is a priestly ministry that reflects the priesthood of Jesus himself. And more, because Christ is the head of his body, the church, what is true of him, is now true of all his people. It is not just evangelists who are priests, it is everyone in the body of Christ.

All Priests Proclaim the Gospel

In sum, the priesthood of Christ not only brings propitiation; it also funds proclamation. And in 1 Peter and Romans, we see how Peter and Paul impel missions and evangelism by means of identifying the church as a family of royal priests.

Accordingly, we too should see evangelism as our calling. This does not mean all members of Christ’s body will preach, or teach the church. Not all priests had equal access to the house of God. But now, that the veil has been torn, all children of God are given access to pray and to present Gentile converts to the Lord as living sacrifices.

Wonderfully, such a ministry does not require a seminary degree or a clerical robe. It does require that the knowledge of the Lord would be on our lips and that we would prayerfully share Christ with others. Indeed, this what priests did and still do. And so, as a priest in the household of God, let us go and tell the world about Jesus Christ, our great high priest.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


For the original dissertation and fuller bibliography, see my “A Biblical-Theological Investigation of Christ’s Priesthood and Covenant Mediation with Respect to the Extent of the Atonement.”

[1]Notably, the nature of the ecclesial priesthood as proclamation and not propitiation is a measure of discontinuity that the Catholic Church misses. In truth, sacrificial living is not found in the mass, but in suffering for the sake of the gospel (Col. 1:24; 2 Tim. 1:8–12; 2:10). The priesthood in the church is not atoning in any way; it always announces the once for all atonement of Jesus Christ.

[2]John Stott, The Message of Romans, BST (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 379-80.

[3]James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, WBC (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 866.

[4]Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 342-45.[5]Dunn, Romans 9-16, 860; cf. Köstenberger and O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, 168-73.

[6]Schreiner, Romans, 766.

[7]Meyer, The End of the Law, 77.

[8]Schreiner, Romans, 767.   

[9]Dunn, Romans 9-13, 861.



[12]Stott, The Message of Romans, 379; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 511.

3 thoughts on “The Priesthood of All Believers: A Call for All to Proclaim the Gospel

  1. But don’t forget that Peter seems to be drawing here not as much on the temple priesthood, and more on God’s covenant with Israel as a whole, and the language of Exodus 19:4-6, in which God identifies the people as a whole as a “priestly people and a holy nation.” The original location of the idea of the people as priests. This seems important.

    • Good point. But these ideas are overlapping, right? The new covenant people of God are the temple, the priesthood, and holy nation. What was restricted to the sons of Aaron in the OT is now given to everyone in the church, hence our shared access to approach the throne of grace. Christ is the only high priest, but everyone who is a living stone in God’s household is also a priest.

      • But the “priestly people” part of this was never restricted to the “sons of Aaron.” The priestly people was all Israel, or was supposed to be. The point seems to have been (well, this is one reading) that the way of life of the community was the priestly service. People’s life of gratitude to God and walking in God’s ways is priestly service. Paul may be thinking this way about the life of the church in Romans 12, with this new priestly people of the church presenting their bodies as living sacrifices etc. The whole life of the community is a form of worship. [If we think of worship as “formal acknowledgement of God’s existence and claim on one’s life.”] That is – not only evangelism, although I’d agree, evangelism is part of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s