A Kingdom of Priests
by Kelly Kapic
In February, a terrible beheading of twenty-one Egyptian Christians took place. They were executed because they were identified as “the people of the cross.” We are reminded of the possibility of martyrdom and the reality that this side of glory we are “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). Consequently, Christians often find themselves in a most difficult position. We are called to love our neighbors— even our neighbors who might better be described as our enemies (Matt. 5:43–45). And we are not to return evil for evil (Rom. 12:17; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Peter 3:9). While most believers do not face the imminent threat of death, testifying to Christ is often far from easy. How, then, are we to live faithfully amid challenging circumstances and among difficult people?
As sons and daughters of the One who is both the eternal King and High Priest, we have assurance that we will never be forgotten or abandoned. We do not need to be absorbed with self-preservation or self-promotion; we are free to live lives shaped by mercy and love for others. To appreciate this vision, we must understand that we are chosen as a people to be a blessing, and we carry out that work in a priestly manner.
Chosen to Be a Blessing
Peter gives his readers some powerful encouragement: “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” (1 Peter 2:9). Peter here draws from a long and cherished tradition that is woven throughout the Old Testament.
When God called Abraham, He made it clear that from this man a great nation would arise. What is striking about the idea of election in this context is that the goal was gracious inclusion rather than hard-hearted exclusion. God chose Abraham and his offspring to serve as His representatives in the world. In this way, they functioned like a city on a hill, where others would be drawn to the light of the creator Lord. God’s people are never to forget that they are blessed in order to be a blessing (Gen. 12:1–2). That is at the heart of the biblical movement of election. But Peter reminds us that election and priesthood are meant to go together.
Peter appears to draw from Exodus 19:6, where we read of the promise that “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel had specific people set apart to be ordained priests, but the promise was that all of God’s people would serve in some priestly ways.
As Peter draws on the great Old Testament promises to God’s people, he makes it clear that all who now have faith in Christ are part of this “chosen race” that is “a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” We are the true heirs of Abraham. Barriers between Jew and Gentile are meant to be demolished. What unites this people is not their ethnicity or culture, but their worship of Jesus. Even amid their serious diversity they become one in Christ. As those who are connected to the Great High Priest, His people now carry out His work of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18–19). All believers carry out two vital ministries as part of the royal priesthood.
First, in our priestly role, all Christians are to live sacrificially for others. We are people of the cross. Jesus laid down His life for sinners in desperate need of grace and love. As imitators of the crucified Lord, we now offer ourselves to Christ through sacrificial acts of love done in behalf of our neighbors, even the neighbors who consider us their enemies. We can be truly “honorable” through our works of grace and mercy, hoping that these very people may one day “glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). We do not make atonement for others, but through our lives, we point them to the Lamb of God who alone can bring reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humanity (v. 21).
Second, we are faithful in our priestly role as we offer intercession on behalf of others. Paul makes a similar point when he urges Timothy to offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for ” all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1–2a). Part of living as the chosen people and a holy nation is that we are set apart to be instruments of God’s grace and reconciliation in this world. And this begins with prayers. We pray not just for those we love, nor even just for God’s people, but for the world, including dangerous emperors (1 Peter 2:16–17). How do we love our neighbor? We intercede for them, asking for the light of God’s mercy to overcome the looming darkness. Jesus did this even as He hung on the cross (Luke 23:34). You and I cannot change or save our neighbor, but the triune God can.
Jesus is the perfect Mediator who makes intercession on our behalf, offering Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice so that we might enjoy peace with God. We who have received mercy (1 Peter 2: 10) are now His chosen vessels to be instruments of His grace and love to the world. This is what it means to live as part of the royal priesthood.