Among Protestant churches, the idea of Christians as God’s priests is a very undeveloped idea. In fact, about the only conclusion we generally draw from the idea is that we are free to read the Bible for ourselves.
And while that’s certainly true, that’s surely not the primary thought God had when he taught his children to be priests.
Let’s look a little deeper.
David as priest-king
Under the Law of Moses, only Levites were allowed to be priests. David was of the tribe of Judah, and yet he took on the role of priest at times.
(2Sa 6:17-19 NIV) 17 They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the LORD. 18 After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD Almighty. 19 Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes.
Notice how, in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, David takes on the functions of priest — offering sacrifices and blessing the people. See also 2 Sam 24:25.
David also wore the ephod — the priestly garment –
(2Sa 6:14-15 NIV) 14 Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, 15 while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.
And yet there’s not a hint of criticism in the text. Indeed, we read in the Psalms —
(Psa 110:1-7 NIV) . The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”
2 The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
3 Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Arrayed in holy splendor, your young men will come to you like dew from the morning’s womb.
4 The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
5 The Lord is at your right hand; he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.
6 He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.
7 He will drink from a brook along the way, and so he will lift his head high.
The Psalm certainly speaks of Jesus, as we learn in Hebrews 5:6, but does it also speak of David? Many commentators think so, seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of the priest/king promised in the psalm, with David as the prototype but not the ultimate realization.
And it makes sense. You see, in Jewish thought, the true king of the Jews is God himself. Jud 8:23; 1 Sam 8:7; and —
(Isa 44:6 NIV) 6 “This is what the LORD says — Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.”
The passage in Isaiah was written while a king sat on David’s throne in Jerusalem. The prophets saw the human king as ruling on God’s behalf — not as a rival power to God but as God’s servant.
Thus, for David to refer to the king as sitting at God’s right hand makes perfect sense within the Jewish worldview.
And if that’s right, then David, like Jesus, was a priest after the order of Melchizedek, that is, a priest having a lineage separate from Levi.
(Gen 14:18-20 ESV) 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed [Abraham] and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
Notice that Melchizedek was both king and priest and ruled from Salem ( = Jerusalem!). Sounds a lot like David.
Thus, we see this thread. Adam and Eve were priests of God in Eden. When sin entered the world, the idea that all humanity would serve as priests before God was frustrated. However, God began rebuilding what was lost.
In Melchizedek, at least one man served as king and priest — and as a result, even Abraham made offerings to him and received his blessing.
Much later, David, “a man after God’s own heart,” became a priest after the order of Melchizedek, serving as priest-king over God’s kingdom.
Of course, the promise was fully realized in Jesus —
(Heb 5:7-10 NIV) 7 During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Jesus, as Hebrews makes clear, is our high priest. This leaves open the possibility that there are priests who are not the high priest, and the rest of the New Testament confirms this conclusion —
(1Pe 2:4-5 NIV) 4 As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him — 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
(1Pe 2:9 NIV) 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Christians are priests, too! Well, not many of us are descended from Levi, making us also priests after the order of (in the nature of) Melchizedek.
What does it mean to be a priest? Well, Peter says we offer “spiritual sacrifices” and “declare the praises of” God. How so?
(1Pe 2:11-17 NIV) 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
This is more than merely “be moral” or “don’t harm others.” The sacrifices and praise we offer to God are in the form of certain required actions, to do “good deeds,” to submit to human authority, to be God’s slaves.
Thus, we are called to be priest-kings who live out their roles by service, submission, and sacrifice — hardly the conduct of an ordinary, human king! But it’s exactly how Jesus lived, and it’s also how David lived — until his sin with Bathsheba.
Think of David’s time in the wilderness, after having been anointed king and yet not yet on his throne. Saul was chasing him with an army, and yet David refused to harm Saul, even when the opportunity presented itself.
David in the wilderness is a great example of a priest-king who lives before God by service, submission, and sacrifice. Although he was on the run, he fought to protect the people of Israel. He constantly sought God’s direction for his life. And he refused to kill Saul, preferring to leave himself at risk, but in God’s hands, rather than to seize the throne by force.
Obviously, unlike Jesus, David was not sinless. But, then, neither are we. I rather like seeing David as a messianic type, that is, as someone we can emulate to be like Jesus.
This is why the prophets refer to the Messiah as “David” —
(Jer 30:8-9 ESV) 8 “And it shall come to pass in that day, declares the LORD of hosts, that I will break his yoke from off your neck, and I will burst your bonds, and foreigners shall no more make a servant of him. 9 But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.”
(Hos 3:5 ESV) 5 Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the LORD and to his goodness in the latter days.
You see, if we think of the goal of following Jesus as being sinless, well, it’s a tough standard. But if the goal is more in terms of being a servant, submissive, and a sacrifice, it’s still very tough, of course, but not nearly so impossible.
In fact, we struggle to imagine how David — who committed some truly great sins — could be a type of the Messiah, until we think, not in terms of sinlessness but servant-heartedness. Then David becomes an obvious example to follow.