Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Commentariat Speaks (12)

Gary McBride, a northern Ontario Bible teacher and author, posts a thought on the subject of corporate testimony:

“… in 1 Peter 2 we are a ‘royal priesthood’ bearing witness. Priesthood is a collective noun and is only demonstrated when believers gather.”

Having enjoyed Gary’s useful commentary on 1 Thessalonians, I know he chooses his words carefully, so I will try to do likewise.

Priests and Priesthood

The distinction between serving as a priest and being part of a priesthood should not slide by us. The children of Israel were called by God to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, but only the sons of Aaron actually served at the altar. Gary’s point is correct as it stands: the corporate nature of priesthood is only obvious to the world when the church is together.

That said, if we look at the New Testament usage of terms like “sacrifice” and “offering”, it quickly becomes evident the church is not quite the same as Israel. All believers in Christ, not just a small, chosen ‘clergy’, perform priestly service.

Five Examples

Consider the various aspects of priestly service (emphasized by the highlighted links) found in the following five NT passages:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

“Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.”

“Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

“I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

“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.”
Moreover, if these passages loaded with priestly language and Old Testament imagery are any indication, the bulk of the priestly work involved in Christian service takes place outside the formal gatherings of believers.

Romans and Philippians

In the first passage, it goes without saying that the sisters too are to present their bodies; and that, at least in the context of church meetings, the sort of service for which they present them is almost entirely non-verbal. Much, therefore, of their priestly ministry (as well as that of most men) must occur outside the meetings of the church. This is not an outrageous or new idea: the whole “worship as a lifestyle” trope exists precisely because this frequently-cited verse so evidently applies to all the rest of the Christian’s week, not just a few hours on a Sunday morning.

In the second instance, the “sacrificial offering” of the Philippians’ faith was made evident in their holding fast to the word of life and shining as “lights in the world”. Not just “a light”, as in the lampstand of corporate testimony, but individually “lights”. Thus the sacrificial offering Paul has in view is not limited to national, royal priesthood, but extends to the visible and audible “priestliness” of individual believers.

Hebrews and More Philippians

In the third case, we might think that the sacrifice in view is the sort of “praise” common in church meetings: hymns and praise-filled verbal meditations. But the writer to the Hebrews qualifies it with the phrase, “that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name”. The sacrifice, then, is not just the praise but the end product (or “fruit”) of testimony wherever that may take place (which is most often out in the world, where the name of Christ most needs acknowledging). He then goes on to refer to “doing good” and “sharing” as sacrifices pleasing to God. Once again, this sort of priestly service is most effectively conducted outside the gatherings of the saints.

In the fourth passage, Epaphroditus has delivered “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice” in the form of a gift from the church in Philippi. The plural “gifts”, rather than “gift” implies not just money (though that may well have been included) but other, perhaps more personal, things as well. While Paul obviously views this sacrifice as having been made by the Philippian church, anyone who has ever put together a care package from a group knows such a corporate act is no more than the sum of a number of individual acts of priestly service, many or most of which would surely have taken place outside the usual gatherings of the church.

Priests and Proclaiming

In the final instance, Peter associates royal priesthood with proclaiming (exaggellō, meaning declaring abroad or publishing) the excellencies of Christ. Proclamation (kataggellō, a related word) is certainly one function of the Lord’s supper, but I can think of no good reason to limit the scope of the apostle’s words to the meetings of the church, particularly because Peter immediately adds this:
“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
This sort of “proclamation” is, again, not limited to priestly males or to the gatherings of God’s people. Good deeds do their own proclaiming, and Peter seems to think the Gentiles capable of grasping such a message even when it is not specifically verbalized.

Priesthood and Priestliness

Thus I think it is correct to say that while technically “priesthood” is only demonstrated when believers gather, “priestliness” and priestly service of various sorts are the ongoing, perpetual privilege of all Christians even when we are apart.

The latter, I suspect, are the more direct and effective modes of testimony.

I hope it is clear none of the above is intended to minimize the importance of gathering or of corporate worship. Within Christendom, both of these are becoming endangered species. Nor do I imagine that in his own thinking Gary limits priestly service to church meetings. The metaphorical language of the New Testament pretty effectively safeguards us from that error.

Or so it seems to me.

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