How should one understand 1 Peter 2:4–9?
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1 Peter 2:4–9 records how the apostle Peter quoted certain Old Testament passages which contain such wordings as “royal priesthood”, “holy nation” and “peculiar people above all nations”. Did he mean that the saints were “priests” and “kings”, in the literal sense? And, do his words apply even to people of our day, in addition to the saints [a] whom he wrote to? In other words: Are believers a “royal priesthood” or “kings and priests”, as some say? How should one understand 1 Peter 2:4–9? This article takes a closer look at that matter.
a In this article, the word “saints” refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in biblical times, first century CE or earlier.
Here is a translation of something that Simon Peter wrote to certain saints:
1 Peter 2:1 Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, 2 like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, 3 if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. 4 And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For this is contained in Scripture: “Behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, and he who believes in Him shall not be disappointed.” 7 This precious value, then, is for you who believe. But for those who disbelieve, “the stone which the builders rejected, this became the very corner stone,” 8 and, “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. 9 But you are a chosen race, A royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (NASB77, original caps)
The words which the above-quoted NASB77 highlights in caps, are cited from the Old Testament. – In verse 9, some other translations have “kingly priesthood” or “priests and kings”, instead of “royal priesthood”.
So, the apostle Peter quoted certain OT passages which record how it was said to the ancient Israelites that they were to be, as some bible-translations have it, “a peculiar people” and “a royal priesthood” for the Lord. That was in connection with the Old Covenant. Here, the apostle was in a poetic manner quoting those passages, in connection with the New Covenant. But, did he mean that the saints whom he wrote to were literally “priests” and “kings”?
That is a relevant question, because it is on the basis of 1 Peter 2:4–9, and possibly even certain passages in Hebrews and Revelation, that some have produced a dogma regarding “a common priesthood of all believers”. The details of that dogma will not be discussed here, but it will be shown that believers are not “priests”, and that not even the saints whom Peter wrote to were that.
A note: When one reads the New Testament, for instance 1 Peter 2, and sees such words as “we”, “us”, “our”, “you” and “your”, one must keep in mind that they refer to those who were being addressed, people of New Testament times, and not us who almost 2000 years later read a copy of what was said to those people. It is important to study the Bible, but one must not think that all the “nice” things which one sees there, apply to the reader. That simply is not so. See point 2 in the article ega027.htm.
The Greek text of 1 Peter 2 indicates that the apostle was citing an OT text with similar wordings as those of the Septuagint (LXX). Here are two of the relevant passages, in an English translation:
Exodus 19:5 And now if ye will indeed hear my voice, and keep my covenant, ye shall be to me a peculiar people above all nations; for the whole earth is mine. 6 And ye shall be to me a royal priesthood and a holy nation: these words shalt thou speak to the children of Israel. (LXXE)
Exodus 23:22 If ye will indeed hear my voice, and if thou wilt do all the things I shall charge thee with, and keep my covenant, ye shall be to me a peculiar people above all nations, for the whole earth is mine; and ye shall be to me a royal priesthood, and a holy nation: these words shall ye speak to the children of Israel, If ye shall indeed hear my voice, and do all the things I shall tell thee, I will be an enemy to thine enemies, and an adversary to thine adversaries. (LXXE)
A note: That wording in Exodus 23:22 is slightly different from what many people are used to. The above-quoted LXXE is based on the Septuagint (LXX) which is an ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament into the Greek language.
Exodus 19 and 23 show that the Israelites of Moses’ day were told that if they were faithful to the Lord, then they would be, as the above-quoted translation has it, “a peculiar people above all nations”, “a royal priesthood” and “a holy nation”, for the Lord.
See even Deuteronomy 14:2 and 26:18–19 and Psalms 135:4.
Those passages were about the ancient Israelites and not about the saints. And, as we know, those Israelites were not “priests”, either, except for some few of them. So, it is obvious that the words which are recorded in those passages, were poetic, symbolic. Likewise, it is obvious that when Simon Peter cited parts of some those passages, he did that in a poetic manner, and did not mean that to be interpreted in a literal way.
Let us also keep in mind that he wrote that letter to and regarding the saints, people of the century, and not to or regarding us who today read a copy of that letter.
Here is something the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy:
1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time. (NASB77, highlighting added)
There is no place for other mediators (priests). And also: No one can add to the Sacrifice which Jesus made. Consider even this passage:
Hebrews 10:9 then He said, “Lo, I come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first in order that He may set up the second; 10 by which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 And indeed every priest stands day by day ministering, and often offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But He, offering but one sacrifice for sins, “sat down” in perpetuity “at the right hand” of God, 13 from then on expecting “until His enemies are placed as a footstool” of His feet. 14 For by one offering He has perfected in perpetuity the ones being sanctified. (LIT, highlighting added)
Note the words “once for all”, verse 10, and “but one sacrifice for sins”, verse 12, and “one offering” and “in perpetuity”, verse 14. In short: Jesus did all there was to be done, in the way of sacrifice (offering). The saints could not add to that, nor can anyone in our day.
Today, many churches have priests, persons who in the old Catholic manner act as if they were some kind of “mediatory agents” between humans and God. Among the saints, things were different. They had neither churches (temples, church buildings) nor altars or “priests”. They had elders, but those elders did not act as priests. The only priest or “mediator” the saints had, was the resurrected Jesus.
The Catholic Church “ordains priests”. (“Holy orders” is one of the Catholic “sacraments”.) Many other churches have copied that Catholic practice. But, the Greek text of the New Testament does not give any support to the concept of “ordaining”. The article eea027.htm has more on this.
The article esa077.htm has some notes on the concepts “clergy” and “laity”.
The article esa068.htm considers the matter of “religious authority” – that is, the question, who can speak for God?
Were it so that believers are “priests of God”, then what should they be doing, in such a case? What kind of priestly duties would there be for them to perform? Are there sacrifices to offer on some altar?
When Jesus made his Sacrifice by giving his life in place of others, did not that cover all that was needed in the way of mediating and sacrificing?
Priesthood is not something that one chooses for oneself. It is God who appoints the priests that he eventually wants to have. He appointed Jesus as a “priest” for the New Covenant. But, will even others be appointed in that function?
A note: Here, we are talking about the New Covenant. The Old Covenant had a mortal priesthood, but the New Covenant does not. There are many who present themselves as “priests of God under the New Covenant”, but that has nothing to do with the New Testament or with what the saints practised.
The Bible records a number of examples of what happened to people who set up themselves as priests, though they had not received any such appointment from God. The following considers some of them.
1 Samuel 13:1–9 records an occasion when king Saul did not wait for Samuel the by God appointed priest to come, but took it upon himself to perform certain duties which were reserved for priests only. The result of Saul’s stupidity and rebellion was that the kingship was taken away from him, see 1 Samuel 13:13–14.
Even king Uzziah performed priestly duties, though he had not been appointed a priest. 2 Chronicles 26:16–21 records how he was punished for that, right away.
The man Korah was of the tribe of Levi, but he was not a priest. Only Aaron and his descendants were priests. (The other Levites assisted the priests in certain things in connection with the sanctuary.) Korah and a group of men with him, set themselves against Moses and Aaron. Numbers 16:9–10 records how Moses spoke to those men. They were then punished (the ground opened up and swallowed them), see Numbers 16:30–33.
Some might claim that “even Solomon offered things to God”. They might refer to 2 Chronicles 7:1–6.
Verse 5 in that chapter records that king Solomon “offered a sacrifice of twenty-two thousand bulls”. But, it is obvious that that merely means that Solomon provided those animals, while the slaughtering and sacrificing was done by the priests.
That was in connection with the dedication of the temple. King Solomon made a prayer. The priests, assisted by the Levites, had arranged an altar with an offering. God sent a fire which consumed the offering (the first offering on the altar). There is no indication that Solomon would have meddled with priestly duties, the way Korah, Saul and Uzziah did. Again, it is obvious that his part in that sacrifice was that he provided those animals.
Here is something the apostle Paul wrote to some Jewish saints:
Hebrews 13:5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never fail you nor forsake you.” […] 9 Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited their adherents. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. (RSV)
The mention of an “altar”, verse 10, is a symbolic expression. As so often, Paul used poetic and symbol-filled language, but he was merely making the note that the New Covenant does not have priests with a right to “eat from the altar”, the way it had been with the Old Covenant (Deuteronomy 18:1, et cetera).
For a clarification of that passage and matter, see the article ema018.htm (which is about the “tithe question”).
Again, the New Covenant does not have any mortal priesthood. But, the apostle noted that there remained “sacrificing”: That is, thanking and praising God, Hebrews 13:15. And, there was even giving – the saints were to do good works, helping the poor and needy. We read:
Hebrews 13:16 And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. (NLT04)
Well, there was more. Romans 12:1 mentions a sacrifice connected to the saints in Rome. It might be that that referred either to the sufferings they had to go through, or to the fact that some of them had to give their lives, for Jesus’ sake.
Certain visions which the apostle John saw, might at first sight seem to refer to some saints as “priests”.
John wrote the following, to certain saints in “Asia” (a Roman province in what today is the non-European part of Turkey):
Revelation 1:6 […] and did make us kings and priests to his God and Father, to him is the glory and the power to the ages of the ages! Amen. (YLT)
A casual bible-reader might think that that verse means that those saints were “priests”, in a literal sense. But again: If it was so, then what were they to do, as “priests”? Had not Jesus done all that was needed, in the way of sacrifice and so? – Let us consider that verse with some of its context.
Revelation 1:4 John to the seven assemblies that are in Asia: Grace to you, and peace, from Him who is, and who was, and who is coming, and from the Seven Spirits that are before His throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born out of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth; to him who did love us, and did bathe us from our sins in his blood, 6 and did make us kings and priests to his God and Father, to him is the glory and the power to the ages of the ages! Amen. (YLT)
Please note that the apostle John wrote that letter to and regarding people of his own day and age – “John to the seven assemblies that are in Asia” – and not to or regarding people of our day. [b]
But still, regarding verse 6 – what did John mean by the words which he wrote to and regarding those saints? Well, it appears that even he was in a poetic and symbolic manner citing such passages as Exodus 19 and 23, just as the apostle Peter did.
Believers are not “priests”. The ancient Israelites were not that either, even though they, as some translations have it, were poetically called “a royal priesthood”. In fact, it would have been a sin for a normal Israelite to perform priestly duties. And, when the apostles John and Peter wrote to certain saints and in a poetic manner quoted certain Old Testament passages which refer to the ancient Israelites, that did not mean that the saints would have literally been priests. They had only one priest, the resurrected Jesus. The New Covenant does not have any mortal priests. (Again, many churches have priests, but that has nothing to do with what the New Testament teaches or with what the saints practised.)
b If you have been subjected to some form of the old Baptist, Millerite “church eras” dogma which claims that chapters 1–3 in the book of Revelation refer to people of our day, make sure to read the article eaa037.htm.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → esa095.htm
Easy keys to deeper understanding of the Scriptures. → ega027.htm
What does the Bible say about ordaining or ordination? How did the saints choose their elders? Were those elders “ordained”, and did they function as “priests” of some kind? → eea027.htm
On the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”. → esa077.htm
What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → esa068.htm
What is the truth about tithing, the concept of giving “tithes” to a church? → ema018.htm
“Church eras” – do they exist? Are there seven “eras of the church”, as some say – “Sardis era”, “Philadelphian era”, “Laodicean era” and so on? → eaa037.htm
Pride and humility in connection with religion. → ega105.htm
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