This morning we continue our series on Jesus as the thread that binds us. This is a series on ecclesiology, the nature, function and mission of the church. Today many believe that the church has become irrelevant for the modern world and has lost its influence; that there is no practical benefit to belonging to a church. There is a dramatic increase in those leaving the church and the churchless population. This is even seen in the attendance rates of those who go to church: the average faithful church goer attends church twice a month. If we were to count all the churchless people in America, we’d have the eighth largest country in the world. Two decades ago the churchless population in the U.S. was about 30%; today it’s about 45% (Barna Group, January 2015).
Why are people leaving the church? Why do so many attend only when there is nothing else competing for their time? We’re not seeing the practicality or relevance of the church in our lives and so there’s a significant growth in those not attending the church. When we talk about the church, we’re talking specifically about the Western church – us, Remedy, the churches of Lodi. The Barna Group, a research firm, says there is no statistical difference between those who attend the church and those who do not. Generally those claiming to be Christians show no marked difference in their lives, striving after the same things, hoping in the same things, valuing the same things. The cares of this world have choked out the presence, the power, and the promises of God. Jesus is not ineffective and His design for the church is not flawed or broken. The church is made up of broken but redeemed people; imperfect people.
Despite world events, we are in a great time for the church and even a small flame can bring light to a dark world. We need to regain our faith and trust in Jesus, who designed the church for His glory and a specific purpose. A proper relationship to and understanding of the church is not an issue of salvation but an issue of obedience and sanctification. Until His return or He calls us home, we keep our eyes fixed on Him, understanding that the church is still God’s primary means of reaching this world and still carries the hope of mankind in Jesus.
Our hope and prayer as we continue this series is that we equip, inspire and embolden believers to walk in a manner worthy of our calling in relation to Jesus and to one another. We have defined the church as: “The church is the body of people called by God’s grace through faith in Christ to glorify Him together by serving Him in His world” (Mark Dever). The church is not a place, a building or just a gathering but a people who are bound together by Jesus Himself, marked by the Holy Spirit, which is manifested in our confessions and our conduct. Jesus is the designer of the church, the one who establishes the church, the builder of the church, the Cornerstone of the church, the foundation of the church, the Chief Shepherd of the church and the senior Pastor of the church.
The church is a chosen people (new paradigm – we look at ourselves differently through the eyes of grace), a royal priesthood (new position), a holy nation (new government) and a people owned by God (new ownership). Last week we focused on our identity as a chosen people. We were chosen not for our works but because of God’s great love and grace. This truth moves us to be humble and grateful before God and gracious with generosity to one another. Because we were chosen without merit, we cannot say that others are unworthy or do not belong; all that arrogance is laid at the foot of the cross.
We are also a royal priesthood:
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
The royal priesthood of believers gives us access to God and calls us to action. This priesthood is based on the clear teaching of Scripture. The Old Testament anticipated this when God spoke to His people at Sinai and said, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The prophet Isaiah said a time would come when “You shall be called the priests of the Lord, they shall speak to you as the ministers of our God” (Isaiah 61:6).
This is the truth of the priesthood of all believers: when God chooses us we are made royal, sons and daughters of a King, royals among royals and we all have access to the king. We are priests:
You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood…, 1 Peter 2:5, 9
This important biblical truth has great implications for our personal relationship with God and how we live it out in the Church and in the world: the idea that every believer is a priest, regardless of his or her full-time occupation is life changing. Not only has God called us to be ambassadors, ministers of reconciliation, and to go and make disciples but He has also given us the authority and access to carry that out.
Old Testament priests were chosen by God for a purpose: to serve God with their lives by offering up sacrifices. The Old Testament priesthood served as a picture of the coming ministry of Jesus Christ – a picture that became clear once Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was complete. When the temple veil that covered the Holy of Holies was torn in two by God at the time of Christ’s death (Matthew 27:51), God was indicating that the Old Testament priesthood was no longer necessary. God gave the people direct access to Him through the great High Priest, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:14-16). There are now no earthly mediators between God and man as existed in the Old Testament priesthood (1 Timothy 2:5). Christ our High Priest has made one sacrifice for sin for all time (Hebrews 10:12), and there is no more sacrifice for sin that can be made (Hebrews 10:26). But as priests once offered other kinds of sacrifices in the temple, so it is clear that God has chosen us, followers of Jesus, “to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
All believers now have direct access to the throne of God through Jesus Christ our great High Priest. We have the privilege to access the very throne of God directly, not through any earthly priest.
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, Romans 8:15-16
We are children of God with access to our Heavenly Father. God gives us our identity, security, and sense of belonging. There are at least five implications of the royal priesthood of all believers for our lives. The first one is our standing before God and one another; the second two are spiritual privileges; and the last two are responsibilities for our work in the Church and the world.
1. We are royal – We were chosen by God, adopted as His children and made royal. We did not gain access to His courts by earning it as David’s mighty men earned their place in his court. We were not born into royalty through blood, deserving as Solomon. We were born children of wrath, at war with our creator who bought us with the precious blood of Jesus. He caused us to be born again into a royal family.
What does that mean for us today? We have a new identity in Christ as children of God, a royal priesthood. Our identity is not what we do, where we live, or what we wear. God defines us and He uses the weak and the foolish to overcome the strong and the wise (1 Corinthians 1). Where is our identity today? What would destroy us if we lost it? A home, a job, finances, looks, physical abilities, kids, spouse? Is there a statistical difference in where we find our identity and where the world finds theirs? Is there a difference at all? If not, what would attract the world to Jesus if there is no difference? If we don’t find our identity in Jesus, then we find it in the same place that the world does.
None of us earned our way in to this new identity. We were all brought in the same way, through the blood of Jesus – no one is here on merit. No one is more important or more needed than someone else. We all need each other. Jesus loves us so that we are free to love one another. Love takes risks and reaches out to others.
2. Direct access to God – In the Old Testament, only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies. Today, we have direct access to God through Christ. We can come boldly to the throne of grace because of Christ: “we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him.” (Ephesians 3:12). Hebrews tells us to have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19, 22), yet we seem to take prayer and its power for granted. J.C. Ryle, a 19th Century reformer and writer, said about prayer:
Nothing seems to be too great, too hard, or too difficult for prayer to do. It has obtained things that seemed impossible and out of reach. It has won victories over fire, air, earth, and water. Prayer opened the Red Sea. Prayer brought water from the rock and bread from heaven. Prayer made the sun stand still. Prayer brought fire from the sky on Elijah’s sacrifice. Prayer turned the counsel of Ahitophel into foolishness. Prayer overthrew the army of Sennacherib. Well might Mary, Queen of Scots say, “I fear John Knox’s prayer more than an army of ten thousand men.” Prayer has healed the sick. Prayer has raised the dead. Prayer has procured the conversion of souls.
Do you pray? Do you find yourself compelled to pray as you hear the news of a struggling brother or sister, the near death of an unsaved soul, or for the provision of the poor? We have access to the throne room of God. Do you pray that those around you would know His unsearchable love, for boldness in speech to preach the Gospel? Do you pray and ask for wisdom? Do pray to love the unlovely, for a generous heart to give freely? This is the true church that will draw men and women, young and old into the presence of Jesus. We have access to God; do we use that access to attempt to increase our own comfort or for His kingdom? God grants us access for kingdom business, not comfort and earthly gain. We fall in private long before we fall in public. Prayer is for the advancement of the kingdom of Christ.
3. Spiritual Sacrifices – As priests we are still to offer sacrifices. These sacrifices are no longer offerings of bulls and goats but sacrifices such as prayer, praise, thanksgiving, repentance, justice, kindness, and love. We are a holy priesthood in order to “offer up spiritual sacrifices wholly acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). We are to offer our lives as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1), “a sacrificial offering of faith” (Philippians 2:17), and the “services of love as a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). The spiritual sacrifice is praise and thanksgiving: “Through him let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Hebrews 13:15). Above all, as believers we can be confident that God will accept our sacrifice.
4. Proclamation – One of our responsibilities as a royal priesthood is to “declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” The New Testament describes prophetic proclamation as: to announce, explain, say, testify, persuade, confess, charge, rebuke, admonish and exhort. Everyone can and should bear witness to Christ according to their gifts. We are to be ready to give an account of the hope that is within.
but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 1 Peter 3:15
As we love the unlovely, forgive others, give generously to those around us, and walk in love, peace and hope, those around us ask, “How do you do that? Where does it come from?” We give a reason for our hope when we share a testimony. This is not an apologetic defense of scripture but sharing the transformative power of God. We should be living in such a way that people ask what’s different about us, but if there is no statistical difference between us and our neighbors, they will never ask because we don’t have anything they want.
5. Ministers of Reconciliation – We must bring Christ’s love into a dark and troubled world. Just as priests are agents of reconciliation to God and others, so are we to be such mediators. 1 Timothy 2:1 says that believers should offer prayers, supplications, and intercessions for all men, particularly for rulers. We should pray, in other words, not only for the Church, but for those around us. He has sent us out to go make disciples to all peoples. He has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). Jesus made the way and we are given the privilege to proclaim that work to a dying world. We now have a “ministry of reconciliation”, we are entrusted with the “message of reconciliation”, and we are “ambassadors for Christ” with the message, “be reconciled to God.”
It is one thing to say that we are a chosen race, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and an ambassador of Christ. It is another thing to have our identities shaped by these truths so that we live accordingly. If we live out the priesthood of all believers we will pray more boldly, offer up spiritual sacrifices regularly (praise, prayer, service and sacrifice), we will love each other and those around us. If we live out our identity in Jesus the true and visible church will grow as a lighthouse to shipwrecked lives and those who are lost in the fog of this world.