Several days ago, I wrote two posts dealing with the idea of priesthood in the Old Testament. The first post “Melchizedek and Jesus” dealt with the priesthood of David and the fact that he inherited the religious traditions of Jerusalem and became a priest in the same way Melchizedek served as priest and king of the old Jebusite city.
That article also dealt with the priesthood of Jesus. Jesus, a man from the tribe of Judah, became a priest, not because he was a Levite or from the tribe of Levi, but because he was a descendant of David. As such, he was considered eligible to carry on the tradition initiated by David. Thus, Jesus was a priest according the tradition established by Melchizedek and adopted by David.
The second article, “David’s Sons Were Priests,” dealt with the statement in 2 Samuel 18:8 that the sons of David were priests. Although the writer of Chronicles was not willing to affirm that David’s sons could serve as priests, the article concluded that David’s sons were indeed priests. They did not become priest because they were Levites. David’s sons exercised the priesthood because, as sons of the king of Jerusalem, they followed the same tradition established by Melchizedek and continued by David when he became king of Jerusalem.
Today I want to address the passage in 1 Peter 2:9 and offer a new proposal for the proper understanding of the fact that Christians are called “a royal priesthood.” My proposal is based on my previous discussion in the articles above. I presuppose that you have read those articles; if you have not read them, I suggest that you do so for the proper understanding of the discussion below.
The text in Peter reads: “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 ESV).
The expression “a royal priesthood,” has been interpreted in many different ways. Most commentators understand this expression as describing the dignity of the priestly office that Christians have attained: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5 ESV). This expression was taken from Exodus 19:6. “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel” (Exodus 19:6 ESV). In Exodus the entire nation of Israel was to be a kingdom of priests. Thus, for Peter, Christians were set apart to offer spiritual sacrifices to God.
The word “royal” has been understood in different ways: that these priests belong to the king, that they are priests of the kingdom of God, that this title demonstrates the exalted position of believers, or the dignity of their office as priests, or that they belong to God, the king, and for this reason, all of God’s followers are royal.
Peter H. Davids, in his commentary on The First Epistle of Peter (p. 87) wrote:
“The term for ‘priesthood’ is found in the NT only here [2:5] and in 2:9. The latter reference shows clearly that Peter sees the church in terms of Israel’s priestly functions, for it alludes to Exod. 19:6. And other NT authors pick up the theme using different words (e.g, Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6)-such language is used elsewhere only of Christ as a priest in Hebrews and of the Aaronic priesthood in Jerusalem.”
The expression in 1 Peter 2:9 “a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” is taken from Exodus 19:6:
“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
All English translations translate the expression ממלכת כהנים (mamleket kōhanîm) as “a kingdom of priests.” The Septuagint (LXX) translates the Hebrew expression as “a royal priesthood” in Exodus 19:6 and in Exodus 23:22, although the extended text of Exodus 23:22 does not appear in any English translation. It is clear that the citation in 1 Peter 2:9 was taken from the Septuagint.
What is lost in all the discussion of 1 Peter 2:9 and in all the commentaries of the text is the most obvious question: how could Gentile Christians become priests of God? Since most believers were not Jews, the possibility of a Levitical priesthood is out of the question. How could non-Levites act as priests of God even when they only offered spiritual sacrifices (as in 1 Peter 2:5)?
The answer seems to be in the way David’s sons served as priests. Since David, a man from Judah, served as a priest following the tradition established by Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem, David’s sons exercised a “royal priesthood,” a priesthood based on the authority delegated by their father, who was a king.
Jesus, a man from Judah, exercised the priesthood following the tradition established by Melchizedek and continued by his ancestor David. Jesus’ followers became priests by the authority given to them by their Lord, who was the King of kings.
Both the sons of David and the followers of Christ did not exercise a Levitical priesthood because they were not from the tribe of Levi nor from the family of Aaron. They exercised a “royal priesthood,” the type of priesthood established by Melchizedek who was the king and priest of Jerusalem. The same type of priesthood was adopted by David when he became the leader of the Canaanite population who continued to live in Jerusalem after the conquest of the city.
Christians are a “royal priesthood” because their King, Jesus Christ, is a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing House, 1990.