Reconnecting with your inner priest

Over the last couple of decades there has been a lot of discussion as to what exactly the church is never mind what it does. Such discussions often draw on the images of the church that are found in the New Testament. Some think of the church primarily as the bride of Christ. Others focus on the family image expressed in the teaching about God’s fatherhood and our new status as adopted sons and daughters. For others still the metaphor – and reality – of spiritual conflict makes them think of the church primarily as an army.

One strand of New Testament teaching that is frequently overlooked in the discussion is the presentation of the church as a spiritual priesthood.

It is both surprising and unsurprising that this aspect of revelation has been neglected.

Unsurprising, because of the complicated history of priesthood within the church and the misgivings many have about the catholic understanding of priesthood. And it is unsurprising that this aspect of revelation has been underplayed in the Western church as the alternative to Christianity until fairly recent times has been secularism; in the developing world the religious alternatives are usually some sort of religious system in which a priest or priestess is central.

It is also surprising, because in both the Old and New Testament, God reveals His intention that His people are to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19.6; Revelation 1.6). According to 1 Peter 2.5 the church is a holy priesthood and verse 9 of the same chapter describes the church as a royal priesthood.

So how does seeing ourselves as a priesthood affect the life and ministry of the church?

For a start, it directly connects us to the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus was and is our Great High Priest (Hebrews4.14). He is the priest who offered up Himself as a sacrifice for us. And according to Hebrews 7.25, He always lives to make intercession for us.

Jesus is Saviour, King, Redeemer, Prophet, Son of God. He is also Priest.

There are three things, amongst others, that a priest does, that have great significance for us.

Firstly, priests offer sacrifice.

What kind of sacrifice can we offer? According to Romans 12.1-2 we are to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. In other words the sacrifice that we make is to use our bodies to glorify God. That is our sacrifice. Just as Jesus offered up His body as a sacrifice, so we offer ours as a living sacrifice.

Secondly, priests pray.

Hebrews 5.7 says that Jesus offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears.

In any religion the priest or priestess is seen as a mediator. Someone who stands between people and God. Who represents God to people and people to God.

The church is God’s representative on earth. The church is to bring the needs of the world to God in prayer. And to bring the God’s love to the world through evangelism and acts of service.

Finally, priests offer worship to God.

Hebrews 13.15 says “Let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess His name.”

The church is not only a praying community. God intends it to be a worshipping community.

God has placed His church in the world to represent His ways and to care for the people of the world. The teaching of the church as a priesthood captures this truth in a way that none of the other images of the church do. Perhaps it’s time we reconnected with our inner priest.

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Choosing your defining moment

I was asked to share something before communion at the recent Elim100 Leaders’ conference. Some people asked me for notes at the end of the service. Unfortunately I didn’t have any notes, so I will try to reproduce here the spirit, if not the letter,  of what I said. You might also find some explanatory comments which were not in the original talk. It is not a complete exposition, as there is a dimension of spiritual warfare that I didn’t emphasise. And there is also a difference between the “you” plural of v.31 and the “you” singular of v.32: Simon Peter was clearly at the sharp end of this Satanic attack.

Text: 31 ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ 33 But he replied, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.’ 34 Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.’ Luke 22.31-34

Communion is a defining mark of the church. As believers have celebrated the Lord’s Supper over the centuries, this defining mark has resulted in many defining moments.

On the night Jesus was betrayed there were a number of events that could be classed as defining moments.

Simon Peter is one of the disciples whom we might think had the most obvious defining moments during that evening of betrayal. In Luke’s gospel chapter 22.31-34, Jesus warns Simon Peter that Satan is seeking to sift him as wheat, but assures him that He, Jesus, has prayed for him that his faith will not fail. Simon Peter protests that he is ready to pay the ultimate price for his faith. In reply, Jesus declares that Peter will not die for Him, he will rather deny that he knows Him at all.

On the surface, it would seem that Peter had three very obvious defining moments: the three occasions on which He denied the Lord.

There is no doubt that Peter failed. Yet Jesus had said that He was praying for him that his faith would not fail.

Peter’s flesh failed, but in the overall scheme of God’s purpose for Peter, his faith did not fail. Why? Because Jesus was praying for him.

Peter’s defining moment was not the first, second, or third time that he denied the Lord. His defining moment was when Jesus said to him “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail”.

A failure of flesh is not necessarily a failure of faith. If Peter’s denial constituted a failure of faith, then Jesus’ prayer that Peter’s faith would not fail was not answered positively.

The “failures of flesh” could have become Peter’s defining moments. But in the eyes of Jesus they never were nor would be his defining moments. Our “failures of flesh” do not need to become our defining moments, if we default to the grace of Christ.

The words Jesus spoke to Peter in Luke 22 are words for the whole of the church. in those few words of encouragement, Jesus reveals Himself as our Great High Priestly intercessor the one who “ever liveth to make intercession for [us]” (Hebrews 7.25 KJV).

Jesus is praying for us as much as He was praying for Peter. Whatever the circumstances we face. However difficult and daunting our challenges. I made a note in my kindle on these verses: “The hidden prayer life of the greatest intercessor releases unseen power that shapes our lives”. Jesus is praying for us.

Failures of flesh happen. But they are not meant to define us. Such is clear from what Jesus says to Peter: ‘And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’

We can choose our defining moments. And if we make our encounter with the grace of Christ our ultimate defining moment, we will retain His perspective over our lives. Not only that, but out of the grace we have received, we will have something precious and redemptive with which to strengthen our brothers. Let’s choose to be defined by the grace that we have found in Jesus.

Drifting

The story of Jose Salvador Alvarenga is one that has the power to surprise and baffle even the most trusting. Alvarenga, a Mexican fisherman, was out fishing with his friend one day when a storm washed his boat out to sea. Searches by the authorities proved fruitless and in November 2012, after a two week search, they were registered as missing persons.

Eventually Alvarenga was found washed up on the Marshall Islands six thousand miles away having drifted at sea for over a year.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews warns against spiritual drifting. In verse one of chapter two he highlights the need to pay attention to message of Jesus that these Christians had heard and to hold on to it.

Drifting can happen very easily. Sometimes it happens as the result of a storm. The people receiving the Hebrews letter were facing a storm. A storm of persecution and pressure from the authorities to cut loose from their Christian faith and go back to their Jewish roots. According to 10.34-35 this storm of persecution had previously manifested in confiscation of property and imprisonment, a storm that these believers had withstood with commendable commitment to Christ.

Never doubt the power of any kind of pressure to push you into drift mode. Pressure is a threat because Satan will use it as an argument to de-prioritise, not so much your faith per se as your expression of faith: “You’re just too busy for church.”” You have enough on your plate.” “Give your self a bit of breathing space.” You know the kind of line he takes. And you know his intention is to push you into spiritual drift mode.

Sometimes drifting is brought about not so much by bad things as by things which are not necessarily bad in themselves. They might even be good things. New opportunities. New interests. Even a passion for doctrine or theology! Our energy and focus is taken up by something new, something exciting. Or we get into the latest theory about the end times. Or the antichrist. Or some other theological controversy.

For the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews one of the issues was angels. Angels without doubt have a very important place in God’s purpose. In terms of status however, they are a long way behind Jesus. You might wonder how people who had the gospel brought to them in such a powerful manner – signs, wonders and gifts of the Holy Spirit (2.4) – could make such an elementary mistake. We can only guess at an answer. And it is probably an answer along the lines of a complex mix of background, the external pressures they were facing and a misunderstanding of scripture. Suffice it to say, they were in danger of losing their way.

Any of us can lose our way. And what begins as a localised storm close to home can end up in weeks, months or even years drifting off to the spiritual equivalent of the Marshall Islands.

Thankfully, there is a way back from the isolation of drifting or even the threat of drifting. Right at the end of chapter 2, Jesus is presented to us as a high priest, not as king or Lord or even saviour. The high priest’s role in Israel was, so to speak, to keep the nation connected to God. Once a year, on the day of atonement he went into the most holy place and sprinkled the blood of the sacrificial animals on the mercy seat and burnt incense.

Jesus keeps our connection with God. And He does that, on the one hand, with complete faithfulness to God and on the other hand, with complete sympathy with us in our weakness. Here’s how The Message puts it:

That’s why he had to enter into every detail of human life. Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, he would have already experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed (Hebrews 2.17-18).

However you have got to where you are, Jesus knows and He understands. And thank God, He is willing and able to help.