Over the past century, several Reformed scholars and church leaders have presented the threefold office of Christ—the munus triplex of prophet, priest, and king—as a typology for church leadership today. According to this way of thinking, priesthood is connected with caregiving and prophecy is primarily about teaching. Here’s how the offices of priest and prophet should be applied in the New Testament church in this scheme:
- Priests are church leaders who provide personal care for God’s people. They are masters at resolving conflicts and caring for the vulnerable. The priestly leader’s concern is—according to Drew Goodmanson—who might be ‘hurt by the circumstance. Often they will avoid the “authority” or “the way it is should be implemented” if it causes too much emotional damage. … A priest has a tremendous understanding of the needs of the people.’
- Prophets, on the other hand, are church leaders who excel at ‘vision, study, preaching, teaching, doctrinal truth, refuting error, and calling people to repent.’
Some have pressed the point further and identified the church’s priestly ministry with the work of deacons, while assigning prophetic ministry to the church’s teaching pastors.
In The God Who Goes Before You, I argue that—even though the offices of prophet and priest are indeed relevant for new covenant leaders—their relevance is not as typological categories that describe particular skill sets in the lives of certain leaders.
With this in mind, let’s take a brief look at priesthood in the Old Testament. If you’re interested in pursuing this topic further, you’ll probably want to take a look at the detailed and referenced version of these arguments found in The God Who Goes Before You.
Priests as Guardians and Teachers of God’s Word
Whenever a judge faced a complex case, the judicial process would pass to a judge and to priests convened in the place of God’s choosing (Deuteronomy 17:8). After hearing the details of the difficult case, the judge and priests would hand down a final verdict (17:9).
The role of an additional judge in such cases seems clear—the judges undertook a careful investigation, weighing evidences anew and analyzing the testimony of the accusers (see Deuteronomy 19:18).
But what about the priests?
Based on the priestly roles described throughout the rest of the Old Testament, it seems that the primary responsibility of priests in disputed legal cases may have been to teach and to apply precepts found in the Torah. Judges investigated evidence and searched for the truth about the crime; priests searched the Torah and declared verdicts on the basis of the written Word of God.
Priests were consecrated to bless the people, to represent the people, and to offer sacrifices for the people (Exodus 28:9-12; Leviticus 4–16; Numbers 6:22-27). God also, however, commanded the descendants of Aaron to teach his written revelation—and this responsibility extended far beyond a priestly proclamation in difficult legal cases. From the earliest stages of Israel’s history as a nation, the role of teaching ‘all the statutes that the LORD has given’ was central to the priesthood (Leviticus 10:11).
One might say that Leviticus 10:10-11 provides a job description for the priesthood: ‘You must distinguish between the holy and the common, and the clean and the unclean, and teach the Israelites all the statutes that the Lord has given to them through Moses.’ Priests were assigned the privileges of instructing the people in the Torah, safeguarding the scrolls that contained God’s written revelation, and superintending the copying of these scrolls (Deuteronomy 17:18; 31:9-13; 33:10). Priests were not merely mediators of God’s blessings or representatives of God’s people; the priests and their Levitical compatriots were also expositors and custodians of God’s written Word.
Although the teaching role of priests would be particularly important in the place chosen for God’s tabernacle, the teaching responsibilities of the priests were not limited to this single locale. By divine design, priests and Levites possessed no unified territory. Instead, priests and Levites were distributed throughout the land so that the Torah might be taught in every place. Centuries earlier, the patriarch Jacob had predicted on his deathbed that, due to the bloodlust he had glimpsed in his son Levi, Levi’s descendants would be scattered throughout the land (Genesis 49:5-7). Later, the family of Aaron within the tribe of Levi was selected to serve as Israel’s priesthood and the entire tribe of Levi received the responsibility of assisting the priesthood (Exodus 28:1-5; 32:26-39; Numbers 1:47-53), but Jacob’s words were still fulfilled. Before the people crossed into Canaan, God commanded the Israelites to set aside four dozen villages, scattered throughout the land, as the property of priests and Levites (Numbers 35:1-8). Through this scattering of the Levites, Jacob’s curse on the descendants of one of his sons became a blessing for the descendants of all of his sons. The Levites’ lands were limited to a narrow tract that skirted each of their scattered villages, but the Levites received a far greater provision than vast fields and pastures. The LORD God’s ‘fire offerings’—and, ultimately, the LORD God himself—became the inheritance of the tribe of Levi (Deuteronomy 18:1-2; see also Numbers 18:20-24). The sovereign Lord was the Levites’ allotment, and they lived as guests at his table. Any ritual role that a priest possessed was relativized by his precedent identity as a follower and faithful teacher of God’s Word.
In light of this emphasis, it seems that the judicial hearing before the priests and judges may have provided not only a courtroom where righteous judgments could be handed down but also a classroom where the people could be taught anew to remain faithful to their covenant with God. If expertise in the Torah was the purpose of the priest’s presence in difficult legal cases, the verdicts that a righteous priest declared in these cases were never the priest’s own opinion. His verdicts were the truth of God conveyed to the people of God through the exposition and application of the Word of God.
The Failure of the Priests and Levites
And yet, the priests did not remain faithful to their calling as teachers. During the reign of King Asa, the prophet Azariah pointed out that the people of Judah had already spent ‘many years … without a teaching priest, and without instruction’ (2 Chronicles 15:3). In the time of Isaiah, some priests were too drunk to distinguish injustice from justice, and the prophet mocked such priests, asking, ‘Who is he trying to teach?’ (Isaiah 28:9). Micah challenged the priests in his day because they demanded payment for their teachings (Micah 3:11).
Whenever spiritual awakenings interrupted the people’s downward spiral, renewed teaching from the priests and Levites typically accompanied the people’s revived commitment to God’s covenant (2 Chronicles 17:9; 35:3; Nehemiah 8:9)—but these renewals in the priesthood were short-lived. These many failures in the old covenant priesthood revealed the people’s desperate need for an unfailing priest—for a priest who was ‘holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens’ (Hebrews 7:26).
Priestly Leadership and Prophetic Teaching in the New Covenant
So what about the claim that prophecy and priesthood provide typologies for leadership in the new covenant community? In this typology for new covenant leadership, those who are skilled in caregiving are considered to be priestly leaders while teachers and preachers are prophetic leaders.
When it comes to biblical and theological support, however, these linkages fall far short in at least two ways:
- In the first place, teaching ministry was not identified primarily with prophets in the old covenant, and mercy ministry was not tied primarily to priests. The task of teaching was connected far more consistently to priests and Levites than to prophets (Leviticus 10:10-11; 2 Chronicles 15:3; 17:7-9; 35:3; Ezra 7:6, 10; Nehemiah 8:7-9; Isaiah 28:7-10; Jeremiah 18:18; Ezekiel 7:26; 22:26; Micah 3:11; Malachi 2:3-9). And so, even if old covenant offices of leadership happened to provide a legitimate typology for Christian leaders today, caregiving would not constitute the essence of priestly leadership. Yes, old covenant priests were representatives and intercessors. But the intercessory responsibilities of priests and Levites should not eclipse their instructional role. When Jesus taught the people during his time on earth, he was fulfilling the office of priest no less than the office of prophet. To be sure, proclamation was essential to the role of the prophet, but the identification of teaching leadership with prophetic leadership ignores essential components of both prophetic and priestly roles. In Scripture, prophets had a distinct relationship with God that resulted in efficacious prayer, and they spoke a message that was not their own (see, e.g., Genesis 20:7; Exodus 7:1-2; Deuteronomy 18:18). When the people acclaimed Jesus as a prophet, it was only rarely in response to his teachings and, even then, the words may have been perceived more as a prophetic oracle than as teaching or proclamation (John 7:37-44). Most often, the people’s acclamations were in reaction to his miraculous signs or supernatural knowledge, again suggesting a weakness in the direct linkage between prophecy and teaching (Luke 7:11-17; John 4:16-20; 6:1-15; 9:17). Prophecy was expected to extend to all God’s people at the dawning of a new messianic age (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:16-18; cf. Numbers 11:25-29). In the New Testament churches, prophecy and teaching did overlap (Acts 13:1) but the gifts were distinguished when listed (1 Corinthians 12:28-29; 14:6; Ephesians 4:11).
- Furthermore, priestliness in the new covenant is primarily communal, not individual. In the new covenant community, priestliness is not an individualized quality but a communal identity, given to every believer in Jesus Christ. Since no part of our priesthood depends on our own gifts or skills, no believer can possess a different essence or degree of priestliness in comparison with other believers. Laypeople in the new covenant are not merely Levitical servants who observe and obey a new order of priestly leaders. United with the high priest of an order far greater than Aaron’s, all of God’s new covenant people constitute a common priesthood (Hebrews 7:11-19; 1 Peter 2:4-9; Revelation 5:9-10). Even if caregiving could be linked to priestliness, Scripture does not support the supposition that new covenant priesthood is a capacity that different individuals exemplify in differing degrees. Through faith in Christ, men and women from every race and nation are being bound together into a single multihued multitude of priestly ministers. The priesthood of the whole community provides direct access to Christ the great teacher and priest through his Spirit (John 13:13-14; 16:12-15; see also Jeremiah 31:33). No one in the body of Christ can become more priestly than we already are, because every aspect of Christ’s priesthood has already become ours in him.
New Covenant Priesthood as the Devoted Property of God
What, then, is the point of new covenant priesthood? If priestly ministry isn’t primarily caregiving and if priestliness is the shared identity of the entire community, what does it mean to be ‘a royal priesthood’? And, most important for our purposes, how should Christian leaders lead in the context of a priesthood that includes every believer in Jesus Christ? Here’s what I want to suggest throughout the remainder of this post: When expanded to encompass all of God’s people, the primary point of priesthood in both covenants was to highlight the holiness of God’s people; this holiness is not primarily separation from the world but sacrificial devotion to God as his property and possession.
The author of placed the phrase ‘kingdom of priests’ parallel to ‘holy nation,’ suggesting a link between priesthood and holiness (Exodus 19:6). Immediately after describing Israel as a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, God commanded both priests and people to be set apart as holy (Exodus 19:6, 10, 22). Centuries later, Simon Peter embedded his citation of this passage in the context of a call to holiness and covenant faithfulness. ‘As the one who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, “Be holy, because I am holy,”’ the apostle Peter wrote. A few verses later, Peter specifically identified God’s people as ‘a holy priesthood’ in union with Christ: “You yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:15-16; 2:4-5; compare Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7). When extended to include all of God’s people, priesthood seems to be primarily about holiness.
This holiness is not, however, mere separation from the world for the purpose of greater personal piety. As French scholar Claude-Bernard Costecalde has demonstrated, the fundamental point of ‘holiness’ in the Scriptures was not ‘separation’ but ‘devotion’ (Costecalde 1986: 137). Understood in this way, ‘a holy priesthood’ implies the sacrificial devotion of God’s people as a possession of the living God. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we have been joined with a great high priest who was devoted to God’s purposes to the point of death. United with the great high priest, we too have been designated as God’s possession and consecrated for God’s purposes (Romans 6:1-11).
When we embrace our place as a devoted priesthood, we find ourselves reaching beyond the new covenant community to pursue justice and to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom in the world. We—in the words of Simon Peter—declare ‘the praises of the One who called [us] out of darkness,’ and a door is opened for people from every social and ethnic background to ‘glorify God’ (1 Peter 2:9, 12). Paul made this same point in a different way when he referred to his proclamation of the gospel as a priestly service whereby believers from all nations were being devoted to God as a living sacrifice. God had called Paul to serve as a ‘minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable’ (Romans 15:16 KJV; see also Isaiah 66:20-21; Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 13:15). Because we are united with Christ the great high priest and sacrifice, we pursue justice and proclaim the gospel with boldness and sacrificial devotion, and God transforms the people around us into a devoted priesthood and living sacrifice as well.
Think About the Three Offices:
Have you heard the munus triplex of prophet, priest, and king used as a leadership typology? What has been your perspective on this typology in the past? How has this post altered your view?