by Robert Brow March 1999

1 Peter 2:9

What model did Peter have in mind when he described Christians as - basileian ierateuma- a royal priesthood ? (2:9) I checked the Lexicon under both words, and found nothing much. Then I remembered that in Paphos, where I was Anglican Chaplain, there had been a line of Priest- Kings who were still reigning when Paul came there. That got me thinking about royal and priestly functions among other nations.

In the brief span of fifty years, 550 to 500 BC, seven major religious models emerged (Zoroaster in Persia, Buddha, Jainism and Hindu Vedanta in India, Confucius and Taoism in China, and Pythagoras and the Atheistic tradition in Greece). They tried hard to break the power of the priests in every country of the ancient world. But priesthood has continued, with some alternative names, as a necessary function to this day. Even Stalin and Mao failed to exterminate them.

I wondered how and why this was so? I decided that everyone needs others to deal with the pervasive human condition of personal guilt, and the sense of impending national and family disaster.

Priests could also be named shamans and witch doctors, but the function remained the same. As Wittgenstein said (Saint Ludwig is my patron saint) the meaning of a word is its use. That suggested that in North America priests have been renamed counselors, therapists, analysts, experts, ministers, etc.

The royal or ruling function on the other hand has always had to include defense, law and order, education, supervision of agriculture, and of course taxes. This might be performed by a hereditary emperor, king or Sheikh on the understanding that if that line proved unsatisfactory he could be removed and a new line begun. In the West the ruling function is performed by a President or Prime Minister, and even in monarchies the King or Queen is for decorative and tabloid purposes only.

What about these priestly and royal functions among the Jews? They were formed into a nation by the Exodus when they heard the Lord say "You shall be for me -mamleceth cohanim- a kingdom or dominion of priests and a holy nation" (Genesis 19:6). Since they had no High Priest or King, it seems they at first viewed the Lord as their -mashiakh- Messiah High Priest and King. They were to serve as his earthly servants in both functions. In that sense it is strange to be looking for a future Messiah. He has already been that for the 3,500 years of their national history.

But the Jews quickly decided they needed a more visible high priest than their elusive Lord. So Moses' brother Aaron began a hereditary male priesthood which continued more or less for 1500 years till AD 70. But for the past 1900 years Jews have managed without a high priest. That is because they had already divided the priestly function (dealing with their guilt, and personal and national disasters) among the sub-functions of priests, male and female prophets, wise men and women, and rabbis. That meant that when Malachi turned out to be the last of the prophets, their priests ended in AD 70, and their wiser women became Messiah lovers, Jewish Rabbis were left to deal with the national angst.

The Jews also decided by the time of Saul that they needed a more visible King than their elusive Messiah. He turned out a disaster, but the line of David did reign for 400 years till the exile. At the time of Jesus the Jews were ruled by a disastrous Senate of Sadducee priests who didn't believe in the resurrection and Pharisaic Rabbis who stood for the exact opposite.

From AD 70 till 1948 the Jews never had a king or president to order them as a nation. But now for 50 years the royal or government function in the tiny state of Israel has been performed by a strange mix, not of Democrats and Republicans, but backward looking Orthodox, Militarists, and Liberals.

So that was my rabid reverie about royal and priestly functions among the nations. But it helped me see the powerful imagery of our royal priesthood (I love that charismatic song). The early Jewish Christians had recognized Jesus as the Messiah King of their ancient history. And they were ready for his Day of the Lord intervention in AD 70. In the Epistle to the Hebrews they saw that He didn't need the earthly function of High Priest, and He would do that Himself. That made it easy for Greeks, Romans, and other people to join the Messiah's Royal Priesthood.

Christians may be given earthly titles such as Bishop, Priest, President, Secretary of State, Senator, Doctor, Psychiatrist, Social Worker, Singer, Artist, etc. But in every function they perform, either in the Messiah's priestly work or in his reigning work among the nations, they can be under his direct orders by the power and inspiration of the Spirit.

There will always be sub-serving priests and rulers in one form or another. When they do their job properly, their country is at peace and people are freed from guilt and gnawing anxiety. When they become self-serving and a misery to ordinary people, the Lord intervenes to remove them.

So it seems to me we must include all that as part of the meaning of the - basileion ierateuma- royal priesthood that Peter had in mind. Priests also conduct worship, and preside at various kinds of sacrifice, but I will leave that to the other Epistles.

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