“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 Pet. 2:9).
For most Americans, today will be spent dressing up in fancy costumes, trying desperately to leave some of the candy for the trick-or-treaters who will be visiting our houses, or watching a horror flick to celebrate Halloween. I am always fascinated by the evolution of various days, and the life of their own that they take. This is certainly one of those days.
The traditions of Halloween have ancient origins. On May 13, A.D. 609, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Roman Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs and moved the observance from May 13th to November 1st in the 8th century. Soon after this, the night before began to take on a life of its own, becoming known as All Hallows Eve, later contracted to Halloween.
For the Protestant church, this day has taken on a much different meaning over the past 505 years. On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk teaching at Wittenberg, became convinced that many of the practices of the Roman Catholic church had become corrupted, and could not be defended by the Scriptures. So, in the spirit of his day, he nailed a paper to the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg with 95 theses that he disputed and sought to debate. What followed would be a seismic shift in the Christian church that continues to this day.
Now, most of the 95 theses were related to the practice of indulgences, where church folks could pay a sum of money to reduce theirs, or their loved one’s time in purgatory. But at the heart of what would become the Reformation was a significant shift in how a person should approach his God.
The medieval church taught that God works exclusively through a select class of priests as they administered the seven sacraments of the church: baptism, the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), confirmation, penance, extreme unction, marriage, and holy orders. Protestants, on the other hand, believe that all people in the church are priests, or in the language of Martin Luther, the priesthood of all believers.
For the reformers like Luther and others, this idea of the priesthood of all believers was not a new idea but was rooted in the Scriptures. This return to the teachings of the Bible would have lasting effects on the life of the church as we know it.
Scripture clearly identifies Jesus Christ as our great high 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” (Heb. 4:14). The Old Testament hinted about the priestly office of Christ through types and shadows, such as Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, and the Levites. It was through the priest, and especially the high priest, that God accepted the sacrifices of the people of Israel.
As the Old Testament progressively unfolded God’s plan of redemption, the prophets revealed that the Messiah was the ultimate sacrifice. No longer would Israel look to the blood of bulls and goats but to the blood of the Messiah, who would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, bear our griefs, and carry our sorrows (Isa. 53:4–5). No longer would the scapegoat bear Israel’s sins but rather Jesus would. “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). The Messiah would be both sacrifice and priest: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11–12).
Believers united to Christ share in all that he is and does and share in his priestly office. Unlike the Old Testament priests, who offered sacrificial animals, New Testament believers rest in the finished work of Christ, the one true sacrifice. Now we “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into light” (1 Pet. 2:9) and offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Christ, the sacrifices of our bodies as “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1) and praise to God, that is, “The fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15).
That all believers are priests means that every person in the pew has the right and authority to read, interpret, and apply the teachings of the Bible. For the Reformers, this meant that the Scriptures must be translated into the language of the people.
So, the priesthood of all believers means that we all have access to the very throne of heaven through Christ. “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” (Heb. 4:16). Let us all live each day “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).