Disciples reign with Jesus by fulfilling their role as “priestly kings” who mediate His light to the world.
At Mount Sinai, Yahweh summoned Israel to become a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” If she kept His covenant, the nation would become “my own possession… for all the earth is mine.” God never intended for His people to be a community isolated from the rest of humanity. Instead, Israel was to reflect His light in a world darkened by sin.
Unfortunately, Israel failed to keep the covenant, and she never lived up to this calling. But with the coming of the Messiah, the church has inherited that mission.
The Apostle Peter is most explicit. When writing to largely Gentile congregations, he exhorted Christians to eschew all “wickedness, guile, hypocrisy, envy, and defamation,” and to abstain from the “fleshly lusts that war against the soul.” This was vital – Jesus summoned his followers “to be a holy priesthood and to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
The church has become the “chosen race, the royal priesthood, and a holy nation, the people for God’s own possession.” As such, she is tasked with “showing forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” – (1 Peter 2:1-11).
Noteworthy in these passages is how the idea of “priesthood” is combined with royalty and kingdom. In this way, Scripture has redefined the nature of political order and how its sovereignty is to be implemented. In other words, the kingdom of God is a priestly kingdom.
While Paul did not apply the term “priest” or “priesthood” to the church, he certainly employed language from the Levitical system to portray correct Christian conduct. For example, he exhorted us to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your logical service.”
Unfortunately, the full force of the language is lost in English translations. “Service” represents the Greek noun latreia, which means “worship, divine service, ministration.” Previously, Paul used the same term for the “divine services” performed in the sacrifices and offerings in the Levitical system (“whose is the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the divine service, and the promises”). Similarly, the author of Hebrews applied the noun latreia to the “ordinances of divine service” of the “first covenant,” in which the priests entered the Tabernacle to “accomplish the divine services.” In short, the Apostle was applying priestly language from the old order to the church – (Romans 9:4, Hebrews 9:1-6).
Fortunately for us, Paul provided practical examples of what he meant by “logical divine service.” The individual believer must not “think of himself more highly than he ought.” Instead, he is to use the gifts given to him by God to serve the body of Christ and its individual members. It is through self-sacrificial service for others that the church renders priestly service in this age – (Romans 12:3-8).
In Revelation, the idea of the priestly kingdom is developed more fully. It begins with Jesus, who is the “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” By his shed blood, he constituted us “a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.” In the Greek sentence, “kingdom” is in apposition to “priests”; that is, the latter term defines the former. It is a priestly kingdom, and its members execute their royal duties AS “priests.” Only one group is in view, not two, “priests,” not “priests” and “kings.”
“Faithful witness” refers to the witness Jesus bore in his sacrificial death, and “firstborn of the dead” to his consequent resurrection. This understanding is confirmed by his declaration, “I am the Living one, and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” – (Revelation 1:4-6, 1:18).
In his opening vision, John saw Jesus as “one like a Son of Man” who was “clothed with a robe, reaching to the feet, and girt about the breasts with a golden belt,” and he was walking among “seven golden lampstands.”
The sanctuary in the Tabernacle featured a single gold-plated lampstand with seven branches. Similarly, John saw seven individual “lampstands,” representing the “seven churches of Asia.” The “robe” and “golden belt” worn by the figure corresponded to the robe and accouterments worn by the Levitical high priest. In short, Jesus was in a Temple setting as the high priest of his people, in this instance, trimming the wicks and replenishing the oil as needed for each “lampstand” – (Exodus 25:31-40, Leviticus 8:1-13).
Thus, Jesus is the “firstborn of the dead,” the high priest of his people who pioneered the way and now provides the model for his priestly people to emulate. He is the “ruler of the kings of the earth,” but priesthood defines how he rules.
He “overcame” and acquired all power and authority. However, he did so as the “slain Lamb,” and he now calls his disciples to “overcome” and reign with him in precisely the same manner: “He that overcomes, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with my Father in his throne” – (Revelation 3:21).
This understanding of how Jesus conquered is confirmed by John’s vision of the “sealed scroll.” He heard one of the “twenty-four elders” declare that the “lion of the tribe of Judah” overcame, but when he looked, what he saw was the “slain Lamb” approaching the “throne” to receive and begin to open the “seven seals” of the scroll. Thus, Jesus fulfilled the messianic role through his sacrificial death – It was the “Lamb” and not the “Lion of Judah” who opened the sealed scroll.
Upon his accession to the “throne,” the “four living creatures” and the “twenty-four elders” declared him “worthy” because “you were slain and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.” And not only did he redeem men and women from every nation, but he “made them for our God a kingdom and priests, and they are reigning upon the earth” – (Revelation 5:5-12).
In the last clause, the Greek text uses a present tense verb, signifying that they “are reigning” even now on the earth. In short, they reign as “priests,” they rule with Jesus as his royal priesthood. They are “priestly” kings reigning in his “kingdom.”
Later, in the vision of the “innumerable multitude,” John saw men “clothed in white robes” coming out of the “Great Tribulation,” men who had washed their robes and made them white “in the blood of the Lamb.” The image reflects the garments worn by Aaron and his sons when they were installed to the priesthood – (Leviticus 8:6-7, Revelation 7:9-17, 14:1-5).
The “innumerable multitude” was standing before the “throne” and the “Lamb,” where they were “rendering divine service” in the sanctuary. “Render divine service” represents the Greek verb latreuô, the same verb applied to the service of the Levitical priests in the ancient Greek version of Leviticus, and the cognate of the noun used by Paul for the “divine service” rendered by Christians (latreia – Romans 12:1).
The same Greek verb features in the vision of John “measuring” the “sanctuary.” In it was found the “altar” and “those rendering divine service” before it (latreuô), a picture of the priestly company of saints conducting divine service in the “sanctuary” – (Revelation 11:1-2).
The image of the saints as the “kingdom of priests” occurs once more at the start of the “thousand years.” After Satan was bound, judgment was given for the martyrs who had died for the “testimony of Jesus and the word of God, and such as did not render homage to the beast.” They “lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years,” for “over these, the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and reign with him a thousand years” – (Revelation 20:1-6).
Thus, in Revelation, Jesus is the high priest and sacrificial victim who redeemed his people. By his sacrifice, he “purchased” men and women for God, and consequently, he now attends them as their high priest.
In turn, his lifeblood consecrated them as a company of priests that reign with him. They are summoned to “overcome” and reign in the same manner that he did, and they “overcome” their enemies by the “blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and because they love not their lives unto death”; that is, through self-sacrificial service on behalf of their high priest.
This is what it means to be a royal priesthood and “reign” with Christ. In him, disciples do not become lords and tyrants, but instead, “priests” who mediate the light and life of his “kingdom” to the nations. And they reign with him in the here and now.