by Scott Breslin
In this article, I look at the God-given role identity of New Covenant priest. I delineate what aspects of following Jesus are particularly priestly and recommend how this can be applied in our workplaces.
What aspects of following Jesus are particularly priestly, and why is this important for you and your workplace? While not the most frequently discussed God-given role identity in scripture, our priestly nature is mentioned by both Peter (1 Peter 2:5-9) and John (Rev. 5:10; 20:6) and has always been fundamental to God’s purposes for his people (Exod. 19:5-6).
The meanings of God-given identities such as priest, child of God, saint, servant, disciple, friend, and ambassador are rarely explicitly defined in the Bible. Our initial identity standards for these role identities are shaped largely by our cultural contexts (including church culture) and experiences rather than grounded in scripture (Burke and Stets 2009). Bible study, research, and reflection are needed to reshape our understanding and likely meanings of all God-given role identities.
In this article, I look at the God-given role identity of New Covenant priest. I delineate what aspects of following Jesus are particularly priestly and recommend how this can be applied in our workplaces. This is important since the workplace is the primary context God has ordained for most adults to join him in the Great Commission. God intends our priesthood to be core to our self-identity and is more fundamental to who we are than our vocational identity (nurse, teacher, bricklayer, lawyer, etc.) or even our ethnic identity.
Not like the Levites
In the Old Testament the Levites were set apart to serve as priests to the people of Israel. Yet it is sometimes overlooked that all of Israel (not just the Levites) were meant to be priests. Consider what God says to the people of Israel through Moses in Exodus 19:6:
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.
The concept of the priesthood of all believers can be traced to the days of Moses and Exodus 19. The whole nation of Israel was to serve as a kingdom of priests. Members of the Levitical priesthood were to be priests to the priests, so to speak. We see from Exodus 19:6 that the priesthood of Israel was conditional on their obedience to God’s covenant. In the same way, it is likely that Christians who consistently disobey Jesus suppress their calling to be priests.
In Hebrews 7, we are reminded that Jesus became God’s complete and final peace offering for humanity, making the duties of the Levitical priesthood obsolete. Therefore, the era of the Old Covenant Levitical priesthood came to a close. New Covenant priests are not a replacement for the Levitical priesthood. The priesthood of followers of Christ are aligned under the high priesthood of Jesus and the ancient order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7:11-17). The New Covenant priests have a mandate and priestly identity distinct from and more ancient than the Levitical priesthood. So what is their mandate and why focus on the workplace? First, let’s take a quick look at the importance of the workplace.
Why the Workplace?
When I look at the weekly schedules of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues, out of 168 hours each week, 45-70 hours are spent at work, traveling to work, and/or preparing for work. This accounts for more than half their waking hours. Most adults will spend more time at their workplace than they will with their family or community—perhaps 85,000 hours or more over a lifetime.
When Jesus called us to follow him, he did not exclude the large percentage of our lives we spend at work. Given the amount of time we spend at work, it is more likely he had the workplace specifically in mind. Followers of Jesus must follow him in the workplace. Our priestly nature informs us on how to follow Jesus in the workplace.
Strangely, the workplace is often overlooked and deprioritized as a primary place of ministry. For many, work is seen as a necessary evil rather than an integral part of God’s calling for our lives. Attitudes about the nature of work are mostly learned from our culture and therefore likely to differ from a biblical worldview of work. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that for most followers of Jesus, their workplace will be their primary “ministry” outside the family? Is not the workplace the key context for priestly activities for most adults during most of their lifetime? I think so. I submit that we need to re-conceptualize our self-identity by learning what it means to be a priest, especially at the workplace.
Six Behaviors of the Workplace Priest
Space does not permit a detailed description of my methodology used to investigate and identify behaviors of the New Covenant priest. In brief, I took a three-pronged approach. First, I studied the narratives where the term priest, priests, and priesthood appear in the Bible. I analyzed the text to identify recurring activities and themes within the occupation of the priesthood. I also compared what the Levites did with what followers of Jesus are asked to do. Through this process, I identified a primary occupational theme of representation and three subcategories that included communication, peacemaking, and service.
Second, I looked at five universal callings of God—five purposes or invitations that God has for all people. Specifically, I considered God’s call to: salvation
(1 Tim. 2:4: 1 Peter 3:9), holiness (Eph. 1:4; 5:7; 1 Peter 1:15-16), peace (1 Cor. 7:15; Col. 3:15; 2 Tim. 2:22), service (Matt. 5:16; Eph. 2:10; 1 Tim. 2:10; 5:10; 6:18), and fruitfulness (John 15:16). Since all followers of Jesus are priests, they must all share these universal callings of God. I found there were strong correlations between these universal callings of God and the priestly themes of representation, communication, relationship, and service.
Third, I studied seven role identities ascribed to followers of Jesus in the New Testament. These are: child of God, disciple, saint, brother/sister, friend, servant, and ambassador. From this three-pronged approach, I identified six aspects of following Jesus that are particularly, but not exclusively, priestly.
I constructed the acronym PRIEST (Praise, Reconcile, Invite, Encourage, Serve, Team up) to make these behaviors easier to remember. These behaviors provided an informed starting point for answering the questions, “What behaviors are particularly priestly and how might these behaviors manifest themselves at the workplace?” They are basic competencies of the workplace priest and therefore pillars for curriculum development.
#1. Praise and Prayer
Priests pray and praise. Praise is perhaps the most explicit behavior connected to our priestly identity in the New Testament because it is specifically linked to 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (emphasis mine).
The Greek word exaggello, translated here declare, also means to proclaim or show forth and implies proactive and loud verbalization of our praise. I find it hard to imagine that this means we are to walk around our workplace loudly singing praise…but maybe. More likely, I suspect it points to a lifestyle of daily praise. The Greek word aretê, translated here praises, also means moral goodness, valor, virtue, or excellence.
Priests are to proclaim and show forth God’s moral goodness, valor, virtues, and excellence. Declaring or proclaiming God’s praise is fundamental to what it means to be priestly. Priests are to be people of worship in both actions and attitudes (cf. Acts 2:11; 1 Cor. 11:26). Praise appears to be integral to the job description of New Covenant priests. At the workplace, it will likely manifest itself in attitudes of thankfulness, humility, optimism, and expectation.
If praise is one aspect of prayer, intercession is another. The workplace priest continuously prays to God on behalf of his or her colleagues, customers, suppliers, etc. It is our duty to communicate to God with praise, intercession, and thanksgiving for the people and needs that arise in the workplace. It is the priest’s duty to represent his or her colleagues before God in prayer as an insider and member of the workplace. I propose that as priests we have the same basic responsibilities whether we are working alongside Christians or non-Christians. The priest prays, “Jesus, how do I represent you here?” and not just “Jesus, how can I share the gospel here?” Certainly, sharing the gospel is an important aspect of representing Jesus, but not the only obligation, not by a long shot.
A priest is a peacemaker. At the workplace, peacemaking has three primary dimensions. First, it is incumbent upon workplace priests to be at peace with God. We must not only trust Jesus for our personal salvation, but we must be committed to obedience and personal holiness (Rom. 12:1-2). This does not mean priests are perfect. Rather, it means we must be quick to repent and in full pursuit of being a friend of God. Envy, laziness, gossip, slander, and malicious talk are incompatible with our role as workplace priests. Rather, we strive to live exemplary lives in obedience to Jesus.
Second, and related to the first, it is obligatory for priests to take the “planks” out of our own eyes before helping others take the “specks” out of their eyes (Matt. 7:3-5). In other words, we must be committed to pursuing peace and reconciliation in our own broken relationships. Our relationships with our fellow human beings are often reflections of our relationship with God. Scripture teaches that it is impossible to love God yet hate your brother or sister (1 John 4:20). We should do everything in our power to be at peace with our fellow human beings (Heb. 12:14).
Pursuing peace within our own circle of relationships helps qualify us for the third dimension of peacemaking at the workplace, namely facilitating peace and reconciliation between work colleagues. Interpersonal conflicts at the workplace are one of the main reasons people leave jobs prematurely and are extremely costly to business operations. Facilitating others to reconcile is a learned skill which everyone should be trained in and some will excel at. Get training in this (e.g., Sande 1992; Love 2014).
What about the role of helping reconcile people to God? Shouldn’t priests also be preaching the gospel to colleagues and clients in the workplace?
I discuss this in the next section.
Priests give invitations. At first, this may sound odd. Very few of us have heard a sermon emphasizing our obligation to be inviters for Jesus. But priests are “inviters” because God’s universal callings to salvation, holiness, friendship, service, fruitfulness, etc. are invitations. As God’s representatives and servants, we invite people to the purposes of God on Christ’s behalf.
In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding feast where the king sends out his servants to invite everyone to the wedding banquet. Invitations! There are many types and levels of invitations in the New Testament. As priests, we can invite people to pray with us, read the Bible (or other book), share a meal, watch a movie, meet our Christian friends, or participate in an investigative Bible study. The possibilities are endless.
We invite people to take steps towards Jesus appropriate to their openness and appetite. Scripture warns us to avoid sharing sacred truth with those who are not receptive (Matt. 7:6). We learn if people are receptive by how they respond to God’s word and/or appropriate invitations.
Eventually, we hope to invite people to follow Jesus, but this is almost always preceded by other invitations and opportunities (Breslin 2007, 508-517). Paul emphasized the importance of being ready to create or respond to opportunities; “Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:5-6).
I suggest that inviting, not preaching, is a core responsibility of priests in the workplace. When I look in the New Testament, preaching is almost always done in contexts where people come to hear it. In other words, Jesus, Peter, and Paul almost always preached in the temple, synagogues, or other places where people gathered to hear. Most workplaces are not normally appropriate context for preaching. Rather, the workplace is more suited as a place for inviting people to come and hear in another space.
Priests bless people. Encouraging and blessing are the second priestly behavior explicitly connected with our priestly identity. Melchizedek, the priest of God Most High, blessed Abram with both deeds and words (Gen. 14:18-20). He proactively went out to bless Abram by bringing bread and wine and invoking verbal blessing. We too can be proactive with words and deeds to invoke God’s blessing for people at work. This is fundamentally priestly in nature.
To encourage literally means to give or call up courage. Our speech is to be full of blessing and hope for our work colleagues. We can call up in people those qualities which we know to be admirable and good in God’s eye. God is not hesitant in extending his blessings and grace even to bad people (Ps. 145:9; Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17). The theological doctrine of Common Grace addresses this issue. It is the concept that many aspects of God’s grace benefit all humanity no matter what their faith or lack thereof. According to Rick Love:
By common grace, unbelievers do good; in fact they often do amazing things. And we should see God’s hand in it. We should be grateful that God’s common grace operates in every friendship, every act of kindness, every scientific discovery, and every technological advance. For all of this is ultimately from God….God is working in people around us. His beauty shines through them – even though imperfectly and without them realizing that God is the one who is actually working through them.
As workplace priests, we have the privilege of affirming the words, actions, and attitudes in others that we believe please God. That being said, there will also be times when we must speak up against workplace injustice, abuse, and dishonesty. This may include standing up for a colleague (even though you might not like him or her) who is being slandered in the coffee room. It might mean blowing the whistle on laziness, fraud, or corruption.
At the same time, it is good to keep in mind that while all followers of Jesus are called to be priests, only a few are called to be judges (John 3:17; Rom. 14:13; 1 Cor. 5:12). Consider that Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. If this is Jesus’ standard for how we treat our enemies, should not the standards for how we treat our work colleagues be even higher?
Priests serve God and people. Throughout the New Testament, followers of Jesus are called servants. Jesus, our high priest, embraced the identity and duties of a servant (Matt. 12:18; Phil. 2:6-8). Consider Philippians 2:3-6:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.
Like all God-given identities, there are both vertical and horizontal dimensions to our servant identity. The vertical dimension highlights that we are first servants of God. We are to submit to God’s agenda and strive to obey his will. The horizontal dimension highlights we are also servants of people. In this regard, scripture commands us to treat other people as more important than ourselves. Selfishness, greed, and arrogance are contradictory to our servant identity and therefore unpriestly.
As servants of God, workplace priests understand that ultimately our accountability is to God and thus act in ways that please God. In part, this means we work hard even when our earthly boss is not watching because we understand our work to be an act of worship. Work was designed by God as a means of partnering with him. Work is a privilege, not a curse. God assigned work to Adam (Gen. 1:28; 2:15) before the Fall, and thus work was always part of God’s plan for humanity.
While sin affects work, it does not transform the fundamental nature of work from a blessing to a curse. No matter what the work, it is to be done wholeheartedly for God and not just for self or people (Col. 3:23). The story of the three stonemasons demonstrates this point well. Each were doing identical tasks in a rock quarry, but when asked, “What are you doing?” the first answered, “I am cutting stone,” the second answered, “I am building a cathedral,” and the third answered, “I am glorifying God.” The third stonemason had a priestly perspective towards work.
#6. Team Up
Workplace priests team up with other followers of Jesus. This behavior is explicitly connected to our identity as priests. Four times this is emphasized in 1 Peter 2:9: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God…” The priesthood is designed to function as a community. I think of it as a team sport. As a plurality of priests, we are better at representing, communicating, peacemaking, and serving than we are on our own.
In fact, God designed the priesthood to be a community of people working together. It does not work the way it was designed unless we team up. Our priesthood makes us all the same while our SHAPE (Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Ability, Personality, and Experience) (Warren 2002) makes us all different. The combination of being both the same and different simultaneously fosters interdependence.
Ideally, the local church is an expression of priests teaming up in the local community. Church services should help equip and encourage the congregation of priests to fulfill their priestly responsibilities at home, at work, and in the community. In addition, workplace priests benefit from teaming up with other priests at work and/or within their vocation. The purpose of coming together is to pray, encourage, and equip each other in our priestly responsibilities.
Priests who belong to the same workplace or same vocation group are especially able to encourage and equip each other. Teachers and school administrators should seek out other like-minded colleagues at their school. Doctors, nurses, and staff can form communities of practice1 at their hospital or clinic. Priests who work as sales people at shopping centers and employees in factories can organize themselves so as to better fulfill their sacred duties as workplace priests. Different churches within a city can help facilitate the organization of priestly communities of practice by providing meeting space for weekly early morning (before work) meetings for a given workplace or vocation group.
Increasing the Prominence of Our Priestly Identity
Knowing that we are priests and knowing our responsibility as priests is a good start, but it’s not enough. How do we make our priestly identity salient (i.e., more prominent) in the workplace? Let me offer three suggestions:
1. Become convinced in our own hearts that God has made us priests. For many of us, the idea that God has elevated us to such an honorable and important role is almost too much to believe. We may think not even God can make a silk purse from a pig’s ear. Our past experience or our present circumstances may seem to contradict the reality of our God-given identity.
I have found that prayer, meditation on God’s word, and earnest discussions with wise men and women have helped me. We might first need to be convinced in our own mind that we are God’s beloved child. In the end, we need to remember that if God, the most loving, knowledgeable, honest, and authoritative being of the universe, says, “I have made you a member of my royal priesthood,” we should believe it. Sometimes, however, there is a lot of deprogramming that needs to take place so that we can believe it.
2. Team up with others who want to live out their priestly identity. This is perhaps the second most important single action we can do while working on #1. We need to find others who are like-minded and are willing to encourage and equip us to be priests. When others see us as a priest, it helps us see ourselves as priests. This is the concept of reflected appraisals, ideally a key role of our local church. In reality, in many churches it won’t happen unless we are proactive in identifying and teaming up with others. We should keep an eye out for people in our church, in our professional sector, and in our geographic workplace with whom we can team up.
3. Encourage the local church. If you are a pastor, elder, or church leader, then there is much you can do to help promote and encourage the saliency (prominence) of your congregation’s priestly identity. The suggestions below are also consistent with missional church literature:
a. Constantly promote the importance and sanctity of secular work.
b. Each Sunday have a different occupational group (i.e., nurses, teachers, public servants, etc.) stand up or be brought up front to be prayed for.
c. Identify fruitful workplace priests in your congregation.
d. Regularly include testimonies of workplace priest stories at church meetings.
e. Identify and facilitate fruitful workplace priests in your congregation to mentor and coach others.
f. Host weekly morning prayers for workplace priests (i.e., teaming up).
g. Host communities of practice (teaming up by vocation).
h. Expect from church members the same activities you expect from your overseas missionaries.
i. Honor workplace priests the same way overseas missionaries are honored.
j. Host seminars to help equip church members activate their priestly identity at work.
Our priestly nature is core to who we have become in Christ. It is part of our new nature no matter what our ethnicity, spiritual gifts, talents, context, or vocation. We are priests, like it or not. Therefore, we need to embrace this identity by developing a lifestyle of priestly behaviors, especially at the workplace where we spend so much of our time. Our priestly identity is designed to be expressed in unison with others and not just individually. Therefore, teaming up with others is fundamental to sustainability and fruitfulness.
1. Groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.
Breslin, Scott. 2007. “Church Planting Tracking and Analysis Tool.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43(4): 508-515.
Burke, Peter J. and Jan E. Stets. 2009. Identity Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Love, Rick. n.d. “Common Grace, Common Ground, and the Common Good (Part 1).” Peace Catalyst International. Accessed March 12, 2015, from http://peace- catalyst.net/blog/post/common-grace–common-ground–and-the-common-good–part-1-.
Love, Rick. 2014. Peace Catalysts: Resolving Conflict in Our Families, Organizations and Communities. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.
Sande, Ken. 1992. The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Warren, Rick. 2002. The Purpose Driven Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
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For more than thirty years, Scott Breslin has lived as a workplace priest in both profit and non-profit organizations in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. He holds a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh and a MDiv from Trinity Theological Seminary. His passion is to help others activate their priestly nature at work.
EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 3 pp. 286-295. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.