The concept of believers as “a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5) as I have long understood it is very much the object of derision and scorn. “The Bible isn’t clear!” Whether it’s formal ordination by an approved apostolic body or a Th. D. and peer-reviewed papers, the ability of the simple Christian to understand Scripture effectively is in serious question.
Yet Scripture itself testifies, and the testimony of God is greater (1 John 5:9).
The sufficient teaching of the Spirit
Jesus said to the disciples in John 14:26, speaking of the coming ministry of the Spirit, that He will “will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you” (hcsb). Jesus says a little bit later, “He will guide you into all the truth” (16:13). This is affirmed by Paul, who says in 1 Corinthians 2:10-15, “God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God… The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone.” and by John, who writes,
But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know…The anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you don’t need anyone to teach you. Instead, His anointing teaches you about all things and is true and is not a lie; just as He has taught you, remain in Him.” (1 John 2:20,27)
And also, “the one who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in himself” (1 John 5:9). Solomon also said in Proverbs 28:5, “those who seek the Lord understand [what is right] fully.” And Jeremiah prophesied it in 31:34, “they will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me.”
1 Corinthians 2:14 holds a really important point: how do we understand spiritual things? By the Spirit. Not by being taught them, not by man’s wisdom, not by advanced theological concepts… but by the Spirit. And why? 2:5, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Our faith rests in the power of God. Our discernment comes from that power, from the Spirit, which Jeremiah prophesied, Jesus promised, and Paul and John affirmed.
The sufficient evidence of Scripture
The second, tangential question, of course, is whether or not Scripture is adequate as a written text to go alongside the ministry of the Spirit.
The go-to verse is 2 Timothy 3:16, but I am struck even more strongly by the context (vv. 12-17, hcsb):
In fact, all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Evil people and impostors will become worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, and you know that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
So, in the context of talking about persecution, Paul warns Timothy that deception is coming, exhorts him to continue in what he was already taught, affirms who taught him (his mother and grandmother, neither ordained nor seminary graduates), and then names what he already knew—the sacred Scriptures. And then he makes this profound statement: “Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” I really don’t think he could possibly be any more clear about the sufficiency of Scripture (and the Old Testament alone, at that, as Timothy knew these Scriptures from childhood!) to lead to wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ. It’s very precise and very adequate. And it’s into this context that the famous verse 16 falls. Is Scripture just useful and vaguely profitable? Resoundingly not. It’s sufficient for faith and salvation. And then Paul elaborates, verse 17, “so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Scripture, taught by one’s own parents, is adequate protection against deceivers, and adequate teaching to for wisdom for salvation, for faith in Christ Jesus, and for completeness and readiness for everything.
And yet even more can we say!
Jude 3 reminds us that “the faith was once for all entrusted to the saints.” It’s not an ongoing revelation. The faith is established. That’s why Paul warns “if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be anathema!” (Galatians 1:8) And John joins in, warning again against “many deceivers,” saying that “everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God… if anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting” (2 John 7-10), again warning against adding to the basic, given teaching of Christ, which we are supposed to not add to, but rather “abide in.” Proverbs 30:5-6, “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words, or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar.”
In 2 Timothy 4:2-3 Paul tells Timothy to “preach the word… for the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new.” Once again, the idea to stick to the word as opposed to “new” doctrine.
David also spoke of the beautiful adequacy of the words of the Lord (Psalm 19:7-8, hcsb):
The instruction of the Lord is perfect,
renewing one’s life;
the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy,
making the inexperienced wise.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
making the heart glad;
the command of the Lord is radiant,
making the eyes light up.
The instruction of the Lord is perfect. It doesn’t need us to embellish or impose elaborate scholarship upon it. The testimony of the Lord makes the inexperienced wise.
the priesthood of all believers
So, God is able by the Spirit to make us understand all spiritual things, without special teachers, and Scripture is an adequate collection of knowledge for salvation, faith, and wisdom. The final piece falls into place very neatly: the temple veil was rent in two, and there is now “one mediator between God and men,” Christ (1 Timothy 2:5), who is the great high priest (Hebrews 4:14). The Spirit of God no longer rests over the Ark of the Covenant, but indwells His people (1 Corinthians 3:16).
Christ was the sacrifice for sins once for all, and replaces the intermediary priests in that way (Hebrews 10:12) but now Christians also “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). By His blood our worship is acceptable. Priests in the Old Testament had another function: the priests made the offerings, and they appealed to God on behalf of the people (e.g. Joel 2); they distinguished between the “holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Lev. 10:10), they adjucated legal decisions (Deuteronomy 17), acted as judges and maintained the Sabbaths (Ezekiel 44), and settled all disputes (Deuteronomy 21). All of this echoes in the New Testament descriptions of Christ as High Priest (Hebrews 9:11) of a more perfect tabernacle and believers as a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) and “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).
The wonderful working of grace here is that not only does the Spirit teach us, not only is Scripture able for salvation, wisdom, and equipping, but we as believers are also adopted into a holy priesthood…
so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
(1 Peter 2:9-10)
This is what the priesthood of all believers is about; a people called to glorify God, for He alone is the source and instructor of their salvation.
Sufficiency in action
One of my favorite examples of this is in 2 Kings 22. Josiah becomes king of Israel at eight years old, and “he did what was right in the Lord’s sight” (v.2). One of the first things he does is turn to the repair of the temple, and in the process, Hilkiah the high priest finds… the book of the law.
When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes…Go and inquire of the LORD for me, the people, and all Judah about the instruction in this book that has been found. (2 Kings 22:11-13)
Scripture led to repentance and, indeed, salvation (2 Kings 22:20). The priests had lost it, but it was easily recovered from the book of the law.
The second major example is in Acts 17, where the Bereans are commended for not merely accepting the words of the apostles, but for comparing what the apostles taught to the Scriptures “to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). So we see that even when the Apostles taught, it was still “noble-minded” to check their words against Scripture. And the reward, the “therefore,” was that many of them believed. Again, Scripture leads to repentance and salvation.
Biblical cautions about tradition
One final point worth noting is how tradition plays into the story, biblically speaking. While we are exhorted to hold fast to the traditions that were already taught by the Apostles (2 Thesalonians 2:15), Colossians 2:8 warns against being taken “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition.” In 2:23 Paul is even more specific, ascetic and additional “regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” We are not to go beyond the bounds of Scripture. Paul also tells Timothy, “guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from.. the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20). This is in perfect alignment with the view of tradition in the Old Testament prophets and as taught by Christ.
Beginning in Isaiah 3:12 we see the caution of following the leaders’ teaching: “Those who guide you lead you astray and confuse the direction of your paths.” Micah 3:5 also warns of “prophets who lead my people astray” and Jeremiah cautions “the lying pen of the scribes has made [the law of the Lord] into a lie.” These are the same traditions, additions to Scripture, that Jesus questioned in Matthew 15:3, “why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” and 15:6, “for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”
An appalling and horrible thing
has happened in the land:
the prophets prophesy falsely,
and the priests rule at their direction;
my people love to have it so,
but what will you do when the end comes?
Christ appeals to the authority of Scripture specifically, against the traditions that had developed after the law was given, and the disciples of Jesus did “not walk according to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:5). Jesus rejected the authority of even the priests and elders to go beyond the teaching of Scripture. Paul warned that this is how deceivers would lead the church astray, by adding to Scripture. Peter exhorts us further, “remember the words previously spoken by the holy prophets and the command of our Lord and Savior given through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). And all throughout, the constant theme is that “His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness”—and how?—”through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3).
What does Peter say God gave us by that glory and goodness? Not the teachings of men, which he warns against again in the very same section (2 Peter 2:1), but “very great and precious promises,” (v 4), promises found in Scripture (the testimony of the prophets and apostles, 3:2) and taught through the Spirit (1:20-21).