Pontifex is a Latin word that means bridge-builder and the origin of our English word priest. A priest connects men to God, mediating the divine. As Christians, part of our identity is priestly, which means six things:
First, it means shadowing God. We are made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1.26). In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17.28) because he is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12.2). God is the source of everything, and we are tethered to him as his “bridge-builders.”
Second, we are living temples. We are spiritual people, but the Bible tells us we are also being built together into a spiritual house. We are both priest and parish, cleric and cathedral, God dwelling in the midst of his people.
The creation poem in Genesis 1 describes the construction of the world in ancient Hebrew architectural terms. To the oriental mind, it would have been quite clear that God was crafting a specific type of building—a temple. In the ancient near-eastern world, temples were filled with idols, indicating the resident deity. Dragon idols stood for Rahab, mermen for Dagon, etc. In God’s Earth Temple, the only idols are people.
“Idol” is actually the best translation of the Hebrew word tselem, from which we get the idea that we are made in God’s “image.” God made idols that move. Wherever we go, the presence of God goes with us. We are always at church, in worship with our creator.
Third, it means we reflect God back to the world. We show the world what God is like through the way we live and the things we say. We are living epistles (2 Corinthians 3.2) and the aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2.15), carrying with us the light of Jesus Christ.
Fourth, we reflect the world as it should be back to God. Every time we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, creating conditions representative of what God originally intended, we can bring our successes back to God and show him, giving evidence that we are working in concert with our Creator to heal the world.
Fifth, we are united with God through Christ. In John 10.30 Jesus said, “The Father and I are one.” And in 1 Corinthians 1.30, Paul said, “God has united you with Christ Jesus.”
Our lives are not our own anymore; we are conjoined with Jesus. It is this Siamese spirituality that leads Paul to caution Christian people about their moral behavior. For example, in 1 Corinthians 6.12-20, Paul explains why it is wrong for Christians to do things like visit prostitutes, not only because it is morally reprehensible, but also because Jesus goes with us everywhere, and visiting a brothel is the spiritual equivalent of kidnapping Christ for a bachelor party bender in Vegas.
We ought to be careful that it is Jesus who leads us along paths of righteousness (Psalm 23.3) and not us who drag Jesus into the Velvet Touch show lounge.
Sixth, we are summoned to live differently from the world as a result of our calling. This necessitates that we always act in love.
Everything we do should be flavored and governed by agape.
Love is costly. Love can be tough.
But love is always unconditional, self-sacrificing, and restorative. Sometimes Christian people get confused and think our priestly vocation is more about “holiness” than love. This is a mistaken notion about the true nature of holiness. To be holy means to be set apart for God like a bride is set apart for her husband. Holiness concerns our behavior, but centers on our relationships, and that which governs our relationship with God is love.
To become more holy, we must become more wholly loving, not just better behaved.
The only way we can live saturated in love is by staying in step with the Holy Spirit, inviting him to infuse us with love itself. It’s the Holy Spirit who gives us direction in the absence of clear biblical guidelines. The Holy Spirit helps us discern what to do in complex, morally gray scenarios. It is the Holy Spirit who fosters creativity within us, allowing us to sidestep false dichotomies, no-win scenarios, and learned hopelessness.
The more we stay in step with the Spirit, the more we love.
The more we love, the more our lives become centered on God and his desire for creation.
As our lives increasingly take on the character and nature and flavor God intends, we gather up the praises of creation and give them back to God as an offering. We give God our gratitude when things work out the way he designed and praise because they’re so enjoyable.
Imagine, for example, an Olympic runner who has won the gold medal and shows up at the home of her high school track coach. She shares her enthusiasm and reward and gratitude. In much the same way, we share what God has given us with him.
As priests, then, we mediate God’s presence in our lives and to the world around us, thereby coming that much closer to the way humanity was meant to be.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com