Training Priests and Kings
Peter J. Leithart

"If I can get through the next twenty-four hours without an explosion or an emergency trip to hospital, I will be satisfied." Though there may be parents who have never said such a thing, I dare say there are very few who do not recognise the sentiment. Raising children is such a demanding, unending, and long-term project that parents frequently get snagged in the daily details. Yet, a set of overarching goals is essential for success in any undertaking. We need to know what we are trying to achieve; if for no other reason, at least we need to be able to recognise the end product when we produce it.

It is helpful to develop the goals of parenting in terms of the biblical declaration that Christians are kings and priests to God. According to the New Testament, this declaration is at the heart of the gospel. In the worship service described in the early chapters of Revelation, the hosts of heaven praise Jesus for purchasing multitudes from every nation with His blood, and the hymn goes on to say that He purchased them in order to form them into a kingdom and priests (Revelation 1:5-6; 5:9-10). In the background is the notion that Jesus is the New Adam who restores His people to the calling that Adam forfeited (cf. Romans 5:12-21). Adam was created to be a priestly guardian in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15) and to rule as king by subduing and filling the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). Because of his sin, the sons of Adam fail to fulfil this double calling as God intended. Sinners still serve as priests, but they serve in the shrines of Moloch and at the altars of Baal; fallen humanity still subdues and rules, but only to make a name for themselves and to construct a city on the blood of innocent brothers (cf. Genesis 4:8, 17). The gospel announces that in Christ, sinners are restored to godly worship and godly dominion. By union with the new Melchizedek, the priest-king, we are made kings and priests to God.

Now, children obviously do not fully undertake priestly and royal tasks, but we should see our children as priests and kings in training. This is one of the implications of infant baptism. Through baptism, infants are made members of the church, the royal priesthood. Accordingly, we should encourage our children to "consider themselves" kings and priests (cf. Romans 6:11). This should be an essential part of their "self-image." I frequently tell Emma, my three-year-old daughter, that she is a princess. She giggles and contradicts me, but my older children have learned that I am perfectly serious. "Priests and kings to God" is not a "metaphor" that has nothing to do with who I really am; it is not pretend. If my children are in Christ by baptism, if they are children of their heavenly Father, then they are, literally, "priests and kings." Calling Emma a princess is not a cute fatherly thing to say; it is the utter and sober truth.

In the New Testament, every indicative (a statement of fact) implies an imperative (a command). Paul exhorts his readers by saying, "Be what you are. You are in Christ, you are temples of the Spirit, you are dead to sin and raised to new life; therefore act in accord with this truth." If our children are "kings and priests," we as parents are responsible to train them by teaching, discipline, and example to become mature kings and priests. We are to train them to become what they already are.

This provides a structure for our efforts as parents, but it is too general to be of much practical help. I need to be more specific in answering the question, What does it mean to be a king and priest? The following comments are not a full-fleshed portrait of what it means to be a priest and king. But they are, I trust, more than dry bones.

Priests: Servants to the Lord in His House

We frequently think of priests mainly as altar ministers or as mediators. Both of these are features of priestly ministry, but neither sacrifice nor mediation adequately defines what a priest is. Many people in the Bible offered sacrifice without holding priestly office, and prophets and kings were mediators as much as priests were. Instead, a priest is a minister to the Lord in His house and priestly ministry is a kind of "house-keeping." Exodus 35:19 refers to Aaronís priestly garments, which enabled him to "minister in the holy place" and the garments of his sons, which qualified them for ministry "as priests." The parallel of the two phrasesó"minister in the Holy Place" and "minister as priests"ódefines priestly ministry as serving in the sanctuary of the Lord. In the Old Testament, then, priestly ministry was focused on the tabernacle and later on the temple. These were palaces for the Lord, and the priests were His palace guard and royal retinue. Just as the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar selected Danielís friends to "stand and serve" in his presence (Daniel 1:4-5, 19-20), so the Divine King of kings elected Aaron and his sons to "stand and serve" in His palace (Deuteronomy 10:8; 18:5). After Jesus came, the Lord placed His throne in a new temple, the church. Jesus also destroyed the boundaries between priests and people and between Jew and Gentile, so that the whole church has been made a nation of "housekeepers," the Lordís palace retinue. In the New Testament, the priesthood and the temple are identical; serving in the house means edifying the church (cf. 1 Peter 2:1-10).

But what, exactly does that mean? Several priestly duties can be mentioned here, each of which is relevant to training children.

1. A priest is a guardian of the holy place. According to the New American Standard Bible, Numbers 3:38 says that Aaron and his sons were to "perform the duties of the sanctuary for the obligation of the sons of Israel." Jewish scholar Jacob Milgrom has argued, however, that this convoluted phrase is better translated as "do guard duty" (see Numbers 18:1-5). This fits with the statement that follows in Numbers 3:38: "the stranger who comes near was to be put to death." The Aaronic priests guarded the doorway of the tabernacle and used deadly force to prevent unauthorised laymen from entering the sanctuary. Guard duty was important for the whole nation, for if the sanctuary was defiled by the intrusion of strangers, the Lordís wrath would break out against Israel.

Keeping in mind the difference between the Old Testament house and the New, the same pattern holds in the New Testament. Christians, as priests, are still obligated to guard the gates of Godís temple. In the New Testament situation, however, this means guarding the church from sin by correcting our brothers and sisters, rebuking them, encouraging them in love and good works (e.g., Matthew 18:15-18; Hebrews 3:12-13; 10:23-25). Since each member of the church is also a temple of the Spirit, priestly guarding also involves guarding the "doors" of our eyes, hearts, and minds against intrusions (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:12-20). If we permit sin to get a foothold either in the church or in our hearts, we grieve the Spirit and risk driving Him from His "house" (see 1 Corinthians 5; Revelation 2:5).

Training our children as priests, then, means training them to guard themselves from sin, to avoid and fight against temptation, to prevent defiling influences from entering the "sanctuary" of their hearts. It also means teaching them that they have a responsibility for other Christians. They should learn to rebuke and correct others, whether their brothers and sisters or friends, with firmness, humility, and gentleness. Part of the trick is teaching them to correct one another without being harsh. Another part is teaching them not to be talebearers. To accomplish this, my wife and I insist that our children follow the procedures of Matthew 18:15-18 in dealing with one another. If a child comes with a story about his siblingís sin, our first question is, "Have you talked to him or her about it?" If not, we send him back, and only if they cannot resolve a dispute themselves do we act as "judges" between them. This trains them in the biblical practice of mutual correction.

2. A priest cleans the house. Under the Old Testament system, lay worshipers performed part of the sacrifice, but only priests placed blood on the altar (Leviticus 1:5; 3:2; 4:5-7, 16-18) to cleanse it (see Leviticus 16:19). Milgrom has explained the significance of the blood on the altar by referring to Oscar Wildeís novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the novel, Dorian Gray leads a dissolute and violent life but his body shows no signs of his lifestyle. Instead, the visible effects of his life show up on a portrait of Gray that is stored in his attic. He gets cut on the face during a knife fight, but the scar appears on the portrait, not on Dorianís face. Like Dorian Grayís picture, the tabernacle, which was an architectural model of the nation, registered Israelís sins. Thus, though the worshiper had sinned, blood from the sacrifice was not sprinkled on him but on the altar. Cleansing the altar was counted as cleansing the worshiper.

Jesusí sacrifice was once-for-all, and His blood cleanses the heart and conscience. Yet, since we continue to sin, Christians must also be continually cleansed afresh. According to 1 John 1:9, the Lord "cleanses" us as we confess our sins. Confession and repentance are priestly acts. In training our children as priests, we teach them to confess their sins and forsake them.

3. Priests offer incense on the golden altar. Each morning and evening, Israelís priests entered the Holy Place, the first chamber of the Old Testament sanctuary, to trim the wicks of the lamps and to offer incense on the golden altar (Exodus 30:1-10). Incense is an image of prayer arising before the Lord (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 8:1-5). Thus, in the church, Christian priests offer incense by prayer. Training children as priests means teaching them to pray.

If we are to train our children to pray regularly, we need to be doing so ourselves. For centuries, the church has followed the Old Testament pattern of morning and evening worship (Numbers 28:4), and this is a wise practice for individual Christians as well. Establishing a habit of regular prayer can be difficult but it is essential. A close friendship with another human being requires frequent conversation, and the same is true of our relationship with the Lord. Only if we regularly converse with Himó listening to His word in Scripture and speaking to Him in prayerócan our attachment to Him deepen. In addition to setting aside times for individual prayer, fathers should ensure that the family gathers, preferably daily, for worship and prayer.

Beyond that, let me make a few suggestions about how to teach children to pray. First, when children are very young, parents can pray for them while holding them, while putting them to bed, before feeding them. Infants learn a great deal more in their early years than we sometimes imagine; within a very short time, they learn to walk and talk simply by being around other people who walk and talk. There is no reason to think they cannot learn something about prayer by observing their parents in prayer. By the time children are able to talk, they can be taught to offer brief prayers before meals and at bedtime. My three-year-old daughter prays during our family worship each morning and occasionally takes a turn saying the blessing at meals. At this age, prayers need not be long or complex. A simple thank you or a request is sufficient.

As the children get older, they can learn to pray for specific things, to vary their prayers as necessary, to intercede for friends, for the church, and for the nation. I recently told my older children (from nine years old and up) that they should set aside a few minutes each day specifically for individual prayer and Bible reading, and I hold them accountable to this by asking them a few times a week if they have been praying each day. My goal is to ensure they develop a habit of prayer at a comparatively young age, in the hope that this will continue into their adulthood.

4. Priests sacrifice. As noted above, lay Israelites performed part of the sacrifice, but priests alone placed the sacrificial portions of the animal on the altar (Leviticus 1:8-9; 3:3-5; 4:8-10). This was a key duty of the priests, since no one else was allowed to approach the altar, and even blemished descendants of Aaron were forbidden to offer the "bread of God" (Leviticus 21:16-24). In the New Testament, of course, there is no longer any need for animal sacrifices, since Jesus has shed His blood and offered His flesh to the Father on the cross. Yet, the New Testament speaks of various kinds of sacrifices offered by the church. We offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2), our worship is a sacrifice, and also our good works ascend as memorials to God (Hebrews 13:15-16; 2 Peter 2:5, 9). Christian sacrifice covers the entirety of life, as every task we take up is done to the honour and glory of God, for His satisfaction.

Training our children as priests means training them to live lives of sacrificial service. In the family, children should learn that they must sometimes adjust their own plans and desires for the sake of others. Even very young children can serve at church, setting up chairs or handing out hymnals, and older children can serve by taking care of babies during a Bible study or helping to clean up after a fellowship dinner. Parents should also be alert for opportunities for service in the neighbourhood, especially if there are OAPs or handicapped people who need extra help.

Kings: In Heavenly Places

At the outset, I need to dispel a misconception concerning the Christianís royal status. Some Christians operate on the idea that Christians are not yet kings in any sense, but will become kings only when Jesus returns. Many passages of Scripture teach otherwise. In Daniel 7, the prophet sees one like the "son of man" ascending to the ancient of Days to receive all power and dominion. This is not a "second coming" passage, but predicts Jesusí ascension. Jesus as Last Adam will overcome the four bestial empires of the ancient world, and sit enthroned at the Fatherís right hand. Remarkably, the rule of the "son of man" also involves the rule of the "saints" (Daniel 7:18, 22). Verse 27 is particularly striking: "the sovereignty, dominion, and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him." The situation that results when all "dominion" has been "given to the saints" is called "His kingdom." Jesusí ascension establishes not only His reign but the dominion of His people. Paul certainly saw things that way. In Ephesians 2:6, he says that those who were formerly dead in transgressions and sins have now been exalted into the heavenly places in Christ, and being positioned in the heavens means being enthroned (see Ephesians 1:21-23). Christians are already kings. This is not just a future reality. It is true now.

Kings not only rule but also fight. The fact that we are kings does not mean that we are at rest. Even when he ascended to the throne, David continued to wage war against the Lordís enemies and his own. Jesus is enthroned, but He is also the warrior king who leads His people in conquest. Likewise, we are kings, but we are embattled kings. Being a king means being at war. Training for kingship means having our fingers trained for battle, our hands for war.

Here, I want to examine how Christians are ruling and warring kings in various areas of life.

1. In Christ, we have dominion over sin. As Paul says in Romans 6, we who have been joined to Christ in baptism are no longer subjected to sin. Instead, we have been given the power, through the Spirit, to wage war against the flesh and to subdue it. In James 3, the apostle speaks of dominion over the tongue by comparing it to Adamic dominion over animals. This is a crucial point. Adamís fallen children continued to take dominion, building cities, discovering metallurgy, composing music (Genesis 4), but the result of their dominion was a world filled with violence and evil. Unbelievers may have astonishing cultural dominion, but outside of Christ they are slaves of sin, Satan, and death. Dominion over sin is the kind of dominion that sinners lack, and this is precisely what Christ through His Spirit promises.

Training our children to be kings, then, means first and foremost training them to rule themselves. By instruction, example, and discipline, they learn to control what their tongues say, what their hands do, where their feet walk. They must learn to identify sin and temptation, fight against it, and put their sins to death, with ruthless zeal. Before they learn to govern others, they must learn to govern themselves.

2. Christians rule in families. This is an area of dominion that unbelievers and believers share. Both unbelieving and believing parents rule their homes. But there should be a significant difference in how they rule. Ruling a family as a Christian means ruling it according to the Lordís instruction in Scripture. The Bible has a great deal to say about how fathers and mothers are to rule their homes. It teaches that the husband is the head of the wife, and must love his wife as Christ loves His church. Wives are to submit to husbands as unto the Lord (Ephesians 5:22-33). Fathers and mothers both are to use the word and the rod to train their children in godliness (Proverbs), and Paul warns against provoking children to wrath (Ephesians 6:4). Being a Christian king means ruling your family in obedience to Christ.

Training a child to be a Christian king means training him or her to take up these family responsibilities. Parents should teach their boys what God expects of husbands and fathers, that they will be responsible to lead their homes, that they will be required to raise their children in the ways of godliness. Parents should teach their daughters what God expects of wives and mothers, that God commands them to do their husbands good, and to train their children in the nurture of the Lord. If you have several children, letting the older children care for younger ones gives them experience in ruling a family. When my wife and I go out, we leave one or both of our oldest children in charge of the others. Even if a child is not old enough to care for his younger sibling alone, he can feed a baby, change a diaper, or hold a baby while Mom cooks dinner.

3. Christian kings rule in work. Unbelievers also exercise dominion in the workplace, but, as with the family, Christians will seek to rule in the workplace in obedience to the Lordís commandments. Christian employers, for example, will keep the biblical command to give Sabbath to employees (Exodus 20:8-11) and to provide fair and timely wages (see Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14-15; James 5:4). They will give the Lord His tithe of business profits (Malachi 3:7-12), and will not run their business as if Mammon were god (Matthew 6:24). Christians who are not employees still have a kind of rule in whatever area of responsibility they might have. No matter how menial the labour, it can be done in obedience to Christ and for His glory. Even slaves, as Paul says, should work not to please men but to please Christ (Ephesians 6:5-8).

Training children to be faithful kings means training them in the area of work. They should learn early on that labour is a good that the Lord demands. They should be trained to stick to a task until it is done, and should be disciplined for exhibiting sinful attitudes toward their chores. Parents should seek to discern the childís particular skills and interests, so that they can develop the peculiar gifts the Lord has given them.


According to Exodus 17:16, the Lord declared an inter-generational war against the Amalekites because of their cruelty to Israel when they left Egypt. Though the chief warfare in the New Covenant is carried out with the Spiritual weapon of the gospel (2 Corinthians 10:1-6), our warfare is still waged, as it was in the Old Covenant, from generation to generation. By raising up a new generation of "priests and kings to God," we participate in Christís war of conquest, looking in hope for the day when all His enemies will be placed beneath His feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).

Dr. Peter Leithart lives with his wife Noel and their nine children in Moscow, Idaho. He teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College.