Question: "What does it mean that we are a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9)?"
Answer: In 1 Peter 2:9 Peter makes a remarkable statement that “you are a royal priesthood.” In order to understand what Peter means and whether or not we should understand that we today are a royal priesthood, it is helpful to know who is Peter’s initial audience. Peter addresses his first letter to believers whom he calls “aliens” because they were residing in Gentile lands (1 Peter 1:1). He later calls them “aliens and strangers” and encourages them to “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles” (1 Peter 2:12), so it is evident that Peter is addressing believers in Christ who are Jewish in their ethnicity.
After explaining to his readers that Jesus was the prophesied stone of stumbling and the rock of offense (compare 1 Peter 2:8 with Isaiah 8:14 and Matthew 16:18), Peter reminds his Jewish readers that they are a chosen generation or ethnicity, they are a royal priesthood, they are a holy nation, and they are a people for God’s own possession (1 Peter 2:9). In this way, Peter invokes a series of Old Testament attributions that were said of the nation of Israel.
Peter uses the present tense, reminding the readers that God still has a plan for the Jewish people and that Jewish believers in Christ don’t lose their Jewishness (even though one’s ethnicity has nothing to do with how one becomes righteous—that is always by grace through faith, as Genesis 15:6, Habakkuk 2:4, and Ephesians 2:8–9 illustrate). Peter reminds his readers of God’s purpose in this special selection or choosing, “that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9b). The nation of Israel in the Old Testament had the responsibility to demonstrate the glory of God, and the Jewish people who are believers in Christ in this current age still have that same responsibility. Because of this Peter urges them to keep their “behavior excellent among the Gentiles” so that they may also glorify God (1 Peter 2:12b).
While Peter is writing to Jewish believers, those believers who are not Jewish in their ethnicity might wonder whether they are a royal priesthood, or whether that pertains only to the Jewish people. God introduces the idea of a royal priesthood, describing Israel as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), and later John writes to the churches explaining that we (the church) are a kingdom of priests also (Revelation 1:6). The four living creatures echo this in Revelation 5:9–10, singing that God had redeemed people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and they add that this ethnically diverse multitude is a kingdom of priests (similar to the royal priesthood concept that Peter references). It is important to recognize that the chosen ethnicity and national aspects are not applied to anyone but Jewish people, indicating God’s enduring plan for and chosen-ness of the Jewish people, while it is evident (because of the references in Revelation) that God intends for all those who believe in Him to be a kingdom (as those who will one day rule with Him) and priests (or mediators who introduce people to God).
So, while Peter is addressing Jewish believers specifically in 1 Peter 2:9 when he says, “You are a royal priesthood,” we discover that all believers will one day participate in God’s kingdom that will one day come to earth and that we are all serving as priests in the sense that we are proclaiming God’s excellencies. In that sense, we can say that we are a kind of royal priesthood and, if not that exactly, then certainly a kingdom of priests—priests now, citizens of a kingdom that will one day come to earth (see Colossians 3:1–4).