All four of these are biblical concepts. Who are these people? According to the Bible, what is their function? What did/do they do? Let us take a look at each of these four “P” words.
Prophets – These were men or women who received direct messages from the Holy Spirit and then communicated those revelations to humans (2 Peter 1:20,21). They served as God’s mouthpiece/ spokesperson, speaking in place of God to humans. God told Moses that Aaron “shall be your spokesman to the people. And he himself shall be as a mouth for you . . .” (Exodus 4:16). God further told Moses, “. . . Aaron your brother shall be your prophet” (Exodus 7:1). So, Aaron served as Moses’ prophet, meaning that he was his mouthpiece.
There were prophets before the time that the nation of Israel was formed (Abraham, Genesis 20:7), there were prophets during the days when the law of Moses was in effect (David, 2 Samuel 23:1,2), and there were prophets in the early church (Agabus, Acts 21:10). Note this statement about the function of prophets in the first-century church: “But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men” (1 Corinthians 14:3). There are no genuine prophets of Jehovah living on the earth today. Since the complete revelation of God has been given in the Bible, there is no longer a need for inspired, living messengers.
Pastors – The word “pastor” simply means a shepherd. In the Old Testament era, leaders of the nation of Israel were designated as “pastors” or “shepherds.” Concerning the ungodly leaders during the days of Jeremiah, God said, “Woe to the shepherds [‘pastors,’ KJV] who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture” (Jeremiah 23:1).
Did you realize that in our English Bibles, in the New Testament the word “pastor” is used only one time? It is true. “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). The word “ποιμήν/poimēn” refers to a shepherd/pastor – he could be a literal shepherd of a literal flock of sheep, or one might serve as a shepherd in a spiritual sense.
A pastor in the church is one whose responsibility is to shepherd the flock of God. What we learn from 1 Peter 5:1,2 is that those who are given the charge to “shepherd the flock of God” are called “elders.” From Acts 20:17,28, we further learn that those who are responsible for shepherding the flock of God are called “overseers.” Conclusion: in God’s plan, those who function as pastors are the same people who are called “overseers/bishops” or “elders” of the church. By God’s decree, only certain male members of the church may serve as pastors/ elders, and the required qualifications are set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 5:1-3.
Preachers – In its general usage, the Greek word “κήρυξ/kērux” referred to “a herald or messenger vested with public authority” [Thayer, word no. 2783 via e-Sword]. In the New Testament, a “preacher” is one who proclaims the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Paul fit into that category, stating that Jesus brought life and immortality to light “through the gospel, to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles” (2 Timothy 1:10,11).
The role of a gospel preacher is to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). In that context, we also read about doing “the work of an evangelist” (4:5). An evangelist is one who proclaims the good news (of salvation through Jesus). Thus, in the Bible, a gospel preacher and evangelist are one and the same. A preacher of God’s word is not the same as a pastor. Pastors rule over and shepherd a local church, while preachers’ role is to proclaim the word. Preachers do not have the authority to rule over a local congregation. If we are going to speak as the oracles of God, we will not call our preachers “Pastor ___.”
Priests – Under the law of Moses, those who served as priests in Israel were males from the tribe of Levi (Deuteronomy 18:1). Specifically, the priests among the Israelites had to come from the family/descendants of Aaron, who was the nation’s first high priest. In addition to serving at the altar and leading the people in worship to God, the Levitical priests also were responsible for teaching the law of God to His people (Leviticus 10:8,11).
Under the new covenant, God’s children are not divided into “priests” and “non-priests.” Each Christian is part of the priesthood that is called “holy” and “royal” (1 Peter 2:5,9). We offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus (1 Peter 2:5). Among today’s Christians, none of us is a prophet. A few are gospel preachers. Probably less are pastors. But, each one of us is a priest of God.
— Roger D. Campbell