Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Priests Are In The Pews

The concept of priesthood did not originate with the Bible. That may be where most of us first encounter priests, but priesthood has existed in many other cultures throughout history.

Canaanite culture, for instance.

Abram met Melchizedek, king of Salem (later called Jerusalem). Melchizedek was not only a priest; he was also likely a citizen of one of the nations that several hundred years later God would instruct Israel to exterminate from the face of the earth. That’s unless Chazalic literature is correct in asserting that Melchizedek was actually a nickname for Shem, son of Noah, who we know outlived Abram. We have no scriptural evidence Shem was Melchizedek, but his exceptional age would certainly explain the respect Abram extended to the “first priest”.

And this is the very first reference to a priest in scripture.

There was no known law or command from God to legitimize Melchizedek’s standing in the way that the law of Moses later legitimized the priesthood of Aaron. Still, we read that Melchizedek was a “priest of the most high God”, and Abram acknowledged that. Not only did Abram accept Melchizedek’s blessing, but Abram gave him a tenth of everything. We are not told where the patriarch got the idea that was appropriate, but evidently he had it right.

What Is A Priest?

Now of course a priest back then was not at all like the so-called “priests” we find in Christendom today. For starters, celibacy was not required. Both Joseph and Moses married daughters of priests.

It has been said many times that a priest represents man before God. Under the law of Moses, priests did this by offering to God the sacrifices that law prescribed. But that was far from the only thing a priest did in Israel. A priest diagnosed disease. He made legal decisions. He discerned the will of God by means of Urim and Thummim, or sacred lot. He communicated truth to the people. Malachi says, “The lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts”.

“The messenger of the Lord of hosts.” Whew. That’s a tall order. We should not be surprised that the priesthood in Israel largely failed to live up to its calling.

Israel, the Light to the Gentiles

But God did not merely intend his earthly people to have priests, though they certainly did. In a larger sense, he wanted them all to be priests. This was God’s original commission to Israel at Mount Sinai:
“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Of course, no Israelite was morally equipped to offer sacrifices on behalf of the world, but every Israelite was in some measure equipped to guard knowledge and provide instruction, if only by example. As a nation, Israel was to be a light to the world, a testimony to the one true God. This is exactly what Moses told them:
“See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ ”
Being a testimony was a priestly function. Obedience to the commands of God would have made Israel an example to the world, exceptional among the nations. In this sense, Israel was a nation of priests despite its many failings.

The Other Nation of Priests

If it was God’s intent for his earthly people to be a kingdom of priests, how much more is it his purpose for his heavenly people? This is stated for us three times in the New Testament:
  • “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”
  • “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”
  • “You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Thus all believers in Jesus Christ are priests too.

Examining the Differences

Israel’s “kingdom of priests” still required mediators. The people could not approach God directly. These priests needed priests of their own to present their individual sacrifices to God and to represent the nation before him. Knowing this, we might picture believers in Jesus Christ as priests in this same, rather secondary way that all Israelites were said to be priests. 

But this could not be further from the truth.

Sacrificial offerings under the law of Moses ended with the death of Jesus Christ. As Paul said, “Christ is the end [or culmination] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes”. Or again in Hebrews, “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified”. The practical holiness of Christians may be an ongoing project, but our status with God is established once and for all on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, his resurrection being the proof of it. When Jesus died, the veil in the temple was supernaturally torn in two, signifying, among other things, that God no longer requires merely human mediators when men and women approach him.

The priests no longer need priests, other than our Great High Priest.

Priests Without Intermediaries

Unlike Judaism, in Christian theology there is no division between clergy and laity. All believers are priests.

And all functions of the priesthood are open to believers today, not only the priestly function of testimony, but the functions of diagnosing spiritual disease, discerning the will of God, passing judgment and even offering spiritual sacrifices.

Priests, Priests Everywhere

In New Testament Christianity, the priests are in the pews … and not just there, but everywhere. In homes in small groups; or testifying on the streets, in coffee shops or across the backyard fence, sharing the good news with the world; or ministering to one another in small ways and large during the week, not just on Sundays; or being salt and light in a world that seems to get worse every day; or reading and discerning the truth of God for themselves rather than asking, “What does your pastor say?”

Or at least we ought to be.

Have you acted in your priestly role this week?

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