In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Last time we talked about, essentially, the first seven chapters in Leviticus which covers the laws about offerings. The passage we read today introduces the chapters that talks about laws around priesthood. This section contains a few chapters (8-10) beginning with the induction of the Aaronic priesthood and closing with a disturbing scene of the death of Aaron’s sons for offering “unauthorized fire.” You may also notice that a lot of the material found in this section is a repetition of passages from Exodus 29 (also having to do with the consecration of priests).
The priesthood is extremely important throughout the history of Israel as they serve the function of mediating the relationship between the people and God. Primarily, they offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, but they also served generally in the role of facilitating worship (i.e. functions around the tabernacle – later the temple). This involved, as we see in the Law texts, a great deal of preparing and cleansing so that the priests were able to go before God. The consequences of going before God unprepared, in an ‘unholy,’ unconsecrated state, was often death. So, In short, there are a few things that I want to note about priests and priesthood.
Firstly, the main role of the priests had to do with worship, which was centered around offerings and sacrifices, which we talked about last time. And, if you remember, offerings and sacrifices had primarily to do with relationship with God.
This leads us to the second point – that priesthood, then, had a particular relationship to the identity of the nation of Israel. In other words, priests, in some sense, served to remind Israel of the special calling that they had as the people of God. And that call had specifically to do with God’s intention to redeem His creation. It’s not a call to be special for the sake of being special. It’s a call to be special by announcing and demonstrating God’s purposes for the world.
Lastly, this role was something to be taken very seriously. In these verses in Leviticus, we see that the ordination of priests involves a very elaborate process. The priests had to be consecrated, prepared, in order to do the work of God. And if they didn’t take this role seriously, especially as a role given by God and not by human effort, there were consequences.
Now here, I want us to think about what that means beyond the immediate context of what’s happening in Leviticus. By that, I’m speaking about the word to Abram back in Genesis 12:
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Compare that with God’s words to Moses (to the people) at Sinai:
Exodus 19: 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
Finally, let’s look at a couple of passages in the N.T. 1 Peter:
2:9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
9 And they sang a new song [to the Lamb], saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
We spent some time looking at these passages because the notion of a “kingdom of priests,” runs throughout scripture (there are many other passages which say the same thing in a variety of ways). What we could say concerning our passage today, in light of the whole biblical narrative, is that God instituted priests to mediate on behalf of the people of Israel, so that they (Israel) could then act as priests and mediate on behalf of the world. In the light of Jesus, we could say that Jesus Christ is our high priest who, through his blood, mediates on our behalf so that we can mediate on behalf of the whole world.
Now I’m sure that all of this sounds very obvious to most of us. Of course I could have used different words or different frameworks for all of this, but by and large, I assume that I haven’t said anything new or revolutionary to anyone. But I would like to take a moment and consider this in light of some of the things that have been on my mind and heart for the last 20 or so years. Once again, these are reflections, not instructions so I leave it to you and the Holy Spirit to do with them what is appropriate. So, a couple of vignettes:
When I was in youth group, my youth pastor would occasionally take us to the downtown Eastside of Vancouver to evangelize. We would go out in pairs with tracts and sandwiches and talk to people and try to “lead them to Jesus.” At the end of one of those nights, my friend and I encountered a fairly well-to-do couple and tried to evangelize them. The gentleman politely refused and as the couple was walking away, my friend called out, “you can’t save yourself.” At this point, the man turned around and yelled back, “oh yes I can.” And they got into an argument about personal responsibility (it’s one choice to be saved or not) and the woman kindly dragged the man away by the arm.
Many years ago, I used to work in cellular phone sales. I first worked in a small shop, though a very successful one, and all of the employees had a close (workplace) relationship. We had a lot of fun together and I would say that we were pretty good friends (again, workplace friends). My boss was a young guy, only a few years older than me, and he had some pretty weird proclivities (to me). I don’t want to judge, but a lot of the things he would do, both on a personal level and on a business level, were wrong. Nevertheless, we got along really well. Now everyone knew I was a Christian and I didn’t engage in some of the things that the other employees would. So one Christmas – it was the kind of place where we would exchange gifts, and the boss would give everybody a ‘thank you’ gift – one Christmas I got a card from my boss which said, in what was supposed to be a complimentary way, “you make me feel like a bad person.”
When I was in university, I did my undergraduate degree in English and Philosophy. One of my philosophy courses was something like, “the philosophy of religion.” We spent a lot of time talking about the proofs for (or against) the existence of God. We looked at the Ontological Argument, The Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument; we talked about Thomas Aquinas, Kant, Descartes, Anselm; and we talked about ethics – can you have ethics without God? The basic conclusion that I came to was that all of the atheists arguments disproving the existence of God were either faulty or insufficient. You simply cannot prove that God does not exist. But the other conclusion I came to was that, at the same time, you cannot prove that God does (Really quickly, and this is extremely important – all this depends on what you consider proof or how you understand what constitutes proof).
As an addendum to this vignette, while I was in university, I participated in a campus Christian group and I attended a debate on campus between a Christian and an atheist arguing for and against, respectively, the existence of God. In short, in terms of a debate, the Christian handily lost. But reflecting back on this, I realized that, 1) the Christian involved in the debate was just extremely unprepared and unqualified for the level of debate, and 2) I realized that a debate was probably not the best venue to have a genuine discussion about this. At the end of the day, was it helping anyone?
Now I would like to add to these vignettes, a couple of other things that I’ve been thinking about more recently.
Firstly, I am deeply concerned about the level of tribalism in our society today. When I look at the kinds of things I see on the news and in social media, what I see is not people engaged in conversation and dialogue. What I see, it seems to me, is people trying to assert and defend their side by defeating the other. I don’t want to get too deeply into it, and we’ve talked about this before, but what I see is people acting out of fear.
Secondly, I want to refer you to something we’ve been talking about – the question of Christ and Culture. In his book, Creation, Power, and Truth: The Gospel in a World of Cultural Confusion, N.T. Wright suggests that one of the dominant cultural powers, of which the church needs to both be aware and beware, is imperialism. With apologies to Wright (because I’m probably not referencing him adequately), he says that the history of the world, and thus our current cultural situation, is defined and shaped by empire. Whether it is political or economic, empire-making seems to be a dominant paradigm through which people operate. And Wright suggests, I think rightly so, that this empire-making paradigm has been adopted by (primarily) the Western church.
Now what does this have to do with anything, in particular our topic today – priesthood. Here’s what I want to suggest to you. In the bible, there are both priests and kings. There were relationships, that is kings (ideally) relied on priests, but they were distinct. What we see in scripture, especially the Kings and the Chronicles, is that kings were largely concerned with keeping and enlarging borders. A kinder way to say that might be that they were concerned with protecting or expanding the nation. There’s a lot more to be said about this. Not least of which is that in the same way that, now, Jesus is our sole High Priest, Jesus is the only true king. But what I want to suggest to you is this. We are priests. The church of God, the people of God, is a royal priesthood.
So What Now…?
We are not kings and we are not politicians. We are not called to make war and to conquer. At the end of the day, the borders of the kingdom are not our responsibility. Now make no mistake, God has absolutely called us to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” and “…Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”
But we are not imperialists – we are priests. We are “…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are called to mediate, to demonstrate, and to pour out the grace that we have received to all nations, to the whole of creation.
I wish that I had realized that when I was younger. I wish that my old boss had not “felt bad” because of me. But that he would have seen that there is a God who longs to heal his brokenness. I wish that the couple who felt judged and attacked would not have felt judged, lectured, and attacked, but that they could have seen that faith is not a weakness, but a requirement of life. And I wish that I would have understood that it’s not about winning debates, it’s not about changing minds as much as it is about changing hearts. I wish that I had realized that when I was younger – and I wish that I lived that better now.
We are mediators. We are worshippers. We are priests of the living God, declaring the praises, to a broken world, of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.