The Priesthood: A Call To Service
Exodus 28:1; 1 Peter 2:9
Put yourself in an Israelite’s position as you contemplate coming before the Lord to worship. Would you be able to enter into the tabernacle, kill the animal you have brought as a sacrifice, offer its blood upon the altar, and then sit down and enjoy direct communion with God? Definitely not! The Israelite never enjoyed this privilege.
The tabernacle, with all of its beautiful furnishings, was inaccessible and of no benefit to the Israelites apart from the priesthood. Since he was unable to serve in the tabernacle he needed a mediating priest, one who would represent him before God. It was for this purpose that God called Aaron and his sons.
The Concept Of A Priest
The concept of a priesthood did not originate with the nation of Israel. During the patriarchal period the head of each household functioned as a mediating priest on behalf of his family. Job continually offered up burnt offerings for each of his children because he was afraid they might have cursed God in their hearts (Job 1:5). The first tiling that Noah did after leaving the ark was to build an altar and offer, of all the clean beasts that were with him, a burnt offering unto the Lord (Gen. 8:20). Wherever Abraham traveled throughout the land of Canaan he built an altar and offered up sacrifice unto the Lord (Gen. 12:7-8; 13:18; 22:9). Isaac and Jacob likewise erected altars and performed the ministry of a priest before God (Gen. 26:25; 33:20).
The Choice Of A Priesthood
God had delivered the IsraelItes from Egypt and brought them unto Himself, in order that they might be a people for His own possession. It was God’s plan that Israel would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation having direct access to Him (Ex. 19;4-6). Being “priest” meant that each one was entitled to draw near to God in worship. The head of each family and most likely the elder son, would function as a priest, offering up sacrifices on behalf of the household before the Aaronic priesthood had been established (Ex. 24:4-5).
Since Israel was to be a “holy nation of priests , God had given them the responsibility to demonstrate His standard of holiness to a world which had sunken into the depths of sin. But Israel sinned against God breaking the covenant which He had made with them at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:5); thus, they forfeited the privilege of being a nation of priests.
It became necessary for God to institute a priesthood from among the people to represent the nation of Israel before Him. While Moses was on Mount Sinai God said unto him, “And take thou unto thee Aaron, thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office, even Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons” (Ex. 28:1). Thus, God chose the tribe of Levi to function as priests (Num. 3:5-13), confirming His choice by the miraculous budding of Aaron’s rod (Num. 17:8).
The term priest (Heb. Kohen) means “one who officiates”. Like Aaron, the priest was not chosen by the people, nor self-appointed, but divinely called by God, deriving his authority directly from Him (Heb. 5:4). Even Christ our High Priest was commissioned and sent unto this world by appointment and in the authority of God the Father (Jn, 17:18; 20:21; Lk. 4:18).
The priest had to be a man who was able to show compassion (Lit. deal gently) to the ignorant and misguided, for he himself was beset with weaknesses of the flesh (Heb. 5:2). Priests like Caiaphas and Ananias were very cruel during their terms in office and did not exemplify the qualifications demanded for the office they held. If you remember Ananias had Paul struck in the mouth, contrary to the law, for certain statements he made to him (Acts 23: 2-3).
God graciously provided this office so the people, cut off because of their sin, could have access to Him through a mediating priesthood. The high priest interceded for the Israelite by offering up gifts (like incense) and sacrifices for his sins and those of the people (Heb. 5:1, 3).
Those chosen to serve in the priesthood must not have any physical defects. A Levite was rejected for service if he possessed any of the following: body blemishes, blindness, lameness, flat nosed, limbs which were deformed, a broken foot or hand, a hunchback, a dwarf, defective eyes, eczema, scabs, or broken stones (Lev. 21:17-21). Those rejected for service were still provided for, since they had been born Levites (Lev. 21:23).
During our Lord’s day the Sanhedrin sat daily in the “Hall of Polished Stones” and interviewed candidates to see if they were genealogically and physically qualified to be priests. Alfred Edersheim writes: “Certain genealogies were deemed authoritative. Thus, if his father’s name were inscribed in the archives of Jeshana at Zipporim, no further inquiry was made. If he failed to satisfy the court about his perfect legitimacy, the candidate was dressed and veiled in black, and permanently removed. If lie passed the ordeal, inquiry was next made as to any physical defects, of which Maimonides enumerates a hundred and forty that permanently and twenty-two which temporarily disqualified for the exercise of the priestly offices. Persons so disqualified were, however, admitted to menial offices, such as in the wood chamber, and were entitled to Temple support. Those who had stood the twofold test were dressed in white raiment, and their names properly inscribed. To this point allusion is made in Revelation 3:5, “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot his name out of the book of life. . . ” (The Temple, p. 95).
A tithe system was enacted to provide for the priests and their families. The first fruit produced by the people was given to the priests in the form of grain, fruit, wine, oil, flour and a sheep’s fleece (Dt. 18:4). A special tithe was taken every three years and given to the Levites because they had no inheritance in the land of Canaan (Dt 14:28-29). Forty-eight cities were provided within the territories of the tribes for the priests’ habitation (Josh. 21). The firstborn from each family had to be redeemed back by paying five shekels to the priest (Num. 18:16). An unclean beast was redeemed with a set sum which the priesthood determined with a fifth part added to it (Lev. 27:27). The wave breast and right shoulder of a clean beast offered in sacrifice were given to the priests (Num. 18:17-18). A portion of the showbread and sacrifice was given to them for food (Num. 18:8-14). The priests received redemption money for people or things dedicated to the Lord at specific occasions (Lev. 27). A certain percentage of the spoils of war was divided among the Levites (Num. 31:25-47).
Only those who had been divinely chosen by God and were in the Levitical tribe could serve as priests. All others who came near the tabernacle would suffer God’s judgment — some would be put to death (Num. 1:50-51). Korah and all those with him, rebelling against God’s choice of the Levites to be the only priests, were swallowed up by the earth (Num. 16). King Saul intruded into the priest’s office by offering up a burnt offering and suffered the loss of his kingdom and throne (1 Sam. 13:8-14). Uzziah the king was smitten by leprosy when he tried to offer incense in the Temple. He remained a leper until his death (2 Chron. 26:16-21).
The Church As Priesthood
We have seen that under the Mosaic Covenant Israel was called to become a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6). This priesthood was conditional; Israel must be obedient unto the law of God to retain her position — if ye will obey my voice”, said God (Ex. 19:5). Israel failed to obey and her standing as a kingdom of priests was dissolved. Then God chose Aaron and his family to constitute the priesthood and represent the nation of Israel before Him.
When God called the Church into being He unconditionally formed it into a “kingdom of priests” (Rev. 1:6). What Israel failed to obtain as a kingdom of priests under the law. God has freely given to all believers in the Church through His grace.
There are a number of parallels between the Aaronic priesthood and that of the believers. First, Aaron was called into the priesthood. God said unto Moses, “. , . take. . , Aaron,. . . that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office. . .” (Ex. 28:1). The Church has been called to be a kingdom of priests (1 Pet. 2:9). Secondly, under law one must be born into the priesthood. Every Christian becomes a priest on the basis of his or her birthright. By putting trusting faith in Christ, our High Priest, we are born into the family of God as adult sons assuring us of all the rights and privileges which Christ has secured for us (Jn. 1:11-13; Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 3:26; 1 Jn. 3:1-2). Thirdly, Aaron’s sons were secure in their priesthood, not because of their own merit, but on the basis of their father’s appointment as high priest. As bellever-priests we are secure in Christ who promises us that we will never be separated from our priesthood (Jn. 10:27-28; 17:2; Rom. 8:35-39).
Peter reaches back to the Old Testament description of what God desired for the nation of Israel as a kingdom of priests and applies it to the Church in 1 Peter 2:9. First, the priesthood of believers is a “chosen generation (Lit. an elect race). We are a body of believers with a common descent. Our natural background of race and nationality is overshadowed by our new spiritual identity. The Church is a race of called out people to show forth His praise and get glory to His name.
Secondly, the priesthood of believers is a “royal priesthood” (Lit. a kingly priesthood). Our position as believer-priests is far above that of the Aaronic priesthood which never did function in a kingly role. It was formed long before Israel ever had a kingly order. The believer is a “king-priest” through Jesus Christ; not after Aaron, but after the king-priest, Melchizedek.
Since the whole body of believers has been formed into a kingly priesthood, there is no need for an earthly hierarchy of priests to represent the believer before God. By means of His death, Jesus tore away the barrier between God and man which- in the past necessitated a priesthood. We now have direct access to the throne of God (Heb. 10:19-20). There is no human mediator, only Jesus our Lord performs this function (1 Tim. 2:5). We are to call no one our rabbi, father or master, except God the Father and Jesus Christ (Mt. 23:8-10). What an exalted position we possess! Just think, as believer-priests, we have direct access to the throne of God through Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, the priesthood of believers is a “holy nation”. As a nation of believers we are a mixed multitude from every country throughout the world formed into a distinct people with the same identity. This distinct body of believers is a “holy” or “set apart people” and thus are pilgrims and sojourners in the countries where they live (1 Pet. 1:3; 2:11). As holy, distinct people, we are called out to serve the Lord. Thus we should not desire to be like others around us in our attitudes and actions.
Fourthly, the priesthood of believers is a “peculiar people” (Lit. a people of his own). In today’s society “peculiar” means odd or strange, but the Greek word means that each believer is a “unique possession of God”. The Scriptures state clearly that we are not our own but have been “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 7;23), “the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). Like the nation of Israel who was a unique possession of God, so is the believer-priest today.
We have not been brought into this high position as a believer-priest just to enjoy the blessings of our kingship, but we have a ministry to perform. Peter states, “. . . that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). The words “show forth the praises of him” literally mean “to proclaim abroad the excellencies of the Lord.” The excellencies of the Lord are His glorious attributes and gracious acts toward men. We who are king-priests are made lights of His grace and glory and are to walk out of a dark world dispelling the darkness by the light of our lives and testimonies.
The privilege we have been brought into as priests transcends all the expectations we might envision. Ida L. Reed, bedridden for many years because of physical afflictions, was asked, “How can you stay so sweet amid your many trials?” She answered, “Oh, it’s because I belong to the King!” The phrase stuck in her mind, and in 1896 she penned the words:
I belong to the King, I’m a child of His love,
I shall dwell in His palace so fair;
For He tells of its bliss in yon heaven above,
And His children its splendors shall share.
We enjoy a unique privilege that the Israelites were never able to experience. As king-priests we can come into the throne room of God through Jesus Christ and there feast in fellowship on blessings He has for us. Child of the King, as a believer-priest, lift your eyes to the throne of God, and let Him fill your spiritual vision! Isaiah did, and when he saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple”, he heard God say, “. . . who will go for us?” Isaiah responded, “Here am I; send me” (Isa. 6:1,8).
Believer-priest, how are you responding to your high office?