A Brief Consideration of God’s Kingdom of Priests under Old and New Covenants
1. Old Testament
2. New Testament
4. Entrusted with Teaching God’s Word
As I noted in my comments to North’s Introduction to part 2, both the author and myself differ on whether or not Israel as a nation before God should be considered to have been - and have functioned - as a nation of priests from the inception of the Old Covenant until the institution of the New.
His statement on page 150 that there needed to be
‘...a priesthood for the nation of priests’
seems ridiculous if the nation were in a position of intermediaries that stood between God and mankind (it would mean that the priests needed priests) and Korah’s assertion that the entire nation was holy to the Lord and able to directly approach God as intermediaries (Num 16:3) would be seen to be conclusively ‘proved’ should this be the case - even though God went on to show to the nation that the Levites had been specially chosen to represent the nation before God and no other (Numbers chapter 17).
This web page is intended as a short summary of the Scriptures concerning the Old Covenant and the concept of the ‘kingdom of priests’ - followed through into the New - but I shall go on to apply some of the truth as it appears in the life of Ezra in the Old Testament and the Scriptures in the New.
1. Old Testament
In Ex 19:5-6, God first makes His intention known that He has a special plan and function for His people Israel at the time when the Covenant is about to be made between them. He says
‘Now therefore, if you will obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine, and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’
There seems to be very little doubt but that God intended to cause the nation to be priests who would intercede on behalf of the world and stand as intermediaries between them (the nations) and God. But, in the verse quoted, this intention is still in the future for God says, firstly, that they ‘shall’ be priests not that they ‘are’ priests and, secondly, He makes the national priesthood conditional upon obedience to Him through both His spoken word and through their adherence to the written legislation of the covenant.
Before the covenant was ratified with blood, there are two references to priests which appear as if out of nowhere. Ex 19:22 speaks of the priests who were to come near to the Lord while v.24 of the same chapter reads
‘...do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to YHWH, lest He break out against them’
Both these verses imply that there was already a priesthood that was functioning in Israel but, for lack of additional specific verses, perhaps this is about all we can say? The priests mentioned here, however, are certainly distinct from the people.
It may be correct to propose, though, that this ‘priesthood’ was comprised of the firstborn of the nation, seeing as God made the declaration that the firstborn belonged to Him (Ex 13:2) and, even though Israel were commanded to redeem their firstborn children (Ex 13:15, 34:20), the Levites were proclaimed as being the replacements for the firstborn (Num 3:11-13) implying that these were the people who usually made up the priesthood.
Moving on, we find Aaron and his sons being given the ‘High Priesthood’ in Ex 28:1 - this would seem to be the weight of the passage even though it simply mentions that they were to serve as priests. The subsequent description of their ministry shows us that they were to be ministers that were invested with more authority than the priests who were then serving as priests.
This appears to have been the Lord’s intention for the nation at that time - Aaron and his sons ruling over the firstborn priesthood then in existence. No mention of a national priesthood, the promise of God concerning such still lying somewhere in the future.
But things changed after the disobedience of the people in the incident of the golden calf (Ex 32:1-6). In the ensuing anger of both God (Ex 32:7-10) and Moses (Ex 32:15-29), the priesthood transferred wholly to the tribe of Levi, the Levites. It was the Levites’ zeal for God that ordained them for the priesthood, disregarding their tribal brothers and traversing the camp slaying their brothers, companions and neighbours (about three thousand men), thus averting the pouring out of judgment upon the nation.
In this incident, they’d stood as intermediaries, showing themselves to be more concerned for the ways of God than the ways of the nation. As such, they’d demonstrated to God that they’d be ideal candidates to take the priesthood. Therefore Moses says (Ex 32:29)
‘Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of YHWH, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that He may bestow a blessing upon you this day’
Deut 33:8-11 also recognises that, in this incident, the Levites ordained themselves for the priesthood. Verse 9 tells us that the tribe of Levi
‘...said of his father and mother, “I regard them not”; he disowned his brothers, and ignored his children. For they observed Thy word, and kept Thy covenant’
They had a whole-hearted desire to follow God, so much so that they wouldn’t heed their brothers’ voices but stood up for what God wanted them to do. They counted their relationship with God a thing of worth and held no other relationship to be of the same value.
Therefore, they were raised into the position of priests who would teach Israel God’s law and mediate on behalf of the nation (v.10).
Finally, we find that the High Priesthood was granted to Phineas as a perpetual covenant, again because of a zeal for God as it was in the case of the Levites’ selection (Num 25:6-13). He realised the severity of the Israelites’ sin against God and took steps to resolve the issue.
Zeal for God had won the priesthood for both the Levites and Phineas and it is, perhaps, not going too far to say that, if a person wishes to function in the role of a priest, zeal is a necessary qualifying requirement.
We find, therefore, both a high priesthood (eventually chosen through Phineas) and a Levitical priesthood within the nation of Israel - conspicuous by its absence is the ‘nation’ or ‘kingdom’ of priests that North sees as being, not a future objective of God, but a then-present reality.
We may be going too far to try and see in the Israelites’ disobedience in the matter of the golden calf the reason why the nation didn’t at that time become the kingdom of priests, but that the Lord still planned to cause them to fulfil this intention for their lives is shown in the prophetic passage Is 61:5-6. Here God says through Isaiah to the nation
‘...you shall be called the priests of the Lord, men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God...’
But this was still just a promise until the sealing of the New Covenant.
2. New Testament
Before we look at the Scriptures that refer to believers directly in terms of ‘priests’, there are two references that we need to consider.
Firstly, Titus 2:14 reads that Jesus
‘...gave Himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for Himself a people of His own who are zealous for good deeds’
We saw in the Old Covenant that it was zeal that won both Phineas and the Levites their priesthood and, though it would be going too far to say that believers only receive the priesthood if they’re zealous, this characteristic should mark God’s representative as a person who stands up for what’s right and is concerned to always do what’s right in God’s eyes in each and every circumstance.
Additionally, just as Israel were to be a separate nation set apart from the other nations of the world (Ex 19:6) so, too, the believers of the New Covenant are a nation (I Peter 2:9) but different to that which the Israelites were to become. The Jews were a nation geographically separate from the other nations, but the Church were to be a nation within the nations. Therefore God says of the Messiah (Ps 110:2)
‘...Rule in the midst of your foes’
which causes Jesus’ sovereignty to be universal in origin. The Church are to be a nation divided throughout the existing nations of the world but looking to a different Sovereign than the one that ruled over the area that they geographically lived in. What the Israelites could only experience in a restricted sense (it has been previously noted that the command to attend three annual festivals tied them to the land until the time of reform) has now become universal in its scope and influence.
It appears that God’s intention for the Israelites was to keep them as a geographically separate nation until the time of fulfilment in Christ, when the need to continue worshipping God at a central location would become obsolete and the believers could travel to the four corners of the earth to preach the good news of the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Through God’s sacrifice in Jesus, He’s also caused His followers to become a kingdom of priests - that is, priests who are an integral part of the Kingdom that He’s establishing throughout the world by His followers. It’s not that some believers form a priesthood within the Church but that all the believers are the priesthood in whatever nation that they find themselves in.
Therefore the New Testament speaks of believers as (I Peter 2:5, 2:9, Rev 1:6, 5:9-10)
‘...a holy priesthood...’
‘...a royal priesthood...’
‘...a kingdom of priests...’
‘...a kingdom and priests...’
We noted in the Old Covenant that the Scriptures said of Israel that they ‘shall’ become priests implying a future time when it would come about. In the New Covenant, we find that promise has become a reality. Apart from the first quoted Scripture, the references speak of ‘being’ that priesthood now.
God’s intention for Israel, possibly lost through the disobedience of the nation in the matter of the golden calf, has now been established by the obedience of one man, Jesus Christ.
I want to show here some parallels between the Old and New Testament priesthood and show both how very similar in function they were and yet, at the same time, how very dissimilar. What the Levitical priesthood were entrusted with was a shadow of that new priesthood that would be inaugurated upon Christ’s death and resurrection. These five points are not exhaustive - there are a very great many more parallels and similarities that are in Scripture (for instance, priests as knowing the will of God - Deut 33:8a) but I offer these here as just a handful of instances to show that what the levites thought they had was soon to be shown to be limited in its application by the surpassing worth of the covenant made with believers in the New Testament.
a. Old - Offered animal sacrifices (Deut 33:10)
New - Offer spiritual sacrifices (I Peter 2:15)
b. Old - Taught God’s nation Israel (Deut 33:10)
New - Teach all believers/unbelievers (Mtw 28:20)
c. Old - Mediators between God and Israel (the entire sacrificial system speaks of this - Leviticus chapters 1-7)
New - Mediators between God and mankind (II Cor 5:18-19 on behalf of Jesus as in I Tim 2:5)
d. Old - They sanctified themselves outwardly (II Chr 29:5)
New - They sanctify themselves spiritually/inwardly (I Peter 1:16-17)
e. Old - The priesthood belonged to the Levites by birth
New - The priesthood belongs to all believers by new birth (John 3:3,5 - and the NT Scriptures above)
4. Entrusted with Teaching God’s Word
I want to use just one of the points mentioned in the previous section and go on to look at some application of the truth - firstly in the life of Ezra and then, subsequently, in the life of the Church.
We’ve already seen that the Levites were to be the teachers of Israel in Deut 33:10 where it says concerning them that
‘They shall teach Jacob Thy ordinances, and Israel Thy law...’
This was also true of the High Priest, as the head over the Levitical priesthood (Lev 10:11).
The Levites, then, were entrusted with the teaching of Israel (as can also be seen in Jehoshaphat’s appointment of a group of them to travel the cities of Judah to instruct God’s people in His ways - II Chr 17:7-9). It wasn’t just that they were to teach God’s law but that they were to walk with God in peace and uprightness (Mal 2:6-7) - they were to live out the reality of God’s law in their own lives.
Even though the Pharisees weren’t Levitical priests (by any stretch of the imagination), Jesus charged them with not practising what they were preaching (Mtw 23:2-3) - amongst other things they were doing or not doing. Though they were speaking with the authority of the Mosaic Covenant (Mtw 23:2), they weren’t applying the truth to their own lives as they saw it.
As priests under the New Covenant, we’re entrusted with teaching both what’s right to do and what’s wrong and should be avoided - not only amongst the Church but in the world as and when there’s need to do so (we’re not all teachers but each of us is called upon to guide, instruct, lead and counsel to the varying degrees of our God-given ability). But, more important than our teaching, is the reality of what we say in the life that we live before men and women.
We may proclaim to the world that Christ desires all men and women to love their neighbour, but if we live intentionally at enmity with those around us, our words are meaningless because lives that speak for God must also be prepared to live for God.
The Example of Ezra
Old Testament scribe and priest (Neh 8:1-2)
There’s a pivotal verse of Scripture that summarises Ezra’s aim in life. We read in Ezra 7:10 that
‘...Ezra had set his heart to study the law of YHWH, and to do it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel’
We see here a threefold principal that’s equally applicable today as it was then - a priest should be concerned, first, to learn what the Lord has to say, second, to put what he learns in to practice and, third, to then teach those around him what it was that God required them to do. That is, his words are to match his lifestyle.
If we look at the verse before this, though, we discover that v.10 quoted above is actually a conclusion to the last phrase in 7:9 which states that
‘...the good hand of his God was upon him’
It was Ezra’s attitude (learn-do-teach) that had been the reason for God to have a special place and plan for him. God looks for people in the New Covenant with a similar disposition - people who’ll set themselves to discover what the will of the Lord is, to do it and then to instruct those around them in His ways. God will take hold of people like this and use them for His own special purpose because, by their lifestyle, they show that they believe what they’re taught.
Let’s take a look at these three principles in a bit further detail and try and define them as they apply to us today.
Learn (the inflow)
Theology, memorising verses, doctrines that are in line with Scripture, studying, reading the Scriptures, researching Biblical backgrounds and supplementary information, seeking the Word of God, listening to God, being taught by God - but all in the power of the Holy Spirit and not the legalistic dead letter.
All are alright, all are perfectly sound, but not in themselves because they need to be translated into action by application into the learner’s life.
Do (the assimilation)
Letting God’s teaching become a part of one’s life, meditation on God’s Word so that it becomes a part of one’s whole being, living out God’s Word, demonstrating the reality of God’s Word in and through one’s life, putting into practice the teaching that we receive, putting down one’s own will to follow after God’s.
‘Do’ is one of the smallest words in the English language but upon this short word the effectiveness of our teaching rests. If God’s truly our teacher then, when we’ve been fully taught by Him, we shall be like Him (Luke 6:40). If we learn from man then we shall become like that man, but if we learn from God (through man) then we shall become like and live like Christ.
When God teaches us something, we must put His teaching into practice (Luke 6:46-49, Mtw 7:21), for it’s the doer of His Word that’s justified before God, not the hearer (James 1:22). If it were the hearers of God’s voice who found themselves justified before God then salvation would rest upon being born into the right society, attending the right meetings, going to the right places. But, as it is, only those who act upon what they hear and believe will be justified by faith in the sight of God.
This bleeds over into the entire christian life ‘after the cross’ - we can’t realistically say that we have faith if we don’t do what we believe (James 2:26) because faith is an active word that can’t be static. If we believe something then that belief should demand us do something about it.
Teach (the outflow)
Speaking out the contents of our mind - borne witness to by the reality of the words in our lives.
Counselling, preaching, encouraging, edifying, explaining, guiding, reproving, rebuking, witnessing, evangelising, mediating.
This principle in the life of Ezra summarised as ‘Learn - Do - Teach’ is one that should dictate our lives as we try and live the christian life in the society in which we find ourselves. Learning from God and doing what we hear God say is the means that we use to arrive at the place where we can teach what we have both learnt and are doing, finding that the hand of God is upon us for good.
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