Priesthood – it is a crucial concept for Christians to understand. It is 100% relevant to the day-to-day identity of believers. Modern American Evangelicals, however, with their woefully inadequate understanding of the Old Testament, are largely missing out.
Priests in the Old Testament
In Exodus 19, God called Israel a “kingdom of priests” (verse 6). Yet in that very same chapter, six verses later, God declared that whoever dared to touch even the mountain on which his presence had descended would be put to death (verse 12). Clearly: God is holy. At Sinai, Moses interceded for the people (although even Moses was not permitted to see God directly). Throughout the history of Israel, priests performed the ongoing role of intercessor between the holy Yahweh and the unholy Israelites. God set apart Aaron, Moses’ brother, and his descendants, to be Israel’s priests. To be a priest meant to be a full-time servant of the covenant, a mediator between the people and God. The author of Chronicles gives a summary of the priesthood:
Aaron was set apart to dedicate the most holy things, that he and his sons forever should make offerings before the LORD and minister to him and pronounce blessings in his name forever. 1 Chronicles 23:13
The priests had more of this one thing than anyone else in Israel: access to God’s presence. The law allowed them to enter further into the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) than anyone else. It set them up as the ones to whom Israel turned when they wanted to “inquire of the LORD.” The law considered them holy in a unique way. However, while the priests had access, that access was limited. Only the high priest, one day a year, could enter the “Most Holy Place” in the Tabernacle/Temple where the Ark of the Covenant resided, and to do so required even more sacrifices than usual: an entire bull just for the sins of high priest.
Leviticus 8 records the ordination of Aaron and his sons. I encourage you to read it. You’ll soon notice, it was very bloody. Moses must have been covered nearly head to foot in animal blood by the end of it. You’ll also notice the repetition of the word “consecrate.” Consecration meant setting apart someone or something specifically for God and his purposes.
If one were to summarize the Old Testament priesthood with two words, those might be it: bloody, and consecrated.
Priesthood under the New Covenant
The concept of a priesthood still exists in the New Testament – and it’s amazing.
Peter writes in 1 Peter 2: “As you come to [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” A few verses later, echoing back to that crucial passage in Exodus 19, he says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
John calls us priests too: “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” (Revelation 1:5-6). He says we will praise Jesus forever because he ransomed us to be priests: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).
Our lives our bloody and consecrated, too. This is who you are, Christian: set apart to be holy, to give blessings in the name of Jesus forever, to bring unholy people to God, covered from head to foot by the all-sufficient once-for-all sacrificial blood of Christ.
We offer sacrifices, too. Not dead sheep and goats, but living sacrifices of:
- thanksgiving (Psalm 50:14)
- broken and contrite spirits (Psalm 51:17)
- prayer (Psalm 141:2)
- our bodies (Romans 12:1)
- gifts (Philippians 4:18)
- praise (Hebrews 13:15)
- doing good and sharing what we have (Hebrews 13:16)
- love (Ephesians 5:2)
Jesus the High Priest
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. Hebrews 10:11-14
The book of Hebrews calls Jesus our “High Priest.” Christ himself fulfills everything the Old Testament priesthood foreshadowed: he is our mediator, the only one capable of bridging the holiness-gap between God and humans (1 Timothy 2:5); he is our intercessor, even now praying for us in the throne room of heaven (Romans 8:34); he himself is even the sacrifice for our sins. He is the priest, and he is the lamb on the altar.
It is for this reason that the curtain in the Temple was torn, from top to bottom, when Christ died. His torn body now opens access to all who will come; no more priests, no more sacrifices, no more warnings to stay away from the mountain are necessary. The invitation is for all who are far off to come and know God as your Father through the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
The priestly blessing
In Numbers 6, God gave Aaron the high priest a special blessing to pronounce on all the Israelites for all generations. Here, then, your High Priest’s blessing on you today, believer:
The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-25