A Chosen Priesthood
A. E. Long, Nutley
In the first two articles of this series it was shown that God chose the Jewish people that they might be a peculiar treasure unto Him above all people, and that He also chose the place, namely, the temple at Jerusalem, in order to centralize their religious life and so prevent the possibility of many idolatrous shrines proliferating throughout Canaan, as had been the case with the nations they had dispossessed. But in their religious life, the Israelites had no direct dealings with God; their approaches to Him were mediated through priests belonging to the tribe of Levi, who were appointed by God. It is not to be inferred that such priests were inherently better than the people they represented, "the law maketh men . . . priests which have infirmity", and they themselves had need to offer sacrifices for their own sins, as well as for the people's sins, Heb. 7. 27, 28. Nonetheless, it was God's arrangement for the time; the Levitical priests were "ordained for men in things pertaining to God", 5. 1.
Doubtless God originally intended the whole nation to be "a kingdom of priests" unto Him, Exod. 19. 6. It was an essential part of the covenant that He made with Israel, the fulfilment of which, however, depended upon their obedience to its terms. This they failed to render and, in breaching the covenant, they forfeited its benefits and privileges. Among these, not the least was that of being, as a nation, "a kingdom of priests" to God. Because of the nation's failure, God therefore chose the tribe of Levi, which in consequence received no inheritance in Canaan as did the other tribes, because "the Lord (was) their inheritance". They were given certain rights in the offerings of those who sacrificed, as their "due", Deut. 18. 1-4. In this context, it was said "the Lord thy God hath chosen (Levi) out of all thy tribes, to stand to minister in the name of the Lord, him and his sons for ever", v. 5. They also acted, with the judges, in a magisterial capacity, in settling disputes and controversies among the people, and their decision was binding upon the parties, "If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment . . being matters of controversy . . . thou shall come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge . . . and enquire; and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment", 17. 8-12; "the priests the sons of Levi . . . them the Lord thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the Lord; and by their word shall every controversy ... be tried", 21. 5. The priests were also responsible for communicating the mind of God to the people, who were to "do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you; as I commanded them", 24. 8;cf. Mai. 2. 7:
The zeal of Phinehas for God's glory, in the execution of judgment upon "Zimri ... a prince of a chief house among the Simeonites" and "Cozbi, the daughter of Zur . . . head over a people, and of a chief house in Midian", in the matter of their immorality, secured to him and to his descendants "the covenant of an everlasting priesthood", Num. 25. 6-18; cf. Mai. 2. 4-6. Nonetheless, the choice of the tribe of Levi and their separation from the other tribes of Israel for the service of the priesthood, was not God's original intention, but an arrangement necessitated by the failure of the people to act in accordance with its privilege of being "a kingdom of priests" unto God.
Although Israel as a nation never measured up to God's ideal for it as "a kingdom of priests", and a priestly caste was instead chosen by God to mediate for them, God did not abandon His original purpose, but revived it centuries later, when the Christian Church assumed the role of being "a kingdom of priests". Peter wrote to and of a new "elect" people, "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father", 1 Pet. 1. 2. They were scattered Christians, whose national origin was incidental, but their Christian faith was fundamental. Peter wrote to them as "coming, as unto a living stone ... Ye also, as lively stones, are ... an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ", 2. 4, 5. Even as they were the new "elect" of God, they were a new "kingdom of priests" unto Him, chosen for that purpose— "a royal priesthood", v. 9. The priestly Levitical caste, having at length proved itself unworthy of its high privileges, Mai. 2. 1 -9, was set aside by God in a priestly capacity, as had the nation before it, and the Christian Church, composed of all true believers, put in that position. John similarly wrote, "Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests (r.v. "a kingdom . . . priests") unto God and the Father", Rev. 1. 5, 6; cf. 5. 10. The book of The Acts records that "a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith", 6. 7. These became "an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices", in common with all other believers in Jerusalem at that time.
It is therefore appropriate that the New Testament should call attention to the kind of "spiritual sacrifices" to be offered by such a priesthood. Unlike the Old Testament sacrifices, they are not blood sacrifices, which effectually ceased when Christ offered a once-for-all sacrifice of Himself on the cross. Paul therefore wrote to the Romans, exhorting "by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service", 12. 1. Such "service" means reverent service; the same word is used to describe "the service of God" and "divine service", Rom. 9. 4; Heb. 9. 1, 6, such as only a priest can render. Paul wrote of himself as "the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering (Greek, heir-ourged - to work as a priest) the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable" Rom. 15. 16. This is a striking metaphor, in which Paul appears as a priest, presenting the believing Gentiles as a sacrifice to God.
Paul also expressed his appreciation of the gift sent by the church at Philippi, when he was in prison at Rome, by the hand of Epaphroditus, describing it as "an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God", Phil. 4. 18; cf. Heb. 13. 16. The writer of the Hebrew letter exhorted, "By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name", 13. 15. "Continually" reminds us of the "continual burnt offerings" of the Old Testament. These are spiritual exercises which fall within the competence of all Christians, acting in their priestly capacity.