Like the metaphor of the Church as a bride, that of the church as a priesthood has its roots deep in the Old Testament. Subject to Israel’s obedience to the covenant that God made with them, it was His purpose that they should be a kingdom of priests, “if ye will … keep my covenant … ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests”, Exod. 19. 5, 6. The covenant was, therefore, conditional and because Israel failed to observe its conditions, God’s original purpose to make the nation “a kingdom of priests” was abrogated; it was never seen to be true of the nation as a whole. The result of national disobedience to the covenant was that it became concentrated in a family — that of the Levitical priesthood. Aaron was the first high priest to be consecrated into the priestly office with his four sons, to “minister unto” God therein, 28. 1. Amram, Aaron’s father, was the grandson of Levi, 6. 16, 18, 20, the progenitor of the Levitical family. Upon the defection of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, Lev. 10. 1, 2, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, continued to assist him in the priestly office.
Even that limited representation of the people before God failed. In Eli’s lifetime, the priesthood had sunk to an abysmally low level, which brought it into disrepute. Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s two sons, “were sons of Belial; (they) knew not the Lord”, 1 Sam. 2. 12, and engaged in malpractices and immorality in that sacred office, vv. 13-17, 22. Later, God said to Ezekiel, “Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things … and I am profaned among them”, Ezek. 22. 26. Malachi repeated the same sad story of priestly defection, “priests, that despise my name”, Mai. 1. 6. They were in the habit of offering “the blind … lame and sick” in sacrifice, instead of animals “without blemish”, 1. 8, 13.
In the lifetime of the Lord Jesus, the priesthood was seen to be no less corrupt, although scrupulous in details. It was the priests who conspired to put Him to death. He predicted that He would “suffer many things of the … chief priests”, Matt. 16. 21; 20. 18. It was Caiaphas the high priest who callously reasoned with his fellows that “it is expedient … that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not”, John 11. 50, 51.
Nonetheless, God had not abandoned the concept of a priesthood. What Israel as a nation had failed to become, the Christian church has been made. In the Book of Revelation, the redeemed exult in the fact that Christ has made them “a kingdom to be priests unto his God and Father”, Rev. 1. 6 R.V.; cf. 5. 10. No longer would the priesthood be confined to a particular family, but it would be the prerogative of the whole Christian church. Peter, writing to scattered Christians of his day, echoed the same theme, “Ye … are … an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ”, 1 Pet. 2. 5, and “ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession”, v. 9 R.V. Peter’s readers, who were Jews, would have understood such terms from their knowledge of the Old Testament.
Priesthood is, therefore, no longer the prerogative of a special class of persons within the Christian community. The New Testament recognizes no such division as between clergy and laity; such is a reversion to the Old Testament. Priesthood is equally the right of all believers. This truth has, unfortunately, long since gone by default, and still goes by default in Christendom generally, but it remains clear New Testament teaching, notwithstanding.
Priesthood was, and still is, concerned with sacrifice. In the Old Testament, these were mostly animal blood sacrifices, offered upon the brazen altar, Exod. 27. 1-8. A verse of a hymn says
No blood, no altar now,
The sacrifice is o’er;
No flame, no smoke ascends on high,
The lamb is slain no more.
Ceremonially, that is true, since the whole Levitical system has been abrogated in Christ. Nonetheless, as the writer to the Hebrews states, “we have an altar”, Heb. 13. 10. Altar, here, the place of sacrifice, is symbolically used of the cross. The New Testament priesthood has its own sacrifices. These are not animal blood sacrifices, but “spiritual sacrifices”, 1 Pet. 2. 5.
Hebrews 13 mentions two such sacrifices, “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”, v. 15. This may be thought of as corresponding to the “continual burnt offerings” of the Old Testament; cf. Psa. 119. 108; Hos. 14. 2. Another sacrifice is “to do good and to communicate … for with such sacrifices God is well pleased”, Heb. 13. 16. Paul commended the Philippian church for doing this so far as he was concerned, “no church communicated with me … but ye only … ye sent once and again unto my necessity”, Phil. 4. 15, 16. Their gift, whatever it was, Paul described as “an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God”, v. 18. It was all part of their ongoing “fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now”, 1. 5.
But perhaps the greatest sacrifice that we can offer upon that “altar”, since all other sacrifices must flow from it, is that of ourselves, “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service”, Rom. 12. 1. This is what the Macedonian Christians did when they “first gave their own selves to the Lord”, 2 Cor. 8. 5, which enabled them to give so generously out of “their deep poverty”, vv. 2-4.
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