A Reformed Biblical Theology of Priesthood
Prepared for Chester Association March 2011
The “priesthood of all believers” an evangelical catchphrase since Luther’s day used to bash RC priesthood.[i]
But a robust biblical-theological understanding of the doctrine?[ii]
How do the dual concepts of kingdom (sovereignty) and cultus (holiness) relate?
A definition of biblical priesthood
The priesthood (in the Bible) is a people called and set apart by God to maintain and guard and mediate to others the conditions necessary for enjoying permanent fellowship with God and divine blessing.
a) Within the framework of Covenant Theology.[iii]
b) Patterns/types/design of a) the sanctuary, b) priestly responsibilities and functions.
- The OT Priests (Aaron + sons) prefigure and find fulfilment in Jesus Christ.
- The OT Levites prefigure and find fulfilment in the Church.
The Divine Sanctuary: 3 levels of graded holiness. A holy dwelling-place for God and his people.
Various expressions: Garden of Eden, tabernacle/temple, Christ (in earth/heaven), the Church and the New Creation.
Nb movement from ‘perishable’ to ‘imperishable’.
Sanctuary closely associated with Sabbath rest (cf Leviticus 19:30).
THE COVENANT OF WORKS/CREATION
Kingly: to rule in God’s image
Priestly: to ‘guard’ (shamar) and ‘serve’ it (abad). Levitical concepts
The World (general)
The Garden sanctuary (specific)
To govern/order and fill the earth
To serve and guard the sanctuary (and redeem the world)
Gen 2 describes a garden with features of a divine sanctuary; precious stones, rivers, trees in abundance, cherubim.
Adam’s job: to ‘serve’ it (abad) and ‘guard’ it (shamar). Levitical concepts used together of Levites in the tabernacle.
Adam’s disobedience results in being ejected and barred from the Tree of Life and the Garden itself.
Cherubim appointed as guardians to execute by sword anyone who enters without authorisation.
Adam must guard God’s word, the sanctuary, and himself. God’s plan to extend the sanctuary over the whole cosmos (cf Rev 21).
THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT
No institutionalised priesthood/sanctuary; cult in embryo form.
Patriarchs build altars, and either pitch a tent (Gen 12-33) or set up stone pillars (Gen 28-Ex 24).
THE MOSAIC COVENANT[iv]
Cult now institutionalised. Israel redeemed for worship on Mt Sinai.
But Israel’s status as a “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation”[v] is forfeited at Golden Calf.
A ‘mobile Eden’; materials of tabernacle (Ex 26) like priestly garments (Ex 28)[vi]: the priest was a ‘walking tabernacle’;
containing Ark of the Covenant and Decalogue, ie the locus of God’s rule.
The Priestly Tribe of Levi
- The name "Levi" (ywIle) given at birth by Leah (Genesis 29:34)[vii] as a pun on the Hebrew word l¹wâ (to ‘join’ or ‘attach’).[viii]
- In Num, the Levites are ‘joined’ to Aaron to assist in tabernacle service. (cf Union with Christ).
- The tribe is characterised by a fighting spirit (Genesis 49:5) = zeal for the LORD.[ix]
- Cf Golden Calf incident when “all the Levites rallied to [Moses]” (Exodus 32:26). Like the cherubim guarding Eden.
- This loyalty and fighting spirit are good qualities for priestly work[x] (cf Christian discipleship in Matt 10:32-39).
A ‘priestly’ tribe; “The Levites [tribe] have no portion among you, for the priesthood of the LORD is their heritage." (Josh 18:7)
Ordination: ceremonial washing in Bronze Sea, + priestly garments.
Aaron and his sons (alone) had unique priestly role:
- to serve at the altar and inside the curtain (Num 18:7);[xi]
- offer sacrifices, burn incense (Num 16:40), mediate for sinners (Num 25:13), bear responsibility for offences against the priesthood (Num 17:1). Plus a teaching role (Deut 31:9-13),esp to distinguish between clean and unclean (Lev 10:8-11).
- The High Priest alone entered the MHP once a year on the Day of Atonement.
- The tribe of Levi not counted in the census (Num 1:47). The Lord is their inheritance (Num 18:8-32).
- In the Israelite camp, the Levites encamped on three adjacent sides of the tabernacle as ‘guards’ (Aaron’s sons on fourth side).
- Transportation duties for tabernacle are delegated and divided among the 3 Levite clans.
UNDER THE MONARCHY
A Golden Age of Israel’s history. Military and political rest from Israel’s enemies; Jerusalem a place of ‘rest’ for the Ark.
Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 7) God promises a ‘house’ (royal line) for David. Solomon builds the temple.
Role of Levites as ‘tent-bearers’ redundant. Levite responsibilities diversified to include:
Music, singing, gatekeepers, supervisors of temple-work, treasurers, distribution of gifts, officials and judges, administrators, caterers, food preparation, purification, prophesying, etc. (1 Chr 9, 23-26, 2 Chr 29) and instructors of God’s word (Neh 8:7f).
Exile: Prophets speak against the sin and failure of the Priests and Levites (cf Mal 1-2, Zech 3).
Temple destroyed (2 Kings 25).
BUT… a new temple (Ezekiel 40-44);[xvi]
Levites will be refined like gold and silver (Malachi 3:3);
Levites “as countless as the stars in the sky” (Jer 33:22);
“foreigners will (lawa) join (or ‘bind’ NIV) themselves to the LORD to serve him (ebed)… all who keep (shamar) the Sabbath” (Isaiah 56).[xvii]
THE NEW COVENANT IN CHRIST
Jesus the true ‘tabernacle’ in flesh (John 1:14) & the true temple in res’n (John 2).[xviii] As Adam in Eden, Jesus is now the sanctuary we’re called to guard and serve to ensure blessings/relationship with God. But not with real swords (cf J’s rebuke in Gethsemane).
He also fulfils the priestly functions of the OT.
- 1. He fulfils the OT role of Aaronic priest
- 2. He fulfils the OT role of the High Priest
- 3. Displays the characteristics of faithful Levites.
THE CHURCH – “on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11)
The Dwelling-place of God
Individually: an earthly tent/body, a heavenly dwelling (oikos/temple) 2Cor 5:1-5.
Corporately: the Church is the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16). “House/household” – building and people.
The Priesthood of All Believers (1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6, 5:10, 7:14-15, 20:6, 22:14)
By faith and baptism in Christ we are ordained into Christ’s priesthood.[xix] Like the OT priesthood, the NT priesthood has two aspects (priestly and Levite):
- 1. We participate in Christ’s priesthood: we serve God offering spiritual (non-bloody) sacrifices and prayer:
a) We offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1-2)
b) We offer spiritual sacrifices pleasing to God (1 Peter 2:5)
c) We offer a sacrifice of thanks and praise (Heb 13:15)
d) We offer good works and share with others (Heb 13:16)
e) We offer the ‘incense’ that is prayer (Rev 8:3)
f) Priestly ministry of proclaiming gospel (Rom 15:16)
g) We receive “food of grace” from spiritual altar (Heb 13:9-10)
2. We fulfil the role of Levite – united/joined to the High Priest to assist in his ministry (with practical works of service).
Based on Levitical ministry (1 Chron 9, 23-26, 2 Chron 29, Neh 8:7f):-
a) Gate-Keepers/Guardians Contending for the faith & guarding doctrine and holiness (Jude 3)
b) Builders Evangelists/ Proclaiming Christ (Eph 4:11, 1 Peter 2:9, cf “enlarging the tent” – Is 54:2)
c) Instructors of God’s Word Bible Teachers (Rom 12:7)
d) Prophesying Preaching/ Prophesying (Rom 12:6)
e) Project Managers/supervisors Christian Leadership (Rom 12:8)
f) Administrators Administration (1 Cor 12:28)
g) Musicians/singers Music and Praise in Worship (1 Peter 2:9)
h) Treasurers, distribution of gifts Treasurers/Practical Service (Eph 4:12)
i) Meal-times (caterers/ food prep) The Lord’s Supper (Fellowship Meal)
Questions for discussion and/or further thought
To what extent does all this enlarge our vision of what NT priesthood is?
Are we serving Christ with due care? Are we guarding the doctrine of Christ? Or letting ‘unclean’ doctrine slip in.
Are we serving the Church with due care? Are we guarding our lives individually and corporately with the same zeal that the Levites did?
To what extent should we adopt/increase the use of cultic language into our corporate life?
[i] Currently, ironically, official RC doctrine explicitly affirms the priesthood of all believers, but adds a three-fold priestly office derived from the OT priesthood.
[ii] Helpful books on the cultus of Israel include Van Gemeren’s Progress of Redemption, W. Dumbrell’s Covenant and Creation, Noel Due’s Made for Worship, and David Peterson’s Engaging With God. Also Greg Beale’s, The Temple and the Church’s Mission where he argues from a thorough exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures that the Garden of Eden was the first (typological) temple. He explores Adam and Eve’s role as that of extending the Garden/temple throughout the whole earth.
[iii] Most Reformed scholars consider this to be the “architectonic principle” of Scripture, the lens through which theology is best understood.
[iv] The Noahic covenant is a renewal of the Covenant of Creation. Noah becomes a ‘new Adam’ whose responsibility it is to have dominion over the earth.
[v] Some scholars maintain (from Judges 17:10) that prior to the Levitical priesthood the father of the family acted as the family priest.
[vi] The sons of Aaron had to wear special garments specified by God “to give them dignity and honour” (Exodus 28:2, 40). These were to be worn “so that they may serve me as priests” says God (Exodus 28:4). The fact that precious stones were attached with the names of the sons of Israel suggests that they represented the sons of Israel when they brought their offerings to God in the tabernacle. A priest also wore a breastpiece, a turban, a tunic, a sash and a headband. Wearing the right clothes was essential for drawing near to God and serving him acceptably (cf Leviticus 16:23-24). And on certain occasions these garments needed to be washed, cf the Levites’ ordination (Numbers 8). Repeatedly, God makes it clear that the priests are to be holy to their God because they present the offering to the LORD by fire. Their special role within Israel gives them a different status. Their holiness is rooted God’s holiness; “Consider them holy, because I the LORD am holy – I who make you holy.” (Lev 12:8, cf 22:15,23, 22:9,16,32).
[vii] Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, "Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons." So he was named Levi. Genesis 29:34
[viii] The word lawa can also be used for military alliances (Psalm 83:8). The TWOT Hebrew Lexicon also states; “As a term referring to conversion [lawa] describes those who, impressed by God's work in restoring his people, will join themselves to the Hebrews in the worship and service of God, i.e. will be spiritually converted (Isa 14:1). Others will join themselves to God as a result of some divine judgment (Zech 2:5; cf. Est 9:27). Such Gentile converts are assured that they will not be separated from God's Covenant (Isa 56:3-6). Someday God's repentant people will (re)join themselves to a true covenant relationship to God (Jer 50:5).”
[ix] When Shechem, a Hivite, rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah, Simeon and Levi respond by attacking their city killing every male (Gen 34:25). Jacob rebukes them fearing recrimination from the surrounding Canaanites, but their answer reveals their zeal for purity and holiness; “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”(Gen 34:31). The rest of the blessing is more a curse than a blessing (“cursed be their anger… I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel”). God takes worldly war-craft and turns it into spiritual war-craft.
[x] This zeal to defend the honour of God as one of the main characteristics of ‘priesthood’ is confirmed in one particular incident when Israel had been joining in worshipping the Baal of Peor (Numbers 25). After Moses tells Israel’s judges to put to death all the men who have joined in the worship, one of the Israelite men brings a Midianite woman to the Tent of Meeting Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, takes a spear and follows the Israelite into the tent and kills them both. The plague then stops. The LORD then says to Moses; 11 "Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honour among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. 12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honour of his God and made atonement for the Israelites." (Numbers 25:10-13).
[xi] God says to Aaron; “only you and your sons may serve as priests in connection with everything at the altar and inside the curtain. I am giving you the service of the priesthood as a gift. Anyone else who comes near the sanctuary [inc Levites] must be put to death.” (Numbers 18:7).
[xii] At the Golden Calf, the covenant was effectively broken. It was so disastrous for Israel that her status as firstborn son was taken from her and given to the Levites instead. The Hebrew word tahat (eg Num 3:12) can mean “in place of”, “instead of”, “under” (ie to succeed [as in royal succession]).
[xiii] “5The LORD said to Moses, 6 "Bring [lit. ‘bring near’] the tribe of Levi and present them to Aaron the priest to assist him. 7 They are to perform duties for him and for the whole community at the Tent of Meeting by doing the work of the tabernacle. 8 They are to take care of all the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting, fulfilling the obligations of the Israelites by doing the work of the tabernacle. 9 Give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are the Israelites who are to be given wholly to him.” (Numbers 3:5-9).
[xiv] This particular distinction between Levites and priests comes into sharp focus in Numbers 16-18, when Moses and Aaron – and the Aaronic priesthood as a whole – face a leadership challenge. The ringleaders are Korah (a Levite), Dathan, Abiram and On, plus 250 Israelites many of whom wielded some clout within the community. Specifically, their issue is with the very concept and authority of the priesthood and a perceived priestly authoritarianism within Israel. So they come to Moses and Aaron and say; “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:3). The budding of Aaron’s staff alone in the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 17) confirms that Aaron and his sons alone are authorised to serve as priests behind the curtain in the Most Holy Place.
[xv] Philip Jenson, NIDOTTE, Vol 2, p773.
[xvi] In Ezekiel 40-44, Ezekiel paints a picture of a glorious new three-tiered temple in Jerusalem. As a type of divine dwelling place there is escalation on previous types. It includes a pavement, many rooms, from its threshold a stream of water flows that grows into a river too wide to cross that irrigates the trees on the banks of the river and flows into the Dead Sea turning the salt water fresh and giving life.
[xvii] “these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer…for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”.
[xviii] We’re familiar with the tabernacle and temple being ‘types’ of Christ. It’s tempting to see the journey of the tabernacle as a type of Jesus’ earthly ministry and Solomon’s temple as a shadow of his exalted heavenly ministry. Thus, his incarnation (cf the Ark gets ‘clothed’ at Sinai), his arrest (cf the Philistine Gentile capture of the Ark), his death (foreshadowed by the gold rats on the cart of the Ark on its return), and his resurrection/ascension (cf the building of the temple).
[xix] Martin Luther says that “Through baptism we have all been ordained as priests.” Luther’s Works Volume 6.