Christians as Priests
The Word of God teaches that the Christian is not only a child of God, but a priest: “to him who loves us, and has washed us from our sins in his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1: 5, 6). By contrast, the entrenched orthodoxy around us teaches that only a select few are separated apart for occupation with holy things. Conscious of this, many think that being “made … priests to his God and Father” refers exclusively to the future. The expression is quoted twice more in Revelation when it clearly refers to the future (see Rev. 5: 10; 20: 6) but this hardly means that Rev. 1: 6 does not refer to the present. If we are not made priests already, then neither are we washed from our sins in Christ’s blood already. Elsewhere we read that we are a “holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2: 5)—not just some of us, but all of us, and not just one day, but now. Of course, in the passage quoted, Peter is addressing “[the] sojourners of [the] dispersion” (1 Pet. 1: 1)—Jewish believers—and in Judaism it was a great evil even for Korah and his band to seek to be priests, despite being of the tribe of Levi (see Num. 16: 10, 11). This was because in the old order, priesthood was strictly limited to the sons of Aaron. Only they could “come near to Jehovah” (Exod. 19: 22). Peter’s subject, however, is not Judaism but the “living hope” which those to whom he is writing had received “through [the] resurrection of Jesus Christ from among [the] dead” (1 Pet. 1: 3). Consequent upon this, he speaks of “yourselves also” (that is, all, not some) are “being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2: 5). Thus, there is no limitation now in the priesthood. Inevitably, however, the question arises: How has this great change been brought about?
The Way into the Holiest
In the simplest terms, a prophet comes out from God while a priest goes in to God, and it follows that if all are now priests, then there must have been a change of access in order for all to go in. Heb. 9: 8 tells us that “the way of the [holy of] holies has not yet been made manifest while as yet the first tabernacle has [its] standing” (my emphasis). Now “into the first tabernacle the priests enter at all times, accomplishing the services; but into the second, the high priest only, once a year, not without blood, which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people” (vs. 6, 7). Thus, even the priests could not enter the second tabernacle or holy of holies except for the high priest alone on the Day of Atonement. What the sacrifice of Christ has done, however, is to not only make all God’s people priests, but it has enabled every one of them to access the holy of holies at all times—that sanctuary where even the priests could not go, and which the high priest could enter only on one day a year (see Lev. 16: 2, 13). The wonderful truth flowing out of the Gospel is that the Christian has “boldness for entering into the [holy of] holies by the blood of Jesus, the new and living way which he has dedicated for us through the veil, that is, his flesh” (Heb. 10: 19, 20). Therefore, concludes the writer, “[having] a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, sprinkled as to our hearts from a wicked conscience, and washed as to our body with pure water” (vs. 20-22). Any Jew reading of such sprinkling and washing would be carried back in his mind to Exodus 29 and the consecration ritual of the priesthood, and yet, at the same time, recognise that the writer of Hebrews was speaking of believers being constituted priests in a far higher sense than ever Aaron’s family was. It follows that any worship today conducted without assurance as regards access necessarily falls back in character to that which typified the old order.
Of course, the Christian could never go into the sanctuary unless God had first come out. Before the Lord Jesus entered manhood, God had “spoken in many parts and in many ways” (Heb. 1: 1), but the wonderful truth regarding His nature (that He is love—see 1 John 4: 8, 16) had not been declared. God said, “that he would dwell in the thick darkness” (1 Kings 8: 12), and when the Law was given, “Moses drew near to the obscurity where God was” (Exod. 20: 21). However, when Christ died, the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom (see Matt. 27: 51), demonstrating that God had come out in blessing to man, and so declaring His love. Now the temple, as is well-known, was a vessel of display, and its glory could be appreciated by all, even by those who did not enter it. It is fitting, therefore, that the truth of God coming out should be associated with the temple. When we come to the matter of going into the presence of God, however, we find that it is the tabernacle that is taken up, a vessel whose beauty could only be appreciated by those within it. The book of Hebrews deals with the tabernacle not the temple, and its veil is viewed as still in place, and that we enter the holy of holies through it. The “blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10: 19) gives us boldness to enter, while “through the veil, that is, his flesh” (v20) is the way in. We gain access through the Man that died. Not only that, but we also have a “great priest over the house of God” (v21—for it is surely in the company of the risen and glorified Christ that we find ourselves in the holiest of all. Sadly, while the truth of God coming out in blessing in the Gospel is still going out to the whole world, the parallel truth of our going into the divine presence is much obscured by the Judaizing of Christianity. There is great loss when ecclesiastical arrangements are such that the individual believer in Christ is put at a distance and can only think of drawing near to God by proxy.
Christendom and Priesthood
Conscious of the great contrast between what is taught in Scripture and what is accepted as orthodoxy, some have argued that the position of the Assembly is analogous to that of Israel in relation to priesthood—that is, while all Israel had the promise of priesthood, in practice only the family of Aaron could minister in the sanctuary. Hence, it is concluded, the Assembly must also contain a special priestly class of persons that direct, regulate and administer the worship of God on behalf of the rest. The Scripture in question is Exod. 19: 5, 6: “if ye will hearken to my voice indeed and keep my covenant, then shall ye be my own possession out of all the peoples—for all the earth is mine—and ye shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation”. However, what we have here is not analogous to Christianity but in contrast. The promise made to Israel was clearly conditional— ‘if ye will hearken’—and the history of the nation is a painful witness of their failure in that regard. As a nation they never lived up to God’s mind for them, and so the priesthood remained limited in extent. By contrast, in Christianity, all is unconditional. Our priesthood is based, not on our works, but on what Christ has done, hence: “to him who loves us, and has washed us from our sins in his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1: 5, 6). This is not a conditional promise—indeed, it is not a promise at all, but a statement of what has already been done. That is why Peter takes up the verses from Exodus 19 and (addressing Christians) says, “ye [are] a chosen race, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2: 9). He addresses them, not as what they will be, but as what they already are. There is, therefore, no parallel between the division in Israel of people and priests, and Biblical Christianity, and any notion of a special priestly caste today unjustly removes the dignity that belongs to all the people of God as a royal priesthood. The writer of the book of Hebrews may have been in the position of a teacher or a leader, yet he puts himself alongside those he is instructing when he says: “let us approach” (Heb. 10: 22, my emphasis). Sadly, the tendency of the human heart is always to regress, and even where the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is maintained as a doctrine, an unofficial priestly class can become established if, for example, the natural confidence of one brother and the natural reticence of another are allowed to follow their course.
Priests by Sovereign Choice
The reader must not imagine, however, that there are no parallels between the limited priesthood in Israel and the universal priesthood in Christianity, for while the OT Scriptures may not always be for us to replicate, they are certainly “written for our instruction” (Rom. 15: 4, my emphasis). The book of Hebrews takes up much of this OT imagery and compares and contrasts Aaron and Christ our great high priest. However, we also read there of Christians as “many sons” brought “to glory” (Heb. 2: 10) and a connection with “Aaron’s sons” (Lev. 8: 13) seems warranted. It is in Aaron’s sons then that we will find much instruction as to our position as priests.
Now Aaron’s sons were priests by birth—they were priests because they were sons of Aaron. The divine instruction was that “no stranger who is not of the seed of Aaron” could “come near to burn incense before Jehovah” (Num. 16: 40). No interest, talents, wealth, or anything else could procure the office. Later, when some came forward professing to be priests but could not trace their genealogy, they were excluded from the priesthood as polluted (see Neh. 7: 64). Now just as Aaron’s sons were priests of Jehovah by His sovereign choice, so it has pleased God to make us priests to his God and Father (see Rev. 1: 6). It was His act—we had nothing to do with it, and no human arrangement had anything to do with it either.
The unique relationship between Aaron and his sons meant that they were also uniquely associated with him in the service of the sanctuary: “and I will hallow Aaron and his sons, that they may serve me as priests” (Exod. 29: 44). In the same way every believer is brought into real relationship with Christ our great High Priest for “he that sanctifies and those sanctified [are] all of one; for which cause he is not ashamed to call us brethren” (Heb. 2: 11). Furthermore, having liberty to enter the holiest of all, where Christ as Son acts as the “minister of the holy places” (Heb. 8: 2), we “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2: 5). As none but Aaron and his sons had access to the holy place for the service of priesthood, so now all who are priests, and no one else, have liberty to enter the holiest where Christ is. However, there can be no privilege without responsibility, and this leads on to:
Wine and Strong Drink
Besides abstaining from unclean things (which was incumbent on every Israelite) the priests were not to drink wine or strong drink: “And Jehovah spoke to Aaron, saying, Thou shalt not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, and thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tent of meeting, lest ye die—[it is] an everlasting statute throughout your generations, that ye may put difference between the holy and the unholy, and between unclean and clean, and that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which Jehovah hath spoken to them by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 10: 8-11). As exercising their priestly function, the sons of Aaron were to refrain from anything that might stimulate the natural passions, and in the same vein, the Holy Spirit enjoins us to “abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2: 11). Many seem to think that they can be occupied with all kinds of dubious activities during the week, and yet stand in God’s presence in an attitude of worship on the Lord’s Day. It is not possible, “for the mind of the flesh [is] death” (Rom. 8: 6) and such behaviour inevitably results in lethargy and lifelessness as regards the things of God. Indeed, there is a real possibility of presenting “strange fire” (Lev. 10: 1) in attempting to look and sound spiritual for the occasion.
Again, why do some Christians have such difficulty in perceiving what to others is clearly unholy and unclean in God’s sight? Or why is there sometimes such a difference of judgment about evil among many of the Lord’s people? The answer to these questions is plain. There will be no ability to put difference “between the holy and the unholy, and between unclean and clean” (Lev. 10: 10) when the walk is careless and fleshly habits are indulged. Spiritual discernment is a product of habitually being in the presence of God. There is also another reason to avoid what is typified by wine and strong drink—it is in order “that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which Jehovah hath spoken to them by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 10: 11) for “the priest’s lips should keep knowledge” (Mal. 2: 7). People wonder why the quality of teaching has degenerated among the Lord’s people, but at least part of the answer can be found in the indulgence of the ‘harmless’ flesh, and the associated lack of dedication to the Lord’s things. In the same way that strong drink clouds the mental faculty, so spiritual apprehension is hindered by occupation with what ministers to the natural passions. It is a solemn thing when Christians with a rich heritage of sound teaching have become “such as have need of milk, [and] not of solid food” (Heb. 5: 12) and instead of being able to teach others need to be taught the basics again. Such elementary instruction is required because “solid food belongs to full-grown men, who, on account of habit, have their senses exercised for distinguishing both good and evil” (v14, my emphasis).
Elementary instruction includes, of course, the truth of what God has done to fit us to serve in His presence, and for that we must consider:
The Induction of the Priests
Aaron’s sons were qualified to be priests on account of their parentage, but they had to be inducted into the office before they could perform their priestly functions. The amount of preparation necessary was considerable, and this fact may raise serious questions in the mind of the believer as to whether he has fully understood why he was saved—clearly the divine intention is that we were saved to serve, not only before men, but before God—that is, in His presence. Indeed, we are to “offer [the] sacrifice of praise continually to God” (Heb. 13: 15, my emphasis)!
Firstly, “Moses brought Aaron near, and his sons, and bathed them with water” (Lev. 8: 6; see Exod. 29: 4). This answers to John 13 and what the Lord said to Peter: “He that is washed all over needs not to wash save his feet, but is wholly clean” (v10; see 1 Cor. 6: 11). The Christian has a new nature as a result of being “born of water and of spirit” (John 3: 5)—a nature that has different tastes and interests to the old. Without this moral cleansing there can be no entering upon the Christian priesthood—and there can be no moral cleansing without a sovereign action of God in new birth. Anything of man is totally excluded. Therefore, “let us approach with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, sprinkled as to our hearts from a wicked conscience, and washed as to our body with pure water” (Heb. 10: 22). Of course, the priests needed to cleanse themselves thereafter from daily defilement, and so they washed their hands and feet at the laver every time they drew near the altar to minister (see Exod. 30: 19-21)—but their initial washing all over was fundamental. It is the same with the Christian: he needs both “born of water” (John 3: 5) and the daily “washing of water by [the] word” (Eph. 5: 26) if he is to function as a priest.
Secondly, “Moses brought Aaron’s sons near and clothed them with the vests, and girded them with the girdles, and bound the high caps on them, as Jehovah had commanded Moses” (Lev. 8: 13; See Exod. 29: 8, 9). We are not left to guess the significance of this, for we are specifically told that these garments were “for glory and for ornament” (Exod. 28: 40). There is thus a dignity and a splendour that attaches to every Christian as fitted by God to enter His presence. The “linen trousers” (v42) are viewed separately and are there only to ensure that there is nothing to detract from the glory of the high office, and nothing unfitting for the august setting in which the priestly functions are carried out. Thus, on the one hand, there should be no shrinking back from the exercise of our priestly duties as Christians on the grounds of our lack of fitness, and on the other hand, there needs to be a deep awareness in the soul of the holiness and majesty of the One in whose presence we are.
Thirdly, Aaron and his sons were to lay their hands on the head of the bullock of the sin-offering (see Exod. 29: 10-14; Lev. 8: 14-17) and the head of the ram of the burnt offering (see Exod. 29: 15-18; Lev. 8: 18-21). There is not the space to go into detail here, but the laying on of hands speaks of identification with the offering of Christ, both for sin, and as a sweet-smelling savour to God. This was indispensable before there could be any thought of approaching God. Not only must there be “no longer any conscience of sins” (Heb. 10: 2), but also a deep sense of the preciousness to God of the One who “delivered himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour” (Eph. 5: 2).
Lastly, we enter upon a second, more intense phase of the induction into the priesthood, centred on “the second ram, the “ram of consecration” (Lev. 8: 22). The whole of this part of the procedure can be summed up as “thou … shalt anoint them, and consecrate them, and hallow them” (Exod. 28: 41, my emphasis).
The Ram of Consecration
Moses was to bring Aaron’s sons near and put the blood of the ram of consecration “on the tip of their right ear, and on the thumb of their right hand, and on the great toe of their right foot” (Lev. 8: 24; see Exod. 29: 19-21). In this way they were set apart for God and His service, just as Christians are exhorted to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, [which is] your intelligent service” (Rom. 12: 1). The right ear was marked with blood to teach us that we are not to listen to the evil and foolish communications of this world, but to heed what God says in His Word. The blood on the thumb of the right hand is to teach us that we are now to use our strength to work for God, and the blood on the blood on the great toe of the right foot is to show that our walk should be in obedience to Him who left us “a model that ye should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2: 21). This once-for-all action separated them out as Jehovah’s priests forever. Thus, not only are we justified by blood (see Rom. 5: 9), but the Lord also died that “he might sanctify” us “by his own blood” (Heb. 13: 12, my emphasis).
Following this, we have what is called the “consecration-offering” (Lev. 8: 28, my emphasis), that was “waved and heaved up” (Exod. 29: 27) and burned “over the burnt-offering” (Lev. 8: 28). The word consecration literally means the filling of the hands and so we have what was put “into Aaron’s hands, and into his son’s hands” (v27) and waved before Jehovah, and then what was taken “from off their hands” (v28) and offered up on the altar (see Exod. 29: 22-25). Without going into detail, the unleavened cakes, the oiled bread, the wafer, the fat and the right shoulder which were all pressed into the priest’s hands (see Lev. 8: 26, 27) speak in type of Christ. Hence the Holy Spirit gives us impressions of that blessed One which we are then to present to God in the most holy place, in order that their sweet-smelling savour might give Him pleasure. Where do we get these impressions? By spending time in prayerful meditation over God’s Word. It is no excuse to say that there is not time, for we are to redeem the time (see Eph. 5: 16). Furthermore, we must all bring something—otherwise we shall drift into congregationalism and lose the true sense of a worshipping company.
Next Aaron and his sons were anointed. Anointing in the context means to mark out for the office, and has the effect of hallowing or separating to God: “and thou shalt take of the blood that is upon the altar, and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle [it] on Aaron, and on his garments, and on his sons, and on the garments of his sons with him; and he shall be hallowed, and his garments, and his sons, and his sons’ garments with him” (Exod. 29: 21; see Lev. 8: 30). Aaron’s sons being anointed with oil is an unmistakable type of the Christian being anointed with the Holy Spirit, as in 2 Cor. 1: 21: “Now he that establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, [is] God, who also has sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts”. This anointing is our power for service and is what makes the character of priesthood now to be spiritual and holy. We are those who “worship by [the] Spirit of God” (Phil. 3: 3). Note, however, that the oil is accompanied by the blood from off the altar. Aaron, as a type of Christ, had already been anointed by oil alone (see Lev. 8: 12) but Christ’s brethren, as typified by Aaron’s sons, must be sprinkled with blood and oil together in order to serve.
Finally, “Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons, Boil the flesh at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and there eat it and the bread that is in the basket of the consecration-offering, as I commanded, saying, Aaron and his sons shall eat it” (Lev. 8: 31). Thus, the priests were to eat—not merely to look at and talk about, but to handle and receive, so as to derive nourishment, strength, refreshment and comfort, from “the things with which the atonement was made” (Exod. 29: 33). As the Lord Jesus Himself said, “my flesh is truly food and my blood is truly drink” (John 6: 55). Unless we eat, we cannot possibly carry on the high and holy functions of priesthood—we will not be worshippers.
Much more could be said, but few will doubt how feebly Christians have entered the high and holy service of being priests to “his God and Father” (Rev. 1: 6)—the Father of that One of whom it could be said that “in [the] midst of [the] assembly will I sing thy praises” (Heb. 2: 12). Regrettably, so much of what takes the name of the Lord these days is self-centred and man-centred, rather than being Christ-centred and God-centred. It goes without saying that these are matters of the utmost seriousness. Reader, how is it with you?