[nextpage title=”introduction” ]
(1) In the third month of the departure of the sons of Israel from the land of Egypt, on that day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai, (2) they set out from Rephidim and came to the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped in the wilderness. Israel camped there in front of the mountain. (3) Moses went up to God, and the LORD called out to him from the mountain saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and relate to the sons of Israel: (4) ‘You yourselves saw what I did to Egypt: I lifted you up on the wings of eagles and I brought you to me. (5) Now, therefore, if you will listen carefully to my voice and keep my covenant, then you will be to me a special treasure among all the people groups, for all the earth is mine. (6) But you – you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you will say to the sons of Israel.”
Last week’s text from Isaiah 61 depicted a Messiah who would bind up the brokenhearted and raise up those who mourn in Zion. He would bit by bit lift them up out of their mourning and replace their sackcloth and ashes with a turban of joy and a robe of vigorous praise. That in itself is a beautiful image, but it does not stop there. There is an outward benefit of their inward healing. This healing and re-invigorating work of the Messiah leads the people to rebuild the areas that had been ruined and desolate. Moreover, the people the Messiah heals are publicly acknowledged as blessed of God. They are prosperous, and in their prosperity they employ the people of the world as their shepherds and farm workers. Then in verse six it says, “As for you, you will be called priests of the LORD; ‘Ministers of our God’, it will be said of you.” This is the detail I would like to focus a lot of attention on today, particularly when it is read in juxtaposition with today’s reading in Exodus 19:1-6.
- So in reading Exodus 19 and Isaiah 61, the questions that arise in my mind are these:
- What does it mean to be a kingdom of priests?
- Why a kingdom of priests, rather than a kingdom of kings?
- If the point is ruling the world, subduing all things not Israel and imposing Israelite mastery on the world, why this image?
- And why is this image picked back up in Isaiah 61:6? Are there other more subtle points of contact between Isaiah 61 and Exodus 19?
- What is God’s vision for Israel, and what place does Israel have within God’s world?
- How is this vision carried over and developed in Christianity?
- Finally, what does all this have to do with communion?[/nextpage]
[nextpage title=”Exodus 19″ ]
God’s Original Intention For Israel
First of all, let us look at Exodus 19 in a little more detail. The whole book of Exodus kind of divides into two parts. Chapters 1-18 tell the story of God bringing Israel out from Egypt to Sinai. Chapters 19-40 relate the institution of God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai. In terms of literary genre, the proportion of law to narrative increases significantly from chapter 19 on. The way God addresses Israel through Moses in chapter 19 is actually a standard covenant initiation form. It is well known legal ritual. In other words, God begins making a contract with Israel in chapter 19.
What are the terms of that contract? What are the obligations of the two sides, and what are the benefits? God begins by telling Moses to remind the Israelites of what they have seen him do: they themselves have seen his power and his favor towards them in bringing them out from Egypt in a dramatic fashion. He has lifted Israel up on eagle’s wings and brought them to himself. The purpose of this reminder is, in my opinion, not so much to fill Israel with a sense of obligation, as in, “I brought you out of Egypt, so now you owe me.” Rather, it is so that they will have in mind the benefits of serving the LORD when he begins setting forth the terms of their relationship. This is a good deal they are getting. Prior to this, they had been slaves in a land not their own with no military power and no real national identity other than some common ancestral traditions. Now, out of the blue, not because of anything they had done or any virtue they possessed, this God, who is so powerful he can bring one of the most powerful nations on the earth to its knees, says “I want you all as my own special possession. In exchange for obeying my commands, you will get my special favor and protection.” Israel would be God’s special possession.
Not a Typical “National God” Relationship
It is important to understand that this is not simply the institution of a “national god” relationship, in other words that Yahweh was now going to become Israel’s national god and Israel was going to become Yahweh’s exclusive nation. This is what one might expect, considering the nature of ancient Near Eastern religion and politics. In Assyria, the national god was Asshur. All other gods were acknowledged to exist, but Asshur was the king of all the gods, and the evidence for this (at the time) was that Assyria was the dominant nation in the world. Their political and military dominance was both the result of Asshur’s dominance in the realm of the gods as well as the proof of that dominance. The same is true of Marduk and Babylon. Whatever city-state happened to be dominant at the time, their local state deity had bragging rights among the gods of all the nations of the world.
What is really interesting about Yahweh, the God of Israel, is that we have little to no clear evidence even of the existence of the concept of Yahweh outside of Israel, let alone the worship of him as a national or local deity somewhere. This might mean that Exodus 19 could be interpreted as Yahweh claiming Israel as his nation, as opposed to Asshur in Assyria or Marduk in Babylon, because he previously had not had one. He was a deity without a nation to worship him.
But that is not what Exodus 19:5 says. The relationship between Yahweh and Israel is not the same as the relationship between Asshur and Assyria. Israel is not simply Yahweh’s unique nation and means whereby his strength relative to other deities is worked out in politics and warfare. All the world belongs to him. There is no competition with other deities. It is implied here and elsewhere in Exodus, if not stated, that no other gods truly exist, at least not as “gods” in the fullest sense. All the world belongs to Yahweh and him alone. But of all the world, when he could have claimed any nation as his own, he chose as his special possession (not exclusive possession) a people group who were on the verge of total extinction without his help.
Implied in their new status as Yahweh’s “special treasure” is also Yahweh’s bestowal upon them of a special purpose. Asshur owned Assyria, and the purpose of it was to show his glory by world dominance, whether commercially, politically, or militarily. But Yahweh’s purpose is very different from this. “But you – you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” God’s purpose for Israel was to make them a kingdom of priests and to make them holy.
This idea is not something I have encountered in texts from anywhere else in the ancient Near East. Priesthoods were only a segment of a given nation’s society, albeit an extremely important one. The various priesthoods were the means whereby a nation maintained a good relationship with the gods, especially the supreme national deity, so that their commercial, political, and military dominance in the mundane realm could continue. But in no society I have encountered was it even considered that everyone could be priests, that all of society could be a priesthood. But that is precisely what God is talking about here. The nation of Israel as a whole was to be one giant priesthood. But what it could possibly mean for an entire nation to be a priesthood. What is a priesthood for? What does it do? For whom does it do it?
What Do Priests Do?
In short, priests are mediators. They stand between the realm of the gods and the realm of humanity and they represent the one to the other and vice versa. The blessings and teachings of the gods are mediated to a people group by their priests, and the obedience of the people to the gods is accomplished in large part through the priests with their daily rituals and sacrifices. Priesthoods do not really exist for their own sake. The benefits of properly and carefully observing the worship of a deity are thought to extend well beyond the priesthood to all segments of society.
So if all of Israel were to be a nation of priests, that means that they were intended to be mediators between Yahweh and … who? To whom were they intended to mediate the blessings and teachings of Yahweh? I see no other way answer to this question than the nations of the world. Israel was to be specially appointed by God to stand between God and the world, to represent the world to God and God to the world. This is why they were to be a holy nation, a nation unlike any other that was wholly dedicated to God’s service, whereas in other nations only a segment of society were priestly mediators.
So from the very beginning, God’s intention for Israel was not that it pursue political and military purposes the way the other nations did. God never intended Israel to be the empire that ruled the whole world. If he did, the “kingdom of priests” image certainly does not communicate that. One would expect, rather: “But you – you will be to me a kingdom of kings, a mighty nation.” Ideally, a priesthood exists to serve God and men, not to conquer and rule.
This means that the scope of God’s purpose for Israel was never simply Israel itself. In the background at all points in Israelite history was God’s intention to save the whole world, not just Israel. But before Israel could be that to the world, they needed to be shaped and trained, not least because they do not for the most part appear to have grasped God’s true intention for them. This is why we do not see a whole lot of this idea in the rest of the Pentateuch or even in the entire Old Testament. Psalm 110, which is another one of those royal Psalms that communicate Israelite royal ideology more than any historical reality, does suggest that the ideal king of Israel is a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek”. But while this passage may be compatible with Exodus 19, it is not really reflecting any idea of Israel’s purpose as a whole. It is exalting Israel’s king.[/nextpage]
[nextpage title=”Isaiah 61″ ]
The Recovery of Israel’s Purpose Through the Messiah
A New Messianic Covenant in Isaiah 61
The one main exception to the otherwise total lack of any repetition in the Old Testament of the “kingdom of priests” idea from Exodus 19 is Isaiah 61:6.
As for you, you will be called priests of Yahweh; “ministers of our God”, it will be said of you.
In Isaiah 61, Israel has come a long way since Exodus 19. They have wandered in the wilderness for 40, they have had a more or less successful conquest of vast swaths of land in the Promised Land, they have engaged repeatedly in apostasy, as a result of this apostasy they have suffered oppression from numerous people groups, they have rejected God’s original political and received from God a royal dynasty, they have experienced civil war, they have been conquered and scattered to the ends of the earth as retribution for their continued apostasy, and finally God has had mercy on them and brought them back to the land. But everything is not as it was. They occupy a fraction of the land they once occupied, and even that land lies in ruins. There is little to no central government, and they are almost as far from the kind of international significance they were meant for as they have ever been. But it is now, when Israel is at their lowest point, that they appear at last ready to recover God’s expressed purpose in Exodus 19.
In fact, the connections between Exodus 19 and Isaiah 61 are more significant than it might at first appear. In Exodus 19, the people have just been brought out of slavery in Egypt by God’s miraculous intervention. Now they find themselves in a wilderness, still lacking in any national identity to speak of, having virtually no political or military power. They are a people whom God has lifted up from their mourning in sackcloth and ashes, and now he is bit by bit dressing them in glory and strength. The context in Isaiah 61 is strikingly similar, with the return from the Babylonian Captivity being thought of as a second Exodus, and in many respects, it was as significant for Israelite history as the original Exodus. Certainly, captivity and return is a literary theme as important to Christian theology as the Exodus.
In fact, I would argue that given the similarities between Exodus 19 and Isaiah 61, what we are seeing in Isaiah 61 is the institution of a new covenant, mediated not by a prophet like Moses but by a Messiah, a combination of Israel’s prophetic and kingly ideals, and one who is difficult in the final examination to separate entirely from God himself. The things that the Messiah in Isaiah 61 is doing is not the kind of thing that Moses would be credited with doing. Rather, it is Yahweh himself in Exodus who has lifted the people up on eagle’s wings. It is Yahweh who is cleaning them up, binding up their brokenheartedness, and dressing them in praise and strength. So not only is the Messiah in Isaiah 61 instituting a new covenant, he is clearly something unprecedented in Israelite history, a Spirit-inspired leader who is so in tune with God’s will that his actions and God’s actions are indistinguishable.
A People Broken and Ready to be Priests to the World
The people with whom the Messiah institutes this new covenant in Isaiah 61, the people whom he comforts and strengthens, are an utterly broken people. But this brokenness has a purpose. It was only when the people of Israel were utterly broken and had come to the end of their own devices that they were prepared to revisit their original destiny as priests to the world. Throughout their history, Israel had pursued worldly goals with worldly methods based on worldly assumptions. Those goals, methods, and assumptions ended up leading nowhere, because they were not what God had intended for Israel. But now they are prepared to become priests of Yahweh, ministers of “our God.”
This little detail, the fact that it says “our God” escaped me when I read this passage last week. Who is it that says “our God” in verse 6? Who is the one speaking this? I think it is pretty clear that these are the foreigners and strangers, the nations of the world, who are now working as shepherds for the Messianic community’s flocks and farmers for their farms. It is, in other words, non-Israelites who say, “our God.” What does this mean?
I think this is another point of contact between Isaiah 61 and Exodus 19. In Exodus 19:5, God says, “for all the earth belongs to me”, meaning that when Israel are to be a nation of priests, they are to represent “all the earth”, meaning the nations, the Gentiles, to God and vice versa. In Isaiah 61, we also see that Yahweh is the God of all the earth (whether all the earth confesses that or not). So he is the God of the nations, whether they like it or not. The vision for the Messianic community is to be the conduit through whom God’s instructions and blessings become known to the world. The wealth nations they are said to consume in the second part of Isaiah 61:6 is, essentially, the support of the nations for their priests, whether it is given willingly or not. The Messianic community is entitled to this wealth because they are the priests of Yahweh to the world.
Alright, so specifically what does it mean to be priests to the world? As royal priesthood to the nations, the Messianic community teaches the nations how to act, how to think, how to obey God, who God is and what he desires from humanity. It teaches them how to live in peace, love, and joy with each other. It instructs them in the ways of wisdom, teaching them what sorts of things really matter. It also intercedes for the world. It prays for God’s mercy and blessing. It repents on behalf of the nations. It prays for justice to be done, and it proclaims to the world what justice really is. It is also a conduit for God’s blessing. The Messianic community experiences overflowing blessing from heaven, and it inevitably splashes over onto those around them. You want to be around the Messianic priests of Yahweh, because that is a place of blessing.
The Followers of Jesus Are This Kingdom of Priests
As I have said before, but I have not really made it clear today, this Messianic community is us, the followers of Jesus. As the New Testament writers clearly understood, it is we who are the kingdom of priests, the royal priesthood to the world. We see the theme picked up Romans, in 15:16, for example, where Paul describes himself as
a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Peter is very explicit in his indebtedness to Exodus 19:6 in 1 Peter 2:4-5:
(4) Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; (5) and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
And then a few verses later he says:
(9) But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (10) Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.
Clearly, Exodus 19 is on Peter’s mind as he says this. “Royal priesthood”, “holy nation”, “God’s own people” which relates to “special treasure”.
The idea of us being a kingdom of priests shows up three times in Revelation. In 1:6 it says:
and he made us to be a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to whom be the glory and power forever and ever.
In 5:10 it says:
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign upon the earth.
Finally, in 20:6 it says:
Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection. Over these the second death will not have power, but they will be priests of God and of his Messiah, and they will reign with him a thousand years.
As priests, our purpose in the world is to mediate the blessings of God to our neighbors, and moreover to invite them to join us in our priestly efforts to teach the nations to obey God. The ideal outcome of our work is that there is no more distinction between us and them, that everyone has joined the Messianic community. This is the meaning behind Jesus’ parable of the leaven in Matthew 13:33:
The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.
It is also the future envisioned right near the end of the of Isaiah in chapter 66:18-21, which begins:
I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory
And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.
[nextpage title=”Communion” ]
The Priestly Dimension of Taking Communion
So what does this have to do with communion? Though this connection is not entirely spelled out in the New Testament, I believe that our partaking of the body and blood of Jesus in communion is reminiscent of the way Old Testament priests consumed parts of some sacrifices.
Christians are not always aware that there are multiple types of sacrifices prescribed in the Torah, and even multiple versions of some types of sacrifices so that these sacrifices were scalable for socioeconomic conditions. For example, a sacrifice might ideally require a bull, but if you could not afford a bull or you did not have a bull you could substitute a sheep or goat. If you did not have a sheep or a goat, you could substitute a dove or a pigeon. If you did not have a dove or pigeon, you could substitute grain. And none of these substitutions affected the meaning or efficacy of the sacrifice. It was a sacrificial system that was as accessible to poor people as it was to rich people.
Probably the most well known type of sacrifice was the ʿōla(h) or whole burnt offering. This is the one where the entire animal was burnt up and no part of it was used for anything else. However, there were also many other kinds of sacrifices, and in some of these parts of the animal were retained and given to the priests for their consumption. While consumption of these parts was a part of the overall sacrificial ritual, this feature of the ritual was one of the ways that the material needs of the priests were provided for in the Torah, since the priests and Levites were to have no dedicated inheritance of territory in the Promised Land. They provided the priestly service of mediation for all of Israel, and in return the other Israelites provided for their needs through tithes of their harvests and through portions of their animal sacrifices.
When we participate today in communion, we are in a sense priests consuming a portion of our sin sacrifice, who is Jesus. This is why Jesus told his disciples, “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” There is evidence in the New Testament that we are not simply participating in symbolic remembrance, but that some real spiritual nourishment is happening through our consumption of the body and the blood. We believe that we are healed and nourished by the Messiah, just as the priests of the Old Testament were fed from the sacrifices. We do not know entirely what grace is given us in communion, when we partake of Jesus’ body and blood as a sacrificial lamb, but we do believe that there is unfathomable spiritual power in communion. And just as in the Old Testament the priests were nourished so that they could continue doing their priestly duties for the benefit of the entire nation, so we are nourished by the body and blood of Jesus so that we can continue doing our priestly duties for the benefit of the entire world.
The purpose of partaking of communion, then, is to participate in our priestly duties, to be nourished by the meat of the sacrifice that atones for the whole community. And we are nourished so that we may mediate the blessings of God in the Messiah to our friends and neighbors, to our community, especially to the lost and hurting. Somehow, even though the New Testament does not spell it out, we believe that we are empowered through participation in communion to mediate the blessings of the Messiah to the world.
In summary, we are a kingdom of priests, and participating in communion is an important part of our priestly activity. As priests, our purpose is to mediate the blessings of God to the world. So let us pray, as we partake of the body and the blood, that it may strengthen us and inspire us in ways we cannot comprehend to be the kingdom of priests that God envisioned and spoke to Israel about thousands of years ago. Through communion may we be empowered and inspired by the Holy Spirit to bring the blessings of righteousness, peace, and joy to the world.[/nextpage]