As my kids, my wife, and I have been reading through the first few books of the Bible together, we’ve waded through a lot of ritual and ceremony that, to be honest, at times I’ve been tempted to skip (and sometimes have). But we have learned some valuable lessons in sticking with it.
I can’t say how much has registered with my 6 and 9 year old, but as we’ve read about the very specific details of how God wanted the tabernacle built – what materials the priests’ clothes must be made from, how the Holy Spirit inspired Oholiab and Bezalel to weave and engrave and cast the items in exactly the right way, and how God gave them a specific recipe for the ointment and incense which could only be used in His service, and then of how He prescribed the different sacrifices of the different animals, wines, and grains, each appropriate for a unique occasion – I’ve asked my kids as we’ve read, “what do you think God was trying to tell His people in demanding that level of detail?”
The only possible answer is that what God was demanding was a recognition of His specialness, His unique glory, His Holiness. As the Hebrews donated their possessions, which God specified must be done of only by those whose “heart moved them,” for the crafting of the tabernacle; and then as their craftsmen began to forge and weave and carve and mold these uniquely beautiful pieces; and finally as they stood in the entrance of the courtyard of the tabernacle which they had built with their own hands and saw the glory cloud of God’s Presence perched above it; they surely said to themselves, as did Jeremiah, “There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might.”
Who could be worthy to work in the service of such a God, surrounded by the gold, bronze, the blue, scarlet, and purple linen and leather, and the aromatic incense and all under the cloud of the Glory of the Presence of God? Only Aaron, his sons, and the tribe of Levi were chosen to be priests, and then only after they underwent a cleansing ceremony. “Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them go with a razor over all their body, and wash their clothes and cleanse themselves….”
Hundreds of years later, after the ascension of Christ, the apostle Peter who had been born and bred into this religious system, doubtless taught from birth to revere the priests as the intermediary between Israel and God makes this shocking statement to early Christian exiles, both Jew and Gentile, in 1 Peter 2:9, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
King Jesus’ subjects make up a whole nation of priests, and we even are brought into this priesthood in the same type of ceremony as the Levitical priests who served the same God: through the water of purification, or Baptism.
And just like the Levites, with their fancy linen robes and tassels and headwear, our purpose is to proclaim His excellencies to those who are not yet brought into our priestly nation.
The imagery of those early books in the Bible is easy to just skip or skim over, but they reveal – at surface level – that God is deeply concerned that His people recognize His Holiness and then to act accordingly.
1 Peter, the book which refers to Christians as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” is addressed by Peter to “elect exiles,” exile meaning one who is cast out. Jewish converts to Christ would have been cast out of their communities for believing what Jesus taught, as would Gentiles, but Peter tells them here, ‘you haven’t just been cast out by your families and communities, you’ve been called out by God and set apart by Him.’
Any pastor or pastor’s kid or ministry leader’s kid can tell you, that there are different expectations for you once you’ve been identified as belonging to the ministry (or to the minister). So we can imagine what it would have felt like for a Levite to walk around the market place in his ephod and turban. He wouldn’t blend in. Plus he had to shave his legs, apparently, so even more so.
But that’s the life of the priesthood, similar to the lives of exiles. Our lives and our lifestyles should make us stand out. In a neighborhood full of rainbow flags, we should not be ashamed to tout the symbol of the cross. God’s made it even easier than that for us in our day, though. I can go out in public with my wife and kids and be the oddball just by holding hands and getting along with each other!
One more interesting aspect of Israel’s priests, however, is how their culture depended on them. In the polemics of the minor prophets, it was often the priests who bore the responsibility. Hosea 4 says, “Yet, let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me…”
God set the responsibility for the destruction of Israel on the shoulders of faithless priests. Matthew 5 makes the same point in Jesus’ well-known sermon: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”
Salt preserves, light brings wisdom and knowledge, and we are to do these things in Christ’s name so that “they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in Heaven.”
May God grant us the courage to be salt that has not lost it’s savor and a light not hidden; may we be a nation of faithful priests, dedicated to His service.
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