Tag Archives: Priesthood

The Priest Paradigm

But you are God’s chosen treasure—priests who are kings, a spiritual “nation” set apart as God’s devoted ones. He called you out of darkness to experience his marvelous light, and now he claims you as his very own. He did this so that you would broadcast his glorious wonders throughout the world.
1 Peter 2:9 (TPT)

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve found that the definition of “priest” is not commonly understood, and yet I find it to be absolutely critical to my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

The classical definition of a priest is that of a conduit. The priest is a go-between and represents others before God and represents God to others. In the Mosaic system, there was one high priest and he was the only one who could enter God’s presence in the Temple each year. Priests had to be descendants of Aaron, and they were the only ones who could offer sacrifices. It was an exclusionary position, and the only way an everyday person could get to God was through this representative.

The exclusionary paradigm of the priesthood was one of the entrenched religious practices that Jesus and His followers blew up. Paul explained this to Timothy:

For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all people.

1 Timothy 2:5-6 (NIV)

This was one of the most radical pieces of the early Jesus movement. Jesus was the High Priest who made one final sacrifice for all and became the eternal conduit through which every person has direct access to God. Man, woman, child, adult, sinner, saint, or scumbag can reach out to God at any time from anywhere. No more human go-betweens are necessary. No more need for human representation to access God and His forgiveness or blessings for us.

If you were raised in the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox or Episcopal traditions, then you’re probably saying, “Wait a minute!” Yes, many Christian traditions still maintain the old priesthood paradigm. But, that structure developed only after the early Jesus movement became Christendom and the Holy Roman Empire. Institutional Christendom suddenly had both religious and civic responsibility to control the masses. What better way to do so than to return to the old exclusionary system in which the common man is dependant on a priest for access to God?

For the first three centuries, the Jesus movement was made up of a loose organization of tens of thousands of local gatherings meeting in people’s homes across the known world. Even Peter, who is writing his letter to all of the exiled believers scattered across many nations, writes this open letter to explain that they are all a “royal priesthood.” Peter, the designated leader of the Jesus movement, tells all believers that they are the priests.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating the fact that Peter didn’t say the priesthood was obsolete, it simply became universal to all believers. As a follower of Jesus, I wear the mantel of a priest like everyone else. Every believer is a representative of God to the world, as Peter put it “broadcasting his glorious wonders to the world” through our love, self-sacrifice, and the fruits of the Spirit.

I’m trying to embrace that reality each and every day of this earthly journey.

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Mystery and Knowledge

Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.
Zechariah 6:12-13 (NIV)

One of my geeky interests in this life is art history. In college, I had an art professor who taught Art History from a Western Civilization textbook. His reasoning was that you can’t separate the art from everything that was going on in the culture around it. Politics, religion, commerce, and other popular art forms of the day were both influencing what the artist was expressing and being influenced by it at the same time. Ever since that class, my love of history and my love of art have overlapped.

One of the things I find fascinating in art history is that modern scholars can have vastly different interpretations of what an artist was trying to communicate. And, they might both be partially right, or completely wrong. That’s the way it is with no historical record from that artist explaining the piece.

When it comes to the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets, I encounter much of the same kind of struggle. Very intelligent and educated scholars can interpret certain visions and metaphors differently. There are ancient words the prophets used for which we have no clear definition. Like a mysterious old painting, we are sometimes left trying to piece together contextual clues to figure it out.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah describes his eighth and final vision about the rebuilding of God’s temple in Jerusalem. Four Spirits in chariots with different colored horses are dispatched across the world. The exact meaning of the bronze mountains and the colors of the horses is speculative. The angel tells Zech that the Spirit that went north gave God’s Spirit “rest in the land of the north.” We do know that the north was considered the land of Babylon and the direction from which Jerusalem’s enemies came. This gist of this final vision indicates a time of peace.

Then Zech switches gears and receives a word from God to make a crown and put it on the head of Joshua the priest. What’s fascinating about this is that since the days of Moses when the religious system of the Hebrews was established (see the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) the priesthood and the crown were two distinct offices. The king ruled politically, and the priest was the intercessor between God and the people. Only direct descendants of Aaron could be priests and only direct descendants of David could be king. Zechariah’s prophetic word describes a “Branch” who will unite the two.

Fast forward to Jesus. The family histories given by both Matthew and Luke establish that Jesus was a descendant of David. John the Baptist’s parents were both descendants of Aaron. In the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John there is a symbolic joining of the two. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the word pictures and descriptions of Christ and the metaphors are of both king and priest. In Revelation 5, for example, Jesus is “the lamb” (the priestly sacrifice) who sits on the throne (the king of kings). The book of Hebrews was written to establish how Jesus is both King and High Priest (see Hebrews chapters 1 and 7).

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering on all the mysterious artwork of visions and dreams that come down to us from the ancient prophets. Some prophetic visions and word pictures, like what the two bronze mountains in Zech’s vision are supposed to mean, are as mysterious to me as they are to wisest of scholars. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the artwork of the word pictures and find meaning in them for myself. They make great fodder for speculative conversations over a pint. Others, like the joining of the priesthood and the crown weave together the Great Story that God is authoring across time. They thread together the tapestry of history and provide me a greater depth of meaning and understanding of my faith.

As I head out into my day I’m reminded that my life journey is like that. Some things are clear to me, while other things are mysteries to be endlessly understood. Another reason why this life is a faith journey and not a commuter ride.

Have a great day, my friend. Trek well.

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Corporate Changes; Eternal Brand

The Lord said to Aaron, “You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites.”
Numbers 18:20 (NIV)

I’ve recently taken on new responsibilities in our company that began with leading a strategic planning effort this past month. As part of that process, I’m evaluating the way our business does things and considering changes, enhancements, and improvements. I don’t want our team to simply make changes for the sake of change. There’s got to be good reason for the things we do that accurately reflects who we are and contributes to what we are called to do as a business.

As I think to the future and the road ahead for our group, I also find myself being mindful of the legacy of our founder’s mission. I don’t want to lose sight of what the company was created to be. There are some things that don’t change with regard to our brand. If anything, some things need to become enhanced. It’s simply who we are.

In many ways, the book of Numbers that we’re journeying through a chapter-a-day was God’s spiritual business plan for the ancient Hebrews. It’s an organizational manual for how God was establishing a system of worship. Things were not structured haphazardly. There are reasons that God, the founder and CEO, is structuring things a particular way.

One of the curious decisions God made was to make sure the priests and Levites, who were in charge of the temple, the offerings, and the sacrifices, could not own land or have an inheritance. “I am your share and your inheritance,” God said.

There is a very important purpose in setting up the team this way. Those who were part of the priesthood, the ones who were the spiritual conduit between God and humanity, were to understand and constantly maintain an eternal perspective. To quote the old bluegrass classic, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ though.” The priests and Levites didn’t own land and didn’t have inheritance passed between generations because they understood that ultimately this whole earthly journey has an eternal destination. The world and all the stuff get left behind. The priest and Levites were invested in that which is beyond this world, those things which are eternal, the things that the Founder and CEO are really all about.

Times changed over the course of history. The system changed. The spiritual marketplace went through a great depression. Legacy ways of doing spiritual business in this world changed. Jesus came to be the ultimate sacrifice once for all. Holy Spirit was poured out into all believers. It was a new economy for spiritual business, and God’s spiritual business plan was getting a face lift. Old religious practices passed away like the telegraph, the ticker tape, and the IBM Selectric. New sacraments and paradigms were put into place.

But some things don’t change.

The legacy concept of the priests not having an earthly inheritance did not go away as part of the updated business plan. In fact, Jesus made it clear that God being the “share” and “inheritance” was a foundational, core part of God’s brand. It was a corporate value that was no longer limited to one team in the organization, but shared by all. It was part of every team members job description. In speaking to all the shareholders on the mountainside, Jesus said:

“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” Matthew 6:19-21 (MSG)

The CEO was updating the business plan, and the old business silo of the “priesthood” was being functionally expanded to include everyone in the organization (1 Peter 2:9-10). Along with it, everyone in the organization was to understand that this world, and the things of this world, have zero eternal value. The world, and the things of this world, in no way contribute to the mission and goals of the organization. They will not help the organization be successful in implementing the strategic plan. Therefore, this world and the things of this world are not where members of the organization are to invest our resources, our energies, or our corporate concerns.

This is the legacy from the Founder. This is the brand.

It’s simply who we are, and who we are to be.

Old Ways Die Hard

“Take the Levites from among all the Israelites and make them ceremonially clean.”
Numbers 8:6 (NIV)

When I was a kid, I remember the feeling that the Reverend of our family’s church was different. There was something special about him. He dressed differently, he was treated differently, and we children were told to be on our best behavior around him. If he came to visit our house it was a special occasion and we were give instructions that didn’t accompany any other visitor.

The idea of priests, pastors, imams and rabbis being afforded special status runs deep in us. In the Judeo-Christian tradition is goes all the way back to the days of Moses and the ancient religious prescriptions we’re reading about here in the book of Numbers. The priesthood was reserved for the descendants of Aaron. Assistance to the priests was reserved only for those men in the tribe of Levi. There were special rituals of consecration for both. The priests were made “holy” and, according to today’s chapter, the Levites were made “clean.” The priests took on special priestly garments, the Levites washed theirs. Blood was applied to the priests but just waved over the Levites. It is a spiritual caste system in the making.

God’s Message clearly points to a radically new paradigm after Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of Holy Spirit. There is now no distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free. Salvation is offered to all without distinction. Each and every one is an essential part of the same body. Every member is part of a royal priesthood. Spiritual gifts are given to all without regard to age, education, status, maturity, or purity. Old paradigms have passed away, a new paradigm has come. The religious caste system is over.

Or not.

People are people. Deeply held beliefs and traditions are hard to break. Along my spiritual journey I’ve witnessed that we continually rebuild systems with which we’re comfortable. We make special schools for “ministry” and then pick and choose who may attend (by gender, by socio-economic status, by social standing, by educational merit, by perceived moral purity). We develop special rituals and hoops for individuals to jump through, and then we treat them special and “different” once they’ve successfully jumped through them.

Having spent time as both pastor in the pulpit and as (seemingly) peon in the cheap seats, I’ve witnessed our penchant for treating pastors and priests differently from both sides. Having a systematic process of education for leadership is not a bad thing, but when the institutional system begins affording special social rank and privilege (by design or default), then it begins to tear at the heart of what Jesus was all about.

This morning I’m thinking about how given we are as humans to accepting certain thoughts, beliefs, and social mores without question. I’ve noticed along the way that some people get less likely to question them the further they get in life. I’m finding myself becoming more inclined to question, to prod, to push. “Old things pass away, new things come,” it is said. But we only have room for new things if we are willing to let go of the old. The tighter we cling to that which is dead, the more impossible it is to truly experience new life.

The Bookend Monarchs

David and Saul
David and Saul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saul answered, “But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why do you say such a thing to me?” 1 Samuel 9:21 (NLT)

For hundreds of years, the nation of Israel had existed as clans and tribes living under a loose system of government. The priesthood of Aaron’s descendants and the priestly tribe of Levi held the tribes together through the law of Moses and the sacrificial system God established during their escape from Egypt. National leaders emerged as God raised them up in times of need (e.g. Gideon, Samson, and Deborah) and the “judges” God raised became national leaders for their lifetime. There was, however, no system in place to elect a new leader once the old leader died. National leadership defaulted back to the priests or to a high priest (like Eli, who was the priest leading when we began reading 1 Samuel). Local leadership appears to have been handled by tribe and clan patriarchs who appealed to judges as the arbitrator of disputes.

At this point in the story, the people of Israel have demanded a new system of government. They want a monarch, a king, like all of the neighboring nations. But, how do you just start a monarchy? I find it fascinating that God told Samuel to anoint Saul ruler of Israel. In a few chapters God will tell Samuel to anoint David. So, while the people are asking for a king, God is still the one raising up the leader, just as He did with the judges.

In raising up first Saul, then David, God provides Israel with a national object lesson. In Saul, God will provide for the nation a self-centered crazy maker who will exemplify all that a nation does NOT want or need in a leader. Then, in David, God will raise up a flawed man whose heart follows after God. Two flawed human beings (what else can you find on the earth?) with stark differences of heart. God will reject Saul and make David’s line the royal line through which Jesus, the Messiah, will be born. The people may have demanded a monarch, but through Samuel God is raising the monarch of His choosing.

I also find it interesting this morning that in the bookend rulers, Saul and David, God raises up men from the smallest of tribes, and from the least of the tribal clans. In David, God goes one step further to choose the youngest of many brothers. Over and over and over again God raises up individuals from the smallest towns, the dregs of society, the youngest, the socially handicapped and the least networked to accomplish His purposes.

If God specializes in using the least of society, then He can and will use both you and me.

Chapter-a-Day Hebrews 7

First page of the Gospel of Mark, by Sargis Pi...
Image via Wikipedia

Jesus became a priest, not by meeting the physical requirement of belonging to the tribe of Levi, but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed. And the psalmist pointed this out when he prophesied, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 7:16-17

Some sections of God’s Message are difficult to understand outside of the context of the time and situation in which they were written. Because Jesus was Jewish, and his initial followers were Jewish, the early followers of Jesus were simply one of many sects of Judaism that have existed through the centuries. As Jesus’ followers began sharing that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah that had been prophesied, they encountered a myriad of questions about their claim as it related to Jewish law and tradition. The book of Hebrews was, in fact, a letter written to address some of these questions.

For example, a priest is one who stands in the gap between man and God and who represents man before God. In Jewish tradition only the high priest can enter the holy place of God and he can only do so once a year to make atonement for the sins of all the people. Jesus’ followers has been explaining that Jesus, God’s Son, was the Great High Priest who came from Heaven to Earth to make atonement once for all with His sacrificial death and resurrection.

“Point-of-order!” their good Jewish brethren responded. Jesus could not be a High Priest because Jesus was from the tribe of Judah and the law of Moses states quite specifically that only members of the tribe of Levi can be priests.

In today’s chapter, the author of Hebrews addresses this question and refers them back to a verse in the Psalms in which the messiah is described as “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek was a mysterious figure who enters the Biblical narrative during the time of Abraham, 500 years before Moses and the Jewish law. Melchizedek was recognized as High Priest by Abraham before there was a Jewish law or a Jewish tradition because Abraham was the father of the Jews. The author of Hebrews explains that Jesus was not a High Priest as defined by the constrictions of Jewish law of Moses. Rather, Jesus fulfilled the prophesy in Psalms and was a High Priest in the tradition of Melchizedek. Melchizedek presupposes and represents a higher, more ancient order of priesthood.

Today, I’m reminded that what I believe is a story that has been planned and revealed in chapters that span thousands and thousands and thousands of years. The story began long before my lifetime and will carry on long after this Earthly sojourn of mine is completed. While I believe that the great story is already written, today I continue to live out my own chapter of that same story in my life, my words, my actions, and my relationships.

Chapter-a-Day Numbers 8

Source: Flickr

God spoke to Moses: “Take the Levites from the midst of the People of Israel and purify them for doing God’s work.” Numbers 8:5 (MSG)

For me, one of the fascinating things about walking through these ancient texts is perceiving the ways that our culture and thinking are still rooted in the systems and concepts which were established thousands of years ago.

In today’s chapter, the tribe of Levi was singled out among all of the tribes of Israel for carrying out the work of the temple. In other words, “God’s work” was reserved for a special few. In any human system, I have to believe this is going to set into motion certain patterns of thought, creating classes within the culture. The special few who are given the religious tasks are going to think themselves special, even to the point of being better than the others. They will have a hard time not feeling that they are closer to God than those who don’t get this special task. Those who are not part of these special few begin to feel the opposite. They feel left out and dishonored. “God’s work” is not for them, so they dismiss the things of God as something above them. Jealousy, envy and hatred can even set in against those who seem to be “special.”

After Jesus death and resurrection, there was a major shift in God’s prescribed system. God’s Holy Spirit was poured out and into every person who believes and follows. No longer for a certain people or a select few, the Holy Spirit made no distinction. God gave the word picture of one body in which every believer is made a vital part, gifted in some way to help provide for it’s health and functions. Jesus presented a radical new paradigm.

We human beings are silly creatures, however. Once we get used to a system of behavior, we are loathe to go to the work of changing them. Within a short period of time, the followers of Jesus had organized into a system that looked much like what we read about in Numbers. There were special people set apart as priests and leaders to do the religious works of this organization now known as “the church.” Once again this human organizational system created a group of spiritual “haves” and “have nots.” 1500 years later a man named Martin Luther made a 95 item “point-of-order” to correct the mistake, arguing that what God’s Message presented was not a special “priesthood” for the select few but a “priesthood of all believers.” The reformers organized to try to get back to the prescribed organization of Jesus and his followers.

We human beings are silly creatures, however. Once we get used to a system of behavior, we are loathe to go to the work of changing them. For over forty years I’ve attended and been involved in a number of church organizations of all shapes, sizes and names. I’ve even led a few. We still like to treat our pastors and priests as “special” people who are spiritually above us. The common person in the pew still tends to think of “God’s work” as something relegated to the chosen few; it is something from which they are at best exempted, at worst unfit to carry out.

[sigh]

Today, I am reminded at how easily my human condition, culture, and systems can skew my thoughts and behaviors from those which God intended. Lord, have mercy on me.