Biblical Worship 4: Priesthood

If you’re just joining in to the discussion, this is the fourth installment in a six-part series of posts about what the Bible tells us about worship. In the first post I talked about God’s desire to create a place that made it possible for man to thrive in relationship with himself (paradise); the second post dealt with the necessity of sacrifice to atone for sin; in the third post we explored the book of Psalms and the many ways we are guided into worship through that wonderful book. Today I want to talk about the concept of priesthood, both in the context of Christ’s role as our Great High Priest and our role as a Kingdom of Priests.

We know from the Old Testament that the original design for worship in the ancient nation of Israel involved priests who would mediate between God and his people. The priests were to have charge of the tabernacle/temple and its furnishings and to facilitate the many sacrifices that made atonement for sin. Moses’ brother Aaron was the first of these priests, and from the get-go we see that even though the priests were to be set aside as holy, they were still very human (see Exodus 32-33 and Aaron’s all-too-familar excuse-making).

Now you may be familiar with the New Testament passage from 1 Peter 2 which says that we are God’s priests:

But you are not like that [those who reject Jesus], for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Pet. 2:9, NLT)

We know from the context of this verse that it is through Christ that we are called to be priests and to be built up into a living temple (because we house God’s presence). But did you know that Peter was quoting the Old Testament here? Take a look at Exodus 19:5-6:

Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. 6 And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ (Ex. 19:5-6a, NLT)

Sound familiar? Now wait a second, if God’s people needed priests to mediate between them and God, how is this possible that they were to be priests? Here we see once again God’s consistent character throughout all of redemptive history.

One way to understand this is to think that the people of Israel were never meant to be a kingdom with priests, but rather a kingdom of priests. But from the very beginning (the golden calf episode is a case-in-point) we see the inability of humans to carry out this priestly role. Thus the priests were irreparably stuck on internal issues and couldn’t reach out to others. So through Jesus God’s people are redeemed to their original purpose, to be a light to all the world that shines forth God’s glory. God didn’t change his plans in the New Covenant or just suddenly decide to make everyone a priest. This was his intent from the beginning, and in Jesus he makes this possible. In Jesus God fulfills all things that he intended for his people to do and opens the door for all the nations (i.e. you and me) to be part of that group. Pretty amazing huh?

And just in case you’re thinking, “I’m not sure I’d be a very good priest” (and you’d be right), don’t forget that our priesthood only comes through the work of Jesus –his work on the cross (past) and his current work (present) in heaven. Take a look at Hebrews 8:1-2:

Here is the main point: We have a High Priest who sat down in the place of honor beside the throne of the majestic God in heaven. 2 There he ministers in the heavenly Tabernacle, the true place of worship that was built by the Lord and not by human hands.

Pretty clear, right? As Christians, our only hope is to represent Christ, our Great High Priest, to the world around us. We do our best to bring people to Jesus who is able to bring people (including us) to God. Thus God’s mission to accomplish redemption on earth can be fulfilled through imperfect people like you and me.

This is an essential truth to understand as we think about worship. It is yet another way of realizing that worship is meant to be the central activity of our lives. As we bring ourselves and others to God through Christ, he is glorified, and that’s worship. It also helps us understand our role as leaders. Many misunderstand the task of “leading worship” as “bringing people into the presence of God.” But there’s only One who is able to do that, and that’s Jesus. The way we lead people is by pointing them to Jesus who is our only hope. As Jesus said,

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6. NLT).