‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
When God made a covenant with his chosen people at Mt. Sinai, he told them that he wanted them to be a “kingdom of priests”. That phrase sounds very poetic and significant, but we tend to read right over the phrase because the words, “kingdom” and “priest” are so foreign to our modern thinking. In America we certainly don’t identify with Kings or Kingdoms and our Protestant faith contains little contact with priests. What was God saying? The answer comes out of the culture of that day and it is very revealing as to what our responsibilities are as partakers in that same covenental promise. Let’s look at the words, “kingdom” and “priest” to see what they meant in that ancient culture.
First, the word kingdom in English implies a territory or a piece of land. To the Hebrews, the word kingdom is much more encompassing. The kingdom was not only the territory, but it was also a place in time where the King of the kingdom was ruling or reigning. The kingdom was where the king was “kinging”, where his will was being done and people were obeying him and making him king. It was not just the boundary lines, it was what was happening withing the boundaries. The kingdom comes and is evident when the king’s will is being done. The kingdom can be any place that the king (God) is in charge (e.g. Luke 17:21).
Now that we’ve established what the kingdom is, then what does it mean to be a kingdom of priests? Priests during the time of the Hebrew Testament were representatives of the God they served. All the nations had priests that served their various deities. This was a concept that was very familiar to the Israelites because every god of wood and stone was represented by a priesthood. What was the function of these priests? First of all, they dressed very differently than the normal lay person. They were set apart for their service to their god and had very high standards of conduct. Their number one mission was to put their god on display. If you wanted to know what the god was like, you just looked at the priests. They were also the mediator between the god and the people. They were to meet the people’s needs on the god’s behalf and show them how compassionate he was and his concern for the poor. All welfare was done through the temple and the priests.
In light of these qualities and responsibilities, how are we as a community of believers to be a kingdom of priests? We must be noticeably different; set apart from the people around us that don’t know our King. We have to live under higher moral standards, live holy lives that are different and that set us apart. Our mission as priests is also to demonstrate what God is like. Think about the display God could have put together to show himself, but instead he picked us. “You want to see what I’m like , look at my priests that represent me”, God says. Will the people you meet this week know what God is like by the way your represent him?
Like the priests, we are also to be the mediator between God and the people that don’t know him. We are to be sensitive to the poor and disenfranchised and are to meet human need on God’s behalf. We can’t do that by just praying for people; it has to be a hands on process of meeting those needs.
If we go back to Exodus 19, we will see that God called the whole nation of Israel to be priests to represent him. Although He separately established the Aaronic priesthood, He wanted everyone to think of themselves as priests. To remind them to do this He gave them a command in Numbers 15:37-40:
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God.
The Israelites were to wear tassels with a blue cord on the corners of their garments. Why? When they looked at the tassels they would be reminded of their role and position and would remember to keep His commands. The tassels were a visual aid to them that they were set apart. There is much more to say about the tassels (see “Of Wool and Linen” and Jewish Dress and Custom) that reminded them that they were priests.
Was this command only for the Old Testament time period? Are we under a different set of rules? 1 Peter 2:9-12 says exactly what God was saying to the Israelites at Sinai. We are to be a kingdom of priests and are to live such good lives among out pagan neighbors that they will experience our good deeds and give glory to our God (also see Philippians 2:15-16). Revelation 1:5-6, speaking of Jesus, also says that He has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His Father. The Bible is all one story and the mission is the same from Genesis to Revelation – ”make my name known”.
In summary, the concept of being a kingdom of priests is a huge and daunting responsibility. He has sent us, His followers, to represent Him to the people that don’t know about Him and to tell them what the King and the kingdom is like. They will know what He is like by the way we act and the way we treat them. We represent the God of the universe! He is sending us out to a hurting and broken world that desperately needs to know about His love and His compassion towards them. Will we go? Will we live our lives in such a way that they will know without a shadow of a doubt how great and loving our God is?