I have a strange habit when I’m driving. Any time I suddenly come up on the familiar outline of a white and black sedan parked just off the shoulder, my right foot instinctively withdraws and I triple-check my speedometer. Moments before, I possessed all the same knowledge of traffic regulations, but the physical presence of a representative of the law makes that knowledge tangible. The authority represented by a police car vivifies familiar truth. Or to put it more generally, sometimes an embodied presence captures our attention in a way that abstract memories do not.
A Priestly People
Yahweh miraculously delivered the people of Israel from Pharaoh’s slavery through a showdown with the false gods of Egypt. He preserved them through the waters of judgment, led them by cloud and fire to the same mountain where he commissioned Moses at a burning bush. Only this time the whole mountain smolders with his consuming fire. He gives this message through Moses:
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5–6)
Yahweh desires a priestly people to represent him among the nations. He tests Israel’s priesthood by speaking to them directly from the mountain. In terror, they reject his unmediated voice and come up with a new plan. They elect Moses to hear from Yahweh directly, to which he essentially concedes, “Good idea” (Deuteronomy 5:28). It seems clear at this point that Israel’s priesthood will largely fail. A few verses later, Yahweh establishes Aaron’s line as priests to Israel. It seems commissioning a kingdom of priests is temporarily put on hold.
The Priestly Duties
The law is emphatic that God is not visible (Exodus 33:20; cf. Colossians 1:15), and it is a great sin to pretend otherwise (Deuteronomy 5:8–9). But in his kindness, Yahweh chose to elect priestly representatives who could be seen. Priests were visible, enfleshed ambassadors to Israel, serving on behalf of the invisible God.
One priestly duty from Deuteronomy grabs my attention:
When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for Yahweh your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for Yahweh your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” (Deuteronomy 20:1–4)
Amazing! Wouldn’t you expect a general to give the rousing speech? The next verses mention officers, so it was not due to lack of leadership. God commands the priest repeat his word to the army of Israel. He knows that what Israel needs on the outset of a battle, more than a mere pep talk, is a reminder of known truths from a tangible representative.
On the day of trouble, we need a priest to speak God’s promises to us.
The Royal Priesthood of the New Covenant
A greater priest came, but not from the line of Aaron. Rather, he came according to the order of Melchizedek, the Royal Priest-King who blessed Abram (Genesis 14:18–20).
Jesus serves as the great High Priest (Hebrews 6:20) who mediates between God and us (Hebrews 5:1). Jesus’s work completely eclipses the Aaronic priesthood.
But what about God’s plan to have a nation of priests? Did Israel’s failure thwart his plan forever? Cue Peter:
But 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 and into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
God’s plan to possess a people of priests is fulfilled in the church, the gathering of his New Covenant people across the world. Amazingly, we are made royal priests by union to our great Melchizedekian Priest-King, Jesus.
We are called to exhort one another on the eve of battle.
One reason we gather weekly is to perform priestly duties to one another. We don’t neglect gathering together (Hebrews 10:25), because we are called to exhort one another (Hebrews 3:13) on the eve of battle. The priesthood of all believers makes our participation in the weekly church gathering massively important. I fear that sometimes Protestant zeal for the “priesthood of all believers” gets mistaken for the “priesthood of no believers.” Luther and the reformers did not dethrone the Pope as much as they raised up the common saint.
Just like the Warriors of Israel needed a priest on the day of battle, we gather to remind our fellow priest-warriors of God’s great promises. We sing familiar songs with repeated promises. We look one another in the eye as fleshy representatives of God’s invisible kingdom.
God made you a royal priest to proclaim his excellencies. We proclaim him to the nations, but also to our brothers and sisters. As you sing, don’t be fooled into thinking, “We know these truths already.” We need the reminder. We have priestly duties Sunday morning.