A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation
A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation
by William Klock
John Calvin begins his great theological work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, with these words: “Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and or ourselves.” The two most important things we need to know and to understand are who God is and who we are—and, more specifically—who are in relation to him.
If you’ve been paying attention as we’ve been making our way through Exodus, you probably noticed that the story is working out these two important pieces of knowledge. Back in Chapter 6, the Lord said to Moses, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (6:7). We begin with the knowledge of God. He doesn’t just make a people for himself out of Israel. Becoming slaves in Egypt wasn’t a positive thing, but as the story unfolds, we begin to get a sense that everything that has happened to the children of Abraham has been providential. God is at work. As Joseph told his brothers at the very end of Genesis—the brothers who had sold him into slavery in Egypt—“what you mean for evil, God has meant for good.” Through all of these events, the people of Israel have seen the Lord at work. They’ve been repeatedly reminded of his covenant promises and, now, at every step of the way—even before leaving Egypt—he has shown them his faithfulness in dramatic, amazing, awesome, astounding events, one after another. The Lord is revealing himself. There’s still much more to come, but even here at the beginning he’s already made an amazing start. These events, these might acts of faithfulness reveal who God is. But what about his people? What do they need to know about themselves, particularly in relation to him? This is what now begins to unfold as we pick up the story in Exodus 19. Look at the first verses:
On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. (Exodus 19:1-3a)
Three months to the day after they left Egypt they arrive at Mt. Sinai. Once again we’re reminded of God’s faithfulness. This is the same place where the Lord had met Moses in the burning bush. This is the same place where the Lord had sent him on this crazy mission to confront Pharaoh and issue the Lord’s demand: Let my people go that they may worship me in the wilderness. This is the same place where the Lord had promised Moses: You and your people will come back to this same spot to worship me. It was all crazy, but Moses had obeyed in faith. And now they’re here. Every step of the way the Lord has shown his faithfulness. That’s who God is: the faithful one, the one who does what he says he will do.
And so Israel, we’re told, sets up camp below the mountain while Moses goes up to meet with God. The Lord has fulfilled his promise to deliver Israel and to bring them to the mountain to worship him. This first trip up the mountain is sort of Moses going up to ask the Lord, “You’ve brought us here as you promised. What now, O Lord?” Look now at the second half of verse 3 through verse 6:
The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 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.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
This is the Lord’s proposition to Israel, given through Moses. He has declared already, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” He’s made good on his part. He gives them this wonderful image of having borne them out of Egypt as on the wings of eagles and he has brought them to his holy mountain. I can’t help but think of the way Tolkien used this imagery in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. When Bilbo and his friends were attacked by goblins and sent scrambling up into the trees. They were trapped and then things went from bad to worse as the trees caught fire. They had nowhere to go. And the king of the eagles flew in rescued them, carrying them off to safety and depositing them on a peak from which they could safely carry on with their journey. Similarly, at the end of The Lord of the Rings, after the ring had been cast into the first of Mount Doom, Frodo and Sam sat on the side of the volcano as it began to erupt. They were sure they were dead. And, once again, the eagle king came to their rescue and carried them off to safety. I may be reading too much into the story here, but this imagery of eagle’s wings seems to say something of grace. It highlights that this was the Lord’s doing, not theirs. If an eagle plucks you out of trouble—think of poor Bilbo clinging to the top of a burning tree with goblins gathered at the bottom—when an eagle plucks you out of a bad spot and carries you to safety, it’s all the eagle’s work. You don’t sit on his back and flap his wings for him. He grasps you in his talon and bears you up, while you hang like a ragdoll. The Lord has borne his people out of their bondage, not because of anything they have done. They didn’t help. He persuaded Pharaoh. He parted the sea. He drowned the Egyptians. He brought for water from the rock. He defeated the Amalekites. They were along for the ride—and what a ride it was. Brothers and Sisters, God’s people do not choose him; he has chosen us. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is the first lesson the Lord teaches his people here at Sinai, the first lesson about who they are in relation to him: It is a relationship of grace. He has done the choosing. He has done the rescuing. They did nothing to deserve it and they did nothing to help. The Lord has done it all and he has done it on his own initiative. The moment we forget this, the moment we start thinking that God chose us because we deserve it, because we are different or special, or if we ever start to think that it is we who chose God, Friends, that’s the moment we start to forget the gospel, that’s the moment we begin to forget our relation to God.
God has kept his end of the covenant. Now it’s up the people to choose to uphold their end. “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant…” the Lord says to Moses. This is their end. There are always two parties to a covenant and the stipulations go both ways. Israel, for her part, having been rescued, having been redeemed from her bondage, is called by the Lord to obey his voice and to keep his covenant. Notice—this is extremely important—Israel’s rescue was not dependent on her obedience. Again, God’s rescue, God’s redemption, God’s deliverance of his people—whether we’re talking about the Israelites in Egypt or the Church, rescued from the bondage of sin and death—our redemption is not dependent on our obedience. If it were, we’d still be slaves. It is by God’s grace. Obedience is our response to that grace. The Lord rescued his people at a time when they were helpless and barely knew him. He rescued them and he did so for a purpose. He rescued them to make them his people. And that’s what the rest of this is about. The Lord describes what this people is and what it is to look like in three ways: they are his treasured possession, they are a king of priests, and they are a holy nation.
Does that sound familiar? Does it sound like something from the New Testament? If it does, it’s because St. Peter, in his first epistle, draws on this scene here at Mt. Sinai to exhort the saints of the early Church:
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 into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
St. Peter saw in the Church the fulfilment of these Old Testament promises. The Lord had called Abraham to himself for one purpose: to restore the knowledge of himself to a people lost in darkness and, gradually, to bring redemption and restoration to his creation. We see hints of this mission even in Genesis, but it really gels here at Sinai. In Israel we begin to see the first glimpses of a restore humanity. Think back to Adam and Eve. What was their vocation? Why did God create them? They were his image bearers. That’s temple language. The garden was the Lord’s temple. And where the pagans put idols in their temples to represent the presence of their gods, the Lord placed human beings to be his representative, to bear his image. They were to care for the temple, to represent God in his creation, and they were to be fruitful and multiply—to make more of themselves and to grow and expand the temple—presumably until it encompassed the whole of creation. Instead we rebelled. But here in Israel we see the Lord calling a people for himself and restoring to them this role of image-bearer. His people are to represent him amongst the nations.
Of course, we know Israel’s story. Most of Israel’s history is a story of failure, but we see this mission spelled out even in the failures. Just a few chapters after the giving of the law here at Sinai, the people fall into idolatry and worship a golden calf. Exodus 32:25 says, “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies” (NIV). Already, even at Sinai, the nations were watching Israel and, because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, she became a laughingstock when her calling was to be the Lord’s means of redeeming the nations. Repeatedly through her history, Israel is rebuked for her disobedience, for her failure to be the people the Lord had made them. Instead of bearing the Lord’s image, they became a laughingstock. Instead of being awed by the witness of Israel to the Lord, the nations mocked her, “Where is your God?”
This finally comes to a head in the destruction of the northern tribes and then, a century later, in the exile of Judah to Babylon. And yet, even at Israel’s lowest point, we are reminded that the relationship between the Lord and his people is one of grace. Even as Israel sat down and wept by the waters of Babylon (Psalm 137:1), the Lord reminded his people through Isaiah:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
The Lord does not throw in the towel on his people. He didn’t abandon Israel. He didn’t ditch those failures and turn instead, as Josephus argued, to the Romans or to any other people. Jesus was born of Mary that he might fulfil his Father’s promises to Abraham. And this goes for the Church as well. Israel failed because she had a heart problem. Jesus has fixed that problem by giving God’s own Spirit to indwell us, his people. And yet even we, his new Israel, repeatedly fail in our mission to be a light to the nations. And I find great comfort in the knowledge that God does not give up on his people when they fail. He fulfils his promises. Jesus did not die for nought. The Spirit will not fail in his mission. And the gates of hell will not prevail over the Church they have created. We may find ourselves weeping by the waters of our own Babylon, but we will remain the Lord’s light to the nations and his salvation will reach to the ends of the earth.
But back to what it means to be the Lord’s people: his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. What does that mean? This is key to understanding the purpose of the law that the Lord is about to give Moses for the people and it’s key to understanding what it means that you and I are God’s people in Christ.
Each of these things: possession, priests, and holy, emphasise the same reality in slightly different ways. I think it’s easiest to start with the last: Israel is to be a holy nation. What does it mean to be holy? I struggled with this for a long time. When I was growing up I got the idea that God’s people are supposed to be holy—as if holiness is something we aspire to and something we become. That could play out in different ways. We might become holy as we obey the Lord and keep his commandments. We might become holy as we grow in the Lord’s wisdom. We might become holy as we live in sort of other-worldly ways, focusing on the things of heaven instead of the things of earth. I confused holiness with the process of sanctification and I think a lot of people do the same thing. But, Brothers and Sisters, that’s not what holiness is really about. Holiness is a status. Specifically, it’s the status of being set apart for God. And we don’t set ourselves apart for God. He does the setting apart. He’s the one who bears us away on eagle’s wings. We don’t do the wing-flapping. The eagle does that. We’re the ragdoll hanging from his talons as he bears us up. Or think of the cross. Yes, Jesus calls us to take up our crosses daily and to follow him, to mortify ourselves and possibly to walk into martyrdom as he did, but we do so because he first went to the cross on our behalf. He has accomplished our redemption. Through him, God has made us holy. Our calling now, as it was for Israel having been rescued from her bondage, is to live as becomes people whom God has set apart for himself.
That’s holiness: being set apart by God for his use. That’s where the possession part of this comes into play. If God declares a thing holy, that thing belongs to him. It’s for his use. I think we get a better idea of what this means if we consider all the things in the Old Testament that were declared holy and claimed by the Lord for his use. Think of the temple. It was his and that made it holy. The inner sanctum was the “most holy place”. That was where the Lord manifested his presence, living in the midst of his people. The altars for incense and sacrifices and offerings were claimed by the Lord for his use and, therefore, they were holy. The same went for the all the furnishing and instruments in the temple. Even the specific mixture of spices used to make the incense for use in the temple was holy. No one else was allowed to make incense with that same recipe. It was holy: it belonged to the Lord and was to be used only as he prescribed. But, beyond the temple, the land of Israel was holy. The Lord had claimed it. He lived in it in the midst of his people. This is why he removed the Canaanite peoples. They were not his people and had no business in the land that belonged to him. Even Israel was only permitted to live in the land if she upheld the stipulations of the covenant, if she obeyed the Lord. The torah was the Lord’s instructions, telling his people what was expected of the people he had declared to be his, that he had declared to be holy.
So keeping torah didn’t make people holy. The Lord declared his people holy and gave the torah to show them how a holy people, a people set apart lived. But then the key to understanding that is to answer the question: What was God’s purpose for his people? Why did he set this people apart? We’ve already touched on that. They were to be a light to the nations. They were the Lord’s means of making himself known in the earth. And this is why the Lord refers to them as a kingdom of priests. Israel would have a whole tribe set apart as priests to serve in the temple and to represent the Lord in the midst of his people, but the people themselves were, in the bigger picture, to serve as priests to the nations. Think about what a priest does. A priest mediates God to the people. A priest represents God. In the Old Testament, the people weren’t permitted into the direct presence of the Lord. They brought their sacrifices and offerings to the temple and the priests offered them up on their behalf. Israel as a nation served a similar role. She was the people in whose midst the Lord lived and her calling was to mediate his presence to everyone else.
This takes us back to Adam and to the original vocation we rejected. We were created to bear God’s image and to be his representatives in the world—the priests serving in his temple. And this also helps us to understand what it means to be holy and set apart by God. Priests are not God. Priests represent God. That’s another aspect of holiness we sometimes get wrong. We think we have to be like God or somehow take on his role in the world. (Jesus had to warn people in our Gospel today: Judge not. That’s God’s job. Be sure, he will judge, but your duty is to make known his good news so that others can know his kingdom rather face his judgement.) Consider this. When you go out and leave your eldest child in charge for the evening, you don’t expect that child to take on your role as parent. You expect that child to take on a delegated position of authority and to maintain order while you’re out. Your babysitter is there to remind her siblings of your instructions and of the house rules. You give her money for pizza so she can order in and see that her siblings are fed. If, instead, she broke out your credit card and went on a spending spree, if she decided to spank her siblings, or if she decided to make up her own rules, you’d be—to say the least—very unhappy. She wouldn’t be acting in your place to maintain order, she would be taking your role on herself—and making a mess of things in the process. But does that sound familiar? It should, because that’s just what Adam and Even did when they bought the serpent’s lie and tried to take God’s role on themselves.
You see, when the Lord chose Israel, he was setting apart a people to begin doing something of the work that Adam was originally created to do. Instead of just being fruitful and multiplying, the new task had, added to it, the more difficult task of being a light to all the people who have rejected Adam’s vocation, but the role is similar and the goal—which Jesus in his death and resurrection has set in motion—is to make creation new and to set to rights everything we have broken. And through Jesus, that role has been passed to us. This is Peter’s point in his epistle. We have, by God’s grace, been set apart by him and made holy. He has made us the people through whom he will make himself known to the world. But we need to actually live as holy people, since that’s what we are. Christians often forget this. We think that to be a Christians is about little more than being saved by Jesus. We forget that we’ve been saved for a purpose. Redemption is the starting point. Redemption is the being set apart. Now we actually need to be the people God has made us. We’ll close with what Peter says about this in his epistle:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)
You and I are to live as “sojourners and exiles”—or as some translations put it “live as strangers”—so that the world might no longer be strangers to God. We are the people who bring his light into the darkness. We are the people who live out and work for his justice and mercy and goodness in the world, showing people what creation, rightly-ordered should look like. And we are the royal heralds proclaiming the coming of the King—the King who died and rose again that all who kneel before him in faith might know God’s new creation rather than his judgement on that last day when he sets all to rights forever. Brothers and Sisters, we have been saved not merely for our own benefit. We have been saved for a purpose. Through Jesus, God has made us his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. And he has done so that we might be light in the darkness, that we might declare the good news that Jesus is making all things new, and that we might—in the here and now—give the world a glimpse of what God’s future for the world looks like.
Let’s pray: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not our hold on things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.