Yesterday I took the reader through a journey of the Old Testament Levitical priesthood and its function. The Levitical priesthood was there to offer up sacrifices for the sins of the people. Hebrews 9 and 10 aided us in this effort, since we saw the procedures of sacrifice through the priests and the high priest. We saw the two sections of the tabernacle, one where the Aaronic priests went to offer up sacrifices daily, the other where the high priest entered only once a year. Hebrews told us further that Christ rent the curtain of the second section (Holy of Holies) by dying on the cross, as is confirmed in Luke 23. Now, we are able to enter the holy places; now God’s people are the priests. As such, the Old Testament Levitical setup is made null and void.
But where did the Levitical priesthood come from? How did it come about that a specific tribe (Levi) and a specific line (Aaron) were selected as priests? To find the answer to this question, we will have to go to the book of Exodus:
1 In the third month, on the same day [of the month] that the Israelites had left the land of Egypt, they entered the Wilderness of Sinai. 2 After they departed from Rephidim, they entered the Wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness, and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. (A)
3 Moses went up [the mountain] to God, and the LORD called (B) to him from the mountain: "This is what you must say to the house of Jacob, and explain to the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me. (C) 5 Now if you will listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, (D) you will be My own possession (E) out of all the
peoples, although all the earth is Mine, 6 and you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation. (F) These are the words that you are to say to the Israelites." (Exodus 19:1-6, Holman Christian Standard Bible)
Notice that Moses goes up to the mountain to receive God’s instructions as usual. But God’s instructions to Israel are more unusual than anything they’ve ever heard from God before: “…you will be MY KINGDOM OF PRIESTS…” The phrase “kingdom of priests” is important, because, at this time, there was NO LEVITICAL PRIESTHOOD! According to the Apologetics Study Bible (HCSB):
“…the priests mentioned here were probably those who would later become the Levitical priests. The priestly role of offering sacrifice WAS NOT LIMITED TO MEN SPECIFICALLY SET APART AS PRIESTS. Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all acted as priests during their days. Israelites living after the time of Jacob may have also acted as priests on behalf of their families” (Apologetics Study Bible, page 115).
So the fact that there was even a Levitical priesthood was not a given; rather, it was an institution set up by the Lord over a period of time. The process, however, first started with the male heads of families…
But, notice the passage we just read. Who did the Lord call “the kingdom of priests”? It wasn’t Moses, or Aaron’s family, or any other specific person—it was ALL of Israel (“the house of Jacob, Exod. 9:3). The Lord told Moses that THE ENTIRE NATION was to be a KINGDOM OF PRIESTS!
Now, let’s look at God’s instructions for the people that He gave Moses:
9 The LORD said to Moses, "I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, (H) so that the people will hear when I speak (I) with you and will always believe you." Then Moses reported the people's words to the LORD. 10 And the LORD told Moses, "Go to the people and purify them today and tomorrow. They must wash their clothes (J) 11 and be prepared by the third day, for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. (K) 12 Put boundaries for the people all around the [mountain] and say: Be careful that you don't go up on the mountain or touch its base. Anyone who touches the mountain will be put to death. (L) 13 No hand may touch him; instead he will be stoned or shot [with arrows], neither animal or man will live. When the ram's horn sounds a long blast, they may go up the mountain."
14 Then Moses came down from the mountain to the people and consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. 15 He said to the people, "Be prepared by the third day. Do not have sexual relations with women."
Look at verse 10. The Lord told Moses, “Go to the people and PURIFY THEM today and tomorrow. THEY MUST WASH THEIR CLOTHES…” What happened to Aaron and his sons when they were consecrated as priests?
6 Then Moses presented Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. (Leviticus 8:6, HCSB)
So the nation was commanded to “purify themselves” because they were going to be a KINGDOM OF PRIESTS. This title was not just given to them because it sounded nice—no, God was really going to treat them as His priests…and they had to do what priests did in order to act as His priests! The one thing He demanded of them was purity and holiness.
The purity rituals included washing their clothes. God couldn’t tolerate pollution, so dirty clothes would not be acceptable before Him. Washing their clothes would get rid of the dirtiness (pollution) and filth, so they would stand before God without corruption, unspotted.
When Moses goes down to prepare the people to meet God in three days, he tells them to wash their clothes. But he also gives them an additional command: “Do not have sexual relations with women” (Exodus 19:15, HCSB). Even sexual relations would stain the “purity” they were required to have before the Lord. The nation of Israel, including those who were married, would have to ABSTAIN from sexual relations for three days—all because they had to be spotless in the sight of their Holy God!
We see more of God’s treatment of Israel as His priests in succeeding verses:
16 On the third day, when morning came, there was thunder and lightning, a thick cloud on the mountain, and a loud trumpet sound, so that all the people in the camp shuddered. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke because the LORD came down on it in fire. (M) Its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, (N) and the whole mountain shook violently. (O) 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him in the thunder. (Exodus 19:16-19, HCSB)
Moses does as instructed, and brings the people out to the foot of the mountain
where God would talk with them. Notice what happens next:
20 The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, at the top of the mountain. Then the LORD summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and he went up. 21 The LORD directed Moses, "Go down and warn the people not to break through to see the LORD; otherwise many of them will die. (Q) 22 Even the priests who come near the LORD must purify themselves or the LORD will break out [in anger] against them." (R)
23 But Moses responded to the LORD, "The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, since You warned us: Put a boundary around the mountain and consider it holy." 24 And the LORD replied to him, "Go down and come back with Aaron. But the priests and the people must not break through to come up to the LORD, or He will break out [in anger] against them." 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them. (Exodus 19:20-25, HCSB)
The Lord is a holy God, so He told Moses to tell the people to stay at the foot of the mountain—for if they didn’t, they would die (both animal and human). Then, we have God’s words regarding the “priests”:
“EVEN THE PRIESTS who come near the LORD must PURIFY themselves or the LORD will break out [in anger] against them.”
As we saw earlier, there was no Levitical priesthood in place—but the heads of families served in this function on behalf of their families. But although there are functioning “priests” at this time, God still has a much bigger plan in mind—to make THE ENTIRE NATION a royal priesthood.
Chapter 20 consists of the Ten Commandments. In verses 1-17, God speaks to Moses and tells Moses His Law that He wanted the nation to obey. The people are still at the foot of the mountain, waiting for Moses to descend and give them God’s Law. Our interest in the text picks up at verse 18:
18 All the people witnessed [a] the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain [surrounded by] smoke. When the people saw [it] [b] they trembled and stood at a distance. (Q) 19 "You speak to us, and we will listen," they said to Moses, "but don't let God speak to us, or we will die." (R)
20 Moses responded to the people, "Don't be afraid, for God has come to test you, so that you will fear Him and will not [c] sin." (S) 21 And the people remained standing at a distance as Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:18-21, HCSB)
The people stand at the foot of the mountain, seeing all the effects of God’s coming down to give His Law to Moses. And their response? They are afraid: “They trembled and STOOD AT A DISTANCE.” They didn’t know what to make of all this “greatness” of God. The physical effects of God’s Majesty terrified them to the point where they didn’t wanna be close to the mountain. As a result of their fear, they say the following to Moses:
“YOU SPEAK TO US, and we will listen…but don’t let God speak to us, or WE WILL DIE” (v. 19).
Why this response? Because they feared death. The Lord had just told them in chapter 19 that if they touch the mountain, they would die. So here, rather than chance it, or give room for their own deaths, they decided to RELINQUISH THEIR PRIESTHOOD DUTIES to Moses: “You speak to us…and we will listen…”
This gives way to the priesthood of Aaron and his sons in Exodus 28. But this shows us God’s original plan. God never meant to designate a tribe and line of priests; He meant for ALL of His children to be priests. But the people gave up their rights due to fear. In the end, they decided that they would rather hear from a human mediator than eliminate the mediator and hear from God directly.
What does this have to do with Kostenberger’s view, someone might ask? Well, a lot. She argues in her book that the Levitical priesthood is one of the evidences that establishes permanent male leadership in the church. However, as is seen from Scripture, the priesthood was intended to be for all believers, starting with the nation of Israel and making its way to the Gentiles. The priesthood was never originally intended as an elite group of men who served as the authority over everyone else. If complementarians plan to argue the Levitical priesthood and permanent male leadership, then they also have to argue that the pastors in every church be from the line of Aaron and Jewish. In that case, however, no one Gentile has anything to brag about…