In so many ways, Leviticus is the book of priesthood. We are not all prophets or kings but, according to Peter, we are a kingdom of priests. Israel was declared by God to be a kingdom of priests, a peculiar people, His own possession, a light to the Gentiles, a holy people all throughout the Old Testament. He is not talking about our doctrine of the priesthood of all believers but the role of the Church as a body. We are here to serve and fulfill the purposes of God – not our own purposes. As Paul says in Corinthians, “You are not your own but you are bought with a price.” Our purpose is not self-fulfillment but obedience. Oswald Chambers:
“The first thing that happens after we recognize our election by God in Christ Jesus is the destruction of our preconceived ideas, our narrow-minded thinking, and all of our other patriotisms— we are turned solely into servants of God’s own purpose. The entire human race was created to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Sin has diverted the human race onto another course, but it has not altered God’s purpose to the slightest degree.”
We are here to declare the praises of God – not declare our own messages. We are to be living testimony to the love of God for the world. We are to intercede for the world in the same way the priests performed intercession for the people. He did not say we are a kingdom of prophets to chastise the world or a kingdom of kings to rule the world. We are a kingdom of priests to come before God in service for the world. Does that create tension between our desire to be prophetic or our desire to rule? Of course it does.
Paul says in Philippians that our citizenship is in heaven. Christ says his kingdom is not of this world. Yet, we find ourselves time and again wanting to be residents and citizens of this world and to enjoy all the privileges of citizenship and belonging to this world. Like the children of Israel, we want the things of the nations around us. We want to belong and to be respected – even feared a bit – for who we are. We want to rule and to have power. We want to settle in and find a place in this world – to be at the table and be considered a player. We want to make room for other gods and other ways of doing things instead of seeing ourselves as a possession. We want God as a friend and an ally but not as someone who can do with us whatever he pleases. We want God as a benevolent President with our best interests in mind – not as King. This is totally different from the way Peter understands their relationship with God. They had not yet acquired legitimacy or power or property. They were still marginal and unimportant. They were not yet struggling with the temptations of power – but would be in a few hundred years.
So, we are priests – not prophets or kings. What does that mean as we read this passage? For the rest of the lesson this morning I am going to lean on Ray Stedman’s exposition of Leviticus. I wish I could just read it to you but I do want to throw in a thought or two of my own – but not many.
“I wonder if we, here today, have any idea at all of how terribly important this priesthood is which God has committed to us as believers. This world is going through terrible struggle and is in a critical state, as we well know. I don’t have to describe it to you. You know how confused and horribly broken it is. And the reason that we are going through such desperate conditions, and that society is literally falling apart at the seams, is the lack of a priesthood. The church has not been what it ought to be. Individual Christians have neglected this priesthood which is committed to them. As a result there has been no salt with savor in society and so it is corrupting at a fearful rate.”
As Ray says, the priest is to be salt and light in the world – not just one who lives by rules and rituals or stands apart from the rest of the community. Our role is deeper than that and much more complicated. Our lives are entangled with the world. We cannot escape it but we cannot rule it. We cannot remake it in our own image or abandon it. We are here to serve. That is why John Stott can say:
“Why do we blame the world for being the world? What does it mean to see our central deepest vocation to be this: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world”? What do salt and light do? They are affective commodities. They affect their environments. Why would you blame a dark room for being dark? Why would you blame rotting meat for rotting? Why wouldn’t you ask, “Why wasn’t this meat salted along the way?” Why would we blame the world for being the world? The question is why weren’t we being who we were supposed to be?”
And who are we supposed to be as priests? What is our role in the world?
Leviticus 10:10. The first is to discriminate between the clean and the unclean, between the holy and the common. Of course in the ancient priesthood this meant to distinguish between animals which were marked as clean and those which were declared unclean, and between sacred vessels, buildings, etc., and those which were for common use. When this is lifted to the level of our priesthood, the spiritual level, it means to discriminate between that which merely feeds the natural life and that which improves a person’s spiritual relationship, deep in his inner heart. And it means to distinguish between that which is harmful and that which is harmless. There are some things which are not exactly healthy but they are not harmful. They were off limits but they were not fatal if used. There are some things that are truly harmful and destroy individuals and families. We called those “infectious” character flaws last week. They get past our defenses in subtle ways and can ultimately destroy organizations and whole communities.
“Discerning between the clean and unclean is not easy to do! It takes a very sharp eye and discriminating mind to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. You remember that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says that though by that time those men ought to have been teachers, yet they needed somebody to teach them again the first principles of God’s word because they were unable to judge between the right and the wrong, between the clean and the unclean. This is what a priesthood is for.
And, second, it is not only to discern the truth but to teach the truth. It is to unveil reality. It is to tear down all the illusions under which people live and to demolish all the lies and fantasies with which society is saturated, and to expose the way life really is. That is the business of priests — to teach the truth about life as the God of truth himself has revealed it. That is what these priests were to do. They were to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the LORD had spoken to them through Moses. And that is our job — to unveil the truth and to help people to see and understand it. That is, we are looking at the world as Christ sees it, at the way it really is, and thus we become utter realists. That is the job of a priest — your job, my job — to take this truth and to set it before people in such a way that they can see the truth about themselves and about life.”
Max De Pree, the former CEO of the Herman Miller company and author wrote that the first responsibility of any leader is to define reality. In so many ways that is the ministry of the priest in a secular setting. People need this ministry in so many ways today.
Where are people confused and blinded by the false values of the world? How have we, as Paul says in Romans, exchanged the truth of God for a lie and we have sometimes even without knowing it or intending to do evil we have accepted what the world teaches that is opposite to the Gospel?
People are confused about power, ambition, wealth, sexuality, identity, desire, control and what the Gospel says about all of this. We have fused our religion and politics so completely it is difficult to tell one from the other. Andrew Sullivan wrote this week that “If politics is fused with religion, and if your opponents are deemed evil, then almost anything can be justified to defeat them.” I think that sums up what is going on today. Our opponents are not simply wrong but they are evil.
Perhaps that is why God tells Aaron they are to drink no wine or strong drink when they are performing the role of the priest. It is certainly not because drinking is wrong but I think God is concerned that the responsibilities of helping the people define reality are so great that nothing should cloud our minds or our discernment. We should allow nothing that dulls our senses to get in the way of our judgement. It’s not just alcohol or drugs, is it? It is habits or even addictions that do the same. We give ourselves over to anger or feeding the anger of others. We almost become intoxicated hearing stories that demean our enemies and confirm our own biases. How can we help define reality for others when we are constantly opening ourselves up to falsehoods and distortions of the truth? We cannot.
The next section (verses 12-15) deals with the sources of the priests’ strength:
”And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar, his sons who were left, “Take the cereal offering that remains of the offerings by fire to the LORD, and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy; you shall eat it in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons’ due, from the offerings by fire to the LORD; for so I am commanded.”
“But do you notice where they were to eat this? In only one place. They were to eat it beside the altar, right beside the place where the animals were put to death, as a reminder of that fundamental principle which runs all through Scripture: he who loses his life shall save it, but he who tries to hang on to it shall lose it. That is the basic law of life. If you try to hang onto your life, try to protect it and keep it for yourself, and are concerned only about what pleases you or does something for you, you will lose it. It will wither and die and you will turn hard and callous and cold and cruel. But if you fling it away, give it away to others, and are ready to invest it in somebody else’s life and welfare, let it die, in other words, you will save it and it will be a joy to you.”
I was with two friends in Dallas this week and we were talking about the phrases that motivated us in the different stages of our lives. When we were young it was “change the world.” As we got older it was “make a difference” which is a little less ambitious. But in this current stage we concluded it was “catch and release”. The challenge is not accumulating but in letting go and trusting. I think that is part of what it means to stay close to the altar. Nowhere else in life are we as much in contact with both the joy of living and the reality of death. The altar is the place of sacrifice but also of atonement. That is why Paul uses the phrase “living sacrifice” in Romans 12. We are to live beside the altar.
There are two other sources of strength given here. Look at Verses 14-15:
“But the breast that is waved and the thigh that is offered you shall eat in any clean place, you and your sons and your daughters with you; for they are given as your due and your sons’ due, from the sacrifices of the peace offerings of the people of Israel. The thigh that is offered and the breast that is waved they shall bring with the offerings by fire of the fat, to wave for a wave offering before the LORD, and it shall be yours, and your sons’ with you, as a due for ever; as the LORD has commanded.”
“Notice the emphasis on the continuity of this provision. This is something which is available all the time, forever. The breast is a symbol of the affections of Christ, of his love for us. The thigh symbolizes his strength, his power on our behalf. What this is saying, again, is that when you get discouraged and feel as if you are not accomplishing anything, and you are beaten down and it doesn’t seem as if anybody is taking any notice, you are to remind yourself of the love the Lord Jesus has for you, to remember that he cares about you and accepts you and is with you, and that his love never changes. You are precious and dear to him. That is feeding upon the breast.
And then when you feel that you can’t do something, that the demands upon you are too great, that you don’t have the power to respond as you ought in some situation — perhaps you know you ought to love someone, but the person is so difficult to love — then you are to remind yourself that Christ’s life is in you and that his strength is yours. If you will just step out and act upon it, it will be there to supply you with whatever power you need. That is feeding upon the thigh. Notice that both of these are to be eaten anywhere, not just at the altar but anywhere you need them. This is where the sources of strength lie.”
Now back to Peter and the way we are to live as priests in the world.
They were to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” The purpose of the Tent of Meeting in Leviticus was to be the place where the glory of the Lord was revealed. That is our purpose as well as priests. We are to live in such a way that the glory of the Lord is revealed.
The purpose of good deeds is not to fix the world but to lead an unbelieving and broken world to glorify God. It is a witness to those who actually persecute the Church. It is not to curry favor with the world or for the world to see us as good people. If our good lives do not point to God then we have missed the point. This does not mean everything good we do has to include a tract or a min-sermon. It does mean we stay focused on the purpose of our good lives – to enable even unbelievers to eventually praise God. How do we change the minds of those who are foolish and ignorant? By doing good. By loving one another. By breaking down the walls that exist between us. By becoming like Christ who, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death…” That is the supernatural nature of Christianity that will cause the world to see and glorify God.