Sunday, May 9, 2021

Serving in His Sanctuary

Screams echoed through the camp. It was about to be one of the most terrifying days of the wilderness journey. Forty percent of Israel's priests were charred to a crisp. Nadab, son of Aaron and nephew of Moses, was dead. So was his brother Abihu. Less than a year earlier, Israel had been tasked to be a priest-nation to the world, and within it, some would serve as priests to the priest-nation. Aaron and his two oldest sons Nadab and Abihu were among the select few who, standing on the untouchable mountain, glimpsed God with their eyes and feasted with him. After the golden calf, Israel was deprived of having the firstborn head of each family act as its priest. Instead, the immense honor of priesthood was confined to Aaron and his sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, with their entire tribe of Levi dedicated to holy service, trading a share in the land for a share in the Lord. This same Lord had given the Levites and the ordained priests strict regulations about how to approach him. But instead of taking holy fire from the altar, Nadab and Abihu got theirs elsewhere. Was it convenience? Pride? Too much to drink? Whatever the cause, they burned incense with strange fire, claiming the right to do worship their way. To which God shouted no, in flame and fury and fatality (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Time passed – was it months, or was it years? But one day, a grumbling spread through Israel. Some Levites stood up, led by Moses' cousin Korah, and other Israelites, led by the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram. And they insisted on the priesthood of all Israelites – wasn't the whole congregation holy? Then how come Aaron and his family got these special privileges? So hundreds challenged the authority of Moses, and they dared to demand the priesthood from Aaron. So Moses set a contest: they were free to approach and burn incense, and see how it turned out. Korah and his cohorts seized a place not their own in Israel's worship. For their crime, those who weren't Levites were swallowed up by the earth, while the rebellious Levites suffered the fate of Nadab and Abihu – fire came out from the Lord's presence and consumed them. For complaining about it the next day, Israel was afflicted with a sudden disease outbreak, which only Aaron's ministry could stop (Numbers 16).

To hear those two stories is to realize that God is not 'laid back' when it comes to our worship. He takes it very, very seriously. If he weren't, Nadab and Abihu and Korah and a whole lot of others would have lived out many more years than they did. No, God considers the sanctity of his worship to be a matter of life and death. And therefore he handed down to Israel a significant number of rules and regulations to guard and guide their life of worship in structured and ordered ways. Much later, ancient Jews saw that the Ten Commandments were like the chiseled bedrock of the entire Law, and so everything the Law said about the way that Israel should worship was filed under this First Commandment.1 What was that to look like?

First, Israel was commanded to make the tabernacle, or tent of meeting – “a sanctuary, that [God] may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). It had to be built to the exact specifications that Moses saw on the mountaintop (Exodus 25:9), because the tabernacle was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). It was a replica of heaven itself. So exact instructions were given for its curtains and clasps and frames and bars and veil and entry screen, and for its inner furnishings like the ark of the covenant and the table for sacred bread and the golden lampstand, and for its outer furnishings like the perimeter of its court and a bronze altar and a bronze basin and an incense altar (Exodus 25-30).

To serve the needs of that tabernacle, the tribe of Levi was appointed, with some among them – Aaron and his sons – alone chosen to be priests to the priestly nation. And those priests had very definite responsibilities. For one thing, they were responsible for teaching Israel theology and ethics – who God is and how to serve him. “They shall teach Jacob your rules and Israel your law” (Deuteronomy 33:10), “for the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 2:7). Second, in the course of their duties, the priests would hear people's sins, so as to know what kinds of offerings should be given. Third, they were called on to inspect people's bodies and buildings, to act as judges of what things were clean and what things were unclean, with authority to quarantine (Leviticus 13-14). Fourth, priests were called on to sit in judgment of lawsuits: “The priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the LORD, and by their word, every dispute and every assault shall be settled” (Deuteronomy 21:5).

Fifth, maybe most importantly, it was their job to offer Israel's five kinds of sacrifice, which were essential to living in proximity to God. One type of sacrifice was the 'sin-offering,' which was meant to purge away the stain of moral wrong or ritual uncleanness (Leviticus 4:1—5:13; 6:25-30). Another type was the 'guilt-offering,' which was meant to repay God for having trespassed certain boundaries (Leviticus 5:14—6:7; 7:1-10). Still another type, which our Bibles translate as a 'grain offering,' is literally called a 'tribute-offering,' returned to God as a token of blessings and reminder of covenant loyalty (Leviticus 2:1-16; 6:14-18). Another type of sacrifice was the 'peace-offering,' meant to express peace and fellowship with God. It was a response to God's saving grace, and even the everyday people were allowed to have a bite (Leviticus 3:1-17; 7:11-18). Of that type, there was even a sub-type our Bibles might call a 'thank-offering,' a sacrifice of grateful acknowledgment, but the Greek Old Testament calls it “sacrifice of praise” (Leviticus 7:12-15). And the fifth type of sacrifice, which our Bibles call a 'burnt offering' or a 'whole burnt offering,' is actually an 'ascension-offering,' because it gets turned entirely into delicious-smelling smoke that ascends up to heaven – it signifies complete letting go and giving over to God (Leviticus 1:1-17; 6:9-13).

So the priests were the only ones who could offer these sacrifices. “Every priest stands daily at his service” (Hebrews 10:11), “appointed to act on behalf of humans in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices” (Hebrews 5:1). And beyond that, Israel's priests oversaw other aspects of Israel's worship. They tended the fire of the altar, made sure the lampstand had enough oil to burn, replaced bread laid out on the holy table. They sounded the trumpets on holy days. And just as the story of Korah confirmed that priests were set apart even from other Levites, so the story of Nadab and Abihu confirmed that these priests had to follow a very specific method. But in return for all their work, they and the sanctuary received financial support from the people. Not only did they have exclusive right to eat portions of certain sacrifices, but they were supported by Israel's firstfruits and tithes. “The first of all the firstfruits of all kinds, and every offering of all kinds from all your offerings, shall belong to the priests” (Ezekiel 44:30). “To the Levites have I given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for the service they do” (Numbers 18:21).

So Israel had all these regulations laid out for their worship. But, we might ask, what does that have to do with now? The prophets saw a definite future for all these things. Through Jeremiah, God declared, “The levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer ascension-offerings, to burn tribute-offerings, and to make sacrifices forever” (Jeremiah 33:18). Through Malachi, God said that when the Lord finally came to his temple – in other words, the coming of Christ – “he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD (Malachi 3:3). Through Isaiah, God pledged that when he gathered the Gentile nations in, “some of them also will I take for priests and for Levites” (Isaiah 66:21), and so “the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD... to be his servants..., these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their ascension-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar” (Isaiah 56:6-7). But through Malachi, God said: “From the east to the west, my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering (Malachi 1:11). Even some Jewish rabbis acknowledged that, when the Messiah came, he'd fulfill all sacrifices, but one would remain: the 'sacrifice of praise' would forever be offered.2 How are these things fulfilled in our worship?

In Jesus Christ, of course! For “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens: Jesus the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14). Jesus was “designated by God a high priest” in a higher order than Aaron could have dreamed of (Hebrews 5:10). Jesus ministers now as “a high priest holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). And in Jesus Christ, the entire Church inherits the promises given to Israel. Israel was called to be “a kingdom of priests” to the world (Exodus 19:6), and so the Church is now the “royal priesthood” to the world (1 Peter 2:9), being also built up as God's new temple, “a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). We all, together, have a priestly calling toward the world around us, just like Israel was to have.

But the early church also came to believe that, just like Israel's priesthood toward the world foreshadowed the Church's priesthood toward the world, so the priestly order within Israel foreshadowed a priestly order within the Church – those who minister in the Church, through whom Jesus continues to do for the Church all those things that the priests and Levites did for ancient Israel. The priesthood of the Church is no substitute for the priesthood in the Church – otherwise, Korah's only problem was being a visionary ahead of his time. And so, already in the Bible, we see the apostles given authority to do the sorts of things priests used to do. Just so, Paul described himself as Jesus' “minister... in the priestly service of God's gospel” (Romans 15:16). Paul even defends the right of gospel ministers to financial support from the church by identifying them with Israel's priests who had a right to be supported through Israel's firstfruits, tithes, and sacrifices (1 Corinthians 9:13-14).

Already in the first-century church, bishops or prophets were labeled “your high priests” and entitled to receive the firstfruits that used to go to the Temple in Jerusalem (Didache 13.3-7). Already in the first-century church, leaders trained by the apostles themselves identified the structured hierarchy of Israel's priesthood with the structures of ministry in the Church: just as Israel had proper orders and places for the high priest, the priests, the Levites, and the Israelites, so Christians were called to “strive to please God with a good conscience and with reverence, not transgressing the fixed rule of each one's own ministry.”3 By the end of the second century, the bishop was explicitly called the “high priest” for the church in any given local place,4 and the Church was explicitly said to have “priesthoods” (sacerdotia).5 (This was the same time the word 'Trinity' was coined.) By just two centuries after the cross, each bishop was ordained with a prayer that he'd “serve before [God] as high priest..., ceaselessly propitiating your countenance and offering the gifts of your holy church; and let him have the power of high priesthood, to forgive sins according to your command, to assign duties according to your command..., to please you in gentleness and with a pure heart, offering you the scent of sweetness.”6

As for Israel's sacrifices, Paul explains that Jesus offered himself as the final sin-offering (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26), offering “for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12). Isaiah had also prophesied that the death of the Messiah would be a guilt-offering – the final guilt-offering ever needed (Isaiah 53:10). Paul also describes Jesus' death in the language appropriate for an ascension-offering: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God into an aroma of fragrance” (Ephesians 5:2). Christ fulfills it!

But the ancient church also believed that there were sacrifices the Church was called to offer, just as Israel had its sacrifices to offer. Paul compares the table of the Lord's Supper to the altar of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:18-21). The author to the Hebrews insists that “we have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat” (Hebrews 13:10) – but we do eat from an altar. Having had “our bodies washed with pure water” in baptism, believing with “full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience,” we enter holy places through Jesus' flesh and blood (Hebrews 10:19-22). And so, just as ancient Israel celebrated their own 'sacrifice of praise' – an actual sacrifice, surrounded by hymns and blessings – we, when we celebrate at our altar, “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15). People trained by the apostles all agreed that the Eucharist – we usually call it 'Communion' – was the sacrifice that fulfills the prophecies of Malachi and must be kept strictly pure (Didache 14.1-3). They described the work of bishops, and later other pastors, as “offering the gifts,” that is, sacrificing.7 Just as Israelites connected to worship at the altar by cooperating with the ministry of the priests, so early Christians said they connected to worship at the altar by cooperating with the ministry of the clergy.8 They explained how a church has “one sacrificial altar” on which is celebrated “one eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup of unity in his blood.”9

This is the sacrifice of praise, the peace-offering, and the tribute-offering of the Church, which brings us back to the one sin-offering and guilt-offering. Through it were offered up to God the acts of charity and good deeds carried out by each Christian: “Don't neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). Christians lay down their whole lives by presenting their “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). And indeed, in the early church, the logical extension of that living sacrifice was a sacrifice that could end in the death of the body: martyrdom. Ignatius of Antioch, who became a martyr, said he hoped that martyrdom would make him “a sacrifice for God,”10 and Polycarp of Smyrna, disciple of John, “was bound like a ram marked for sacrifice out of a great flock, a whole-burnt offering,” praying that Jesus Christ, the “eternal and heavenly high priest,” would receive his life and death “as a rich and acceptable sacrifice.”11

For Israel, keeping the First Commandment involved receiving and maintaining the sons of Aaron as priests who, with help from the Levites, would teach truth, treat sins, help to govern, judge between clean and unclean, offer sacrifice, lead worship, and maintain and care for holy things and holy places. For us today, we fulfill the First Commandment as we cherish Jesus who does all these things as our heavenly High Priest, and in him we receive and maintain the ministers of the new covenant as priests who serve as Aaron served; whereas rejecting those ministries would not keep the First Commandment.

For Israel, keeping the First Commandment involved the assorted sacrifices that Israel's priests offered, first at the tabernacle and then at the temple. For us today, we fulfill the First Commandment as the Church offers up the new covenant's sacrifice of praise, the Eucharist, as surrounded by hymns, gathering up our charity and good works to God, bringing us in contact with the sin-offering and guilt-offering of Jesus on the cross, and preparing us to lay down our lives to rise to heaven as ascension-offerings in martyrdom, if God blesses us with it. But if we neglect to offer and eat the Church's sacrifice of praise, or if we carry out no charity or good works to be gathered up with it, or if we neglect to look to Jesus for our sin and our guilt, or if we shy away from presenting our bodies sacrificially to God, then to that extent, we fall short of the First Commandment.

For Israel, keeping the First Commandment involved supporting the ministries of the tabernacle, and the calling of the priests and Levites, with firstfruits, tithes, and offerings. For us today, we fulfill the First Commandment as we support the church with our firstfruits – not just our leftover greenback here or there, but with the best of what we have, before we take our own cut. As uncomfortable as it is to talk about giving and tithing, since we Americans are notoriously sensitive about money, we have to teach the whole counsel of God here. Malachi warns that refusing our firstfruits, our tithes, our offerings, is robbing God (Malachi 3:8). When we refuse or neglect the support of the church and her ministers and ministries, we fall short of the First Commandment.

For Israel, keeping the First Commandment involved honoring the solemnity of its worship and its holy space in the tabernacle and temple. For us today, we fulfill the First Commandment as we honor the solemnity of our worship and the sanctified space in which we carry it out. But too easily, we're tempted to treat our time here in worship casually. We might meander in and out. We might get sidetracked into joking around. We might get caught up in chitchat. We might forget that we stand and sit on holy ground for holy purposes in the presence of a holy God who is still very much a Consuming Fire. And to the extent of our neglect, we fall short of the First Commandment.

And for Israel, keeping the First Commandment involved maintaining the proper order and character of their worship as prescribed by God – and not taking it upon themselves to tune it to their whims. It didn't matter if Abihu didn't like one of the prescribed psalms, or if he thought that a different one would go better. It didn't matter if Nadab thought the sacrificial liturgy was too elaborate. It didn't matter if Korah didn't like the priest's instructions. It wasn't about them. It was about God. And just as the worship life of ancient Israel was no free-for-all up for revision, neither is the worship life of Christ's Church. Because it isn't about us either! It's about the God of Israel revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, guiding the whole Church in its properly ordered worship. Let our whims and wishes all be denied, but let God be glorified. Thanks be to the God of all holiness and all salvation! Amen.

1  See, e.g., Philo of Alexandria, On the Special Laws 1.66-298

2  Leviticus Rabbah 9.7

3  Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 40.5—41.1; but see 1 Clement 40-43 as a whole.

4  Tertullian of Carthage, On Baptism 17.1

5  Tertullian of Carthage, Prescription Against Heretics 29

6  Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition 3.4-5. See also Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Leviticus 2.4.5, where the leader of a local church is described as “the priest of the Lord.”

7  Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 44.4

8  Ignatius of Antioch, Trallians 7.2

9  Ignatius of Antioch, Philadelphians 4

10  Ignatius of Antioch, Romans 4.2

11  Martyrdom of Polycarp 14.1-2

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