N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
We are all priests
It’s subtle — almost invisible in the English — but in Gen 1 and 2, God ordains Adam and Eve as priests in his cosmic temple.
(Gen. 2:15 ESV) 15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
The words translated “work” and “keep” are used in the Law of Moses to describe the work of the priests.
To conclude, then, (1) since there are a couple of contexts in which šmr is used for Levitical service along with (e.g., Num. 3:8–9), (2) since the contextual use of šmr here favors sacred service, (3) since [it] is as likely to refer to sacred service as to agricultural tasks, and (4) since there are other indications that the garden is being portrayed as sacred space, it is likely that the tasks given to Adam are of a priestly nature—that is, caring for sacred space. In ancient thinking, caring for sacred space was a way of upholding creation. By preserving order, chaos was held at bay. …
If the priestly vocabulary in 2:15 indicates the same kind of thinking here, the point of caring for sacred space should be seen as much more than landscaping or even priestly duties. Maintaining order made one a participant with God in the ongoing task of sustaining the equilibrium God had established in the cosmos. … This combines the subduing and ruling of chapter 1 with the ‘bd and šmr of this chapter.
Walton, John H.. Genesis (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 3803-3807; 3816-3822). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Wright assumes that the reader is familiar with Walton’s work. The following video filmed at Harding University is an excellent introduction to Walton’s thinking —
So there’s a subtle but real suggestion that in some sense Adam and Eve took on priestly roles in the Garden. We could venture further down that road — but God has revealed little else, and there’s no profit in sheer speculation.
Abraham is not called a priest, but he often built an altar and made sacrifices to God — which is clearly a priestly role in the Scriptures.
Moses, of course, was not a priest, but his brother Aaron was the first high priest, and Moses himself took on the priestly role of communicating God’s words to the people.
As high priest, Aaron engaged in rituals that cleansed the tabernacle and the people so that they could be in God’s presence, he oversaw the offering of sacrifices and the other tabernacle rituals, and he represented the Israelites before God — making sacrifices for the people as a whole, such as on the Day of Atonement.
However, there’s a sense in which all Israelites were priests —
(Exod. 19:4-6 ESV) 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 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; 6 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.”
The NET Bible translator notes explain,
This kingdom of God will be composed of a priestly people. All the Israelites would be living wholly in God’s service and enjoying the right of access to him. And, as priests, they would have the duty of representing God to the nations, following what they perceived to be the duties of priests – proclaiming God’s word, interceding for people, and making provision for people to find God through atonement (see Deu 33:9, Deu 33:10).
They are also to be “a holy nation.” They are to be a nation separate and distinct from the rest of the nations. Here is another aspect of their duty. It was one thing to be God’s special possession, but to be that they had to be priestly and holy. The duties of the covenant will specify what it would mean to be a holy nation. In short, they had to keep themselves free from everything that characterized pagan people (S. R. Driver, Exodus, 171). So it is a bilateral covenant: they received special privileges but they must provide special services by the special discipline.
This is the origin of Peter’s teaching —
(1 Pet. 2:4-5 ESV) 4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
(1 Pet. 2:9-10 ESV) 9 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. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Remember: the Law of Moses is not repealed. It’s fulfilled and re-envisioned in light of Jesus. Therefore Peter takes these declarations regarding ancient Israel and applies them to the church — which is, after all, faithful Israel with the Gentiles of faith grafted in, as explained by Paul in Rom 11.
Because Jesus is a priest, and we are a part of him, we are also priests and able to offer sacrifices, although not Levites.
David was of the tribe of Judah, and so not qualified to be a priest, as Torah required priests to be Levites. In fact, before the Torah, we often read of Abraham and the later patriarchs offering voluntary, occasional sacrifices to God after important events, as a sign of thanksgiving, and this practice stops with Moses. Thereafter, only Levitical priests could offer a sacrifice, and only at the tabernacle or Temple. Later on, kings loyal to God would destroy not only altars to pagan deities but altars built to God — to preserve the Temple as the exclusive place where God may be worshiped.
But David violated this rule and offered sacrifices himself, even wearing the priests’ garment (the ephod) in so doing. This violation of Torah was overlooked as explained in this important psalm —
(Ps. 110:1-111:1 ESV) The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” 2 The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! 3 Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours. 4 The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” 5 The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. 6 He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. 7 He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.
Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High God in Salem (Jerusalem) at the time of Abraham. He was no Levite. He wasn’t even a Jew.
The NET Bible translator notes say,
The Davidic king exercised a non-Levitical priestly role. The king superintended Judah’s cultic ritual, had authority over the Levites, and sometimes led in formal worship. David himself instructed the Levites to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (1Ch 15:11-15), joined the procession, offered sacrifices, wore a priestly ephod, and blessed the people (2Sa 6:12-19). At the dedication of the temple Solomon led the ceremony, offering sacrifices and praying on behalf of the people (1Ki 8).
The Davidic king’s priestly role is analogous to that of Melchizedek, who was both “king of Salem” (i.e., Jerusalem) and a “priest of God Most High” in the time of Abraham (Gen 14:18-20). Like Melchizedek, the Davidic king was a royal priest, distinct from the Aaronic line (see Heb 7). The analogy focuses on the king’s priestly role; the language need not imply that Melchizedek himself was “an eternal priest.”
In Hebrews, the author applies these teachings to Jesus, but that’s a lesson for another day.
Under the new covenant of Jesus, Christians become priests, as we’ve seen in 1 Peter quoted above. But the same concept is implicit in countless NT passages where we are performing priestly duties, such as offering sacrifices and having direct access to God. We represent God to the world as his priests.