The Royal Priesthood and the Holy Nation | Letter No. 2
A Shadow of the Good Things to Come
From the “beginning,” mankind saw a need to utilize the services of a priest to intercede between God and men and make offerings to atone for sin. This is evident by the fact that both Abel and Cain made such offerings. (Genesis 4:3-4) Though neither Cain nor Abel were called “priests,” by offering up sacrifices, they were acting as priests. Paul said that:
“Every high priest taken from among men is appointed in behalf of men over the things pertaining to God, that he may offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
– Hebrews 5:1
We find also that Noah acted in a priestly capacity on behalf of his family (Genesis 8:20, 21), as well did Abraham (Genesis 12:7-8), and Job (Job 1:5). In fact, in patriarchal times, each family head served as priest on behalf of his family, and in the event of the death of the family head, this duty was passed on to the firstborn son.
So, long before the formal priesthood was ever established, men acted as priests for their own families in offering up sacrifices and gifts, in interceding between their family and God, and in instructing their family about God and His laws, in their attempt to ‘reconcile’ their families to God.
One patriarchal head, Abraham, demonstrated outstanding faith in Jehovah and for this, Jehovah made a promise to him that by means of his seed, “all nations of the earth would certainly bless themselves.” (Genesis 22:18) In other words, Jehovah would use Abraham’s seed as a means to bless the rest of mankind. This promise was affirmed to Abraham’s son, Isaac (Genesis 26:1-6) and to his grandson, Jacob (Genesis 28:1-4).
Jacob, whom Jehovah renamed Israel, had 12 sons. In time, these sons grew into a great multitude. This multitude was the nation of Israel made up of 12 tribes descending from the 12 sons of Israel.
After the Israelites were freed from Egyptian bondage, Jehovah concluded a covenant with them:
“And now if you will strictly obey my voice and will indeed keep my covenant, then you will certainly become my special property out of all other peoples, because the whole earth belongs to me. And you yourselves will become to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
– Exodus 19:5-6
Here, Jehovah expressed his purpose to have, not just a few individuals within the nation serving as priests, but an entire nation made up of priests, a Holy Nation, who were of the seed of Abraham.
A priesthood exists for the sole purpose of interceding between and reconciling God and man. Thus, the Holy Nation of priests would serve on behalf of all other nations in reconciling them to God. And it would be by means of this Holy Nation that “all nations of the earth would certainly bless themselves” pursuant to Jehovah’s promise to Abraham. In association with this covenant, Jehovah gave to the nation what has come to be called the Mosaic Law.
Jehovah’s word has now gone forth ‘and it will have certain success in that for which He has sent it.’ (Isaiah 55:11) As Jesus said, ‘heaven and earth will pass away before one particle of a letter of the Law remains unfulfilled.’ (Matthew 5:17-18) So, how did Jehovah go about fulfilling this part of the Law?
Jehovah set up a prototype – a small scale representation of the promised Holy Nation – by instituting the Levitical priesthood. In this pattern or symbolic drama, one of the 12 tribes, the tribe of Levi, was set aside as Jehovah’s special possession to represent the Holy Nation to come. The remaining 11 tribes represented mankind in need of salvation who would gain the blessing by means of the Holy Nation and on whose behalf the Holy Nation of priests would serve.
However, this prototype, which is based on the Law given to Moses, was only representative and would not bring about the Royal Priesthood, which is based on Jehovah’s promise to Abraham:
“Further, I say this: As to the covenant previously validated by God, the Law that has come into being four hundred and thirty years later does not invalidate it so as to abolish the promise. For if the inheritance is due to law, it is no longer due to promise; whereas God has kindly given it to Abraham through a promise.”
– Galatians 3:17-18
The prototype would serve two basic purposes – to show how much mankind needs to be reconciled to God, and to help identify the one through whom the true reconciliation would come.
“Why then the Law? It was added to make transgressions manifest, until the seed should arrive to whom the promise had been made.”
– Galatians 3:19
“Consequently, the Law has become our tutor leading to the Christ, that we might be declared righteous due to faith.”
– Galatians 3:24
In setting up the prototype, first, Jehovah selected Aaron and his sons, of the tribe of Levi, to serve as high priests to Him. He said to Moses:
“And as for you, bring near to yourself Aaron your brother and his sons with him from the midst of the sons of Israel that he may act as priest to me, Aaron, Nada and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron.”
– Exodus 28:1
Next, Jehovah designated assistants to Aaron and his sons:
“And Jehovah proceeded to speak to Moses, saying: ‘Bring the tribe of Levi near, and you must stand them before Aaron the priest, and they must minister to him. And you must give the Levites to Aaron and his sons. They are given ones, given to him from the sons of Israel.’”
– Numbers 3:5, 6, 9
“And Jehovah continued to speak to Moses, saying: ‘As for me, look! I do take the Levites from among the sons of Israel in place of all the first born opening the womb of the sons of Israel; and the Levites must become mine.’”
– Numbers 3:11-12
This arrangement came to be called the Covenant of Levi (Malachi 2:4) or the Levitical Covenant.
Next, Jehovah prescribed the appropriate sacrifices and offerings required to make atonement for sins. (See the Book of Leviticus.) As merely typical representations, however, these sacrifices would have to be offered up continually from year to year because they were unable to accomplish Jehovah’s purpose of making mankind perfect, thus reconciling them to Himself.
“For since the Law has a shadow of the good things to come, but not the very substance of the things, men can never with the same sacrifices from year to year which they offer continually make those who approach perfect.”
– Hebrews 10:1
Still, they served the purpose of illustrating on a small scale what would be accomplished by the Holy Nation to come.
Finally, Jehovah set out the responsibilities of the priests:
“And Jehovah proceeded to speak to Aaron, saying: ‘Do not drink wine or intoxicating liquor, you and your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, that you may not die. It is a statute to time indefinite for your generations, both in order to make a distinction between the holy thing and the profane and between the unclean thing and the clean, and in order to teach the sons of Israel all the regulations that Jehovah has spoken to them by means of Moses.”
– Leviticus 10:8-11
Yes, the responsibility to teach the nation was placed upon the priests. That this was well known is shown by the words of the prophet Malachi:
“For the lips of a priest are the ones that should keep knowledge, and the law is what people should seek from his mouth; for he is the messenger of Jehovah of armies.”
– Malachi 2:7
So, by these arrangements, Jehovah separated the people into two “classes” – the priesthood and the people – prefiguring the Holy Nation to come and the “nations of the earth,” respectively.
To recap, Jehovah made a covenant with the nation of Israel that if they obeyed His voice, they would all make up a Holy Nation – a kingdom of priests. To illustrate what he purposed, he set up a typical representation of the two classes right within the nation of Israel by:
- (a) selecting high priests from among Aaron and his sons of the tribe of Levi;
- (b) selecting underpriests also from the tribe of Levi to assist the high priests;
- (c) establishing acceptable sacrifices; and
- (d) assigning a teaching work to the priesthood.
To emphasize the point, the nation of Israel served as a microcosm of the entire world of mankind. The priestly tribe of Levi representing the Holy Nation, and the remaining 11 tribes representing the world as a whole who would be blessed by the Holy Nation.
To further clarify this “two-class” distinction, we can look at the events occurring on the Day of Atonement, whereupon Jehovah prescribed the following procedure of atoning for sin:
First, the high priest slaughtered a bull and offered it as a sacrifice for himself and his house, the Levites. This first sacrifice cleansed the priesthood and enabled them to serve on behalf of the people as a Holy Nation of priests.
Next, the high priest offered a different and separate sacrifice on behalf of the people. This sacrifice consisted of two goats. One was sacrificed as a sin offering in a manner similar to the sacrifice of the bull. The high priest then confessed over the head of the other goat the sins of the people, and the goat was then led away into the wilderness, never to be heard of again, symbolizing that their sins were carried away. (See Leviticus 16:1-34 and Hebrews 9:7) This offering placed the people in a cleansed condition before Jehovah – reconciling them to Himself. Even though it was a temporary cleansing, it served to typify how the “nations of the earth” would be cleansed by the Holy Nation to come and become reconciled to God.
Thus, in this symbolic drama, the priestly class received their forgiveness or atonement first, prior to the atonement of the people. Only after the priest had been cleansed could they act on behalf of the people. This arrangement was to continue as a typical representation until the promised Royal Priesthood – the fulfillment of the promise – would occur. So, we clearly see that in Jehovah’s typical arrangement, there were indeed “two classes.”
It is important to note, however, that the Levitical priesthood typified the Holy Nation, not the Royal Priesthood referred to in 1 Peter 2:9. In a royal priesthood, the priests would also be kings. In the nation of Israel, the priestly tribe was Levi, and the kingly tribe was Judah. These two tribes stayed separate as respects their assignments. That is, no Israelite priest also served as king, and no Israelite king also served as priest. The fleshly nation of Israel never produced, or typified, the Royal Priesthood. From this we can see that there was still more to unfold before the promise was to be fulfilled. Let’s continue with Letter No. 3.