From the very beginning God established man with a priestly calling. When God put man in a garden, He made man in His image and then commanded him to subdue the earth. Man was to subdue the earth and take dominion over it by filling it with the knowledge of God.
The garden language used in Genesis is temple language. God is creating a cosmic temple and in that temple He put man and then gave man the commission to fill earth with the knowledge of God. This is why God was accustomed to walking with man in the garden. The garden was a place of communion between God and man – a place that God wanted expanded until it covered the entire earth.
Throughout the redemptive plan, we see an emphasis on the priestly ministry and because of this it is important to recognize that the priesthood is far more than a vocation it is an identity. The people of God are priests before Him forever. Even in the book of Exodus when God put vocational priests in place who served in the tabernacle as an occupation, God declares that Israel is a nation of priests.
6and 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.” (Exodus 19:6 ESV)
This is why the priesthood of Israel was originally designed to come from all the tribes of Israel. God saw the nation as a priestly nation and wanted every family in the nation connected to that identity regardless of whether or not they served in the tabernacle as part of their vocation. Moses was told to speak these words over the nation so that their divine calling remained front and center. In the same way we are to speak to each other about our priestly identity before God to provoke each other to function in our calling before God.
It is key to recognize that there is a difference between the priestly identity that God has given man and the priestly job that the Levitical priesthood fulfilled in the Old Testament tabernacle. The priestly job in the Old Testament that included administering sacrifices does not continue on for us. However, the priestly identity of the people of God does. This is why Jesus is called a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Our leader is a priest and we are called to be like Him. However, He is not a priest like the Levites who were called to administrate the Tabernacle. He is a priest of a different order who ministers to God forever. We are part of this priesthood with Him.
4The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4 ESV)
All of this is why the New Testament describes the people of God as a continuing priesthood. God has always wanted a priestly nation, not just a few priests who administrated the Old Testament sacrificial system. The gospel does not replace the priesthood; it enables the priesthood God always wanted. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus God’s eternal purpose of a nation of priests can go forward. Revelation 4-5 contains key predictions about the nature of these priests, how they function, and how God wants to implement the priestly ministry on the earth.
Human beings were uniquely designed by God to serve as priests. We were made in the image of God so that we can fellowship with God and then accurately reflect and spread the knowledge of God across the earth.
The most majestic creatures in the earth can only display their own majesty. A lion is majestic and terrible in his strength, but he is limited to his own strength. His majesty is limited to what can be contained within the frame of a lion. Man is completely different. Man is not limited to the majesty of his own frame. Human beings are designed so that they can encounter and reflect the majesty of God. We are designed to demonstrate a glory greater than our own glory.
The great tragedy of man’s fall is that we have become obsessed with displaying and pursing our own glory when in fact we were created to experience and display something far more glorious. Though we endlessly pursue our own glory, we are never satisfied with our own glory because we weren’t made like the rest of creation. We are made to reflect something bigger than ourselves.
However, when we break fellowship with God and we do not experience and display His glory we still try to fulfill our priestly duty by giving ourselves to lessor glories and displaying lesser glory. We become obsessed with human beauty, human power, and human pleasure when the reality is we were made to call creation to something far greater.
All sorts of disasters are in the earth because we cannot, within ourselves, produce the kind of glory we were made to carry. At the same time we cannot help but function in our priestly calling. We cannot help but call the earth to what we find most beautiful and most desirable. We automatically talk about, write about, and evangelize about whatever we find most beautiful and most majestic.
It’s in our nature. When we see beauty and majesty our response is automatic. We talk about it. We call others to it. We look for it. When someone hits a game winning shot we don’t ponder it, we immediately respond to the beauty of the athletic feat. We tells others about it the next day. We are made to be fascinated and when we are truly fascinated we are not silent. This is the core of our priestly identity and our priestly function. We must connect how we function as human beings with the prediction of Revelation 4-5 that we are made to interact with the beauty of God this way.
No other creature in the earth does this. Other creatures simply live their life. They do not call others to pleasure and beauty because the animals of this realm do not have a priestly calling. They live their lives at a basic level seeking food and shelter. Beauty does not affect them, nor do they call others to embrace what they find beautiful.
Humans cannot live this way though. We are attracted to beauty and we naturally call others to appreciate that beauty whether it is a person, an idea, a cause, a nation, or even an athletic contest. Humans cannot help but be attracted to beauty and then seek to call others to value that same beauty. What we must see is that this is priestly.
Man will fulfill his priestly calling in some way and this has grave implications for the earth. So long as we function as priests calling the earth to lesser beauty, we bring disaster into the earth. However, the very moment we being to call the earth to something higher than ourselves we recover our priestly calling and cooperate with Gods’ plan to bring healing to the nations.
What the earth needs most right now are human beings to function as priests on the earth. Jesus died for this because it is necessary for man to recover his calling in order to redeem creation. At the heart of man’s priestly call is the desire for beauty, the revelation of beauty, and then giving a witness of that beauty.
Man’s fallen nature wars against his priestly calling because our fallen nature sets our focus on ourselves. The lie in the garden was that we would be the ones that defined both good and evil. The recovery of the priestly calling requires us to set our focus outside ourselves on something higher. Our fallen nature resists this, but in reality it is a doorway to the highest pleasure imaginable. There is no higher pleasure than encountering beauty that transcends us. This is why the majesty of nature amazes us or the roar of a jet leaves us in awe. These things are bigger than ourselves. We are made to be caught up in a majesty bigger than ourselves and in that we will find ecstasy that we can never experience so long as we are enamored with ourselves.
The unique gifts given to man were given so that man could commune with God and then spread the knowledge of God across the earth. A true priestly ministry sanctifies and cleanses a space. It enables people to approach God. Israel had to have a priestly ministry for the nation to experience the presence of God in their midst and that is a picture for us of what the earth must have.
If Israel had to have a priestly ministry to host the presence of God, then the earth also must have a priestly ministry to host the presence of God. Until there is a priestly ministry functioning on the earth, the earth cannot experience the presence of God in the way it was meant to.
This is ultimately the calling of the church. We are called to be a priestly ministry in a particular location so that a community can experience the knowledge of God. We are called to be a witness of something greater and to host God’s presence in the midst of our nations for the sake of the nation. We are designed by God to minster to Him and in so doing host His presence for the sake of our nations.
Whenever Israel’s priesthood was corrupt, the nation was in serious trouble. When the priesthood was flouring the nation flourished. This is intended to be a message for us. Our modern nations do not have Israel’s calling, but the church in a nation represents the priests of that people group. The fate of our nations is more connected to the church than we realize. When the church is functioning in her priestly identity it releases a witness in a nation of what is true, right, and good. A vibrant church in a dark nation can preserve and ultimately bring a measure of transformation to that nation.
This is illustrated in Numbers 16. Numbers 16 tells the story of what happened when Korah rebelled against God’s leadership through Moses. The people sided with Korah’s rebellion and provoked God’s judgments. Moses response to God’s immanent judgment was to send Aaron into the people to offer incense to protect the people from judgment.
45“Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell on their faces. 46And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” 47So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. (Numbers 16:45–47 ESV)
Our atonement is found in Jesus, but Numbers 16 illustrates a powerful principle. Priests bringing incense among the people was able to effectively serve as intercession protecting the people from God’s judgments. While the priesthood has changed dramatically the principle is the same. When priests minster among the people it serves as intercession for the sake of the people. Aaron took his incense into the middle of God’s judgments on the basis of the ministry of the tabernacle. We are called to take our “incense” into the middle of the people on the basis of a much more powerful atonement – the blood of Jesus.
When a nation does not have a vibrant church functioning in her identity the nation is missing a God ordained witness and will rapidly descend into darkness. The number one need of the nations is not political change or economic change. The number one need of nations is a priestly ministry – a vibrant church. If we deeply care about the future of our nations, we should first of call give ourselves to building the church. Only when the church is in place can a society ever truly prosper.
Revelation 4 describes the essence of that priestly ministry. It is to gaze at what is truly beautiful – God Himself – and then respond to that beauty. Our declaration of the beauty of God is what sanctifies the earth. The church becomes a set apart people, a holy people, because we set our gaze on a higher beauty and because we call others to embrace that beauty as well. Our calling is to first establish the church as this kind of people. A people with a different gaze and different values from the people around them. A people who live differently from their emotions not just in their behaviors.
Too often we teach people that being Christian means to believe certain things or to behave certain ways, but it means something far deeper. It means to love different things. It means to have an entirely different vision of what beauty is. It means the very core of our being has been captured by something entirely different from what captures the earth.
We are not just different from the world in attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. It goes farther than that. We are different in our very essence. This is what it means to be holy. That is what it means to be a Christian. When a people gather around this it forms a biblical church. The thing that makes us different is not ultimately our creeds or our behavior, it is God Himself. This is why the new birth is so critical.
A Christian is one who has been made into a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) a new creature and that transformation doesn’t happen when a person only taken on new beliefs, it takes on when they encounter the beautiful God. That encounter is more dramatic in some and less dramatic in others. It happens in different ways with different individuals, but nevertheless it is the transformation of human beings that comes when they encounter God that makes them Christians.
A church is an assembly of people transformed and they become a visible statement in their community of a different way of living. It reflects the values of heaven and not the values of their society. It provides a glimpse into what is coming on the earth. This is why it is so critical that we model the church after what is happening in heaven. The church makes a statement to society because it values and, even more importantly, finds pleasure in very different things that the world values and finds pleasure in.
A biblical church values now the things that will be valued on the earth. It is a prophetic statement of what is coming and what will be. It is also a rebuke to the existing culture, a reminder that what presently is will not always be. Something greater is coming. One of the ways the church does this is by reorienting itself around priestly ministry. Practically this means the church ministers to God first and then to the people. The expression can vary in different locations, but the ultimate goal is the same – the church should demonstrate on earth what is most valuable in heaven.
When the church functions as a community of priests, it provides a valuable witness on the earth. When the church functions in its priestly identity it creates a context where people can experience God. To do this we must make the pursuit of the beauty of God our highest passion and then structure church in such a way that it becomes a context to pursue the beauty of God and then a place to respond to that beauty as it is revealed to us.
It would have been easy for John to get so caught up in the ecstasy of his heavenly vision that he assumed that such a thing can only be experienced in the heavens. This is why the elders remind him humans must rule as priests on the earth. What John experiences in these chapters must come to the earth. If we connect to the intensity of the pleasure John was experiencing in Revelation 4-5, then the prophesy that this must come to the earth becomes a staggering prophecy.
This means the earth truly is going to be filled with the glory of God. The curse will be lifted. The earth will become like heaven. How will it happen? It will happen as part of a divine process that involves restoring mankind to his priestly place. This is why Romans 8 tells us that all of creation is groaning for the sons of God to take their place and be revealed. Creation groans because the earth is made for something far more than what we currently experience.
19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. (Romans 8:19 ESV)
Human beings must take their priestly place for creation to be liberated. This cannot fully come until Jesus returns to liberate creation, but the act of redemption was the first step in recovering man’s calling. As we wait for the day of His return when the earth will be transformed, the church is to be a witness in society of what is coming. That witness is primarily given by what the church values. How important is this? Revelation 5 says Jesus shed His own blood for it.