In ancient Israel, it was a priest’s job to bring humanity before God. They were Levites who carried out many tasks. They took care of the sacred space in which God’s manifest presence dwelt, they made sacrifices on behalf of the people of God, they offered visitors counsel, they served as judges on difficult legal cases, they taught God’s laws, and they helped lead the nation. This being said, if an Israelite wanted to get to God, they had to go through the Levitical priests who would mediate that space for them in an appropriate way. Ever since the beginning, there was no space for anyone to carry out an isolated faith, for faith was communal. If you wanted to get to God, you had to go through a Levite.
But there’s another way that Ancient Israel thought of priests as well. Even though this role was a specific task that had been assigned to the Levites, all of Israel was expected to act as a “kingdom of priests” for the other nations of the world. So though an Israelite might go to a Levite to get to God, the rest of the world might go to Israel to get to God. So long as Israel obeyed God’s voice and kept his covenant, they would operate as an entire “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
From the very beginning, God’s plan was always to reach the nations. He would do this via the gravitas of his people’s obedience. As people gazed upon the covenant-keeping Israel, they would behold what humanity looks like under God and they would be drawn to them and ask Israel to bring them before God as well. Of course, the Bible shows that Israel’s flaws constantly got in the way of obedience to God as they broke their side of the covenant over and over again. After many chances to get it right, they eventually grew into the same kind of oppressive force that once oppressed them, so God turned them over to exile. Once there, a prophet named Jeremiah rose up, declaring that God was getting ready to make a new covenant with Israel, saying, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
The church often only focuses on that last line about the forgiveness of sins, but the new covenant that we make with God via Jesus is still about obedience to God. Part of what makes the new covenant different is that the Holy Spirit empowers us to actually know and carry out the laws of God in the places where we failed so many times in the past. Indeed, Jesus expects us to carry out his laws, for in the gospels he actually submits Christians to judgment for continuing to be workers of lawlessness after being filled with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 7:22). A lawless Christianity that is full of forgiveness but not of lawful works violates the new covenant and does not shine a light that brings the nations to God (Matthew 5:16). To the contrary, our hypocrisy may very well push the nations away from God! And who hasn’t met someone who has that exact experience with Christians?
Working off the language of the old covenant, John refers to Jesus-followers as “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6). Just like how Israel was supposed to act as a kingdom of priests to attract the nations to God in the old covenant, so are Christians now to do the same through the fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant. On top of that, all Christians are also like the Levitical priests of old, for Peter calls us, “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” (2 Peter 2:5). As a royal priesthood, all Christians may now enter into sacred space to meet with the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit at any time. We may discern what the Spirit wants in difficult cases, offer counsel, teach on laws, and mediate the space for people to get right with God. Our faith is still communal (for we operate as a priesthood and not as a singular priest) but our ability to get close to God and discern his ways is now as close to us as our own hearts.