Thy Kingdom Come
A Kingdom of Priests
Obviously there are many things about god and the way he dealt with people that we do not, and never will understand. There are, however, a few things that we can understand. God has set himself up to be a king. Every king must have a kingdom. Every king has a palace with a royal court. Every king has specially appointed subordinates to help him carry out his will. Every king has a law, that is to say, his word is law. Every king demands tribute of both worship and taxes. Everything that applies to a human king also applies to god. It is almost as if the god of the bible was made in our image, and not the other way around.
In this chapter, we will examine the kingdom of god as described in the bible. I will not attempt to cover every aspect of it, only the ones that are most interesting, and confusing to me. The first of these interesting and confusing aspects of god’s kingdom is the description of the Hebrews as a kingdom of priests.
“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Ex 19:5-6 NIV)
I have never fully understood the meaning of this passage. There is so much going on at this point that it is hard to keep up with. Christians tend to believe that the focal point of the bible is the saving work of Jesus on the cross. Yet it could be argued that the focal point of the bible is the creation of the nation (kingdom) of Israel. What you believe about the end times might have a lot to do with your understanding of the Israelites as a kingdom of priests.
Before examining what it means to be a kingdom, consider the implications of being a priest. A priest is something like a gateway. It is that through which you must pass in order to enter into the kingdom. He is the intermediary between man and god.
In spite of what we say, there is no such thing as a direct relationship between man and god. There has always been a holy man to bring the two together. God almost never speaks directly to the masses. Instead, he speaks to a prophet who then passes the message on to the people. When the people need to communicate to god, usually by means of a ritual, they do it through a priest.
Even prayer is not direct communication to the father. The traditional formulation is that we pray to the father through the son. We deliver our prayer in the name of Jesus. We do not approach the throne by our own authority. Almost every prayer ends with the words “in Christ’s name,” or something to that affect. We do not believe that we can function as a church without having a holy man deliver the word of god to us each week. The Lord’s Supper is officiated, in some places, exclusively by holy men. Marriage and funerals are often performed by these men. We funnel charitable donations through the church so that they can be blessed and counted to our credit. Regardless of what we call the person we hire to provide these functions, we are actually hiring a priest.
Consider the function the priests of Israel played. There could be no atonement without a priest. Only a priest could offer the sacrifices. Only a priest could enter certain parts of the tabernacle. Even the priests had to be very careful when performing their duties. A minor breach of protocol could get them killed.
““Make the robe of the ephod entirely of blue cloth, with an opening for the head in its center. There shall be a woven edge like a collar around this opening, so that it will not tear. Make pomegranates of blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe. Aaron must wear it when he ministers. The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the LORD and when he comes out, so that he will not die.
The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.
He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die.” (Ex 28:31-35; Lev 16:2, 12-13 NIV)
There were many ways to die while performing priestly duties. Moving the Arc of the Covenant: an object indwelled with god’s holiness, was no picnic either. You do not even want to know about the consecration process of a priest. Let’s just say that being a priest had its downside.
Another interesting aspect of the Hebraic priesthood is that all of the priests came from a single family line. No person born outside of that family could serve as priest. They were not free to just hire a priest, or select a wise man from just any of the twelve tribes. This, in part, explains why genealogy was so important to the Jews. If they could not tell who was from the tribe of Levi, they could not have a priest, and without a priest, they were lost in their sins.
Now, revisit the pronouncement from god that Israel was, itself, to be a kingdom of priests. What exactly did that mean? I have a feeling that they didn’t understand it any better than I do. As near as I can tell, they served no priestly functions. As a people, they did not communicate directly with god, though they did have a special relationship with him, I think. They offered no sacrifices on behalf of the world. They did not seem to be particularly evangelistic. Nowhere does the bible talk about people flooding into Jerusalem to be saved or become part of the kingdom of the most hight god. Whatever god meant by them being a kingdom of priests, they probably didn’t achieve it.
Wait! It gets even better.
“But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” (1Pet 2:9 NLT-SE)
Was Peter speaking to a Jewish audience or a gentile, Christian audience. It matters because he uses the same type of wording that Moses used to give the same message to the Israelites: the exclusive people of god. We teach that this passage refers to all Christians regardless of nationality. If this is the case, what happened? Are the Jews still god’s chosen people, or did he decide to choose someone else? Who, exactly, are the subjects in god’s present day kingdom, and what is their role?
You may think you already have the answers to these basic questions, but the traditional answers do not make as much sense as we have been led to believe. Never has god dealt with the whole world or everyone individually. He has only ever worked with a representative few. Why? What made the patriarchs special? Were they particularly righteous? It does not appear so. His first recorded attempt to interface with mankind went so badly, he had to destroy the whole world except for one family.
After making a covenant with Abraham, he made a new contract with Moses. The Abrahamic covenant was clearly insufficient to accomplish god’s purposes, so he added the Mosaic law. Once his nation was defined: the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he set himself up as king and established the law and ordinances. The important thing to note is that his kingdom was clearly defined and very exclusive. His covenant was not with the whole world; it was exclusive to the Israelites. Again, I ask why?
Why did god want a nation and not the whole world? Why did he want his own private army? What use did god have for such trappings? What use did he make of them? God did not use the nation of Israel to make converts of the whole world. God did not keep his people safe from harm to show that he was stronger than the other gods. Mostly, god used his private army to punish other nations.
This is a gross oversimplification that I will deal with in a later chapter. My point here is that god contract with the Israelites was an exclusive one. By and large, the rest of the world was out of luck. That is how the Jews understood the world order to be. If they were wrong, god did little to correct that notion. The only hope for anyone to have relationship with god rested in their converting to Judaism. From the beginning, the kingdom was a members only club.
As we have seen, admission into the kingdom was based on a contract. A contract is only binding if both sides keep their part of the bargain. The Old Testament is nothing if not consistent with the story of god’s people breaking their side of the contract. As with all contracts, it was an if/then or if/then scenario. If you do A, I will do B. Or, if you do C, I will do D. In other words, god would react based on the actions of his chosen people. If they obeyed his commands, he would cause them to prosper. If they disobeyed his commands, he would cause them to suffer.
God’s promise to keep them as an exclusive people was predicated on the agreement that they would keep his commands. Since they did not keep his commands, did they remain his people? It seems the answer should be no. But according to the prophets, god offered seemingly perpetual second chances. Whenever the people would straighten up and fly right, they would again move into the covenant relationship with god.
Enter the new testament
When we think of the Old and new testament, we are most commonly thinking about an artificial separation of the books of the bible. This is an inaccurate and limiting view. A testament is nothing more than a covenant, or agreement. It is a contract. The new testament represents a new contract. What was the new contract, who were the parties of the contract, and when did it take effect?
Before we can fully answer these questions, we must first know the purpose of the contract. Unfortunately, we may never fully know the answer to that. This is my take. The basic function of the testaments was to make it clear who was in and who was out. The original contract made it clear that Yahweh would be the Israelites god and they would be his people as long as they kept their end of the agreement. For the Jews, it was very clear cut. All faithful Jews were in; everyone else was out. The boundaries of the kingdom were clearly defined.
What happened when Jesus came on the scene? As near as I can tell, nothing. Jesus was a good Jew who encouraged others to be the same. He did not encourage people to observe the Sabbath on a different day. He did not tell the people to stop tithing. He did not try to overthrow the priesthood. He did not attempt to change or undermine the law in any way. True, he redefined a few things like marriage and divorce. But from his perspective, he was going back to the original meaning of the law, not making a new one. When a rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, Jesus directly answered that he must keep the law. He did not present himself as a revolutionary bent on destroying the law.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostles did not present Christianity as something radically different from Judaism. For the first many years of the post Jesus kingdom, the subjects of that kingdom were all Jews. They still practiced Jewish ceremonies and kept the Jewish law. The faithful Jew was still the answer to the question, who’s in.
It took some time before the church officially became evangelistic, offering entrance into the kingdom to none Jews. The initial reaction of leaders in the church to this move was suspicion. It took a special act of god to convince them that gentiles had as much access to the kingdom as Jews. Most of the problems the churched faced after that time dealt with the inclusion of gentiles in the kingdom.
Think about this for a moment. There was nothing in the old contract to make the Jews think that god was going to one day admit everyone into the kingdom. Neither Moses, the judges, nor the prophets ever said anything to prepare the people for such an eventuality. Jewish exclusivity was still alive and well in Jesus’ day.
“Right away a woman who had heard about him came and fell at his feet. Her little girl was possessed by an evil spirit, and she begged him to cast out the demon from her daughter. Since she was a Gentile, born in Syrian Phoenicia, Jesus told her, “First I should feed the children—my own family, the Jews. It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”
She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even the dogs under the table are allowed to eat the scraps from the children’s plates.”
“Good answer!” he said. “Now go home, for the demon has left your daughter.” And when she arrived home, she found her little girl lying quietly in bed, and the demon was gone.” (Mark 7:25-30 NLT-SE)
Was that a misprint? Did Jesus actually call this poor woman a dog? Other Jews considered outsiders to be dogs, but surely not Jesus. I have heard this passage explained away by saying that Jesus was engaging in a teasing banter with the woman who was also in on the game. It was all a show for the disciples to teach them a lesson. There is nothing in the passage to suggest that conclusion. Jesus talks about feeding his own children, the Jews. He did not change the order of things in the “Jews first” world in which he lived.
Perhaps this is why Peter, the chief apostle, did not immediately accept the notion that gentiles were going to be let in. Supposedly after the resurrection of Jesus, he taught his apostles many things and freed them of the false notions they had about him. After all, they were to be his ambassadors in the world. It seems odd that Jesus did not make sure that the chief spokesman for his cause knew that the exclusivity clause had expired for the Jews. Years after Pentecost, the members only status of the Jews was thrown into doubt. Suddenly, no one could tell who was in and who was out. All of the denominational confusion in the world is our attempt to answer that question.
The apostle Paul deals with questions about the new covenant by reinterpreting the old one. A natural reading of the old testament leads one to the conclusion that god made a covenant with Abraham. God reveals the details of the covenant a little at a time. When the narrative gets to Moses and the exodus, god restates the original covenant with Abraham and includes the law as yet another fulfillment detail of the covenant. He does not present the law as a completely separate thing; it is simply another part of the original covenant.
The Jews never understood the law as anything other than the one and only covenant with god that started with Abraham. They did not think of the law as a punishment. They did not think of the law as a subsection of the covenant. They did not think of the law as a temporary schoolmaster preparing them for something different in the future. For them, all the way to the early church, the law was the requirement for entering into the kingdom. It was a part of the everlasting covenant. Paul saw it differently.
“Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.
Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on the character of Christ, like putting on new clothes.” (Gal 3:23-27 NLT-SE)
“Dear brothers and sisters, here’s an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or amend an irrevocable agreement, so it is in this case. God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child” —and that, of course, means Christ. This is what I am trying to say: The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses. God would be breaking his promise. For if the inheritance could be received by keeping the law, then it would not be the result of accepting God’s promise. But God graciously gave it to Abraham as a promise.
Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people.” (Gal 3:15-19 NLT-SE)
“Jesus has been given a priestly work that is superior to the Levitical priests’ work. He also brings a better promise from God that is based on better guarantees. If nothing had been wrong with the first promise, no one would look for another one. But God found something wrong with his people and said to them, “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new promise to Israel and Judah. It will not be like the promise that I made to their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of Egypt. They rejected that promise, so I ignored them, says the Lord. But this is the promise that I will make to Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my teachings inside them, and I will write those teachings on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will each person teach his neighbors or his relatives by saying, ‘Know the Lord.’ All of them from the least important to the most important will all know me because I will forgive their wickedness and I will no longer hold their sins against them.” God made this new promise and showed that the first promise was outdated. What is outdated and aging will soon disappear.” (Heb 8:6-13 GWORD)
“Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” (Rom 4:9-12 NIV)
Look at how Paul characterizes the law. By the time he is done, the law was just a minor adjunct to the covenant. Even as such, it was never very important and had nothing to do with god’s promise or right standing in the kingdom. Paul presents his case as if it should be glaringly obvious to anyone who bothers to glance at the evidence, yet his argument is hard to follow.
Was the law a guardian, watching out for his children while they were infants? Was the law a loving act of god or a punishment for transgressions, or a thing that simply pointed out their transgressions? Was circumcision, and by implication, the law, ever necessary for salvation? Was salvation a contract or a promise without conditions? Was the law perfect or was there a problem with it that necessitated a second one? Were they already living under the second covenant with its better promises, or was that an apocalyptic vision yet to be fulfilled?
If you are a proponent of the traditional view, the last question may have caught you off guard. The traditional, dispensational view has the new covenant beginning just after the resurrection of Jesus. There is some debate over whether the new covenant began the moment after the resurrection or with the events of Pentecost. In either event, it was well underway by the time Paul came onto the scene.
The Hebrews writer, however, seems to suggest otherwise. In the Hebrews passage, he said, “God made this new promise and showed that the first promise was outdated. What is outdated and aging will soon disappear.” What does he mean when he says it will soon disappear? Had it not already disappeared. How did one know if the new law was in effect? The writer quotes god as saying that he would write his commands directly on the hearts of the people and there would be no need to evangelize for him because everyone would know him and all sins would be done away with.
Those were not the conditions of the early church. The writer seemed to be describing a utopia that he thought was soon to come, but was not there yet. He also stated quite clearly that this promise was for Israel and Judah. There are so many variations and possible combinations of variations in what Paul, and others, wrote concerning the law, it is little wonder no one could tell who was in and who was out. It is enough to make you wonder if all the writings were inspired by the same god.
The bible simply is not clear on any of these important issues. If it is this difficult to figure out what the bible was saying about the soteriological issues of the day, how on earth are we supposed to figure out what any of it means for our time? The only thing I know about the kingdom is that no one knows anything about it. All the denominations of the world that use the bible as a guide have a different answer to the question of who is in and who is out. That is a sure indication that something in the system is very broken, possibly beyond repair.
The kingdom of god is a major theme throughout the four gospels. The nation of Israel was the dominant theme of the old testament. I have presented this chapter as if the two were the same thing. I happen to believe that is the case. That, however, is not the only view. Some would say that the kingdom is something very different from the nation. Many believe that Jesus was speaking of a spiritual reality while the Jews were obsessed with an earthly reality. Lest we forget, the Israelites were the kingdom of god, a kingdom of priest, in fact.
We tend to spiritualize what Jesus had to say, but he spoke of an earthly kingdom. It was a kingdom where the twelve apostles would rule over the twelve tribes. This is what they understood Jesus to be saying. That is why they had swords when Jesus was arrested. They were ready for an armed revolt. They were going to take the city in the name of Jesus and rule by his side.
Jesus never told them that they were wrong for that expectation. They were only wrong about the manner and timing of the takeover. Jesus assured them that he would be back. For them, the fulness of the kingdom was just around the corner. In the olivet discourse, Jesus made an apocalyptic speech and assured his disciples that the current generation would not pass before all of the things he predicted would happen. Paul got the impression that it would happen in his lifetime. They all did, even their followers.
The problem we face today is the problem they faced, namely, it has not happened yet. The kingdom that Jesus prayed for and that everyone was waiting for and died for has not come. Though the Jews are an independent nation again, the glory days of Saul, David, and Solomon have not returned. The Jews still suffer, as do all the people of the world. We still have to tell people about Jesus, as his special revelation has not yet been written on every heart as Paul predicted. This would happen as a sign of the post law era. Again, it has not happened.
I am beginning to think that we might have the wrong idea about the kingdom all together. The Jews had it wrong. Jesus had it wrong. His apostles had it wrong. We have it wrong. I know this because all of the expectations and predictions about the kingdom have failed. Perhaps the bible got it wrong and we do not have an accurate account of what they thought and said.
In any event, it is, as it has been, a matter of great confusion. It joins a very long list of confusing and contradictory doctrines of scripture. There are more things that we are confused about than there are things of which we are certain. The areas of confusion are over very important matters. Here, I have not even scratched the surface. There are many books that treat the subject more thoroughly than I do. I only brought a few that seem interesting to me.
If the bible is to be believed, god is guilty of causing a great deal of unnecessary confusion about what he expects of us. He is, at best, unclear, and at worst, contradictory. His law, as he demonstrates it, makes no sense. His apparent attitude toward women and children is despicable. His instructions regarding the kingdom are incomprehensible. If the bible is right, then this is not the god with which I enlisted. It is not that I do not believe that such a god could not exist; I just choose not to serve him.
Still, everything that I have said up to this point is only gravy. I have yet to address the real reason I have decided to withdraw my allegiance from the god of the bible. Even if all of what I have written to this point is proven untrue, I still would have sufficient reason to take this position. I choose to believe that Jehovah is nothing more than a myth. The alternative is to believe the bible gives an accurate description of the real god of the universe. If that is so, we are all in a world of trouble.