Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why All Disciples Are Like Levites

This post heading might sound bizarre but hear me out on this one.

First, let's begin with Jesus' words:
Luke 14:26-27: Jesus explains what itmeans to be a disciple: "“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
Jesus' words are hard to hear, but easy to understand: disciples must learn to love Christ above all else.

But there might be a deeper level of meaning here.
Jesus' words that one must reject everything--kin and all else--in order to become his disciple evokes the description of the Levites in the Old Testament.

What was it that the Levites had to do in order to obtain the priesthood?

The story is found in Exodus 32. There, while Moses is up on Mt. Sinai the Israelites do the unthinkable--they worship a golden calf. We all know what happens next. Moses comes down the mountain and asks, "Who is on the Lord’s side?" (Exod 32:26). The Levites respond. At Moses' direction they go through the camp and slay all the idolatrous Israelites. Indeed, the Levites were not to spare anyone. While it is mere speculation, one could well imagine that some of those they had to kill were people they knew.

In fact, this may be implied in what Moses says after they have accomplished their mission:
"And Moses said, 'Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day'" (Exod 32:29)

Later, when Moses blesses the tribe of Levi in Deuteronomy 33 we read something similar. The following is taken from the Septuagint's version of Deuteronomy 33:9: “The one saying to his father and his mother ‘I have not seen you’ and his brother he did not acknowledge and his children he disowned.”

Moreover, unlike the other tribes, Levi is given no land--no "inheritance"--in the Promised Land. The reasoning is given in Deuteronomy 10:9:
"Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him" (cf. also Num 18:20, 23; Deut 18:1-2; Neh 13:10).

The Levites are priests but only at the cost of kin and property.

Indeed, the similarities are striking. The Levites have had to renounce ("he did not acknowledge") their own family members--father, mother, brother. Likewise, Jesus explains that his disciples must renounce "father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters".

His disciples therefore are called to be spiritual priests. In this his disciples fulfill the original vocation of Israel, described in Exodus 19:6: "you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." However, because of their idolatry the priesthood went only to the Levites.

1 Peter explains that this vocation now belongs to believers: " But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet 2:9).

Believers are called to be priests. But what does it mean to be a priest? Hebrews 8:3 helps here: "every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices." A priest offers sacrifices.

If believers are called to be priests they are called to offer a sacrifice--themselves.

Romans 12 explains: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1).

Believers fulfill their vocation through offering up their own lives as sacrifices--especially by suffering. 1 Peter goes on to make this clear:
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God... 12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed" (1 Pet 4:1-2, 12-13).

A few days ago I wrote a post on the Church as the Heavenly Temple. I cited Peter's words about the Church as a spiritual temple. I believe this post is related to that theme. Discipleship means priesthood--it means self-sacrifice.

Or in Jesus' words: "Take up your cross and follow me."

(For more on the priestly themes of Luke 14 see Cripsin H. T. Fletcher-Louis, “Jesus Inspects His Priestly War Party (Luke 14:25-33),” in The Old Testament in the New Testament. Essays in Honour of J.L. North (ed. S. Moyise; JSNTS 189; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 126-143.)


Anonymous said...

Most of your post makes sense. But you wrest Hebrews 8:3 out of context.

The high priest is now obsolete as a result of the "once for all time" sacrifice of the High Priest, Jesus, who is able to "save forever those who draw near to God through Him."

What separates Catholics and Evangelicals is the critical distinction as to whether our sacrifices contribute to our justification. For evangelicals "priests", heaven is already opened since they already have all the righteousness they will ever need. It is Christ's righteousness imputed to them. For Catholic "priests", heaven is later, since righteousness is infused (a lifelong process).

For each party, the purpose of sacrifice and suffering is totally different.

Swampfox said...

Cool article. It's nice to see Biblical examples explaining modern issues in the church, like how modern priests remain unmarried.

Unknown said...

Mr. Rudiger,

You speak objectively about Mr. Barber taking Hebrews 8:3 out of context and then you speak subjectively on the topic of how Protestants and Catholics each view sacrificial merit.

Why not say "For Protestants, you are taking Hebrews 8:3 out of context" or on the other hand just say "Christ's righteousness is imputed".

His point is absolutely in no way indebted to Hebrews 8:3, he just used that as an example to show that priests offer sacrifices. If we are to believe you and say that he took it out of context, does that nullify his point? Do we no longer admit that priests offer sacrifices?

Priests do offer sacrifice regardless of how we read Hebrews 8:3. The earliest Church went so far as to go right on wearing the priestly vestments of the Levites in fact. (See Hegesippus preserved in Eusebius Church History 2.23.4-6) Furthermore he says:

"He alone [James, the brother of the Lord] was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people."

The Reformers may well have denied this sort of a priesthood, but the early Church didn't (and Jesus' own brother!) Which makes one wonder, if the very brother of Christ screwed Christianity up so bad, how on earth did the Reformers get it right?

Brant Pitre said...

Great post, Michael! You were the first to bring the importance of the spiritual inheritance and sacrifice of the Levites to my attention, and this is a great extension of that insight.

It's particularly helpful for those who may be unaware that the common priesthood of the baptized, properly understood, is (and always has been) part of Catholic doctrine.

kentuckyliz said...

Dale, what is with the justification obsession?

I appreciate this post. I have had an increasingly vivid sense of my priesthood throughout the course of my adult life. This last year has been particularly so; going through surgeries, chemo, radiation, and biological treatments for cancer, I had a definite sense of my priesthood in offering up my very self and my life--sheerly out of the love of God and neighbor. The gospel of suffering is that it is not pointless or wasted--in the spirit of Col 1:24, I offered it up for a whole range of intentions recorded in a special journal--I was collecting prayer petitions to exercise my priesthood for the building up of Christ's body, the Church. The sacrifice I offer is an exercise of charity for others, rendering suffering into service, and thereby imaging Christ in our own lives.

I am a priest in The One High Priest Christ Jesus. (So is my parish priest but in a different way.) Melchizedek is the model, not the levitical priesthood, because this goygrrl is a child of the promise (Abraham) and not the Mosaic Law. I offer my bread and wine in todah, which the ancient rabbis said would be the only sacrifice remaining when Messiah comes. Todah. Thank-offering. Eucharist. The pure offering presented by all the nations (gentiles-goyim) from the rising of the sun to its setting (Malachi).

God is so good!

Anonymous said...

What separates Catholics and Evangelicals is purely trivial! The fact is, that now we are all high priests, and therefore resposible for our own sacrifice. Heb 8:3 offers a description of just what a high priest, believer, or Levite - whichever you prefer - has for a vocation; sacrifice of his own life through the sufferings of this world. Between Eden and the promised land, is nothing but suffering. Christ suffered for us all not only in being crucified, but in leaving his home and living on this earth! We suffer with him until we return to perfect fellowship forever!

Anonymous said...

Nolan, the question of how one becomes a "priest" is hardly trivial. Jesus warned that many would think they were "priests" (Lord, Lord, did we not...), but would be sent to hell instead. They did not know Jesus.

Kentucky Liz, my point is not to minimize the importance of suffering in the life of a believer, but rather to put it in its context. God does not accept us as a result of our suffering, but rather because of the past suffering of His Son. Where Catholics and Evangelicals differ is precisely at this point. Must we be sanctified (through suffering) before we are acceptable to God?

Anonymous said...

Am I insane, or are most of you? Hebrews 8 is specifically about CHRIST... and its very emphasis is that Christ did what He did alone (just as the Aaronic High Priest). Trying to paint a picture that we are all high priests and must therefore all offer similar sacrifices shows a complete lack of understanding of the entirety of Scripture. I realize that's not where you were going, Michael, but... Arguing for the priesthood of the believer from 1 Peter 2 makes sense. Equating that with the High Priestly role that Christ alone fills doesn't.

It's interesting that you choose to argue from the viewpoint of the Levitical priests (who, by the way, were NOT required or even encouraged to forsake family, marriage, and fatherhood... I can come up with a host of examples if you'd like). I would contend, in keeping with the spirit of Hebrews 8 (oh, go ahead and read 9, 10, and 11 while you're at it) that in the same way that the eternal High Priest is superior to the succession of high priests who came before and His once for all sacrifice (IT IS FINISHED) is superior to the succession of sacrifices that came before, the new spiritual priesthood that includes every disciple is superior to the priesthood that came before, which was a priesthood according to the flesh.

Just some thoughts. Sorry about the insanity crack... but I had to get your attention... and the direction this discussion had taken was pretty far off base!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous makes a good argument here. Although, I must say that I was not trivializing priesthood or what makes one a priest in my last comment. I was trivializing the divisions between Catholics and others as being petty differences between brothers and sisters.

kentuckyliz said...

Kentucky Liz, my point is not to minimize the importance of suffering in the life of a believer, but rather to put it in its context. God does not accept us as a result of our suffering, but rather because of the past suffering of His Son. Where Catholics and Evangelicals differ is precisely at this point. Must we be sanctified (through suffering) before we are acceptable to God?

God accepts me because of my faith in Christ and my Baptism into his covenant family...and living that out in my life as a daughter of the King! Hallelujah, He has given me his Holy Spirit, a calf robe and ring! I am my Beloved's and He is mine.

I did put believers' suffering into context. Did you even read Col 1:24a?

We are children of God, and heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with him so that we may be glorified with him. Rom 8:16-17

Pommeling your body and subduing it 1 Cor 9:27 sounds like it might hurt a bit.

For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 2 Cor 1:5 Amen to that...God sends consolations to those who suffer...I had perfect peace and joy throughout my cancer treatment (and it's continuing). His grace is sufficient for me! I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!

Those who are in Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Gal 5:24 Yikes, we've crucified our flesh! God's wisdom is entirely upside down to human wisdom and its enslavement to appetites, the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. As long as we do not love as Christ loves, our selfishness is being ripped from us. That is painful of course. The Beatitudes are a deeply ironic promise of happiness. Read Luke's four woes that go with his version of the beatitudes! Zounds! That should stab lots of comfy fat happy American Christians straight in the heart.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 1 Pet 4:12-13

Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator. 1 Pet 4:19 Yes, trust in Divine Providence! God's plans are mysterious but perfect and we will come to understand the wisdom of His plans for us as life unfolds. I have a loooong testimony about this.

Rom 5:3-5 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

I suppose if God wants us to have perseverence, character, and hope, suffering is a part of that process. The beginning, according to Paul (whose feast day is today, kicking off the Jubilee Year of Paul)!!!

The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Heb 12:6, quoting Prov 3:11-12: 11 My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father he punishes the son he delights in.

Yikes! That's us! We are the adopted sons (daughters) of the Lord!

If we're supposed to take up our crosses daily and follow Jesus, where did Jesus take his cross? To his crucifixion! We must die with him to rise with him. This stinking moldy grain of wheat will fall to the ground, hallelujah!

Of course, there's a lot of Christians around who want a styrofoam cross with a shoulder pad and wheels.

Now, for the priestly connection: the passage you didn't read. Col 1:24a. "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church."

Wow! That means we can use our suffering (which we're going to have in this life anyway) as an offering along with Christ to the Father, as prayer power in our intercessions for his body the church! I have a whole prayer intentions book of people I'm praying for. I'm expecting miracles!

Don't waste your suffering. Offer it up, you holy and living sacrifice, you priest, you!!!

Suffering is not meaningless, it's redemptive.

And it's soaked through and through with peace and joy because of the indwelling Holy Spirit! I cling to Abba in my pain...oh how sweet to be his beloved daughter.

God is so good!!!

God bless you.

(Because we priests are about not just sacrifice, but also intercession and blessing!)

Anonymous said...

This is why there are so many books printed concerning biblical interpretation!

First we are never dealing with an original text. The oldest actual bound and existing copy to which we can refer was not written by the original authors in the original language--thus we are already deprived the original language and intent of the writer whoever it was. From there, we have a translation from Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek which has the problems of any translation--that the different definitions of the actual words, in the case of the Greek to the, say English, are not without nuance and the choices by the translator can combine to give an entirely different interpretation that one can understand if one actually could read the source text, in this example, in the Greek.

Even if one accepts that the NT was written from the voice of god, to the ear of the writer, to the page exactly as dictated, we don't have that original dictation to work from. Nor can we be sure that the translators had that same inspiration from God, a claim that no Christian Church asserts: that the translators and transcribers were as so divinely inspired.

We are thus stuck until our dying days on interpretations, those who agree with 'x' interpretation or 'y' interpretation, with little hope of actual agreement.
Lets take the comment by Swampfox and then bring in the claim made by Anonymous that the Levitical Priests were NOT required/encouraged and in fact did NOT forsake family, marriage or fatherhood... (Practically speaking, we know they did not as the Tribe would have died out if they had!) Thus the original post doesn't explain like how modern priests remain unmarried. Add into the mix that the 'modern priests' of the Christian Orthodox rite DO marry both in the 'unionate' Roman Catholic Churches (outside the USA) and the Orthodox Church which is not in union with Rome, as well as the Anglican/Episcopal priests.
Given my own reliance on the translations into English, the claim by Dale_Rudiger that the post author takes the quote of Heb. 8:3 out of context is true as is later commented that this quote isn't the best one to use to prove the case of the priesthood of all believers. In fact, this line from Hebrews does and must speak to the singular act of Jesus as the 'final' high priest that must offer sacrifices for the people, as Christ has entered the heavens--not the man-made 'holy of holies'-- to offer not an annual sacrifice but the last such sacrifice to god for the (Israeli) people.

How the Eucharistic liturgy developed and what is it's 'sacrificial nature', that is a whole other topic to be discussed in some other post in a galaxy far far away!