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God reveals Himself and His plan for the world and humankind in ways that address our minds and our hearts with powerful images of beauty, brokenness, need, redemption, love, and forgiveness, among many others. Some of these images of our relationship with God are contained in religious metaphors that God uses to speak to us. In this article, we will reflect on the religious metaphors of priesthood, offerings, and sacrifices.
In the book of Exodus, we find for the first time an idea that runs throughout the Bible: God has chosen a people to be His own possession for the purpose of manifesting to the world His redemptive plan. Eugene Merrill says that Israel’s exodus is the most significant historical and theological event of the Old Testament because it marks God’s mightiest act on behalf of His people, an act that brought them from slavery to freedom, from fragmentation to solidarity, from a people of promise (Hebrews) to a nation of fulfillment (Israel).
Through Israel, God will establish His kingdom by making every man and every woman into priests who will serve the King of kings. They will not serve Pharaoh anymore but will be consecrated to the service of the Lord.
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and 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. (Ex. 19:5–6)
It is by way of this religious metaphor of priesthood that God gives to His people a new identity. They are now a people chosen to accomplish the plans of God. This new nation will represent the inevitable reality of a restored world that serves the purposes of the Creator. Furthermore, in this same metaphor those who are now in Christ also find—as the Hebrews did when they came out of Egypt—a new identity, a new purpose, and freedom from the slavery of sin and guilt.
But you are 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. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)
The people redeemed by the Passover lamb in Egypt and the people redeemed by Christ at the cross will together live to proclaim the wonders and excellencies of the One who saved them from the darkness of separation and brought them into the light of grace and communion. The religious metaphor of priesthood represents their new position as God’s treasured possession, but it also gives His people a mission to accomplish, a new purpose to make the name of the Lord known in all the earth.
Those who are called to be God’s priests will enjoy an intimate relationship with their Savior, and He will find pleasure in them. God describes His chosen people as the aroma of Christ to God (2 Cor. 2:15). This means that God delights in them and rejoices in the communion with them that was made possible by the work of Christ. Salvation has been accomplished, and the lives of God’s people—in all that we do—are now like incense that is offered to God. To be the aroma of Christ to God is to serve God in any calling we have in the world. Motherhood, business, teaching, art, sports, science—for God’s people, everything is an opportunity to bring honor to His name. The heart of the priestly office and of the Christian life is worship, a calling to find ways to exalt His name and to be consecrated to Him in all that we do. Speaking about missionary devotion, the famous Scottish minister Oswald Chambers said, “The men and women Our Lord sends out in His enterprises are the ordinary human stuff, plus dominating devotions to Himself wrought by the Holy Spirit.” This dominating devotion toward God is what is expected from the people of God.
In the New Testament, through the Apostle Paul, God also gives us the religious metaphors of offerings and sacrifices to describe the ways in which believers find their identity in their relationship to God. Paul says that he has been called to priestly service so that—through Christ—the gentiles might serve as an acceptable offering to God. This means that, through the gospel, the gentiles are also now a part of this kingdom of priests inaugurated at Mount Sinai.
. . . to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. (Rom. 15:16–17)
Paul also uses the related metaphor of sacrifice, describing his life and service as “a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith” (Phil. 2:17). Using the language of the Old Testament (Lev. 1), Paul knows that his life is being consumed just as the offerings dedicated at the altar were also consumed in pleasing, sacrificial worship to God.
In the same way, Jesus speaks about the kind of life that His followers should live as they die to this world and seek to offer themselves in sacrifice to Him: “He said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’ ” (Luke 9:23).
How exciting it is to understand through these religious metaphors what it means to be redeemed, loved, and forgiven as we now live for the glory of God.