What does a discussion of priesthood have to do with Christmas? Nearly everything. At least, from taking Luke’s lead, we have to recognize that Christ had a messenger, who was from a priestly family. Luke begins his narrative with There was … a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife [was] of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth (Luke 1:5). Rushing past this narrative to visit the babe in the manger is too much reaching without the teaching.
A family of priests under scrutiny
The priesthood as Luke knew it was doing the things appointed (Lev. 8:35 and 2 Chronicles 8:14), but He tells of an incident that brings us into the heart of the priesthood where he says nothing about the temple and the priesthood. The incident opens the window on how Messiah’s arrival might affect everything.
And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, (Luke. 1:8), According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. (Luke. 1:9).
A special child in the desert not the temple
The slice of the priesthood we see was a normal life with normal problems. Elizabeth and Zacharias had no children. If you know anything about the priesthood you would know that only the children of a priest’ could serve as priests. Priests needed to have children for the priesthood to continue. The incident reveals that a special child would be born to be a servant of the Most High. The God of Israel chose Elizabeth and Zacharias to be the parents of a son who would be Yahweh’s voice in the desert (Luke 3:4, Isaiah 40:1-3).
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. (Luke. 1:13) And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, (Luke. 1:14) for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. (Luke. 1:15)
When priesthood was the engine of life
The angel predicted the success of this new arrival, that he was going to “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke. 1:16), and be the agent for bringing generations together and prepare people for the Lord (vs. 17)
The priesthood began with Aaron, a man who led the people to worship a golden calf just as the journey from Egypt to Canaan was beginning. The people were at Sinai when they became impatient with Moses being up on the hill conversing with Yahweh. They wanted gods like the ones they knew during the Egyptian bondage, so they asked Aaron to make them gods.
With all the detailed instructions for the work they did for the the people year after year the people had every reason to support their priestly families. The priests had led the way crossing the Jordan (Joshua 3:6ff), capturing Jericho (Joshua 6:6ff), and hearing cases daily.
The priesthood and the monarchy
Moses wrote the law and entrusted it to the priests (Deu. 31:9), who in turn informed the people of their duties and evaluated such cases as were brought to them. So the priests were archivists, teachers, and judges (Deu. 31:9, Malachi 2:7, Deu. 19:17-18). The king was also part of this line of transmission, with the king writing his own copy of the law. “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. (Deut. 17:18)
Then there are the disturbing practices during Eli’s priesthood (1 Samuel 2:12), the mass murder of priests by Saul (1 Samuel 22), and there came a time when the priesthood was so out of touch with reality that a prophet was authorized to post a recognition.
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.Jer . 2:8
That the priests were part of an assault on Jeremiah is not surprising, given that they knew they were the guardians of Yahweh’s daily interaction with the people. It was inevitable that God would recruit another of his prophets to examine the priesthood.
Priests under scrutiny
On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet, (Hag. 2:10) “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: Hag. 2:11
The answer to the questions seal the fate of the Levitical priesthood.
- Does holiness transfer from the priest’s clothing to bread, soup, wine, oil, or meat?
- ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’”
- The priests answered and said, “No.” Hag. 2:12
- Does uncleanness transfer from an unclean person to bread, soup, wine, oil, meat?
- Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?”
- The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” Hag. 2:13
- Then Haggai answered and said,
- “So is it with this people,
- and with this nation before me, declares the LORD,
- and so with every work of their hands.
- And what they [the priests and people] offer there is unclean. Hag. 2:14
Typically, any kind of misbehaviour can end with the community balance restored through the ministry of the priest, but not in the case of shedding innocent blood. When lives are destroyed without a cause or because of the abuse of power no forgiveness was possible: the priest was helpless. How often this may have happened can be imagined when we realize that bribes and greed were part of the very human side of being the sole agents for God (Numbers 35:31-32).
and also for the innocent blood that he had shed. For he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD would not pardon. 2 Kings. 24:4
The priesthood examination
Let it be sufficient to say the priesthood is not without convictions for bad behaviour, and as long as the temple still was the place for incense, animal blood, grain and liquid offerings people could feel that there was active benefit from the priesthood. Few people got to see the inner workings of the priesthood and few knew the corruption that the Babe of Bethlehem would grow up to see and denounce (John 2:13-16, Matthew 21:12-13), eventually announcing the desolation of the temple (Matt. 23:38).
A transformed and nourishing priesthood
One priest stands apart in the Bible story: Melchizedek. He was not a Levite and not even a descendant of Abraham. This priest was not going to have anything to do with the temple or the law. As far as we know he would, prefigure the work of David’s Lord, One to be invited to sit at God’s right hand, one who would do for those who got the victory over the devil what Melchizedek did for Abraham.
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.)Gen. 14:18
This action, coming centuries before the organization of the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood, is a picture of the demise of the ministry organized by Moses. There is an order of forever priests, whose office and work Yahweh is settled on, and a priest who does not die as all other priests have done.
The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”Psalm 110:4
- And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. Heb. 7:5
- But this man [Melchizedek/Christ] who does not have his descent from them [the Levites] received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. Heb. 7:6
- It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. Heb. 7:7
- In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives [is beyond death]. Heb. 7:8
- One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, Heb. 7:9 for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. Heb. 7:10
This simple understanding takes us to Christ, the Son of God, our High Priest,
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”;Heb. 5:5
So let us by all means hasten to the manger, and relive the joy the world felt, but let us also recognize that a babe in a manger does not save anyone from sin as the angel announced regarding the baby’s name. To prosper from the babe of Bethlehem one has to realise that he grows up to maturity, thirty years to be precise, of which 18 years are secret, and die so he can change the pattern of priest and levite accustomed to passing people by on the other side. Luke. 10:31-32). The Christ-child grows up to become the kind of priest God wants and authorizes by means of an oath (Hebrews 7:11, 28), a sympathetic priest (Hebrews 4:15, 5:2), priest who defeats death by dying (Hebrews 2:14, 9:16, 7:16, 23), approachable by all humans without distinction (Romans 3:22, 10:12).
All of the rules about approaching God seem to go out the window, because the first distinction between Levite and layman dissolves, and so does the distinction between Israelite and Gentile. A more striking contrast cannot be found between priesthood as it was known and priesthood as touched by the mature Word-made-flesh.
Consequently, he is able to save to the utmost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. Heb. 7:25