The LORD called to [Moses] out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 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.” Exodus 19.3-6.
“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests …” What an astonishing promise for God to make to Israel, for at that time Israel was just a company of Hebrew slaves newly-escaped from Egypt. It was not a kingdom of any sort, and it had, at that stage, no priests whatsoever. But what does the phrase actually mean?
Unfortunately, the Hebrew expression mamleket kohanim is rather ambiguous. “A kingdom of priests” is one way of translating it, but it could equally well be translated as “a royalty of priests” or “kings who are priests” or “priest-like kings.” In about 250 BC, when the Greek version of the Old Testament was produced in Alexandria (the Septuagint), the phrase was rendered as basileion hierateuma which is Greek for “royal priesthood” and Peter uses that version of Exodus 19.6 in his first epistle when he tells the Christians to whom he is writing: “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 marvellous light” (1 Peter 2.9).
So what was once a promise to Israel has now, according to Peter, become a present reality for the church. But how is that so?
Well, the fact is that the promise made through Moses was never fulfilled for Israel in general. It was fulfilled only in Jesus; for only Jesus, as Representative Israel, met the condition on which the fulfilment of the promise depended. Only Jesus truly obeyed God’s voice and perfectly kept his covenant. Thus Jesus, in himself, became the “kingdom of priests.” He, by his death and resurrection, became both the King of kings (1 Timothy 6.16) and the Great High Priest (Hebrews 4.14); and now, by sharing his life with all those who come to him and open their hearts to him, all his people become kings and priests too.
The fact that this — kings and priests — is what that phrase in Exodus really means as it finds fulfilment in Jesus and then in you and me becomes clear from the book of Revelation. There, John the Seer, in his opening doxology, alluding to the promise in Exodus, holds kingship and priesthood apart as two separate but related privileges that now belong to God’s people: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father,” he says, “to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1.5-6). And then, as in vision he sees the twenty-four elders falling down before the Lamb and singing their new song, he says: “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5.9-10).
That is surely something to wonder at today. I am a king in Christ — someone called to re-establish God’s rule upon the earth. And I am a priest in Christ — someone called both to offer up sacrifices of praise to the Father (Hebrews 13.15) and to bring others to him in prayer and intercession. A king and a priest — a very high calling indeed!