June 6, 2021 - Temples and Priesthood

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Today we’re going to talk about temples and priesthood. God says in Isaiah 66:1, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house that you will build for me, and where is my resting place?” Stephen quotes this verse and declares, “The Most High does not dwell in handmade shrines.” (Acts 7:48) Likewise, Paul tells the Greek philosophers at Athens, “The God who made the universe and all that is in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in handmade temples.” (Acts 17:24) In other words, we can’t put God in a box! God is too big to live in any house we can build.

God even opposes our attempts at wowing God through human craftsmanship. God tells Israel through the Law of Moses: if you build me an altar, make it an altar of earth. Make it only out of unchiseled stones, because “if you use a chisel on it, you profane it.” (Exodus 20:25) Make no mistake: God is worthy of the best we can offer, but even the best we can build is going to look cheap and chinsy in light of the glory of the one true God.

And yet, Jesus viewed the Temple in his day as the holiest place on earth. Why did he drive out the merchants? John gives us the answer from Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for thy house has consumed me.” So God wants to see us avoid making God’s house into an idol or magic shrine (like the people in Jeremiah who thought they were safe as long as they had God’s temple), and avoid making it into a shopping mall (like Jesus saw them doing).

Maybe we can’t confine God to a box, but God wants to be worshipped somewhere. At first, we used to set aside places to build outdoor sacrificial altars, particularly at places where God had appeared to someone. Then, God commands Israel to build a portable sanctuary in the desert, the Tabernacle or Tent, including portable altars for sacrifice and for incense. We have a detailed blueprint for it in the book of Exodus (since God’s word does not come with pictures).

In Canaan, God’s tent was first pitched at Shiloh, where it stayed until the Philistines destroyed the town in 1050 BC and captured the ark of God. When Israel got the ark back, they stored it at Kiriath-Jearim for quite a while, but the priests relocated the tabernacle at Nob (about 3 miles north of Jerusalem). David brings the ark to Jerusalem and pitches a tent for it, then he promises to upgrade it to a temple (but God says no hurry, Solomon will do that). Meanwhile, people also worshipped God at unofficial altars called high places, like the great altar at Gibeon where Solomon offers sacrifice, and God appears to him and offers him whatever he asks for. The problem with unofficial altars was that it was hard to keep them from becoming pagan.

Finally, Solomon replaces God’s tent with a stone house. (The word “temple” means literally “palace” – it can be used for either the king’s house or God’s). Again, we have a blueprint instead of a picture, found in 1st Kings 6-7. Surprisingly, God allows them to build the Temple with top-of-the-line, Phoenician-craftsman-style chiseled stone, although God had commanded them not to use chisels on altars. The Temple itself measured 90 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 45 feet high. Inside, there was a Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant was placed. The Jerusalem temple becomes God’s only authorized sanctuary, and starting in the late 700’s BC, Kings Hezekiah and Josiah tore down all other local sites of worship.

After Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, it was rebuilt in 515 BC by Governor Zerubbabel with financial help from the Persian government. Jews in Egypt also built an unauthorized temple at Heliopolis, which fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 19.

In 20 BC, King Herod begins an extravagant reconstruction job on the Jerusalem Temple, which continued long after his death (they had already been rebuilding for 46 years when Jesus drives out the merchants in John 2). Most of Herod’s temple was finished within 10 years, but some of it was not finished until 64 AD.

The Temple was destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish War in 70 AD. Jesus predicted there would not be one stone left upon another that would not be thrown down. The one remaining relic from Herod’s temple is the place called the Western Wall, which was part of the outer courtyard, the hieron or “holy place.” (We can still see the Herodian masonry there, which is easy to identify.) But as for the naos or the central building where only the priests could go, Jesus’ words came true: not one stone from that building has been found today.

We know more about Herod’s temple than we do about the first 2. We have a ton of details collected by the rabbis in 200 AD in a volume called the Mishnah, plus descriptions from other sources. The Jerusalem Temple building itself (the naos) was only for the priests. It was made of shining white marble, and was the wonder of the whole Roman world. Outside it were the open-air Court of Israel (for Jewish laymen) and the Court of the Women, all of which were surrounded on the perimeter by the Court of the Gentiles, none of which resembles any modern temple. Even Solomon’s bronze sea (held up by oxen) was not rebuilt for the temple Jesus knew. Nor was the Ark of the Covenant remade after it was taken by the Babylonians. And imagine the surprise of the Roman general Pompey in 55 BC when he burst uninvited into the Most Holy Place in the Jerusalem Temple, and found no statue there!

There was only one authorized Temple at any one time for God’s people, and Gentile Christians could not go into it. (Paul was accused of defiling the Temple by bringing in Trophimus the Ephesian. We have found a Temple warning sign carved in Greek promising death to any non-Jew who tried to go in beyond the Court of the Gentiles.)

There is no evidence that Christians built their own temples in apostolic times. And nowhere in the Bible or rabbinic writings do we find marriage or secret ceremonies of any kind, or proxy baptisms, being performed in any Biblical temple. Nothing secret took place in the Temple; all that was done there was spelled out in the Torah. Temples were only for sacrifice, and even that was done in the courtyard at the altar, outside the building. Nothing was done anywhere in the Temple except sacrifice, prayer, and singing (which was done by the Levites).

Certain people were originally kept out of the Temple, according to the Torah: Moabites, Ammonites, and men with damaged testicles or who had been emasculated. Yet King David himself was part Moabite. Isaiah 56 declares God’s blessing on eunuchs who worship God and do what God says. God says here: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.”

Also, Leviticus gives us a list of deformities that would disqualify a man from serving as a priest. However, none of these prevented a man or woman from eating the holy food if they came from a priestly family. And Jesus teaches us that if we throw a dinner party, we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. God loves them just as much as priests!

But now, because of the once-for-all atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, temples have become entirely unnecessary. Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by a single offering, (Christ) has perfected forever those who are sanctified.” Verse 18 says, “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no more offering for sin.” Verse 19 says that since “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy place through the blood of Jesus” and “a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with full confidence of faith…with hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.”

Sacrifice has become obsolete! And so has the necessity of a temple. And while God does not object to us setting aside special places to do so, like places where God once showed up in a special way, God is glorified when we worship any time, anywhere, including out in the beauty of God’s creation. (But when you claim you’ve been worshipping God on the golf course or while fishing, I’m gonna ask you: What did you hear from God? Who did you connect with?)

What do we know about priesthood, according to God’s word? The most important part of the work of priests was animal sacrifice, which means they had to have the skills of a butcher. Some sacrifices had to be burned up entirely, some required God to be given the fat, kidneys, and other choice portions, while the rest of the meat went sometimes to the priest, and sometimes to the person who brought the sacrifice. (The priests had to eat so much meat that in Jesus’ day, they even had one priest on staff whose fulltime job was dealing with the “bowel-sickness.”) The priests had to determine whether the animals had blemishes that would disqualify them from sacrifice. The priests also had to offer the right amounts of grain and drink offerings.

Priests also had the job of being property assessors. Whenever a person vowed an animal, a house, or a field to God and wanted to buy it back, Leviticus 27 says a priest had to assess its value in money. If a person had been vowed to God and then the vow-maker wanted to change the deal, the priest had a sliding scale to work from: women, seniors, and children could be bought back at a discount, and if the vow-maker could not afford the price, the priest would decide what that person could afford. Priests alone could assess the value of a house.

Priests had the job of diagnosing conditions like leprosy and debilitating discharges. They had to pronounce patients clean or unclean. They were the ones who administered the lie detector test for adultery in Numbers 5. When they had time, they had the job of teaching God’s law to the people. Finally, before the Exile, the High Priest had the Urim and Thummim for consultations between high-level government officials and God, whenever a word from God was needed about the future or a decision to be made.

That’s a pretty big job description. This is what Israel’s old Aaronic priesthood did. The problem pointed out by the book of Hebrews is that the old Aaronic priesthood made nothing perfect. The sacrifices they offered could never take away sins.

What about the Melchizedek priesthood? Hebrews 7:24 refutes the idea of a Melchizedek Priesthood held by millions of priests. When it says that Jesus has an “unchangeable priesthood,” the word “unchangeable” is actually the Greek a-parabaton, which means literally “non-transferable.” Jesus is the unique holder of that office. His office cannot be passed to anyone else. He is the one and only Melchizedek priest.

To back that up, let’s look at the rest of what the author of Hebrews says about the “order of Melchizedek.” The Greek term taxis (pronounced “tax-iss”) used in this phrase is used only 3 times in the New Testament outside of this letter, all in the sense of sequential order. The most famous is 1 Corinthians 14:40: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” In Colossians 2:5, Paul tells the church that he rejoices to see their “order” and the steadfastness of their faith in Christ. In Luke 1:8, Zechariah “executed the priest’s office in the order of his course” (the New KJV says “in the order of his division,” that is, when his unit’s turn came to serve on duty).

The references to the “order of Melchizedek” in the book of Hebrews are all based on the Greek translation of Psalm 110:4. Here the word taxis is best translated “arrangement” or “classification” (as in our English term “taxonomy,” borrowed from this word), because all of the other clues in this letter point to a “classification” or category of priest into which only one member fits. Hebrews 7:11 contrasts the Melchizedek “kind” (taxis) of priest with the Aaron “kind” (same word).

Hebrews 7:3 observes that the Melchizedek of Genesis 14 appears to be “made like the Son of God.” He appears with no mention of ancestors or descendants. His chief qualifications are that he has “neither a beginning of days nor end of life,” and that he “remains a priest forever.” Some have suggested that this mysterious character is actually a pre-incarnational appearance of Christ himself. While this possibility is attractive, it would require this person to be able to bring bread and wine to Abraham, and receive tithes from Abraham, both of which would seem to require a body, which Christ does not receive until his conception almost 2000 years later. And Hebrews 9:27 (“it is appointed for a person once to die”) rules out the idea that Jesus is a re-incarnation of Melchizedek.

It appears that Melchizedek was simply a local Canaanite priest, one of the extremely few souls in Abraham’s day who knew the one true God. When he died, he was no doubt replaced by a priest who did not know God. So there was no line of Melchizedek priests before or after him; Melchizedek was a one and only!

Melchizedek is presented in Hebrews as a Lone Ranger, with no established priesthood to which he belongs. Jesus is the same kind of priest. Jesus gets his priesthood, not by DNA or by human decree; he gets it from “the power of an indestructible life” (7:15). That is Jesus’ “likeness” to Melchizedek, whose priesthood continues “forever.” We are told that Jesus guarantees a better covenant than the other kind of priests, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, whereas because Christ continues forever, he has an “un-transferable” priesthood – it cannot and need not be passed on to anyone else (7:22-24). Because he always lives, Jesus is always able to plead the case of sinners who draw near to God (7:25).

So the entire argument in the book of Hebrews is that Jesus’ priesthood puts him in a class by himself. No one else is qualified to permanently take away sins. The other kind of priest couldn’t do it. Priesthood is all about atonement for sin, not the authority to act for God in any other way. And because of Jesus’ once for all sacrifice for sin, there is no longer any need for priesthood of any kind (Hebrews 10:11-18), except for the one priest who always lives to plead our case with God.

The only way that Christians today can speak of priesthood is in a less-than-literal sense. When Christian denominations (such as Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal) speak of priests, they are speaking of leaders, pastors, shepherds of souls, not people who atone for sin. And the apostle Peter proclaims what Luther identified as the priesthood of all believers (“you are a royal priesthood,” 1 Peter 2:9), a priesthood that includes both women and men, trained and untrained. Because we now have direct access to God (Hebrews 10:19-22), all who trust in the one and only Melchizedek priest for their salvation have authority to speak and act for God, as long as we speak and do only what God has clearly taught in God’s word.

The best explanation I have seen (since the Bible) for why Jesus was the only One qualified to take away our sins was written 900 years ago by St. Anselm of Canterbury. In his book Cur Deus Homo?, Anselm argues that the price that must be paid for human sin must be greater than everything God has, “greater than all else except God himself.” No one but God is great enough to make such a satisfaction for sin, but no one but a human being ought to do this, because it is humanity that owes the debt, and no one can pay that debt who has sins of their own to pay for. So Anselm says that we need a satisfaction for sin “which none but God can make, and which none but man ought to make.” So no one can do this but someone who is both God and man. No one but Jesus qualifies for the job, a sinless human who is also fully God. His substitutionary sacrifice on the cross is enough to satisfy the eternal penalty of hell for billions of human souls who have ever lived, all who will place their faith in what he has done for us.

Jesus is the only priest whose sacrifice can permanently take away our sins and put us right with God, if / when we place our faith in his sacrifice on the cross. He alone can give us eternal life with God. But what’s in store for us in life after this life? Our blessed hope is to be free from all that separates us from God. But is that all? When we say that we hope to be like God, are we just saying that we hope to be totally healed and free from sin? Or do we mean that we aim to become so much like God that we will have his power and his dominion over worlds of our own? Do we, or can we, aim to become gods like God? We’ll talk about that next time on Biblical Words and World!