In Exodus 19:5-6 a conditional promise is given by God to the entire nation of Israel. It reads: “ ‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words in which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” Why did the Israelites (and Jews) fail their job to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, and what does their failure mean for those of us who claim to be the Israel of God, the spiritual Israel of believers?
After all, the same (conditional) promise that was given to Israel at Mount Sinai, just before God revealed the Ten Commandments and a related (and largely ignored) body of laws that applied these commandments to all walks of Israelite life, was given to the Church of God as well. We read of this promise in 1 Peter 2:9-10: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” Let us not forget, even as we congratulate ourselves for being the Israel of God, that just before these two verses Peter talks about the difference between those of us who believe (in Christ) and those who are disobedient. Thus it demonstrates that our identity as a kingdom of priests is conditional on obedience. We would do well to remember this.
Why did the people of Israel fail to become a kingdom of priests? Why has the Church, even among those who believe that it is the role of humanity to become kings and priests and the children of God, largely failed to develop the capabilities and competence in understanding and applying God’s law to the situations of this day and age? If we are to be kings and priests in God’s kingdom, enforcing God’s law in business dealings, in political systems, in crime and punishment, do you not think we ought to develop some skill and knowledge in such areas now? Do we think that God will make us kings and priests while we are novices, unqualified to judge justly according to His eternal and righteous standard? I hope we are not so foolish as to believe that God will hand us the keys of the kingdom before we have learned how to rule in a godly fashion. And how are we to learn how to rule, except to learn in our own lives, our own families, our own communities, and our own congregations?
What does it mean, in the Bible, to be a king or a priest? We all have our images of how leaders are to behave, but the vast majority of those models spring from heathen models of domination that we are explicitly forbidden from following on the direct command of our Lord and Savior Himself, who commanded that we should be servant leaders and not lord it over others  (see Matthew 20:25-28, Matthew 23:1-12, Mark 9:33-35, for example). The Bible gives a very specific picture of the duties and responsibilities of a priest and a Levite as well as a king. We would do well to examine these duties, remembering that the distinction between them was essentially that priests and Levites held essentially religious duties and kings held civil duties, though there was some overlap (Levites were particularly known in biblical times as well-trained, well-organized and fierce holy warriors capable of engaging in military operations or coups ).
If we want to find out the duties of the priests and Levites, a good place to go is either the book of Leviticus or the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles. In Leviticus we get a picture of the duties of a priest—dealing with sacrifices, showing very godly conduct as a result of their positions of service to God, dealing with clean and unclean meats as well as the slaughter of meats to make sure they are not made unclean by improper slaughtering practices , dealing with the purification ritual for mothers, dealing with lepers and leprous houses , enforcing biblical standards of sexual morality as well as business morality, enforcing Sabbath and Holy Day observance, as well as the land Sabbaths and the Jubilee, as well as overseeing the redemption of people and property dedicated to God in an oath. These were not trivial responsibilities.
The books of First and Second Chronicles give additional responsibilities for Levites beyond those given to the priesthood as a whole. Levites were instrumental in the music service of the temple and tabernacle, a fact referred to often in these books   . Additionally, Levites served as holy warriors (as mentioned earlier) for the Israelite kingdoms and also served as gatekeepers for the tabernacle and temple, enforcing the death penalty on any intruders into holy ground, as well as handling the responsibilities of making the showbread . Additionally, though, we see priests and Levites in 2 Chronicles 19:4-11 serving as officials for the king, trusted for their integrity as well as their knowledge of how to apply God’s laws. If we desire to be kings and priests and serve as officials of our heavenly King, should we not also acquire such skills and knowledge ourselves?
And what are the responsibilities of kings? We read of them in Deuteronomy 17:14-20: they must be brethren (not foreigners), who are forbidden from multiplying horses, wives, gold and silver, lest they be turned from God by seduction or lest they trust their wealth and military power instead of God. They are commanded to write the law of kings down and read it every day, to follow it without departing from it all the days of their life, so that they and their dynasties might prosper. Few kings or leaders have behaved in that fashion, whether as Israelites or so-called Christians. Additionally, Samuel warns Israel in 1 Samuel 8:11-18 that kings would take the best lands and the best produce for themselves, take the sons of the people to be their soldiers and servants, take their daughters to be perfumers and servants for luxury, and take a tithe (often more!) of the produce of the land for their own glory and their own palace establishment. This is how corrupt leaders of all kinds, whether in civil government, businesses, or churches, behave today. This is how corrupt leaders have always behaved—we should not be like them.
Seeing then the responsibilities of kings and priests, we have a lot of work to do. Why is it that God wanted Israel, and wants the Church, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation? Isn’t it good enough to have a godly leader like Moses? Isn’t it good enough to have godly and knowledgeable ministers or priests who know God’s law and can deal with all of those complicated judgments? It is if all you are looking to do is have a nation of sheeple, or if your plan only involves a church, but not if your plan (like God’s) involves the whole world. If your plan, like God, is for righteousness to spread over the whole earth, than it is not enough to have one godly man in charge as a leader, or for a (supposedly) godly “class” of ministers to exist in a church.
Instead, if your goal is for righteousness to spread throughout the earth, it has to spread through the godly example of ordinary Christians who are developing their own leadership and capabilities for judgment and divinely-inspired reasoning. This is not easy work—it takes years, decades, generations even. But if you want a royal priesthood and a chosen nations to be kings and priests over towns, you need more than a small class of people. You need godly kings over nations, godly judges, godly priests, godly ministers in all kinds of cities and towns and villages, godly officials, godly provincial governors, godly mayors of towns and cities, godly community leaders. Do you think that one-man rule or a corrupt oligarchy focused on defending its own power and privileges is going to train up people capable of stepping into those positions later on? Hardly. We have seen their track record of a total hostility towards member responsibilities except for their own corrupt cronies. We know that model fails. We have witnessed, and participated, in its failure time and time again. How long until we learn that we have to act in a different way. If our goal is to develop people to handle godly responsibilities, they have to be responsible in personal matters here and now. We cannot learn how to handle governing provinces if we are unable to apply the law to our own lives and experiences. If we cannot ensure our own godly business practices God will not let us judge nations. If we are not competent here and now to judge the disputes of this life, God will not let us judge the rebellious demons.
Let us therefore not be too hard on the Israelites of Jews of old. We do not do a better job today. The Jews thought themselves a privileged people because they had God’s law. They looked down on Gentiles like dogs, not recognizing in them the image or likeness of God. They did not realize that God’s call was not a privilege that allowed them to look down on others, but was rather a responsibility to set a godly example and to bring many sons and daughters to glory. Do we do a better job today? Do we feel proud about being so well-educated in our religious colleges that we know the Bible better than all of the ministers of false churches around? Do we feel proud about our God-given knowledge about the fundamental truths of scripture, when we have barely scratched the surface of the depth of God’s word? Do we glory in our ethnicity, in our wealth or class status, and look down on those who are poor, those who are uneducated, or those who are obviously “Gentile” or “lesser” backgrounds? If so, do we not deal with partiality, and show ourselves as disobedient to the Royal Law (see James 2:1-13)?
For I firmly believe it is true that we are to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation to God. All of us are to be in training here and now as kings and priests, so that we may be capable to be leaders and rulers in God’s kingdom. That training starts with handling responsibilities now, with learning how to apply God’s law in the mundane experiences of our lives now, with learning how to handle power without being corrupted by pride now. For God will never let there be another Satan, another being of great knowledge and beauty corrupted by his pride and arrogance and led into rebellion. If God cannot be sure about our hearts and our conversion, He will not let us into His kingdom at all. Let us therefore ask God to help us be ready for whatever responsibilities God will give us in the future by how we live and study here and now. For if we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, it’s high time we started acting like one.