A Royal Priesthood: Christian Worship as Covenantal Succession

Worship is central to life. Worship forms our character and shapes our conduct. Thus, the questions surrounding whom we worship and how we are to worship are among the most significant with which we have to reckon.

While Christians are universally agreed as to the object of their worship, the nature of Christian worship could not be a more controversial subject. This is not a new phenomenon. God’s people have been engaged in “worship wars” since the first generation this side of Eden—often resulting in the same levels of animus and violence. The “Way of Cain” is perennially resurrected, repackaged, and rebranded as the preferred principle of worship. In our time, we might refer to it as the “way of the consumer;” worship according to our own designs and desires. Unfortunately for us, I suspect that God’s appraisal of this method hasn’t changed.

Worship of the true God must be true worship if it is to be acceptable worship. True worship is not the product of human ingenuity—our best baskets of summer fruits notwithstanding—but is the product of divine revelation. God has, time and again, declared what an acceptable approach in worship looks like. In short, true worship conforms to the scriptural patterns laid down in Holy Writ. Anything else is strange fire.

The belief that worship must be in accordance with the Scriptures is commonly referred to as the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). Simply put, the Bible regulates our worship of God. While there are those who strain this position to the breaking point, demanding that every element and accident of worship be explicitly commanded in Scripture, the historic view necessitates that the nature of corporate worship find implicit warrant in the Word of God. This seems to me to be both balanced and biblical.

Strangely though, most of those who appeal to the Bible for their patterns and practices of worship have a tendency to restrict their exploration to the New Testament, while ignoring everything that God said about worship in the First Testament. I say that this is strange because the fact of the matter is that most of the instruction that we have concerning worship comes to us from the earlier Testament, from those neglected and poorly-understood books like Leviticus, Numbers, and 1 Chronicles. I would argue that if we are to have a full-orbed and thus scriptural form of worship then the content of these books is fundamental.

Of course, we do not simply adopt the practices of Old Covenant Israel wholesale. In arguing for continuity I am not saying that there is not significant discontinuity between the two Testaments with regards to worship. As the epistle to the Hebrews makes clear, there are several key changes in the transition from Old Covenant to the New. Namely, there is a radical change in the nature of the sacrifices offered, the location and character of the sanctuary, and the qualifications for the priesthood. The basic question is whether or not we should draw on Old Covenant liturgical patterns as guiding principles for our performance of New Covenant worship. If the answer to that question is “yes,” then what would such a practice look like? I will attempt to answer that over the course of the next few days, but first some necessary groundwork must be covered.

Fulfilled or Filled-Full?

Those who would answer in the negative often argue that the “ceremonial” and sacrificial laws were fulfilled in Jesus, thus they no longer have any practical implications for the Church. Those sacrifices and sequences pointed to the cross, and that’s that. For most Christians, Israel’s moral and (perhaps) civil laws continue to give some sort of practical instruction to Christians, but the ceremonial laws were exhausted in the cross of Jesus.

I think that this line of reasoning is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, we can agree without equivocation that all of the First Testament is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the end (telos) of every promise, prophecy, picture, pattern, prohibition, and precept of the Old Covenant. That entire Testament is typological, finding its culmination in Christ. At the same time, the Christ that is revealed there is the head of a body. To borrow Augustine’s terminology, the Hebrew Scriptures are typological of the totus Christus—the “whole Christ.” So that wherever you find the Head you must of necessity find his body.

Paul makes use of this principle in Galatians 4. As I have noted elsewhere, Paul does not employ a reductive calculus: Abraham’s seed = Isaac; rather, the child (singular) of promise is you (plural) brethren (v. 28). Jesus is Abraham’s singular Seed—along with all of those countless persons that are in him through faith. The story of Abraham’s Seed is the story of the totus Christus. This type of covenantal reasoning is a regular occurrence in Paul. Where Christ is typified his people are always in view with him.

Paul finds the history of the Church prefigured in the history of Israel, but he doesn’t end there. He often appeals to the law, even  the ceremonial law, for instructions concerning the life of the Church. For example, he grounds his main argument for ministerial remuneration in the Levitical principle that those who performed priestly services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend the altar have their share with the altar (1 Cor. 9:13). Paul’s logic clearly assumes that the ministry of priests at the altar prefigures the preaching of the gospel in some way. Thus, it is fair to say priestly ministry is not exhaustively fulfilled in the Cross of Christ. The priestly ministry continues in a different form in the proclamation of the gospel (Rom. 15:15-16). There is a “Kingdom of Priests” under both Testaments. This is inherent in the very idea of a biblical type, which is not given merely to foreshadow but to serve as an example for imitation (1 Pet. 5:13).

The Transfiguration of Rituals

The same kind of reasoning applies to the two liturgical institutions of the New Covenant; namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The writes of the New Testament portray baptism as a new form of ceremonial washing, and the Lord’s Table as a fulfillment of Israel’s festivals. The old washings are not washed away in Jesus, but fully come into their own in the totus Christus, and the old sacrificial meals not only point to the death of Jesus but also to the blessings of the New Covenant which Christ shares with his people on the basis of his death and resurrection.

Consider baptism for a moment. Many NT passages explain baptism by alluding to the cleanliness and holiness codes found in the Pentateuch. Hebrews 9:9-10 summarizes the OC system thusly: “Accordingly to this arrangement,  gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.” The word translated as “washings” here is baptismos. The same  word is used for the ceremonial washings in Mark 7:4 and Hebrews 6:2, but the word is also used in Colossians 2:12 for Christian baptism. The presence of this word with regard to both Old Covenant washings and Christian baptism lends support to the notion that the writers of the NT saw some sort of relationship between these two washings. Peter, alluding to this practice (if not to the very passage from Hebrews), contrasts Christian baptism  with a washing that merely removes dirt from the body. For Peter, baptism went beyond a ceremonial cleansing that dealt with the body but had no affect upon the conscience.

Hebrews 10:19-25 makes explicit use of ritual washings and their New Covenant applications. The inspired writer says that Christians have “our bodies washed with pure water” in order that we might approach the “holy place.” This references the washing comprising part of the rite of priestly ordination (Exodus 29; Lev. 8), and also to the command that priests wash before approaching the tabernacle, lest they die (Ex. 30:17-21). It’s also possible that this also includes a direct reference to the priest’s preparation for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:4). In which case, the literal washing of the priests would point to the literal, bodily washing of baptism. Allowing the voice of Scripture to be heard over our own sacramental prejudices, we hear the writer saying that Christian baptism is a ceremonial washing that allows us to approach God’s heavenly sanctuary. In baptism, we do in a new covenant way—a much better way—what Israel did under the law.

Again, this type of language is taken up by the Apostle Paul. In Ephesians 5:26, Paul describes Christ “washing the Church” with water by or with the word. This washing “cleanses” her, and in the same verse Paul says that Christ has given himself to “sanctify” her. The passage is employing the same kind of terminology for cleansing and sanctifying rites as did the author of Hebrews, and says that something similar happens to the Church when she is “washed with water.”  Though many take this as a purely “spiritual” cleansing, the reference to “water” works against this. Jesus is preparing Church for himself by giving himself for her, and to her through water and the Word.

For those like me who are persuaded of covenant baptism, a key example is the rite of circumcision. Circumcision, like all of the other sacrifices, is fulfilled in Jesus (Col. 2:11). Paul says that it also finds fulfillment for those who are in Christ through the circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2). Paedobaptists also (rightly) draw conclusions about the subjects of baptism from the typological connections between circumcision and baptism. The Old Covenant rite of circumcision gives us instruction about the New Covenant practice of Christian baptism.

From these passages alone it is safe to conclude something about the logic of NT baptismal theology: Old Covenant ritual washings point to Christ, but are also filled with further significance in the practice of Christian baptism. Further, it could be argued that one can hardly understand the nature of baptism apart from these Old Covenant links. If you are still skeptical, try explaining Paul’s statement of “baptisms for the dead.”

The Transformation of Festivals

The Lord’s Supper is obviously a fulfillment of Passover (Matt. 26:20-29; Mk. 14:12-26; Lk. 22:14-23). Of course, the death of Jesus also fulfills the death of the Paschal lamb (Jn. 1:29). But is there a conflict in saying that Jesus fulfilled the Passover and yet we are still commanded to the keep a feast? Not at all. In fact, Paul brings these two ideas together in 1 Corinthians 5. He says “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed,” and right on the heels of that he tells the Corinthians to “keep the feast”(7-8). Paul even draws a typological connection from the fact that the Passover is celebrated with unleavened bread in order to exhort them further: Purge out the “old leaven malice and wickedness” and keep the feast with “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (For what those interested in such things, Calvin too sees both atonement and Eucharist in this passage.)

In similar fashion, Romans 8:1-3 presents the death of Jesus as a sin offering, but Hebrews 13:10 makes a Eucharistic application of the laws of the sin offering. So it is proper to speak of both a theological typology, fulfilled in the person and work ofJesus, and a liturgical typology, where the Old Covenant pattern is transformed and transfigured in the practice of the Church.

One final example should suffice. Fittingly, I have chosen the book of Revelation for my concluding argument. The Apocalypse is arranged around the paradigm of Israel’s feasts. The book begins on the Lord’s Day (Sabbath), moves through the vision of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, and reveals the coming of the promised Spirit. Revelation focuses on the feasts of the seventh month (this is in keeping with the series of sevens that dominate the entire book). Seven trumpets are sounded, corresponding to the feast of trumpets that begins the seventh month; afterwards seven bowls of blood are poured out, corresponding to the sevenfold sprinkling of blood on the day of atonement. At last, there is a great feast at which time all the nations bring their glory into the Holy City. This feast of ingathering is the “marriage Supper of the lamb.” But this “feast of the kingdom” that corresponds to the Feast of Tabernacles, is already celebrated every time we approach the Lord’s Table. We gather around ancient tables built in the wilderness, to perpetually feast on a freshly-slain Lamb, and in doing so are nourished by the fruit of vineyards not yet planted.

More to follow…

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