At the end of Genesis, God takes one of Abraham’s descendants, Joseph, on a winding path to prominence in Egypt. Although Joseph had been betrayed and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he is able to forgive them and welcome his family into safety in Egypt because he had come to see God’s sovereign hand at work for the saving of life (Genesis 45:7-8).
In keeping with his covenant with Abraham, God blesses Abraham’s descendants by protecting them from the famine through Joseph and extending the blessings to the Egyptians and the surrounding nations by storing up food for them as well.
By the beginning of Exodus the Egyptians have forgotten God’s life-saving work through Joseph. The Egyptians cannot deny, however, the fulfillment of God’s promise to multiply the line of Abraham. Rather than bless the Israelites in light of God’s favor, the Egyptians choose to curse them instead with the bondage of slavery. These efforts fail to negate God’s promises. In fact, like the evil intent of Joseph’s brothers, they serve as a means of accomplishing God’s larger purpose through Israel.
Now Abraham’s descendants have evolved from a clan to a nation. Once God delivers them from Egypt and begins to establish his covenant with the new nation in the wilderness, we find the third key text that further defines and refines God’s intention for humanity:
This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then our of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
God has already blessed Israel, as he reminds them, but he goes on to offer them a highly exalted status. This further promise requires Israel’s commitment to be faithful covenant partners with God, for only then can they fulfill God’s purpose through them on behalf of the world.
The image of priesthood provides a classic representation of mediation. Israel possessed a priesthood to mediate between the people and God. At the same time, Israel provided priestly service between the other nations and God. God called Israel “out of all nations” to fulfill a sacred role on behalf of “the whole earth.” Later, God will describe this role through the prophet Isaiah as follows:
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
The expression “a kingdom of priests” can also be rendered “a royal priesthood.” In other words, Israel’s priesthood points back to humanity’s original role to rule over God’s creation. We see here that God’s intent for human reign does not promote tyranny or exploitation, but the fulfillment of God’s gracious purpose.
We should not be surprised to find the descriptor “holy” in relation to Israel’s national priesthood, but this concept frequently calls to mind strange rituals or condescending self-righteousness. Instead, we should associate it with being set apart from that which comes between us and God so that we can be set apart for relationship with him and service through him on behalf of the world.
While reflecting God’s image and transmitting God’s blessings do not necessarily suggest an individualistic focus, this third text clarifies beyond a doubt the corporate nature of God’s work through humanity. Many applications of our calling reveal themselves best through our life in covenant community rather than as isolated individuals.
As with the first two foundations of human identity in the Bible, the third one continues to find expression in the New Testament:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by humans but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possessions, that you may proclaim the virtues of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10
We have been called to allow God’s likeness to shine through us so that the whole world can know his light, to experience his blessings so that the whole world world can receive them as well, and to live out our chosenness so that the whole world can share in that status.
Praise God for such a glorious, humbling, unselfish calling!