Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Ethiopian Eunuch and the Priesthood of All Believers

I’ll begin with the beautiful words from 1 Peter 2:4, 9, 10: Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
We need to fully grasp how radical this is for each one of us and for our community of faith: God has chosen us, made us holy, made us royal, made us priests for the purpose of proclaiming how much he has done in calling us out of darkness into light. Each one of us, each community of faith. Holy, Royal, Priestly.

In order for us to appreciate what this really means, we have to go back to a famous story of evangelism from Acts 8, Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, and get under its skin.

Philip was one of the administrators along with Stephen that the original disciples chose to take care of details while they preached. Then Stephen was martyred, and within weeks, Philip is off in Samaria preaching and working wonders, leaving the tables to wait on themselves. Philip may have been the first besides Jesus to preach the gospel to the Samaritans. While there, God directed Philip to go out on a road through the wilderness toward the south, where he met a man in a chariot reading. (Apparently someone else was driving.) Again prompted by God’s Spirit, Philip ran over to the chariot and heard the man read aloud from the book of Isaiah. This man worked for the Queen of Ethiopia as a highly placed official. He had been to Jerusalem to worship and was going home. He was also a eunuch.

Think about this. Somehow, this man’s hunger for God was so strong that he had come many days journey to worship in the temple of God. Think also about this: in this temple, people like him were not eligible to present the offerings in the holy place. Any priest who presented an offering was required to be physically unblemished, whether the blemish was temporary or permanent. The list in Lev. 21:16-20 includes a number of physical imperfections that disqualified a member of the priestly tribe from making the offerings. The one with a blemish could not “come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, [so] that he may not profane my sanctuaries.” I don’t know why this law was given to Israel. Perhaps the priest was a gift to God, like other offerings, and it was irreverent to give God a blemished gift. Perhaps the priest symbolized God to the people, and an unblemished person better symbolized a perfect God. These blemished priests were, however, allowed eat the offerings other priests ate, and to perform tasks around the temple, just not the central ones. Because humans are what we are, this undoubtedly created a sense of hierarchy, something like this: unblemished priests, offering sacrifices, eligible to be high priest; blemished priests, sweeping up and keeping order; and everyone else.

It is possible to see a similar hierarchical pattern emerge in the early Church. The original disciples are praying and preaching, doing signs and wonders, and representing the Spirit of Jesus everywhere. They were like the unblemished priests, eligible by their previous closeness to Jesus to be the top of any social heap of holiness. So when the common believers complained about unfair treatment, the apostles said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait tables.” So they named some non-apostles to wait tables. These were like the blemished priests, not quite as holy. Philip was one of these. Beautifully, God brings the waiter to talk with the eunuch. Both have the experience of being designated as second-tier.

But there’s more to the story here. In the cultures around the Mediterranean and into northern Africa, young boys were captured or chosen and turned into eunuchs for the purposes of making them loyal and hard-working civil servants. They had no descendants for whom they had to provide, they had no spouse with ambitions for them. Because they lost the possibility of a lineage, a legacy, children, they had, literally, only their jobs to live for. Their high positions were entirely at the will of the rulers. And if they were Jewish or converts to Judaism, they were outsiders in worship also. Deuteronomy 23:1 says that no eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

The wonderful thing about the Bible is how it talks to itself, and when we pay attention, we can get a fuller picture of the heart of God. Now that we know how little place there was for a eunuch in temple worship, we can hear just how redemptive and healing are these words from Isaiah 56:3-5: “do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’” The heart of God revealed through the prophet includes the believing eunuch in worship and promises him a legacy.

And later Jesus says to disciples dismayed that they cannot walk away from their wives and who think then it might be better not to marry: “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, there are eunuchs who have been made so by others, and there are eunuchs have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Matthew 19: 10-12). Undoubtedly, this was even more horrifying to the disciples than permanent marriage. But it is a statement that widens their understanding of who can be holy, who can be in the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven includes more than unblemished men; it includes women, children, and eunuchs.

Unsurprisingly, because we are human, the church has often taken this as a statement that those who choose celibacy for the kingdom of heaven are holier than others. We are absolutely incorrigible; we need to know which group is closer to God, which group gets to speak for God, which group gets to represent us to God. We are simply not comfortable with the idea that we ordinary folks are close to God, we speak for God, we carry the world to God. We are a royal priesthood, a holy nation. We are.

But wait, there’s more. The Ethiopian is reading from Isaiah 53. He hasn’t yet gotten to the passage that gives him full standing among God’s people, but he has come to the heart of the matter. He is reading this passage: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with disease and sorrow; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has born our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth…by a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. It pleased the Lord to crush him … When you, God, make him the offering for sin, he will see his descendants.” Who is this referring to, he asks Philip, the prophet or someone else? And Philip tells him the good news of Jesus.

What is the good news? Hebrews 4:14 tells us that we have a great high priest, Jesus, the Son of God, able to sympathize with our weaknesses, in every respect tested as we are, yet without sin. He was chosen by God, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and he was made perfect. Now he is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. He is a priest outside the Law—not from the line of Aaron, but from Judah—signaling the introduction of a better hope through which we approach God and guaranteeing a better covenant (Hebrews 7:19). He is the only high priest we will ever need; he holds office permanently, continuously able to save those who approach God through him, living always to intercede for us.

Here’s the good news: no more are we under a law that specifies the physical attributes of those who can approach God and represent God in worship. We have a permanent high priest, a priest who entered the holy places bruised, crushed, marred, bleeding, mangled—a priest who did not measure up to the physical standard of the Law, a priest who still carries the wounds that plead for us, who remains physically marred while glorified.

What this means is that we are all eligible, we are all called to “be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We ordinary believers in Jesus Christ are close to God, we speak for God, we carry the world to God. We are a royal priesthood, a holy nation. We are.