On Being Priests

Torah Portion: Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
Gospel Reading: Romans 15:8–16, 1 Peter 2
Commentary by: Kelsey Bryant

“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4–6)

Many verses in the Brit Chadashah/New Testament are reminiscent of this pivotal verse in the Torah, conveying that God’s purpose for His people has always remained the same. Once the Israelites came out of Egypt, they were set up to be priests. They had seen God’s wondrous works; they had been rescued from slavery; they had proclaimed their allegiance and obedience to Him through the Passover sacrifice. Now He could have a relationship with them: they could love and serve Him, He could love and teach them, together they could reach the nations and influence the whole world to worship the One God.

The Torah portion Yitro shows this sanctification getting underway, with the declaration I quoted above, the three-day cleansing period, and the revelation of the Ten Commandments on Sinai.

But another compelling episode in Israel’s process of priesthood can be found in the first chapter, Exodus 18, of the parashah. Even before they had been given the Ten Commandments, a “convert” from the nations was drawn to acknowledge the one true God because of their (mainly Moses’) witness.

“Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had befallen them on the journey, and how the Lord had delivered them. Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians. So Jethro said, ‘Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people’” (Exodus 18:8–11).

Jethro was a priest himself for some other god, but he was impressed by what Yahweh did for the Israelites and so transferred his allegiance. All it took was for Moses to tell him the story.

The priestly duty of God’s people spans the millennia. Paul calls bringing the Good News of Yeshua a “priestly duty” in Romans 15:16. Romans 15:8–16, drawing from the Tanakh, outlines how believers in Yeshua are to draw in the Gentiles. Just like Jethro, these Gentiles will “glorify God for His mercy” (15:9) when believers “give praise to [Him] among the Gentiles” (15:9, quoting Psalm 18:49).

Paul and the other Jewish disciples of Yeshua did their priestly duty of turning the Gentiles to the one true God. The evidence? We Gentile believers in Messiah. We’re part of the fulfillment of these prophetic passages.

And now we ourselves, all who are followers of Messiah, are priests. That means, as 1 Peter 2 explains, that once we are part of God’s people we have specific tasks. We no longer live as our own entities but participate in emphasizing the holiness of the Lord. We teach others, we keep His commandments, we love Him with all our hearts…we never forget Who we’re representing.