The gospel proclaimed by Yahshua, the Messiah, was a radical message that cut right to the core of what separated man from His Creator. Those who received His message were bound together in a radically committed life, which demonstrated Yahshua’s victory over the power of sin and death. Yahshua’s gospel was not something He came up with on His own, but was consistent with the demand that God has always made on those who would serve Him — complete loyalty and devotion. So to really understand the gospel in its fullness, one must understand the history of God’s dealings with man.
There is a very significant and heartbreaking story in the Old Testament that few Christians even know, and fewer still understand, though its message is the very foundation of the Gospel. It is the story of the fall of Israel from its original calling to be a whole kingdom of priests, not just one tribe of priests and eleven tribes of laymen. Here is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, spoke through Moses to the entire twelve tribes after they came out of Egypt, and their response:
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that Yahweh had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to Yahweh. (Exodus 19:5-8)
God’s deep desire for Israel was that they would be a shining light amongst all the nations around them. He wanted them be a witness to the nations of what He is like by their unity as a commonwealth of twelve tribes, and by their life of righteousness and justice.1 For that is what it means to be a priest, and to be a priesthood: to represent God’s heart and nature to man, not only in word, but also in how they live before the nations around them. They stand between God and man, reconciling man to his Maker. But if they compromise their priesthood by giving their affection to other gods, they forfeit their priesthood, for they no longer represent the one true God. Without a priesthood there is no way for man to be reconciled to God.
Tragically, that is exactly what happened with Israel not long after they vowed to be God’s holy priesthood. The poignant story is told in Exodus 32. Moses had gone up on Mt. Sinai to hear from Yahweh, who had miraculously delivered them from the oppression they were under in Egypt. There he received the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone, but he was gone for longer than the people expected. In their restless anxiety, thinking Moses to have perished on the mountain, they pressured Aaron to make them a god to worship. It was going to take a lot to win their hearts back from the idolatry and sensual worship they had been immersed in for generations in Egypt.
Seeing their waywardness, Yahweh sent Moses down the mountain to deal with his people. Moses found the Israelites dancing around a golden calf, having totally abandoned themselves to their idolatry. Amazingly, Moses expressed God’s great mercy by giving them another chance to respond to His call:
When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on Yahweh’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him.
He said to them, “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day.
Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of Yahweh, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.” (Exodus 32:25-29)
Sadly, only the Levites responded to the call to serve Yahweh — but not all of them. Therefore those who responded were commanded to take their swords and kill their fellow tribesmen who were not willing to forsake their idolatry. Thus the tribe of Levi was cleansed that day, and those who remained became Yahweh’s holy priesthood. They had “ordained themselves” to this priesthood at the cost of their unwilling kinsmen. Speaking of this pivotal event in the history of Israel, Moses later writes:
At that time Yahweh set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of Yahweh to stand before Yahweh to minister to him and to bless his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. Yahweh is his inheritance, as Yahweh your God said to him. (Deuteronomy 10:8-9)
Not only did the Levites have to totally forsake their unwilling relatives, but they also forfeited any personal material wealth they could have claimed in the land, for they would live a life of total devotion to Yahweh. He saw fit to gather them into priestly “cities” where they would be utterly dependent upon Him to provide for them:
Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you shall give to the Levites pasture lands around the cities. The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle and for their livestock and for all their beasts. (Numbers 35:2-3)
These priestly “cities” were not as one would think of a city today. They were actually small walled villages about two-thirds of a mile in diameter, with a narrow band of shared pasture land around them.2 Within those walls the Levites lived together as a close-knit community, working together on their shared lands for their common good. Each of the men had allotted times when they would serve in the Temple in Jerusalem,3 knowing that their wives and children would be well cared for back home in their priestly communities.
The Levitical priesthood was a type or foreshadow of what the New Covenant priesthood would be like, from the radical manner of their calling to their set-apart life and their ministry in the Temple. As the Apostle Peter wrote to the early church, taking Exodus 19:6 and applying it directly to them:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Indeed, they were “called out of darkness” to be His holy priesthood just as decisively as the Levites were called out of the idolatry that Israel had fallen into in Exodus 32. It is no mere coincidence that the Master’s words echo the words of Moses:
“Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” (Matthew 12:30)
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10:34-37)
“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple… Likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26,33)
Yahshua did not call His followers to literally kill their unwilling relatives, but He did call them to sever their ties to their former lives, including unwilling family and friends,4 and be immersed into a new spiritual family. As an example to all who would follow Him, Yahshua cut off the influence of His own mother and brothers when they sought to restrain His “madness”5:
And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When His family heard it, they went out to restrain Him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” … Then His mother and His brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to Him and called Him. A crowd was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.” And He replied, “Who are My mother and My brothers?” And looking at those who sat around Him, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! Whoever does the will of God is My brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20,21,31-35)
This was the “sword” that pierced Mary’s heart, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Simeon at Yahshua’s dedication in the Temple:
Then Simeon blessed them and said to His mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)
That sword did its work, as Yahshua’s mother and brothers were evidently cut to the heart by His words that day, and later were numbered among His disciples. Others wanted to follow Him conditionally, but His command was as clear as that of Moses:
To another He said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Yet another said, “I will follow You, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-62)
And perhaps the most well-known example is that of the “Rich Young Ruler” who came running after Yahshua and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Master’s command was clear:
“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:21-22)
Many Christians would say, “That was only for him, since he was so attached to his possessions.” Even Yahshua’s disciples were surprised, perhaps because they had been poor and hadn’t had so much materially to leave behind, but the Master was calling even the rich to abandon their riches. Peter spoke for them all, and the Master’s response made the “Good News” crystal clear:
Then Peter began to say to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You.” So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time — houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions — and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10:28-30, NKJ)
Yahshua did not envision just a little rag-tag band of disciples such as they were then, but a spiritual nation bursting forth from the hundredfold increase that would result from each disciple’s unconditional surrender of his life and possessions — for Yahshua’s sake and the gospel’s sake. He envisioned nothing less than the “priestly cities” of the New Covenant holy priesthood — communities of disciples sharing a common, set-apart life together as a light to the perverse society around them.
It was not “out of the blue” that Yahshua had told His disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”6 And it was not a mere coincidence that He chose twelve apostles to pour this vision into, for He had in mind the restoration of the twelve-tribed royal priesthood that Israel was supposed to be.7 But this time it would be tribes of a common spiritual stock, not necessarily the same physical bloodline. It would be the extended family of those who do the will of God.8 Their priestly “cities” (communities) would be filled with grateful disciples who love one another just as He loved them,9 who daily lay down their lives for one another,10 and who daily encourage one another,11 continually making sure that no one is falling short of the grace of God.12
Yahshua’s apostles clearly took on both His gospel and His vision, for when the Holy Spirit came upon them on the day of Pentecost, that gospel is what they spoke with much passion, as is evident from the results of their preaching. In the same spirit of Moses and Yahshua, Peter exhorted the people, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” And 3,000 people responded by forsaking everything and banding together as a spiritual brotherhood:
Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart. (Acts 2:44-46)
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
This vibrant community would be the first of many priestly communities established all over Judea according to the same pattern as the community in Jerusalem, and then throughout the Mediterranean world.13 Within about 30 years, the Apostle Paul was able to describe this emerging holy nation as “our twelve tribes who earnestly serve God night and day”14 — His New Covenant royal priesthood. The apostles frequently exhorted the communities to be faithful in their priestly service:
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. (1 Peter 2:5)
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence… I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without wrath or dissension… (1 Timothy 2:1,2,8)
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable [priestly] service. (Romans 12:1)
But the very strength of Paul’s exhortations is an indication that the church was already in decline in the latter part of the first century. Indeed, there are many indications in the apostles’ letters that the church was losing its set-apart, priestly way of life, and falling back into the ways of the world around them.15 By the end of the first century, Yahshua Himself wrote to the church through the Apostle John:
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:4-5)
Yahshua warned of the impending judgment that was coming upon the early church. The loss of their “lampstand” was tantamount to the loss of their priesthood, for they ceased receiving the illumination of the Holy Spirit and became as natural men, incapable of being a light to the surrounding darkness. Woefully, not long into the second century, that darkness consumed them,16 as is evident from the apostate condition of the church described in the letter of James,17 chronologically the last letter of the New Testament.
Gone were the priestly communities of outspoken disciples18 consumed with a fervent love for one another that had caused their lives to be knit together into holy commonwealth,19 which Paul had once been so bold as to call “The Israel of God.”20 They were replaced by what Yahshua Himself called “Synagogues of Satan,”21 where a lukewarm22 and silent laity23 were presided over by supposed ministers of righteousness who were in fact Satan’s servants.24 Ironically, these “Nicolaitans”2525 soon came to be called priests, and indeed they were, but not for Yahweh, the God of Israel. He could not hear their prayers over the discordant noise of their divided and soon-to-be warring factions.26
1900 years of discord, persecution, murder, genocide, immorality and injustice among Christians have come and gone since the first-century church fell from its priesthood. Today there are some 39,000 Christian denominations27 that abundantly fulfill the prophetic words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:1-5, having the appearance of godliness but lacking the power to live a priestly life together in love and unity. They are far from bearing the fruit of the Kingdom which Yahshua longed for when He pronounced old Israel cut off from its holy root:
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” (Matthew 21:43)
The fruitless branches of Christianity are merely the tragic evidence that Paul’s warning to the early church went unheeded:
For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. (Romans 11:21-22)
The good news is that in these last days a little sprig has sprouted from the ancient and holy root of the “olive tree” Paul spoke of.28 It is growing into a new spiritual Israel of twelve tribes, a holy priesthood that is again earnestly serving God night and day for the hope of His promise to Abraham.29 We live together in communities in twelve geographic regions around the world, striving to love one another and guard our unity with great diligence. We have forsaken everything to be grafted into this life, just as did the disciples of old. And we are earnestly searching for all of our brothers and sisters who are still lost in the confusion of Christianity and Judaism, and the futility of their independent lives in this fallen world, but who are willing to do our Father’s will. Perhaps you are one of them.
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.30 (Revelation 22:17)