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“Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matt 9:17)
Last Sunday I was moved to share this in our meeting (oh by the way, I don’t “go to church” on Sundays. The church “meets” in our house on Sundays. I hope you get the difference. If not, keep reading). In our shared personal perusal of the New Testament, I have come to appreciate how the above applies so appropriately to us, and I’ll explain why. However, one thing I’ve learnt over the past few years is that religious people are also the people who are the most ignorant about the history of their religions, and are bound to repeat the same mistakes their predecessors made.
Look around in every major religion in the world. You will find three things which almost always runs through all of them. The first is sacred offerings i.e. sacrifices, second is sacred spaces aka temples and the third a sacred priesthood that offers these sacred sacrifices in the sacred spaces. Hinduism, Budhism, Judaism, Islam, Greco-Roman paganism, you name it. There is always a combination of all or some of these. Even Christianity has these as well, however, there are some things that sets Christianity apart from the others. We’ll start off by looking at sacred offerings.
We as Christians believe that there is no need for us to perform any sacrifices, be it of any animal, human or other form. We believe that Christ is the ultimate sacrifice which was offered once for all, and does not ever need to be repeated.
“Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sin, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb 7:27)
Therefore the only thing we need to do is to “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb 4:16). However, this was not always the practice. In the hay days of the Roman Catholic church, Christians lived in the understanding that the bread and wine that was termed the “Holy Communion” represents the actual body and blood of Christ – a concept known as transubstantiation – and that every time that it was shared, Jesus was being re-offered again. I stand to be corrected, but I think this is still the mindset (if not the practice as well) of Catholicism and I dare say some of us Protestants as well. It is because of this need to “resacrifice” Christ, that we see alters in most Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Suffice it to say that historically it has been established that this whole mind frame came from the adoption of purely pagan practices, i.e. Roman, Gallic and Frankish religions of the time.
However, thanks be to God for the work of Martin Luther and the Reformation struggle, which seriously challenged this thinking and has set Reformed Christianity on the truthful path. Nonetheless, I wish they had gone further.
Of course, to perform a sacrifice and to make it pleasing to whichever god you serve, it must be given by “respectable”, “holy” people, right? So, we come to the second pillar – the priesthood. In every religion, there is always the special set of people who have the sole preserve to present sacrifices and make interventions on behalf of the “ordinary” people to their god. It is the same in Christianity, but how profound the differences are!
In the Old Testament, beginning from Aaron, there was always appointed a high priest from the tribe of Levi, who were dedicated and set apart for the service of the temple. In the case of the high priest, not only did he have to be of the tribe of Levi, but he must of necessity originate from the family of Aaron (and by extension Moses, since they were brothers). Ordinary people were only allowed into the temple courts, and not the temple itself, the preserve of Levites. In addition, only the high priest was allowed to go into the section of the temple called the holy of holies once a year, where they performed a sacrifice for the sins of the whole Israel. This form of separation between the ordinary people and the “holy” is one that exists in most of the religions I’ve mentioned.
However, in this respect there are 2 things which set Christianity apart from all others.
Christ is our high priest. Unlike other religions including the Judaism, we need no human high priest.
“The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man” (Heb 8:1-2).
When Jesus Christ went to heaven, he went and offered his own blood in the tabernacle that was situated above (Heb 9:12). You will note that the tabernacle Moses made was based on very explicit instructions. That was because God was looking at the dimensions of his own tabernacle above, whiles giving the instructions to Moses to make a copy of (Heb 8:5). The above will be come even more important when we come to the third pillar.
However, at the completion of this exercise, he now sat down at the right hand of God, and received the power to send down the Holy Spirit to the church. This is exactly what Peter said about Christ when the Spirit was poured out on them.
If this is the case, then I’m tempted to ask where the concepts of General Overseers, Moderators and Presidents come from. Are we trying to replace the High Priesthood of Christ? Are we not just going back to the other religions of the day, especially to Judaism? Hmm.
We Christians are now priests of the Most High God. And i mean ALL OF US. Unlike other religions including the Judaism, we need no separate priesthood.
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father’, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher’, for you have one Teacher, the Christ.”(Matt 23:8-9)
Ask any modern day preacher the meaning of this passage, and you will hear a million and one explanations. However, it is very clear from the context that Jesus was making this comment because of the pharisees and teachers of the law who now “sit in the chair of Moses” (v 1-2). By this statement of Christ, he has leveled us all onto one ground. There is none higher than the other, and our only Master, and Teacher is Christ, and our only Father is God.
In fact, this is the motivation for passages like 1 Pe 2:9, 1 Cor 14:26, Ro 15:14 etc.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”(1 Pe 2:9)
“To him who loves us … and has mad us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father …” (Rev 1:5-6)
“What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” (1 Cor 14:26)
“I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (Ro 15:14)
There is a problem in the Christianity today, and it’s called the clergy – which translated means “heritage” or “inheritance”. Interestingly, the rest of the church is called “laity”, translated “people”. Ironically, God has always described his “people” as his “heritage” or “possession”. Where did the division come in? You see, because of the concept of priesthood of all believers, it is imperative that we allow others to express what God has given them to give to the body in more ways than even 1 Cor 14:26 above here envisages. It is of the utmost importance that we don’t let our practice become a one-man show, as it pertains today.
Someone asked a question that for all their over 30 years of being a Christian, it never occurred to them to ask why it is that Christianity is the only place where people are not allowed to ask questions after such an “important” thing as the “sermon”. I know most of the reasons that will be given, but I tell you the answers never address the core of the problem. Infact, we are practicing the Levitical priesthood all over again, though we claim to be under a new law – New Testament law.
“If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come – one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when there is a change of priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.” (Heb 7:11-12).
In the NT, there are about 58 verses that talk about being priests to one another, just like the examples given above. I tell you, the priesthood of all believers has more mention than elders and pastors that we so revere today. I hope to do a little discussion of them as part of this series on Rediscovering NT Christianity. Although elders have an indispensable role to play in the growth of the church, they are only guides, not gods.
The usurping of the role of Christ as the High Priest of his church, and the continuous division between the clergy and the laity leading to a non-functional, apathetic priesthood are unfortunately still with us, a demon which still begs exorcising, and one which unfortunately the Reformation left untouched.
Having a holy sacrifice and a holy person to perform that sacrifice, what is left is the holy place to perform it. This brings us to the third and final pillar – sacred spaces.
As we’ve already mentioned before, Moses was given explicit instructions to build the Tabernacle of the Testimony, which he did. Therefore the tabernacle became the place for the offering of sacrifices to God, and where the Ark of the Covenant was, on top of which God was supposed to dwell (in the mercy seat between the Cherubim). This was then carried about everywhere the Israelites went during the Exodus.
When Israel settled down, David wanted to build the Lord a temple, and finally Solomon did build the temple. It is very important to note that unlike the tabernacle, though God gave his approval for the building of the temple, he gave no instructions as to how it should be built. And God did make manifest his presence to them through his Spirit descending in glory over the temple. However, God never meant this temple (or any subsequent ones) to be his abode, and therefore we find that the Spirit never stayed in the temple for long. This is what Stephen referred to when he reminded his accusers that “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men” (Ac 7:48), quoting what the Lord himself said in Isaiah 66:1-2. Unfortunately, the Jews had taken the temporary interest of God in temples to mean that he could be camped in a thing of man’s making.
However, this is not entirely their fault, because every major religion before, in and after their time had temples. There is always an attempt to house a god in a certain man made location, be it in Mecca, the Temple of the Dome in Jerusalem, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre also in Jerusalem, Buddhist temple in China or Kweku Bonsam’s shrine in Ghana.
Herein lies the difference when it comes to NT Christianity. God’s ultimate plan is revealed, and his disinterest in all man made abodes made clear, when we are told that God’s temple is not a building, its a people.
“Jesus replied, ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with Him‘” (John 14:23).
“But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Ro 8:10).
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Co 3:16)
“Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God” (1 Cor 6:19)
All these point out how different Christ’s ministry in the NT is from the OT. No longer do we need to make an appearance in a certain building before we consider ourselves in God’s presence. God is in us (note, I didn’t say we are in his presence). And whenever we meet together, he dwells in us. We are his temple.
It is no wonder then that archaeological evidence shows that no church buildings existed until 100 years after the death of the apostles. The earliest church buildings can be dated to mid AD 200, in the time of Emperor Constantine.
It is not because they were poor. In fact, the Christians of Achaia (i.e. Corinth) were quite the contrary, and were rather putting money together to help their brethren in Jerusalem.
It is not because they were in small numbers, because the language of Acts 21:20 says “thousands of Jews had believed” in Jerusalem.
It is not because they were persecuted, because the Roman empire was one of the most religiously tolerant empires, until the times of the Emperor Neros and Emperor Domitians who came way after Christianity was established. In fact, Gallio’s refusal to deal with religious arguments in Ac 18:12-16 is only representative of the attitude that the Roman leadership took to their subject colonies – freedom of worship.
And don’t misconstrue Ac 2:46 saying “they met in the temple courts” to mean they met in the temple. Don’t forget that it was only Levites that were allowed to directly worship in the temple. And worst of all, the Jews had just killed a man they considered a blasphemer – I don’t think they’d take kindly to his followers sharing the same temple with their Judaic worship. That would have to be over the dead bodies of the Pharisees and the priests of the temple. Just as it says, the temple courts were open spaces outside the Jerusalem temple where people could meet. Period.
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
Like I stated previously, the Reformation led by Martin Luther helped rid Christianity of the hegemony of man-made sacrifices, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. However, the concept of the clergy – which stands starkly against the priesthood of all believers, and the church building – a paradox when compared to the people being the temple of God – seem to be so ingrained in the modern Christian mindset that it’s difficult for us to admit that there is something wrong with them.
For some (mostly the laity) the status quo suits their lifestyles, and don’t want to be ruffled by getting too deeply into active participation in the body of Christ. After all, “that’s the pastor’s work, right”?
For others (especially the clergy), that is all they know to do, some having even attained PhDs in theology. Its the source of their daily bread. They dare not touch these historically, archaeologically and scripturally unfounded institutions, for they do so at great personal peril.
Even though it’s been established historically that early Christianity was the first religion to practice a system of equal priesthood and non-temple based worship, we have however abandoned that and gone for old testament based Judaic and Greco-Roman pagan practices. Would it not be right to say that we have put new wine in old wineskin?
My only personal pain is that Christianity is not judged by what it was meant to be, but what it is now (which is only natural). We live in a world where people have become increasingly cynical, if not hostile to the message of Christ, simply because of what they see us doing. Maybe we in Africa don’t see it much, but it’s so visible in the western world. However, I can already see signs of it creeping into the African society.
Are we willing to change the old wineskin for the new?