Just prior to giving Moses the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, God had something else to say to Abraham’s descendants. It was this: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kindgom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).
“Treasured possession” might have been a heady phrase for a rag-tag group of ex-slaves and, indeed, that phrase is frequently misunderstood. Too often, people have thought those words mean the Jews were, and perhaps still are, a “chosen people” as if this were an end to itself; as if such a title came without obligation or responsibility. Such an interpretation ignores how “treasured possession” fits together in this passage with “you will be for me a kingdom of priests.”
This reference to priests does not signal the setting up of the Levite priesthood. That particular priesthood would give structure and organization to the religious life of the community. That priesthood was set up later -- in Exodus 28 in conjunction with the building of the Tabernacle. Exodus 19 is about something entirely different. It is about the fundamental or core identity of God’s people.
In declaring Israel a “kingdom of priests,” God is saying that all His people are to be involved in what Paul will later say is “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). It is this “kingdom of priests” idea that gives meaning to “treasured possession.” This clan called Israel was to be treasured because they were to be a priestly people, leading others into transformative encounters with God.
This was an outwardly-focused priestly group. All were to be priests with a focus on, as Exodus 19 hints, “all nations” and “the whole earth.” Later, through the prophet Isaiah, God would emphasize this with a darkness/light motif, saying, “I will make you a light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 49:6).
Four hundred years prior to Exodus 19, God said on four occasions that all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3, 18:18, 22:18, and 28:14). The call at Mt. Sinai for all of God’s people to be agents of reconciliation was a significant step forward in fulfilling that promise.
What is the “take-away” from this for believers in the 21st century? Well, Exodus 19 is an expression of God’s intent that His people take the Good News concerning reconciliation, redemption and transformation to the very ends of the earth. Paul says that all believers -- Gentile as well as Jewish -- are descendants of Abraham (Galatians 3:7, 29). Thus, the people of God, if we wish to fully embrace our role as God's treasured possession, will zealously take up our priestly role of bringing the rest of the world into God’s presence.
-- Howard Culbertson is professor of missions and world evangelism at Southern Nazarene University, in Bethany, Oklahoma, U.S. Culbertson, who formerly served as a missionary in Italy and Haiti, has published numerous articles, books, and chapters in books on missions. To access his many resources on mission, visit http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/.