It’s popular to draw parallels between ancient Israel and modern Western religious organizations. In many sermons that seem to capture popular thinking of the Sunday-morning masses, Israel is likened to church, priests to pastors, Levites to worship teams, pulpits to altars, Sabbaths to Sundays, and tithes to money collections. Certainly, we can draw some parallels, but as with any comparisons, we need to see where the comparison holds, and where it does not.
Here’s how Israel is (superficially) similar to Western religious organizations:
- Both Israel and church worship the same God
- Both priests and modern religious leaders, such as pastors, have leadership roles
- Levites and worship teams sing religious-themed songs
- Both Israel and church had buildings used for various religious purposes
- Pulpits and altars are central points of religious gatherings
- Both Sabbaths and Sundays can be thought of as days of rest
- Both tithes and money collections are used to sponsored various activities
Well, at this point I should say that I would like to switch our focus from Western religious organizations to the one invisible universal New Covenant church that Jesus Christ has created and that he personally heads. The church of Jesus Christ can be locally expressed through a religious organization, but the two aren’t really the same thing.
And so, the church of Jesus Christ is quite different from Israel, even if you take into account modern Western religious particulars.
Here’s how Israel is fundamentally different from the church:
- Israel versus the Church
Israel was a national state, with land, borders, and a government. It was administered under the law of Moses.
The church that Jesus created is an invisible entity, composed of all who trust in Jesus. It’s to be operated under the New Covenant, which replaced the Old one. It has no land, no borders, no government, and each individual members possesses the necessary material resources to sponsor their spiritual pursuits.
Most commonly, people get together, pool their resources, and assign responsibilities. They can register a religious organization, get lands, build buildings, elect or appoint formal leadership, get bank accounts, etc. But all those things are not what makes a church a church. All of that formal business is simply an organizational shell around a local expression of the invisible gathering of those who trust Jesus Christ.
The organizational shell is simply a matter of convenience. The invisible church is the one that really matters.
- Priests versus Pastors
In Israel under the Old Covenant, the required qualification for priesthood is to be born into the Aaronic bloodline. If you weren’t born into a priestly family, you could not get in, no matter how hard you tried. It was a simple matter of genetics. Also, if you had any bodily defects, namely: if you were flatnosed, had moles, had poor eyesight, had an injured limb, you could not be a priest. You couldn’t even come near the priests when they discharged their duties. Any violations were punishable by death.
In the New Covenant, the high priesthood belongs to Jesus Christ. All others share the universal priesthood of believers. There’s no priestly hierarchy among New Covenant believers whatsoever.
People may have leadership roles, but the task of any leader is model Christ and motivate people to emulate their life, as they follow Christ themselves. Any leadership is chiefly relational (relationship with God and with people), and is not simply positional. Any spiritual responsibilities are just that – responsibilities. In the church of Jesus Christ, any leadership is a matter of calling (vertical relationship with God) and influence (horizontal relationships with others). It’s not a matter of ranks, titles, or regalia.
Church leadership should be respected, and if they are on a payroll – they should be well-compensated. That’s what we do for secular leadership, why should spiritual leadership be any less rewarding?
- Levites versus Worship Leaders
Levites were those who were born from the literal Levi, the great-grandson of Abraham. No one else was a Levite. If you weren’t born a Levite, you could never become one, no matter how hard you tried. It was a matter of genetics, not performance. Levites performed a lot of priestly and administrative functions. They didn’t just sing songs. If a worship team singer is called a Levite because he sangs, then perhaps you should call me Elvis because I own a guitar.
Modern worship leaders sing songs during a religious gathering. It can be really nice to listen to, if they sing well. However, their function is entirely optional. Musical ministry is never even mentioned in the New Covenant.
- Altar versus Pulpit
What we call “altar” is simply the front of the church, with the pulpit in the center of it. The pulpit is simply an orator stand. That’s where a speaker comes up to deliver a speech. It’s usually an elevated podium, similar to the ones used in university lecture halls. If it’s a small gathering, there’s no need for the pulpit. You wouldn’t deliver speeches or sermons such less formal environment, you would just talk.
Sometimes it’s called “altar” in modern religious parlance, but it’s not. Altar was where blood sacrifices were made. They were made of stuff like earth, stones, or metals like bronze. Then you would plop a freshly killed animal on it (usually not the whole animal, but certain bodyparts), and you burn them. The blood stains and the smell of burning flesh was what made the altar the altar. You would never want put a human on a real altar. Unless … nevermind. Moving on.
- Building-centric versus believer-centric
In ancient Israel God’s presence was localized around the tabernacle, and later the temple. God’s earthly presence was in the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter there once a year in a prescribed way. Any violation of those rules resulted in immediate death of the violator. Also, a measure of God’s presence was on priests, prophets, and kings (or ruling king-like figures like judges).
In contrast, in the New Covenant God’s presence is within every believer, 24/7. It never results in death, but always in life. The Holy of Holies moves to the inside of us. We are commanded not to associate worship with a building on a mountain, but with spirit and truth. Church building is never “the house of God”, in the New Covenant. We, the church, are God’s living temple.
- Sabbaths versus Sundays
Sabbaths were legally prescribed days of rest for Israelites. They lasted from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. You could not do any work whatsoever, you could not travel more than about two miles. Any violations were punishable by death.
Sundays are the times when most Christian religious organizations choose to conduct their meetings. It’s a different time of the day. Sabbath is Friday night to Saturday night. Sunday is, well, Sunday. So it’s not even the same day of the week. Today, people commonly travel over two miles, and break just about every other Sabbath regulation with absolute impunity.
- Tithes versus Freewill Donations
Israel’s tithes was collected to support state’s functions. Since ancient Israel was a theocratic state, tithes went to support both the national government and the clergy. The two were one and the same group of people. The tithing system was a national taxation system. Tithes were gathered in from the increase of produce and livestock only. Professional labor (such as carpentry), trade (such as fishing), commerce, inheritances, or rents were not subject to tithe. Tithe was never collected in money. There were a total of 3 tithes, which were spent on government / clerical workers, religious festivals, and the local poor. Israel’s 3 tithes amounted to between 20 and 30 percent annually. Clergymen, who were also government workers, were forbidden to own land.
In contrast, modern free-will donations support a New Covenant fellowship, and not a national theocratic state. Clergy is not forbidden to own land. The donations are in money, not produce. Tithe is never mentioned in the New Covenant, not one time. The standard is voluntary and cheerful giving, and not an obligation.
Any giving should promote and expand the kingdom of God on earth. It’s to be spent on primarily on people. Buildings and parking lots are all great conveniences, but they won’t matter in the endgame. It’s the transformation of individual lives and entire communities in alignment with God’s priorities.