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Book Review: Face to Face with God

Dr Stephen Moore

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This recent addition to IVP’s series Essential Studies in Biblical Theology (ESBT) is a treat, a rich and concise biblical theology of Christ as priest and mediator. Dr. Alexander equips and informs readers to take up the invitation of Hebrews to boldly approach God’s throne with confidence. The book’s focus is “to understand how the portrayal of Jesus Christ as priest and mediator contributes to a deeper understanding of God and our relationship with him” (p.5).

This invitation makes us students of Christ’s high-priesthood (“Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest…” Heb 8:1 (p.3)), but it is there that modern readers can falter. Concepts of priest and priesthood are open to misunderstanding. Yet, the author of Hebrews assumes we do understand. Here is the great opportunity taken by this book. A grasp of the Aaronic priesthood and the earthly sanctuary becomes a direct path to grasping the elements of Christ’s high priestly ministry. 

Dr. Alexander goes where the author of Hebrews goes, back to the Old Testament, and especially to the books of Exodus and Leviticus. This dictates the structure of the book. Chapters 1-4 lay groundwork for understanding the earthly sanctuary. The lines to Christ’s priestly ministry are developed in chapter 5 and following. However, all the material in Chapters 1-4 is guided by the same aim, to help readers orientate themselves “toward the throne of grace in the heavenly sanctuary” (p.10). What follows are some highlights from the main body of the book, Chapters 1-9.

Chapter 1 (Where Heaven and Earth Meet) makes an important observation from Ex 25-31, that opens up two pathways, with their own theological lessons. Ex 25-31 give instructions for the building and furnishing of the tent. Built into the order of these instructions are the tent’s two main functions: “The items described in Exodus 25:8-27:19 highlight the tent’s role as a dwelling place. Attention then switches in Exodus 27:20-30:38 to the tent’s function as a meeting place” (p.14). These functions are then pursued separately by Dr. Alexander. Chapters 1 and 3 consider the tent as a dwelling place, Chapter 4 picks up its role as a meeting place.

Along the way, Dr. Alexander puts his finger on details of the portable sanctuary in such a way as to open up their rich theological meaning. For example, in arguing for the ark of the covenant as precisely footstool not throne, the portable sanctuary is seen to be an axis mundi, linking the footstool on earth with the throne in heaven (pp.20-21). This reality is then reflected in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple (p.21). The design and structure of the sanctuary has other meanings, including an eschatological one. Its very design anticipated the future for it was likely seen as a model of the cosmos and as such it “anticipates a time when God’s presence will fill the whole earth” (p.32). 

A key line of argument from Exodus is that sanctuary and covenant go together, the sanctuary itself portrayed as a portable Mount Sinai (pp.34-35). This connection, between sanctuary, priest and covenant, has important explanatory power later in the book when the priest and mediator mediates a better covenant (Chapter 8).

Chapter 3 (Holy to the Lord), and Chapter 4  (Face to Face with God) address the concepts of holiness and intercession. The distinctions between holy (sanctuary) and common (everything else), clean (inside camp) and unclean (outside camp), make two boundaries and three regions: holy + clean; common + clean; common + unclean (pp.42-47). These boundaries fill the everyday lives of the Israelites, who “live in a world that is predominantly unclean and characterized by imperfection and death. God, however, has offered them the opportunity to become a holy nation (Ex 19:6) and has come to dwell among them” (p.50). This has relevance in the context of the wider Pentateuch, in which “the regulations in Leviticus reflect humanity’s long-standing alienation from God” (p.50).

Given this need for intercession, Chapter 4 outlines how the portable sanctuary meets this, for it is a tent of meeting. This is needed so we can “appreciate further the significance of Christ appearing before God ‘for us’” (p.59). In particular, the meetings of Moses with God teach us about intercession: “Moses’ frequent encounters with God create the opportunity for Moses to intercede successfully on behalf of the Israelites” (p.66).

The clear shift during Chapter 5 to consider Christ’s priestly role is a satisfying one, for foundations have been well laid. Still, at every turn, the Old Testament context shapes expectations of the high-priestly role, including its unique commission and the importance of atonement. For example, the events surrounding the Korah-led rebellion in Numbers 16-17 “underline the unique high priestly status of Aaron as the one exclusively commissioned by God to approach him in the tent of meeting. They also highlight the high priest’s role as the only one who can atone when the Israelites come under God’s judgment and are deserving of death” (p.69).

Chapter 6 (The High Priest and Sacrifice) follows in the footsteps of the author of Hebrews, and compares and contrasts the ministry of the Aaronic high priest and Jesus’ priestly work. In doing so, Dr. Alexander argues carefully for the importance of keeping together the sacrifice of Christ on earth, and the efficacy of his intercession in heaven: “God’s acceptance of Christ’s offering underpins all of his priestly service within the heavenly sanctuary” (p.91). Advancing with the logic of the book of Hebrews, Dr. Alexander moves from the Aaronic priesthood to consider in Chapter 7 how Christ is a priest like Melchizedek. He lays out arguments for a messianic reading of Psalm 110, before addressing what the priesthood of Melchizedek means. The final section of this chapter is full of insight and establishes that, in introducing Melchizedek, the priestly activity of Jesus is wrapped up with his royal status as the “son of David”, and who he is as the Son by nature. To be the Son of God is then “intimately tied to his role as high priest in the heavenly sanctuary” (p.106).

Chapter 8 focuses on the references to Christ as mediator in Hebrews, in each case related to a “new” or “better” covenant. Here the groundwork of early chapters bears fruit. Priesthood and covenant go together in Hebrews, just as they do in Exodus. The guarantee that the covenant is better, and will be effectively established and administered, rests on an oath by God all about priesthood - God’s appointment of Jesus Christ as a priest forever (Ps 110:4) (p.115). As with every chapter in the book, there are precious insights along the way. Moses’ mediation at Sinai is shown to be clearly priestly in nature (pp.116-7). The significance of blood for the making of covenant (esp. pp.118-9) is carefully demonstrated. The final chapter of the book, before the short conclusion, addresses the people of God as a royal priesthood. Dr. Alexander unfolds the meaning of “kingdom of priests” in Ex 19 and widens the lens to include the expectation of royal and priestly roles in Gen 1-2. Finally, he considers its fulfillment now, and in the future, in the city of God, in the new Jerusalem. 

One final remark is in order. It is characteristic of the author’s work, and this book is no exception, to combine careful work on the overlooked details of the biblical text with a clear application of their theological meaning. The details of the design of the sanctuary, the workings of the priesthood, do not only inform but edify. In doing so, this short volume lines up well with biblical theology, and all theology, as doxology. I commend it warmly.