7. Principles of Priesthood (Leviticus 8-10)
Have you ever watched someone performing a very dangerous task and gone away smiling at the thought that this person is risking his neck, rather than you? There are several occupations that I would gladly pay someone else an exorbitant salary to do than to have to do it myself. One such task is that of washing windows on skyscrapers, another is painting bridges, like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The other day I saw a brief news feature on the men who change the light bulbs on top of the Reunion Tower. More power (and more pay) to them! Anyone who wants to risk their life in such occupations has my full support.
I would imagine that if I had lived in the days of Moses and the ancient Israelites I would have felt the same way about those whose occupation was the priesthood. In the text which we are going to study in this lesson two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, were struck dead for exercising their priestly duties in a way that dishonored God. While at the end of chapter 9 fire came down from heaven, consuming what was left of the people’s sacrifice, at the beginning of chapter 10 fire came down from heaven, consuming two of Israel’s priests. From this day forward, every Israelite looked upon the priesthood as a very dangerous occupation.
This week, Jerry Soderberg suggested to me that this incident is similar to that found in the New Testament Book of Acts, chapter 5, in which Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead by God for lying to the church (and thus to the Holy Spirit) about their contribution to the church. I think this is a very helpful insight. In both instances, there was the beginning of a new era, some would say a new dispensation. In Leviticus chapter 10, where the death of Nadab and Abihu are recorded, the Mosaic Covenant has just been instituted, along with the tabernacle and the Aaronic priesthood. In Acts chapter 5, where Ananias and Sapphira were judged of God, the church age has just commenced with Pentecost (Acts 2). In both cases, the death of God’s people is designed to set a precedent, so that those who enter into the new dispensation would grasp the significance of the holiness of God in relation to the institutions which He has just created.
As the Israelites of old and the New Testament church learned to take heed to God’s commandments and character, so let us listen well to the words of our text, for these are weighty matters with which we are dealing.
A Survey of the
History of the Priesthood in the Pentateuch
The Aaronic Priesthood is just being formally established in Leviticus chapter 8, but the concept of priesthood is not new to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, written by Moses. In a curious incident in the life of Abraham, a priest-king by the name of Melchizedek is introduced:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (Gen. 14:18-20).
Not until Psalm 110 is Melchizedek referred to again, and much is made of this order of priesthood in the Book of Hebrews (chaps. 5-7).
Joseph’s wife was the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen. 41:45, 50; 46:20), and Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, was known as “the priest of Midian” (Exod. 2:16; 3:1; 18:1). At Mt. Sinai God proclaimed that He had delivered Israel from bondage and set her apart to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:6). Most interesting is the fact that there was some order of priests before the Aaronic Priesthood was officially instituted. When God first appeared from Mt. Sinai, but before instructions concerning the priesthood had been given (cf. Exod. 28, 29), God gave this warning:
“And also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them.” And Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for Thou didst warn us, saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and consecrate it.’” Then the LORD said to him, “Go down and come up again, you and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break forth upon them” (Exod. 19:22-24, emphasis mine).
As in other instances, it would seem that the Mosaic Covenant formalized and regulated institutions and practices which already existed prior to the making of this covenant.
It is in Exodus chapter 28 that legislation concerning the Aaronic priesthood begins with a description of the garments which will set Aaron and his sons apart as a priesthood:60
“Then bring near to yourself Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the sons of Israel, to minister as priest to Me—Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. And you shall speak to all the skillful persons whom I have endowed with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him, that he may minister as priest to Me. And these are the garments which they shall make: a breastpiece and an ephod and a robe and a tunic of checkered work, a turban and a sash, and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons, that he may minister as priest to Me” (Exod. 28:1-4).
In Exodus chapter 28 God instructed Moses concerning the priestly garments which would set Aaron and his sons apart. In chapter 29 instructions for the consecration and ordination of Aaron and his sons are meticulously outlined. It is this chapter which is virtually mirrored by the account of the ordination of Aaron and his sons in Leviticus chapter 8. A brief summary of these two chapters will show the close relationship they have with each other:
Present one bull, two rams, unleavened bread, cakes, oil (vv. 1-4a)
One bull, two rams, basket of unleavened bread brought to tent of meeting (vv. 1-5).
Aaron and sons to be washed, clothed with priestly garments (vv. 4b-9)
Aaron and sons washed and clothed with priestly garments (vv. 6-9)
Bull to be offered as a sin offering (vv. 10-14)
Bull offered as sin offering (vv. 14-17)
First ram to be offered as burnt offering (vv. 15-18)
First ram offered as burnt offering (vv. 18-21)
Second ram to be offered as an ordination offering (vv. 19-28)
Second ram offered as an ordination offering (vv. 22-29)
Moses to anoint Aaron and sons (vv. 29-30)
Aaron and sons anointed (v. 30)
Commands related to the eating of the ram of ordination (vv. 31-34)
Moses instructs Aaron and sons concerning the eating of the ordination ram (vv. 31-36)
An Overview of Leviticus 8-10
Chapters 8-10 of the Book of Leviticus describe the origin and the ordination of the Aaronic priesthood. Let me briefly summarize the major contribution of each chapter.
Leviticus 8 portrays the fulfillment of God’s commands pertaining to the ordination of Aaron and his sons, as detailed in Exodus chapter 29. This chapter highlights Moses, who, until after the ordination of Aaron and his sons, functions as Israel’s priest.
Leviticus 9 changes the focus from Moses to Aaron. Aaron and his sons are now commanded to offer sacrifices, first for their own sins, and then for the sins of the nation. A Sin Offering, Burnt Offering, Peace Offering, and Grain Offering were offered for Aaron and his sons (vv. 1-17), and also for the people (with the exception of the Grain Offering, vv. 18-22). The purpose of these offerings is to make preparations for the revelation of the glory of God to the people:
And Moses said, “This is the thing which the LORD has commanded you to do, that the glory of the LORD may appear to you” (Lev. 9:6, emphasis mine).
And so the glorious conclusion to the chapter is the revelation of God’s glory:
And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting. When they came out and blessed the people, the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Then fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces (Lev. 9:23-24).
Leviticus 10 begins with another account of fire descending from heaven, but this time it is God’s judgment in response to the “strange fire” which is offered up by Nadab and Abihu, the two oldest sons of Aaron. Immediately thereafter, God gave Aaron instructions concerning drinking while on duty (vv. 8-11), and then Moses gave further instructions about the eating of the sacrifices (vv. 12-15). The chapter concludes with a very interesting account of Moses’ protest concerning the uneaten goat of the sin offering, which was successfully answered by Aaron.
The death of Nadab and Abihu is the most striking incident in chapters 8-10, and serves to dramatically convey some important principles related to the priesthood. Nadab and Abihu were the oldest of Aaron’s four sons (cf. Exod. 6:23). These men were privileged to accompany Moses and their father, along with others, to Mount Sinai, where they participated in the covenant meal with God (cf. Exod. 24:1, 9). They had just recently been ordained and begun to assume their duties as priests. We do not know how long they had been serving in this capacity when they were put to death, but the inference is that this incident came close on the heels of their ordination.
The text does not inform us as to the precise nature of the sin of these two priests. They sinned, we are told, by “offering strange fire before the LORD” (v. 1). It was, however, clearly designated as an act of direct disobedience to God’s commands. They did that “… which He had not commanded them” (v. 1). My understanding is that God has declined from giving a precise description of their sin so as to underscore the more general nature of the sin—disobedience. They were in some way carrying out their priestly duties in a way that disobeyed some of God’s exacting requirements.
Nadab and Abihu must have agreed among themselves concerning their actions, for they both sinned and both were put to death. There is a kind of conspiracy here. Simply finding others who agree with us and will join us in disobedience is not sufficient reason for disobeying God. Many denominations and cults err here. They think that sheer numbers must prove them right.
This disaster had a very beneficial effect on at least one of the other sons of Aaron, Eleazar. Eleazar was one of the other sons of Aaron, who assumed the role of one of his dead brothers (v. 6). He was also the father of Phinehas, who zealously acted in behalf of God’s holiness:
Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked (Num. 25:6-8, cf. also vv. 10-13).
I take it therefore that Eleazar learned to regard the holiness of God very highly, and that this same regard was later evidenced in his son, Phinehas.
Verses 8-11 seem to be a direct outgrowth of the death of Nadab and Abihu. God spoke directly to Aaron, rather than to speak to him through Moses (as He does in vv. 12ff.). God instructed Aaron that alcohol was not to be mixed with priestly duties. It would be easy to infer that Nadab and Abihu may have both been drinking before or on duty, and that alcohol had diminished their capacity to carry out their duties in a way that was honoring to God. At least we can say that priestly ministry should be done with one’s full capacities, and that nothing which diminishes our careful attention to upholding the glory and the holiness of God should be practiced by priests.
Verses 12-15 are instructions to Aaron and the priests which are conveyed through Moses. I believe that these instruction precede the final section (vv. 16-20) because they provide us with the backdrop for understanding the consternation of Moses when the sin offering cannot be found. When a goat was offered for a sin offering, the breast which was a wave offering was to be eaten by the priests. Moses therefore looked for the meat from the sin offering which the younger sons of Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar, had just offered (vv. 16-18). The meat was missing, and Moses seems to have been angered at the thought that these two sons had also disobeyed God’s instructions, and that they, too, might be smitten for their sin.
Surprisingly, Aaron was not shaken by the anger and accusation of Moses. Moses was probably rightly motivated, but Aaron’s explanation prevailed: “Behold, this very day they presented their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD. When things like these happened to me, if I had eaten a sin offering today, would it have been good in the sight of the LORD?” (v. 19). As I follow Aaron’s logic, he is saying that it was probably on this very day that Nadab and Abihu were stuck down by God for their sin, and it was also on this day when Eleazar and Ithamar were required to offer a sin offering for themselves, just as Aaron and his two oldest sons had done as recorded in chapter 9. Because of the tragic events of the day and the inauguration of his two younger sons, Aaron felt that eating of the sin offering of the people would have been inappropriate. Thus, the meat which could have been eaten was burned up, just as the uneaten portion would have been anyway.
Aaron’s actions and those of his two younger sons were not normal, but then this was no typical day in the lives of the priests. In the light of this, Moses was satisfied that they had not done something forbidden, but had only declined from exercising their priestly privileges, for higher considerations.
The significant fact here is that Aaron has come into his own, and that even Moses had to recognize his position and his wisdom in the decision he had reached and the actions which followed it.
Lessons for Ancient Israel
The first question which we must ask, as we seek to discover the meaning of these chapters, is, “What did this mean to the ancient Israelites, who first read this divinely inspired account, penned by Moses?” I believe that the Israelites would have been impressed with several truths.
First, the ancient Israelites would have been impressed with the prominence of the priesthood in God’s order, and with Aaron, as their first high priest. At the beginning of our text, in chapter 8, Moses was the prominent figure, as he has been throughout the account of the exodus. In chapter 10, however, Aaron is installed as the high priest, and he very much comes “into his own.” Moses’ provisional priestly role seems to come to an end here. He is the great prophet, like unto whom the Messiah will be (Deut. 18:15), but Aaron is the great priest, who is the foreshadow of Christ, our Great High Priest.
Second, the Israelites would have been impressed with the grace of God in the appointment of Aaron as Israel’s high priest. This Aaron, who is now honored by being appointed as Israel’s first high priest, is the same man who seemed to be, at best, a sort of tag along helper of Moses. More than this, this is the man who was instrumental in leading Israel in her false worship of the golden calf (Exod. 32). Now, this same Aaron is Israel’s high priest. One can only explain the Aaronic priesthood as purely a matter of God’s grace. Much like Paul, who was a persecutor of the church, and then came, by God’s grace, to be a great apostle to the church, Aaron, a hindrance to Moses and Israel, now becomes her spiritual leader.
Third, the Israelites would be reminded of the holiness of God, and of the dangers faced by those who would draw near to Him in service. The priesthood was an exceedingly dangerous job, for those who drew near to Him in service dare not do so casually or carelessly, as did Nadab and Abihu.
Fourth, Israel would be painfully aware of the limitations of this Aaronic Priesthood. Thus they would be prepared for and looking forward to a “better Priest and priesthood” which would be the result of the New Covenant and of the coming of the Christ. The Aaronic priesthood was shown to have failed at its very outset. It is as though an unsinkable ship was launched, and at the first instant it struck the water it sank. If these two priests, Nadab and Abihu were so sinful as to be struck dead by God, how could anything they or any other sinful priest did bring people to perfection? Any system which had an imperfect priesthood could surely not bring the people to perfection. The flaws of the old covenant and its Aaronic priesthood pointed to the need for a new and better covenant, with a better priesthood. The Aaronic priesthood was only a provisional, imperfect priesthood. A sinner was the high priest, and his sinful sons were priests as well. There was no basis for unbridled optimism in the Aaronic order.
Lessons for New Testament Christians
There are a number of principles of priesthood to be found in the Book of Leviticus which apply to both Old and New Testament priests. Before we consider these there are several New Testament principles which will guide us in differentiating between the Aaronic priesthood of Leviticus and the priesthood which is described in the New Testament.
Principle 1: The Old Testament Aaronic priesthood has been fulfilled and rendered obsolete by Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest.
When we come to the Old Testament Levitical priesthood, we must recognize that this priesthood has been rendered obsolete by the coming of Christ, and the inauguration of His perfect priesthood, which brings men to perfection. If the Aaronic priesthood was plagued by the imperfection of its priests, the priesthood inaugurated by our Lord is marked by the perfection and the holiness of Jesus Christ, in whom there was no sin. It is in those very areas where the old priesthood was weak and inadequate that Christ has proven to be the perfect priest. The standards which God set for the priesthood and which men failed to meet are those which Christ has met fully.
The Book of Hebrews has much to say about Christ as our great High Priest, and of His superiority to the Aaronic order. Ideally, the Aaronic priesthood would have taken away iniquity:
“You shall also make a plate of pure gold and shall engrave on it, like the engraving of a seal, ‘Holy to the LORD.’ And you shall fasten it on a blue cord, and it shall be on the turban; it shall be at the front of the turban. And it shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take away [bear, cf. marginal note, NASB] the iniquity of the holy things which the sons of Israel consecrate, with regard to all their holy gifts; and it shall always be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD” (Exod. 28:36-38).
Due to the sinfulness of these priests provision had to be made to cover their own sins, so that they would not die (cf. Exod. 28:40-43; 29). It was not until Jesus Christ came as Israel’s Messiah and Great High Priest that the sins of men were atoned for, once for all. The writer to the Hebrews makes much of the superiority of Christ and of His priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek. He writes,
Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives … Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession (Heb. 2:14-15, 17-18; 3:1).
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need. For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself …
In the days of His flesh, when He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and who was heard because of His piety, although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered; and having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation; being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 4:14–5:3; 5:7-10).
In chapters 7-10, the writer to the Hebrews reaches the climax of his arguments for the superiority of the priesthood of Christ. He provides the following lines of evidence:
- A better priesthood—7:1-10
- A better covenant—7:11-28
- A better ministry—8:1-13
- A better tabernacle and a better sacrifice—9:1-28
- A better sanctification—10:1-18
The conclusion to the argument of these chapters in Hebrews is found in verses 19-25 of chapter 10:
Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near (Heb. 10:19-25).
There is a second New Testament principle of priesthood which is an outgrowth of the first:
Principle 2: The Lord Jesus Christ has instituted a new priestly order, not of a few select individuals, but of all those who are born again, who are united by faith with His priesthood.
Just as Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, was the top ranking priest of a whole order, so Jesus Christ is the head of a New Testament order of priests. The priesthood of the Old Testament was called the Aaronic priesthood because all the priests were the offspring of Aaron, they were members of his family. The priesthood of the New Testament is composed of all who are “in Christ.” This is implied in the Book of Hebrews. In chapter 8 we read of a “better ministry.” In chapter 9 we are told of one of the results of the high priestly ministry of Christ:
For if the blood of goats and bulls and ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:13-14, emphasis mine).
The service which is to result from the cleansing accomplished by our Great High Priest is a priestly service. Thus, in chapter 10, the application of Christ’s work in the believer’s actions is described in the priestly vocabulary of the Old Testament priesthood:
… since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near (Heb. 10:21-25, emphasis mine).
The Old Testament priests were those who drew near, and were those who had to be washed in order to carry out their priestly duties. This terminology is now applied to all who are in Christ, because all who are in Christ are priests. This is clearly taught elsewhere in the New Testament. Our Lord taught that the new order which He would bring into existence was one in which a religious hierarchy would not and could not exist. There was to be no laity and clergy distinction. No men were to be put on a higher spiritual level than others:
“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:8-12).
Thus, in the New Testament, all believers are said to be the priesthood of the New Covenant:
You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:5, 9).
And He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father; to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen (Rev. 1:6).
Often in the New Testament we find the ministry of the New Testament saint couched in the sacrificial language of the Old Testament because we who are in Christ are His priests (cf. Rom. 12:1; Phil. 1:18; Heb. 13:9-17).
The cross of Jesus Christ marks the greatest dividing line of all history. There may be other lines drawn in the history of God’s dealings with men, but none matches this one in its significance. This line has not always been viewed as clearly as it should have been, however. In the history of the church, the line has had to be redrawn, or at least rediscovered. The Reformation, brought about by a former Roman Catholic monk, Martin Luther, was one such redrawing of the line. As Christ drew the line between the traditions of Judaism and the teachings of the Old Testament, so Luther drew the line between the authority of the church and the authority of the Bible. As Christ drew the line between a salvation of works and that of faith in His shed blood, so Luther reiterated that men were saved by faith in Christ alone, and not by their works.
Unfortunately, the Reformation did not redraw the line as fully as it should have. Many matters of ecclesiology, that is, matters pertaining to the forms and functions of the church, were left virtually unchallenged. Thus, for example, the distinction between laity and clergy was maintained. In most Catholic and Protestant churches, there is either a formal or an informal priesthood, an order of those who somehow mediate between God and men. Thus, much of the Aaronic Priesthood, which we find defined and described in the Book of Leviticus, is simply carried over into the New Testament church, with only superficial changes or alterations. Such practice is ignorant of (or worse yet, disobedient to) the fact that with Christ came a New Covenant, as well as a new priesthood, and that this priesthood includes every true believer, not a select few.
Why is it that the clear teaching of the Bible has not been followed, as it pertains to the new priestly order or the New Testament? Why has the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” been set aside, both doctrinally and practically, so that an elite priestly class still performs the religious rituals for the laity? I think the reason can be seen in the Old Testament text. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, and the people partially perceived the holiness of God, they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die” (Exod. 20:19).
Before the death of Nadab and Abihu (as seen above) and after it as well, I suspect, the people were glad to let someone else get close to God. They wished to play it safe by keeping their distance. I think that is one of the principle reasons why Christians today want to have a small priestly class, and clergy, as it were, who will represent them before God, and who will relieve them of the responsibility of getting to close to God, and having to pay the higher price of purity, discipline, and devotion which this entails.
Moses exemplifies the change which God wants to see in all of us. When God first called Moses, as recorded in the early chapters of the Book of Exodus, Moses kept retreating from God and drawing back from the position to which God has called him. He wanted God to send someone else, and only very reluctantly went after God’s anger was evident, and when Aaron was sent along with him.
The great change in Moses occurs after the “fall of Israel” in Exodus 32, when the people sinned by their worship of the golden calf. From here on, we have the sense of Moses pressing toward God—almost dangerously so. He is not content with God’s promise to be personally present with him alone. He wants God’s promise to be present with His people. Even beyond this Moses pressed God to reveal His glory to him, in a way that definitely was life-threatening (cf. Exod. 33:17–34:35).
The man who drew back from God now pressed upon Him. How can we explain this change? Two things explain the change, and they are at the very heart of the Book of Leviticus: loving God and loving men. Moses loved God so much that he wanted to be near Him, even to see His undiminished glory, if possible. He loved the Israelites so much that he would not settle only for God’s promise of His personal presence and blessing, but for nothing less than His presence with His people. When we love God and men we wish to draw near to God, not to draw away from Him. The reason why many of us want an elite priesthood, a clergy, is that we don’t sufficiently love God or our fellow men. Let us learn from Moses and from other godly saints to “draw near.”
Principle 3: The Book of Hebrews, in particular, uses the inferiority of the Aaronic Priesthood as an argument for not being tempted to go back to the old order, which prefers law to grace, and Moses to Christ.
The strong emphasis on the superiority of Christ’s priesthood to that of Aaron is for a very specific purpose in the Book of Hebrews. There were apparently those who were tempted (by Jewish persecution) to fall away from their faith and to return to the practice of Judaism. As we study the Aaronic priesthood, we should be overcome with gratitude to God for the better priesthood which Christ has inaugurated, and be motivated to continue in grace, rather than to fall into works.
Having emphasized the differences between the former priesthood and the new, let me now state a very important principle, which enables us to appreciate the continuity between the Old Testament Aaronic priesthood and the New Testament priesthood of all believers:
Principle 4: Most of the principles of priesthood which are found in the Old Testament apply equally to the New Testament priesthood as well.
For many Christians, a study of the priesthood in the Book of Leviticus should emphasize the differences between that priesthood and the priesthood of all believers today. For most of us, however, these distinctions are quite clear. We attempt, in this church, to avoid all distinctions between an elite clergy and a large, and lower order, known as the laity. In our efforts to maintain the crucial distinctions drawn by the cross of Christ, we may neglect to give due attention to the many similarities which exist between the former Aaronic priesthood and the priesthood of all believers today. Therefore, I want to close by emphasizing those principles of priesthood which have remained unchanged, from the days of the Aaronic order to our own days.
Old Testament Principles of Priesthood
(1) Priesthood is bestowed upon all those who are a member of the right family. Just as it was only the sons of Aaron who were priests under the Law of Moses, so it is only those who are in Christ by personal faith who are priests today. Priesthood is not something which men can bestow upon other men, or even which the church can bestow; it is the result of the new birth, which constitutes one to be a child of God and thus to be in Christ. Priests are those whose sins have been atoned for, so that they are free to minister to other sinners. This atonement for the New Testament priest is that which Christ, our Great High Priest, has made through the shedding of His blood on the cross.
(2) God’s priesthood is a holy priesthood. We are to learn from God’s words, quoted by Moses, that disobedience to God dishonors Him and fails to regard Him as holy. A God who is Holy is a God who is to be honored, and we honor God by obeying Him. This same principle of showing honor by our obedience applies to others, including children, who are to honor their parents (Eph. 6:1-2), and citizens, who are to honor those in authority (cf. Rom. 13:1-7).
God takes the sin of His priests very seriously. Being in close proximity to God brings with it correspondingly high standards of conduct. This is indicated in several ways in the Book of Leviticus. God frequently indicated that disobedience to His commands would bring about the death of the violator. The expression “lest you die” is often found in this context (cf. Exod. 28:35, 43; 30:20, 21; Lev. 8:35; 10:6, 7, 9). In addition, a previous statement of God is quoted by Moses in our text as an explanation of what happened to Nadab and Abihu and its implications for the priesthood:
Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the LORD spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.’” So Aaron, therefore, kept silent (Lev. 10:3).
Priests must not let their human sympathies and family affections dim their regard for the holiness of God. Specifically, Eleazar and Ithamar were not allowed to touch the bodies of their brothers, nor were they allowed to mourn their death, as others could do (v. 6). The priests were to represent and reflect the holiness of God, and thus they could not identify with the sympathies of men. To have mourned for their brothers would have implied a sorrow for their deserved judgment, and would have implied an excessive severity on the part of God, who judged them.
(3) Priests must not do anything which dulls their sense of judgment or their grasp of the significance of what they are doing (vv. 8-11). I understand verses 8-10 to be directly related to the death of Nadab and Abihu. Distinct from later instructions, which are given by Moses, verses 8-10 are said to have come directly from God to Aaron (v. 8). I take it that it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Nadab and Abihu had been “tipping the bottle” before or while they were acting as priests. The consequent dullness of mind, or even downright drunkenness, could have contributed greatly to their disobedience. Today, we remind people not to mix drinking and driving. In those days God reminded the priests not to drink and be on duty. Drinking can be deadly, to those who drive and to those who serve God.
You will remember that the abuses which Paul sought to correct in the remembrance of the Lord in the church at Corinth involved excesses in drink, so that their commemoration of the Lord’s Table was one that was dishonoring to Him:
Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk … Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord in order that we may not be condemned along with the world (1 Cor. 11:20-21, 27-32).
(4) The function of priests is to serve God and men. Repeatedly in the 28th chapter of Exodus, the garments which are made for Aaron and for his sons are those which enable them to minister to God. So that we frequently find the expression, or one that is similar, “… that he (or they) may minister as priests to Me” (cf. Exod. 28:1, 3, 4, 41; also 29:44). The emphasis here is on serving God, more than on serving men, though I believe both elements are present.
Just what is involved in the ministry of Aaron, and of his sons? As I have pondered Exodus chapter 28 it seems to me that each of the various components of Aaron’s attire relates to a particular facet of his ministry. The ephod is to contain two stones on the shoulder pieces (cf. Exod. 28:6-14). On these two stones were engraved the names of the sons of Israel. Aaron was to wear these, “as stones of memorial for the sons of Israel,” to bear “their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for a memorial” (Exod. 28:12). Aaron also was to wear a “breastpiece of judgment” (vv. 15-30). On this breastpiece four rows of stones were set, with three stones in each row, each signifying one of the tribes of Israel. The purpose of these stones is given in verse 30: “… and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the sons of Israel over his heart before the LORD continually” (Exod. 28:30b). On Aaron’s turban was to be placed a “plate of gold” (Exod. 28:36-39). It was to be engraved with a seal, reading, “Holy to the Lord” (v. 36). This had to do with “taking away the iniquity of the holy things which the sons of Israel consecrated,” “so that they may be accepted before the LORD” (v. 38).
I must be honest with you and confess that I do not really comprehend all that Aaron’s ministry entailed, but I am certain that a study of his garments would prove worthwhile. I also believe that the ministries of Aaron and his sons as priests have their fulfillment in Christ, and have a counterpart in New Testament priestly ministry. It is worthwhile to recall that the practical righteousness of the Christian is often described in terms of garments, and thus “putting off” and “putting on” refer to character qualities of the saint (cf. Colossians 3). The weapons of the Christian are likewise described as those things which are worn by the saint (cf. Ephesians 6:10-20).
A Biblical Philosophy of Failure
It has occurred to me that the Pentateuch is really a record of repeated human failures, and contains very few real “success” stories. Very early into the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve sinned, losing the bliss of their sinless state and the joys of living in the Garden of Eden. In chapter 6, the whole race had to be wiped out, due to its sin. The human failures of the remainder of the book far outnumber the successes. And then in Exodus we find the Mosaic Covenant broken in chapter 32, before “the ink has dried.” In the Book of Numbers, chapter 14, the Israelites fail at Kadesh Barnea, refusing to go into the land and face the “giants” who possess it. In Deuteronomy Moses fails to enter into the land, due to his sin, and thus even the greatest leader the nation has yet known does not enter Canaan.
The Book of Leviticus has much to say about the priesthood, as its name implies. In chapters 8-10, the priesthood is established, and yet at what seems to be the very outset of the priests assuming their duties, the two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, are smitten of God for their irreverence. Think of it, at the very outset of the ministry of the Aaronic priesthood, two of the highest order of priests failed, and paid with their lives.
The entire Pentateuch, I repeat, is the record of human failure, much more than of human success. What is the purpose of such a dismal record? The New Testament tells us:
Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:11-12).
For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).
In these two texts, both penned by the apostle Paul, we learn that the Old Testament Scriptures, which report the stories of human failure and tragedy, are given to us to warn us of our fallibility, and to cautions us not to be over confident. At the same time, these Old Testament passages also give us hope.
It is not difficult to see how reports of human failure would caution the Christian not to be too self-confident, but how can they produce hope at the same time? The answer to this is very clear in the Bible, and it is one that is consistently taught. It is the essence of the Gospel: When men come to the point that they see they cannot trust in themselves, they must turn to God alone for their deliverance. Thus, human hopelessness is the basis for biblical hope. Over and over in the Bible, God brought people to the end of themselves, so that in their weakness they might find God sufficient. When all human hope is lost, men still have the promises of God, backed by His power and by His character.
Here is the critical difference between the “hope” which the world offers me and the true hope which God offers. The world’s hope is a counterfeit hope, it is only a delusion. God’s hope is certain. Hebrews chapter 11 focuses on the biblical hope which sustained the men and women of faith in the Old Testament times, especially when all human hope was lost.
The world’s “hope” differs from God’s hope in the way it is spelled. God’s hope is spelled H O P E. The world’s “hope” is spelled H Y P E. Hype is furthered and fueled by success, while hope is promoted by failure. HYPE is confident of what men can do. Hope is confident in God, not men.
The sad reality, in my personal opinion, is that the church has all too often exchanged its hope for hype. We think that “success stories” build the hope of Christians, but the Bible suggests otherwise. It is those who are sick who turn to someone else for healing, as the afflicted turned to our Lord in the gospels. It is those who are sinners, who look for salvation in someone outside of themselves.
You see, when we as Christians view our hope as being synonymous and signaled by our successes, we have switched to hype, not hope. And the tragedy is that those who are afflicted and suffering are told (or it is at least strongly implied) that they must have too little faith, when it is these very trials which God has given us to strengthen our faith, just as He gave to those who are listed in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews chapter 11.
The failures of the Aaronic Priesthood caused men and women of faith to look to God for a better High Priest, and a better priesthood. It instructed the saints of old not to put their trust in men, but in God. Every failure which is to be found in the Pentateuch (and in all the Bible, for that matter) is recorded to cause us to distrust ourselves, and to place our trust more fully in God, who is worthy of our trust.
May God grant that we, like the Israelites of old, might learn from the failures of the old institutions that God always has a better way. May God grant us to see, and to believe that the better way has been finished by our Lord Jesus Christ, who is all sufficient, and who is worthy of all of our hope and trust.
60 An informative text concerning the establishment of the priesthood is found in the Book of 1 Samuel: “Now a man of God came to Eli and said to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: “Did I not clearly reveal myself to your father’s house when they were in Egypt under Pharaoh? I chose your father out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, and to wear an ephod in my presence. I also gave your father’s house all the offerings made with fire by the Israelites. Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?”’” (1 Sam. 2:27-29, NIV).