Studies in Leviticus: The Priesthood

LeviticusGod’s holiness makes the Levitical priesthood necessary. The development of the priesthood in ancient Israel was not an arbitrary decision on God’s part. It was not as if God invented a role in order to try to include everybody. Rather, the priesthood is a direct response to the holiness of God and His desire to dwell among a sinful people. The priests were protectors of the holiness of the camp.

All ancient cultures had priests. Israel was not unique in this regard. Even within the Bible there are pagan priests described: Potiphera, an Egyptian priest (Gen. 41:45, 50); Jethro, a priest of Midian (Exod. 2:16); Mattan chief priest of Baal (2 Kings 11:18); and Melchizedek, King of Salem and “priest of the most high God” (Gen. 14:18-20). There are similarities between the function and role of priests in these other cultures and among the Israelites, but this should not be either surprising or disconcerting. God often used the familiar features of the surrounding cultures to point people to himself. Ultimately, Israel’s priests are not different because of their role or calling, but rather they are unique because of the God whom they serve.

Often people reduce the role of the priest to the offering of sacrifices. This is, of course, a major part of his function within the community, but it would be an oversimplification to reduce his role merely to sacrifice. In fact, the actual slaughtering of animals was often done by the worshipper himself, not by the priests (Lev. 1:4-9). The diversity of priestly responsibilities can be summed up as an exercise in mediation.

The priests stood between sinful man and a holy God. They had been consecrated by God, set apart for holy work (Lev. 8). As such they were “holy people.” Of course they may become unclean, and they must constantly concern themselves with purifying rituals as they stand in God’s presence, yet, they were indeed identified by God as holy. The priests functioned to communicate God’s will to the people, both in formal instruction and in divination.

Formal instruction was a primary part of their role. They were expected to teach people the law of God, remind them of God’s commands, the principles of purity, and the expectations of atonement (Deut. 33:10). They instructed the people on what God expected of them.

In divination they were seeking the will of God. The Bible describes two curious elements, the Urim and Thummim. It is not clear exactly what these elements do or how they are used, but they play a role in seeking the will of God (Ex. 18:15; 28:30; Lev. 8:8). The priests also wore a “breastplate used for making decisions” (Exod. 28:15-30). Again it’s not clear how these things function, or in what manner God has blessed these tools, but the role of the priest in informing people of God’s will is evident.

In this regard the priests concern themselves with safeguarding the holiness of the camp. God cannot dwell among sinful people without consequence. The holiness of His presence would consume them (Ps. 5:4; 94:20; Isa. 33:14). God, in His mercy, however, has given to the people of Israel a means by which they may purify themselves and make atonement for sin that He might dwell with them. The priests are meant to continually communicate this to the people, to warm them, and to aid them in pursuing holiness before the Lord. They have a vital role in the cultic life of Israel.

In the New Testament there is only one priest needed, His name is Jesus. Jesus is the greatest of the Great High Priests (Heb. 4:14; also chapter 8). He safeguards holiness through fulfilling the law in our place, dying for our sins, rising for our justification, and sanctifying us in His truth. In fact the ministry of this Great High Priest is so effective that he makes us, those who are His followers, priests to God (Rev. 1:5-6). So, the apostle Peter writes:

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)

The true High Priest of God has accomplished His work so perfectly that no sacrifices are needed, save the spiritual sacrifices of the new priesthood of all believers. If the priests in Leviticus were meant to protect the holiness of the camp, we see that they are only shadows of the truly great priest. It is He who perfectly secured the holiness of God’s people. Now, in Christ we are all priests to our God.

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