Studies in Leviticus: Unblemished Service (Leviticus 21-22)

LeviticusOften, our churches look like their pastors. That’s a scary thought, since I serve as a pastor and think of all the sins and weaknesses with which I still wrestle. Yet, it is true. Spiritual leaders play a vital and influential role in the spiritual lives of the people of God. It is for this reason that God places such high expectations of holiness upon spiritual leaders. Owing to the holy nature of the ministry, God requires that His servants commit to a high standard of unblemished service.

Much of what is developed in these two chapters speaks more to the holy nature of the ministry, than to the spiritual leaders themselves. The leaders were not some special people, they were set apart for a special calling. As such, their own personal lives needed to reflect a certain high level of morality. So, here in chapter 21, God instructs Moses to guide the priests in two particular areas of life: death and marriage.

Death was a major religious issue in ancient Israel. It had been connected to the curse of God and was a reminder of the Fall (Gen. 3:19). Contact with the dead brought defilement upon the priest (Num. 19:11-22), so that even the way he grieves must be guarded. Priests are not permitted to participate in the rituals of mourning for anyone except a close relative, spelled out as: mother, father, son, daughter, brother or virgin sister (“who is near to him because she has had no husband”). This would also have included his wife as they were “one flesh,” but no other extended family by marriage (21:1-4). In addition they were not permitted to participate in the mourning rituals of shaving their beard, their head, or cutting their body. Their grief must look very different as priests.

The chief priest, described in verse 10 and following, had even higher standards. The restrictions on his bereavement were greater. He was never allowed to touch the body (not even of his close relatives), and was not allowed to leave the temple. His service to God took priority even over his family. The point of all of this is that the priests were to remind the people of Israel of their covenant-keeping God even in the midst of grief and sorrow. So, Allen Ross notes:

In the exposition, both of these first sections make the point that God put very high standards on those who represented him to the people. The people had to be reminded of the holiness and the hope of their covenant even in times of bereavement. After all, God was the God of the living; he created life, he preserved life, and he would restore it. The priests – of all people – could not weep and mourn as the world mourns. For them to do so made the covenant profane. (Holiness to the Lord, 384)

Paul communicates similar truths to all believers in his letter to the Thessalonians. Noting that Christ has taken the sting out of death he urges us, then, not to grieve “as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13-18). The specific details about the restrictions on grief applied to the priests of the Old Covenant, no longer apply to any of us under the New Covenant, but the principle of hope-governed bereavement still stands. Not least of all for those who lead.

The second matter of life that chapter 21 touches on is marriage. Here there are restrictions placed upon the priests as to whom they may marry. The guidelines are intended to preserve their sanctity as servants of God. Because marriage, like death, was such an important religious issue, it was to be safeguarded. So, the priests are only permitted to marry a virgin from their own people. No widows, divorces, or prostitutes (which raises interesting questions about God’s admonition to Hosea). In the New Testament, again, we see this same principle carried over, though with some different details. The emphasis being on the importance of marrying a fellow believer (there are debates among scholars, theologians, and pastors about marriage among the divorced). The principle of the sanctity of marriage stands from one covenant to the next, not least among God’s chosen spiritual leaders.

Having dealt with personal qualifications, God turns Moses’ attention to the issue of physical fitness. Any priest evidencing physical deformity was forbade from performing the sacrifices in the temple. In our culture of political correctness this, no doubt, strikes us as demeaning and cruel. And such limitations find no carry-over into the New Covenant. Their place in the Old is related to the concept of completeness.

The priest was expected to represent the perfection of the service. Unblemished servants helped to emphasize the importance of an unblemished sacrifice. Verses 16-24 delineate several major deformities that disqualified someone from service in the temple. I agree with Derek Tidball that this list is “probably intended not to be exhaustive but illustrative” (The Message of Leviticus, 264). The twelve deformities listed are probably representative of categories. In fact, some scholars think the list is designed to reflect the same list that disqualified a sacrifice from being acceptable (22:22-24). We return, again, to those themes of wholeness which have been so common to our whole study of Leviticus.

Finally, chapter 22 turns to consider the priest’s performance or, as Tidball calls it, his “professional conduct.” Detailed here are the rules about when and who may eat of the holy food, and about the nature of an acceptable sacrifice. Again, because the food was made holy as part of the ritual of sacrifice and offering, it was not free for anyone to eat whenever and however they wanted. The priest’s had a responsibility to maintain their own sanctity and the sanctity of their duties. Tidball notes:

Chapter 22 amounts to something of a ‘guide to good practice’ for priests. It warns that standards must never be eroded in God’s service nor advantage taken of the privilege of being close to God. Those who lead must be careful to obey. They must ‘set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity’ (1 Tim. 4:12). Though worthy of support, they must not serve because of greed, either for money or for status. They must be ‘eager to serve,’ not to rule (1 Peter 5:2-4). (268)

The priests were always on duty, and their duty applied to all areas of their life: personal character, physical fitness, and professional conduct.

The Biblical-theological point we can draw from this section of Leviticus turns our attention to the great and perfect High Priest. Jesus was personally, physically, and professional qualified like no other priest ever. The truth is that no priest was ever perfect. Some were born with defects and therefore barred from service. Others failed to keep the law, became unclean, and performed their service poorly. Jesus was the only perfect priest. He was never made unclean, he never failed to perform his service without fault. Gordon Wenham notes:

These chapters like many others in this book form the background to much of NT teaching. Christ is both perfect priest (21:17-23; Heb. 7:26) and perfect victim (22:18-30; Heb. 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:22). His bride (cf 21:7-15) is the Church, whom he is sanctifying to make her “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27; cf. Rev. 19:7-8; 21:2). (The Book of Leviticus, 296)

The high standards for the priest are realized only in the prefect priest. He alone has rendered unblemished service. He alone has lived up to the perfect standard. He alone has represented the holy nature of this ministry because He alone is holy.

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