Our Great High Priest

“And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and of fine twined linen, skillfully worked. It shall have two shoulder pieces attached to its two edges, so that it may be joined together. And the skillfully woven band on it shall be made like it and be of one piece with it, of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen. You shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, 10 six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. 11 As a jeweler engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel. You shall enclose them in settings of gold filigree. 12 And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance. 13 You shall make settings of gold filigree, 14 and two chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall attach the corded chains to the settings.” – Exodus 28:6-14 ESV

God went into great detail when describing the sacred garments to be worn by Aaron in his role as the high priest of Israel. In his capacity as God’s representative and the nation’s mediator, Aaron was tasked with maintaining the sanctity of the Tabernacle but also the purity of God’s people. This ordinary man was given the extraordinary responsibility of entering into God’s presence on behalf of his entire nation, and God ensured that his priestly vestments displayed the distinctive nature of his role. God would robe His servant in garments of righteousness and representation. Aaron was to be clothed in beautifully handcrafted robes, a linen ephod, and an ornate breastplate adorned with precious stones in a setting of gold.

Like the elements that made up the Tabernacle, Aaron’s priestly garments were meant to reflect the glory of God and distinguish the high priest as a servant of God. Everything about Tabernacle was designed to display God’s glory, beauty, and holiness, including the attire of the high priest. When Aaron served in his role as high priest, he was to dress the part, bearing garments that honored the glory and greatness of God. And, as God makes clear, every time Aaron donned his priestly vestments, he did so on behalf of the people of Israel.

The linen ephod was the foundational piece of Aaron’s wardrobe. It was to be created by skilled craftsmen using finely woven linen that was embroidered with gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread. The exact nature of the embroidered pattern is not provided, but God indicates that this robe was to be of two pieces, forming a front and back that were “joined at the shoulders with two shoulder-pieces” (Exodus 28:7 ESV). A decorative sash was to be tied around Aaron’s waist to hold the two halves of the ephod in place as he went about his duties.

Each shoulder piece was to be adorned with an onyx stone engraved with six of the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. Each time Aaron entered the Tabernacle, he literally bore the nation of Israel on his shoulders. And God declared that these symbolic stones were to serve “as a reminder that Aaron represents the people of Israel” (Exodus 28:12 ESV).

The role of the high priest came with a weighty responsibility. The people were not allowed to enter into God’s presence because of their sinfulness. Even Aaron had to go through an extensive purification process before he could come before the Lord. And each time he did, he carried the 12 tribes of Israel with him. He bore the burden of acting as their priestly representative before God. And this vital role takes on even greater weight when you consider the statement God made to the people of Israel when they first arrived at Mount Sinai.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

Aaron represented the people. Their priesthood was lived out through his life and service. They were prohibited from coming into God’s presence, but this one man was given the responsibility of serving as their substitute. The obedient fulfillment of his God-ordained obligation would help ensure that the people of Israel remained a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

The author of Hebrews provides a fascinating insight into the mediatory role of the high priest.

Every high priest is a man chosen to represent other people in their dealings with God. He presents their gifts to God and offers sacrifices for their sins. And he is able to deal gently with ignorant and wayward people because he himself is subject to the same weaknesses. That is why he must offer sacrifices for his own sins as well as theirs. – Hebrews 5:1-3 NLT

Aaron was not sinless, yet he was tasked with representing sinful people before God. In order to do so, he had to undergo purification and receive atonement for his own sins before he could serve as their mediator. And the author of Hebrews stresses that Aaron did not choose his position as high priest and he had done nothing to earn it. He had been chosen by God.

no one can become a high priest simply because he wants such an honor. He must be called by God for this work, just as Aaron was. That is why Christ did not honor himself by assuming he could become High Priest. No, he was chosen by God – Hebrews 5:4-5 NLT

Aaron foreshadowed the greater high priest to come. And the author of Hebrews points out that Jesus was also chosen to serve in this role just as His predecessor was.

God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. – Hebrews 5:9 NLT

But the primary difference is that Jesus, as the Son of God, was sinless and wholly righteous. He required no ceremonial cleansing from sin. He was righteous in every way and yet, as high priest, he did offer up a blood sacrifice so that sinful humanity might receive atonement, and the sacrifice He made was His own life.

So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. – Hebrews 9:11-12 NLT

Aaron could not fully atone for the sins of his fellow Israelites. All his sacrifices were temporary and had to be repeated over and over again.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. – Hebrews 10:1 NLT

Aaron’s ornate and beautifully crafted robes did not make him righteous. They were garments that symbolized the righteousness of God but they could not bestow righteousness to Aaron. So, in order for him to bear the people before God, he had to be purified, time and time again. And, once again, the author of Hebrews notes the futility built into this system.

If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. – Hebrews 10:2-3 NLT

And he clarifies why the Old Testament model of sacrifice was insufficient.

For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. – Hebrews 10:4 NLT

Aaron and his successors would continue this process of purification for sins so that atonement might be made, but it would prove to be a never-ending cycle of sin, sacrifice, and sanctification. Aaron’s role as a mediator would never stop. He couldn’t take a day off. There would never be a time when he could forego his own cleansing. Day after day, year after year, the sacrifices would have to be made so that atonement could be received. But the book of Hebrews states, “God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time” (Hebrews 10:10 ESV).

Aaron was meant to be a type of Christ. He served as a foreshadowing of the future high priest who “offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time” (Hebrews 10:12 NLT). God had a plan for man’s redemption in place and He telegraphed it through the Tabernacle and the role of the high priest. And the apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus was able to accomplish is full what Aaron could only do in part.

He [God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. – Colossians 1:13-14 NLT

So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. – Ephesians 1:6-7 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.