31 “You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. 32 It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a garment, so that it may not tear. 33 On its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, around its hem, with bells of gold between them, 34 a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, around the hem of the robe. 35 And it shall be on Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before the Lord, and when he comes out, so that he does not die.
36 “You shall make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ 37 And you shall fasten it on the turban by a cord of blue. It shall be on the front of the turban. 38 It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall bear any guilt from the holy things that the people of Israel consecrate as their holy gifts. It shall regularly be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.
39 “You shall weave the coat in checker work of fine linen, and you shall make a turban of fine linen, and you shall make a sash embroidered with needlework.
40 “For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty. 41 And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. 42 You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; 43 and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.” – Exodus 28:31-43 ESV
The old proverb, “clothes make the man,” could easily be applied to the high priest and his sacred garments. Aaron was being given a divinely designed wardrobe that would allow him to enter the very presence of God Almighty. When performing his priestly duties, Aaron was to be outfitted from head to toe with a one-of-a-kind vestment that set him apart from every other Israelite. Underneath the richly ornamented garments, Aaron was just another man. He had no righteousness of his own and had done nothing to earn or deserve his status as God’s high priest. Yet God had chosen him to serve in this incomparable role and adorned him with exquisite garments that signified the sacredness of his calling. These garments were to be considered holy because they had been set apart for one purpose only. They were to be used solely for the worship of God. Aaron was not free to use them for any other purpose or leave the grounds of the Tabernacle while wearing them. They were to be his uniform when serving in the sanctuary of the Lord.
In the closing verses of chapter 28, God provides the final piece of the ensemble that Aaron was to wear: A blue robe made from a seamless piece of finely woven linen. It appears that this robe was shaped like a poncho with a hole in the middle for slipping it over the head. The collar was reinforced to prevent it from tearing. Attached to the hem of the robe was a series of alternating ornaments.
“Make pomegranates out of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn, and attach them to the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them.” – Exodus 28:33 NLT
The pomegranates most likely symbolized fruitfulness, while the bells were intended to declare the actions of the priest as he ministered on behalf of the people. They could not enter the Tabernacle, so whenever the high priest went inside the compound to serve as their mediator, they could hear the sound of the bells and know that he was acting in their stead. He bore the name of their tribe on his shoulder and before his heart. And as long as the bells sounded, they knew that he had been accepted by God and was serving in their place before the throne of the Lord.
The sound of the bells was essential because it revealed that Aaron was still alive, and death was a distinct possibility every time the high priest entered into God’s presence. God even indicated that the bells would serve as a kind of early warning system, signifying that Aaron was approaching. God would later tell Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20 ESV). So, once a year, when Aaron entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, the bells would announce his intent to enter God’s presence.
“And it shall be on Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before the Lord, and when he comes out, so that he does not die.” – Exodus 28:35 ESV
Perhaps God’s glory departed the Holy of Holies prior to Aaron’s entrance, in order to prevent the high priest from seeing the face of God. The text is not clear. But in the book of Leviticus, Moses includes further details regarding Aaron’s once-a-year entrance into the inner recesses of the Tabernacle on the Day of Atonement.
“Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on.” – Leviticus 16:2-4 NLT
Aaron had to take precautions when serving God because death was a real possibility if he did so in an improper manner. His garments had to be just right. He had to go through the proper purification procedures. And he was never to enter the Holy of Holies on any other day than the one prescribed by God – upon penalty of death.
One of the final elements of Aaron’s priestly outfit was the linen turban. Attached to the turban was a gold plate upon which were engraved the words, “Holy to the Lord” (Exodus 28:37 ESV). This emblem hung above the high priest’s forehead and signified that he belonged to God. In a sense, his garments made him holy. They set the high priest apart as being the sole property of God and dedicated entirely to His use and for His glory. And this was to be true of Aaron’s sons as well. They too were to wear holy garments that signified their status as God’s chosen vessels.
“For Aaron’s sons, make tunics, sashes, and special head coverings that are glorious and beautiful. Clothe your brother, Aaron, and his sons with these garments, and then anoint and ordain them. Consecrate them so they can serve as my priests.” – Exodus 28:40-41 NLT
These men had been given the incredible privilege and responsibility of serving the God of the universe, and they were not to take it lightly. Even their undergarments were meant to set them apart as God’s chosen servants and were designed to protect them from uncovering their nakedness before the Lord.
“These must be worn whenever Aaron and his sons enter the Tabernacle or approach the altar in the Holy Place to perform their priestly duties. Then they will not incur guilt and die.” – Exodus 28:43 NLT
God made provisions for everything. Any form of immodesty would have been unacceptable when serving in the house of God, so God designed holy undergarments to prevent Aaron and his sons from exposing themselves to one another while performing their priestly duties. God took every precaution to ensure that His servants remained “Holy to the Lord” in all that they did.
But there is a story recorded in the book of Leviticus that reveals how Aaron’s sons failed to fully appreciate the holiness of their calling. Despite all of God’s warnings and the precautions He took to ensure their safety when serving in His house, Nadab and Abihu took liberties with their position and chose to do God’s will their own way.
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu put coals of fire in their incense burners and sprinkled incense over them. In this way, they disobeyed the Lord by burning before him the wrong kind of fire, different than he had commanded. So fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and burned them up, and they died there before the Lord.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when he said,
‘I will display my holiness
through those who come near me.
I will display my glory
before all the people.’”
And Aaron was silent. – Leviticus 10:1-3 NLT
There is no explanation given as to what is meant by “the wrong kind of fire.” In Hebrew, it refers to “unauthorized fire.” Evidently, Nadab and Abihu did not follow God’s commands regarding the proper use of the Altar of Incense. There are some scholars who believe that whatever these two men did was done in a state of drunkenness, because immediately after their deaths, God gave Aaron a new prohibition banning the consumption of alcohol while serving in the Tabernacle.
“You and your descendants must never drink wine or any other alcoholic drink before going into the Tabernacle. If you do, you will die. This is a permanent law for you, and it must be observed from generation to generation. You must distinguish between what is sacred and what is common, between what is ceremonially unclean and what is clean.” – Leviticus 10:9-10 NLT
But this sad incident reveals that clothes do not make the man. Nadab and Abihu may have been wearing the holy garments, but their hearts remained distant from God. Their outer appearance did nothing to change their inner dispositions. And Jesus would accuse the religious leaders of His day of having the very same problem.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of impurity. In the same way, on the outside you appear to be righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 BSB
Yes, the robes of the high priest and his sons were important. But those sacred garments could not make Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu holy. Priestly robes cannot alter a man’s heart or change his character. Sadly, they can actually serve as camouflage, covering up the reality within, and that was the case for Nadab and Abihu. They looked like priests, set apart for the service of God, but they were actually whitewashed tombs, full of dead men’s bones. To all the people of Israel, Aaron’s sons looked the part, but God had a different perspective.
“…the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 ESV
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.