New and Improved

1 TNow the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. – Hebrews 8:1-7 ESV

A better covenant. A better high priest. A better ministry. A better promise. Everything about Jesus is better. To borrow from an age-old, tried, and true advertising slogan, you might say that everything about Jesus is “new and improved.” Jesus didn’t just provide man with one more option among many. No, He made possible the one and only means by which sinful men and women could be restored to a right relationship with God.

Unlike the priests who served in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus ministers in the divine Tabernacle of God located in heaven. His is not an earthly or temporal ministry, but a heavenly and eternal one. He is no longer offering up sacrifices to appease or propitiate God, because His death fully paid the penalty for sin and satisfied the just demands of a righteous God – once and for all.

In this first section of chapter eight, the author continues to establish Jesus as superior to all and everyone else. But he does so by contrasting the old covenant with the new covenant. In verses 22-28 of chapter seven, he pointed out that Jesus is “the guarantor of a better covenant.” This new covenant only requires one priest: Jesus. And what sets this new high priest apart is that He will never die or need to be replaced. Unlike Aaron and his successors, Jesus died but rose again. His earthly ministry ended in death but was followed by His resurrection and ascension. Now, He is seated at the right hand of God the Father and intercedes on behalf of all those who have placed their faith in Him as Savior.

Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. – Romans 8:34 ESV

The new covenant that Jesus inaugurated by the shedding of His blood on a Roman cross requires no more daily sacrifices for sin. Under the old covenant, the people of Israel were required to offer repeated sacrifices day after day and year after year because their sins never ceased and their atonement was never full or complete. They were in constant need of purification and forgiveness, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4 ESV).

Under the old covenant, the rituals and rites performed by Aaron and his sons were incapable of providing inner purification. They were primarily ceremonial in nature and dealt with the external problem of uncleanness or impurity.

For the gifts and sacrifices that the priests offer are not able to cleanse the consciences of the people who bring them. For that old system deals only with food and drink and various cleansing ceremonies—physical regulations that were in effect only until a better system could be established. – Hebrews 9:9-10 ESV

During the days of the Tabernacle and the Temple, the simple act of touching a forbidden object or eating one of many prohibited foods could render someone unclean and unworthy to enter God’s presence. Purification was necessary but the process only produced a temporary state of acceptability before God. It could do nothing to change the condition of the human heart. The entire process could only make the individual acceptable to God but could not produce a permanent state of righteousness.

So, something better was needed and God provided it. This better covenant administered by a better high priest had been part of God’s plan from the very beginning. All that came before it was intended to be a foreshadowing of something better to come. The Mosaic Law, the Tabernacle, and the sacrificial system were earthly representations of the heavenly realm.

Chapter eight discloses that the high priest of the new covenant sits at the right hand of God in a heavenly Tabernacle, not an earthly one. The Tabernacle in the wilderness was a replica of the real thing, what the author describes as “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5 ESV).

And over the centuries, the millions of animal sacrifices offered in both the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem were simply foreshadowings of a better sacrifice to come.

For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. – Hebrews 10:4 ESV

They could provide temporary atonement or relief from sin’s condemnation but were not intended to offer a permanent fix. That is why the sacrifices were “continually offered every year” (Hebrews 10:1 ESV). In his gospel, Luke records the words Jesus spoke to His disciples on the night He shared His last Passover meal with them.

After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people – an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for.” – Luke 22:20 NLT

With the death of Jesus, a new covenant was made between God and man. It replaced the old covenant. Why? Because it provided a better way for men to be made right with God. In fact, it provided the only way for men to be made right with God. Under the old covenant, the shedding of blood provided temporary relief from the condemnation of sin. But with His death, Jesus provided a permanent solution to man’s sin problem. Rather than sinful men having to try and earn a right standing with God through self-effort, Jesus provided the gift of His own righteousness. He took on man’s sin and, in exchange, gave the formerly condemned His righteousness in return. That is why Paul wrote, “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT).

And Paul further elaborates on this point in his letter to the Romans.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

In chapter nine, the author of Hebrews continues his elaboration on the point that Jesus was the better mediator of a better covenant.

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. – Hebrews 9:15 ESV

It was not that the old covenant was bad; it was simply that it was incomplete. It could reveal sin but could not remove it. It could display what righteousness looked like but was not able to produce righteousness in a man’s heart. It all pointed to something better to come. It was a foreshadowing of something greater to be revealed. It revealed man’s sinfulness so that he would understand his desperate need for a Savior.

It’s interesting to note that when Jesus walked this earth, He offered the following commentary on the spiritual state of man:

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” – Mark 2:17 NLT

His point? Those who think they are without sin and in no need of a Savior will never turn to Him. It is those who are “weary and carry heavy burdens” (Matthew 11:29) who will find rest for their souls. The apostle John wrote, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth” (1 John 1:8 NLT). To deny the presence of sin is to live a lie, and the apostle warns that it is tantamount to calling God a liar.

If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. – 1 John 1:10 NLT

Jesus offers a better ministry as a better high priest and the mediator of a better covenant based on better promises. But to take advantage of it, men must recognize their sin and their desperate need for a Savior. They must desire something better. They must turn from the old covenant with its laws, rules, and regulations. They must give up the hope of achieving righteousness in their own effort and receive by faith the new covenant that Christ has made possible through His blood.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

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.

Such a Great Salvation

11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. 13 For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.

15 This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, 16 who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is witnessed of him,

“You are a priest forever,
    after the order of Melchizedek.”

18 For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness 19 (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

20 And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, 21 but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him:

“The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind,
‘You are a priest forever.’”

22 This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.

23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. 28 For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. – Hebrews 7:11-22 ESV

A better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. What better summary statement could there be for this section of Hebrews? The author has been establishing the high priesthood of Jesus and setting up his defense of the superior nature of Jesus’ sacrifice. There was no need for the Jews in his audience to fall back on or revert back to their old Judaic rituals or customs. He has already warned them about drifting away and neglecting such a great salvation found in Jesus. He has reminded them that Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17 ESV).

With His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus accomplished something new, better, more effective, and totally permanent when it comes to man’s damaged relationship with God. As Paul stated in his letter to the Romans, “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God” (Romans 6:10 ESV). Peter fully concurred with Paul when he wrote, “Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18 NLT).

The main point of the author of Hebrews is that God sent Jesus because the Mosaic Law, the Levitical priesthood, and the sacrificial system were never meant to be a permanent solution to man’s sin problem. He elaborates further on this fact in chapter ten.

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. 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. – Hebrews 10:1-2 NLT

He even takes it one step further: “But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:3-4 NLT). This is why he infers that the high priesthood of Jesus would never have been necessary if “perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood” (Hebrews 7:11 ESV).

If men could have been made right (justified) with God through the law, there would have been no need for Jesus to come to earth. But He did come because the law could only convict but not save. It was temporary, a shadow of something greater to come. The law revealed the holiness of God and the sinfulness of mankind. And Jesus came in order to bridge the gap between the two. He became God in human flesh, living among men, and doing what no other man had ever been able to do, including Aaron the high priest: He obeyed all of God’s law. In doing so, Jesus revealed His perfect righteousness and demonstrated that He required no sacrifice for atonement.

Unlike those other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices every day. They did this for their own sins first and then for the sins of the people. – Hebrews 7:27 NLT

Aaron was just a man and, as such, he was susceptible to sin and in constant need of atonement. He could not serve as the mediator between God and the people of Israel until his own sins had been paid for. He and his sons required constant purification from their own sinfulness so that they might offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. But that was not the case for Jesus.

Jesus needed no cleansing from sin. And rather than offering repeated sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people, Jesus took care of the problem with a single sacrifice that served as a permanent solution to mankind’s sin problem.

Jesus did this once for all when he offered himself as the sacrifice for the people’s sins. – Hebrews 7:27 NLT

And Jesus did this despite the fact that He was not a member of the tribe of Levi. He was not a descendant of Aaron and, therefore, was not in line for the high priesthood. His path to the priesthood was ordained by God.

Jesus became a priest, not by meeting the physical requirement of belonging to the tribe of Levi, but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed. – Hebrews 7:16 NLT

Just as Aaron had been appointed by God, so too was Jesus. But His priesthood was of a different order altogether. As God had done so many times before, He began again. He started fresh. He annulled the earlier priesthood and replaced it with a better one.

…the old requirement about the priesthood was set aside because it was weak and useless. – Hebrews 7:18 NLT

God had never intended the Aaronic priesthood to last forever. It was a temporary institution that would eventually run its course. When the temple was destroyed the priesthood effectively came to an end. Without the house of God, there was no place to offer sacrifices. There was no Holy of Holies, no mercy seat, and no hope of atonement. The priesthood became unnecessary and the peoples’ hopes of being made right with God all but disappeared – until Jesus appeared on the scene.

With His incarnation, Jesus became the permanent and superior high priest. Unlike Aaron and his descendants, Jesus cannot die, therefore His priesthood has no end. And because He cannot sin, He has no need for atonement. His perfection made Him the perfect high priest and allowed Him to provide a better way for men to be restored to a right relationship with God.

The author says that the old system of the law has been “set aside.” The Greek word he used is athetēsis and it means “to annul, abolish, reject.” This word has powerful implications and he uses it for a reason. He wants his readers to know that there is no reason whatsoever for them to fall back to their old way of life as Jews, because “a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect)” (Hebrews 7:18-19 ESV).

They now have a “better hope” (Hebrews 7:19 ESV). Jesus, the new-and-improved high priest, provides a way for sinful men to be justified before God. It isn’t based on the blood of bulls and goats but on the blood of the sinless Lamb of God. In offering Himself as the perfect offering for the sins of mankind, Jesus did away with the need for animal sacrifices.

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. 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. – Hebrews 10:1-2 NLT

The better priest offered a better sacrifice. And, unlike Aaron, Jesus’ priesthood is permanent because He is eternal. God made Jesus our high priest and swore an oath that His priesthood would last forever. This makes Jesus “the guarantor of a better covenant” (Hebrews 7:22 ESV). Aaron, the original high priest, eventually died. Every Levite who served as a priest in the Tabernacle of God also died. And even while they were alive, their sacrifices were temporary at best. Again, the author elaborates on this issue in chapter ten.

Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. – Hebrews 10:11-12 NLT

He is the better high priest who offered a better sacrifice and provides us with a better source of hope. His sacrifice will never have to be repeated. His death left God the Father fully propitiated or satisfied. Those who are in Christ have had their sins forgiven completely and permanently. They have been made right with God forever. There is nothing more they need to do to earn God’s favor or remain in His good graces. Which is why the author calls it “such a great salvation.”

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.

Our Forever High Priest

1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.

See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, 10 for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. – Hebrews 7:1-10 ESV

The Mosaic Law, the temple, and the sacrificial system were all central to the practice of Judaism, and the Levitical priesthood played an indispensable role in it all. They were the teachers of the Law, the caretakers of the Temple, and the mediators between God and man when it came to the sacrificial rites. So, the Jews placed a high priority on these men and viewed them as the God-ordained keepers of their faith system.

That is why the author begins this lengthy section of his letter with another comparison between Jesus and Melchizedek, the “king of Salem, priest of the Most High God” (Hebrews 7:1 ESV). His first mention of this somewhat obscure and enigmatic man came back in chapter five, where he designated Jesus to be “a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:9-10 ESV). But this is not the first time the author has portrayed Jesus as a high priest. All the way back in chapter two, he described Jesus as “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (Hebrews 2:17 ESV).

In chapter four, he continued to promote the high priestly role of Jesus.

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 is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. – Hebrews 4:14-15 ESV

The author wanted his readers to understand that Jesus was and is a high priest. The Jewish Christians to whom he wrote held the priesthood in high esteem; especially the role of high priest. And some of these converts to Christianity were considering a return to their former way of life as strict adherents to the Law which would place them back under the authority of the priesthood. So, the author goes out of his way to portray Jesus as superior to any human high priest, including a descendant of Aaron, the first high priest, or even Melchizedek.

He points out that Jesus was not a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses whom God ordained as the original high priest. Jesus’ priesthood was not of an earthly order. His was a divine priesthood, commissioned by God. He was the Savior of the world, the Messiah sent from God to act as King and usher in a new Kingdom. But He was also a priest who offered up a better sacrifice for the sins of men. His priesthood was not based on an earthly, human genealogy, but a heavenly one. That is why the author compares Jesus with Melchizedek.

There is no record of his father or mother or any of his ancestors—no beginning or end to his life. He remains a priest forever, resembling the Son of God. – Hebrews 7:3 NLT

The Scriptures provide no genealogy for this king-priest. He just appears out of nowhere in the biblical text and then disappears from the scene. It is almost as if he had “no beginning or end to his life.” But this lack of a genealogical record was intended to foreshadow the coming of Jesus, the true King of Salem (Jerusalem) and the High Priest of God.

On one of the many occasions when Jesus found Himself confronted by the Pharisees, He asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42 NLT). They replied, “He is the son of David” (Matthew 22:42 NLT). Then quoting from Psalm 110, Jesus replies, “Then why does David, speaking under the inspiration of the Spirit, call the Messiah ‘my Lord’? For David said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit in the place of honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies beneath your feet.’ Since David called the Messiah ‘my Lord,’ how can the Messiah be his son?” (Matthew 22:43-45 NLT). His point was that He was the Son of God. Yes, He was an earthly descendant of David, but His kingship was of a different sort than that of David. He was to be the King of kings and the Lord of lords. And in that very same Psalm of David, it reads:

The LORD said to my Lord,
    “Sit in the place of honor at my right hand
until I humble your enemies,
    making them a footstool under your feet.”

The LORD will extend your powerful kingdom from Jerusalem;
you will rule over your enemies.
When you go to war,
your people will serve you willingly.
You are arrayed in holy garments,
and your strength will be renewed each day like the morning dew.

The LORD has taken an oath and will not break his vow:
    “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” – Psalm 110:1-4 NLT

This Psalm, written by David under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was actually a prophecy concerning the coming Messiah. It was a divine foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus, outlining His God-ordained role as both king and priest.

The author used this reference from a Psalm of David and weaved it into his lengthy narrative concerning the story of Abraham and Melchizedek, all in order to prove the superiority of Jesus as both king and priest. In the story, found in the book of Genesis, Melchizedek blessed Abraham and Abraham offered a tenth of all his spoils in return. Melchizedek was a king and a priest, and as such, he was Abraham’s superior. The real point seems to be that the descendants of Abraham would eventually offer tithes to God through the Levites, their own brothers. That’s why the author writes, “those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham” (Hebrews 7:5 ESV).

When Abraham offered his tithe to Melchizedek, the tribe of Levi did not yet exist. So in a sense, the author says, Levi and his sons offered a tithe to Melchizedek through their forefather, Abraham. The whole issue here is one of superiority. Jesus, as a high priest of the order of Melchizedek, is superior to any earthly high priest. Abraham was blessed by Melchizedek; the inferior was blessed by the superior. And we are blessed by Jesus. We are blessed by the King of peace and righteousness. And it is interesting to note that Melchizedek blessed Abraham for no apparent reason. If you read the story in Genesis 14, it says that the kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam, and Goiim made war with the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela.

Melchizedek, the king of Salem, is not even mentioned. He had no dog in this hunt. When the battle took place “the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions and went their way” (Genesis 14:11-12 ESV). Abraham stepped in and defeated the kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam, and Goiim, rescuing Lot and taking a great deal of plunder. And that’s when Melchizedek shows up on the scene. His country of Salem had not been attacked and yet he seeks out Abraham and blesses him. Abraham had not done anything to deserve Melchizedek’s blessing. He had not rescued any of his citizens. He had not returned any of Melchizedek’s spoil. The king of righteousness and peace blessed Abraham.

Those of us who are in Christ have been blessed by the King. And that blessing had nothing to do with any merit on our part. We have done nothing to earn His blessing. When Melchizedek blessed Abraham, he said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High,  Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who has defeated your enemies for you” (Genesis 14:19-20 NLT). And the blessing we have received is similar. We have been given victory over sin and death by God through the sacrificial death of His Son. We have been blessed by God through the Son of God.

Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. And God designated him to be a High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 5:8-10 NLT

We have been given perfect righteousness through Christ. And we now enjoy peace with God, having been made right in His eyes because of the substitutionary death of His Son.

The Jewish Christians who were the original recipients of this letter needed to decide whether they were going to return to their former religious system and rely on an earthly priesthood or whether they were going to place their hope in the high priesthood of Jesus. A human high priest could only offer temporary atonement for sin. But Jesus, with His death on the cross, provided a once-for-all-time payment for the sins of man. He was the superior high priest and offered a better sacrifice.

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.

Our Great High Priest

1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him,

“You are my Son,
    today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
    after the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 5:1-10 ESV

In the early days of Israel, the high priest was an appointed position. Aaron was the original high priest, designated so by God Himself. His command to Moses to set aside  Aaron and his sons as priests is recorded in the book of Exodus.

“Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.” – Exodus 28:1 ESV

God would later qualify the vital nature of their calling.

“I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” – Exodus 29:44-46 ESV

Aaron and his sons were set apart by God to serve as priests, offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. No one else could serve in this capacity. King Saul attempted to do so and lost his kingship because of it (1 Samuel 13:5-14). During the days of Israel’s wilderness wandering, Korah, a Levite, incited a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, demanding that he and his brothers be made priests. But Moses asked him, “would you seek the priesthood also? Therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?” (Numbers 16:10-11 ESV). As a result of their attempt to self-appoint themselves as priests, Korah, Dothan, Abiram, and all their families were literally swallowed alive by the earth.

The priesthood was a serious matter to God. The men whom God appointed for this role were responsible for the care and maintenance of the Tabernacle but also for administering the sacrificial system of Israel. But God also gave Aaron, the high priest, another directive that made their role pedagogic in nature. They were responsible for teaching the people the ways of God.

And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.” – Leviticus 10:8-11 ESV

And so when we read of Jesus being appointed high priest “to act on behalf of men in relation to God” it should get our attention. Jesus was not a descendant of Aaron. He was a descendant of David, from the tribe of Judah. Technically, He was not qualified to be a priest, let alone the high priest. And the writer of Hebrews makes it perfectly clear that Jesus “did not exalt himself to be made high priest, but was appointed by him [God]” (Hebrews 5:5 ESV). So unlike Korah and his companions, Jesus was not guilty of trying to anoint Himself as high priest. He, like Aaron, was chosen by God to serve in this capacity.

Even in His humanity, Jesus served in His role as a priest, offering up “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7 ESV). Jesus prayed regularly during His time on earth, and He taught His disciples the importance of prayer in their own lives. And just hours before His death, He prayed what has become known as His High Priestly Prayer from the Garden of Olives. In that prayer, Jesus interceded on behalf of His disciples, declaring His love for them and expressing His desire that His Heavenly Father protect and preserve them so that they might one day enjoy the gift of eternal life.

“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began! – John 17:22-24 NLT

Jesus was of a different priesthood than that of Aaron. He was “designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:10 ESV). Melchizedek was an obscure figure mentioned in Genesis 14. In this story, Abraham has just rescued his nephew Lot and his family, who had been taken captive when the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah had been overrun by an alliance of kings. After having defeated the kings and rescued Lot, his family, and all their possessions, Abraham was met by Melchizedek, king of Salem. The text tells us that Melchizedek was also a priest of God Most High. This priest-king blessed Abraham and, in return, Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the plunder he had taken. That is the extent of the information we have about Melchizedek. But the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was appointed by God after the order of Melchizedek. In other words, He was of a different priesthood than that of Aaron and his sons.

In chapter seven of this letter, we are given more insight into who this man was and why Jesus was appointed high priest after his order and not that of Aaron:

He [Melchizedek] is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. – Hebrews 7:2-3 ESV

This does not mean that Melchizedek was a divine being who was never born or died, but that there is no known record of his ancestry. He appears on the scene in the book of Genesis, then disappears. He serves as a foreshadowing of the future priest-king whom God would reveal. Melchizedek was the king of righteousness and the king of peace. Interestingly enough, his royal city, Salem, is the city that David would later make his capital and rename Jerusalem. And one day, Jesus will return and reign from the throne of David in Jerusalem when He establishes His millennial kingdom.

Unlike Aaron and his sons who served only as priests, Jesus was appointed both king and priest by God, and He received both titles when he ascended back to earth after His death and resurrection.

I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. – Ephesians 1:19-22 NLT

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. – 1 Timothy 2:5-6 ESV

Jesus now sits by His Father’s side in heaven, where He reigns over all that He has made. But at the present time, not all humanity recognizes Him as King and Lord. So, Jesus maintains His priestly role, offering all mankind the opportunity to be reconciled with God through faith in His substitutionary death on the cross. Jesus is both King and High Priest, and He received these two divine appointments because He was obedient, faithfully completing the assignment given to Him by God the Father. Jesus did not simply offer sacrifices on behalf of the people as Aaron and his sons had done. Jesus offered Himself. He made the ultimate sacrifice of His own life. And even though He was the divine Son of God, in His human state Jesus, “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8 ESV). And while His obedience ultimately ended in death, it also resulted in His “perfection” or glorification. He was raised from the dead and restored to His rightful place at the side of God the Father. And “he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9 ESV).

Jesus wasn’t just a different high priest than that of Aaron. He was a better high priest who offered a better sacrifice. He offered a permanent, once-for-all sacrifice that never has to be repeated. He was the sinless high priest who offered Himself as the unblemished Lamb of God that paid for the sins of humanity. And as a result, those who place their faith in His sacrifice can share in His righteousness and have peace with God. We can be justified or made right with God. That is why He is the great high priest.

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.

Worthy of Consideration

1 Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. – Hebrews 3:1-6 ESV

The Jews had high regard for angels as heavenly messengers sent from God. But the author of Hebrews wanted his Jewish readers to know that angels were nothing when compared to Jesus, the Son of God, the greatest of divine messengers with the greatest of messengers.

When it came to the topic of salvation, the Jews knew of no greater savior than Moses, who had single-handedly rescued their forefathers from captivity in Egypt. As a result, they held Moses in high esteem. So the author of Hebrews asks his audience to “consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1 ESV).

The Greek word for “consider” means “to fix one’s eyes or mind upon” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). It would be like saying, “take a long, hard look at Jesus.” Jesus was the apostle or messenger, sent by God with the good news regarding salvation by faith in Him alone. But He was also our high priest, a title the author will elaborate on in greater detail later in his letter. As high priest, Jesus offered a better sacrifice, a one-time, never-to-be-repeated sacrifice that completely satisfied the just demands of a holy God and provided complete forgiveness of sins and a way for man to be restored to a right relationship with God.

As God’s messenger and high priest, Jesus was faithful to His divinely ordained assignment. And the author compares His faithfulness to that of Moses, who was chosen and sent by God to the people of Israel with a message of deliverance. God had told Moses to go to the people of Israel who were living in captivity in Egypt and announce the good news of their pending deliverance.

Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—has appeared to me. He told me, ‘I have been watching closely, and I see how the Egyptians are treating you. I have promised to rescue you from your oppression in Egypt. I will lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey.’” – Exodus 3:16-17 NLT

Moses did what God commanded, although somewhat reluctantly. He obeyed God and, as they say, the rest is history. God delivered His people through the faithful leadership of Moses, with the assistance of Aaron, Moses’ brother whom God would later appoint the high priest of Israel. But as great as Moses was considered by the people of Israel for what he had done, “Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses” (Hebrews 3:3 ESV). Why? Because Moses was a faithful servant, but Jesus was the faithful Son.

It is important to recognize the seriousness of what is going on here. For the Jew, Moses was the founder and architect of their entire religion. While Abraham was the father of the nation, it was through Moses that they received the Law, the sacrificial system, and the Tabernacle. They believed that without Moses, they would never have escaped Egypt and become a nation. So when the author gives Jesus greater glory than Moses, he is treading on sacred ground for the Jew. But his point seems to be that Jesus, as the Son of God, the divine messenger, and the high priest of the faith, has ushered in something far greater and more significant than the law, the sacrificial system, or the Tabernacle. And he will spend the rest of his letter expounding on and explaining why he believes that to be so.

The author makes a strong statement regarding the deity of Christ when he compares Moses, the servant of God, with Jesus, the Son of God. Moses deserved honor for what he accomplished, much like a newly constructed home deserved honor for its beauty. But the real glory should go to the builder, not that which was built. Moses, though faithful, was an instrument in God’s hands. None of what he accomplished would have happened without God’s help. But Jesus, as the Son of God, is different, because “the builder of all things is God” (Hebrews 3:4 ESV). Jesus was divine, the Son of God and the creator of the universe. Remember how the author opened his letter? “…he [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:2 ESV). Jesus was not just a messenger sent from God, He was God in human flesh. As such, He deserves the same degree of glory as God the Father.

The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command.Hebrews 1:3 NLT

Moses had helped establish the house of Israel. That is not only a reference to the covenant community of Israel but to Moses’ oversight of the construction of God’s house, the Tabernacle. Moses had been given detailed plans for building God a dwelling place on earth, where He promised to reside among His people. So, when the author states that Moses “was faithful in all God’s house,” he is emphasizing Moses’ unparalleled example of faithfulness among God’s people but he is also pointing out Moses’ faithful project management over the construction of God’s dwelling place. Every aspect of God’s house was carefully and faithfully carried out down to the last detail.

The author recognizes that Moses was due honor and glory for having helped make the house of God possible. Had Moses not done his job, the Tabernacle would have never been started or completed. So, in that sense, “the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself” (Hebrews 3:3 ESV). But ultimately, “the builder of all things is God” (Hebrews 3:4 ESV). The Tabernacle had been God’s idea and Moses had simply carried out the plans that God had established for His earthly dwelling place.

But Moses had been more than a builder; he had been a leader. He had played a significant role in leading the people of God to the land promised to Abraham, their father in the flesh. But Jesus had come to establish a new household of faith, a family of God that would be made up of both Jews and Gentiles and based on a righteousness that comes from faith, not works.

Paul referred to it as “the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). He told the Gentile believers in Ephesus, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19 ESV).

The Jewish Christians to whom the letter of Hebrews was addressed needed to be reminded that their allegiance was no longer to Moses and the law. Their hope was not to be in the sacrificial system or some earthly dwelling place like the Tabernacle or Temple. They were to consider Jesus. They were now part of His household of faith. But the author warns them that they must “hold fast” their confidence in Jesus. They must boast in the hope they have in Him. There was nothing and no one else worth boasting about or placing their hope in. They were to keep their eyes fully focused on Jesus, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV).

Moses had built a Tabernacle in which God could dwell among His people. But Jesus became the ultimate tabernacle when He left His Father’s side and came to earth in human form. John writes, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14 BSB). The Greek word John used is σκηνόω (skēnoō), which means “to fix one’s tabernacle, have one’s tabernacle, abide (or live) in a tabernacle (or tent), tabernacle.”

In His incarnation, Jesus became God’s dwelling place on earth. He was “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 ESV). As the second person of the Trinity, Jesus took on human flesh so that He might make God visible to mankind. The Tabernacle, built by Moses, held the glory of God but it was invisible and unapproachable to anyone but the high priest, who could enter the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement. But Jesus made God visible to all, and He was not only the “tabernacle” of God’s presence, but the builder.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
    He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation,
for through him God created everything
    in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see
    and the things we can’t see—
such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.
    Everything was created through him and for him.
He existed before anything else,
    and he holds all creation together.  – Colossians 1:15-17 NLT

Jesus came to expand God’s house. The Tabernacle was long gone and it would not be long before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. But Jesus came to build a new house of God made up of Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female. Moses had been faithful in God’s house (the earthly Tabernacle), but Jesus was faithful over God’s new house, the church.

Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ. – Hebrews 3:6 NLT

Like the Jews who read this letter, we can easily find ourselves considering something other than Jesus. We can end up placing our hope in our religious upbringing, our spiritual accomplishments, or the fact that, at some time in the past, we placed our faith in Jesus as our Savior. But the walk of faith is always looking forward, not backward. It is about the hope that lies ahead. It is always considering Jesus, the founder, and perfecter of our faith. In other words, we are always living expectantly and hopefully, trusting that God will finish what He started in us. The work of Christ in our lives will not be fully complete until He glorifies us. We are works in process. And we must hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope – in Him.

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.

No Detail Too Small

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel to bring you pure oil from beaten olives for the lamp, that a light may be kept burning regularly. Outside the veil of the testimony, in the tent of meeting, Aaron shall arrange it from evening to morning before the Lord regularly. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. He shall arrange the lamps on the lampstand of pure gold before the Lord regularly.

“You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the Lord. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the Lord. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the Lord regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the Lord‘s food offerings, a perpetual due.” Leviticus 24:1-9 ESV

At first glance, the content of chapter 24 seems to be misplaced. It seems to have no logical relationship with the chapters that precede and follow it. After outlining the various annual feasts and holy days the Israelites were to celebrate, God appears to abruptly shift His focus and begins discussing the oil and bread used in the Tabernacle. But there is nothing in the text that suggests these instructions were given in direct or unbroken sequence with the ones concerning the annual festivals. Chapter 24 opens with the statement, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…” (Leviticus 24:1 ESV).

This same phrase was used in verses 1, 9, 23, 26, and 33 of chapter 23. They each serve as breaks in the narrative where God changes the emphasis from one point to another. Sometimes the changes are subtle, while at other times they are more abrupt. And chapter 23 ends with the statement: “Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed feasts of the Lord” (Leviticus 23:44 ESV). This verse provides a closing to God’s instructions regarding the annual feasts.

Now, in chapter 24, God speaks to Moses once again, but concerning a different but not wholly unrelated matter. Every one of the annual feasts that God decreed involved the use of the Tabernacle. And while these holy convocations were to take place on an annual basis, the Tabernacle was to be in service throughout the entire calendar year. There is a sense in which God wanted His people to properly revere these once-a-year sacred assemblies, but not forget the daily care and maintenance of His dwelling place. It would be easy for the Israelites to give these holy days (holidays) greater significance because they were festive occasions when the entire community gathered together at the Tabernacle. But God suggests that the day-to-day operations of the Tabernacle were not to take a backseat to these higher-visibility events.

While the Passover and the various feasts of Firstfruits, Weeks, Trumpets, and Booths were important, they did not take precedence over the daily care and maintenance of God’s house. The Day of Atonement may have been the most important annual event on Israel’s calendar, but it was not to overshadow the peoples’ obligation to literally “keep the lights burning” in the sanctuary of God. When God had given Moses the instructions for building the Tabernacle, He had included the following command concerning the oil for the Golden Lampstand.

“Command the people of Israel to bring you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to keep the lamps burning continually. The lampstand will stand in the Tabernacle, in front of the inner curtain that shields the Ark of the Covenant. Aaron and his sons must keep the lamps burning in the Lord’s presence all night. This is a permanent law for the people of Israel, and it must be observed from generation to generation.” – Exodus 27:20-21 NLT

Aaron and his sons were responsible for keeping the light of the lampstand burning 24 hours a day throughout the entire calendar year. This elaborate piece of furniture, fashioned in the form of a tree, was intended to bring light into the inner recesses of God’s house. The author of Hebrews provides us with details concerning the exact placement of the lampstand.

There were two rooms in that Tabernacle. In the first room were a lampstand, a table, and sacred loaves of bread on the table. This room was called the Holy Place. Then there was a curtain, and behind the curtain was the second room called the Most Holy Place. In that room were a gold incense altar and a wooden chest called the Ark of the Covenant, which was covered with gold on all sides. – Hebrews 9:2-4 NLT

This lampstand was the sole source of light within the Holy Place and made it possible for the priests to fulfill their duties within the Tabernacle. Each morning, the seven bowls of the lampstand were to be filled with fresh oil and the wicks were to be trimmed so that their flames would burn brightly and perpetually. This ritual was to be repeated each evening so that the lamp continued to give off light throughout the night.

But none of this was possible if the people failed to obey God’s command. In order for the light to burn continually, the people were required to bring “pure oil from beaten olives for the lamp” (Leviticus 24:1 ESV). This perpetual light was a symbol of God’s glorious presence. In its location just outside the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, the lampstand provided light in the darkness. It illuminated the veil that led into the place where God’s glory dwelled above the mercy seat. In that place, God’s Shekinah glory was always present in the Holy of Holies but was off limits to all but the high priest, and even he was restricted from entering that sacred space except on the Day of Atonement.

But the light outside the veil was to be kept burning at all times. It was to be a representation and a reminder of God’s glorious presence within the Holy of Holies. He was there, not just on the Day of Atonement, but throughout the entire calendar year. His glory never diminished. The light of His presence never faded. And the priests were responsible for maintaining the light of the lampstand as a perpetual reminder that God was still among them. Yahweh had promised to dwell with the people of Israel but He had also placed on them the requirement to obey His commands. And while bringing in fresh olive oil each day was a relatively simple and inexpensive task to fulfill, it was essential that the Israelites never fail to follow through on their commitment. If they did, the lights would go out. That simple act of disobedience would have dramatic consequences. The priests would have no oil to light the lamps and, as a result, the lamps on the lampstand would go out, leaving Aaron and his sons in the dark and incapable of doing their jobs. Worse yet, that simple act of disobedience would result in God’s glory departing the Holy of Holies. His presence was tied to their obedience.

And the same thing was true of the 12 loaves of bread that were to be placed on the golden table within the Holy Place every seventh day. These loaves of freshly baked bread, sometimes referred to as the bread of the presence, were to be placed on the Table of Showbread every Sabbath day. Representing the 12 tribes of Israel, these loaves were placed on the golden table in the Holy Place, where they were illuminated by the light from the Golden Lampstand. For six days, they sat just outside the veil that separated them from God’s glorious presence. Symbolically, they represented God’s people, basking in the light of His glory and grace. And each Sabbath, the old loaves would be replaced with freshly baked new loaves, symbolizing the transformative power of God’s presence among His people. The Sabbath was a day of rest and renewal when the people made Yahweh their highest priority. It was a day set apart for Him, and during which no work was done. During the other six days of the week, the people would work and labor, and by the seventh day they would need a time of refreshing from God.

These loaves were also intended to be a gift given to God in gratitude for His gracious provision of all their needs. The 12 tribes of Israel existed because of God’s grace, and they continued to exist for the very same reason. He had set them apart for His use. They belonged to Him and were to live their lives in keeping with His will. Every seventh day, the people of God were to provide the flour that was used to bake the bread that sat before the presence of God. It was to be a perpetual sign of their ownership by God and their willingness to place themselves at His disposal to do with as He wished.

Another point that should not be missed is that the oil and the bread were essential for the priests to do their jobs. These verses stress the integral nature of the priesthood. They were vital to the everyday well-being of the nation. They had been set apart by God and tasked with caring for the Tabernacle but also with overseeing the spiritual health of His people. Yet, they could not do their job if the people failed to obey God’s commands. The provision of oil and bread was the sole responsibility of the people. Everyone had to do their part. The oil provided light so that the priests could do their job. And the bread eventually became nourishment for the priests so they could have the strength to serve God’s people (Leviticus 24:9).

This entire operation was finely tuned and intricately ordained by God to be self-sustaining and mutually beneficial. Every facet of His divine plan was vital and required obedience on the part of all those involved. The priests and the people were obligated to perform their respective responsibilities on time and in keeping with God’s will. Even the smallest details of God’s plan had to be obeyed if the nation wanted to continue to enjoy His presence, power, and provision. What good would the feast days be if the people allowed the lights to go out in the Holy Place? Why would God be obligated to provide atonement and access into His presence if the people were unwilling to provide the bread of the presence?

Everything mattered to God. No feast was greater than any other. No command was more important than any other. The will of God was righteous and worthy of their obedience, from the daily provision of oil to the yearly celebrations of the feasts.

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.

I Am the Lord

17 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 18 “Speak to Aaron and his sons and all the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of the house of Israel or of the sojourners in Israel presents a burnt offering as his offering, for any of their vows or freewill offerings that they offer to the Lord, 19 if it is to be accepted for you it shall be a male without blemish, of the bulls or the sheep or the goats. 20 You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you. 21 And when anyone offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering from the herd or from the flock, to be accepted it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it. 22 Animals blind or disabled or mutilated or having a discharge or an itch or scabs you shall not offer to the Lord or give them to the Lord as a food offering on the altar. 23 You may present a bull or a lamb that has a part too long or too short for a freewill offering, but for a vow offering it cannot be accepted. 24 Any animal that has its testicles bruised or crushed or torn or cut you shall not offer to the Lord; you shall not do it within your land, 25 neither shall you offer as the bread of your God any such animals gotten from a foreigner. Since there is a blemish in them, because of their mutilation, they will not be accepted for you.”

26 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall remain seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as a food offering to the Lord. 28 But you shall not kill an ox or a sheep and her young in one day. 29 And when you sacrifice a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord, you shall sacrifice it so that you may be accepted. 30 It shall be eaten on the same day; you shall leave none of it until morning: I am the Lord.

31 “So you shall keep my commandments and do them: I am the Lord. 32 And you shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel. I am the Lord who sanctifies you, 33 who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord.” Leviticus 22:17-33 ESV

Throughout this section of Leviticus, God emphasizes the mandatory nature of His laws and regulations by repeatedly declaring, “I am the Lord.” The conditions for service He placed on His priests were to be obeyed because they came from the lips of God Himself. They were the binding will of Yᵊhōvâ ‘ănî. By repeatedly revealing His identity as the Lord – “the existing One” – God was associating these laws with His holiness and glory. The people were never to assume that these regulations were the product of Moses’ fertile imagination and, therefore, non-binding. Moses was simply the deliverer of the message, not its creator.

Jehovah demanded absolute compliance to His commands. The priests were to listen and obey because the Lord had spoken and His will was to be treated with the same honor and reverence they would give to God himself. To attempt to worship God without heeding His commands would not only be illogical but impossible. God would later condemn this kind of hypocritical form of worship.

“…this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men…” – Isaiah 29:13 ESV

In one of His many confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders of His day, Jesus quoted from this passage in Isaiah to expose their hypocritical and unacceptable worship of God.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 ESV

They were guilty of giving God lip service. They seemed to say and do all the right things, but their hearts weren’t in it. They placed a higher priority on their own manmade laws and sacred traditions than they did on the commands of Jehovah. Their will trumped His.

But this was never to be the way of God’s people. He had declared His will in no uncertain terms. His commands had been spoken, written down, and repeated. There was no cause for confusion and no point in pleading ignorance. But God continued to stress the importance of obedience to His divine will by clarifying how it applied to every aspect of daily life.

In this case, He addressed the issue of what constituted an acceptable offering. Much of this is repeated material, but it exists in order to emphasize the priests’ role in ensuring that each sacrifice was of the highest quality. Jehovah, the one true God, deserved nothing but the best, and the priests were assigned the responsibility of quality assurance. It was their duty to examine each animal to determine its health and its worthiness to be presented as a gift to Jehovah.

This responsibility was not to be taken lightly because lives depended upon it. For the offering to be accepted and the giver to receive atonement from God, their sacrifice had to meet God’s exacting standards. And if a worshiper attempted to cut corners by bringing an unacceptable animal, it was the priest’s job to expose the deceit and prevent bringing offense to a holy God. Everything about the sacrificial system was based on the quality of the gift that was offered. There were to be no damaged goods or second-class animals presented to God. God expected and deserved the first fruits, the best of the best; not the bruised and worthless products that no one wanted.

The priests were to be the last line of defense. To bring a less-than-perfect offering as a sacrifice to God was a dangerous thing to do. God had made it clear that any gift given to Him had to be without blemish. All grain offerings were to consist of “fine flour” (Leviticus 6:20 ESV). No day-old flour made from leftover grain would do. All animals were to be free from injury, disease, and disfigurement. The Israelites were forbidden from giving old, worn-out animals as gifts to God. To do so would have been unacceptable and proven to be an offense to a holy and righteous God. And it was the priest’s job to ensure that this never happened.

“…you must offer a perfect animal. It may have no defect of any kind.” – Leviticus 22:21 NLT

At no point was the priest to cut corners or make concessions. He was not to accept a bribe from a worshiper and allow a less-than-perfect animal to make it to the altar. And God was very specific when it came to the kinds of offerings He would not accept.

“If an animal has damaged testicles or is castrated, you may not offer it to the Lord. You must never do this in your own land, and you must not accept such an animal from foreigners and then offer it as a sacrifice to your God. Such animals will not be accepted on your behalf, for they are mutilated or defective.” – Leviticus 22:24-25 NLT

It seems odd that God had to go to such great lengths in describing the kinds of animals He would not accept. But He knew that His chosen people would be tempted to cut corners and take the less costly path when it came to their sacrifices. After all, they were expected to give the best of what they had, and these animals represented their livelihood. Sacrificing a perfectly healthy lamb or ox did a number on their bottom line. These animals constituted prime breeding stock. They were a source of income and food. And their sacrifice required a once-for-all-time commitment. The giver would never see that animal again and never recoup the loss of potential revenue it represented.

It’s interesting to note that God had to place an additional prohibition on bringing animals that were too young. The all-knowing God understood that His people would find ways to cut their losses. Since they were required to bring an animal that was less than a year old, they might decide to give a newborn calf or lamb as an offering. After all, the earlier they gave the animal, the less time and money they had to invest in its wellbeing. And, if they gave it immediately after it came out of the womb, there was little time for it to become ill or suffer injury. So, God put a seven-day moratorium in place.

“When a calf or lamb or goat is born, it must be left with its mother for seven days. From the eighth day on, it will be acceptable as a special gift to the Lord. But you must not slaughter a mother animal and her offspring on the same day, whether from the herd or the flock. – Leviticus 22:27-28 NLT

These regulations were designed to keep the Israelites from implementing workarounds in an attempt to cut their losses. God’s prohibition against offering “a mother animal and her offspring on the same day” was probably designed to prevent anyone from trying to double-dip. For instance, if the mother animal suffered an injury while giving birth, the owner might be tempted to use that animal as a sacrifice. And if the mother was slaughtered, it would leave the newborn calf or lamb with no source of nourishment, leading the owner to see it as damaged goods and fodder for sacrifice. These kinds of shortcuts and pragmatic decisions were unacceptable for God’s people.

And God sums up this entire section with a reminder of the purpose behind all the laws and regulations He has given.

“Do not bring shame on my holy name, for I will display my holiness among the people of Israel. I am the Lord who makes you holy.” – Leviticus 22:32 NLT

Obedience was a way of glorifying God’s holy name. But disobedience brought shame and disgrace to the name of God. It showed a blatant disregard for His righteousness and a contempt for His glory and grace. God reminded them that He had rescued them from the land of Egypt so that He might be their God. He had redeemed them from slavery and led them all the way to Mount Sinai. There, He had given them His law and decreed the construction of His Tabernacle. He had promised to dwell among them and be their God. But, in return, He expected them to live up to their status as His chosen people. They were to be a royal priesthood and a holy nation, demonstrating their love for Him by living in compliance with His will.

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.

Food For Thought

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons so that they abstain from the holy things of the people of Israel, which they dedicate to me, so that they do not profane my holy name: I am the Lord. Say to them, ‘If any one of all your offspring throughout your generations approaches the holy things that the people of Israel dedicate to the Lord, while he has an uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the Lord. None of the offspring of Aaron who has a leprous disease or a discharge may eat of the holy things until he is clean. Whoever touches anything that is unclean through contact with the dead or a man who has had an emission of semen, and whoever touches a swarming thing by which he may be made unclean or a person from whom he may take uncleanness, whatever his uncleanness may be— the person who touches such a thing shall be unclean until the evening and shall not eat of the holy things unless he has bathed his body in water. When the sun goes down he shall be clean, and afterward he may eat of the holy things, because they are his food. He shall not eat what dies of itself or is torn by beasts, and so make himself unclean by it: I am the Lord.’ They shall therefore keep my charge, lest they bear sin for it and die thereby when they profane it: I am the Lord who sanctifies them.

10 “A lay person shall not eat of a holy thing; no foreign guest of the priest or hired worker shall eat of a holy thing, 11 but if a priest buys a slave as his property for money, the slave may eat of it, and anyone born in his house may eat of his food. 12 If a priest’s daughter marries a layman, she shall not eat of the contribution of the holy things. 13 But if a priest’s daughter is widowed or divorced and has no child and returns to her father’s house, as in her youth, she may eat of her father’s food; yet no lay person shall eat of it. 14 And if anyone eats of a holy thing unintentionally, he shall add the fifth of its value to it and give the holy thing to the priest. 15 They shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, which they contribute to the Lord, 16 and so cause them to bear iniquity and guilt, by eating their holy things: for I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” Leviticus 22:1-16 ESV

In this section, God addresses the priests’ relationship with “the holy things of the people of Israel” (Leviticus 22:2 ESV). This is a reference to those offerings given by the people of Israel, of which a portion was set apart as payment to the priests for their service in the Tabernacle. In point of fact, since every sacrifice was dedicated to God, the portion which was given to the priests was actually a gracious gift from God. Yahweh was allowing Aaron and his sons to join Him in a meal of fellowship.

There were a number of different sacrifices or offerings that, once given to God, included a payment to the priests for their service. This included the grain offering.

“These are the instructions regarding the grain offering. Aaron’s sons must present this offering to the Lord in front of the altar. The priest on duty will take from the grain offering a handful of the choice flour moistened with olive oil, together with all the frankincense. He will burn this representative portion on the altar as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Aaron and his sons may eat the rest of the flour, but it must be baked without yeast and eaten in a sacred place within the courtyard of the Tabernacle.” – Leviticus 6:14-16 NLT

But the priests also received a portion of every sin offering.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Give Aaron and his sons the following instructions regarding the sin offering. The animal given as an offering for sin is a most holy offering, and it must be slaughtered in the Lord’s presence at the place where the burnt offerings are slaughtered. The priest who offers the sacrifice as a sin offering must eat his portion in a sacred place within the courtyard of the Tabernacle. – Leviticus 6:24-26 NLT

God also allotted a portion of every guilt offering as a gift to the priest who participated in the sacrifice.

“This is the law of the guilt offering. It is most holy. In the place where they kill the burnt offering they shall kill the guilt offering, and its blood shall be thrown against the sides of the altar. And all its fat shall be offered, the fat tail, the fat that covers the entrails, the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins, and the long lobe of the liver that he shall remove with the kidneys. The priest shall burn them on the altar as a food offering to the Lord; it is a guilt offering. Every male among the priests may eat of it. It shall be eaten in a holy place. It is most holy. – Leviticus 7:1-6 NLT

Finally, every peace offering presented to Yahweh included a sizeable gift of food for the priest to eat.

“Speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever offers the sacrifice of his peace offerings to the Lord shall bring his offering to the Lord from the sacrifice of his peace offerings. His own hands shall bring the Lord‘s food offerings. He shall bring the fat with the breast, that the breast may be waved as a wave offering before the Lord. The priest shall burn the fat on the altar, but the breast shall be for Aaron and his sons. And the right thigh you shall give to the priest as a contribution from the sacrifice of your peace offerings.” – Leviticus 7:29-32 NLT

But since these gifts had been given to God and He had then shared a portion of them with His priests, they were to be considered holy and treated as such. The consumption of these food gifts came with conditions. They were not to be treated flippantly or irreverently. All the purity laws detailed in Leviticus 11-15 come into play here. The priests were to avoid anything that might render them ceremonially unclean. To partake of these holy food offerings in a state of impurity would be to defile that which belonged to God, and that would be a serious breach of priestly protocol.

These men had been set apart by God to serve in His house, therefore, their holiness was mandatory. That’s why God instituted a rigid purification process for every priest before he could serve as a mediator for the people. Aaron and his sons had to be cleansed and their sins atoned for before they could enter God’s house and offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. And once they had completed their sacrifices for the day, they were free to enjoy the gracious food offerings God had provided for them. But even then, they were not to let down their guard.

The priests were free to share these meals with their family members, but only under the strictest conditions. The purity of the priest’s family came into play as well. Since no priest could eat in an unholy state, neither could any member of his family. This ruled out anyone who was unclean for any reason whatsoever. All the purity laws found in chapters 11-15 came into play here.

“These included skin diseases (chapters 13, 14), bodily emissions (chapter 15), and contact with unclean animals and the dead (chapter 11).” – Kenneth A. Matthew, Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People

No priest or any member of his family could enter into the fellowship meal with Yahweh in an unclean state. The presence of an unclean person at one of these meals would have run the risk of defiling every other participant as well as the food that had been dedicated to God. This was unacceptable and to be avoided at all costs.

There is a sense in which the priest could view the eating of this meal as a post-work celebration. His job was done and now it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labor. But God wanted Aaron and his sons to understand that their holy status did not change when they took off their priestly roles or exited the Tabernacle. And, when it came to these meals, they were to be eaten within the Tabernacle compound – in the very presence of God Almighty. So, the priests were not to let their guard down. They were not free to invite anyone to join them in these meals. No layperson outside of the priest’s immediate family was allowed to participate.

“No one outside a priest’s family may eat the sacred offerings. Even guests and hired workers in a priest’s home are not allowed to eat them. – Leviticus 22:10 NLT

But even the priest’s own children could be banned from the table for a variety of reasons. If they were unclean, they were prohibited from taking part. And if one of the priest’s daughters married outside the tribe of Levi, she forfeited her right to eat the Lord’s offering.

“If a priest’s daughter marries someone outside the priestly family, she may no longer eat the sacred offerings.” – Leviticus 22:12 NLT

God was quite specific and unwavering in His conditions concerning this matter. He even reiterated His ban by stating, “No one outside a priest’s family may eat the sacred offerings” (Leviticus 22:13 NLT). There were to be no workarounds, exemptions, or exceptions. While technically, these food offerings belonged to the priest, they had been dedicated to God. The right for the priest to consume these holy items had been given to him by God. Therefore, these gifts were not to be treated as common or ordinary. God gladly shared what rightfully belonged to Him, but He expected His gift to be treated with dignity, honor, and reverence. That’s why He warned the priests to protect the integrity of His name by preserving the holiness of the food offerings.

The priests must not let the Israelites defile the sacred offerings brought to the Lord by allowing unauthorized people to eat them. – Leviticus 22:15-16 NLT

These food offerings had no special properties and conveyed no supernatural attributes to those who ate them. But they did reflect the character of God. Since they had been dedicated to Him, they were an extension of His very nature. Just as the items in the Tabernacle were to be viewed as holy and treated with reverence, so too were the food gifts that God shared with His priests. And God had Moses warn Aaron and his sons to tread carefully and reverently when feasting on the goodness and graciousness of God.

“Tell Aaron and his sons to be very careful with the sacred gifts that the Israelites set apart for me, so they do not bring shame on my holy name. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 22:2 NLT

The food itself was never the point. It was always about the holiness of God. Anything associated with the name of God was intended to reflect the holy character of God. And, as such, it was to be treated with care and handled with appropriate respect and reverence.

The apostle Paul encouraged the believers in Corinth to live their lives with the goal to please God at all costs.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. – 1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV

That same idea was to motivate the lives of God’s priests. There was no point at which they could take off their robes and let down their guard. Just as the food of the sacrifice belonged to God and deserved to be treated with reverence, so too did the priests belong to God and they were to live every moment of their lives to bring Him glory and honor His name.

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.

When Good Is Not Good Enough

16 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, 20 or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. 22 He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy things, 23 but he shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” 24 So Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. Leviticus 21:16-24 ESV

God placed high expectations upon His priests because they served as His emissaries and mediators. Their everyday involvement in His Tabernacle required that they be holy and pure. In a sense, God was demanding of them what He demanded of Abraham.

“…walk before me, and be blameless…” – Genesis 17:1 ESV

This divine decree from God, spoken to Abraham in his 90th year, was not a call to perfection or sinlessness; it was an invitation to live a wholehearted, fully transparent life as a His servant. God demanded that Abraham not live in hiddenness or secrecy. There were to be no areas of his life that were off-limits to God. There was to be no compartmentalization or secular-sacred split when it came to his behavior. God wanted all of Abraham and the same thing was true of Aaron and his sons.

When reading this section of Leviticus, one might reach the conclusion that God is discriminatory and disparaging of the physically disadvantaged. But that would require reading the text in a superficial manner and only from a human perspective. It is important to remember that the entire book of Leviticus highlights the holiness of Yahweh. The giving of the law and the Book of the Covenant, the construction of the Tabernacle, and the institution of the sacrificial system were all intended to highlight the holiness of Israel’s God. All these things were meant to point to His perfection and moral purity and the need for His people to live in a way that reflected His glory.

So, when God issues the command that any defective, disfigured, or deformed priest was banned from ministering in His presence, it was meant to remind the Israelites of His holiness. There were to be no concessions, compromises, or shortcuts. If it was inappropriate and unacceptable for them to offer an injured, disfigured, or diseased animal as a sacrifice, why would it be okay for a “blemished” priest to participate in the very same ceremony?

Those priests with permanent disfigurements were permanently banned from serving in the Tabernacle. If their injuries or illnesses were temporary, they would be prohibited from serving only until they were healed.

“Disqualified priests still participated in other priestly functions and could still eat the portions given them in the sanctuary. They just could not serve as sacrificing priests in the holy place.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

God provides a comprehensive but not exhaustive list of disqualifying conditions, including blindness, lameness, disfigurement, deformity, broken limbs, defective eyes, skin sores, scabs, and damaged testicles. God also excludes the “hunchbacked or dwarfed” (Leviticus 21;20 NLT). In all of these cases, the “defects” of the individual would have been readily apparent to everyone. The evidence of these conditions would have been difficult to hide from the rest of the community. So, if a priest who suffered from either a temporary or permanent defect was allowed to minister before God in the holy place, it would have sent a very strong and wrong signal to the people of God.

It’s difficult to read this passage and not consider the words that God spoke to the prophet Samuel concerning his search for the next king of Israel. God had sent Samuel to the house of Jesse in order to find a replacement for King Saul. As the first king of Israel, Saul proved to be a disappointment because he had disobeyed God. As a result, God rejected him as king and vowed to replace him with “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14 NLT). So, when Samuel arrived at the house of Jesse, he had his host bring in each of his sons, one by one. When he saw Eliab, the firstborn, Samuel responded, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed!” (1 Samuel 16:6 NLT). To Samuel, this young man had all the outward characteristics of a king. He looked the part. But God warned Samuel that he was focusing on the wrong thing.

“Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 NLT

Eventually, Samuel examined all of Jesse’s sons without receiving divine confirmation regarding any of them. That is until David showed up.

And the Lord said, “This is the one; anoint him.” – 1 Samuel 16:12 NLT

Yes, the text states that David was “dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes” (1 Samuel 16:12 NLT), but that was not the reason God chose him. The Book of Acts records that “God removed Saul and replaced him with David, a man about whom God said, ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart. He will do everything I want him to do’” (Acts 13:22 NLT).

So, this raises the question: Why does God seem to place so much emphasis on outward appearance when it comes to His priests? Is this a case of inconsistency on God’s part? The logical answer is no, because “The LORD is righteous in all his ways” (Psalm 145:17 ESV). Everything He does is right, good, perfect, and without contradiction or inconsistency.

The men who served in God’s Tabernacle were required to be physically without defect. He had already provided the means for taking care of their “heart defects.” There were sacrifices they had to make for personal atonement before they could serve in God’s house and minister on behalf of the people. Any interior “imperfections” would be taken care of through this process. But their physical flaws and defects were another matter. These outward conditions were visible for all to see and would have sent an improper message to the rest of the faith community if these men were allowed to enter the presence of God in their flawed and imperfect state.

This is not to be construed as some kind of statement regarding the diminished spiritual status of those with birth defects, diseases, deformities, or disfigurements. God was not declaring such people as spiritual outcasts or damaged goods. He was simply emphasizing the need for His priests to be both spiritually and physically “unblemished” to serve in His presence.

“Physically inferior priests were not necessarily inferior spiritually, but the priest’s duties and office required completeness since the priest stood between God and people.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Leviticus, 2023 Edition

God makes His intentions perfectly clear. He is not degrading these men for physical character traits over which they have no control or say. He is simply stressing the importance of their role as His representatives and highlighting that any physical flaws they may have could end up diminishing His glory and holiness before the people.

“…because of his physical defect, he may not enter the room behind the inner curtain or approach the altar, for this would defile my holy places. I am the Lord who makes them holy.” – Leviticus 21:23 NLT

God wanted Aaron to understand that there were to be no concessions made when it came to God’s holiness. That included the holiness of God’s house, the sacrificial system, and the men who served God’s priests. Those who came into His presence must be physically and spiritually blameless and unblemished. There was to be no unsightly skin disease covered by the white, flowing robes of the priesthood. No lame, blind, or disfigured priest was allowed to offer sacrifices before Yahweh. These kinds of conditions were visual evidence of the effects of the fall. Sin’s entrance into God’s creation brought death and disease and served as constant reminders of the damaged relationship between God and all that He had made. He alone remained holy and pure, free from contamination, and completely flawless in every way. Yet, He had chosen to dwell with those who were “damaged goods.” He had come to earth and set up residence among a people who were blemished both inside and out. But their sinfulness, as evidenced by their damaged hearts and physically flawed bodies, would be a constant barrier to their relationship with Him. That’s why He gave them His law, His Tabernacle, and the sacrificial system. And it’s why He established the priesthood as a means of providing His people with spiritual leadership, intercession, and instruction. But for these men to do their job, they would have to be “without defect.”

In God’s economy, good is never good enough. He has higher standards. He places demands upon His people but also provides the means by which they can live up to those demands. He expects holiness. And while He knows His people will never be able to measure up to His standards in this life, He never lowers the bar or cuts corners. As He declared to Moses, “I am the Lord who makes them holy” (Leviticus 21:23 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.

Personal Holiness at All Costs and at All Times

1 And the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people, except for his closest relatives, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, or his virgin sister (who is near to him because she has had no husband; for her he may make himself unclean). He shall not make himself unclean as a husband among his people and so profane himself. They shall not make bald patches on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts on their body. They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God. For they offer the Lord‘s food offerings, the bread of their God; therefore they shall be holy. They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled, neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband, for the priest is holy to his God. You shall sanctify him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I, the Lord, who sanctify you, am holy. And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.

10 “The priest who is chief among his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil is poured and who has been consecrated to wear the garments, shall not let the hair of his head hang loose nor tear his clothes. 11 He shall not go in to any dead bodies nor make himself unclean, even for his father or for his mother. 12 He shall not go out of the sanctuary, lest he profane the sanctuary of his God, for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is on him: I am the Lord. 13 And he shall take a wife in her virginity. 14 A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people, 15 that he may not profane his offspring among his people, for I am the Lord who sanctifies him.” Leviticus 21:1-15 ESV

A life of holiness was a non-negotiable requirement for all of God’s people but it was especially important for those men who served as priests and intermediaries between Yahweh and His chosen people. So beginning in chapter 21 and running all the way through Leviticus 22:16, God turns His attention to the priesthood. Aaron and his sons had been given the responsibility of ministering within God’s house, the Tabernacle, where He had promised that His holy presence would reside. Their vital role within the sacrificial system established by God required them to live up to a more stringent set of standards. God had given them the responsibility of serving as spiritual instructors for His people.

“You must distinguish between what is sacred and what is common, between what is ceremonially unclean and what is clean. And you must teach the Israelites all the decrees that the Lord has given them through Moses.” – Leviticus 10:10-11 NLT

And they were to teach by example as well as by word. And it’s interesting to note that when Jesus was describing the religious teachers of His day, He basically recommended that His disciples do as they say, but not as they do.

“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. – Matthew 23:2-3 NLT

There was no room for hypocrisy and duplicity in the life of God’s priestly leaders. Their lives belonged to God and they served on His behalf and at His behest. Their role as priests was not a job, but a calling. Yawheh had set apart Aaron, his sons, and the rest of the men of the tribe of Levi, and given them the mission of serving as His ministers and as emissaries to the rest of the nation of Israel.

God wanted His priests to understand and embrace the importance of their calling, so He provided them with a diverse range of regulations and rulings that concerned matters that might disqualify them for service. Anything that could result in their ceremonial defilement was to be avoided at all costs. These men were to take special precautions to maintain their purity and preserve their holiness. Their intimate connection with the Tabernacle required that they pay special attention to every area of their daily lives. Most of these commands have to do with their “off-duty” hours when they were not serving in their official capacity as priests. But even when they weren’t “on the clock,” they were to remain vigilant about their spiritual purity.

Death was a daily reality among the Israelites. The elderly passed away from natural causes. Others died from injuries or accidents. Disease and illness took their toll on some. But in all of this, the priests were never to allow themselves to become defiled by coming into contact with a dead body. Should this happen, they would become ceremonially unclean and unfit for service. But God gave a special exemption in terms of family members.

The only exceptions are his closest relatives—his mother or father, son or daughter, brother, or his virgin sister who depends on him because she has no husband. – Leviticus 21:2-3 NLT

In all other cases, the priests were to avoid any and all contact with the dead. And not only that, the priests were prohibited from imitating the mourning rituals of the pagan religions of the Canaanites. God strictly forbade His priests from shaving their heads, trimming their beards, or cutting their bodies. God had already addressed these issues back in chapter 19.

“Do not trim off the hair on your temples or trim your beards. Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:27-28 NLT

None of the Israelites were to practice the occult-like rituals of the Canaanites. But these kinds of practices were especially off-limits for the priests of Yahweh, and rightfully so.

“Not only did such rituals show the priest mourning the dad, but they involved mutilation of the body and possibly suggested pagan veneration of the dead.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

God demanded that Moses and the people of Israel treat the priests as holy “because they offer up food to your God. You must consider them holy because I, the Lord, am holy, and I make you holy” (Leviticus 21:8 NLT). In a sense, it behooved the people of Israel to help protect the purity of the priesthood because of their vital role in the sacrificial system. Unholy priests would be of no help when it came to seeking atonement from God. So, it was incumbent upon all the people to assist the priests in their pursuit of holiness.

That’s why God addressed the subject of priests and marriage. They were strictly prohibited from marrying women who were prostitutes or divorced. To do so would result in their defilement and disqualification for priestly service. And God considered prostitution so dangerous to priestly purity that He actually addressed what to do if a daughter of a priest was found to be a prostitute.

“…the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire. – Leviticus 21:9 ESV

This was serious business to God. The daughter’s willful actions negatively impacted her father’s holiness thereby invalidating him from priestly service to the Lord, and the only way to remedy the problem was to remove the impurity – permanently. Most likely, the woman was to be executed, then her body was to be burned. This would serve to purify the father from defilement and restore his ability to perform his role as a priest.

Verses 10-15 address the high priest in particular. As the highest-ranking member of the priesthood, Aaron was placed under even stricter requirements. When it came to mourning the death of a loved one, he was not allowed to “leave his hair uncombed or tear his clothing” (Leviticus 21:10 NLT). As the spiritual leader of God’s people, he was not permitted the luxury of mourning like everyone else. He represented God at all times. So, God denied him the right to mourn like everyone else. He was not allowed to go anywhere near a dead body, even if it belonged to his own father or mother. And God gave the reason for this harsh-sounding restriction.

He must not defile the sanctuary of his God by leaving it to attend to a dead person, for he has been made holy by the anointing oil of his God. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 21:12 NLT

Even the death of a parent was not to distract the high priest from his calling as the mediator between God and His people. God had set Him apart for His service alone. Others would have to mourn the dead because the high priest had been set apart to worship the living God. And this principle is echoed by the words of Jesus found in the gospel of Matthew. One day, Jesus was approached by a young man who expressed the desire to be His disciple but he gave the excuse, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (Matthew 8:21 NLT). But Jesus gave what sounded like a harsh and compassionless response. 

And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” – Matthew 8:22 NLT

Some commentators believe the issue was that the young man was postponing his commitment and using the future death of his father as an excuse. They speculate that the death of the young man’s father was not imminent but only inevitable. There was no funeral about to take place. The young man was simply hoping to delay his commitment to a later date. But it makes more sense to see this passage through the lens of Leviticus 21. Jesus was calling on this man to make serving God his highest priority, placing greater value on following the Lord of life than in mourning the dead.

Even when it came to marriage, the high priest had to answer to his higher calling. God prohibited Aaron and his successors from marrying a woman who was a widow, divorced, or a known prostitute. And whoever the high priest ended up marrying was required to be “a virgin from his own clan” (Leviticus 21:14 NLT). The wife of the high priest was expected to help maintain his holiness and provide him with future offspring who might serve in his place upon his death. Purity was essential. Holiness was critical. Because the high priest and his associates represented God at all times. Of all people within the camp of Israel, they were expected to pursue and maintain personal holiness at all costs and at all times.

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.