03. The Priesthood

Código VD02-E0004-I

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MOSES was given directions not only for the construction of the tabernacle but also for the selection and instruction of the priesthood. God commanded Moses, “Take thou unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister unto Me in the priest's office, even Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Itharnar, Aaron's sons.” Exodus 28:1. To Aaron He said, “Thou and thy sons with thee shall keep your priest's office for every thing of the altar, and within the vale; and you shall serve: I have given your priest's office unto you as a service of gift.” Numbers 18:7.

The priests in Israel occupied a high and honorable position in the nation. Their responsibilities were great, and their prerogative's equally so. They were the guardians of the law of God, and also of the morals of the people. There was scarcely any phase of life or activity in which the priest did not play a prominent part.

Aaron and his sons were chosen by God to this high office, and throughout almost the entire history of the nation the priests were confined to the line of Aaronic descent. Only in the latter part of Israel's national history were others admitted to priestly office, and then only because of pressure from the civil authorities. It appears that the privileges of the priestly office were originally designed for life, but there are grounds for believing that later this provision was disregarded.

When the Aaronic priests grew in number so that Dot all were needed at the same time for the services of the temple, they were divided into twenty-four courses, each of which took turns in officiating at the services. Each served one week at Jerusalem twice a year, the rest of the time being spent in the home districts helping and teaching the people. At first strict order was maintained in the rotation of these courses; but when corruption later came in, the order of the courses was disarranged, and in the time of Christ the Biblical rotation was no longer followed.

The priests had control of the entire outward worship of the nation. They were the custodians of the temple, and they only could “draw neaf’ to God, an expression which in Israel meant the privilege of officiating at the altar and entering the sanctuary to perform the services there. Only through them could the people have access to the blessings of the covenant symbolized by the sprinkling of the blood and the offering of incense. The priests alone could transact with God.

Aside from their strictly religious functions and temple ritual, the priests also had control of many civil and even personal matters. They determined when a man was ceremonially unclean, and had power to exclude him from the congregation. Leprosy was referred to them for examination, and upon their word hung the decision whether a man was to be banished from society, or an infected house was to be torn down. (Leviticus 13, 14) Said God, “Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that thou observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you: as I commanded them, so you shall observe to do. Remember what the Lord thy God did unto Abiram by the way, after that you were come forth out of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 24:8, 9.

The priests alone could restore a man to his family after he had been officially excluded. They also had jurisdiction in certain cases of suspected unfaithfulness. (Numbers 5:11-31) By their interpretation of the Jaw they came to wield a great influence and authority in many matters affecting daily life. In difficult cases of law the priests were associated with the judge in making judicial decisions, not only in questions of religion, but also in purely civil “matters of controversy within thy gates.” (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) Decision in such cases was final. The man was admonished to do according to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee. . . . And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that stands to minister there before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shall put away the evil from Israel.” Verses 41, 12. (See also Deuteronomy 19:17)

It is easily conceivable that a body of men who had control of a nation's worship, of the teaching and interpretation of law, of intimate personal relationships of the execution of legal decisions, would wield a powerful influence for good or evil upon the people. 'When to the prestige which was theirs because of the nature of their calling is added the liberal income which the emoluments of their office provided them, we can readily understand that the priesthood soon became a powerful as well as exclusive organization. The prerogatives of the priesthood were great, and its rights were most jealously guarded. As noted before, only Aaron and his descendants could officiate in sacrificial worship. (Exodus 28, 29; Leviticus 8-10; Numbers 16-18) No one could become a priest who was not born into the family. This put great stress upon the matter of birth, and upon the genealogical record supporting that birth. It was incumbent upon each priest to prove his descent from Aaron by unimpeachable evidence. There must be no flaw in the succession. Each step must -be clear.

To examine into the genealogy of each candidate became the' task of certain priests. It was later taken over by the Sanhedrin, who spent part of their time in this work. If a priest successfully proved his genealogical right to the office and passed the physical test required-if he had not disqualifying deformity of body-he was dressed in white garments, and his name was inscribed on the official list of authorized priests. It may be that Revelation 3:5 is based on this custom. On the other hand, if he failed to satisfy the examiners, he was dressed in black.

Physical deformity-if the genealogical record was satisfactory-did not debar the priest from sharing in the support given to the temple priests. (Leviticus 21:21-23) If the defect was not too prominent, he could even serve in some minor capacity, such as caring for the wood used in the altar service, or as a watchman.

The priestly office being very sacred, regulations as to whom a priest might or might not marry were strictly enforced. A priest might not marry a woman whose husband had put her away or divorced her.

He might not marry a prostitute or a violated maid. (Verses 7, 8) He could marry only a virgin or a


It was also demanded of the priests that they be careful as to ceremonial defilement. They might not touch a dead body except that of a very near relative. In every act of their lives the priests were to be conscious of their need of keeping away from anything that might defile. And this carefulness in regard to physical defilement was only emblematic of God's demand for great spiritual purity. “Holiness unto the t~L6rd” was the watchword of the priesthood.

Support of the Priesthood

The priests had no inheritance in the land as did the other tribes. “They shall eat the offerings of the Lord made by fire, and His inheritance. Therefore shall they have no inheritance among their brethren: the Lord is their inheritance, as He hath said unto them.” Deuteronomy 18:1, 2.

Instead of a portion of the land, God gave the priests certain parts of the sacrifices which the people brought. Of every animal sacrifice, except the burnt offering, which was wholly burned on the altar, and certain other sacrifices, the priests received the shoulders, cheeks and the maw. (Verse 3) The two priests also received the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, and wool of sheep. In addition, the priests were given flour and other meat offerings baked in the oven or in the frying pan, mingled with oil or dry. (Leviticus 2: 1-10;

Of the burnt offerings they received the skin. (Leviticus 7:8) In case of war, a certain portion of the spoil also fell to the priesthood, both of men and cattle and gold. At times this amounted to no inconsiderable sum. (Numbers 31:25-54) All heave offerings and wave offerings were the priests'. (Numbers 18:8-11) All dedicatory offerings likewise belonged to them. (Verse 14)

All the first-born in Israel, both of man and beast, were the priests', but it was commanded that the firstborn of man be redeemed at the stipulated sum of -five shekels for each child. (Numbers 18:15-19)

In the year of jubilee dedicated fields that were not redeemed reverted to the priests. (Leviticus 27:20, 21) In case of trespass that involved holy things, the transgressor not only was to pay the original estimated sum but was to add a fifth to it and give it to the priest. (Leviticus 5:16) In the case of harm done to a neighbor, where restitution to the injured party was not possible, the command was to “let the trespass be recompensed unto the Lord, even to the priest.” Numbers 5:8. Besides the sources of income mentioned, there were other smaller ones, which need not here be discussed.

The gifts here enumerated were in addition to the tithe income received by the priests. All Israel was commanded to pay tithe. (Leviticus 27:30-34) This tithe was to be given to the Levites, and belonged to them. (Numbers 18:21-24) Of the tithe which the Levites thus received, they were to take a “heave offering of it for the Lord, even a tenth part of the tithe” and “give thereof the Lord's heave offering to Aaron the priest.” (Verses 26-28) It appears that in later times tithes were paid directly to the priests. (Hebrews 7:5) Some have thought that this came about at the time of the second temple, when very few of the Levites returned from captivity and it became necessary to employ Nethinims in their stead; but this is not very clear. (Ezra 8:15-20) In any event, the priests received tithes directly or indirectly from the people, and as the priests originally were but few in number, the income from this source was probably more than sufficient for their needs.

The priests were ministers of God divinely appointed as mediators between God and men, particularly authorized to officiate at the altar and in the service of the sanctuary. In times when books were not common they were not only interpreters of the law but in many cases the sole source of knowledge of IGod's requirements. Through them the people were instructed in the doctrine of sin and its expiation, in righteousness and holiness. Through their ministration the people were taught how to approach God, how forgiveness might be had, how prayer might be offered to God, how inexorable the law is, how love and mercy at last prevail. The whole plan of salvation was laid open to them as far as it could be revealed in types and offerings. Every ceremony tended to impress upon their minds the holiness of God and the re results of sin. It also taught them the wonderful provision made through the death of, the lamb. Although it was a ministration of death, it was glorious in its promise. It told of a redeemer, a sin bearer, a mediator. It was the gospel in embryo.

In the service of the priesthood three things stand out prominently: mediation, reconciliation, sanctification. Each of these deserves a special word of emphasis.


The priests were, first of all, mediators. This was pre-eminently their work. Although the sinner might bring the offering, he could not sprinkle the blood. Neither could he cat the show bread nor offer the incense nor trim the lamps. All this someone else must do for him. Although he could approach the temple, he could not enter it; though he could supply the sacrifice, he could not offer it; though he could kill the lamb, he could not minister the blood. God was accessible to him only through the mediation of the priesthood. He could approach God only in the person of another. All this would strikingly bring to mind the fact that he needed someone to intercede for him, someone to intervene. This may be more vividly brought to mind by supposing an occurrence which might easily be true.

A heathen who sincerely desires to worship God hears that the God of Israel is the true God, and that He lives in the temple in Jerusalem. He starts on the long journey and at last arrives at the sacred place. He has heard that God dwells between the cherubim in the most holy, and decides to enter that place, that he may worship God. But he has not gone many steps into the court before he is stopped by a sign that says no stranger may pass this sign except at the peril of his life. He is perplexed. He wants to worship the true God of whom he has heard, and he has also been told that God desires worship. Yet now he is stopped. What is he to do? He inquires of one of the worshipers and is told that he must provide himself with a lamb before he, can approach God. Immediately he furnishes himself with the required animal and appears again. Now may he see God? He is told again that he cannot enter.

“Why, then, the lamb?” he asks.

“That you must give to the priest to sacrifice.”

“May I then enter?”

“No, there is no possible way by which you can ever enter the temple or see God.”

“But why cannot I see your God? I want to worship Him.”

“No man can see God and live. He is holy, and only he who is holy can see Him. The priest may go into the first apartment, but there is still a veil between him and God. The high priest only can enter the most holy. You cannot go in yourself. Your only hope is to have someone appear for you.”

The man is deeply impressed. He is not permitted to enter the temple. Only he who is holy can do that. 'He must have someone to mediate for him. The lesson sinks deeply into his soul: He cannot see God; he must have a mediator. Only thus can sins be forgiven and reconciliation be effected. The whole sanctuary service is grounded in mediation. Even though the sinner brought the lamb, even though he killed it, the service could be made efficacious only through a mediator who would sprinkle the 'blood and make application of the sacrifice.


The second prominent feature of the service was reconciliation. Sin separates from God. It is that

which hides His face from us, and causes Him not to hear. (Isaiah 59:2) But through the sacrificial offerings and in the prayers ascending with, the incense God could be approached, communion could be restored, reconciliation effected.

Even as mediation was the underlying purpose of the priesthood, so reconciliation was the intent of the sacrifices offered daily through the year. Through them, amicable relations between God and man were restored. Sin had separated; the blood united. This was accomplished through the ministry of forgiveness. The statement is made that when the whole congregation had sinned and brought their offering for sin' when the elders had placed their hands on the Offering and presumably confessed that sin, “it shall be forgiven them.” (Leviticus 4:13, 20) Again, the fiat goes forth that when a ruler has committed a sin and has complied with the requirements, “it shall be forgiven him.” (Verses 22, 26) The promise is likewise for any one of the common people: “It shall be forgiven him.” (Verses 27, 35) Through sin estrangement had come in, but now all is forgiven.

We are reconciled to God by the death of His Son. (Romans 5:10.) Reconciliation is effected by blood. “And the priests killed them, and they made reconciliation with their blood upon the altar, to make an atonement for all Israel: for the king commanded that the burnt offering and the sin offering should be made for all Israel.” 2 Chronicles 29:24. Into the first apartment of the sanctuary the priest entered day by day to commune with God. There was the holy incense reaching beyond the veil into the most holy; there was * the candlestick emblematic of Him who is the light of the world; there was the table of the Lord inviting communion; there was the sprinkling of the blood, the most important part of the service. It was a place of drawing near to God, of fellowship. Through the ministry of the priest forgiveness was extended, reconciliation effected, man brought into communion with God.


The third important feature of the sanctuary sex ice was that of sanctification, or holiness. The amount of sin cherished in the heart measures our distance from God. The stranger might come into the temple

The court. The penitent soul might come to the altar mediating priest might enter the holy place. Only the high priest-and he but one day in the year, and only after extensive preparation-might enter the most holy. Clad in white, he might with trembling approach the throne of God. Even then incense must partially conceal him. Here he might minister, not merely as one seeking forgiveness of sins, but as one boldly asking .to have them blotted out.

The daily service throughout the year, symbolized by the ministration in the first apartment, was not complete in itself. It needed to be completed and complemented by that of the second apartment. Forgiveness operates after transgression, when the damage already has been done. True, God forgives the sin, but it would have been better had the sin not been committed. For this the keeping power of God is available. To forgive the transgression after it has been committed is wonderful; but it is not enough. There must be a power to keep from sinning. “Go, and sin no more” is a possibility of the gospel. But to “sin no more” is sanctification. This is the eventual goal of salvation. The gospel is not complete without it. We need to enter with Christ into the most holy. Some will do this. They will follow the Lamb whither so ever He goes. They will be without spot or wrinkle. “They are without fault before the throne of God.” Revelation 14:5. By faith they enter the second apartment.




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