We can each approach the Bible with our own agenda, but because of verses like 2 Tim 3:16, we are reminded that when we come to books like Leviticus we have the full assurance that it has been breathed out by God. Do you believe that God's Word can teach, rebuke and reprove us? Do you believe that His Word in this section of Leviticus are also useful for us? These are important things to consider before we start looking at this section on priests.
(A) The priests of the Lord must be holy: identity and ministry demand holiness (Lev 21:1-9)
The context to Leviticus 21 lays out holy laws that shape the nation of Israel. Lev 21:1 begins with God telling Moses to tell the priests, Aaron and sons, specific instructions for their duty. Up to now, we've been reading about holiness, cleanness, how to be righteous in the previous chapter. Lev 21 is about the priests, the leaders of Israel, and how they lead in a very special way. What do you expect of your leaders? How would you know if they're doing a good/ bad job? The table below summarises the instructions given to the priest:
|The command in Lev 21||The teaching and principle|
|The priest must be clean(Lev 21:1)||The priest is not to come into contact with the dead because a priest cannot be defiled.|
|Except for his immediate family’s sake (Lev 21:2-4)||The only exception for pollution is for his familial duties, not even his in-laws. Why? What do you think this teaches?|
|Physical signs of idolatry not allowed (Lev 21:5 c.f. Lev19:27-28, Deut 14:1-2)||The priest of God were not to be associated with idol worship. Other countries probably practice hair-shaving for the dead (Deut 14:1-2).|
|In marriage (Lev 21:7)||The priest could not be associated with sexual immorality, impurity or marital unfaithfulness.|
|His daughter shall be holy too (Lev 21:9 c.f. Lev 19:29)||This was a ruling for the daughter of a priest. God is also concerned about how a priest leads his family.|
Take a look at these again. Are these what you would expect of a spiritual leader? This is what God says. These are God's expectations. Notice how it's not about their abilities, nor their standing in society. It's about their cleanliness and holiness in their relationship with the closest people in their lives.
In Lev 21:6,8, God gives 2 reasons for His priests to be holy. The first is a practical reason. They ought to be holy because the priests handle the food offerings (Lev 21:6). If they are defiled, they will not be accepted, and the whole food offering is wasted. Worship is a serious matter. What about us? Do we, perhaps, schedule musicians for worship purely to meet a need, without caring about the state of their heart and sins? Lev 21 tells us that if the priests themselves are not holy, the whole thing shuts down. Holiness is a serious matter, and is important in the worship of this God.
The second reason is a God reason -- they ought to be holy because the God they serve is holy (Lev 21:8). We know this somewhat. If I am my father's son, I should reflect traits that are like my father. Not that I am my father, but there is a similarity. In the same way, when God commands us to be holy, He is not telling us to be God, because this is impossible. But we ought to reflect the same holiness just like God. Pause to hear God's voice. Don't just gloss over this passage. Take a moment to consider this truth. This is God saying that we are to be like Him, and this is to be lived out in all of life -- in your dealings with others, in the most intimate of your relationships, in your worship. We ought to be holy because God is holy.
(B) The high priest of the Lord must be most holy: one consecrated for holy leadership (Lev 21:10-15)
This next section of Lev 21 contains a set of instructions specifically for the Chief Priest (Lev 21:10-15). The Chief Priest is to be properly attired, wearing the clothes that the priest is supposed to, with the appropriate head gear etc. Here are the instructions for the High Priest:
|Description of high priest from Lev 21||Teaching|
|What he looks like (Lev 21:10): Presentable
||The Chief Priest had to be attired properly, and certainly not in mourning clothes. He has been given specific duties and functions, and therefore not to depart from his job, nor be derelict in duties. The pouring of the anointing oil is a symbol of the Spirit being poured on him. He has been specially chosen for his job.|
|How clean he is (Lev 21:11): Squeaky clean, and he cannot even defilehimself for the parents||His God-centered function is more important than filial piety and responsibility. But here, this only applies to one person, the High Priest. This just emphasises how clean he is supposed to be, and how His service to the Lord takes priority. He has been set apart for his role.|
|Where he goes (Lev 21:12): Nowhere else apart from the HolyPlace||If the Chief Priest leaves, the whole system collapses, and the whole nation will be in peril. He must be found in the sanctuary, doing the work of God.|
|Who he marries (Lev 21:13): a virgin||The priests are allowed to marry. The Bible does not forbid priests from marriage! However, in his marriage, he is to be pure too.|
What can we learn from these? God's High Priest is to be set apart for that role. The only qualification is for him to be utterly God-centered, even in the place where he lives, and in the person that he marries. We also see that holiness is central for leadership. What about us? How do we select our leaders, or determine if someone is a good leader? Do we put a premium on holiness? Do we respect someone not because they can give a good sermon or a talk, but because they live lives that show that they are set apart for God? This passage also calls us to reflect on our hearts and about the place and value of holiness in our lives. Do we think about God and pursue holiness at all?
(C) The offspring of the priests must be holy for office: the problem and power for holy ministry (Lev 21:16-24)
This chapter closes with specific instructions also for the children of the priestly tribe of Levi (Lev 21:16-14). Children who have blemishes (listed specifically in Lev 21:18-20) are not to participate in the priestly duties by offering bread. These verses might seem strange to us, but firstly, notice that the Bible is a real book that addresses real life. Why do these physical defects disqualify them from service? God is not intolerant of imperfection. He is laying out the same principle that He has already outlined -- that those who serve him need to be unblemished. Their physical form ought to reflect something of the story of creation. Physical blemishes are outward depictions of the fallen state, but the entire sacrificial system is meant to reflect the redemption of His people from fallenness to what He meant for things to be.
However, the prohibition is not all there is to the chapter. Though they were not to offer the bread, they were allowed to eat of it (Lev 21:22-23). The priests belonged to a tribe that were not granted any land, thus, within the sacrificial system, God had made provisions for them to obtained their food and sustenance from some of the sacrifices. Those who were blemished may not offer the offering, but could still partake of it. In this system, we see a God that is simultaneously holy and kind. He has a standard that needs to be upheld, but also makes provisions for people who clearly cannot live up to this standard.
What does this mean for us today? Lev 21 shows us the demands of God's holiness, especially extended to those who serve Him. It also shows us again the system that has been put in place to allow a holy God to have a relationship with sinful people. This teaching of holy priests contains the secret of the Christian's problem and also power. In 1 Pet 2:9, Peter writes and tells the Christian that they are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God's own possession. If we read Lev 21, we know that we cannot live up to the standard of priests. Just look at the table above and we know that we do not obey. Who is qualified? Why is Peter saying this? This is the Christian problem. We know that none of us is holy.
But there is also a power that makes us priests. In Heb 4:14-16, we are told that Jesus is our Great High Priest. There is one, who was chosen from among His brothers, who is always ready for action. He is utterly clean and pure, and never leaves the sanctuary, aways in the presence of God. His marriage is perfect, married faithfully to the Bride of Christ. Our Great High Priest has passed the heavens, so we can hold fast our confession. We can trust what we believe. And this High Priest knows what we suffer, and offers grace to those who draw near. This is the power that allows and enables us to be royal priests. Who is our high priest today? What is your relationship to Him?