The Priesthood Leviticus 8:1-36


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Leviticus 8:1-36

The regulations for the sacrifices and offerings that would form the bulk of the worship at the sanctuary have now been delivered. There was more than just these five offerings, to be sure. The priests had daily duties in the Holy Place, burning incense for example, that were described earlier in Exodus. And we learn subsequently, largely through obiter dicta scattered throughout the Scriptures, that there was music played and sung at the sanctuary, sermons were preached there, and so on. As we said at the beginning, nowhere in the Bible are we given even the outline of a sanctuary service from beginning to end.

We are now about to read of the beginning of worship in the newly constructed tabernacle. It has been built, the regulations for worship have been given, but actual worship cannot begin until the priests have been ordained. That ordination is the subject of this next chapter. The following chapter, chapter 9, then narrates the beginning of worship in the sanctuary. This is the beginning of what every one of us knows as a Sabbath worship service. The narrative of this chapter represents an epoch-making turn in the history of the kingdom of God. From this point on until the present day and on to the Second Coming of Christ the experience of the saints is very different than it had been before; from this point on the experience of almost all believers became similar in one fundamental respect: priests or ministers became a fixture of their lives. Up until this point that was not the case. It has been the case ever since.

Here in chapter 8 we have seven sections, each concluded by the statement that everything was done as the Lord had commanded Moses (vv. 4, 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 36). In this way stress is laid on the importance of our obedience in offering worship to God.

Text Comment

v.4       All the people that needed to be there and all the items necessary for the ceremony were gathered at the entrance to the sanctuary, that is, in the courtyard between the entrance to the enclosure and the altar.

The entire congregation would be, in fact, the elders of the people who are often identified in the O.T. as the people of Israel. That is, the people are there in the presence of their representatives.

Interestingly, Moses, who was not a priest, at least not a priest in this new and formal sense — though once in the Bible (in Psalm 99:6) he is called a priest and he had certainly functioned in some ways as Israel’s priest to this point (Ross, 198-199) — I say, Moses is here the maker of priests. It is Yahweh who is doing this, of course — that is still our fundamental understanding of ordination– Moses is simply his instrument. [Levine, 49] In chapter 9, Moses will step down from a priestly role and Aaron will take his place. [Ross, 202]

v.5       The most common rite of cleansing from ritual impurity was a simple washing with water. We will read of this washing in a variety of contexts later in the book.

v.9       The next step was to provide him with special clothing, the clothing of the high priest’s office. Clothing as indicative of a change of status, that of ourselves or others, is, of course, universal in human affairs. The bride wears a wedding dress at the ceremony at which her status is changed from an unmarried woman to a wife; the soldier or policeman puts on a uniform or, if he’s being promoted either changes his uniform or alters it in some way; a judge dons a robe; a mourner wears black to the funeral or to the grave, and so on. All of these parts of the high priests uniform are described in greater detail in Exodus 28. We will read in v. 13 that the rest of the priests were outfitted with uniforms as well. This one was colorful and elaborately woven.

Not mentioned here are the undergarments of fine linen mentioned in Exodus 28.  We wonder how Aaron and then the other priests changed into them in such a public place. There was an abhorrence of nudity in proximity to the altar, a fact that makes somewhat more surprising the early church’s custom of baptism in the nude, though, of course, men and women were separated for that purpose.

It is a general point that once did not need to be made but certainly does in our time. If you had asked Christians of virtually any stripe years ago how one could identify the priest or the minister, the simple answer would have been “by what he wears.” Nowadays not so much. We still expect judges to wear robes as the uniform of their office, policemen to wear uniforms; it is essential that soldiers wear uniforms (they can be shot as spies if captured out of uniform), but no longer ministers, even though they too have an office and even though the only rationale provided in the Bible for ministerial dress is that by that means the office is given dignity and honor. But remember this: clothing always says something. In every context, in every culture, clothing has a message. It may say “if you have enough faith and put enough in the offering plate, you too can wear a $90 tie and an $800 suit.” Or it may say, “Shucks folks, I’m just one of you and my open shirt and Birkenstocks are meant to advertise that fact.” Neither of which messages, I hope you know, conveys a biblical view of the ministry.

v.10     The anointing oil, we read in Exod. 30:23-25, consisted of olive oil mixed with spices in a precisely detailed recipe. You will remember that in the NT believers in Christ are said to have been anointed by the Holy Spirit and Paul speaks of his investiture as an apostle as being anointed by God. The imagery of anointing from the OT is used extensively in the NT to indicate both ordination to office and empowerment for ministry. [Ross, 215]

v.13     The uniform of the rest of the priests was not as elaborate as that of the high priest. For example, they did not wear the robe or the ephod or breastpiece, and they wore caps, not turbans. The high priest wore eight articles of clothing, only four of which were shared by the other priests. [Levine, 50]

Everything was now ready to offer the three sacrifices of the ordination ceremony which were, in the nature of the case, the very first sacrifices ever offered in the newly constructed tabernacle.

v.14     The ceremony began with the sin or purification offering, the regulations for which we have already read in chapter 4. We will find as we proceed through Leviticus that sin offerings often preceded burnt offerings and peace offerings (cf. 9:8, 12). [Sklar, 146] Obviously the priests were sinners too and likewise needed atonement.

v.18     After purifying and consecrating the priests and the altar, Aaron offered next a burnt offering, atonement for general sinfulness as well as a general expression of worship.

v.22     Finally came the offering specifically for the ordination of the priests, an offering that seems to be some form of the peace or fellowship offering. Peace offerings were often used to confirm or to renew or to celebrate a covenant and Yahweh had made a covenant with the house of Aaron to make them his priests. [Sklar, 147]

v.24     As the blood was placed on the extremities of the altar to purify and consecrate it, so it was put on the extremities of Aaron and the other priests to sanctify or consecrate them for the holy purposes of their office. By putting the blood there the entire body was consecrated. It is, by the way, the same principle found throughout the Bible and expressed in the practice of baptism by sprinkling or pouring. One does not have to wet the entire body to apply the liquid — blood or water — in the appropriate way. This is one of the reasons we do not practice baptism by immersion. Rites of cleansing in the Bible were never immersions. We don’t have a single example of any ritual with liquid that is clearly an immersion anywhere in the pages of the Word of God. Peter speaks of the blood of Christ sprinkling our hearts and we will read in this very chapter of sprinkled blood in v. 30.

v.28     In other words, the priests’ portion of the offering, of which we read earlier, was surrendered entirely to God in this particular circumstance. [Levine, 53-54]

v.29     A share of the peace offering, as we have already learned, went to the supervising priest. In this case that was Moses. He then donated his portion to the rest of the priests. We wonder how many men were ordained with Aaron on this occasion. We are not told. We learn later that his four sons were ordained, but were their others?

v.30     Once again the blood was sprinkled on the men. The fact that blood was applied a second time is probably is meant to indicate how thoroughly the priests were consecrated.

v.36     We read in Exod. 29:35-37 that on each of the seven days the ritual already described was repeated. All of this emphasizes the thoroughness of the consecration of the priests and the importance of their holiness for the worship that would be conducted at the tabernacle.

Ordination is one of many ceremonies in human life that serve to change a person’s status. A man may be elected president, but he does not become the president, he is not invested with its powers and authority, until he is inaugurated. So with the swearing-in ceremonies of police officers, judges, lawyers, and doctors. So with the swearing-in ceremony of immigrants when they become citizens of the United States. Weddings are ceremonies that alter status. So are military ceremonies at the end of boot camp or at a change of command or a promotion. I’ve been to several of those ceremonies and the military has an elaborate ritual to promote or to invest command in a particular officer. Florence and I were present when by brother received his first star, a ceremony marred only by the fact that the Air Force is now using canned music instead of a live band. We need a few less golf courses on air force bases and a few more live bands if you ask me! Nobody asked me; that was the disappointing thing. Christian baptism is such a ceremony changing status. And, of course, so is ordination to the ministry. We witnessed such a ceremony not so long ago when Steven Nicoletti was ordained here. He wasn’t a Christian minister at the beginning of the ceremony; he was at its end.

The office itself, of course, was responsible for more than simply offering sacrifices. The high priest was responsible for more than simply entering the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement. He was the head of all the priestly ministries: teaching, intercession, sacrifice, and administration. And the priests who worked under him had all of those duties and more. Priests were the regular preachers of the Word to the people of God more than the prophets were; they were the regular preachers that Israelites heard on the Sabbath day. The people consulted priests, together with the elders, when they needed guidance in difficult situations. Priests, as the elders, were involved in questions of discipline, and so on. It was a multi-faceted office, only a portion of which was exercised at the sanctuary itself. [Ross, 202-203] And, of course, that is still true today. Only a portion of a minister’s work is done in the church service itself.

Now all of this material in Leviticus 8 is significant on two distinct levels. As we noted last time, all of the material in Leviticus concerning priesthood and sacrifice is an elaborate typology, anticipating and preparing for the priest, the sacrifice, and the atonement. The Lord Jesus was likewise “anointed by God,” as we read in Acts 4:27 and 10:38. He was a priest and, indeed, a high priest, as we read several times in the Letter to the Hebrews. [8:1 and 9:11]

So this ceremony of ordination anticipated the Lord Jesus being anointed for his work as the priest who would offer sacrifice for the atonement of his people and who would intercede for them. That Israel could not secure atonement and forgiveness the two things always go together in Leviticus without a priest established the principle that no sinful human being can be put right with a holy God without the service of a mediator. Jesus Christ was and is that mediator. His ministry rests on this principle of priestly mediation between God and man and it is Israel’s priesthood, the office and its functions, that established the spiritual and theological context by which we understand Christ’s work as our savior. The role of priests in the life of God’s people for centuries built into their deep understanding the need for the work of another to reconcile them to God. The essential role of a mediator became in this way a presupposition of Israel’s understanding of salvation. It is precisely the loss of that conviction that so condemns the form of religion that we find in the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the gospels and the other materials of the first century. They had lost altogether the notion of a savior who would die for the sins of the world.

But this material also serves as an introduction, and a very important one, to the office of the church’s priesthood that is still with us today and remains as immensely important to the salvation of souls, the spiritual growth and security of God’s people, and the church’s witness to the world as ever it was in the days of Moses and Aaron. I fully appreciate that there is a visceral negative reaction to that assertion among many American Christians, but it is an easy thing to demonstrate from the Bible and from the history of the church. Let me simply and very briefly review the evidence that proves that the priesthood as a ministerial office is as essentially a part of the church today as ever it was in the life of the church of the ancient epoch.

  1. The ministries of the priesthood are summarized in the OT as that of teaching the Word of God and administering divine worship (Deut. 33:10). We read in 2 Chron. 15:3 of “teaching priests” and in Ezek. 7:26 of the priest as the teacher of the law of God. In Malachi we read of the true priest whose lips guard knowledge and of God’s people seeking instruction from his mouth because he is a messenger of the Lord of hosts (2:7). These are precisely the callings and the responsibilities of ministers in the New Testament as we read in the letters of the Apostle Paul, but also see in the book of Acts and elsewhere.
  2. That point is made explicitly in Acts 6:4 when, in explaining why the office of deacon needed to be created, the apostles said that they could not be responsible for the church’s charitable work because they had to continue to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. In the modern western church “prayer” is almost exclusively thought of in terms of the act of personal communication with God itself and we use the word “worship” to speak of the church’s collective or corporate offices of devotion to God. When we hear the word “prayer” in Acts 6:4, we suppose the apostles were spending large portions of their day praying for the church and for the kingdom of God. No doubt they did. But in the Bible frequently “prayer” is a synonym for public worship, as it is in Acts 6:4, all the more when the word has the article before it as it does in this case: “we will devote ourselves to the ministry of the Word and the prayer.” That is the use of the term that you find in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It is not a manual for private prayer, it is a manual for the church’s public worship. In other words, in the language of the day, the apostles were saying that they had the ancient responsibilities of the priests and someone else would have to do this other important work.
  3. In Romans 15:16 the Apostle Paul explicitly says that he was doing the work of a priest because he was a preacher of the gospel.
  4. In 1 Timothy 4:16, in a passage American Christians have a hard time wrapping their minds around, Paul urges Timothy to watch his life and teaching closely for by doing so he will save both himself and his hearers, precisely the sort of thing that is said about faithful priests in the OT.
  5. We know from the New Testament that the practice of ordination to the ministry was continued in the new epoch (e.g. 2 Tim. 1:6).
  6. There is no example anywhere in the NT, anywhere in the Bible after Leviticus, of the lay administration of worship or the sacraments. As in the ancient epoch so in that introduced by Christ and his apostles the worship of the church is superintended by priests. Remember, the English word “priest” is simply an old transliteration of the Greek word “presbyter,” the very word that appears in such a word as “Presbyterian!” Perhaps we should begin calling ourselves Priestbyterians!
  7. When we come to the evidence of early Christianity, once again there is a ministry of word and sacrament, it is set apart by ordination, once again it has the ancient responsibilities, and once again it is regarded as essential to the spiritual life and health of the church.
  8. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the history of the Christian church, its written record, its major controversies, revivals, crises, and so on, is primarily the history of its ministry. Do you want to know about patristic Christianity? You’re going to have to learn about the churchmen from Ignatius to Augustine. If you want to study the history of the Reformation, you’re going to have to study the biographies of Luther, Calvin, and Knox. If you want to know about the Great Awakening, it is the history of the ministry of a variety of men from Whitefield and the Wesleys to John Newton and so on. If you want to know about modern English speaking Reformed Christianity from the mid-twentieth century onward, you’re going to have to learn about the ministries of Lloyd Jones, Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul and others. Their history is our history because the church in so many ways is defined by and shaped by its ministry.

Now it is certainly true that through the ages there have been a few Christian who have sought to have a church without an ordained ministry, as there have been those who have sought to have a church without sacraments, a church without a building, even a church without music. But these are aberrations, have invariably come to nothing or almost nothing, and have always represented miniscule bodies of opinion within the church as a whole. The fact of the matter is that all religions, all movements, have priests, even the secular ones. Someone is establishing the spiritual agenda, someone is teaching the faith, someone is encouraging belief, whether Billy Graham for American Evangelical Christians or Richard Dawkins for British atheists. Everyone looks to leadership in whatever realm of life and that leadership frankly determines a great deal about the life of others. American anti-clericalism, the diminishment of the office of minister,  which is much more American than biblical, is, for that reason, hypocritical, for American evangelicals in this respect regularly refuse to admit the truth they themselves practice. They too depend upon their ministers, like it or not, and they too ordain them to office.

You will often hear American believers say that since Pentecost every Christian is a priest. True enough, except that every believer was a priest long before Pentecost. The idea of the priesthood of all believers was first an OT doctrine, announced with fanfare in Exodus 19 and both taught and illustrated throughout the OT. Every Israelite was significantly responsible for his or her own relationship with God, which is what is meant by the priesthood of believers. This general priesthood of all believers has not nullified the special priesthood any more in the NT than it did in the OT. There is a sense in which every Christian is a priest and there is a way in which he or she is definitely not a priest. In the days of the Apostles the church knew very well the difference between the ordinary Christian, the layman we would say, and those who had been set apart, ordained to teach and preach the Word of God and to superintend the church’s worship. The church ever since and still today has priests or ministers and needs to have them. The need for a priest is intrinsic to the nature of our relationship with God, depending as it does on the knowledge of the Word of God, our having that Word impressed upon our hearts over and over again, and our being a part of a congregation that worships God aright on the Lord’s Day.

Like it or not the church has a ministry. It has had one since Leviticus 8 and has one still today and, like it or not, the fortunes of the church rise or fall on the back of its ministry. It is a virtually fixed law of the kingdom of God — as, for that matter, it is a fixed law of government and statecraft with respect to political leadership — that the fortunes of the people wax and wane in keeping with the consecration, the faithfulness, the character, and the giftedness of their leadership and in the church’s case that means of its priesthood. When God has revived the church, he has typically done so through the revival of its ministry and when the church has sunk into spiritual sickness and weakness and even death it has also done so with the active connivance and assistance of its ministry. Christians depend upon their ministers more than they know, because they depend upon the Word of God living in their hearts more than they know and because they depend upon participating in the right worship of God Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day more than they know.

Let me illustrate this with what one Christian historian has delightfully referred to as “Odbody’s Axiom.” You remember Clarence Odbody. He was the angel “second class” who was sent down to rescue George Bailey from suicide in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Most of the movie, remember, is flashback, a history of George’s life meant to bring Clarence up to speed. He needed all that information so that he could understand why George was in the pit of despair and so that he would know how to help him. So he needed to learn about how George saved his brother Harry from drowning when both were boys, how George’s yearning to see the world and to build great cities was frustrated first by the influenza epidemic of 1919, then by the Great Depression, next by the Second World War, and finally by the Savings and Loan business to which George was tied by filial bonds, a business that had been made so much more difficult by his father’s long struggle with “old man Potter.” It was only after getting the whole story that Clarence knew what George needed in his present crisis. And you remember how he lifted George out of his hopelessness. He showed him how different the world would have been if he had never been born. So Clarence says to George, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many others.” That concept of the “interrelatedness of human experience” is what historian Robert Tracy McKenzie calls “Odbody’s Axiom.” He introduces it as an insight that lies at the heart of all historical thinking. [The First Thanksgiving, 39-40] You can’t understand any person’s life or a people’s life without knowing something about the interrelatedness of that life with the events and influences and especially with the people that have shaped that life.

But let me appeal to Odbody’s Axiom in a different way. That interrelatedness of human experience is a profound truth in the spiritual realm as well, in the experience of salvation and the life of faith. We do not, not any of us, live our lives in isolation as if, somehow, we could be whatever Christians we wish to be by ourselves, on our own, according to our own lights. Not at all. We are profoundly affected, for example, by our culture. It is that influence that we have been thinking about this weekend and about which Ken Myers spoke in Sunday School this morning. We will struggle in predictable ways as Christians and our faith and godliness will be diminished in predictable ways and perhaps enhanced in predictable ways because of where live and when we live. No man is an island in the Christian life any more than he is in any other respect.

The Bible is explicit in teaching us that we need one another in the body of Christ to prosper spiritually. In 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 Paul lays it down as a law of the kingdom that to acquire spiritual maturity we require the exercise of gifts that we do not ourselves possess. We need the influence that only others can bring to bear on our spiritual life. I think most of us know that as a fact of our spiritual experience and if we pondered it we would realize still more how true it has been in our own case. But we should ponder it more than we do. I have been reminded in writing the articles for our church newsletter, Words of Faith, about people I have known how much my life has been shaped by and helped by the influence of others or, better, how much the Lord has used others to help me live my life of faith. And among those gifts whose exercise we depend upon is the gift that ministers have been given and which they exercise on Christ’s behalf and for our sake.

Not a one of us could untangle what has become the fabric of our lives. Not a one of us could tell how much difference has been made by the sermons we have heard Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day through the years of our Christian life, how much our faith and hope and love have depended upon the worship services in which we have participated week by week, month by month, and year by year. Every faithful minister hopes that every sermon he preaches will be life-changing in some way. It is not obviously so, of course; the influence seems more to be the steady drip, drip, drip of water that over time wears away and reshapes a stone. But all the while we are being educated, corrected, reminded, rebuked, and inspired again and again. How often the Bible compares growth in the Christian life to the nurture of the children in the home and we know how repetitive that work must be, how faithfully it must be done, how wisely it must be done.

Only God himself could tell us how different our lives would be were we not to have heard those sermons, the ones we heard. But I suspect the difference would be very great. In some cases the sermons have diminished or destroyed the life of faith; in others they have nurtured, educated, and inspired it.

And what are we to say of those services of worship from which comes Sunday after Sunday the forgiveness of our sins, as it came from the sacrifices long ago.  Does any of us think that having our sins forgiven in this divinely ordered way, in the fashion he has promised to make an instrument of his grace in our lives, has not made an immense difference to us and to our fortunes through the years of our lives? Imagine if you can that you had not received this regular, weekly forgiveness of your sins! And what difference has the Lord’s Supper made in your life and mine: Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood? Can any faithful Christian with a Bible in his or her hands believe that it hasn’t made an immense difference to be that often at the table of the Lord Jesus Christ? But for all of this we have had to have ministers. And, of course, they have often been our teachers and encouragers in more private and personal ways as no doubt they were in the days of Aaron and his colleagues.

The average Israelite did not come to the tabernacle or temple very often, though he had priests in his own town or in a town nearby for Sabbath services. The localization of sacrifice in the temple was probably the result of several factors, but certainly one of them was for the sake of the typology that Israel’s sacrificial system created; the way it anticipated and prepared the way for the sacrifice that the Son of God would offer for the sins of the world. But infrequent as sanctuary worship was for him, it is clear in Leviticus that it was essential to his spiritual wellbeing. And the NT is equally clear, as is the entire Christian tradition ever since, that the godly life, the fruitful Christian life absolutely depends upon the constant listening, hearing of faithful preaching of the Word of God and constant participation in rightly offered Christian worship. And that means that ministers are as essential to your life as they ever were to the Israelites in ancient days. It is of this office and its beginning that we read of here in Leviticus 8.

I’m tempted to conclude with the application: “love your ministers! You need them.” But it is more faithful to Leviticus 8 to conclude: “your ministers must be faithful men living righteous lives before you.” Bummer! No, any minister worth his salt shudders at this. “Let few be teachers for theirs is the greater condemnation.” That is the sub-text of Leviticus 8! All of this we have read is about the importance of your ministers being fit to do what God has said they must do for your spiritual health and welfare.