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Leviticus 21:1-24

One of the principal reasons why ministers do not preach through books of the Bible is that when they do, they come from time to time to chapters like Leviticus 21. In some ways, it is genuinely remarkable that, given when and where the Bible was written, there are so few such chapters in the Word of God. But there are a few passages in the Bible that, even after centuries of sanctified reflection and even with the tools that have been provided by modern biblical scholarship – and both of those resources are wonderfully illuminating –, remain difficult for us fully to understand and to apply to our faith and life today. We have a list of regulations in the chapter we are about to read, virtually none of which we observe or even think right to observe today. Frankly we find ourselves wondering why they were ever thought important to observe. Perhaps we accept that there was a symbolic or even a prophetic significance to these laws governing the priesthood, but even then some of them seem not simply odd but even hard to reconcile with the spirit of the gospel of God’s grace; a gospel that we know was as much enshrined in Israel’s worship as it is in ours. Leviticus is, after all, all about God’s grace to sinners. We have made an emphasis of that in the sermons so far. So what about Leviticus 21? Well let’s see what we can make of this portion of the Word of God, a portion which also must be God-breathed, and so profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. If this is the Word of God, if the Lord saw fit to put this chapter in his book, then there must be something important here for us. Let’s see if we can find it.

First, let’s remember where we are. We are in a section of Leviticus that deals with the holiness of God’s people and the importance of their practicing and preserving that holiness of life. Why? Because their Lord is holy and he saved them to be holy. Their relationship to him laid them under the most sacred obligation to live a very different life, a much better life, a kinder life, a more grateful and reverent life, a purer life, a more other-centered life, a humbler life before God and man, than most people do and certainly the peoples nearby to Israel did! Chapters 18-20 concerned the holiness of the people in general, the moral quality of their lives. They were to be a people apart, separated to the Lord; their behavior in every area of life was to reflect the fact that they were the people of the holy Yahweh, and that Yahweh had extended his grace and himself to them. Now we turn to the holiness of the priests, a small but important subset of Israel’s population.

Text Comment

v.1      That is, a priest could not come into close contact with a dead body, which we have already learned is ritually impure and defiles those who touch it. Death is a counter-principle to God who is life itself. Nothing is more anti-God than death! Nothing is more different from God than death. As we read in earlier chapters, much ritual defilement was of the minor sort and easily removed. A simple wash and one was clean again. But touching the dead was the cause of more serious defilement. In Numbers 19 we are given the elaborate instructions for the purification of someone who had touched a dead body. Purification required seven days and several separate washings with a special concoction prepared of water, the ashes of a heifer, and other material. One practical reason for this prohibition may have been that there weren’t that many priests at this point in Israel’s history and the sanctuary worship required priests to be available for service. They couldn’t run the risk of the sanctuary being closed to God’s people because there were no priests to preside at the altar. In Numbers 19:13 we read that anyone who touched a dead body and was not properly cleansed defiled the sanctuary of the Lord; how much more a priest whose daily work was in the sanctuary!

This prohibition against being in the presence of the dead, not just touching the dead, was a problem, however, because attending to the burial of relatives was a sacred duty in Israel. [Levine, 142] In Num. 19:14 we learn that one didn’t have to touch the corpse; simply being in the tent where he or she had died rendered the person unclean for seven days.

v.3      An exception to the rule is provided in the case of the priests’ closest relatives. Obviously death in the immediate family would occur only rarely in a priest’s life and God’s father’s heart could not forbid one of his servants to attend the death and burial of a close relative.

“Close relatives” are those in a priest’s immediate family. He may have loved his sister deeply, but if she had married, she belonged to another family; he could not attend her death or burial. If married, she would have her own family to mourn her and attend to her burial.

v.4      Interestingly, the priest’s wife is not mentioned among those whose death the priest could attend. Our Jay Sklar, of Covenant Seminary, whose fine commentary I have used with pleasure in preparing these sermons, assumes that the wife was included among the close relatives; she was so close a relative that permission to attend her death did not need explicitly to be given. It was a freedom too obvious to require comment. She was, after all, his own flesh! She was the priest’s nearest and dearest relative. [So Ross, 384] But in much Jewish comment on the text, harking back to ancient times and a good deal of biblical scholarship today, it was and is thought the text rather clearly means that since the wife was not a blood relative the priest could not attend her death or burial. [Levine, 142-143] If the latter is right, the point was being made in a striking way that, for the priest, his obligations to God came before even his obligations to his wife. [Ross, 384] If you remember, even the Lord Jesus said a similar thing to his disciples: “Let the dead bury their own dead.” They had higher obligations than going to funerals!

v.5      The particular mourning rites forbidden to him were those already forbidden to everyone else (19:27-28). These were pagan mourning rites and forbidden for that reason. This is perhaps the easiest rule to understand in the chapter. Even the Apostle Paul taught his churches that they were not to grieve as those who have no hope! In the context they were not to grieve the way the Greco-Roman world grieved over the death of a loved one. He was, in effect, saying, “Don’t treat death like the pagans do.”

v.6      The rationale for these requirements is that priests have a particular responsibility for the sanctuary and its worship. Serving in the sanctuary, touching the sacred things all day long, offering sacrifices to the Lord, they must be scrupulously careful to maintain their purity. The servants of the King must be fit for his service! Defiling the sanctuary is everywhere in Leviticus a deadly offense and poses a real peril to Israel as a whole.

v.7      In other words, the priest was not allowed to marry a woman whom other Israelites might marry. We know, for example, from Deut. 24, that women who had been divorced could remarry in Israel. But they couldn’t remarry a priest. In all likelihood this law presumed the fact that divorce in Israel was permitted for nothing else but sexual infidelity. [Levine, 143-144]

v.9      Any Israelite young woman who engaged in prostitution dishonored her parents and defiled the community; how much more the daughter of a priest. We read in Deut. 22:21 she was to be stoned to death; that was the ordinary means of execution. Some argue that here the punishment prescribed was the more serious – death by fire – because she was the daughter of a priest. [cf. Gen. 38:24] Others think the method of execution remained the same, death by stoning; the burning described what was to be done to her corpse, not how she was to be executed in the first place. She was to be stoned and her body burned, as was Achan, you remember after his sin at Jericho. Elsewhere we also read of the sons of priests who defiled the office and of the severe punishment the Lord inflicted on them, including Nabab and Abihu earlier in Lev. 10. Think of Hophni and Phineas in the early chapters of 1 Samuel as well. There was no double standard in the Law of Moses with regard to sin or punishment and certainly no double standard in regard to sexual sins in the Law of Moses!

Now we move from rules for the priests in general to the high priest in particular.

v.11    In regard to attending the deathbed or mourning the dead, the high priest was forbidden even in the case of his closest relatives. Again, nothing is said of his wife.

v.12    In context this must mean that he was not to leave the sanctuary to mourn his dead. There is ample evidence that the high priest was not confined to the sanctuary. However, to render himself unavailable for service in the sanctuary for an entire week – which would result from his contact with the dead — would have been to show great disrespect to his office and to the Lord. One did not dally with impurity when one was responsible to come nearest to the presence of God.

v.15    In the case of the high priest he could not marry even a widow, which marriage was not forbidden to the other priests. More than that he had to marry from his own priestly clan.

v.17    “Blemish,” as we shall see refers to any physical defect, deformity, or disability, either inherited from birth or caused by illness or accident. [Levine, 145]

v.18    One bad eye, apparently, was enough to disqualify a man from the priesthood; he did not have to be totally blind. In the same way, to be lame in one leg was enough to disqualify.

v.19    Broken bones were difficult to set in ancient times and often didn’t heal properly. We have an example in Mephibosheth, the son of Saul, who either fell or was dropped by his nurse when a little boy. [2 Sam. 4:4] Ankle bones would have been particularly difficult to set properly before the advent of the pins and casts that are used today.

v.23    The ban was absolute with respect to officiating as a priest in the sanctuary worship, but not with respect to enjoying the privileges of his office. Even priests with a disability could eat the portion of the sacrifice reserved for priests and their families, but they could not officiate at the altar or do priestly work inside the sanctuary proper.

So far as we can tell, priests with disabilities were not excluded from all the work of a priest. They could still teach. Eli, who is presented to us as a godly man, a priest of Israel even if an ineffective and irresponsible father, was blind in the later years of his ministry. But he didn’t cease to be a priest. On the other hand, one doesn’t get the impression in the early chapters of 1 Samuel that he was still offering sacrifices in the sanctuary. That work was being done – and badly – by his sons Hophni and Phineas. Disabled priests could teach, as priests did; they could perhaps manage logistics at the sanctuary, and so on. But they could not superintend or officiate at worship.

If the Law of Moses set a high standard for the life and conduct of the people of God, who were themselves a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” it set an even higher standard for its spiritual leadership. That fact doesn’t surprise us. It is true in the New Testament as well that elders and ministers are held to a higher standard. Paul makes that clear when he describes what a man must be, what sort of life he must live if he is to hold office in the Christian church. He must be a man faithful as a husband and father, wise with his money, hospitable, a man who brings credit to his Christian profession, a man well thought of by unbelievers and so on. He must be, Paul writes, “above reproach.” [1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:6-9]  We understand that. Leaders must set an example. We think that way even about our political leaders. It is a worse crime when those who hold the public’s trust lie or betray their wives or take a bribe. I am old enough to remember how in the 1960s the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, was considered disqualified from running for president because he had been divorced. Or think of the Duke of Windsor, Edward VIII, who abdicated the British throne because he wanted to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. As head of the Church of England it was thought improper that he should marry a woman who had been divorced. How times have changed! Can you imagine Prince Charles doing that for that reason?

But the requirements laid down in Leviticus 21 don’t seem to have anything to do with being above reproach, or setting a good example, or living a life that is an adornment of the gospel.

Think about it. Christian ministers have been from the beginning of the new epoch very often at the besides of the dying. They will tell you, as I will, that to minister the gospel and to bestow the consolations of salvation in the hour of death, and even more so at the very point of death, is a high privilege. I’ve been at deathbeds, have touched the dead, and never once thought that I was disqualifying myself for ministry for some period of time. I mentioned in a morning sermon a few Lord’s Days past Alexander Whyte’s account of one of his first pastoral visits after becoming a pastor of Free St. George’s in Edinburgh. It was the deathbed of a much loved and respected elder of the church and the man died as Whyte was reading the Westminster Confession of Faith to him. I could multiply illustrations of such pastoral care conducted at the deathbeds of the dying.

Indeed, in early Christianity and often since, for example in the ministry of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in North Africa during the middle of the 3rd century, the care of the dead and dying during plagues, the kind of care no one else was willing to offer, was an impressive demonstration of Christians’ other-worldliness and love for their neighbors.

And what of marriage to women with a sinful past. When we read that impossibly beautiful account of the sinful woman who bathed the Lord’s feet with her tears and anointed them with oil in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7) it never occurs to us to think that that woman, so grateful as she was for the Lord’s saving grace to her, couldn’t marry a priest. Many of us have read the riveting autobiographical account of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, once a lesbian English professor at Syracuse, now, by the grace of God, a home-schooling pastor’s wife. Did any of us think as we were reading that book that she shouldn’t have married a pastor?

Or, perhaps even worse, what of being disqualified for the priesthood by a disability? In our day and age that just seems wrong! Didn’t the Lord himself make a habit of touching and blessing the disabled? Didymus the Blind was a prominent 4th century Christian theologian who wrote prolifically in defense of the orthodox doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. Athanasius himself appointed him to his post. Certainly none of us thinks that was a mistake. John Rug is a friend of this congregation, a long-serving missionary in Latin America whom we have supported for more than thirty years. John was born blind.

I remember distinctly as a boy one of our ministers who served a church on the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma. He had suffered from polio and could get to the pulpit to preach only with the assistance of two crutches. We admired him for his grit! We have in our presbytery a long serving minister who was born with serious birth defects. His arms do not extend much below his elbows and his trunk and legs are shorter than normal. Not once has his disability ever been thought to disqualify him from the ministry. I must say that this is not universally true. I met a Korean man who was ministering in the United States in part because he was missing an arm and for that reason would not have been called to a pastorate in Korea. I have no idea whether that is still the case, but it was not long ago.

But most Christians obviously do not think and have not for two-thousand years thought that Christian ministers had to abide by these regulations. So why did the priests of Israel? The question is the more pressing because no explanation is provided in the text (as, we have found, is so often the case with the regulations of Leviticus.) They may have seemed obvious to the original readers of our text, but they are not so obvious to us.

We are aware, of course, that the Christian ministry of the new epoch is not hereditary as was the Israelite priesthood. It is not passed down from father to son within a particular lineage. Perhaps some of these restrictions listed in chapter 21 were at least to some degree related to the fact that one generation of priests produced the next generation. After all, the background of a priest’s wife would not be known to most Israelites and certainly not observable as the priest went about his work in the tabernacle or temple. That he had to marry a virgin from his own priestly clan at least might have had something to do with preserving the purity of the priestly line. But it is hardly a sufficient explanation for even that, still less of all that we have read here.

The likely explanation for such requirements as we read here is the rich symbolism of tabernacle and temple worship. We have little difficulty as Christians understanding why the sacrificial animals had to be perfect, why they could not be deformed or damaged in some way. They needed to match the ideal of their type precisely because they were enacted prophesies or types of the perfect sacrifice that was to come. A goat or lamb or bull could not be sinless, to be sure, or sinful for that matter. But it could be ideal in its own way, physically. And to that end we read of the Lord Jesus that he was a lamb without blemish or without spot.

If you remember, we explained the distinction between clean and unclean animals in this way. The clean animals were invariably animals that, in that time and place, were regarded as matching an ideal. The ideal four-footed animal in the ancient near east was a sheep or cow or goat, certainly not a pig. The ideal bird was one that flew, could alight on a branch, and ate seeds and bugs. Certainly not a bird that tore at meat or couldn’t fly. Even today, for that matter, a little child is more likely to be given a stuffed lamb than a stuffed pig! Only ideal animals and they only in perfect condition were used in the worship of the sanctuary. We get that.

Well, in the same way, the priests of Israel were types of the coming priest who would offer himself a sacrifice for the sins of the world. They couldn’t be sinless either, fallen men that they were, so they couldn’t prefigure Jesus Christ in that way; but they could at least match the ideal profile of man physically. So priests could not be disabled or deformed. In the same way, while we know perfectly well that all marriages, even the very best marriages, do not meet ordinary expectation or the original ideal – a young man and a young woman, both virgins – we would not deny that such a marriage is the quintessential ideal of marriage, marriage in its paradigmatic form. So a man whose calling it was to represent the ideal of humanity before God would, understandably, be a man in a marriage that matched the ideal of married love. And the ideal wife in Israel was a virgin from one’s own clan. So much was this the case that the Apostle Paul had no problem using such an ideal concept of marriage to describe the relationship of the church to the Lord Jesus. To the Corinthians he wrote:

“I have betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” [2 Cor. 11:2]

Even today – isn’t this true? – most love stories leading to marriage concern young people who have never been married. We love to see second marriages when they are properly made, but a second marriage is no one’s idea of the ideal. Of course, we Christians are not a pure virgin, morally speaking. None of us is; far from it in fact. But in speaking of salvation one naturally reverts to language that expresses the ideal. And the ideal is not a widow – however pure — but a pure virgin. Our purity comes from Christ who makes us a fit wife for himself; and for him his bride should be a pure virgin; not someone, even a very godly woman, who has been married three times, as has Elisabeth Elliot because her husbands have died.

Because God’s presence was represented in a particularly profound way in the sanctuary, first the tabernacle and then the temple were symbols of perfection. They were constructed to be exquisitely beautiful buildings, the furniture was covered with gold, the uniform of the high priest was decorated with precious stones, and so on. The tabernacle was, without doubt, the most beautiful structure in Israel, and whenever an Israelite family visited the sanctuary they would have been newly impressed with its grandeur. Solomon’s temple was grander still; one of the most beautiful buildings in the world of his day. Well the priests were a living part of that sanctuary and they had to contribute to the grandeur, not detract from it. The Lord is perfect so his representatives ought to be as well. The coming priest is to be perfect so those who typified him and anticipated him needed to be as well. Leviticus 21 in all of these arcane regulations is a revelation of what God and Jesus Christ are like! Or put it this way: Leviticus 21 is a revelation of what God is like!

In a similar way, the sanctuary was a prefigurement of heaven in its splendor, its beauty, and in the presence of God that sanctified it. Indeed, the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that the tabernacle was built according to the pattern of the sanctuary in heaven; it was but a shadow or copy of the heavenly place. We are reminded of this again in Revelation when heaven is described as having a throne and an altar, as the sanctuary did – the ark being God’s throne and the altar being out in front of it — and again in the last two chapters of the Bible heaven is described in imagery often used to describe the sanctuary and God’s presence in the sanctuary. This principle — the sanctuary as a type of heaven — is one that continued to shape Christian sanctuary architecture through the ages. The tremendous height of the medieval cathedral was self-consciously an attempt to assist the worshipper to transcend the limitations of this world, at least in his imagination. It was like entering heaven. I’ve been impressed myself with the spiritual power of a great sanctuary; how much more for people who never saw buildings nearly as grand or as large as the Christian sanctuary in their town. The beauty of even simple Christian churches made them the most beautiful buildings ordinarily encountered in the daily life of Christian people.

Well, of course, in heaven everything is perfect and that explains why the priests, the officers and superintendents of this earthly picture and image and anticipation of heaven, had to represent the ideal. The fact is we all understand the principle as well. None of us expects to find disabilities in heaven. Craig Vick, our Presbytery minister whose disability I mentioned earlier, was converted in a circle of Christians who made a great deal of miraculous healing. He had a close friend who became a Christian at the same time. His friend also had some physical malady, I think it may have been asthma or something of that kind. His Christian friends were always encouraging Craig’s friend to seek healing. But Craig told me once that not once in his Christian life had anyone, anyone, ever encouraged him to seek healing. It were as if God could handle asthma, but missing hands were simply too much.

But is there a Christian anywhere in the world who believes that at the resurrection, when Craig rises to new and eternal life, he will still be lacking his hands? Of course not. Heaven is a place of perfection. John Rug will see, Craig will be able to shake someone’s hand, Joni Erickson Tada will be able to walk and run.

In a day before the ordinary believer had a Bible of his own to read, indeed, when much of the Bible was yet to be written — long before the Lord Jesus had risen from the dead, ascended to heaven to prepare a place for us, and promised to return — the future life was embodied for God’s people at the sanctuary. For that reason it had to be an ideal place with ideal people. The rich symbolism of the sanctuary – in many ways, the sanctuary and its worship was the New Testament revelation for the OT believer! – made an impression on the devout Israelite. We know that from the testimony that they left in the Psalms as to how beautiful they thought the temple to be and how much it meant to them to be there. They found themselves when they were there in another world, or at least they had one foot firmly planted in another world. Remember, these kinds of regulations were commonplace in the ancient near east. They were part of the Israelite’s mental and spiritual universe, however much they were invested with utterly new meaning and served a completely different theology than they did among other peoples of that time. None of this would have struck a 15th century B.C. Israelite as odd. To be frank, some of these wouldn’t have struck a nominal American Christian as odd only a century ago! We need to be careful to accommodate the very significant differences that separate our culture from theirs and the power of culture to make customs meaningful as we seek to understand what the Lord is telling us in this chapter. Leviticus 21 is a revelation not only of what God is like but of what heaven is like. Its regulations fixed in the believing mind the idea and the prospect of a perfect human life.

But there is something more here that is perhaps more important for 21st century American Christians to consider than the various ways in which the sanctuary and its priests were a prophecy of the sacrifice that Jesus Christ would later come to make for our salvation or in which they served as an image of heaven.

Our problem understanding and appreciating the instructions in Leviticus chapter 21 may have less to do with how gracious we are, how ready to sympathize with people who struggle with a disability, how unwilling we are to treat them in anyway as less worthy than we ourselves, how forgiving we can be of marital mishaps, especially in the case of the innocent party, all of which, of course, is absolutely right. People who know themselves to be as morally disabled as we do can hardly look down on those who have a much less significant disability!

Our problem may be to the contrary that we are not really alive to the great interest of this chapter, and of the chapters that surround it in this part of Leviticus. That is, we neither grasp how holy God actually is – and what that means – nor how that divine holiness demands our holiness as the only possible fit response. I know we have read the line many times and I’m sure we all believe it to be true. We really do. The Apostle Paul is describing God in 1 Timothy 6 and says of him what you almost never hear anyone say of God today in the church:

“…who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.”

We speak and we sing of the glory of God, and his moral holiness is part and parcel of that glory, but if we are honest, we hardly know what we are talking about. “Whom no one has seen or can see?” Really? Is God so far beyond us and so far above us that the sight of his glory would consume and destroy us even now in the age of the New Testament? Is God really a consuming fire in his very self? How often do we think about that? I don’t think about it nearly as often as I should. How often do we consider the fact that we will never actually be given a vision of God himself because we could not receive that vision and survive? That fact changes things, doesn’t it; but not always in ways we like to think about.

Everything in the Bible begins not to make as much sense when the glory and the holiness of God begin to slip from our active consciousness, still more from our real conviction. Without that divine holiness which casts all of our life into a dark shadow, the cross of Christ is incomprehensible. Why can’t God simply forgive us? Isn’t his heart big enough just to forgive us? Why must the Son of God be subject to such terrible suffering and humiliation? God’s holiness; that’s why! Why must there be such a thing as eternal judgment? Why must there be a hell? Why must life be so terribly serious? Why must all sinners find forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ or be miserable forever? God’s holiness; that’s why! Why must we Christians never relax in working out our salvation in fear and trembling and pressing on toward that for which Christ laid hold of us? God’s holiness; that’s why? Why must we persevere to the end, no matter all the weariness and frustration of trying to live a godly life with hearts like ours and in a world as sinful as ours? God’s holiness; that’s why! If we have already been forgiven our sins when we first believed in Jesus Christ, why must we continue to confess them all our life long? God’s holiness; that’s why! Why must we fear the consequences of our sins in the lives of others, including our own children? God’s holiness; that’s why! Why is it right that it sometimes seems that living the Christian life drains out of us every ounce of energy we have? God’s holiness demands everything we are and have; that’s why! It is his holiness that explains why we are to fear our heavenly Father and why we are to love him at the same time. What does God tell us?

“But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” [Isa. 66:2]

But how often do we tremble at God’s word? Would we think differently about those regulations if we were frequently trembling at the Word of God? We know very well there are many of his words that ought to make us tremble, but most of the time we live in cheerful unconcern about the holiness of God. We may worry about many things, but only rarely about what the holy God thinks or what the holy God may do in regard to the way we are living our lives. I see in myself and I see in others all the time behavior that can be explained as nothing else but indifference to the holiness of God. Think of such texts as these that ought to set us a-trembling every day:

“For we shall all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” That is a statement Paul addressed to Christians. [2 Cor. 5:10] Or this one:


“And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and will give to each of you according to your works.” That was the Lord Jesus Christ to Christian churches. [Rev. 2:23]

I could go on and on, but you know very well how many statements the Lord makes to us in his Word that ought to make us tremble. This holy God, whom no man has seen or can see has increasingly disappeared from even the believing mind in the Christian church of the western world, as he has disappeared from the Christian mind many times in ages past. And when he disappears from our collective mind, it is harder for each of us to keep him in our individual mind! But when that God of imperishable and unimaginable holiness disappears from our view reality disappears as well. We have lost touch with reality because the holiness of God is the very cornerstone of reality. This world is the way it is, in all of its misery and woe, in its beauty and joy, because of the holiness of God. In the same way this world is as wonderful as it is because of the holiness of God. For in holiness — moral goodness and perfect right — one finds beauty, grace, love, and justice, judgment, and severity. That is what holiness is and what holiness is like – perfect moral goodness — and in God holiness exists in infinite perfection.

We know very well, don’t we, how hard it is to keep alive in the heart the truth of God’s holiness. We know very well how forgetful we are of that holiness that threatens the world at every turn but which is also the source of everything good that we know or experience. We are so used to being unholy and rubbing shoulders with the unholy. It is very difficult for us even to really appreciate and understand what holiness is. We should be the last Christians in the world or in Christian history, we in the American church in the 21st century, who should wonder why so much attention was paid in Israel’s liturgical life to keep the holiness of God front and center in the people’s consciousness. We know how easy it is for the divine holiness to disappear from our minds. A studied informality in our worship, an emphasis on the Lord’s nearness to us at the expense of his great distance from us – characteristic of the evangelical pulpit and the evangelical service nowadays –, and an overly familiar way of talking about God, as if he were only somewhat above us instead of the transcendent, mysterious, and hidden God that he is and must be. Such things have not helped us to retain a living sense of God as he actually is.

The god of the American church, a God of indiscriminate good humor, a God of kindly and gentle sentiment, a God who would never inflict pain or sorrow on his creatures or his children, is neither the God who actually is – as both Scripture and the experience of life testify together – nor a God who can help us in the fires of life nor solve our fatal problem with sin and guilt. What J. Gresham Machen once characterized as “looking on the bright side of God” leaves us not only with an insipid God, hardly worth our time much less our worship, but with a God who cannot satisfy the longings of the human heart. Only a God enveloped as God truly is in impenetrable mystery and terrible righteousness, who likewise loves his people with an everlasting love, can satisfy the soul. [Hart, Defending the Faith, 73] We have been made for holiness because we have been made for God!

If we who live on this side of the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians and of Judah by the Babylonians, on this side of the cross itself, and have an entire Bible in our hands, I say, if we still struggle so much to remember how holy God actually is and how utterly fundamental his holiness is to everything important in human life – both good and bad – it should not be so difficult for us to understand why all manner of devices were employed early on to remind Israel of God’s holiness.

What we find in Leviticus 21 is still another effort to force the divine holiness upon the consciousness of God’s people because so much depended upon them taking that holiness seriously and living accordingly. If the people had to be holy, the priests still more so. And so it was that various forms of perfection were required of them because they were of all Israelites the nearest to God and the most often in his presence and in that they were a lesson to all the rest. What Leviticus 21 teaches us is that still today we must never let the conviction of God’s holiness slip from our grasp; no matter what it takes to keep it a living conviction in our hearts. Why? Because nothing is more important for time and eternity.

True faith and real godliness will always “stand in awe of the God of Israel.”

A statement we will read in Leviticus 29:23.