Holiness And The Priesthood
A brief history of the role of Priests seems in order.
Melchizedek is the first Priest mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 14:18-20). Melchizedek’s role in the plan of God is given to us gradually through progressive revelation.
In Genesis alone, his name appears only once in a short three-verse appearance of Melchizedek, and appears uneventful if you only read his Genesis account. Since he appears to be delivering a message from God, and actually interceding for man before God, you might even mistake him for a prophet1. The only other time in the Old Testament he is mentioned is Psalm 110:4 where it is heavily implied though not specifically cited that Melchizedek is a Priest. The significance of the exchange between Abraham and Melchizedek is not given until Hebrews chapters 5 to 8, where the author mentions Melchizedek nine times, and breaks wide open the reason why Melchizedek is a prominent character in scripture.
Egypt had a few people who were identified as Priests, though there is no mention regarding how they became Priests, nor what their duties were. Poti-pherah2 was priest of On, and eventually, Joseph’s father-in-law (Genesis 41:45, 50; 46:20). Genesis 47:22, 26 suggests there were other Priests in Egypt.
Jethro (Exodus 3:1), sometimes called Reuel (Exodus 2:18, 21), was a Priest in Midian. Midian was a Bedouin people that Israel had a rocky relationship with. In Numbers 31, Moses was commanded to wipe out the Midianites, which he apparently did. But the slaughter was not as complete as God had ordered. For a remnant still exists in 1 Kings 11:18.
Priests in Israel were first mentioned in Exodus 19. God promised Israel that if they would obey Him, then Israel will be made a nation of Priests. That seems to mean that all Israel would one day be the pathway for all the world to come to God. But we will never know for sure. This could be a prophetic statement regarding end-times Israel. Or it could be an expired provision of the Old Covenant.
In Exodus 28, it is announced that Aaron and his four sons will become the first Priests of Israel, though they would have to wait until Leviticus 8-9 to receive the title formally.
Several mentions of Aaron and his sons’ ordination service are mentioned throughout Exodus 28-40. Many of this addressed the Priestly garments they would wear.
The actual work of a Priest in Israel did not begin to take shape until Leviticus 1, when God called on Aaron to administer the Burnt Offering. After the initial duties were recorded, the five of them – Aaron and each of his four sons were ordained. It wasn’t until Numbers 2 that the entire tribe of Levi was named to be Priests of Israel.
The entire book of Leviticus deals with holiness and the very specifically stated role of the Priest. The Priesthood is the audience of Leviticus, and all should be interpreted as for the benefit of the Priests. Few will ever really master Leviticus. But many can make themselves conversant in it. Without understanding Leviticus, you will have difficulties in Hebrews. The following breaks down Leviticus with hope that you can see that the object is a better Priesthood.
· Leviticus 1-7 – The focus is on a better Priesthood by establishing that the sacrifices offered are administered according to how God is pleased.
· Leviticus 8-9 – The ordination ceremony of the initial Priests.
· Leviticus 10 – A graphic illustration of the profoundness and severity of being a Priest in Israel.
· Leviticus 11 – How the Priests benefit from proper sacrifice offerings.
· Leviticus 12-15 – How the Priests minister to people who become temporarily unclean through ordinary circumstances of life.
· Leviticus 16 – A climactic chapter that instructs the Priests about the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
· Leviticus 17 – Miscellaneous additional instructions regarding the sacrifices.
· Leviticus 18-20 is actually written to the people. The sacrifices are good and the blood of the sacrifice purifies. And in the flesh, we can never be holy, for only one is holy. But there are two classes of sin which can expose what you truly trust in: unbridled sex, and idolatrous worship. Both topics are discussed in Leviticus 18-20.
· Leviticus 21-27 deal with several loose ends, including the feasts, the jubilee, special vows, and a few others.
Truthfully, constructing this breakdown was not a difficult task. The one breakdown I do wish to discuss while the outline is freshly in front of us is the flow of thought from Chapters 1 through 16. Leviticus opens with the sacrifices. Without Priests, Israel cannot sacrifice, so let there be Priests installed. And the freshly ordained Priests immediately offered sacrifice. Two of the Priests didn’t understand God’s call to holiness, and were immediately released from their duties. By killing the misbehaving Priests, there immediately arose a shortage of people to do the job, thereby requiring the Priest to work full-time, and not pollute himself with the work of the world. This required that the Priests be fed. And so they were fed through a portion of sacrifice3. But some restrictions must be followed. For instance, you don’t trap a skunk and offer it as the Priests’ eventual dinner. The offering must be clean.
With the Priests being ceremoniously installed, and provisions for their well being established, the Priests were ready for more specific instruction.
1 A prophet delivers a message from the mouth of God to man. A Priest intercedes as an advocate for a man before God.
2 It is doubtful there is a connection between the Priest Poti-pherah and Potiphar Captain of the Guard for Pharaoh. This conclusion is the same as most commentary, though my reasons are different. The typical line of thought goes that Potiphar was a eunuch, because he was captain of the guard, and that position requires oversight of the harem. And by contrast, Poti-phera had a daughter. That Potiphar had a wife is not a conclusive response. But the Bible does not specifically say that Potiphar was a eunuch. The reason I prefer is that Leviticus 18:17 forbids relations with a mother-daughter pair. Though this was not yet forbidden, it was not practiced. That nothing happened is irrelevant.
3 The secondary purpose of the sacrifice, providing groceries for the Priests, is an unsung reason why Jesus got angry at the money changers. The reason money needed exchanging was because most out-of-towners needed Jerusalem money to purchase a worthy sacrifice from the Temple. It is reasonable to assume that if the Temple had an adequate supply of food to sell, that they would need no food benefit, and the inspection standards for clean sacrifices could be relaxed.