Holy Leaders (Leviticus 21:1-24)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Recently, while at a Roman Catholic Church for a funeral, I noticed a sign posted in the auditorium that read,

He has the most important calling in the world.
He also has the most powerful enemy trying to stop him from doing his work.
Will you help him in his vocation?
Please pray for your priests.

If we were living in the days of Moses then such a sign would be a fitting summation of the contents of Leviticus 21. And even though we live under the new covenant, I hope to show you that there is much from this sign that we can all take to heart.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a well-known Scottish minister who lived in the early 1800s once famously said, “My people’s greatest need is my own personal holiness.” And any minister who takes his calling seriously will say a heavy amen to that. When it comes to being a shepherd, this is my people’s greatest need, and so often my greatest failure. Nevertheless, by the grace of God, holiness remains the pursuit of those who lead BBC.

So far in Leviticus, the Lord has revealed much about the requirements for acceptable worship. You will remember that the book opens with the tabernacle having been constructed and the glory cloud of the Lord having descended—but Moses still on the outside of the tabernacle. After the anointing of the priesthood in chapter 8, the priests, as instructed in chapter 9, then offered their prescribed sacrifices (see chapters 1—7) and the tabernacle is open for corporate worship.

Unfortunately, soon thereafter (chapter 10) two of Aaron’s sons offered an unauthorised sacrifice before the Lord and were summarily executed by God—on the spot. Their dead bodies were transported by their tunics and they were cast outside the tabernacle.

Subsequently, God revealed much more by way of practical legislation for His people with reference to their need to be holy. Clearly, there was still much to learn.

God revealed that their eating habits were to be holy (chapter 11); their childbirth was to be regulated by God’s holy law (chapter 12); their personal and domestic hygiene was to be holy, as symbolised by the laws regarding leprosy (chapters 13—14) and those with reference to bodily discharges (chapter 15).

In chapter 16, the regulations for the yearly observance of the Day of Atonement were revealed, closely followed by instruction concerning the central place of the blood in acceptable worship (chapter 17). After all of this, the Lord revealed, in what became known as the Holiness Code (chapters 18—20) other issues of practical, day-to-day holiness, along with the penal sanctions if such laws were violated.

In all that has been revealed thus far, it is clear that the central theme was God’s passion for His holiness and therefore His prescription that His people be holy. This is summed up in 19:2 with the words, “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.’”

The same mandate also applies to God’s new covenant people (1 Peter 1:15-16).

In chapters 21—22, the theme is reemphasised, but here the particular audience addressed is the priesthood.

In these chapters, the Lord lays down the requirements for the priests who would serve in the sanctuary. It should be noted at this point that all priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests. Not every member of the Levitical priesthood was privileged to serve in the tabernacle. All were to serve the tabernacle (see Numbers 1—4), some in the outer court, but not all Levites, and not even all priests, served in the tabernacle. This was reserved for a specially qualified, specifically regulated group of Levites.

In chapter 21, the Lord regulates what was required of the priests who would serve in the tabernacle, as well as the high priest. They had to meet certain prescribed qualifications if they would be deemed holy enough to serve in the tabernacle. No exceptions were to be made. It was serious business to serve God’s sanctuary.

In chapter 22, further regulations are given with reference to the quality of the sacrifices that the priests were to offer. The priests in other words were responsible for the kind of worship offered by those whom they represented.

Summary

The overall theme can be summarised as holy servants of the holy sanctuary. Those ordained to lead God’s people were to display unquestioning loyalty to Yahweh alone. Yes, they were to be holy.

Leviticus calls for holiness on the part of the congregation, on the part of the priesthood, and on the part of the high priest. And with each call to holiness, the demands become stricter.

This should not surprise us since the closer one gets to the Lord the holier one must be. “The closer a person was to the symbol of God’s presence, the greater the degree of holiness.”1 This is pictured for us in the tabernacle itself.

The courtyard was where the people in general would gather and they certainly had a code of holiness for which they were responsible. The priesthood then had greater demands for holiness placed upon them, for they were allowed access to the Holy Place. But the high priest, as we will see in this study, had an even higher standard of holiness placed upon him, for he alone was allowed access, one day a year, beyond the veil to the Holy of Holies.

The children of Israel were to be different, and the priests of the children of Israel were to be especially different. Yes, they were held to a higher standard. In the words of Harris, “Sin is more heinous on the part of those chosen by God for special service.”2

One could summarise the principle here by the words of Jesus: “to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48).

As we begin, it is important to make some connections between these ancient words and where we live today.

First, though we do not go to a “sanctuary” to worship, we, the local church, are in fact God’s sanctuary (1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-5; etc.). And therefore the requirement for holiness that God prescribed for his old covenant priests most certainly is required for us today.

Second, the New Testament makes it very clear that every Christian is a priest of God (1 Peter 2:9-10; Rev 1:6; etc.) and therefore the lessons about holiness revealed in Leviticus 21 have much relevant application to each Christian.

Third, the priesthood was very much the spiritual leadership in the old covenant economy, tasked with teaching the people about God from His Word and responsible to lead the people in worship. It is not an overstatement to say that they were tasked with the responsibility of reconciling Israel to God; they were tasked with the spiritual health and welfare of the people of God. It was because of this awesome responsibility that these strict regulations were required of a would-be priest. As Harrison notes, “Being one of the Lord’s priests was a highly responsible position, since the person who exercised it was in effect a substitute for God among the people. Like other living offerings presented to the Lord, the priest had to be free from physical and ceremonial blemishes, so that he would be acceptable to God. His way of life was hedged in by restrictions.”3

In many ways, that observation applies to new covenant pastors (elders). Therefore, the principles that we find here in Leviticus 21 are as applicable to elders today as they were to old covenant priests back then. In other words, if the old covenant spiritual leaders were to be holy, how much more so for those who lead the new covenant people of God? As Eveson observes, “Those called to the Christian ministry must understand their position in these terms: following the great High Priest and being examples to the rest of the covenant community.”4 That is why such a high standard of character is set for elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).

Finally, and most importantly, since Christ is the ultimate fulfilment of all of the pictures portrayed by the old covenant priesthood, we must look for Christ here. As we do so, I assure you that we will find Him!

As we will see, there were at least four specific expectations of those who would serve as priests in the sanctuary:

  • Holy Grief (vv. 1-6; 10-12)
  • Holy Home (vv. 7-9; 13-15)
  • Holy Bodies (vv. 16-23)
  • Holy Congregation (vv. 8, 24)

Holy Grief

In vv. 1-6, 10-12 we learn that God expected of Israel’s leaders holy grief. That is, the priests were limited by God concerning those whom they were permitted to publicly grieve.

Grieving Priests

Verses 1-6 give instructions for the priests in their grieving.

And the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘None shall defile himself for the dead among his people, except for his relatives who are nearest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also his virgin sister who is near to him, who has had no husband, for her he may defile himself. Otherwise he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself.

They shall not make any bald place on their heads, nor shall they shave the edges of their beards nor make any cuttings in their flesh. They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and the bread of their God; therefore they shall be holy.

(Leviticus 21:1-6)

In essence, the purpose of this law was to highlight the hope of the covenant. Death, in other words, was not to dominate the priesthood; instead, the hope of life was. It should be remembered that death to the Israelites was related to the curse (Genesis 3:19) and so touching the dead symbolically brought defilement.

The word “defile” means “to make unclean,” and here it has reference to the fact that a priest was not allowed to touch the dead body of anyone except for his closest relatives: mother, father, son, daughter, brother and younger, unmarried sister. Since in marriage two become one flesh I would conclude that he could also be involved in the public mourning of his deceased wife.5

What was the purpose of this restriction? Verse 4 informs us that it is because he was “a chief man among his people” and he must not therefore “profane” himself. Priests were always on duty and so must remain clean.

We learn from this that those who served in the sanctuary were held to a different, higher standard than the rest of the faith community. That is just how it is. The priests could not even grieve like the rest. Their mourning was to be noticeably different. In the words of Jesus, they were to let the dead bury their dead (Matthew 8:22). Those chosen by God to serve in this unique capacity were constrained by God when it came to living a “regular” kind of life. There were certainly priestly privileges, but also priestly sacrifices. Those called to oversee the sacrifices sometimes needed to make sacrifices in order to do so.

Those called by God to the special responsibility for the spiritual welfare of His people are called to a lifestyle that is a bit abnormal. They are called to a lifestyle in which they do not have the luxury of some relationships that those they lead often enjoy. They are called to absorb some heartache that others are privileged to share. They are called to prioritise the sanctuary in a way that others, who benefit from the sanctuary, are not. That is just the way that it is. No one should enter the ministry unless they are willing to embrace such a lifestyle. The Great Commission calls for some cost to the family. That is just the way it is. Ross insightfully comments, “The priesthood was not an occupation but a life.”6 So it is with the pastorate.

But there is another aspect of mourning that is also addressed.

In v. 5 the Lord repeats a prohibition mentioned in chapter 19 with reference to pagan funeral rites of shaving the head, trimming the beard and tattooing the skin. God repeats it here for the sake of the priesthood lest any priest should think that he was an exception. He was not. In fact, it was especially important that the priests not practice any pagan funeral rites, for to do so would be to profane God’s name and God’s sanctuary (v. 6). This may also be a major reason for the restrictions concerning whom they could mourn as revealed in vv. 1-5. Rooker observes, “It is equally conceivable that the prohibition of the priesthood to be involved in funeral activities was to avoid sanctioning the cults of the dead. . . . The avoidance of contact with the dead should be understood as a polemic against the widespread worship of the dead among Israel’s neighbors.”7

In other words, those who serve the true and living God were responsible to mourn as those who truly believed in this God. You can tell an awful lot about a minister’s real gospel convictions by how he conducts a funeral!

A Grieving High Priest

Verses 10-12 show us that regulations for the public mourning of the high priest are even stricter than those of the regular priesthood.

He who is the high priest among his brethren, on whose head the anointing oil was poured and who is consecrated to wear the garments, shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes; nor shall he go near any dead body, nor defile himself for his father or his mother; nor shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God; for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the LORD.

(Leviticus 21:10-12)

There was no allowance for public grief in the life of the high priest—not even for his father and mother, or, by implication, his wife and children. If death came to the family of the high priest during His years of service then he would grieve alone. The reason given is that, since he was anointed and wearing the vestments, he must not defile himself. As Wenham points out, “His hair had been anointed and his clothes specially designed for him. If he disturbed them, it could serve to nullify his consecration.”8 His duty before and on behalf of God’s people was so important that all other things took a backseat.

“Verse 12 does not mean that the high priest lived in the sanctuary, only that his duties there took precedence over family ties.”9 God’s people needed a mediator more than the high priest needed to mourn. Sin was a far more serious problem than even death.

Again, the people were in constant need of the intercessory ministry of the high priest, and so he had to always be on duty. People may have thought that to be the high priest was a glorious privilege (and it was), but did they ever consider the cost that was required?

These requirements have many lessons for us.

First, we learn from that, when it comes to loyalty, God must come first. And perhaps a minister’s loyalty to God is never tested more than at a funeral.

If you want to see what a church leader really believes about the gospel then listen to him as he conducts a funeral. How a pastor approaches the issue of death is a potent indication of what he really believes about God and about man, and ultimately what he believes about the gospel of Christ. Sadly, many ministers reveal that they are unclean by the way that they flippantly deal with death. Many ministers profane the name of the Lord when they contradict what Jesus said about death and judgement and that our only hope is in Him. Watch how a minister mourns and you will gain a good indication of what he really believes about the gospel. Watch how he ministers to others in their grief—and watch how he handles his own.

God’s ministers in his new covenant church must be gospel-centred men. In other words, they must understand that death is not the end of the world. Even in the midst of the deepest grief, they must believe and show that it is well with their souls.

Second, we learn that sometimes we have to forgo our rights for the greater good of the community of faith. In this case, the people of Israel needed a high priest to be on duty 24/7, and so for their sakes he could not dishevel his hair or rend his garments. After all, in a very real sense, these were no longer his since they were rendered to God in a living sacrifice to Him.

Third, we learn that the Lord Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of the High Priest, was the supreme example of one who laid it all aside for love of God and for the welfare of others: His Bride, His people, the church (see Philippians 2:1-5).

Holy Home

In vv. 7-9, 13-15, the text places limitations upon both the regular priests as well as upon the high priest concerning whom they could marry. God also regulated the kind of father that they must be. Specifically, a priest must disciple his daughter(s). This passage might be summarised as follows: “As religious leaders, the priests exemplified for the people what marriage was intended to be: one man and one woman producing godly offspring.”10

The point of these laws was to emphasise the marital covenant upon which the old (and the new) covenant was predicated. In other words, if the priest was not covenantally faithful in the home, then what hope was there that he would be so in the sanctuary? And the same holds true for elders in today’s church. That is why God places expectations on an elder’s wife and children (see 1 Timothy 3:2a, 4-5; Titus 1:6-7a).

The Priestly Home

Verses 7-9 speak to the issue of the regular priestly home.

They shall not take a wife who is a harlot or a defiled woman, nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband; for the priest is holy to his God. Therefore you shall consecrate him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I the LORD, who sanctify you, am holy. The daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, she profanes her father. She shall be burned with fire.

(Leviticus 21:7-9)

Apparently, a regular priest could marry a widowed woman and so the issue was not that he had to marry a virgin. Rather, the concern here was that he must marry a woman whose character was not questionable (not a “harlot” or “defiled”—that is, morally unclean). But neither could he marry a woman who had been “divorced.”

The word translated “divorced” is not the usual word for a divorced person. This particular word means “to thrust out,” “to expel,” or “to drive out” and carries the connotation of a woman who had proved unfaithful and was therefore put away. God’s concern here was that the priest be above reproach with reference to his wife. An ungodly wife can greatly hinder a man’s ministry, just as a godly wife enormously strengthens it.

Further, the priest was forbidden (as were all Israelites) from offering his daughter as a cultic prostitute. If a priest’s daughter acted in this way then she was to be put to death and then cremated.11

Clearly, God was concerned that those who represented Him before the people were equally faithful in representing Him before their own family. For one to qualify as a serving priest in the sanctuary, he must prove himself as a faithful father who guarded his girls. If he did not point his daughter to the true and living God, he would not be taken too seriously when seeking to point the congregation to Him.

Why is there no mention of the priest’s responsibility to his sons? Perhaps because it is assumed that the father would be teaching the numerous priestly obligations to his son(s) since the priesthood was hereditary.

It should also be noted that one could be disqualified from serving as a priest regardless of his surname. The surname was important, but it was not a guarantee of the position. In other words, one who was a Levite was in the privileged position of being a priest, but it was not a right. There was no place under biblical law for nepotism. And neither is there place for it under new covenant law. If you break the rules then you lose your position. It would be good for the church to remember this in our own day.

Before moving on, we need to pause and reflect on the reason for these rules. Verses 6 and 8 tell us that it is because God is holy and that those who offer holy sacrifices were to be holy themselves. God did not want a meal offered to Him by filthy hands. Those who serve by leading in public worship must be holy.

The High Priestly Home

Verses 13-15 are similar to the previous requirements for the regular priests, but there are also some differences.

And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow or a divorced woman or a defiled woman or a harlot—these he shall not marry; but he shall take a virgin of his own people as wife. Nor shall he profane his posterity among his people, for I the LORD sanctify him.’”

(Leviticus 21:13-15)

The high priest, in distinction to the regular priests, could not marry a widow. Probably the reason for this was due to concerns to safeguard the posterity. This may be what is referenced in v. 15. If a high priest married a widow, it was possible (if she had been recently widowed) that she could be expecting a child from her previous husband. If that were the case, and if the widow was not of the tribe of Levi, there was the possibility of the Levitical line being corrupted.

Nevertheless, the point needs to be emphasised again that the requirement that he not marry a harlot, or a divorced woman or one defiled, reveals God’s concern that the high priest be seen as a man of moral purity—and this would have something to do with the moral character of his wife. It should be noted that still holds true today for a pastor (see 1 Timothy 3:11).

Verse 15 may be repeating the idea of v. 9, thus referring to the high priest’s responsibility for the spiritual and moral character of his children.

This section concludes with the refrain, “for I the LORD sanctify Him.” That is, God had selected him and therefore had the right to rule him. Each of these rules was a means by which God was setting apart the high priest (as well as the regular priests).

We should learn from this that those who are put into positions of leadership are to be there because God put them there, and both people and pastor must recognise this. This passage, rightly appreciated, will lead us to the contemplation of James 3:1: “My brethren, let no many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgement.”

Holy Body

Verses 16-23 may appear to be somewhat troublesome at first, for in them God revealed to Moses that those who serve in His sanctuary as priests, whether regular or high, must be free from certain physical defects. “The idea emerges clearly that holiness finds physical expression in wholeness and normality.”12 In other words, as is the case so often in Leviticus, the physical here symbolised the spiritual.

The purpose of these particular restrictions was to emphasise that wholeness comes from the holiness that God’s redemptive covenant ultimately envisioned. That is, one day the High Priest would come who would reverse the deformities and disfigurement and disabling effects of sin.

This passage would today be challenged in our Constitutional Court and would no doubt have human rights activists up in arms. In fact, it would probably lead to them protesting outside the sanctuary! Nevertheless, these were God’s rules. And since God rules, He gets to make the rules. The only reason that we have a problem with these (or any of His rules) is because we just don’t get it: He is God and we are not!

While these laws may not apply directly today, the principle remains. God makes the rules, and we are called to submit. God has said, for example, that women cannot pastor churches. It is not left to us to debate this issue, but to submit to it. God has outlawed same sex marriage, and we are called to submit. God has His all wise reasons and that should suffice to silence any and all arguments to the contrary.

Marks that Disqualify

There were twelve defects in vv. 16-21 disqualified one from priestly service.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, saying: ‘No man of your descendants in succeeding generations, who has any defect, may approach to offer the bread of his God. For any man who has a defect shall not approach: a man blind or lame, who has a marred face or any limb too long, a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or is a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scab, or is a eunuch. No man of the descendants of Aaron the priest, who has a defect, shall come near to offer the offerings made by fire to the LORD. He has a defect; he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God.

(Leviticus 21:16-21)

It must be stated that these disqualifications had nothing to do with a person’s dignity. It is interesting that, in chapter 22, twelve defects are also listed which rendered a sacrifice unacceptable. The teaching seems to be that both the sacrifice and the one offering it were to be holy. In other words, God wants both gift and giver to be holy. Again, those who worship and those who lead in worship must be holy.

The word “defect” means “blemish,” “spot” or even “stain.” In this case, the blemishes were physical: one who was blind; one who was lame; one who had a disfigured face; one who had a limb of unequal length; one with a deformed foot or hand; one with a curved spine; one who was unusually short; one with an obvious eye problem; one with a recurring skin condition; and, lastly, one whose testicles were injured or deformed.

We will return to this later, but for now note the ominous words of v. 23: “he shall not go near the veil or approach the altar, because he has a defect.” That is, he could not be of any redemptive help to those he would represent, because he fell short of the standard. Rather than securing their pardon, he would only the way.

A number of things must be noted.

First, in the majority of these cases, the defect was completely outside the control of the individual. In most of these, the individual would have been born with such a blemish and so he could not be held accountable as far as blame. Nevertheless, the rule stood: Service in the priesthood was indeed determined by God.

Second, God got to make the rules. This cannot be overemphasised. Since this was God’s house, He was the one who had the right to say who could and who could not be admitted. Sovereignty has such prerogative. Spiritual leadership is not a free-for-all; rather, God has set the rules for whom can serve where.

Third, as mentioned, these physical deformities were given to illustrate spiritual truths, such as, the need for integrity in the lives of those who are spiritual leaders. The outward and the inward must be united in holiness. There must not be any outward blemish of character that would be a cause of reproach.

Holiness is not merely for a certain religious area of life, and it certainly is not confined to one day of the week. Rather, those who are devoted to God are devoted 24/7—in every sphere of life. Again, 1 Timothy 3 makes this abundantly clear. Paul, in fact, argues there that God expects the leaders to behave themselves right so that the church itself will behave right (v. 15).

Mercies to the Disqualified

All hope was not lost. Verses 22-23 beautifully illustrate the mercies of the Lord to those who were excluded from serving in His sanctuary: “He may eat the bread of his God, both the most holy and the holy; only he shall not go near the veil or approach the altar, because he has a defect, lest he profane My sanctuaries; for I the LORD sanctify them.”

Though a Levite may have been disqualified from serving in the sanctuary due to a physical defect, he was not cut off from fellowship with God. In fact, he was still invited to sit down and commune with God and with the priesthood in a meal. Yes, there were certainly limitations to function (v. 23) but no limitation to forgiveness and fellowship.

Let me make a particularly important application at this point: Though it is true that some are restricted from serving the Lord in a position of leadership in the church (as elder or deacon) due to moral or vocational disqualifications, this in no way implies that they are outside the bounds of enjoying fellowship with God or with His people.

Holy Congregation

The passage concludes in v. 24 with the revelation that these words were spoken to Moses and that he then rehearsed them before Aaron, before his sons, and before the nation as a whole: “And Moses told it to Aaron and his sons, and to all the children of Israel.” In other words, this was not done in a corner but was rather a matter of public record. Everyone in the community of faith understood God’s requirements for those who would serve in the sanctuary. “The duties of the priest were an open book. . . . This placed some of the responsibility to both expect and to help maintain a high standard for the priesthood upon the laity.”13

This, of course, helped to inculcate an ethos of public accountability in the nation, and in so doing helped to guard the people of God from a priesthood that might be tempted to abuse its position. In a very real sense, there was a democratic congregationalism here: Priests who clearly violated the rules could be held to account by the worshipping community. In other words, the ones tasked by God with the responsibility to relay and to enforce His rules were themselves accountable to the people to obey the rules. They could not get a pass simply because they were priests. The same holds true under the new covenant.

The requirements for God’s leaders in His church are clear for all too see. And when the leaders break the rules they are to be held to account. First Timothy 5:19-22 is very relevant to this whole issue.

Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.

I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality. Do not lay hands on anyone hastily, nor share in other people’s sins; keep yourself pure.

(1 Timothy 5:19-22)

Paul did not exempt the eldership from accountability when they were out of line. If they did wrong, then they too were to be admonished—but on the same basis as Jesus instructed in Matthew 18:15-20. This is what Paul meant by “except from two or three witnesses.” The rules of righteous conduct are applicable for all of God’s people, and the rules for confronting those who break the rules are also applicable for all of God’s people. That is, the procedure is for all members of the local church—including the elders.

Of course, it is true that, by the nature of their position and their function, elders can oftentimes be unjustly criticised and unfairly treated. Nevertheless, they are to live exemplary lives and are accountable to the congregation to do so. If you perceive that an elder is not meeting this standard, then you have the right and the responsibility to correct him—as long, of course, as you do so having first taken the log out of your own eye. By all means, in love speak to him—just as you would expect to be treated yourself. In other words, use the Scriptural qualifications of an elder as a means for his good rather than to simply be mean to him.

These verses, especially v. 8—“Therefore you shall consecrate him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I the Lord, who sanctify you, am holy”—indicate that God expected both priest and people to be holy. In other words, God desired a holy priesthood because he desired a holy people. God wants a holy clergy because He wants a holy congregation. Tidball helpfully comments, “Israel’s call was to be a holy people. If they were to fulfil this calling it was essential that they were led by spiritual leaders who were committed to the pursuit of holiness.”14 Both priests and people needed each other for this holy pursuit.

The word “consecrate” means literally “to fill the hand” and indicates that the ordained priest had his hands full for the benefit of the congregation that God was sanctifying. In other words, there is a sense in which this chapter was calling the congregation (v. 24) to root for their leaders. To the degree that the leaders progressed in holiness, to such a degree the people would as well. As went the priests, so went the people (see 1 Timothy 4:12-16).

With this understanding, let me urge you to pray for your spiritual leaders while recognising them and the task to which they have been appointed (see 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). We are in this together and so let us root for each other rather than run each other down to our corporate ruin. Hear these pastoral words, “The people share some responsibility for ensuring that the priests live according to God’s word, and are encouraged to adopt the right attitude towards them, regarding them and considering them holy. Perhaps some congregations are too quick to lay the blame for failure at the feet of their pastors when they should be looking to themselves to see if they have cared enough, prayed enough, encouraged enough, even corrected enough, and kept their leaders focused enough on their calling.”15

Does the sign in the Roman Catholic Church that I mentioned now make more sense? Please remember that every Christian is a priest under the new covenant and therefore we are all called to the greatest vocation in the world. We all face the most powerful of enemies and so let us pray for each other.

The Holy Priest

As we have learned, the priesthood was called to measure up to the strictest of standards. But in the end it is to be acknowledged that the best of men are in the end still only men at best. None is perfect; none is completely blameless; none is sinless. Except, of course, for one.

Only one has ever been so free of moral disfigurement that He could enter the veil based on His own merit: the Lord Jesus Christ.

But what is also so arresting is that He was so marred physically on that day that He would have been disqualified under the old economy! However because His character was completely perfect, because He was the sum of all loving loyalty and the perfection of righteous fidelity, because He was the epitome of holy integrity, and because He was perfectly covenantally faithful, He alone could enter beyond the veil (Hebrews 6:19; 10:20). He alone could and can and does intercede as the perfect High Priest for all who come to Him in repentance and faith.

The Lord Jesus Christ lived a perfectly spotless, unblemished life. In His home He was holy (see Luke 2:40), and in His death He was holy (see Matthew 27:54, where He honoured His mother in His dying moments). In fact, it can be argued that it was how Jesus faced death—His holy grief—that set Him apart from all others who have ever lived. He remained faithful though His close relative and faithful prophet John the Baptist died. But further, and most importantly, observe how he faced His own death. He persevered to His death because of His confident hope that the Father would bring Him back from the grave. Though He died physically disfigured, His body saw no corruption because He was morally without blemish or spot (Psalm 16:9-11). And because He rose from the dead, we have a High Priest who ever lives to save us!

Again, this was all because He was not morally disfigured in any way by sin. And it was for this reason that He was able to come to the altar and to intercede victoriously for all who believe on Him for their salvation. He was the perfectly holy Priest who sanctifies us by His blood. And because He ever lives to do so, we know that one day all disfigurement, all death, every disability and all defilement will be no more. For behold, He makes all things new (see Revelation 21:1-5).

Yes, one day those who have been blessed to trust Christ as their High Priest will be indeed holy servants serving Him in the holy sanctuary. But there is no time like the present to begin. So may we be holy as we face grief in this life, may our homes be holy, and may we use our bodies in a way that says to the world that we will be holy, for the Lord God our Saviour is holy.

Show 15 footnotes

  1. Philip H. Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness: The Book of Leviticus Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2007), 282.
  2. R. Laird Harris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 2:617.
  3. R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 209.
  4. Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness, 288.
  5. As proof of this, consider Ezekiel 24:15-18ff, where Ezekiel, a priest, was commanded by God not to publicly mourn his wife. Evidently, had God not given this instruction, Ezekiel would have been free to mourn her.
  6. Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 381.
  7. Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus: The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 273.
  8. Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 291.
  9. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 291.
  10. Ross, Holiness to the Lord, 385.
  11. It is unlikely that the instruction was to burn her alive. The normal means of death was by stoning, and so she would likely have been stoned first, and then her body would have been burned. Joshua 7:25 affords an illustration of this practice.
  12. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 292.
  13. Robert I. Vasholz, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 253, 58.
  14. Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 260.
  15. Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 261.