The Priest in the Mirror (Leviticus 21, 22)
Topic: One Lord: So Great a Salvation Passage: Leviticus 21:1–22:33
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The Priest in the Mirror
(One Truth: Walk in Truth)
May 6th, 2018
I. Is It the Collar?
Let me ask you this: How do you spot a priest in a crowded room? (no, that isn't the opening line of a joke I heard recently)
Many, if asked that question, would say, “Oh, I'd look for that funny collar they wear. Ya know, the white one; or is it black with a little bit of white?” Of course, what is assumed in that response is that the “priest” in question is a Roman Catholic or Anglican priest and not a Hindu priest, or a Shinto priest, or a Wiccan priest (or priestess).
For many people today, because of personal experience or popular culture, it is the clothing, or more specifically, the collar, that distinguishes a Christian priest. But as we will see this morning, that's not how God would answer the question. Turn in your Bible to Leviticus 21.
II. The Passage: "Therefore They Shall Be Holy" (21:1-22:33)
Before coming to the book of Leviticus, the Bible has already introduced its readers to a number of priests: Melchizedek, the priest of El Elyon (“God Most High”), Jethro, priest of Midian and the father-in-law of Moses, and a few scattered references to the priests of Egypt, those who served the Egyptian gods.
But it is the book of Exodus that reveals God's plan to establish two priesthoods. The second of these priesthoods is the same one we've studied in the book of Leviticus: the priesthood of Aaron and his sons. Remember, Aaron was the brother of Moses, and part of the tribe of Levi. Now, every male in the tribe of Levi was set apart for God's work in a special way. But only Aaron and his descendants would serve in the Tent of Meeting, representing the nation, offering sacrifices, making atonement, and guiding people down God's path of holiness.
And it is that path of holiness, those instructions for living a 'set apart' kind of life, that we've been thinking about the last several weeks, beginning with chapter 18. Interestingly, chapters 21 and 22 of Leviticus are also part of that same path. But they are unique in that they address the priesthood specifically, and not just the people in general.
So to think about what God tells these priests regarding their personal holiness, let's break this section down into four parts. The first subsection is chap. 21:1-15. Here we read about...
1. Priestly Purity and Death and Life (21:1-15)
In broad terms, we could say this section is about funerals and weddings. Notice how chapter 21 begins. We read...
And the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people,  except for his closest relatives, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother,  or his virgin sister (who is near to him because she has had no husband; for her he may make himself unclean).  He shall not make himself unclean as a husband [i.e. with his in-laws] among his people and so profane himself.
Now, keep that in mind and look down at verses 7 and 8. God also says this about his priests:
They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled, neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband, for the priest is holy to his God.  You shall sanctify him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I, the LORD, who sanctify you, am holy.
So based on what we know from the rest of this book, and the next two books in the Bible, the restrictions placed on priests in this passage go beyond those given to every other Israelite. But why? And why focus on mourning and marriage?
Well, remember, God himself would dwell in the middle of the Israelite camp, in the holiest part of the Tent of Meeting. If we think about it spatially, the closer you moved in toward the center of the camp, the greater the degree of holiness, of purity, required. That's why some who were ritually unclean had to go outside the camp. So the closer you got to God, the purer you needed to be. Thus, greater restrictions on those who served inside the Tent of Meeting.
This is precisely why the restrictions become even more severe in verses 10-15, since those commands are directed to the High Priest. If you recall, the High Priest was the only one who could go into the holiest place, before the Ark of the Covenant, and that only once a year.
So why focus on funerals and weddings? Because they have to do with death and life. And the path of holiness is all about God's authority over and God's ideal in every area of life, especially the fundamentals like death and life. So issues related to the taint of death, and a priest's reputation in terms of sexual purity, were used to instruct the people about holiness and God's presence among them. If we scan down, into verses 16-24, we also read about...
2. Priestly Purity and a Holy Wholeness (21:16-24)
As an example of what we find in this next section, in regard to wholeness, look at 21:16, 17...
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God.”
In light of that, the obvious question is, “What does He mean by blemish?” Are we talking about a mole or a zit? No. Verses 18-20 make it clear that God has more serious defects in mind, things like blindness, paralysis, and skin diseases. So does that mean God thinks such people are substandard? Not at all. Remember, God used many object lessons in this 'school of holiness'. One of these object lessons concerned what was ideal, what was optimal, in terms of a human body. Sin is about deviation from God's ideal. Thus, the priests were to represent, even bodily, this idea of the ideal. Pressing on, third, in 22:1-16 we read about...
3. Priestly Purity and Consecrated Consumption (22:1-16)
Look with me at 22:3. We read: “Say to them, ‘If any one of all your offspring throughout your generations approaches the holy things that the people of Israel dedicate to the LORD, while he has an uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the LORD.”
So right away we have to ask, “What are the 'holy things' God mentions here?” Well the context goes on to tell us. Look at the next sentence: None of the offspring of Aaron who has a leprous disease or a discharge may eat of the holy things until he is clean.
These “holy things” were those parts of certain meat and grain sacrifices, parts taken by the priests. These portions were God's provision for the priests, since while they served in the Tent, they had no time to hunt or grow crops themselves. But this food was still dedicated to God, and thus, it was holy. Therefore, when it came to these meals, every priest needed to be sure he and his household were walking God's 'set apart' path; abiding by God's rules about eating. I Samuel 2 describes the wickedness of the priests (Eli's sons) who ignored these commands and (I quote) treated the offering of the LORD with contempt. (I Samuel 2:17)
A similar theme is found in the final section, in 22:17-33. There we learn about...
4. Priestly Purity and Acceptable Offerings (22:17-33)
Look with me at verses 17 thru 19 of chapter 22...
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  “Speak to Aaron and his sons and all the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of the house of Israel or of the sojourners in Israel presents a burnt offering as his offering, for any of their vows or freewill offerings that they offer to the LORD,  if it is to be accepted for you it shall be a male without blemish, of the bulls or the sheep or the goats.
Only three verses into the book of Leviticus, God instructs the people about what is and is not an acceptable sacrifice. In 1:3, God simply says that a burnt offering from the herd should be “a male without blemish”. The subsequent chapters, those describing the different types of sacrifices, repeat this same requirement for “unblemished” animals. This section, in 22:17-25 simply explains, or we could say, expands on that word “unblemished”. And verses 26-30 just add some other restrictions when it comes to acceptable sacrifices.
So chapter 22 slowly moves beyond the priest's person and personal life and into his responsibilities at the altar. Whether it was by that fire, the fire of the altar, or by the fire the burned in their own hearth at home, God's priests were called to embody holiness in a number of unique ways. Here's an illustration:
Imagine a downtown, corporate tower with company name and logo at the top. As you move up that tower from the janitor in the lobby to the CEO in the top floor, corner office, there is a greater degree of representation in terms of the company's reputation. The way the CEO dresses, his mistakes, his time off, his relationships, all of it reflects and affects the company more than those same areas of the janitor's life. Why? Both are employees, but the CEO's position changes things.
In the same way, all the Israelites were called to live God's 'set apart' kind of life. But the priests, because of their proximity to God, were 'set apart' among those 'set apart'. Given that emphasis, it's not surprising that these chapters conclude in this way (verses 31-33):
“So you shall keep my commandments and do them: I am the LORD.  And you shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel. I am the LORD who sanctifies you,  who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD.”
III. Our Deeds, His Glory
Now, that was definitely a quick overview, like the view from a flyover at 10,000 feet! But I hope you sensed the singular emphasis of this section: the purity of God's priests. That is the very thing I believe God would have us meditate on this morning. But why us? Clearly these chapters, Leviticus 21 and 22, were written for a very specific group: Aaron and his descendants. So what could we or should we take from these instructions?
Well, if you recall, I stated at the beginning of our study that the book of Exodus reveals God's plan to establish two priesthoods. Before there is any mention of the Aaronic priesthood, God, in a covenant-making declaration, says this to the whole nation of Israel...
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;  and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:5–6)
So it was God's plan, it was God's design, that the whole nation be “a kingdom of priests”. Yes, as we've seen in this study, God had special holiness regulations for the sons of Aaron. But that didn't change the fact that all the sons of Israel were called to holiness. And that call was connected to their priesthood. This “holy nation” was intended to be a light to all the nations of the world. But sadly, the OT tells us less about their spiritual light and more about their moral darkness.
But again, what does this have to do with us? Maybe when it comes to the idea of priesthood we should think about church leaders as modern-day priests, or fathers as priests over their families. The problem is, the NT never uses the word “priest” like that. But it does speak about a “priesthood”. Follower of Jesus, Christian, believer, listen to what our brother Peter tells us about God's calling on our lives. Turn to I Peter 2. This is only 11 verses after Peter quoted God's call to holiness from Leviticus 11:44. I Peter 2:4-12...
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious,  you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”  So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”  and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. >>>
 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.  Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.  Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Did you hear in that passage all the connections Peter is making back to the Old Testament? Not only are we as Christians “a holy priesthood”, but we are, in fact, the fullness of what God declared about Israel in the OT. Did you hear Exodus 19 quoted in I Peter 2:9?
But remember our emphasis this morning. Remember what God was stressing in Leviticus 21 and 22. Our God cares deeply about the purity of His priests. With that in mind, think about how many times, in those chapters from Leviticus, how many times God used the word “profane”. 21:6 is a good example of God's concern: They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God. “Profane” means to “defile” or “dishonor”; “to treat as common”.
Think about it: as God's representatives, as those close to God, the priests, through their holiness, were called to lift high the holiness of God; to reflect His goodness, in their choosing the good; to exalt His authority through their submission; to show His surpassing worth as they treasured Him above everything else. Do you see how that connects with I Peter 2?
I began this lesson by describing how many in our culture, even today, think a collar is what distinguishes a Christian priest. But what about you, brother priest? What about you, sister priest? What should distinguish you as a priest of Jesus Christ? Well, purity of course.
Did you see that in I Peter 2:11, 12? It should not surprise us that right after that amazing description of our spiritual priesthood, Peter instructs us to abstain from the passions of the flesh, and keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable. And why should we do that? Verse 12...so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Our abstinence, our honorable conduct, our good deeds can lead others to glorify God. Isn't that the same principle God was emphasizing for the sons of Aaron, for His Levitical priests? Brothers and sisters, in times of temptation, do you think much about your priesthood? As you order your priorities, do you think much about your priesthood? As you have conversations with unbelievers, do you think much about your priesthood? As wake up in the morning, or lies down at night, do you think much about your priesthood?
I believe Leviticus 21 and 22 were meant to do that very thing. To get us thinking about our priesthood, and God's call to purity, that through our distinction, He might be seen as wonderfully distinct; that as we choose the good, He might be seen as supremely good. As we treasure Christ in our words, actions, and attitudes, the surpassing value of Jesus will be made known within our circle of relationships. That is what it means to be a priest for Christ.
And of course that flows from the connection between Leviticus 21, 22 and Hebrews 7:26...
We read there: For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.
Our priesthood is only possible because of Christ's priesthood. Our priesthood should glorify His. Our priesthood is meant to point to His. Our position before God, so close to God, far closer than Aaron or any of his sons ever were, that position is only possible because of Jesus' position on the cross. Six times in our main chapters from Leviticus, in 21:8, 15, 23; 22:9, 16, 32, six times God reminded the Israelites, and He reminds us this morning, of the truth about who He is: “for I am the LORD who sanctifies”.
God's call to be set apart always comes after God's work of setting us apart for Himself, of calling us (v. 9) “out of darkness into his marvelous light”, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We are accepted, because Jesus was condemned in our place. God brought us up as Jesus laid down his life for yours. I said earlier, regarding the Tent of Meeting and the Israelite camp, “the closer you got to God, the purer you needed to be”. Well, the perfect sacrifice of Christ has brought into perfect closeness with God forever. Truly, (I Peter 2:10) we “have received mercy”. Amen?
And not only do His mercy and grace put you in that top floor, corner office, but His grace also empowers you for a priestly life. According to Peter, it is by God's power we are (v. 5) being built up as a spiritual house...to be a holy priesthood...to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God...through Jesus Christ.
God's encouragement to you this morning is simple: “Since you are my priest, through my High Priest, Jesus, walk in purity. As you were set apart by my grace, so live a 'set apart' kind of life, through my grace. As you do, my name will be beautified. As you do...I will be glorified.”
More in Living Leviticus
July 22, 2018Spiritual Vows and a Voluntary Spirit (Leviticus 27:1-34)
July 15, 2018Just Justice? (Leviticus 26)
July 8, 2018Belonging and Belongings (Leviticus 25)