Priests and Levites
John Bennett, Pinxton, Nottingham [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
It has always been God’s desire to dwell amongst His people, to enjoy their fellowship and to receive their worship. This commenced in Eden and was demonstrated again in the tabernacle and then the temple, before being currently realized in the Church. However, in that desire God outlined every detail about the place where He would meet with His people. Neither Moses nor Solomon contributed anything to the design of either the tabernacle or the temple.
By exploring the subject of the priests and Levites, we will see that God dictates:
- Where He meets with His people – tabernacle, temple, church;
- When He meets with them – the set feasts of the Lord, church gatherings;
- How He meets with them – on the basis of cleansing and sanctification;
- Whom He allows to approach Him – every Jew, mediated by the priests and High Priest in particular; in a New Testament context, all believers (audibly represented by the men in collective gatherings).
As we consider something of the work of the priests and Levites, it is important to appreciate God’s plan. We read in Exodus chapter 19 that God desired the whole nation to operate in a priestly capacity. In the plagues upon Egypt, Moses said to Pharaoh, ‘We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters . . . for we must hold a feast unto the Lord’, Exod. 10. 9. Yet, Israel soon corrupted God’s design for them. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law, which clearly said, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image’, 20. 3, 4, the people committed idolatry, pressing Aaron by saying, ‘Up, make us gods, which shall go before us’, 32. 1.
When Moses descended the mount and stood in the gate of the camp, crying, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’ 32. 26, it was the tribe of Levi that responded. While the history of this tribe, particularly their involvement in the slaughter of the Shechemites, 1 might have barred them from priestly activity, their valiant response to the call of God at the foot of Mount Sinai highlighted their faithfulness, and God in His sovereignty chose them for priestly service. 2
From the choice of the Levites, the different families were also each given a designated task:
- The Merarites took responsibility for the outer shell of the tabernacle – the construction of the court as well as the shell of the inner tabernacle.
- The Gershonites took responsibility for the vessels associated with the service of the tabernacle.
- The Kohathites took responsibility for the vessels/furniture of the Holy Place and Holy of Holies. However, only the family of Aaron could handle the most holy elements, which were only given to the Kohathites once they were covered.
As we look at the New Testament pattern, we see God’s purpose remains. All Christians are designated priests, although New Testament priests do not operate in a tabernacle or temple. Their worship is not associated with a physical building but with a spiritual house – the people that gather in that building. It is not made up of dead stones – bricks and mortar – but living stones, manifesting spiritual life through faith in Christ. 3
A God of order
One of the other lessons we learn is that God is a God of order. He desired things to be done orderly in relation to the tabernacle and temple and that godly order extended into the detail. Those whom God had chosen had to operate in the designated way. The Merarites and Gershonites were given carts and oxen in which to transport their materials, but the Kohathites were specifically told that they must carry their materials by hand. 4 This was crucial when David sought to bring the ark of the Lord back to Jerusalem. Using an ox cart, when God had specified that the Kohathites were to carry it, led to Uzzah reaching out his hand to steady the ark and being struck down for his actions. 5
God has not changed and in the New Testament He still requires things to be done according to His pattern and in order. He is ‘not the author of confusion’ 6 and this order reflects something of His character and person. Equally, as the Levites did not all do the same things, so, in the Church, God has given gifts for the accomplishment of His work. These gifts vary and we should all seek to determine what our gift is and then exercise it, doing what God wants of us. We have the complete canon of scripture in our hands and it is essential that we immerse ourselves in that word of God to move in accordance with His will.
A cleansed and sanctified people
We also need to emphasize godly order in relation to the sanctification of those who serve. God requires those who function in His service to be separated unto Himself, sanctified for His service. We cannot be ‘split personalities’, living as the world lives and then attending meetings on a Sunday. Whilst we are ‘in the world’, we are not ‘of the world’ – we live in it but should not be characterized and moulded by it. 7
Having looked at who would serve and how they would serve, we come to why they served. The High Priest’s focus was to minister to God – to bring the worship of the people of God and offer it in the divinely appointed way. Thus, the offerings arising from the hearts of the people were channelled through the priest at the door of the tabernacle. 8
The second object of the priesthood was to maintain the position of the people based on their redemption before God. To enable worship to ascend from the altar of the tabernacle, it needed a people who lived in the good of the redemption they had experienced at the time of Passover in Egypt. 9
As we look at the New Testament pattern, we see similar truths. As believer priests, we are to offer up ‘spiritual sacrifices’, and such sacrifices are ‘to God by Jesus Christ’. Whilst we have a meeting set aside for worship according to the scriptural pattern, we should all be in a constant state of worship, showing ‘forth the praises of him who hath called [us] out of darkness’, 1 Pet. 2. 9.
It is important to appreciate what worship really means. It should be ‘acceptable to God’. For some the focus is upon the quality of the music, the professionalism of the band, the entertainment value of the presentation, and, sometimes, the quality of the lyrics. All of this has significant appeal to the human senses and emotions, and this can affect our judgement. We emphasize that the sole criterion which we must use to decide is this: is it ‘acceptable to God’? That can only be determined by a knowledge of the word of God.
Then, there is the matter of keeping ourselves in the good of the position into which we have been brought. As Ephesians puts it, we have been ‘quickened . . . together with Christ . . . raised . . . up together, and made . . . [to] sit together in heavenly places in Christ’, 2. 5, 6. But does our present state match that blessed position? As long as we live in this body, it is so easy to fall into sin and fail. This should not be the practice of our lives. Equally, once sin has crept into our lives, we should have a conscience about it and a genuine desire to resolve the matter quickly. The writer to the Hebrews states, ‘let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water’, Heb. 10. 22. And again, in chapter 13, ‘let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name’, v. 15.
The High Priest
As Aaron donned his high priestly garments, he was reminded of the character of the God in whose presence he served – a holy God. 10 The place where Aaron served was a holy place, befitting the presence of God. The vessels that he handled were holy vessels. Indeed, the whole of the tabernacle spoke of the presence of God. Equally, as Aaron came out before the people, the glory and the beauty of his garments represented the glory and honour that God had bestowed upon him as the high priest. The glory belonged not to Aaron or to his sons that succeeded him but to God who had bestowed the responsibility. On the forehead of Aaron was a plate of pure gold upon which was inscribed ‘Holiness to the Lord’. 11 Whilst this indicates the extent of divine requirements – holy in thought and deed – it was also a reminder, to his fellow priests and to the people, of the character of the God they worshipped.
A part of those garments was the breastplate and on the breastplate were twelve stones – each in their order and bearing a name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. That the stones were upon the heart of the priest indicated the place of affection the nation held in the heart of God. There were also two stones, one upon each shoulder of the high priest’s garments. On each of these stones were engraved six names, depicting in total the tribes of Israel. It was a reminder that as God was bearing the nation through the wilderness, sustaining them along the way, so God bears the burdens of His people.
In the Old Testament, the people looked to Aaron and his sons to offer sacrifices and to give judgement. In the New Testament pattern, we look to the Lord as our High Priest. His true humanity means He understands our frame. As Hebrews chapter 4 puts it, ‘we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities’, v. 15.
The purpose of this short study is to appreciate the pictures that parts of Exodus and Leviticus offer us – glimpses of what God would reveal in a fuller measure in New Testament times. However, what we see is that God’s thoughts and plans remain the same for Christians:
- To function as priests;
- To manifest godly order and exercise of the gifts He has given us;
- To be sanctified – living in close communion with Him;
- To live in communion with the Lord, that we offer up spiritual sacrifices;
- To appreciate and avail ourselves of the work of our Great High Priest in glory.
1 See Genesis 34.
2 See, for example, Num. 3. 12.
3 1 Pet. 2. 5.
4 See Num. 4. 15, 24-26, 29, 31, 32.
5 2 Sam. 6. 1-7.
6 1 Cor. 14. 33.
7 Rom. 12. 2.
8 These are specifically the burnt offering, the meal offering, and the peace offering.
9 This takes in the sin offering and the trespass offering.
10 See Exod. 28.
11 Exod. 28. 36.