Up to this point, we’ve focused our attention primarily on the Mosaic law. We have not yet mentioned that the law was administered by the priesthood. The priests were descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah.
In the Old Testament we have both the law and the priesthood; they were different, but they worked in tandem with the other. Moses was considered the lawgiver. He received the law from the finger of God on Mt. Sinai and delivered the law to the Hebrew people. His brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons were the first Levitical priests. They represented God’s requirements to the people and interceded for the peoples’ needs to God.
A careful reading of Exodus and Leviticus should provide a glimpse into some of the priestly roles:
- Leviticus goes into great detail about the priestly role of receiving and preparing the burnt offering, guilt offerings, sin offerings, peace offerings, etc.
- The priests also spoke words of blessing over the people, made distinctions between clean and unclean and cared for the tent of meeting or tabernacle.
- On their priestly robes, while ministering before God ,the priests carried the names (representing intercession) of the tribes of Israel. They also carried sacred stones (Urim and Thummim) used in seeking divine guidance.
The priests were busy with these and other duties. In short, they carried a great deal of responsibility for the community. It’s helpful to think of priests as men who brought the law of God to life and maintained it’s efficacy in ancient Israel’s communal life. In actuality, the priest is the one who administers the covenant between God and man. Consider that Moses received the law at Sinai but Aaron and his descendants were to administrate it for the people.
The priesthood is the foundation of the law. God was after perfection, but it couldn’t be accomplished with Levi and the law as we’ve seen earlier, so there must be a better way.
So if the priesthood of Levi, on which the law was based, could have achieved the perfection God intended, why did God need to establish a different priesthood, with a priest in the order of Melchizedek instead of the order of Levi and Aaron?
It’s important to understand the priesthood came first; it is the foundation of the law. The law was built on the relationship, not the other way around. To help explain this idea, consider the early chapters of Exodus. The Hebrew people were suffering under cruel bondage in Egypt. Yet even before they cried out to God, he was already at work preparing Moses as the deliverer. A favorite passage of mine is found in Exodus 2 while Moses is being trained as a husband and father:
Years passed, and the king of Egypt died. But the Israelites continued to groan under their burden o,f slavery. They cried out for help, and their cry rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and he remembered his covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He looked down on the people of Israel and knew it was time to act.
In subsequent chapters God sends the 10 plagues through Moses and Aaron and finalizes the judgment on the night of Passover with the sacrifice of the paschal lamb. If you take time to study Passover preparation in Exodus 12, you will discover that these two Levites gave instructions for the preparation of the sacrifice and application of the blood. The point is that Moses and Aaron functioned as a priesthood in the early Exodus story before the law was given in chapter 20. Now when we read in the book of Hebrews that the law is based on the priesthood, we actually see it in the narrative.
Why is this important? Well, when the descendants of Abraham were in cruel bondage, God did not send them a set of rules or commandments to provide deliverance. He had compassion on them, he remembered his covenant and revealed himself to the people he dearly loved. (Ex. 2:23; 3:14)
God’s highest and greatest intention has always been to know and be known by his people. It was only after he revealed himself that he gave them a standard to live by. This principle is evident in the New Testament as well. Christ comes as deliverer and to make the Father known, then later through the epistles he instructs us how to live. If you are struggling with this principle think of it like this – God reveals himself first before he requires or expects a response from us.
Failure of the Old System
In spite of the fact that God passionately desires to relate to his creation, he doesn’t just wink at the wicked heart. No, that is what we discussed in earlier chapters, that the priesthood and the law are used to bring us back home. But there were problems with the priesthood as well as the law. Both had to do with the physical, natural world. They depended on our performance and ability so they would need to be replaced at some point, but why?
There were two main issues.
- The people were not able to meet the demands of the law
- The priests did not faithfully execute the duties of being priests.
We have already spent significant time tackling our inability to meet the law’s demands, so let’s focus on the priesthood.
The second reason why the New Covenant was needed was due to the failure of the priesthood. Read the first several chapters of Malachi and notice the Lord’s rebuke to the priesthood. Malachi 2:7+ is a good summary.
“The words of a priest’s lips should preserve the knowledge of God, and people should go to him for instruction, for the priest is the messenger of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So I have made you despised and humiliated in the eyes of all the people. For you have not obeyed me but have shown favoritism in the way you carry out my instructions.”
He then prophecies regarding the coming of the new priesthood.
“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
We see that our failure to live up to the law of God, and the failure of the Levitical priesthood to faithfully discharge their duties both lay the groundwork for a new priesthood and the renewed Abrahamic covenant. The amazing thing to realize is that the law’s failure to bring about righteousness and the priesthood’s failure to faithfully discharge their duties were not unexpected. Quite the contrary, this was God’s plan from the beginning.
Since the priesthood did not remain faithful to God’s calling, nor were the people able to live according to the law of God, a better system was required. This is exactly what we see in the opening books of the New Testament – the introduction of the new priesthood followed by a new law, the “law of the spirit of life.” Rom. 8:2
“Rabbit Trail” – Prophetically Speaking
Before continuing, I want to chase an important rabbit trail. Several times throughout this study I allude to the idea of prophetic types and shadows. And now that we are beginning our discussion of the priesthood, I will mention it yet again. The Levitical priesthood as well as Melchizedek, who is yet to be discussed, carried prophetic implications for the messianic priesthood of Jesus.
As we seek to understand the Lords’s thoughts, one thing we understand is that he generally reveals his plan before implementing it. This revelation may consist of an event, person, object, festival, sacrifice, etc. These revelations are often called “types”. A definition of types and shadows that I like is:
“A type is a shadow cast on the pages of Old Testament history by a truth whose full embodiment or anti-type is found in New Testament revelation”.
By employing prophetic “types,” God demonstrates that he is unique in the universe. There is no other god, divine being, and no other creature that compares to him and his ability to predict the future and then bring it to pass.
“Present the case for your idols,” says the Lord.
“Let them show what they can do,” says the King of Israel.
“Let them try to tell us what happened long ago so that we may consider the evidence.
Or let them tell us what the future holds, so we can know what’s going to happen.
Yes, tell us what will occur in the days ahead. Then we will know you are gods.
“I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else,
nor share my praise with carved idols. Everything I prophesied has come true, and now I will prophesy again. I will tell you the future before it happens.”
Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God!
I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish.
Long Awaited Messiah
Throughout the long history of the Old Testament we have seen the people’s failure to keep the law, and the priestly failure to faithfully discharge their duties. The people remain locked in a system that promises hope and points to something more, but they couldn’t quite figure out the big picture. God introduces his Messiah with these words in the very first verse of the New Testament.
This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham…
Almighty God is encapsulating the life and future of the Messiah in these two Old Testament figures, David and Abraham. Abraham’s life experiences typify the priestly role of Jesus and his followers while David provides a picture of Christ as the coming king and ruler of all things. Think about this; everything represented by these two figures will have their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah. This is God’s opening statement in the gospels!
Meditation and discussion
What does it mean for you personally that the law is based on the priesthood?
Both the law and the priesthood failed due to the weakness of humanity – could we have done any better?
Put yourself in the shoes of an Israelite living before Christ looking at the prophecies, promises, type and shadows. Could you have understood God’s plan for the ages?