CHURCH 01 - Spiritual Leadership in the Old Testament: Priests

What is the function of the priesthood that God puts in place in the Old Testament? What are the principles or laws around the priesthood?

Roles of the priesthood

  • Basically priests had the role of being mediators between God and humans.
    • They represent God, God’s standard, God’s character, God’s word, God’s law to the people.
    • They represent the people before God in performing sacrifices and intercession.
  • They were teachers, examples, maintainers and interpreters of the Law.
  • They were guardians of God’s holiness.
  • They were guardians of people’s health.
  • They had a role in holding the government accountable, in providing conscience, accountability, motivation and morale.
Exo 28, Deu 21, Num 6               intercession, speaking blessings
  • Exo 28:6-14    “carry the names of the tribes before God”, not very specifically: prayer
  • Exo 28:29-30 representative of all Israel, all tribes before God, bearing them, bearing responsibility for them
  • Deu 21:5 priests are to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord.
  • Num 6:22-27 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, 23 The LORD bless you and keep you; 29 the LORD make his grace to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; 26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. 27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
  • Priests represent God before people, and people before God. They are mediators, intercessors, especially the high priest (here Aaron), but priests in general also.
  • Priests are to bless, to wish well to people, to desire good for the country, to not resent but to give, to identify with both God and people, to remind people of God as Giver.
Lev 1-7, Num 28-29                    offering sacrifices
  • Priests perform sacrifices, making atonement or a pleasing odor on behalf of oneself, the nation, leaders and private people. They thus teach the basic truths contained in the sacrifices: God is holy. We are sinful. God has made a way. No forgiveness without blood.
  • The New Testament parallel is the Christ-ordained “Lord’s Supper”.
  • The New Testament calls us to be remember, celebrate, remind, share, preach, teach and explain Jesus’ death and basic gospel truths
  • New Testament: Help people to confess sin, counsel, receive and give forgiveness, prayer, restitution, healing.
Lev 16, 23                                   Priests’ roles in festivals as the spiritual life of Israel
  • Lev 16                  Day of atonement
  • Lev 23                  Yearly festivals
  • Jos 8:30-35         Covenant renewal on Mount Ebal
Deu 11, 12, 13,14, 15                  Priests’ active role in health care, practical problems of people

“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot … he shall be brought to … the priest. 3 Then the priest shall examine the disease on the skin of his body.” (Lev 13:1-3)

  • Priests perform medical functions: If people, things or houses have diseases or discharges, also births.
  • Why does God involve the priest? What effect would this have on priests?
    • > daily reminder that spiritual and physical belongs together
    • > keep spiritual leaders on the ground, near the people they represent through involving them in daily realities and practical problems
    • > links priests to the people, especially to the sick, weak, neediest. This is a chance for relationship with people, more than in other priestly duties.
  • The priest should give people a chance to make a need known, to inquire of God in connection with the sickness, a chance to learn about the law. This ensures care by somebody knowledgeable, spiritual, experienced. People get answers to questions.
  • The priest should establish the presence of disease, diagnose which type of disease, monitor the development of the disease (spreading? abating?), find out the communicability of the disease (declare clean or unclean) and instruct the patient.
Deu 17:8-13, 21:5                      Judge referred cases together with central judge
  • For court cases that cannot be resolved at the initial level (bloodshed, assault), appeal can be made to the higher court.
  • Where the tabernacle is, a ‘judge, in office in those days’, together with the Levitical priests are the ‘supreme court’. Whatever they together decide is legally binding and must be executed.
  • Why a combination of the domains of Government and Church? Both should be experts at understanding the law, though they represent different institutions.
  • Modern application? Spiritual leaders asked to assist with ethical questions around contentious court cases. Example: David Cook in the UK.
Num 5:11-31                               Priest’s role in settling doubt in a marriage
  • Priests have a role in settling doubts in a marriage, solving marriage problems, giving God’s perspective and word, freeing a spouse from suspicion.
  • With the prescribed procedure the weight is on God to prove the transgression, not the other way round (In contrast: medieval witch tests, like touching burning iron).
  • Application for church? Need for pre-marital and marital counseling, teaching on family.
Jos 14:1, 19:51                          Priests participate in land distribution
  • Priests divide up the land together with Joshua and heads of tribes. This is a leader-ship team, representing the different domains: Joshua (Government), Eleazar (Church), heads of houses (Family or Government).
  • Why are priests involved? Are they are one needed group in a broad, legitimate leadership? Are they needed because they wield the Urim & Thummim used in dividing the land by lot? Are they ensuring mutual accountability? Are they acting as conscience? Are they ensuring a widely acceptable, lawful, consensus procedure?
  • Num 32:1-2, 28-32 The high priest is involved in hearing and enforcing the oath of Gad, Ruben Manasseh to Moses, to help other tribes with their war in Canaan.
Deu 21:1-9                                 Priests are co-responsible in the case of an unknown murder
  • In the elaborate procedure required if a murder case cannot be solved, priests presumably perform the breaking of the heifer’s neck that stands as sacrifice.
  • They function as those who receive the oath or the elders and judges who swear to not knowing about the case. Priests make atonement and absolve the leaders.
Deu 20, Jos 3, 6, 2 Chr 20         Priests’ role in warfare

Deu 20:2-4   “Before you engage in battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the troops, 3 and shall say to them: “Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near to do battle against your enemies. Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; for it is the LORD your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory.”

  • Priests are to encourage the troops and remind them of God’s sovereignty, help and commitment to them.
  • Jos 3“Priests bearing the ark… set out, follow it, so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, a distance of about two thousand cubits; do not come nearer to it’ Priests leading the people here. The water stops, they cross Jordan on dry foot.”
  • Jos 6 Israel to march around the city. 7 priests bearing 7 trumpets of rams’ horns walk before the ark, march around the city, blow trumpets continually. Same for 6 days. On the last day 7 times around the city, then shout > the walls coming down.
  • 2 Chr 20:21-22 Jehoshaphat sending singers ahead of the army …”Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures forever.” As a result the enemy armies of Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir slaughter each other.
Deu 31:9-13                                Priests’ role in teaching the Law
  • Priests read the law of Moses to people every 7 years.
  • Priests continually teach and remind people about the law (in sacrifices, rituals, festivals, in applying law to practical situations).
  • New Testament: Spiritual leaders’ role of teaching the Word (Acts 2:42, 4:33).
  • Priests are to know, obey and teach the law (Ezr 7:10).
Deu 21:5                                     Priests minister to God
  • Priests are to minister (serve, attend to) to God.
  • How? Through worship, praise, obedience, counsel, justice, assisting people to make moral choices.

Maintaining Holiness

Lev 21                                       Higher standard of holiness for priest and the high priest
  • Priests (Lev 21:1-9): can only defile themselves for a dead person if own father, mother, son, daughter, brother, unmarried sister
  • High priest (Lev 21:10-15): cannot defile himself for anyone
  • Lev 21:5 no bald spots, no shaving of temples, no cutting of beard, no gashes in flesh. Probably to diminish parallels to Baal cults.
  • Lev 21:7 no divorced, widowed or prostitute woman for a wife
  • Lev 21:6-8 standard of holiness, for God is holy … “I am the LORD, I who sanctify you, am holy.”
  • Lev 21:9 No prostitute daughter > death penalty by burning (or burning dead body after stoning?)
  • Lev 21:10 Do not dishevel hair, not tear clothes, no public grieving. Is this at any time? In context of Lev 21:10? No personal emotion since representing God’s emotion?
  • Mth 26:65 The high priest tears his robe before Jesus, but Jesus’ robe is not torn (Jhn 19:24). God attending to every detail around the crucifixion to show: Jesus is the true high priest.
  • Lev 21:16-24 No physical blemish for a priest. Again a picture of a higher standard of holiness, a picture of God’s spotless holiness, of his uncompromising perfection.
  • Lev 21:22 But people from priestly families with blemishes may eat of the holy and most holy things. Provision for all, also those with physical blemishes.
  • Why all this? To show God’s uncompromising purity, blamelessness, holiness.
  • Everything is important (conduct, detail, behavior). One can’t claim to be a priest and not live life accordingly.
  • Though the priestly calling is by birth or descent, it doesn’t fulfill unless one agrees and obeys the priestly rules and functions. Calling can be by birth, but one’s behavior in response to that calling is essential. One must live up to calling, otherwise it will not work.
  • People say ‘you are especially blessed’ (like priests). Well meant but really this is a lie: some people are favored over others. Our problem is not God’s lacking favor, our problem is not obeying his will. Blessing follows obedience, always.
  • Eli’s sons perform priestly functions but are godless, break the law, coerce worshipers, misrepresent God (1 Sam 2:12-17), are immoral (1 Sam 2:22) and do not repent on being confronted (1 Sam 2:23-25). God removes them before one of them could become high priest (1 Sam 2:34, 4:11).
  • Can a high priest refuse to be the high priest? There is no case mentioned. Eleazar is 3rd son, for the two older brothers are dead. Is Phinehas a first son? In Num 25:7 he proves leadership and zeal for the Lord. In all verses he is mentioned, he is mentioned as the son of priest Eleazar, son of Aaron, so presumably he is the firstborn, yet he also truly rises to his calling.
  • Priests have to live a higher level of holiness. Same for those working in church functions. Application? not rules but principles: How do I live? Are my habits helpful? If everybody did the same, would it build the church up, or hurt it?
  • What is holiness? Literal translation is ‘to be set apart’, ‘to be separate’. Holy means to be different, dedicated, given to God. We are not making ourselves holy by our behavior. We live according to the holiness God gave us in Christ: committed, set apart, thankful for the height of the calling that we received, living holiness out in daily discipline. Living in holiness is a response to a blessing received.
  • Repeated phrase ‘I am the LORD’, a picture of who God is, also against backdrop of very immoral idolatry all around with a different type of priesthood and sacrifices.
Lev 9:1-11                                  required ordination sacrifices for priests
  • Priests have to first sacrifice for themselves, then they can offer them for others. They regularly and repeatedly have to do this.
  • Elaborate ordination of the high priest. Was this for the first high priest (Aaron) only? For every new high priest? For every priests starting at 30 years old?
  • New Testament: Jesus doesn’t have to do this since he is a sinless priest (Heb 10:11-14).
Lev 16:1-4                                 Day of Atonement: Fear God as holy, active, present
  • No right to go before the ark (into Holy of Holies) casually, but only the high priest only once a year, on the day of atonement, after obeying detailed instructions
  • Rope around ankle, bells on the robe to make him audible, to pull him out if he dies
  • Not to take it lightly, stay in the fear of God: I am before a holy, powerful, active God
  • God is ‘visible’ in a cloud over mercy seat. ‘Cloud’ means God is here but not visible
  • Veil ripping at Jesus’ death is a powerful visual (Mth 27:51, Mrk 15:38, Luk 23:45):
  • Through and in the high priest Jesus all believers have free access to God (Heb 4:14-16, 6:19-20).
Lev 22:1-3                                 Careful use of holy things

“Direct Aaron and his sons to deal carefully with the sacred donations of the people of Israel, which they donate to me, so that they may not profane my holy name; I am the LORD. 3 Say to them: If anyone among all your offspring throughout your generations comes near the sacred donations, which the people of Israel dedicate to the LORD, while he is in a state of uncleanness, that person shall be cut off form my presence.”

  • Use of the holy offerings and sacred donations. What are these? Mostly people’s sacrificed meat, flower, free will offerings, possibly furnishings (Num 4:1-4)?
  • By giving something to God, it becomes holy.
  • Priests, Levites and full-time kingdom workers: We live off people’s donations to God. We need be thankful, have an awe for the gifts given, be aware of the labor that went into it. These gifts represent faith, faithfulness, sacrifice, obedience and trust
  • Priests, Levites, full-time Kingdom workers: Our time has been ‘bought free’ so we wouldn’t have to worry about how to feed our families. We must use this ‘bought time’ well, work hard to fulfill our calling, be accountable with our use of time. Laziness is a misuse of the gift! Work at least as hard as the normally employed.
  • Use designated resources as such, for the thing they were given to. With less clear cases (Community living): make agreements, keep them, build in accountability.
  • Need of good management, maintaining value by careful usage, fixing at the appropriate time, careful stewardship for my things and equally other people’s things.
  • Example: Believers bringing gifts to church (chicken, eggs, first fruit etc). This will be bought by people and the money given to the church. Not always respectfully treated: people try to buy it below the market price, put torn bills in offerings.
Lev 10:1-20                               Nadab & Abihu’s death, Aaron not allowed to mourn

A priest has to agree with God, to represent him, no nepotism, has to have discipline, cannot side with his sons against God. He must represent God rather than family. He has to represent the heart & emotion of God, not just perform rituals.

Num 18:1-7                               Priesthood as gift to Aaron, Levites as gift to priests 
  • Levites together must bear responsibility for offenses against the sanctuary.
  • Num 18:1 Aaron and sons must bear responsibility for offenses connected to priesthood.
  • Each is responsible for his work, his field of action, duty, authority, not for what he can’t influence. Those who lead, those who are given responsibility are more responsible than a worshiper coming and making a ceremonial mistake.
  • Num 18:7 Priesthood, service in the tabernacle and at the altar, is God’s gift to Aaron’s family. It’s a privilege, though it involves a lot of work, many rituals and rules.
  • Num 18:2-5 Levites are given as helpers, but can’t touch the utensils of tabernacle nor altar. Yet Levites can approach the priests, others are not allowed. Levites guard, attend to, take care of and manage all things around the tabernacle and the altar.
  • Num 18:6 Levites are given as a gift to assist with all things around tabernacle and altar.
  • Num 18:7 But priests must diligently perform their duties at the altar and behind the curtain: diligently, wholeheartedly, willingly, thankfully, realizing the privilege, the duty, the awesomeness of the call.
Num 18:8-20                             Priests’ due portion from offerings
  • for priests (male) priestly portion of grain offering, sin offering, guilt offering
  • for families (clean) priestly portion of elevation offerings, all the best of people’s gifts to God, all the best of first fruits (wine, grain, choice produce; meat from firstborn clean animals, animals for redeeming unclean ones, animals for redeeming humans.
  • Priests (like the Levites they are part of) get no land allotment in Israel, God is their share and possession among the Israelites (Num 8:20).
  • Generous provision, of the best of meat and produce from certain types of sacrifices. Priests get nothing of burnt and drink offering, yet much of the associated grain offerings. They get the main part of the sin and guilt offerings. Priests therefore live off both the commitment as well as the repentance of people to their God.
  • When the people are poor, priests will get less; if rich they get more. Their income is tied to the income of normal people, whom they serve, whom they represent.
  • When the people are spiritually well, priests will get much, if they are spiritually hardened, priests will suffer. God ties the income of the priests to the godliness of the people.


  • Priests are to represent God and God’s view. Their attribute is to be holiness, showing God’s character (who He is) and teaching God’s law, his will, his word.
  • Priests are law teachers, instructors. Priests’ role is for Israel to understand God.
  • Priests defend the law of God, prophets defend the heart of God, which is the same. They represent God, act as conscience, bring conviction, uphold standard
  • Priestly functions include prayer, blessing, intercession, sacrifices.
  • Priests teach the law, catch the breaking of law, administer the pathway of restoration, absolve from guilt.
  • Priests assist with daily matters, have a role in health care and in counseling
Relationship between different types of spiritual leadership
  • Jer 18:18      “instruction, law from priest … counsel from wise … word from prophet”
  • Eze 7:26        “vision shall perish from the prophet … instruction from priest … counsel from elders”
  • Significant differences in spiritual leadership of priests versus prophets: different in rules, responsibilities, clothes, functions, yet the same God and the same goal.
  • Clearly divided functions, but revealing the same God. What do we learn from that?
  • Para-church organizations tends to have a more prophetic function. Local church tends to have a more priestly function. Both is needed.