Chapter 17 to chapter 26 of the book of Leviticus contain what are known as the Laws of Holiness. So we have all these rules and regulations about how the Israelites were to live holy lives before the Lord. According to chapter 17, holiness meant worshipping the Lord and not idols as their pagan neighbours did. And it meant not eating blood as their pagan neighbours did. According to chapter 18, holiness meant avoiding unlawful sexual relations and avoiding other customs and practices which were common among the pagan nations. According to chapter 19, the people were to be holy because the Lord their God is holy. And in the rest of that chapter, we saw that being holy meant worshipping the Lord and treating one another in the right way.
And in chapter 20, the Lord set out the penalty the Israelites could expect to receive if they did any of the things which the Lord forbade. All of those previous chapters were directed to the Israelites — to all of them — as well as to any resident aliens among them.
Chapter 21, though, — and chapter 22 — are directed not to every Israelite, but to the priests. Do you see that in verse 1? The Lord commanded Moses to speak to the priests, who were the sons of Aaron. So, these are rules and regulations for the priests who served in the Lord’s Tabernacle.
Today’s passage can be divided into three parts: verses 1 to 9 contain restrictions for ordinary priests in connection with mourning and marriage; verses 10 to 15 contain restrictions for the High Priest in connection with mourning and marriage; and verses 16 to 24 list various physical impediments which prevented a priest from serving in the Tabernacle.
Verses 1 to 9
In verse 1 we learn that an ordinary priest was not to make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die except for a close relative. Back in Numbers 19 we learned that anyone who touched a dead body was unclean for seven days; and he needed to purify himself with water on the third and on the seventh day before he would be clean again. Anyone who did not purify himself would defile the Lord’s Tabernacle and the guilty person would be cut off from the people. Those were the rules for a lay person. However, a priest was not allowed to become unclean; he had to keep away from a dead body, which meant he could not help with the preparations for a burial, unless it was for a close relative.
The meaning of verse 4 is not clear: perhaps it forbade the priest from making himself unclean for in-laws who have died. However, if you have an NIV, you’ll see that the footnote for this verse offers an alternative translation:
He must not make himself unclean as a leader among his people.
In that case, the priest was not to officiate at a funeral or lead the proceedings; he was not to be associated with the dead as pagan priests often were.
Verse 5 forbids the priests from shaving their heads and beards and from cutting their bodies. These were pagan mourning practices; and the priests of the Lord were not to do these things. Instead they must remain holy to the Lord and they must not profane his name by making themselves unclean or by following the practices and customs of the pagan nations. And they must not profane the Lord’s name by marrying women who have been prostitutes or who have been divorced. Furthermore, if a priest’s daughter became a prostitute, she not only defiled herself, but also her father, the priest. As a result, she must be killed.
Verses 10 to 15
Those were the rules for ordinary priests; verses 10 to 15 contains rules for the High Priest. He must not let his hair become unkempt or tear his clothes. These were signs of mourning. But what was lawful for the people, was not permitted to the High Priest. He must not enter a place where there is a dead body and he must not make himself unclean even for his father or mother. So, if his father or mother died, he was not permitted to help with the funeral arrangements or attend any ceremony for their burial. In fact, during periods of mourning, the High Priest was not permitted to leave the Tabernacle in case he became unclean.
You see, death was the result of Adam’s sin and it was part of the curse of the law. And the High Priest — who was set apart to serve the living God — must not have anything to do with death. Furthermore, when it comes to marriage, the High Priest may only marry a virgin from his own people so that he will not defile his offspring. You see, his male offspring would become priests; and therefore they had to be holy. And the way to ensure that his sons were holy was for the priest to marry someone who was a virgin when she was married and therefore had no sexual contact with anyone else but him.
Verses 16 to 24
Priests and High Priests were to remain ceremonially clean and they were to avoid all situations which would make them unclean and which would cause them to defile the Lord’s Tabernacle and his name. Furthermore, in verses 16 to 24 we have a list of physical impediments which prevented anyone from serving as a priest. They could still eat the holy food, the sacrifices which were shared with the priests and their families. But they were forbidden from serving as a priest in the Tabernacle. According to verse 23, they were not allowed to go near the curtain which separated the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place. Nor could they approach the altar to offer sacrifices. According to the same verse their defect meant they would desecrate God’s sanctuary. Just as the sacrifices which were offered to the Lord had to be without defect so the priests who offered the sacrifices had to be without defect.
In order to appreciate the significance of these restrictions, we need to remember that the Tabernacle — God’s dwelling place among his people — was a model of heaven, where nothing impure or imperfect or unholy belongs. Think again of Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6 when he saw the angels who surrounded God’s throne, calling: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty.’ And when Isaiah saw the Lord, he became immediately aware of his own uncleanness and he knew he did not belong there. The Tabernacle — God’s dwelling place on the earth — was a model of heaven; and therefore the priests had to be careful not to defile or desecrate or spoil the Tabernacle in any way.
But, of course, when we get to the New Testament, we discover that what really makes us unclean and what really defiles us is not something which is outside of us. All of these laws and rules and regulations about external things were given by God to symbolise and to make clear what our real problem is. And our real problem, the thing that really makes us unclean and unfit to come into the presence of a holy God is our own human heart, which is filled with all kinds of unclean thoughts and shameful desires and wicked inclinations. Deep down inside, we’re sinners; and because we’re sinners by nature, we sin against the Lord continually. And sinners cannot come into the presence of a holy God and live.
But the good news of the gospel is that we have a Great High Priest who is truly holy and blameless and pure and who has entered, not the man-made copy of heaven, but he’s entered heaven itself, in order to represent us before the Father. And this holy, blameless and pure High Priest offered himself as the perfect sacrifice; and by means of his blood, we’re pardoned by God for all of our sins and we’re made holy for ever. And since we have this Great High Priest, we’re able to draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith. In other words, we’re able to come before God with confidence, because we’ve been washed and cleansed from the defilement of our sin by his blood, shed on the cross.
The Old Testament priests had to keep themselves from outward defilement. But our Great High Priest was inwardly holy and pure and blameless and through his blood we too are cleansed and may come before God to worship him and to pray to him. And, of course, by his Spirit he’s renewing us inwardly day by day to make us more and more holy and more and more willing and able to do his will here on earth. And when our Saviour comes again, he will renew our bodies too, which will become like his glorious body, so that we might come into the presence of God in the new heaven and the new earth to be with him for ever.
In the meantime, while we wait for our Saviour to come again, we share in his anointing by receiving the same Spirit that was in him. And so, we too have become priests of God Most High. And as priests, we’re to offer to God a sacrifice of praise, offering thanks to him continually for his good gifts to us. And as priests, we’re to offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices, seeking to do his will and to do all things for his glory and honour. And as priests, we’re to be careful to live holy lives so that we do not dishonour or defile his holy name.