The Heb. kohen, Gr. hierus, Lat. sacerdos, always denote one who offers sacrifices.
At first every man was his own priest, and presented his own sacrifices before God. Afterwards that office devolved on the head of the family, as in the cases of Noah ( Genesis 8:20 ), Abraham ( 12:7 ; 13:4 ), Isaac ( 26:25 ), Jacob ( 31:54 ), and Job ( Job 1:5 ).
The name first occurs as applied to Melchizedek ( Genesis 14:18 ). Under the Levitical arrangements the office of the priesthood was limited to the tribe of Levi, and to only one family of that tribe, the family of Aaron. Certain laws respecting the qualifications of priests are given in Leviticus 21:16-23 . There are ordinances also regarding the priests' dress ( Exodus 28:40-43 ) and the manner of their consecration to the office ( 29:1-37 ).
Their duties were manifold ( Exodus 27:20 Exodus 27:21 ; 29:38-44 ; Leviticus 6:12 ; 10:11 ; 24:8 ; Numbers 10:1-10 ; Deuteronomy 17:8-13 ; 33:10 ; Malachi 2:7 ). They represented the people before God, and offered the various sacrifices prescribed in the law.
"The priests were not distributed over the country, but lived together in certain cities [forty-eight in number, of which six were cities of refuge, q.v.], which had been assigned to their use. From thence they went up by turns to minister in the temple at Jerusalem. Thus the religious instruction of the people in the country generally was left to the heads of families, until the establishment of synagogues, an event which did not take place till the return from the Captivity, and which was the main source of the freedom from idolatry that became as marked a feature of the Jewish people thenceforward as its practice had been hitherto their great national sin."
The whole priestly system of the Jews was typical. It was a shadow of which the body is Christ. The priests all prefigured the great Priest who offered "one sacrifice for sins" "once for all" ( Hebrews 10:10 Hebrews 10:12 ). There is now no human priesthood. (See Epistle to the Hebrews throughout.) The term "priest" is indeed applied to believers ( 1 Peter 2:9 ; Revelation 1:6 ), but in these cases it implies no sacerdotal functions. All true believers are now "kings and priests unto God." As priests they have free access into the holiest of all, and offer up the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and the sacrifices of grateful service from day to day.
The English word is derived from the Greek presbyter , signifying an "elder" (Heb. cohen ). Origin. --The idea of a priesthood connects itself in all its forms, pure or corrupted, with the consciousness, more or less distinct of sin. Men feel that they have broken a law. The power above them is holier than they are, and they dare not approach it. They crave for the intervention of some one of whom they can think as likely to be more acceptable than themselves. He must offer up their prayers, thanksgivings, sacrifices. He becomes their representative in "things pertaining unto God." He may become also (though this does not always follow) the representative of God to man. The functions of the priest and prophet may exist in the same person. No trace of a hereditary or caste priesthood meets us in the worship of the patriarchal age. Once and once only does the word cohen meet us as belonging to a ritual earlier than the time of Abraham. Melchizedek is "the priest of the most high God." ( Genesis 14:18 ) In the worship of the patriarchs themselves, the chief of the family, as such, acted as the priest. The office descended with the birthright, and might apparently he transferred with it. When established. --The priesthood was first established in the family of Aaron, and all the sons of Aaron were priests. They stood between the high priest on the one hand and the Levites on the other. [HIGH PRIEST; LEVITES] The ceremony of their consecration is described in HIGH PRIEST - 1986 ( Exodus 29:1 ; Leviticus 8:1 ) ... Dress. --The dress which the priests wore during their ministrations consisted of linen drawers, with a close-fitting cassock, also of linen, white, but with a diamond or chess-board pattern on it. This came nearly to the feet, and was to be worn in its garment shape. Comp. ( John 19:23 ) The white cassock was gathered round the body with a girdle of needle work, in which, as in the more gorgeous belt of the high priest, blue, purple and scarlet were intermingled with white, and worked in the form of flowers. ( Exodus 28:39 Exodus 28:40 ; 39:2 ; Ezekiel 44:17-19 ) Upon their heads the were to wear caps or bonnets in the form of a cup-shaped flower, also of fine linen. In all their acts of ministration they were to be bare footed. Duties . --The chief duties of the priests were to watch over the fire on the altar of burnt offering, and to keep it burning evermore both by day and night, ( Leviticus 6:12 ; 2 Chronicles 13:11 ) to feed the golden lamp outside the vail with oil ( Exodus 27:20 Exodus 27:21 ; Leviticus 24:2 ) to offer the morning and evening sacrifices, each accompanied with a meet offering and a drink offering, at the door of the tabernacle. ( Exodus 29:38-44 ) They were also to teach the children of Israel the statutes of the Lord. ( Leviticus 10:11 ; 33:10 ; 2 Chronicles 15:3 ; Ezekiel 44:23 Ezekiel 44:24 ) During the journeys in the wilderness it belonged to them to cover the ark and all the vessels of the sanctuary with a purple or scarlet cloth before the Levites might approach them. ( Numbers 4:5-15 ) As the people started on each days march they were to blow "an alarm" with long silver trumpets. ( Numbers 10:1-8 ) Other instruments of music might be used by the more highly-trained Levites and the schools of the prophets, but the trumpets belonged only to the priests, The presence of the priests on the held of battle, ( 1 Chronicles 12:23 1 Chronicles 12:27 ; 2 Chronicles 20:21 2 Chronicles 20:22 ) led, in the later periods of Jewish history, to the special appointment at such times of a war priest. Other functions were hinted at in Deuteronomy which might have given them greater influence as the educators and civilizers of the people. They were to act (whether individually or collectively does not distinctly appear) as a court of appeal in the more difficult controversies in criminal or civil cases. ( 17:8-13 ) It must remain doubtful however how far this order kept its ground during the storms and changes that followed, Functions such as these were clearly incompatible with the common activities of men. Provision for support . --This consisted --
prest (kohen, "priest," "prince," "minister"; hiereus archiereus; for hiereus megas, of Hebrews 10:21, see Thayer's Lexicon, under the word hiereus:
I. NATURE OF THE PRIESTLY OFFICE
1. Implies Divine Choice
2. Implies Representation
3. Implies Offering Sacrifice
4. Implies Intercession
II. THE TWO GREAT PRIESTS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT, MELCHIZEDEK AND AARON
III. PRIESTLY FUNCTIONS AND CHARACTER
1. A Strictly Religious Order
2. Priestism Denied
3. The High Priest's Qualifications
4. Symbolism of Aaron's Rod
IV. CONSECRATION OF AARON AND HIS SONS (EXODUS 29; LEVITICUS 8)
1. Symbolism of Consecration
2. Type and Archetype
A priest is one who is duly authorized to minister in sacred things, particularly to offer sacrifices at the altar, and who acts as mediator between men and God. In the New Testament the term is applied to priests of the Gentiles (Acts 14:13), to those of the Jews (Matthew 8:4), to Christ (Hebrews 5:5,6), and to Christians (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6). The office of priest in Israel was of supreme importance and of high rank. The high priest stood next the monarch in influence and dignity. Aaron, the head of the priestly order, was closely associated with the great lawgiver, Moses, and shared with him in the government and guidance of the nation. It was in virtue of the priestly functions that the chosen people were brought into near relations with God and kept therein. Through the ministrations of the priesthood the people of Israel were instructed in the doctrine of sin and its expiation, in forgiveness and worship. In short, the priest was the indispensable source of religious knowledge for the people, and the channel through which spiritual life was communicated.
I. Nature of the Priestly Office.
1. Implies Divine Choice:
The Scriptures furnish information touching this point. To them we at once turn. Priesthood implies choice. Not only was the office of divine institution, but the priest himself was divinely-appointed thereto. "For every high priest, being taken from among men, is appointed for men in things pertaining to God. .... And no man taketh the honor unto himself, but when he is called of God, even as was Aaron" (Hebrews 5:1,4). The priest was not elected by the people, much less was he self-appointed. Divine selection severed him from those for whom he was to act. Even our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, came not into the world unsent. He received His commission and His authority from the fountain of all sovereignty. At the opening of His earthly ministry He said, "He anointed me. .... He hath sent me" (Luke 4:18). He came bearing heavenly credentials.
2. Implies Representation:
It implies the principle of representation. The institution of the office was God's gracious provision for a people at a distance from Him, who needed one to appear in the divine presence in their behalf. The high priest was to act for men in things pertaining to God, "to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Hebrews 2:17). He was the mediator who ministered for the guilty. "The high priest represented the whole people. All Israelites were reckoned as being in him. The prerogative held by him belonged to the whole of them (Exodus 19:6), but on this account it was transferred to him because it was impossible that all Israelites should keep themselves holy as became the priests of Yahweh" (Vitringa). That the high priest did represent the whole congregation appears, first, from his bearing the tribal names on his shoulders in the onyx stones, and, second, in the tribal names engraved in the twelve gems of the breastplate. The divine explanation of this double representation of Israel in the dress of the high priest is, he "shall bear their names before Yahweh upon his two shoulders for a memorial" (Exodus 28:12,19). Moreover, his committing heinous sin involved the people in his guilt:
"If the anointed priest shall sin so as to bring guilt on the people" (Leviticus 4:3). The Septuagint reads, "If the anointed priest shall sin so as to make the people sin." The anointed priest, of course, is the high priest. When he sinned the people sinned. His official action was reckoned as their action. The whole nation shared in the trespass of their representative. The converse appears to be just as true. What he did in his official capacity, as prescribed by the Lord, was reckoned as done by the whole congregation: "Every high priest .... is appointed for men" (Hebrews 5:1).
3. Implies Offering Sacrifice:
It implies the offering of sacrifice. Nothing is clearer in Scripture than this priestly function. It was the chief duty of a priest to reconcile men to God by making atonement for their sins; and this he effected by means of sacrifice, blood-shedding (Hebrews 5:1; 8:3). He would be no priest who should have nothing to offer. It was the high priest who carried the blood of the sin offering into the Most Holy Place and who sprinkled it seven times on and before the mercy-seat, thus symbolically covering the sins of the people from the eyes of the Lord who dwelt between the cherubim (Psalms 80:1). It was he also who marked the same blood on the horns of the altar of burnt offering in the Court of the Tabernacle, and on those of the golden altar, that the red sign of propitiation might thus be lifted up in the sight of Yahweh, the righteous Judge and Redeemer.
4. Implies Intercession:
It implies intercession. In the priestly ministry of Aaron and his sons this function is not so expressly set forth as are some of their other duties, but it is certainly included. For intercession is grounded in atonement. There can be no effective advocacy on behalf of the guilty until their guilt is righteously expiated. The sprinkling of the blood on the mercy-seat served to cover the guilt from the face of God, and at the same time it was an appeal to Him to pardon and accept His people. So we read that after Aaron had sprinkled the blood he came forth from the sanctuary and blessed Israel (Leviticus 9:22-24; Numbers 6:22-27).
II. The Two Great Priests of the Old Testament, Melchizedek and Aaron:
These were Melchizedek and Aaron. No others that ever bore the name or discharged the office rank with these, save, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom they were distinguished types. Of the two, Melchizedek was the greater. There are two reasons why they are to be considered chiefs:
first, because they are first in their respective orders. Melchizedek was not only the head of his order, but he had no successor. The office began and terminated with him (Hebrews 7:3). The ordinary priests and the Levites depended for their official existence on Aaron. Apart from him they would not be priests. Second, the priesthood of Christ was typified by both. The office is summed up and completed in Him. They were called and consecrated that they might be prophecies of Him who was to come and in whom all priesthood and offering and intercession would find its ample fulfillment. In the Epistle to the Hebrews the priesthood of both these men is combined and consummated in Christ. But let it be noted that while He is of the order of Melchizedek He exercises the office after the pattern of Aaron. He perfects all that Aaron did typically, because He is the true and the real Priest, while Aaron is but a figure.
III. Priestly Functions and Character.
1. A Strictly Religious Order:
These are minutely prescribed in the Law. In the institution of the office the Lord's words to Moses were, "Take thou unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office" (Exodus 28:1 the King James Version). Their duties were strictly religious. They had no political power conferred upon them. Their services, their dependent position, and the way in which they were sustained, i.e. by the free gifts of the people, precluded them from exercising any undue influence in the affairs of the nation. It is true that in process of time the high office degenerated, and became a thing of barter and sale in the hands of unscrupulous and corrupt men, but as originally appointed the priesthood in Israel was not a caste, nor a hierarchy, nor a political factor, but a divinely-appointed medium of communication between God and the people.
2. Priestism Denied:
The Hebrew priests in no wise interfered with the conscience of men. The Hebrew worshipper of his own free will laid his hand on the head of his sacrifice, and confessed his sins to God alone. His conscience was quite free and untrammeled.
3. The High Priest's Qualifications:
There were certain duties which were peculiar to the high priest. He alone could wear the "garments for glory and for beauty." To him alone it pertained to enter the Most Holy Place and to sprinkle the blood of the sin offering on the mercy-seat. To him alone it pertained to represent the congregation before the Lord as mediator, and to receive the divine communications. He was to be ceremonially pure and holy. He must be physically perfect. Any defect or deformity disqualified a member of the priestly family from performing the duties of the office (Leviticus 21:17-21). The Law spoke with the utmost precision as to the domestic relations of the high priest. He could marry neither a widow, nor a divorced woman, nor one polluted, nor a harlot; only a virgin of his own people, a Hebrew of pure extraction, could become his wife (Leviticus 21:14,15). Nor was he to come in contact with death. He must not rend his clothes, nor defile himself, even for his father or his mother (Leviticus 21:10,11). His sons might defile themselves for their kin, but the high priest must not. For he was the representative of life. Death did not exist for him, in so far as he was a priest. God is the Ever-Living, the Life-Giving; and His priest, who had "the crown of the anointing oil of his God upon him," had to do with life alone.
4. Symbolism of Aaron's Rod:
Adolph Saphir believes there is deep significance in the miracle of Aaron's rod that budded and bare almonds (Numbers 17). It was a visible sign of the legitimacy of Aaron's priesthood and a confirmation of it, and a symbol of its vitality and fruitfulness. The twelve rods of the tribes were dead sticks of wood, and remained dead; Aaron's alone had life and produced blossoms and fruit. It was the emblem of his office which correlated itself with life, and had nothing to do with death.
IV. Consecration of Aaron and His Sons (Exodus 29; Leviticus 8).
The process of the consecration is minutely described and is worthy of a more detailed and careful study than can here be given it. Only the more prominent features are noticed.
(1) Both the high priest and his sons were together washed with water (Exodus 29:4). But when this was done, the high priest parted company with his sons.
(2) Next, Aaron was arrayed in the holy and beautiful garments, with the breastplate over his heart, and the holy crown on his head, the mitre, or turban, with its golden plate bearing the significant inscription, "Holy to Yahweh." This was Aaron's investiture of the high office.
(3) He was then anointed with the precious oil. It is noteworthy that Moses poured the oil on his head. When he anointed the tabernacle and its furniture he sprinkled the oil, but in Aaron's case there was a profusion, an abundance in the anointing (Psalms 133:2).
(4) After the anointing of the high priest the appointed sacrifices were offered (Exodus 29:10). Up to this point in the ceremony Aaron was the principal figure, the sons having no part save in the bathing. But after the offerings had been made the sons became prominent participants in the ceremonies, sharing equally with the high priest therein.
(5) The blood of the offering was applied to the person of father and sons alike (Exodus 29:20,21). On the tip of the right ear, on the thumb of the right hand, and on the great toe of the right foot was the consecrating blood-mark set.
1. Symbolism of Consecration:
The significance of this action should not escape the reader. The whole person and career of the priest were thus brought under power of the blood. He had a blood-stained ear that he might hear and obey the divine injunctions, that he might understand the word of Yahweh and interpret it to the people. His will was brought into subjection to the will of His Lord that he might be a faithful minister in things pertaining to God. He had a blood-stained hand that he might execute, rightly and efficiently, the services of the sanctuary and the duties of his great office. He had likewise a blood-stained foot that he might walk in the statutes and commandments of the Lord blameless, and tread the courts of the Lord's house as the obedient servant of the Most High. Sacrificial blood, the blood of atonement, is here, as everywhere else, the foundation for saints and sinners, for priests and ministers alike, in all their relations with God.
2. Type and Archetype:
The priests of Israel were but dim shadows, obscure sketches and drafts of the one Great Priest of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Without drawing out at length the parallelism between the type and the archetype, we may sum up in a few brief sentences the perfection found in the priestly character of Christ:
(1) Christ as Priest is appointed of God (Hebrews 5:5).
(2) He is consecrated with an oath (Hebrews 7:20-22).
(3) He is sinless (Hebrews 7:26).
(4) His priesthood is unchangeable (Hebrews 7:23,24).
(6) His intercession is all-prevailing (Hebrews 7:25).
See CHRIST, OFFICES OF, sec. V.
Smith, DB; HDB; P. Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture, II; Soltau, Exposition of the Tabernacle; the Priestly Garments and the Priesthood; Martin, Atonement; A.B. Davidson, Hebrews; Moorehead, Mosaic Institutions.
William G. Moorehead
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