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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Holy God Gives Guidance for a Priestly Lifestyle
Text:Leviticus 21:1-24 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Calling

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 135:1,9,10                                                                                   

Ps 40:3,7                                                                                                        

Reading – Hebrews 7:11-28; 1 Peter 2:4-10

Ps 110:1,3,4,6

Sermon – Leviticus 21:1-24

Hy 40:3,4,5

Ps 84:1,5,6

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, sometimes there are words that get so distorted we can’t use them anymore. A word can have too much baggage for it to be understandable. I think that a very unfortunate example of this is the word “priest.” When we say priest, probably each of us automatically thinks of the Roman Catholic Church: we think of robes, and the papal mass, and hierarchy, and maybe even sexual abuse. It’s hard to separate the word “priest” from all of that, so we’re not sure what to with it.

And yet there’s such a rich meaning in the idea of priesthood. We all know the words of the Catechism, when it asks about our identity as Christians. It says that we’re members of Christ by faith and share in his anointing, “so that I may… as priest present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him” (Q&A 32). We are priests! It’s a core aspect of our calling today.

This isn’t a teaching dreamed up by the Catechism either, but one that is rooted in Scripture. For example, listen to what God says to his people Israel in Exodus 19, “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (v 6). As a people, as a church made up of boys and girls, men and women, old and young from twelve tribes, the Israelites were all priests: called to a life of worship, allowed before the LORD, and holy to Him.

They were all priests, yet God set apart one tribe for doing the special work of sacrifice and intercession—this was the Levites. In recent chapters of Leviticus, God has focused on the holiness of the “regular” Israelites. But now in chapters 21 and 22, He moves on to the holiness of the house of Aaron. And for them God sets a high standard. The priestly lifestyle was careful, it was guarded, because they avoided anything that could make them impure. For anything impure made them unfit to approach the LORD.

As an example of this, think about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. When a Levite and a priest come upon that badly injured man along the road, both of them steer clear to the other side. If that man happens to be dead, or if he dies while they help him, they don’t want to pollute themselves by touching his body. According to Jesus, the priest and Levite fail in the duty to love their neighbour. Still, what they do shows the essence of the priestly lifestyle: avoid impurity, and stay consecrated to the Lord’s service.

There is no longer an official priesthood in the church. And the idea of being a priest may be hard for us to relate to. Yet this is our identity in Christ: we are a people consecrated for worship, called to purity, and invited into God’s presence! I preach God’s Word on this theme,

The holy God gives guidance for a priestly lifestyle:

  1. laws for the priests
  2. laws for the high priest


1) laws for the priests: Our God is the God of life. He created life in the beginning, calling everything into being, then breathing into man “the breath of life.” God made life, and in his power God sustains it, giving what’s needed for it to continue. So in God’s view, death is an enemy and a destroyer. We know from Genesis that death entered the world on the same day that sin entered the world. Death is the result of sin, and it’s part of the curse that grips this world.

This background is important for understanding our chapter, for there are laws here that put restrictions on mourning for the dead. Look at verse 1, where the LORD says to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘None shall defile himself for the dead among his people.’” When there was a death in the community, a priest needed to step back and make sure that he wasn’t defiled.

In some ways, death would’ve seemed natural to the Israelites, just as it does to us. “Death is just a part of life,” we might say. But for God, death is symbolic of sin and impurity—death is a harsh reminder that God’s original intent for his creation has been broken. This was a lesson that God wanted his people to learn, so He said that dead bodies were unclean. Anyone who came into contact with a corpse was automatically defiled for a period of time. Even being in the same room as a dead body made you unclean for seven days (Num 19:14).

In Israel, there were many connections between families and clans—you could probably go to a different funeral every week if you wanted do. But if a priest was continually unclean, he wouldn’t be able to work at the tabernacle, where he was always handling holy things. So a priest was allowed to participate in funerals, but he had to restrict himself to a tight circle of people, his close relatives. A priest could only grieve for “his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother” (v 2), as well as for an unmarried sister.

Verse 4 explains the basic reason for this law, “He shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself.” This was also true in general, of course. Being a priest meant that a person had to be cautious, always vigilant for what could cause contamination and disqualify them from holy service. No wonder the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable stay far from that injured and possibly dying man. Again, they were neglecting an important duty, but their caution was right. The priestly lifestyle was a vigilant lifestyle.

In this we can see how the priests were called to be moral guides for the rest of the people. If everyone in Israel was supposed to separate themselves from impurity, then how much more did the priests need to! Their holy lifestyle was an example to everyone, for remember, everyone was called to be a royal priesthood.

You’re a priest. And today too, leading a holy life for God requires a level of caution and care. What do I mean? Living in the world that we do, it’s easy to be defiled. A mindless browsing of the internet can quickly land you in a pile of filth. Scrolling through social media can stimulate all kinds of impure thoughts. Having a careless conversation with your friends can easily turn ungodly, with an outburst of crude joking, or nasty stories about other people. How can you remain in God’s service if your mind and mouth are always filled with rubbish?

And as Jesus taught us, defilement comes firstly from within us. It’s about what lives in our heart. If we don’t keep a grip on our thoughts, they can quickly head toward envy of someone else, or descend into bitterness. Listen to what the Spirit says in 2 Corinthians 7:1, “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, and let us perfect holiness out of reverence for God.” As priests for God, we must be purified from all pollution.

The next verse continues to describe a priestly lifestyle. It’s still about a situation of mourning, but now God forbids the superstitious marks of grief that were often worn by pagan priests: “They shall not make any bald place on their heads, nor shall they shave the edges of their beards nor make any cuttings in their flesh” (v 5). Defacing the body is incompatible with holiness—for the people, and especially for the priests. The reason is explained in verse 6, “They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire.” The priests were busy every day presenting sacrifices, and for this they needed to remain holy. If they conformed to worldly practice, or became superstitious like the pagans, they were no longer set apart.

You’re a priest, and the same thing applies to you and me, says Paul: “Do not present the parts of your body as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God… and the parts of your body as instruments of righteousness” (Rom 6:13). You’re a priest, so even what you do with your body needs to resemble a holy offering: hands to serve others, ears to listen, a mouth to praise, eyes to seek what is good, feet to walk with other believers, a mind to meditate on the goodness of God.

Priests were allowed to marry, and God gave direction in this regard too: “They shall not take a wife who is a harlot or a defiled woman, nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband” (v 7). Because of the close unity of husband and wife, God says that a priest’s wife must have a holy character. A priest’s family was allowed to share in some of the holy portions of food at the tabernacle—a great privilege which came with a high responsibility.

And just as the wife’s character reflects on her husband, so can the character of the children. This is why God gives the command in verse 9, “The daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, she profanes her father.” In that time, prostitution at pagan temples was pretty normal, and sex was a routine part of the liturgy. These practices would be a snare to Israel, so a priest’s daughter who does this must be severely punished. Usually capital punishment was carried out by stoning, but here it is by burning, to show how abhorrent this was. At the same time, it sent a powerful message about the holiness God that demands.

Not just in their marriage and family relationships, but even in their appearance, priests needed to be holy. In verses 16-24, God speaks about physical handicaps that kept someone from working at the tabernacle: “No man of your descendants in succeeding generations, who has any defect, may approach to offer the bread of his God” (v 17). A priest could not be blind or lame, or have a disfigured face or misshapen limb, a growth defect or skin disorder, or any deformity.

To us these laws can sound like discrimination. But they remind us of God’s laws for sacrifice, where He says that any animal offered up had to be whole and healthy. God wanted everyone to see outward appearance as a reflection of inward purity. It was an object lesson about the close connection between holiness and wholeness.

It didn’t meant that a hunchbacked priest was morally suspect, or a handsome priest was more holy. But illnesses and defects had entered the world with the fall into sin, so these reminders of brokenness were not allowed into God’s presence at the tabernacle. Instead, the priests had to represent man as restored to the image of God, enjoying the fullness of life, and freed from weakness and decay. The priests stood as constant reminders that God wants his people to be perfect, just as He is perfect: pure and unblemished in all we do. The same is true today, as Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8).

All this regulation for the priesthood points us to our perfect priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. He was holy in every way, both a fitting sacrifice as well as a qualified priest—certified to come before God to pay for our sin.

We’ll come back to that a bit later, but we also want to see what this chapter teaches about those who are leaders in the church. God calls every one of us his royal priesthood, but they are some who are given special roles of authority, namely the deacons, elders and minister. And just like in Leviticus, such men must meet a high standard, and they must be examples of godliness among the people. Think of what the apostles said in Acts 6, when they were choosing men to serve as the first deacons, “Seek out those from among you... men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (v 3).

This is also taught in places like Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. There the Holy Spirit says that elders must “be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behaviour, hospitable, able to teach, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous…” (1 Tim 3:2-3). In every way, the church’s leaders must be models of godliness and integrity. Whether they often think of it or not, the office bearers are setting a standard for the rest of the congregation: Are they gentle in speech? Are they men of prayer, and men of the Word? Do they show grace and generosity, and do they love the truth?

And, just like in Leviticus 21, the New Testament says that the wife and children of an office bearer need to be of a holy character too. Sometimes we wish there wasn’t this scrutiny—living in a fishbowl—but it’s only natural that the conduct of a leader’s wife and children are noticed by others. They must not detract from the work, but rather they must affirm it through their lifestyle.

The list of qualifications for office bearers in the New Testament is at once humbling for everyone who serves, or for anyone who aspires to serve. For there’s no one who can meet these standards by himself, and we’re very much aware of how we fail. As the apostle Paul said about his own work in the church, “Who is equal to such a task?” Who can ever do it?

In fact, that’s true for the calling that we all have: How can we ever be holy priests? How can you and I possibly be shielded from the toxic impurity of this world, or the pollution that naturally simmers within our hearts? How can failures like us ever be useful to the LORD? The answer is in the refrain of this chapter. It’s in verse 8, verse 15, and verse 23, “I the LORD sanctify you.”

What is the meaning of sanctify? It means to make holy, to consecrate for service. It means that God empowers you with spiritual tools, and gives a willing heart, so that you can be a servant of the Lord—a royal priest. What an encouraging message this was for the priests, and for their families, and for the whole nation! “I the LORD sanctify you.” You’ve got work to do, but God will help. He’ll apply his mighty Spirit to our hearts, to change and renew us. Our holiness will never come by nature, and it will certainly never come through us simply trying harder. But holiness will come through God’s great work.

Like Paul said in Philippians 2:12, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” So we need to rely completely on the power of God’s sanctification. There will not be perfect men leading the church, but there will be men whom the Spirit of God is moving and shaping. There will also not be perfect priests filling the church, but boys and girls and men and women who pray every day for the Spirit to fill us. We pray for the Spirit to give us strength to flee sin, wisdom to know God’s will, and love to show to all.

“I the LORD sanctify you,” God says. Believe his promise, and then work with it. For, it says in 2 Timothy 2:21, “If anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be an instrument for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.”


2) laws for the high priest: We’ve seen that most of this chapter applies to all the priests, but in verse 10-15 special attention is given to the high priest. Verse 10 refers to “he who is the high priest among his brethren…” In Hebrew it says literally, “the priest who is greater than his brothers.” For there would always be one of the sons of Aaron who was set apart for the task of being the supreme mediator. This high priest represented Israel in a special way, particularly on the Day of Atonement. On that day, you remember from chapter 16, the high priest even entered into the Most Holy Place—the earthly throne room of God.

His holy office was symbolized by magnificent ceremonial robes. In putting on these clothes, the high priest put on the dignity and glory of the priesthood. When the Israelites saw the high priest in all his splendour, he stood for everything that the nation was supposed to be: he was holy, he was wise, he was privileged, and he lived close to God.

The high priest was carefully clothed, and he was also generously anointed. A fragrant blend of oil and spices was poured over his head. It meant that high priest was chosen and authorized by God for a special role in worship.

Because of these outward markers of holiness, a high priest had to be even more careful than the other priests: “He who is the high priest among his brethren, on whose head the anointing oil was poured and who is consecrated to wear the garments, shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes” (v 10). If he disturbed his appearance in any way, this would reflect badly on his office and role. And if his holiness was compromised, it was a grave danger to the whole community. If the high priest couldn’t go into God’s presence, who could? You could say that the high priest was the people’s lifeline, he was their living link to heaven and God’s gifts of forgiveness and blessing.

So a high priest wasn’t even allowed to go to the funeral of his closest relatives, his own father and mother, lest he be defiled: “[He shall not] go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God; for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him” (v 12). His duties in the tabernacle always took precedence over family ties.

When it came to marriage too, the high priest was held up to a very higher standard. A regular priest could marry a widow (as long as she was godly), but the high priest had to marry a virgin—and of course she had to be of spotless character. This was to preserve the integrity of his family line, as a widow might have children through the previous marriage. In every way, the high priest needed to focus on making sure that mediation with God could continue, that someone was available to appear before Him with atoning blood.

From our perspective, the high priest had a job that few people would want. He had to be immensely careful in all his conduct. He had to be cautious with his clothing, and guarded with his hair and appearance. And of course, he had to be meticulous with all that he did in the temple courts. When that annual day came for him to enter the Most Holy Place, there was a real possibility that he would die—struck down by God’s overwhelming glory.

To be sure, God was gracious. He allowed sinful men to approach Him, for remember, He is the God who sanctifies. He made it possible. But more than that, the way was being made ready for the great and perfect high priest, Jesus Christ. Greater than Aaron and his sons ever were, Jesus is glorious: “holy, blameless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Heb 7:26).

The high priests had to be almost perfect, yet they didn’t even come close. Jesus was infinitely better, even flawless. Other high priests had to make sacrifices of blood and come into God’s presence once every year, year after year, but Christ made one offering to God, and He did it only once. Other high priests had to sprinkle blood for the forgiveness of their own sins too, but Christ came as a sinless one, so He could give his full attention to sacrificing for others. And the greatest wonder is that while other priests brought the blood of bulls and goats, Christ brought his own blood. He was both perfect priest, and perfect offering! If you’re looking for more a more qualified Saviour, a more reliable Mediator, you’ll never find one.

And Christ our great high priest is still on duty. “He always lives to make intercession for [us]” (Heb 7:25). At this moment, Christ is in heaven, saying to the Father about us his people, “Father, forgive them. Have patience with them. Father, remember, I’ve bought them with the price of my own blood.” Christ opened the way to the Father, now He keeps it open! You’re allowed to enter God’s presence in prayer—so do so. You’re allowed to enter his presence in worship—so do so. You’re allowed to walk with him daily—so do so, with joy, with confidence, in true faith.

Remember how in Leviticus 21, the priests and high priest were allowed to have a wife, provided that she was pure and holy? Jesus our great high priest has a wife too. His bride is his church, the people for whom He gave his precious blood. By his Spirit, Christ is sanctifying his bride, purifying her so that she would be without “spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27).

Beloved, that’s us—that’s who we are meant to be: the holy bride of Christ our high priest, set apart from sin, and set apart for Him!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2018, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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