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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 28

Verse 1

1. And take thou unto thee Aaron. The calling of God is here alleged to prove the importance and dignity of the priesthood, and this too the Apostle has well weighed in the words:

"And no man taketh the honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” (Hebrews 5:4.)

Among heathen nations the priests were appointed by popular election, so that ambition alone governed their appointment; but God would only have those accounted lawful priests whom He had selected at His own sole will; and surely the whole human race together had no power to obtrude any one on God, who should interpose himself to obtain pardon and peace; nay, not even Christ Himself would have been sufficient to propitiate God, unless He had undertaken the office by the decree and appointment of His Father. To which refers the famous oath, whereby His heavenly Father appointed Him to be priest; and so much the more vile and detestable was the sacrilege which afterwards prevailed in the Jewish nation, viz., that the successors of Aaron bought the priesthood! This unworthy traffic of the office, which Josephus relates, ought to awaken horror in us now, when we see that sacred honor profaned by the family which had been chosen by God to represent Christ. Nevertheless, however they may have violated all law and justice, still the counsel of God remained inviolable, that believers might know that the priesthood depended on His authority, just as reconciliation flows from His mere mercy. For in order that it should be lawful for men to establish a priest, it would be necessary that they should anticipate God by their own deservings; and from this they are very far distant. The case is different as to the election of the pastors of the Church; since, after Christ had instituted the order itself, He commanded that there should be chosen out of the Church those who by their doctrine and integrity of life were fitted to exercise the office. Still He does not thus resign His own right and power to men, for He does not cease through them to call those (by whom He would be served. (160)) Wherefore, to shew that He is the sole author of the priesthood, God commands Aaron and his sons to be separated from among the others; and the performance of this He entrusts to Moses, whom, however, He does not elevate to the like honor. Moses consecrates Aaron, although he was never himself dedicated by anointing and investiture to the service of God; (161) whence we perceive that the sacraments have their power and effect not from the virtue of the minister, but only from the commandment of God; for Moses would not have given to others what he had not himself, if it had not so pleased God.

(160) Added from Fr.

(161) “ Ad Dei cultum.” — Lat. “ A sacrifier.” — Fr.

Verse 2

2. And thou shalt make holy garments. These external ornaments denoted the want of those which are true and spiritual; for if the priest had been absolutely and entirely perfect, these typical accessories would have been superfluous. But God would shew by this symbol the more than angelical brightness of all virtues which was to be exhibited in Christ. Aaron was defiled by his own corruption, and therefore unworthy to appear in the presence of God; in order, then, that he might be a fit peacemaker between God and man, he put off his ordinary garments, and stood forth as a new man. Hence the holy garments were, first of all, supposed to conceal his faults; and, secondly, to represent the incomparable adornment of all virtues. The latter may indeed be in some measure applied to the pastors of the Church; nor will the comparison be absurd, if we say that no others are worthy of so excellent an honor, except those in whom surpassing and extraordinary virtue brightly manifests itself. But we must chiefly recollect what I have said, viz., that in these garments the supreme purity and wondrous glory of Christ were represented; as if God should promise that the Mediator would be far more august than the condition of man could produce. He therefore declares that they shall be “for glory and for beauty.” We shall speak more fully hereafter, what I will touch upon now, as to the wisdom of the artificers, viz., that all who from the foundation of the world have invented arts useful to the human race, have been imbued with the Spirit of God; so that even heathen authors have been compelled to call them the inventions of the gods. But inasmuch as in this Divine work there was need of rare and unwonted skill, it is expressly spoken of as a peculiar gift of the Spirit.

Verse 4

4. And these are the garments. Here again I must remind my readers, that they should abandon all subtle speculations, and be contented with simplicity. I might repeat many plausible allegories, which perhaps would find more favor with some than a sound knowledge of facts. If any should delight in this kind of child’s play, let him only read what Jerome wrote to Fabiola; in which he collected almost everything that he possibly could from the writings of others; but nothing will be found except dull trifling, the folly of which it is painful even to report, much more to refute. Those who are conversant with my writings, are aware that I do not willingly find fault with the opinions of others; but when I reflect how dangerous are those itching ears, with which many are troubled, I am obliged to prescribe this remedy. Six principal parts of the dress are enumerated. What the Greeks call the λογεῖον, and the Latins the pectorale, was like a square breastplate attached by small chains, so as to be connected with the ephod. Inclosed in it were twelve stones to represent the tribes of Israel; and the Urim and Thummim were also annexed to it. But what its form might be, cannot be certainly declared from the words of Moses; and since even the Jews also differ among themselves, let us be satisfied with its comparison to a breastplate. I have no objection to the opinion, that its name (162) was derived from strength, or a treasure. But this is worthy of the utmost attention, that the priest bore the sons of Abraham as it were upon his heart, not only that he might present them to God, but that he might be mindful of them, and anxious for their welfare. The twelve precious stones were by no means given to be symbols of the twelve tribes as a cause for awakening their pride, as if they were so highly esteemed on the score of their own dignity or excellence; but they were thus reminded that the whole value, in which believers are held by God, is derived from the sanctity of the priesthood. Therefore, let us learn from this figure, that:, however vile and abject we may be in ourselves, and so altogether worthless refuse, yet inasmuch as Christ deigned to ingraft us into this body, in Him we are precious stones. And to this Isaiah seems to allude in the passage before cited, where, speaking of the restoration of the Church, which was to take place under the reign of Christ, he says, “Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires; and I will make thy windows with carbuncles, and all thy borders with pleasant stones;” for immediately after the exposition follows, “And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord.” (Isaiah 54:11.) Therefore what was to be fulfilled in Christ, was typified by the external sign under the Law; viz., that though we sojourn in the world, yet are we united with Christ by faith, as if we were one with Him; and, besides, that He takes care for our welfare, as if He bore us enclosed in His heart; and, finally, that when our heavenly Father regards us in Him, He esteems us above all the wealth and splendor of the world.

As to the Urim and Thummim, it appears probable to me that they were two conspicuous marks on the breastplate, corresponding to these names; for the supposition of some of the Jews, (163) that the ineffable name of God was placed beneath its texture, is not free from foolish and dangerous superstition. I pass over other fancies, which are equally frivolous; nor am I anxious to know what was the form of either of them; the fact itself is sufficient for me. By the Urim, therefore, or splendors, I doubt not but that the light of doctrine, wherewith the true Priest illuminates all believers, was represented; first, because He is the one “light of the world,” without which all things are full of darkness; and because in Him “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (John 8:12; Colossians 2:3.) Hence did Paul justly glory that he knew nothing but Jesus Christ, (1 Corinthians 2:2,) since His priesthood sufficiently and more than sufficiently enlightens us. As then the people were admonished that their eyes should be directed to the splendor of the priest, so now we must diligently remember what Christ Himself teaches, that “he that followeth him shall not walk in darkness.” (John 8:12.) On the other hand, the Thummim, which signifies perfections, was a symbol of the perfect and entire purity which is only to be sought in Christ; for He would not have been a meet high priest unless He had been perfect, free from every spot, and deficient in nothing which is required unto complete holiness. It is not, then, an improper distinction, that the Urim refers to the light of doctrine, and the Thummim to the life; and this is indeed in some measure applicable to the pastors of the Church, who ought to shine both in sound doctrine and in integrity of life. But it was God’s design to shew that neither of these things is to be sought anywhere except in Christ; since from Him we obtain both light and purity, when He deigns to make us partakers of them according to the measure of His free bounty. Whence it follows, that they who seek for the least spark of light or drop of purity out of Christ, plunge themselves into a labyrinth, where they wander in mortal darkness, and inhale the deadly fumes of false virtues unto their own destruction.

What the Scripture sometimes relates, as to the inquiries made by Urim and Thummim, it was a concession made by God to the rudeness of His ancient people. The true Priest had not yet appeared, the Angel of His Almighty counsel, by whose Spirit all the Prophets spoke, who, finally, is the fountain of all revelations, and the express image of the Father; in order then that the typical priest might be the messenger from God to man, it behooved him to be invested with the ornaments of Christ. Thus even then believers were taught in a figure, that Christ is the way by which we come to the Father, and that He also brings from the secret bosom of His Father whatever it is profitable for us to know unto salvation, hence that fiction of the Jews is contradicted, that the responses were given in this way: if a question was asked respecting a particular tribe, that the stone which represented it was lighted up; and that the colors of the stones were changed according as God refused or assented. For even if we allow that the Urim and Thummim were the rows of precious stones themselves, still this imagination is altogether unmeaning. But, as I have said, by the very form of the breastplate God would testify that the fulness of wisdom and integrity was contained in it; for which reason it is called “the breastplate of judgment,” i.e., of the most perfect rectitude, which left nothing to be desired; for the word משפט mishphot, often signifies in Scripture whatsoever is well and duly ordered. The interpretation which some give, that “judgment” means “inquiry,” because the priest only asked for responses when he had the breastplate on, is too restricted, and is even proved to be erroneous by sundry passages. Let this then be deemed settled, that this honorable appellation is meant to express a correct and infallible rule ( ordinem.) Because the breastplate was, as it were, a part of the ephod, it is therefore sometimes comprehended in that word; in which it may be well also to observe, that this peculiar ephod of the high priest’s was different from the others, of which mention is made elsewhere; for all of the sacerdotal lineage wore an ephod in the performance of religious duties. (1 Samuel 14:3.) Even David, when he danced before the Ark, wore his ephod, (2 Samuel 6:14;) and this custom is still retained by the Jews at their chief festivals. The rest I will introduce presently in their proper places.

(162) The Hebrew name of the breastplate, viz., חשן, is a word whose root has not been preserved in the Heb. But in the Arabic its root signifies elegant, or adorned with beauty, according to Simon’s Lexicon. There is no discoverable reason for its signifying strength, or a treasure. — W.

(163) “R. Salomon thinketh, that the Urim and Thummim was nothing else but the name of Jehovah, which was written in letters and put within the breastplate; which name some ancient Hebrews, even before Christ, did take to signifie the Trinitie. In this word, יהוה Jehovah, they would have the first letter yod, taken for the Father; he, for the Son, which letter is doubled to signifie his two natures, the humane and divine; and vau, which is a conjunctive copulative, signifieth the Holy Ghost. — Vatab. But between these words, Urim and Thummim, and the name Jehovah, there seemeth to be small affinitie.” — Willet in loco.

Verse 9

9. And thou shalt take two onyx-stones. That the connection between the priest and the people might be made more plain, God not only placed on his breast the memorials of the twelve tribes, but also engraved their names on his shoulders. Thus all occasion of envy was removed, since the people would understand that this one man was not separated from the others for the sake of private advantage, but that in his one person they were all a kingdom of priests, which Peter teaches to have been at length really fulfilled in Christ, (1 Peter 2:5;) as Isaiah had foretold that there should be priests of God, and Levites brought from the Gentiles, (Isaiah 66:21;) to which John makes allusion in the Apocalypse, where he says that we are all priests in Christ, (Revelation 1:6.) But we must remember the reason why our High Priest is said to bear us on His shoulders, for we not only crawl on earth, but we are plunged in the lowest depths of death; how then should we be able to ascend to heaven, unless the Son of God should raise us up with Him; Now, since there is no ability in us unto eternal life, but all our powers of mind and body lie prostrate, we must be borne up by His strength alone. Hence then arises our confidence of ascending to heaven, because Christ raises us up with Him; as Paul says, we “sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus,” (Ephesians 2:6;) however weak then we may be in ourselves, herein is all our strength, that we are His burden. Therefore in this old type was prefigured what Paul teaches, that the Church is “his body,” and “the fullness of him,” (Ephesians 1:22.) It remains that each of us, conscious of our own weakness, should rest on Christ; for when in foolish arrogance we exalt ourselves, we do not suffer ourselves to be lifted up by Him, to be borne and sustained by His power. Let the proud then, by lifting themselves on high, fall down in ruin, whilst Christ supports us upon His shoulders. These stones are called “stones of memorial;” and again, “for a memorial” to the children of Israel; as is also afterwards repeated of the twelve stones; which some expound, that “God may be mindful of the children of Israel;” others, that “the priest himself may remember them;” others, that “the children of Israel may remember that God is reconciled to them for the sake of the one Mediator;” but I simply interpret it, that they were a monument of the mutual agreement between God and them; as if God would shew by a visible sign that He embraced them and received them into His sanctuary, as often as they were offered in this manner.

Verse 30

30. And thou shalt put in the breastplate. From these words some infer that the Urim and Thummim were distinct from the whole work, which is before described; others think that they were the twelve stones, because no mention will be made of them when Moses relates that the whole was completed. But nothing is more probable, as I have already said, than that on the breastplate itself some representation was given of light in doctrine, and of entire uprightness of life; and therefore after Moses has called it “the breastplate of judgment,” he also speaks of it as “the judgment of the children of Israel;” by which expression he means a certain and defined system, or an absolutely perfect rule, to which the children of Israel ought to direct and conform themselves.

Verse 31

31. And thou shalt make the robe. This robe was above the oblong coat between that and the ephod; and from its lower edge hung the bells and pomegranates alternately. Although there was no smell in the pomegranates, (164) yet the type suggested this to the eyes; as if God required in that garment a sweet smell as well as a sound; and surely we who stink through the foulness of our sins, are only a sweet smell unto God as being covered with the garment of Christ. But God would have the bells give a sound; because the garment of Christ does not procure favor for us, except by the sound of the Gospel, which diffuses the sweet savor of the Head amongst all the members. In this allegory there is nothing too subtle or far-fetched; for the similitude of the smell and the sound naturally leads us to the honoring of grace, (165) and to the preaching of the Gospel. By the pomegranates, therefore, which were attached to the hem of the garment, God testified that whatever was in the priest smelt sweetly, and was acceptable to Him, provided the sound accompanied it; the necessity of which is declared, when God denounces death against the priest if He should enter the sanctuary without the sound. And assuredly it was a general invitation which awakened the peoples’ minds to attention, whilst the sacred offices were performed. There is no absurdity in the fact, that the punishment which God threatens does not properly apply to Christ; because it was necessary to issue severe injunctions to the Levitical priests, lest they should omit these external exercises of piety, until the truth was manifested. The ancients do not unwisely make a spiritual application of this to the ministers of the Church; for the priest is worthy of death, says Gregory, (166) from whom the voice of preaching is not heard; just as Isaiah reproves “the dumb dogs.” (Isaiah 56:10.) But this we must especially remember, that the garment of Christ is sonorous, since only faith, which cometh by hearing, clothes us with His righteousness.

(164) Lat., “ in malogranatis, vel malts punicis;” the latter being the translation of the V.

(165) “ Que la justice de Jesus Christ nous rend odoriferans par la predication de l’Evangile;” (leads us to this) that the righteousness of Jesus Christ makes us sweet through the preaching of the Gospel. — Fr.

(166) Quoted in the Glossa Ordinaria in loco : “ Quia tram contra se occulti Judicis provocat, si sine praedicationis sonitu incedit."

Verse 36

36. And thou shalt make a plate. It is not without reason that this inscription is placed upon the priest’s forehead, that it may be conspicuous; for not only did God thus testify that the legal priesthood was approved of, and acceptable to Him, since He had consecrated it by His word, but also that holiness was not to be sought elsewhere. These two things, then, are to be observed, — first, that the priesthood of His own appointment is pleasing to God, and so, that all others, however magnificently they may be spoken of, are abominable to Him, and rejected by Him; and secondly, that out of Christ we are all corrupt, and all our worship faulty; and however excellent our actions may seem, that they are still unclean and polluted. Thus, therefore, let all our senses remain fixed on the forehead of our sole and perpetual Priest, that we may know that from Him alone purity flows throughout the whole Church. To this His words refer,

"For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.” (John 17:19;)

and the same thing is expressed in this passage of Moses, “that Aaron may hear the iniquity of the holy things,” etc. It is undoubtedly a remarkable passage, whereby, we are taught that nothing proceeds from us pleasing to God except through the intervention of the grace of the Mediator; for here there is no reference to manifest and gross sins, (167) the pardon of which it is clear that we can only obtain through Christ; but the iniquity of the holy oblations was to be taken away and cleansed by the priest. That is but a poor exposition of it, that if any error were committed in the ceremonies, it was remitted in answer to the prayers of the priest; for we must look further, and understand that on this account the iniquity of the offerings must be purged by the priest, because no offering, in so far as it is of man, is altogether free from guilt. This is a harsh saying, and almost a paradox, that our very holinesses are so impure as to need pardon; but it must be borne in mind that nothing is so pure as not to contract some stain from us; just as water, which, although it may be drawn in purity from a limpid fountain, yet, if it passes over muddy ground, is tinged by it, and becomes somewhat turbid: thus nothing is so pure in itself as not to be polluted by the contagion of our flesh. Nothing is more excellent than the service of God; and yet the people could offer nothing, even although prescribed by the Law, except with the intervention of pardon, which none but the priest could obtain for them. There is now no sacrifice, nor was there ever, more pleasing to God than the invocation of His name, as He himself declares,

"Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me,” (Psalms 50:15;)

yet the Apostle teaches us that “the sacrifice of praise” only pleases God when it is offered in Christ. (Hebrews 13:15.) Let us learn, then, that our acts of obedience, when they come into God’s sight, are mingled with iniquity, which exposes us to His judgment, unless Christ should sanctify them. In sum, this passage teaches us that whatsoever good works we strive to present to God are so far from deserving reward, that they rather convict us of guilt, unless the holiness of Christ, whereby God is propitiated, obtains pardon for them. And this is again asserted immediately afterwards, where Moses says that by favor of the priest the sins of the sacred oblations are taken away (168) “for favorable acceptation,” i.e., that the Israelites may be sure that God is reconciled and favorable to them. I have nothing to say of the tiara itself, which some call a mitre, ( cidarim,) and others a cap; neither do I choose to philosophize too subtilely about the belt or girdle. (169)

(167) Addition in Fr., “ Et qu’on puisse condamner par le sens commun;” and which even common sense must condemn.

(168) Lat., “ In beneplacitum.” A. V. , “That they may be accepted.” The translation I have given is that of Ainsworth.

(169) This sentence is omitted in the Fr.

Verse 40

40. And for Aaron’s sons. The sons of Aaron also are separated not only from the body of the people, but likewise from the Levites; for a peculiar dignity was attached to that family, from whom his successor was afterwards to be taken. (170) And since no single individual was able to perform all their offices, they were distributed amongst them. Hence it was that they were adorned with the coat, the girdle, and the bonnet, “for glory and for beauty.” We shall see as to their anointing in the next chapter. Their hands are said be filled, (171) when they are made fit for offering sacrifices, for as long as their hands are unconsecrated ( profanae) they are accounted empty, even though they may be very full, since no gift is acceptable to God except in right of the priesthood; consequently their fullness arose from consecration, whereby it came that the oblations duly made had access to God. But we must observe that it is not their father Aaron, but Moses, who sanctifies them, that the power itself, or effect of their sanctification, may rest in God, and may not be transferred to His ministers. Perhaps, too, God would anticipate the calumnies of the ungodly, lest any should afterwards object that Aaron had fraudulently and unjustly extended the honor conferred upon himself alone to his sons also, and thus had unlawfully made it hereditary. He was protected against this reproach by the fact, that the sacerdotal dignity came to them from elsewhere. Besides, by these means the posterity of Moses was more certainly deprived of the hope they may have conceived in consideration of what their father was. Therefore Moses, by inaugurating the children of Aaron, reduced his own to their proper place, lest ally ambition should hereafter tempt them, or lest envy should possess them when they saw themselves put below others.

(170) “ Les successeurs de la souveraine sacrificature;” the successors in the sovereign priesthood.

(171) A.V., “consecrate,” v. 41. Margin, “ fill their hand;” i.e., says Rosenmuller, in loco, “ thou shalt deliver them the power of their office. Le Clerc suggests that the phrase is perhaps borrowed from some ancient oriental rite, in which the ensigns of office were put into the hands of those to whom it was entrusted. It appears also, from the following chapter, ver. 24, that all the sacred offerings were placed by Moses in the hands of the priests at their inauguration."

Verse 42

42. And thou shalt make them linen breeches. Since men, in their natural levity and frowardness, lay hold of the very slightest causes of offense to the disparagement of holy things, and so religion easily sinks into contempt, God here, as a precaution against such a danger, delivers a precept respecting an apparently trivial matter, viz., that the priests should cover their nakedness with breeches. The sum is, that they should conduct themselves chastely and modestly, lest, if anything improper or indecorous should appear in them, the majesty of holy things should be impaired. Some, therefore, thus explain the clause, “that they may minister in holiness,” (172) as if it were said, “that they may be pure from every stain, and may not desecrate God’s service.” In my opinion, however, the word קודש kodesh, should be taken for the sanctuary; and this is the more natural sense. A threat is added, that if they neglected this observance it would not be with impunity, since they would bring guilt upon themselves. Nor can we wonder at this, since all carelessness and negligence in the performance of sacred duties is closely connected with impiety and contempt of God. What immediately follows as to its being a perpetual law or statute, some, in my judgment improperly, restrict to the precept respecting the breeches, for it has a natural reference to the other ordinances of the priesthood. God therefore declares generally, that the Law which He gives is not for a little time, but that it may always remain in force as regards His elect people; whence we infer that the word עולם gnolam (173) whenever the legal types are in question, attains its end in the advent of Christ; and assuredly this is the true perpetuity of the ceremonies, that they should rest in Christ, who is their full truth and substance. For, since in Christ was at length manifested what was then delineated in shadows, these figures are established, because their use has ceased after the manifestation of their reality. And this we have already seen was long ago foretold by David, when he substitutes for the Levitical priesthood another “after the order of Melchisedec,” (Psalms 110:4;) but the dignity being transferred, as the Apostle well reminds us, the Law and all the statutes must be of necessity transferred also. (Hebrews 7:12.) The ancient rites, therefore, are now at an end, because they do not accord with the spiritual priesthood of Christ; and herein the twofold sacrilege of the Papacy betrays itself, in that mortal men have dared to substitute another third priesthood for that of Christ, as if His were transitory; and also, in their foolish imitation of the Jews, have heaped together ceremonies which are directly opposed to the nature of Christ’s priesthood. They reply, indeed, that His priesthood remains entire, although they have innumerable sacrifices; but they vainly endeavor to escape by this subterfuge, for if it was unlawful to change, or to innovate anything in the legal priesthood, how much less is it lawful to corrupt the priesthood of Christ by strange inventions, when its integrity has been ratified by the inviolable oath of God? The Father says to the Son, “Thou art a priest for ever;” how, then, does it avail to make the silly assertion that nothing is taken away from Christ, when an innumerable multitude (of priests) are appointed? How do these things accord, that He was anointed to offer Himself by the Spirit, and yet that He is offered by others? that by one offering He completed His work unto our full justification, and yet that He is offered daily? Now, if there be now-a-days no lawful priest except such an one as possesses in himself what was foreshewn in the ancient types, let them bring forth priests adorned with angelic purity, and as it were separate from the ranks of men, otherwise we shall be at liberty to repudiate all who are defiled by the very slightest stain. Hence, too, has arisen their second sacrilege, viz., that they have dared to obscure the brightness of the gospel with a new Judaism. They were altogether without the means of proving their priesthood, and so their easiest plan was to envelop their vanity in an immense mass of ceremonies, and, as it were, to shut out the light by clouds. So much the more diligently, then, must believers beware of departing from the pure institution of Christ, if they desire to have Him for their one and eternal Mediator.

(172) “To minister in the holy place.” — A. V.

(173) The primary signification of this word is hidden; hence a period of time, of which either the end or the beginning is hidden; and therefore frequently it is used for eternity, or as in the A. V., for ever. — W.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Exodus 28". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.