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Bible Commentaries

Seiss' Lectures on Leviticus and Revelation

Leviticus 21

Verses 1-24

; Leviticus 22:1-33

Eighteenth Lecture.
Personal Requirements of the Priests

Leviticus 21:1-24; Leviticus 22:1-33

Suggestive of requisites to efficiency in the Gospel ministry—Why the priest had to be physically perfect—Why purely mated—Why his children should be pure—Why required to be holy—The moral character of the Lord Jesus—Why the priest was not to give way to grief at the death of relatives—Christ’s greatest sympathies not carnal but

In the chapters last under consideration, we had the laws for holy living, as they applied to the people generally. We now enter upon a list of corresponding requirements relating specifically to the priests. God holds all public officers to a special accountability. He looks with a jealous eye upon all who exercise authority, and particularly upon those who are called to minister at his altars. When he puts men in office, and entrusts them with administrations over their fellow-men, he lays his solemn demands upon them, and holds them with a tighter rein. Office and high station are mighty things. It is by them that the masses are moved and moulded. They are the fountains of social influence, the springs of public sentiment, the hands which fashion the destiny of society. They therefore impose awful responsibilities upon those who occupy them.

The Jewish priest was an exalted officer. The high-priest especially held the highest position of any man upon earth. He occupied relations to God and man above all others. He was the centre of the whole Mosaic system. He was the grand impersonation of the Hebrew religion. It was through him the people came to God, and through him and his ministrations that God let forth his favors to the people. He was to be the interpreter of the divine will to the tribes of Israel, and to bear their offerings of gratitude and penitence to Jehovah. The whole religion of the nation leaned upon him. He was not a king; yet he was more than a king. He was not a prophet; but he was more than a prophet. He was Priest of the Most High God; and in this respect he occupied an elevation above all his fellows. So conspicuous a personage, and so deeply identified with everything sacred, needed to be a man of special excellence, or religion itself would suffer from the deficiency. Neither could he typify Christ without the utmost personal perfection and social purity. God has therefore laid down the most rigid laws upon this subject. The Jewish priest was required to be in all respects a complete man, symmetrical in all his members, perfect in his humanity, not crooked, not maimed, not diseased. He that had any bodily blemish was not allowed to enter this office, or to touch anything relating to its functions. He had also to be entirely free from any suspicious social alliances. Even his wife had to be a particular kind of a woman, and also his daughter. Nothing about him, that could in any way be made a subject of reproach, was at all allowable. And even then, his office was to rise paramount to all social ties and sympathies. Under the severest domestic afflictions, he was always to remember that he was a priest, and not permit himself to be unfitted for the priest’s duties by giving way to the promptings of grief. God said of all these things: "He shall not defile himself, being a chief among his people." He had to be blameless, a model man, a consecrated officer, who was to know nothing but his calling.

Some have reasoned from this to the Christian ministry, and apply to the preacher what was laid down for the priest. If this were allowable in a literal sense, there could be no legitimate minister of Christ who is not of the tribe of Levi, and of the house of Aaron. No man could be a priest under these rules but a Jew of this particular stock. And to say that no one has a right to preach the Gospel but a Levite of the flesh, is more than Christians generally would undertake to do. And if one of these laws is inapplicable to the Gospel ministry, of course the others are also, except so far as founded upon other principles than the mere regulation of the Jewish priesthood.

There is a sense, however, in which these ancient laws become suggestive of what is very important to a proper and successful ministry of the Gospel. Paul’s portraiture of a bishop takes in many of the; requirements which rested upon the old priesthood. "A bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient; not a brawler; not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must have a good report of them which are without." (1 Timothy 3:2-7.)

It is a truth, my brethren, which ought ever to be before the minds of those who minister in holy things, and deeply graven upon their hearts, that righteousness of life, and consistency in private conduct, is the most vital element of a preacher’s power, Let his ordination, his talents, his attainments, his eloquence, be what they may, without a life corresponding to his teachings, he is only "as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal." Actions speak louder than words. Character is more eloquent than rhetoric. What a man is, always has more weight than what he says. And to preach Christ, and act antichrist; or to give people good instruction, coupled with a bad example, is but beckoning to them with the head to show them the way to heaven, while we take them by the hand to lead them in the way to hell. If a man’s character contradicts his teaching, people may admire his learning and his fluency, but he will have no power over their consciences and hearts. His badness by no means exempts them from receiving and obeying the truth; but they will ever be finding apology in his inconsistencies for despising his pious counsels. Human nature is at any rate disinclined to be schooled. Self-love is wounded at the idea of submitting to receive instruction and warning as if from one wiser and better than ourselves. And when one comes to us in this high office, and reproves our wickedness, we are tempted to avenge ourselves by carping, either at the doctrine or the teacher. He at once becomes an object of our unamiable scrutiny. We want to know who made him a judge over us, and what better he is than those whom he has undertaken to rebuke and correct. And if so fair a mark for censure be himself in darkness while undertaking to guide the blind, there is something in us which grows indignant, and turns upon him with a resentment against which all his learning and eloquence are powerless. "Physician, heal thyself;" is the sentiment that rises in our hearts, and breaks the force of all his good words. An unholy, unprincipled preacher, must ever be an object of unmitigated contempt. He will be hissed and reprobated to his very grave. And it is right that he should be. God has made it the first business of him who is a leader in holy things, to see to it that he himself has submitted to the Gospel which he asks others to obey. Not only the lynx eyes and argus eyes of unconverted men are upon him, to search and sift him, to magnify his deficiencies, drag forward his defects, and thus break his influence; but the all-seeing eye of Jehovah is upon him, and the hand of a heavenly Master holds him over to the solemn judgment, to act according to what he preaches. Like the high-priest, he is "chief man among his people," and all their interests, as well as his own, demand that he should "walk as becometh the Gospel." And if withal he is inconsistent, dishonest, trifling, and faithless, it is but just that the condemnation of heaven and earth should be upon him. "A bishop must be blameless."

And in the same proportion that an unholy life weakens a minister’s influence, does uprightness, fidelity, and consistency, enhance it. A truly honest and good man, whatever his sphere, will always have weight. However people may revile his profession, they always feel rebuked in his presence, and pay homage to him in their secret souls. There is might in virtue. It tells upon a man in spite of him. It strikes at once into the heart and conscience. It is more powerful than eloquence. It is the most effective armor that man can wear. And when a minister has a pure and spotless life to sustain his profession, he becomes a host in strength. His silence is a sermon, and his words are sharp in the hearts of his enemies. We have an illustration of this in the case of Jesus. Whatever elements of character and wisdom concurred to give weight to his teachings, there was nothing more effectual than his immaculate goodness and fidelity to the truth. The very men who were sent to seize him, when they heard him, fell back in terror, saying, "Never man spake like this man." The highest authorities of Judea stood in awe of that meek and guileless Nazarene. A saintly preacher is an awful being. The stoutest hearts bend before him. He carries an influence which none else can wield. At his voice, the conqueror has been known to stay his steps, the monarch to hide his paled face, the judge to tremble on his seat. And if all Christ’s ministers were examples of the religion they preach, there is nothing in this world that could withstand them. The potencies of hell would melt out of the earth like snow before the sun. Above all things, therefore, does it become a minister to be a pattern of his teachings, and a living record of the Gospel which he utters. Jehovah says of his priests, "They shall be holy unto their God, and not profane the name of their God." "He that ruleth among men must be just, ruling in the fear of the Lord."

But, the law prescribes for the domestic relations and social surroundings of the priest, as well as for his personal perfections. Upon this point also it becomes a minister to be particular. It would seem like scandal for me to speak freely of the miserable and disabling fetters into which many ministers of God have inconsiderately put themselves in these respects. Alas, how has the cause of the blessed Jesus suffered from the unfortunate alliances of those who have been solemnly ordained to go forth as the preachers of his Gospel! How has Satan hedged up the way and crippled the energies and usefulness of good men, by the entanglements which he has thrown around them in life! How many eloquent tongues has he thus put to silence! What noble ministerial gifts has he thus rendered of no account! What glorious achievements for God and for his Christ has he thus prevented! How many a prince among the virtuous and good has he thus induced to curse God and die! Who shall write the secret history of the clogs which he has thus succeeded in fastening to the wheels of the chariot of salvation! "Tell it not in Gath; publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the Philistines rejoice, and the daughters of the uncircumscribed triumph." Though the angels have wept over it, let it be for eternity to reveal. With all its sadness, the history of the celibate is worse. There is a good side as well as a bad.

But these laws concerning the priests were not given to show us what Christian ministers are to be. The Christian Church has suffered not a little by what has been imported into it from Levi and Aaron. It was a sad day for Christianity when the tiara of the Jewish priest was transferred to the brow of a Christian bishop. Aaron was meant to be a type of Christ himself. What was required of him was most of all intended to shadow forth the qualities, and character, and office of that great High-priest that has passed into the heavens, and through whose sublime mediation alone any man can come unto God. In this aspect then let us consider it.

I. The ancient priest was required to be physically perfect. Otherwise he could not be a fit representative of that perfect humanity which was found in our Savior. Upon this point Bonar has expressed the truth with much force and beauty. If the priest were "blind," then the people would be led to misapprehend the type; he could not represent Him whose "eyes are as a flame of fire." If the priest were "lame," he could not represent Him whose "legs are as pillars of marble." If "mutilated in the nose," he could not be the type of Him whose "countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars." If "superfluous in any limb," shorter in one than in the other, he could not set forth Him who "cometh leaping on the mountains as a roe and young hart." If "broken-footed," he was unlike Him whose feet are as "sockets of fine gold," bearing "pillars of marble." If he were "broken-handed," he could not be a picture of Him whose "hands are as gold rings set with beryl," and of whom it is written, "not a bone of him shall be broken." If the priest were "crook-backed," then would he have represented the High-priest of the Church as inferior to the Church herself, "whose stature is like the palm-tree." If "a dwarf," he would ill suit as a type of Him who is "the chiefest among ten thousand." If in his eye were any "blemish," no one could have seen in him the picture of the Beloved whose "eyes are as doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk and fitly set." If "diseased in his skin," he could not be a type of Him "who is all fair," having "no spot or wrinkle." And if deficient in any particular of masculine perfection, he could not be the representative of Him whose Church, made like to himself, is "all glorious." He was therefore required to be without bodily blemish, that Israel might know what sort of a Priest Messiah to expect. Their eyes were to be directed to Jesus as one "altogether lovely."

II. The ancient priest was required to be properly and purely mated. As a type of Christ in all other respects, so was he also in his espousals. The Lamb is not alone He has his affianced Bride—his holy Church. He hath chosen her as a chaste virgin—as one whom "the daughters saw and blessed." Not a divorced woman—not a vile offender—not an unclean thing—is the Church of Jesus. What saith the glorious Bridegroom concerning his Spouse?

"Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness; yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into covenant with thee, and thou becamest mine. Then washed I thee with water; yea, I thoroughly washed away thy blood from thee, and I anointed thee with oil. I clothed thee also with broidered work, and shod thee with badger’s skin, and I girded thee about with fine linen, and I covered thee with silk. I decked thee also with ornaments, and I put bracelets upon thine hands, and a chain on thy neck. And I put a jewel on thy forehead, and ear-rings in thine ears, and a beautiful crown upon thine head. Thus wast thou decked with gold and silver; and thy raiment was fine linen, and silk, and broidered work; thou didst eat fine flour, and honey, and oil; thou wast exceeding beautiful, and thou didst prosper into a kingdom. And thy renown went forth among the heathen for thy beauty: for it was perfect through my comeliness, which I had put upon thee." Thus "Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." And the priest’s wife had to be pure to typify these pure espousals of the Lamb, and the excellencies of that Church which he has chosen for his everlasting Bride.

III. It was required of the ancient priest that his children should be pure. The transgression of his daughter degraded him from his place. It is one of the demands laid upon Christian pastors to have "faithful children that are not accused of riot, nor unruly." The reason is obvious. A minister’s family, as well as himself, is made conspicuous by the very nature of his office. Their misdeeds are specially noticed by the world, and readily laid to his charge. Any unholiness in them operates as a profanation of his name. It is so much taken from his power. The Holy Ghost therefore calls upon him to "rule well his own house, having his children in subjection." But the law was typical. It relates to Christ and his Church. It points to the fact, that everything proceeding from his union with his people is good and pure. The Savior’s marriage with the congregation of believers, is a fountain of virgin excellencies. From this proceeds the highest virtue, peace on earth, and fitness for heaven. From this have come the sublimest adornments of human society, the loveliest graces, the sweetest affections, the noblest impulses, the sunniest enjoyments, the chastest moral attractions, that have ever appeared in our world. No grapes of Sodom, no bitter clusters grow upon this vine. No lures to ruin are found within its bosom But everything which originates there is like the priest’s daughter, pure, lovely, of good report, and full of praise.

There is often much in the character and conduct cf professing Christian people, which is neither lovely nor commendable. There is much that pretends to come from fidelity to Jesus, which we can neither approve nor admire. But it is not the product of true Christianity. It is the fruit of man’s own depravity and narrowness. It has not come from Christ. No man can convict the Gospel of fostering or countenancing anything wrong, or subversive of the peace, good, and excellence of society. It is a spring of unmingled blessing. All who partake of its life are necessarily chaste virgins to the Lord.

IV. There are other requirements which were made of the ancient priests, both in the twenty-first and twenty-second chapters, which I will sum up under the general name of holiness. They were not to defile themselves with the dead, or by eating improper food, or by contact with the unclean, or by irreverence towards the holy things. They were to be very particular about all the laws, and to devote themselves to their office as men anointed of God. In one word, they were to be holy; that is, whole, entire, complete, fully separated from all forbidden, and fully consecrated to what was commanded. This was necessary for personal and official reasons; but especially for the high-priest as a type of Christ. It was a requirement to shadow forth the character of Jesus, and the sublime wholeness and consecration which were in him.

It is remarkable how much there is in this ritual pointing to this very particular. Next to the fact of atonement, it is perhaps the most prominent subject in the whole system. It is brought forward in nearly every chapter, and reappears in nearly every provision. The reason is obvious. Nothing in the whole mediatorship of Christ enters so largely into it as his personal holiness. He had to be perfectly pure, in order to be acceptable to God; and the same unexampled excellence was necessary to attract the attention and command the confidence of men. Much is therefore said bearing upon this particular. And just as the ancient types foreshadowed, and as the nature of the case demanded, Christ was a being of transcendant holiness. All the qualities of goodness and magnanimous righteousness were combined in him. The moral significance of his life is one of the most impressive of themes. The wisest and best men have been searching and expounding it for the last eighteen hundred years, and yet it remains unexplored. Ages of study and eloquence have not brought to light all the truth, good, and beauty hidden in that man of Nazareth. There are depths there which no man has fathomed, and glories of goodness to which no human mind can discover the limits. Contemplate him in any aspect in any of the trying scenes of his life, and he still comes before us the same miraculous being, "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, made higher than the heavens."

We are not generally moved by the character of Christ, as we ought to be. We are so familiar with its exterior facts, that we pass it without due attention, and without understanding it. Familiarity and much handling of truths sometimes soils them to our perceptions. What is before us every day is apt to lose its meaning and its charms. A glorious creation is this by which we are surrounded, but it is so continually before us that we think but little of it, and are more moved by a show of fire-works than by the blaze of the all-enlightening sun rolling his golden chariot through the immense of heaven. We need to have some poetic thrill, some special prompter, to enable us to see in what a world of beauty and magnificence we live. And so it is with regard to the character of our Savior. We have a vague impression of its general goodness, but we do not intelligently realize it. As a distinguished divine has remarked, "Men become used to it, until they imagine that there is something more admirable in a great man of their own day, a statesman or a conqueror, than in Him, the latchet of whose shoes statesmen and conquerors are not worthy to unloose."

But, blinded to the truth, as many may be, the character of Jesus for holiness and sublime consecration, stands alone upon the records of time. It has no analogy in nature, no archetype in history. There is nothing like it. It has no parallel in heaven above, or in the earth beneath. It is the sublimest of all the miracles of God, the most wonderful of all his displays to man. All other miracles have been reviled, but this cannot be. Men have despised and desecrated the sanctity of everything else related to religion; but when they came to the character of Jesus, their hands grew powerless, their hearts failed, their utterance choked, and they turned aside in reverent awe of a goodness and majesty which could not be gainsayed. Infidelity itself has freely and eloquently confessed to his matchless excellence. Paine disavows "the most distant disrespect to the moral character of Jesus Christ." The French atheist Leguinia agrees that "He who called himself the Son of God, always displayed virtue—always spoke according to the dictates of reason—always preached up wisdom—sincerely loved all men, wishing good even to his persecutors—developed all the principles of moral equality and the purest patriotism—met danger undismayed—described the hard-heartedness of the rich—attacked the pride of kings—dared to resist even in the face of tyrants—despised pomp and fortune—was sober—solaced the indigent—taught the unfortunate how to suffer—sustained weakness—fortified decay—consoled misfortune—shed tears with those who wept—and taught men to subjugate their passions, to think, to reflect, to love one another, and live in peace." Rousseau is struck with admiration at his excellency. "What sweetness, what purity in his manner! What an affecting gracefulness in his delivery! What sublimity in his maxims! What profound wisdom in his discourses! What presence of mind, what subtlety, what truth in his replies! How great the command of his passions! Where is the man, where the philosopher, who could so live, and so die, without weakness and without ostentation?... Yea, if Socrates lived and died like a sage, Jesus lived and died like a God." These are the testimonies of men who refused to receive him as their Savior. Nor is there anything in all the records of unbelief, ancient or modern, Jewish or heathen, to affix the least stain upon his spotless life. Those who knew him best, testify with one voice to his unexampled excellence. Peter says he did no sin, that guile was never found in his mouth, that he was without spot, and that his life was spent in doing good. John says. "in him was no sin." The timid judge who gave him up to be crucified solemnly washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I find no fault in this man." Judas who betrayed him confessed himself guilty of innocent blood. The heathen captain who presided at his crucifixion, said, "surely this was the Son of God." The truth is, the world has never contained another instance of piety so sincere, of philanthropy so pure, of liberality so magnanimous, of love so true, of candor so unfaltering, of sympathy so tender, of teachings so faithful, of mercy so condescending, of endurance so patient, of power so gracious, of prudence so wise, of devotion so self-sacrificing, of integrity so perfect, of wronged innocence so meek, of zeal so free from bigotry, of such mighty goodness without one single taint. Yes, those little Gospel incidents which we are so prone to pass over as insipid, are the sublimest records of earth. They tell us more than is to be found in all the histories of the greatest or best of other men. Jesus taking little children in his arms, is a more wonderful picture than Alexander’s conquest of the world. The Son of God stopping the funeral procession at Nain, or halting to answer the cries of Bartimeus at Jericho, or standing in tears at the grave of Lazarus, is a mightier fact than the discovery of a new continent. His one prayer on the cross, "Father, forgive them," is worth more to the human family than have been all the kings, from Nimrod until now. These humble records of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, outweigh in value all other books that ever were written. Worlds could not compensate for the loss of them. Strike them out, and you tear from the earth its sublimest history, and rob humanity of the sublimest displays of majesty and goodness that were ever made in mortal flesh. Earth knows not another character so precious or so indispensable as that which they present in the ease of that humble man of Nazareth.

Brethren, what would man be without Christ—without his holy life? In him, and in him alone, earth rises into communion with heaven, and light shines in upon our benighted humanity. "In him was life." Life in him received its true expression, and its real explanation. In him human existence rose up to its true nobility and proper achievements. Everything appertaining to a right use and the right meaning of life, was summed up and set forth in him. "In him was life, and the life (that is, his specific life) was the light of men." There mankind must learn, if they ever learn, the secret life of life. Man must either be reduced to a perishing thing of dust, and his soul be trampled beneath the material senses, and his existence and condition remain a riddle for ever, or Jesus must be hailed as the head of the race—the door of opening between light and darkness—the bond of connection between us and God. We need him. We need his life. We need him in all his attributes of goodness and offices of love. We need him as the exponent of God, and we need him as much as the exponent of man. We need his instructions; but still more his personal exemplifications of them. We need him as a great Prophet sent from God; but still more as a companion, such as this world cannot furnish, to rebuke our sins, to encourage our faith, to quicken our virtue, to alleviate our sorrows, to smooth our dying pillows, and to pilot us to the haven of everlasting rest. And the sublimest of all his wonderful adaptations to our wants the apostle finds in this, that he was "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners." "Such a High-priest," says he, "became us."

V. There is yet one particular in the requirements concerning the ancient priests, to which I will refer. It is said of the high-priest, "he shall not uncover his head, nor rend his clothes, nor go in to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother; neither shall he go out of the sanctuary (in consequence of domestic bereavements); for the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him." That is to say, he was not to allow any natural sympathies to interfere with the pure and proper discharge of the duties of his high office. Some have regarded this as a coldness and harshness thrown around the old priesthood, which has nothing to correspond to it in the Christian system. I do not so understand it. The very reverse is the truth. The high-priest was a great religious officer for the entire Jewish nation. He belonged more to the nation than to his family or himself. It would therefore have been a most heartless thing to allow a little natural domestic sympathy and affection to set aside all the great interests of the Hebrew people. So far from throwing a chilliness around the high-priesthood, it gave to it a warmth and zeal of devotion, and showed an outbreathing of heart upon the spiritual wants of the congregation, superior to the love of father or mother. And it was meant to shadow forth a precious truth; viz. that Christ, as our High-priest, concentrated all his highest, warmest and fullest sympathies in his office. He loved father and mother, and was properly obedient to them; but when it came to the great duties of his mission. the interests of a perishing world were resting upon his doings, and he could not stop to gratify domestic sympathies. Rising then above the narrow circle of carnal relationships, "he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!" His sympathies are those of the spirit, and not of the flesh. His parents may be in great anxiety about him; but his sublime response is, "I must be about my Father’s business." His mother may attempt to control his movements; but he declines compliance, saying, "Woman, mine hour is not yet come." Everywhere did he subordinate mere natural affections to those higher sympathies for a world perishing in sin, for which he gave himself, and died, and now intercedes in heaven. Dearer to him are the souls of men, than the bodies of earthly relatives. He is not without sympathy and the fondest tenderness, but it follows the leadings of a higher, wider, sublimer relationship than that of mere flesh and blood. He has a warm and brotherly heart; but it is most of all for them that seek to imitate him, and obey God. "Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven," says he, "the same is my brother, and sister, and mother." On such his heart is set. To them his affections flow deep and mighty as the infinitude of his nature. "We have not an High-priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities." He hath given himself to us He knows our wants. His great spirit yearns for us. As a father pitieth his children, so he pitieth them that fear him. A mother may forget, but he will not.

His heart is made of tenderness

His soul overflows with love!

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Bibliographical Information
Seiss, Joseph A. "Commentary on Leviticus 21". Seiss' Lectures on Leviticus and Revelation. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/sei/leviticus-21.html.