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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 21

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-24

Leviticus 21:1-24

Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron.


Sacred relationship demands sanctity of life

If there is one fact more notably emphasised than another in this address to priests, it is this: their--

Absolute and indestructible relationship. Every son of Aaron was a “priest.” Of this union with Aaron it is observable that--

1. It results from a living relationship. By birth he was connected with Aaron, a lineal descendant of God’s high priest. And no truth is more a truism than that every Christian is by birth-relationship connected with Christ--the moment he is quickened and becomes a believing and a living soul, he is a “priest unto God.” By no process of spiritual development or self-culture or studied effort does the convert to Christ become a “priest”; he is that by virtue of his living relationship to the High Priest: for as all the sons of Aaron were priests, so are all the sons of God through their connection with Christ.

2. The relationship is inalienable and indestructible. Conduct is not the basis of relationship with Christ, but life. A son of Aaron may be defiled “for the dead” (Leviticus 21:2), yet he did not thereby cease to be related to Aaron. If we were only priests to God as our conduct was faultless, who could stand? We are all unclean; defile ourselves continuously with “the dead,” the guilty and contaminating things of earth. But “our life is hid with Christ in God”; and by virtue of that life-union we remain priests.

3. Imperfections of nature and character do not sever relationship. A “blemish,” deformity of body, prove a disqualification for ministry, but did not destroy association with Aaron. Yes; there is exclusion from high and honoured services in consequence of irremediable defect and fault; and Christians with incurable weakness of disposition, worldliness of sympathy, infirmities of character, vacillation of purpose, are thereby set aside from honour in the Church and highest ministries for their Lord; yet still the relationship to Christ continues, for it is a birth-relationship, based upon a life-union with Jesus. But though relationship is absolute and indestructible--

Privilege is dependent and conditional.

1. Defilement is a disqualification for near fellowship and highest enjoyment of the priestly relationship.. Contact with “the dead” was forbidden; it excluded the priest from the service of God until cleansed anew and so reinstated. All contamination works disqualification, therefore “touch not, taste not, handle not.” A priestly life should be pure.

2. Defect is a disqualification for highest service for our Lord.

(1) Physical deformities even now form a natural barrier to the loftiest offices in the Church of Christ. Not unfitting the sufferer for many lowlier and less public ministries; for sacred grace is not dependent upon physical “form and comeliness.”

(2) Defects of character, of mental and moral constitution, also exclude from loftiest stations and services in the Christian kingdom. They are a barrier to such positions in the Church as require noblest qualities of character: for eminence gives influence; and he who moves in the public gaze must be free from such weaknesses of will, or principle, or conduct as would lay him open to inconstancy. (W. H. Jellie.)

Holy unto their God.

Holy priests

The honourable position of the priests.

1. They are sanctioned by God, consecrated to His especial service, they bear His stamp upon them, wear His livery, and receive of the honour that belongs to Him.

2. They perform the high function of offering the bread of God. This phrase included not only the placing of the shewbread in the sanctuary, but also the presentation to God of the various sacrifices which become the materials for His glory and praise. The enlarged priesthood of the New Testament, embracing the whole body of believers in Christ Jesus, are similarly dedicated to sacred office. They present spiritual sacrifices, they “showforth the excellences of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvellous light.”

Honour involves obligation and restriction. Many acts permissible to the people were not so to the priests. They were evidently to be models of holiness in their persons, families, and social relationships. Men like the idea of occupying posts of dignity, but do not sufficiently realise the responsibilities thence accruing. We are always more anxious to get than to give; sinecure livings are at too high a premium of estimation.

Perfect holiness implies beauty, life, and joy. It is in opposition to disfigurement, death, and sorrow. How different this conception of holiness from that of gloom and moroseness which many entertain. Let young people know that God loves pretty children, and handsome men and women, when the glory of the Spirit is thus reflected in the outer person; He delights in the vigour and innocent mirth of the young, and in the happy enthusiasm, the lively rejoicing of their elders, when these are the outcome of righteousness and devoted service. The imperfection of this present state is evident in the fact that holiness does not mean exemption from anxiety and tribulation. It sometimes appears as if the most faithful children of God were visited with heaviest chastisements. We are assured of a future state where these contradictions shall be removed. The ideal shall not only be approximated, but attained to; “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying, nor pain any more: the first things are passed away,” symbolical and ascriptional righteousness shall give place to real perfect holiness; in the presence of God there shall be fulness of joy. (S. R. Aldridge, B. A.)

Personal requirements of the priests

It is a truth which ought ever to be before the minds of those who minister in holy things, and deeply graven on 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 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. And when a minister has a pure and spotless life to sustain his profession, he becomes a host in strength. 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.

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 Saviour. He was 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.”

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. 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.

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.

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. 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 gainsaid. Infidelity itself has freely and eloquently confessed to His matchless excellence. Paine disavows “the most distant disrespect to the moral character of Jesus Christ.” Rousseau is struck with admiration at His excellence. “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 l 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.” 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.

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,” &c. (Leviticus 21:10-12). 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, consecrated 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. (J. A. Seiss, D. D.)

Any blemish.--

Blemishes affect service, not sonship

To be a child of God is one thing; to be in the enjoyment of priestly communion and priestly worship is quite another. This latter is, alas! interfered with by many things. Circumstances and associations are allowed to act upon us by their defiling influence. We are not to suppose that all Christians enjoy the same elevation of walk, the same intimacy of fellowship, the same felt nearness to Christ. Alas! alas! they do not. Many of us have to mourn over our spiritual defects. There is lameness of walk, defective vision, stunted growth; or we allow ourselves to be defiled by contact with evil, and to be weakened and hindered by unhallowed associations. In a word, as the sons of Aaron, though being priests by birth, were, nevertheless, deprived of many privileges through ceremonial defilement and physical defects; so we, though being priests unto God by spiritual birth, are deprived of many of the high and holy privileges of our position by moral defilement and spiritual defects. We are shorn of many of our dignities through defective spiritual development. We lack singleness of eye, spiritual vigour, whole-hearted devotedness. Saved we are through the free grace of God, on the ground of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. “We are all the children of God, by faith in Christ Jesus”; but, then, salvation is one thing, communion is quite another. Sonship is one thing, obedience is quite another. These things should be carefully distinguished. The section before us illustrates the distinction with great force and clearness. If one of the sons of Aaron happened to be “broken-footed, or broken-handed,” was he deprived of his sonship? Assuredly not. Was he deprived of his priestly position? By no means. It was distinctly declared, “He shall eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy.” What, then, did he lose by his physical blemish? He was forbidden to tread some of the higher walks of priestly service and worship. “Only he shall not go in unto the vail, nor come nigh unto the altar.” These were very serious privations; and though it may be objected that a man could not help many of these physical defects, that did not alter the matter. Jehovah could not have a blemished priest at His altar, or a blemished sacrifice thereon. Both the priest and the sacrifice should be perfect. Now we have both the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice in the Person of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ. (C. H. Mackintosh.)

Verse 22

Leviticus 21:22

He shall eat the bread of his God.

The Divine banquet

It is not easy to say whether the words, “bread of his God,” refer generally to the sacrifices and offerings, or specially to the “shewbread.” We take them as pointing to the latter; as, indeed, in any interpretation of the expression, the shewbread must be included, if not mainly intended. It was called the “shewbread”; or, more properly, “the bread of the presence”; the bread that stood on the King’s table, and in the King’s presence; the bread which was therefore intimately connected with Him who is called “the Angel of the Presence” (Isaiah 62:9); the bread which was associated with Him whose “presence” went with Israel whithersoever they went (Exodus 33:14).

It is provided by God. As in carrying out His purpose in the old creation, He provided every fruit-bearing tree for man, so, in accomplishing the new creation, He has supplied the “food convenient.” He has made the provision for His house; and He has also blessed it. For the sustaining the life which He imparts, He provides the food required.

It is prepared by God himself. Moses, as representing God, prepared the twelve loaves; and God Himself has prepared the better bread, the flesh of the Son of Man. “A body hast Thou prepared Me.” In the history of the birth, the life, the sorrows, the hardships, the blood-shedding, the death of the incarnate Son of God, we have a description of the way it, which the “shewbread” or “presence-bread” of the Church was prepared, according to God’s own method, for our everlasting food.

It is given to us by God. God causes it to be provided for us; nay, He prepares it Himself; and then having thus provided and prepared it, He gives it: “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son” (John 3:16); “The bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give,” &c.

Who they are who feast on it. Perhaps the answer to such a question will be--God’s priesthood, His Church. Nor would this be incorrect; yet it would be defective. No doubt this heavenly bread is for them, just as the tree of life was for Adam, or the Temple shewbread was for the sons of Aaron. But it is so specially called “the bread of our God”; and the table on which it is set is so specially God’s own table; and the place where it is to be eaten is so manifestly the royal banquet-hall of heaven, that we come to the conclusion that God Himself is partaker of this feast as well as we. The King, sitting at His own table, in His own festal chamber, not only feeds His guests, bat Himself partakes of that which is set before them. Israel’s various sacrifices and offerings of all kinds were the various dishes set upon the great Temple table; each of them full of meaning; each of them containing that which would satisfy and comfort; every one of them setting forth some part of the glorious fulness of the God-man, as the true food of souls; and all of them together representing that complete and blessed feast of “fat things” partaken of by God and His redeemed, in some measure now, but hereafter to be more fully enjoyed at the great marriage-supper in the New Jerusalem, when that shall be fulfilled, so long realised but in parts and fragments, “I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20). (H. Bonar, D. D.)

The bread of God

It was an ancient heathen notion that in sacrifice food was provided for the deity in order thus to show him honour. And, doubtless, in Israel, ever prone to idolatry, there were many who rose no higher than this gross conception of the meaning of such words. Thus, in Psalms 50:8-15, God sharply rebukes Israel for so unworthy thoughts of Himself, using language at the same time which teaches the spiritual meaning of the sacrifice, regarded as the “food” or “bread” of God . . . Of which language the plain teaching is this. If the sacrifices are called in the law “the bread of God,” God asks not this bread from Israel in any material sense, or for any material need. He asks that which the offerings symbolise; thanksgiving, loyal fulfilment of covenant engagements to Him, and that loving trust which will call on Him in the day of trouble. Even sol Gratitude, loyalty, trust! this is the “food of God,” this the bread which He desires that we should offer, the bread which those Levitical sacrifices symbolised. For even as man, when hungry, craves food, and cannot be satisfied without it, so God, who is Himself Love, desires our love, and delights in seeing its expression in all those offices of self-forgetting and self-sacrificing service in which love manifests itself. This is to God even as is food to us. Love cannot be satisfied except with love returned; and we may say, with deepest humility and reverence, the God of love cannot be satisfied without love returned. Hence it is that the sacrifices, which in various ways symbolize the self-offerings of love and the fellowship of love, are called by the Holy Ghost “the food” or “bread of God.” And yet we must, on no account, hasten to the conclusion, as many do, that therefore the Levitical sacrifices were only intended to express and symbolise the self-offering of the worshipper, and that this exhausts their significance. On the contrary, the need of infinite love for this “bread of God” cannot be adequately met and satisfied by the self-offering of any creature, and, least of all, by the self-offering of a sinful creature, whose very sin lies just in this, that he has fallen away from perfect love. The symbolism of the sacrifice as “the food of God,” therefore, by this very phrase, points toward the self-offering in love of the eternal Son to the Father, and in behalf of sinners for the Father’s sake. It was the sacrifice on Calvary which first became, in innermost reality, that “bread of God,” which the ancient sacrifices were only in symbol. It was this, not regarded as satisfying Divine justice (though it did this), but as satisfying the Divine love; because it was the supreme expression of the perfect love of the incarnate Son of God to the Father, in His becoming “obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.” (S. H. Kellogg, D. D.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Leviticus 21". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/leviticus-21.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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