In the Old Testament, the anointed priest held a very important and significant role in the religious life of the Israelites. The anointed priest was set apart and consecrated to serve God in the tabernacle/temple, offering sacrifices, interceding for the people, and teaching God’s law. A few key points about the anointed priest:
Chosen by God
The position of high priest was not earned or appointed by man – it was a calling from God. In Exodus 28:1, God commands Moses: “Bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests.” The anointed priest was specifically chosen and called by God to approach Him on behalf of the people.
Anointed and Consecrated
The anointed priest was set apart for holy service through a special anointing ceremony. Exodus 29 details the consecration ceremony where the priest was washed, clothed in holy garments, and anointed with oil. This anointing ceremony consecrated the priest to God’s service. Exodus 29:9 says “and ordain Aaron and his sons.” The anointing set them apart and authorized them for tabernacle ministry.
Mediator between God and Man
A primary role of the anointed priest was to mediate between God and sinful man. Exodus 28:1 says the priests were appointed “to serve me as priests.” As sinners, the Israelites could not directly approach God’s presence in the tabernacle, so God provided priests to intercede and offer sacrifices on their behalf. The anointed priest served as a go-between connecting sinful people to a holy God.
The anointed priests presented offerings and sacrifices to God on behalf of Israel. God’s presence resided in the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle, so only the high priest could enter this inner sanctuary and offer the blood sacrifice on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). The priests offered daily sacrifices morning and evening according to God’s command (Exodus 29:38-42). Offering sacrifices was a core duty and privilege of the anointed priest.
Intercession for the People
Another vital role of the anointed priest was interceding for the Israelites before God. When sacrifices were offered for the people’s sins, the priests appealed to God for forgiveness on their behalf. They also prayed to God on behalf of the people when needs or situations arose. In mandate given to Aaron in Numbers 6:23-27, the LORD said: “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” Praying God’s blessing upon the people was a special intercessory role.
Taught God’s Law
The priests served as teachers of God’s Law to Israel. As Malachi 2:7 states: “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” Priests taught the Law, helped settle legal disputes, inspected for diseases, and gave rulings on ceremonial cleanness. Teaching and explaining God’s word was central to their shepherding role among the Israelites.
The anointed priests carried out important ceremonial duties relating to Israel’s system of worship. This included duties like burning incense on the altar morning and evening (Exodus 30:7), tending the lamps of the tabernacle to keep them burning (Exodus 27:20-21), presenting the showbread on the table in the Holy Place (Leviticus 24:5-9), inspecting sacrifices and offerings that were brought, and officiating over the various feasts and festivals.
Set Apart for Holiness
The anointed priests were consecrated and set apart for God’s service. Special laws and requirements were given to maintain their ritual purity and holiness before God. Restrictions were placed on their dress, grooming, diet, and contact with dead bodies or grave sites (Leviticus 21). The high priest could only marry a virgin from the tribe of Levi (Leviticus 21:13-14). Maintaining holiness and purity was paramount.
Subordinate to the High Priest
Within the priesthood, there was a hierarchy with the High Priest being supreme, followed by the common priests. The High Priest alone could enter the Holy of Holies and had special duties like overseeing the other priests (Numbers 3:32), offering the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-19), and consulting the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30). Ordinary priests served under the leadership of the High Priest.
Supported by the Levites
The Levites were appointed by God to assist the priests in tabernacle/temple duties. Numbers 3:5-10 details their supporting roles which included transporting, setting up, and taking down the tabernacle; watching over and guarding the sacred tent; and serving as temple gatekeepers, singers, and musicians. The Levites helped enable and carry out priestly functions.
Had Physical Limitations/Conditions
Priests with certain physical defects or conditions were excluded from serving at the altar but allowed other duties. Leviticus 21:16-24 lists prohibitions against blindness, lameness, disfigurement, or broken limbs. These limitations prevented full participation in tabernacle service, perhaps to avoid uncleanness or because offering sacrifices required physical strength and dexterity.
Wore Special Garments
The anointed priests were clothed in special garments designed by God that set them apart for service. These included a breastpiece, ephod, robe, tunic, turban and sash (Exodus 28). These garments were for glory and beauty (Exodus 28:2) and had symbolic meaning. For example, the ephod’s two onyx stones bore the names of the 12 tribes, representing the priest bearing the people into God’s presence (Exodus 28:9-14).
Received Portions of Offerings
God provided for the priests’ physical needs by allowing them to keep portions of certain offerings and sacrifices. For example, parts of the grain, sin, and guilt offerings were designated for the priests (Leviticus 2:3, 6:26, 7:6-7). Certain firstfruits offerings went to the priests as did the skin of burnt offering (Leviticus 7:8). Thus priests who served the Lord’s altar were supported by it.
The anointed priests and sacrifices were a picture of the coming Messiah who would be the great High Priest and perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 5-10). The repeated sacrifices showed how animal blood could not truly atone for sin (Hebrews 10:4). Jesus fulfilled the priestly type as mediator, intercessor, sacrifice for sins, and giver of eternal redemption. The inadequacy of human priests also pointed toward Jesus’ indestructible life and permanent priesthood (Hebrews 7:16, 23-25).
Had Oversight of Tabernacle/Temple
God placed the priests and Levites in charge of the tabernacle during Israel’s wilderness wanderings. They were responsible for transporting, assembling, dissembling, and guarding the tent of meeting (Numbers 1:47-54). The priests and Levites later had duties relating to the temple in Jerusalem which replaced the portable tabernacle. They conducted their ministry and sacrifices at the temple where God caused His name to dwell (1 Kings 8:10-13).
Judged According to Strict Standards
The anointed priests were held to high standards of conduct and purity. God judged Nadab and Abihu severely for offering “unauthorized fire” before Him (Leviticus 10:1-3). Eli’s sons were judged for blaspheming the offerings of Israel (1 Samuel 2:12-17). God rebuked Aaron and Miriam for criticizing Moses (Numbers 12). Malachi reprimands unfaithful priests for turning from God’s decrees (Malachi 2:1-9). Leadership carried heavy responsibility and accountability.
Human Imperfection Allowed Failure
Despite their holy calling, the human limitations and sinfulness of the priests meant they sometimes failed in their duties. Even Aaron, the first high priest, led the people into making a golden calf idol while Moses was on the mountain (Exodus 32). The high priest Eli showed neglect by allowing his sons’ wicked behavior (1 Samuel 2-4). Uzziah improperly entered the temple to burn incense and was struck with leprosy for disobeying (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). The priesthood’s human imperfections pointed to the need for a perfect High Priest – Jesus.
Office Passed from Father to Son
The office of high priest was generally passed from father to son, keeping it within Aaron’s family. Exodus 29:29 states “And the holy garments of Aaron shall be for his sons after him; they shall be anointed in them and ordained in them.” There were exceptions, like the removal of Eli’s descendants. But the priesthood remained hereditary overall. There were specific genealogical records kept detailing the high priestly lineage.
Garments Transferred to Successors
When the high priest passed away, the sacred garments were transferred to the succeeding high priest. This transferal ceremony solemnized the continuance of the priestly office and ministry from one generation to the next. As Moses clothed Aaron’s son Eleazar before Aaron’s death, the garments were put on his son indicating he would succeed Aaron in the high priestly role (Numbers 20:25-28).
Had Unique Laws of Purity
Special laws of purity applied to the anointed priests due to their holy duties. These included prohibitions against contact with corpses except immediate family (Leviticus 21:1-4), shaving the head or beard (Leviticus 21:5), and marrying widows or divorcees (Leviticus 21:7,14). The priests made offerings for their own sins before making offerings for the people (Leviticus 4:3-12). Uncleanness disqualified them from approaching God’s altar and required purification rituals.
Enabled Temple Worship and Functions
Without the anointed priesthood, Israel’s covenant worship in the tabernacle and temple could not happen. The priests enabled the daily offerings, sacrifices, festivals, observances, music, prayers, mediation, and all other aspects of Israelite worship. No ordinary Israelite could approach God’s inner sanctuary or present covenant offerings. The temple system established by God relied totally on the consecrated priests He ordained to serve as mediators between Himself and the sinful people.
Oversaw Ritual Purity Laws
The priests taught and enforced the biblical laws relating to ritual purity and impurity which were integral to Israel’s worship. They inspected healed lepers and declared them clean or unclean (Leviticus 13-14). They judged cases of bodily discharge to determine when purification was needed (Leviticus 15). Instructions for the red heifer ashes used to purify from corpse contamination were entrusted to Eleazar the priest (Numbers 19:1-10). Judging degrees of uncleanness was a priestly duty.
Judged Difficult Legal Cases
Deuteronomy 17:8-13 instructs that when legal cases were too difficult for local judges, they were to be brought to the priests at the central sanctuary for them to adjudicate. Similarly, Ezekiel prophesied that the priests would “judge between my people and between the holy and the common, and distinguish between clean and unclean” (Ezekiel 22:26). The priests’ knowledge of God’s law enabled them to settle difficult controversies.
Sounded Trumpets in Battle
Priests played an important role during war by exhorting troops and sounding trumpets. As they went into battle, the priests proclaimed, “Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle…do not fear or panic” (Deuteronomy 20:2-4). The trumpets served as a battle cry to gather soldiers (Numbers 10:9). Priests offered encouragement, hope, and guidance from God’s word to soldiers heading to war.
Carried the Ark of the Covenant
When moving the tabernacle during Israel’s wilderness travels, only the priests from the tribe of Levi were allowed to handle the sacred items including the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark held the Ten Commandments and was a representation of God’s presence. Carrying the Ark was an honorable priestly duty requiring obedience and consecration to touch the holy object (Joshua 3:3-4, 1 Chronicles 15:2).
Maintained the Tabernacle
The priests and Levites were responsible for taking care of the tabernacle, God’s portable sacred dwelling place during Israel’s journey to Canaan. Specific assignments were given such as taking down, transporting, and setting up the tent of meeting each time the Israelites moved in the desert. They camped around it to protect it. Only Aaron’s family could go in and out of the Most Holy Place.
Transported Sacred Items
In the Israelite camp, the Kohathite Levites had duties for transporting the furnishings and sacred items once they were covered by Aaron’s sons. This included the Ark, lampstand, altars, utensils, veil, and screen (Numbers 4:4-15). The priests ensured the holy items were respectfully wrapped and carried. Loading the carts and guarding the items on the journey was done by the Levites.
Supervised Levitical Duties
God placed the Levites under the authority of Aaron’s priesthood to serve and assist them (Numbers 18:1-7). The priests oversaw Levites in their duties caring for the tabernacle, standing guard, and transporting items. Levites helped the priests present offerings but could not go to the altar itself. The priests managed the work schedules and responsibilities of the non-priestly Levites serving the sanctuary.
So in summary, the anointed priests occupied a very significant position in Israel’s covenant relationship with God. Chosen by Him, they presented offerings, entered the Holy Place, interceded for the people, taught God’s Law, judged difficult cases, maintained holiness, and superintended the worship ceremonies. The office foreshadowed Jesus Christ’s perfect high priesthood. Through their weaknesses, the human priests showed the need for a greater Mediator and Redeemer – the Messiah.