In our previous article I raised and answered the question: what was the position of the Levitical priesthood and in particular of Aaron in the divine economy instrumentally inaugurated by Moses? And the answer was to the following effects: Aaron in his capacity of high priest of atonement was mediator of God and man. What this implied was adequately explained. We must now inquire after the reason and purpose of God’s instituting the office of high priest and of His selecting from all the families of Israel the family of Aaron for the work of sacrificing, and for the right that went with it, namely, that of drawing particularly near to God.
Attention has already been directed to the fact that the book of Genesis and the first twenty-four chapters of the book of Exodus make no mention of a priesthood in the holy line of Seth and of Abraham, that is, make no mention of an individual or class of individuals vested with the office of priesthood as an exclusive prerogative, thus of a class of persons whose exclusive right it was to perform the duties of a sacrificer. The first person to appear in Scripture as bearing the name of priest is Melchizedek, who is described as “king of Salem and priest of the most high God.” But he was a Canaanite. There are two other persons with whom the name of priest is associated, to wit, Potipherah, the father-in-law of Joseph, and Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. But the former was an Egyptian and the latter a Midianite. Now the silence of Scripture respecting a distinct order of priests in the epoch preceding the deliverance of the church from Egyptian bondage, warrants the conclusion that in this epoch there was no such order and that thus the right of offering oblations was that of every believer. But it is only natural that in process of time the privilege of the exercise of this right was, though not by direct command of God, conferred upon the heads of families and persons of highest rank in the communities. After the deluge, it is Noah and later on Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who appear in Scripture as doing the work of a sacrificer in behalf of themselves and their respective families. Of the patriarch Job it is stated that he offered burnt offerings, according to the number of his sons and daughters, when the days of their feasting were gone about.
Now that in the period that preceded the coming of the law there was no class of persons whose exclusive right it was to do the work of sacrificer means that in that period it was the prerogative of every believer to come to the Lord and to stand in His presence. And as the Lord then met the believer at the altar, the believer before his own consciousness stood in the presence of God when he stood in the place where he had reared his altar. To this place he could point and say, “There is God.” At the altar he talked with God. There he confessed by word of mouth and through his sacrificing that he was guilty and condemnable before God, that thus he had need of an innocent substitute to atone his sins by its death and that only with his sins atoned, could there be to him forgiveness and life. There at the altar and in response to his confession, the Lord witnessed in his heart that he was righteous. There at the altar, the believer saw God—his mercy and compassion and righteousness—in the face of his sacrifice.
Still it would be improper to say that before the rearing of the tabernacle there was to the church a house of God, a definite place to which believers could repair and stand before their own consciousness in the immediate presence of God. Before man’s fail, the sanctuary of God was the garden of Eden. That God’s believing people took up their residence near the garden, after man’s expulsion from it, indicates that until the deluge the hope of the church continued to be that sooner or later it would again be dwelling with God in this sacred region. Thus not the altar but this garden was to the church the one place on earth, where man stood in God’s very presence. After the deluge the church continued to build its altars. The patriarchs did so. But that the place where their altar stood, was not to them the very house, sanctuary, of God, that even when standing in this place, they were still standing at a distance from God, is evident from Jacob’s reaction to his vision of the ladder. Awakening out of his sleep, he said, “Surely, the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” And further, “And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place: this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” This language shows that Jacob deems himself as having been where he had not been before, namely, in God’s own house and thus in His presence. But it is to be noticed that even in the vision, the Lord, in communicating with Jacob, stood at a great distance; for He stood above a ladder, the top of which reached to heaven. (Gen. 28:12)
So, though there was during the patriarchal period of sacred history no distinct class of persons vested with the office of priesthood, it is amiss to say that during that period it was the prerogative of all believers to bring his offering so near to God that before their consciousness they stood in His immediate presence and had thus by the blood of their sacrifice entered the holiest place. If this view were true, the institution of the priesthood and the rearing of the tabernacle would have spelled not progression but retrogression. Yet some have so regarded the institution of the priesthood, namely, as loss. One writer, delineating on the matter under consideration, expresses (himself to the following effect, “But this being the case, does it not seem like a travelling in a wrong , direction, to institute at last an order of priests for that purpose (the purpose of ministering in holy things)? Was not this to mar the simplicity of God’s worship, and throw a new restraint around the freedom of access to Him? In one sense, unquestionably it was; and separating, as it did, between the offering and him in whose behalf it was presented, it introduced into the worship of God an element of imperfection which cleaves to all the sacrifices of the law. In this respect, it was a more perfect state of things which permitted the offerer himself to bring near his offering to God, and one that has, therefore, been restored under the gospel dispensation. “But in other respects,” so this author continues, “the worship of God made a great advance under the ministration of Moses, and an advance of such a nature as imperatively to require the institution of a separate priesthood. So that what was in itself an imperfection became relatively an advantage, and an important handmaid to something better.”
Rightly considered, it is not true that the introduction of an order of priests threw a new restraint around the freedom of access to God and thus introduced an element, of imperfection into the worship of God. For a contention of this kind implies that, through the institution of the priesthood the church was deprived of a right and privilege which it had previously possessed. What may that right have been? Not the right to draw near to God’s altar, to bring near to Him offerings? This right the church did not lose as a result of the institution of the priesthood but retained. Consider the following. In the outer court of the tabernacle stood the altar of burnt offering, accessible at all times to the common Israelites. To this altar they brought their offerings and thus brought them near to God, as near as did the believers of the preceding epoch. The common worshipers even had a share in the work of sacrificing his gift. His was the task, on ordinary occasions, to transfer his guilt from himself to his animal sacrifice, which he would do by imposition of hands. By him, and thus not by the priest, was the victim slain. The priest’s task was to present to the Lord the blood of the victim for a covering of the sin of the worshipper. This was done by his sprinkling the blood on ordinary occasions upon the altar round about and on the day of atonement by this carrying it into the sanctuary and sprinkling it upon the mercy seat and upon the altar of incense. Now this action with the blood was unknown to the church of the preceding epoch. It cannot be said therefore that the right to engage in this action was one that had been transferred from the common worshipper to the priest. Finally, it was at the altar and not in the holy places of the sanctuary, that sin was expiated.
In the light of these observations, it is hard to see how and why the institution of an order of priests threw a new restraint around the freedom of access to God. If it did, then did also God’s sending His Son; for He was the true priest. As the representative of His people, He, too, sacrificed in their behalf and in their stead. But His gift was His very own self.
The institution of the order of priests must be regarded as all gain. For the priest was the representative of God’s people. In this capacity he abided in God’s house. The high priest was even privileged to enter annually the very room of this house—the holiest place—which God occupied, so that the institution of the order of priests marked the beginning of a period during which God’s people came, as man in the state of integrity had come, into the immediate presence of God. But not locally and actually but only in, through and with its representative, the high priest, thus solely by representation, did the ancient worshippers at any time enter into the Holiest place. They did not afterwards join the high priest in this place. Instead, He returned to them, so that during the entire dispensation of the law the church stood at a distance. For the blood that was then shed was that of bulls and of goats. It sanctified to the purifying of the flesh only. The shedding of it could merely serve as the meritorial source of the right to traverse solely by representation the recincts of a worldly sanctuary. But such is the virtue of Christ’s blood that now God’s true worshippers themselves may enter the holiest in heaven to abide there everlastingly,—enter by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for them through the veil, that is to say, His flesh. And the evidence that such is the virtue of His blood is that He himself, by this blood—His very own—entered into the holiest—entered with His people, who together with Him were quickened, raised up, and made to sit in heaven in Him: that “in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of His grace in kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6, 7).
Herewith has been disclosed the principle reason of God’s bringing into being the priesthood and the tabernacle. They were the instruments, conceived of and created by Himself, through which He could and did take up, before the consciousness of His people, His abode among them. They were instruments, further, through which He, as dwelling among them, could set them at a distance from Himself, and at once gender in them the confidence that He, despite His holding them, as He did, at arm’s length, so to say, was the God of their salvation and that eventually therefore they would be with Him in His house.
That God brought into being the tabernacle (and the priesthood) with the express purpose of enabling Himself to take up before the consciousness of His people His residence among them, thus with the purpose of rendering His presence among them real and actual, is evident from the following notice at Lev. 40:33-38, “So Moses finished the work. Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.”
The tabernacle then stood for an action of God that consisted in His holding His people from a distance from Him. As was said, the Lord had begun to do this immediately upon the disobedience of our first parents. His expelling them from Eden was His setting them at arm’s length. And when He had lead the Israelitish people at Sinai, His first act was to set this people—His people—at a distance. Moses was commanded to set bounds to the people round about the holy hill and to warn them to take head to themselves that they go not up into the mount or touch it. For whosoever would touch even the border of it should surely be stoned or shot through, whether beast or man. The following day the Lord again by the mouth of Moses charged the people, “Lest they break through unto Him to gaze and many perish.” The priests might draw a little closer to the Lord, but “let them sanctify themselves lest He break forth upon them.” Thus at the very outset, God set Israel at a distance; and through the subsequent ages of the Old Testament dispensation, this people was kept standing before the closed door of God’s house, being permitted to enter only by representation, in and through the high priest.
Why was this? The answer is found at Hebrews 9:7, 8, “But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: the Holy Ghost thus signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: . . . .”
The holies is the gracious and immediate presence of God, to which believers draw near in the assurance of the atonement made for them, and of their acceptance thereon. The atonement being made, believers do now under the gospel have boldness to enter into the gracious presence of God. This boldness is now theirs because the way into the holiest is made manifest. This way is the sacrifice of Christ, the true high priest of the church. The manifestation of the way consists in the actual exhibition of Christ in the flesh and His sacrifice of Himself. It consists further, in the full, plain declaration of Christ and Him crucified, of the nature of His person and work in and through the Gospel. It consists finally in the revelation in the gospel of the privileges which the believers now possess.
Thus the way is Christ. “I am,” said He, “the way, the truth, and the life.” Of this way it is asserted that it was not made manifest while the first tabernacle was standing.” The affirmation is not to the effect that then the way was not, but that it was not manifest. The way was virtually existent, but not actually so. Christ had not actually expiated sin, offered Himself to God. Yet because He should without fail make atonement for sin in the fullness of time, the benefit of His atonement was applied to the Old Testament believers. Though they had no access to the worldly sanctuary, they did have true access to God. Of Noah and Enoch it is said that they walked with God. Yet that boldness and freedom that believers now have, was not theirs. For the sacrifice of Christ, though promised and shadowed, was not in itself made manifest. And this is equivalent to saying that Christ had not yet sacrificed Himself.
Now this, namely, that the way, Christ crucified and resurrected, was not yet made manifest, the Holy Ghost signified, declared, through the high priest’s going into the Holiest place alone not without blood, thus signifies that the way, Christ and Him crucified, was not yet manifest and that thus what was manifest, what could be seen, namely, the slain bull or goat by whose blood the high priest entered alone was not the true way, sacrifice, atonement. So, what the Holy Ghost also by implication affirmed, through the people’s standing at a distance and the High Priest entering alone, is that God is holy and that man is unholy, sinful, dead in sin, that thus he cannot otherwise enter the presence of God than by the blood of a true sacrifice. That God’s people might have understanding of this, God, for so long a time caused the high priest to enter alone.
(I will enlarge on this thought in a following article.)