The Purpose of the Priesthood and High Priest

Last week we explored the significance of the priestly garments in Exodus 28. We not only discovered that their clothing symbolized God’s expectations for them, but there are also some truths that parallel today’s church ministry of “the holy priesthood”.

Although God originally intended for His chosen people to be a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6)—both as a nation and individually dealing directly with God—the people’s sin blotched that idea. So God initiated plan B by appointing priests from Levi’s tribe with the intended purpose of the people being able to approach Him within His system of sacrifices. If the people would offer certain sacrifices administered by the priests on their behalf, God promised to forgive their sins. The priests were also to represent God to the people by helping them obey the law through their teaching (Lev. 10:8-11; Deut. 33:10; Mal. 2:7).

The High Priest

The high priest was the highest religious leader of the Israelites. This position was hereditary, traced from Aaron’s lineage (Moses’ brother) who belonged to the Levite tribe (Exodus 28:1Numbers 18:7). Requirements of the high priest included: to be “whole” physically (without any physical defects) and holy in his conduct (Leviticus 21:6-8).

One role of the high priest was to oversee the responsibilities of all the subordinate priests (2 Chronicles 19:11). Only certain tasks were given to him, such as wearing the Urim and the Thummin (engraved dice-like stones used to determine truth or falsity), even though he could also perform regular priestly roles. The Israelites went to the high priest when seeking God’s will (Numbers 27:21). The New Testament (John 11:49-52) references the high priest as also having the gift of prophecy.

Another role of the high priest includes making a sin offering not only for himself, but also for the sins of the whole congregation (Leviticus 4:3-21). When a high priest died, all those confined to the cities of refuge for the accidental cause of death to another were given freedom (Numbers 35:28).

On the tenth day of the seventh month of every year the high priest conducted the service on the Day of Atonement. This marked his most important duty. For he was the only one permitted to enter the Most Holy Place to stand before God. Having made a sacrifice for himself (so he wouldn’t die) and for the people, he then brought the blood into the Holy of Holies. Through sprinkling the blood on the mercy seat, God’s “throne” (Leviticus 16:14-15) he made atonement for himself and the people for all their sins during that year (Exodus 30:10). This service is compared to the ministry of Jesus Christ as our High Priest (Hebrews 9:1-28).

(King James Version, source: Bible.Com)


The priesthood with the sacrificial system was temporary. The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that Christianity surpasses Judaism because it has a better covenant (8:1-13), a better sanctuary (9:1-10), and a more sufficient sacrifice for sins (9:11-10:18).

The NIV Life Application Study Bible notes: “Through these priests and their work, God wished to prepare all people for the coming of Jesus Christ, who would once again offer a direct relationship with God for anyone who would come to Him. But until Christ came, the priests were the people’s representatives before God. Through this Old Testament system, we can better understand the significance of what Christ did for us (see Hebrews 10:1-14).”

Christ is completely competent, qualified and supreme in the forgiveness of our sins. Not only is He the perfect revelation of God, but He is also the final and total sacrifice for our sin. Thankfully, Jesus—the only way to eternal life—is also our compassionate and understanding mediator.

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