The Priesthood of the Jews - Part 1

Posted in: 2011
By Tom L. Ballinger
May 23, 2011 - 10:02:04 AM

Plainer Words Online
Tom L. Ballinger

Plainer Words since 1968


Part 1

This series of studies is to point out the decline of the Priesthood in Israel, and to show how the nature of man is inclined to drift, steadily, away from the written Word of God. By so drifting from the Scripture, man imposes his doctrines and commandments to the extent that the Word of God becomes of none effect.


“Definition of a Priest” was one who was duly authorized to minister in sacred things. First, to offer sacrifices at the altar, and second, he was to act as a mediator between men and God. The office of a priest, in Israel, was of high rank and of supreme importance. In fact, the High Priest stood next to the king in influence and dignity. Aaron, the head of the priesthood, stood next to Moses and shared with him in the guidance of Israel’s government and nation. It was through the ministry of the priesthood that the children of Israel were instructed in the doctrine of sin and its expiation in forgiveness and worship. The Scripture supplies information concerning the nature of the priestly office as it related to Israel’s priesthood.

It should be pointed out that there seems to have been some form of priesthood in existence, even, in patriarchal times. Prior to the giving of the Law, the priestly office, and the duties that went with it, seems to have been held by those who occupied some sort of headship, that being, particularly, by the father, or the head of a family or tribe.

Noah acted in this priestly capacity in behalf of his household when he “…builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20). Abraham offered the ram. In relation to Isaac, Abraham “offered him [i.e., the ram] up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son” (Genesis 22:13).

In like manner, Job offered burnt offerings for his children. And, by Divine direction, he also offered up burnt offerings for his three “comforters” when his great trial had ended (Job 1:5; 42:8). In these instances and others, priestly duties, or actions were performed, just as surely, as those were by the regularly appointed priest in Israel.  Isaac “builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD …” (Genesis 26:25): so did Jacob (Genesis 33:20). In these instances, priestly acts were performed by those patriarchs in their capacity as fathers of households, or as head of tribes.

From the earliest times, the priestly function was recognized as a Divinely instituted office. There was no special class of priest recognized, prior to Moses, except the priest of the Most High God, Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18). There was, even, an implied priesthood associated with the altar in Genesis 4 when Cain and Abel brought offerings in “the process of time.”


Israel’s priesthood certainly carried with it the fact that it was of Divine choice with the priest, himself, being Divinely appointed.

“For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins: … And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron” (Hebrews 5:1, 4).

The priest was not elected by the people, nor was he self-appointed, or self-promoted. God’s selection severed him, the chosen priest, from those for whom he was to act. Even the Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, did not come into the world without being sent. He received His commission and authority from God.


We do not have to search the Old Testament Scriptures to notice that part of Israel’s requirement for the priesthood was that of offering of sacrifices; we can look at God’s Divine commentary on the Old Testament.

“For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices …” (Hebrews 8:3).

In plainer words, the anointed (i.e., High) Priest was duly ordained by God to offer sacrifices. It was he, and only he, who was allowed to go into the Holy of Holies, and that was but once a year. The High Priest was the Superintendent of the Priesthood.

The Lord Jesus Christ qualified as the Greatest High Priest, not after the Levitical order, but “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:20). As the Great High Priest, He offered Himself as a sacrifice and entered into the Holy of Holies.

“For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself ...” (Hebrews  9:24).

He put away sin “by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26).


The institution of the priestly office was God’s gracious provision for a people, who were at a distance from Him, who needed someone to appear in the Divine presence on their behalf. The High Priest was to act for men in things that pertained to God             (Hebrews 2:17). He was the mediator who ministered for the guilty.

The High Priest represented the whole nation of Israel. For, it is said of him, “… Aaron  shall bear their names [the Twelve Tribes] before the LORD …” (Exodus 28:12). He was the nation’s representative to appear in the Divine presence on their behalf. Now, get this! If he sinned, it involved all of the people (Leviticus 4:3). When he sinned, the people sinned. His official action was reckoned as their action. This was an awesome responsibility. His office carried with it great significance and importance as the only one duly authorized to minister “gifts and sacrifices.” If he sinned in his official capacity, the whole nation shared in the trespass of their official representative.

The opposite was true. In plainer words, what he did in his official capacity, as prescribed by the LORD, was reckoned as being done by the whole congregation. That’s why Hebrews 5:1 says that the High Priest which was taken from man “is ordained FOR MEN.”


The priesthood implies intercession. The High Priest was to act as the mediator between Israel and God. The High Priest was the mediator between Israel and God, whereas the Church over which Christ Jesus is the Head has but ONE MEDIATOR between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).

“And Aaron lifted up his hand toward the people, and blessed them, and came down from offering of the sin offering, and the burnt offering, and peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:22-24).

The fact that “there came fire out from before the LORD” was the Divine sign that the offerings, which the High Priest [Aaron] made, were accepted by the Most High. Throughout the Old Testament, whenever the LORD accepted an offering, it was consumed by fire which was miraculously sent from the LORD.

The apostle, in the Hebrew epistle, compared the High Priestly office of the Lord Jesus Christ with that of the High Priestly office after the Levitical order by saying:

“And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood.Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth TO MAKE INTERCESSION FOR THEM” (Hebrews 7:23-25).


The office of the High Priest can be traced throughout most of the Old Testament         (see 1 Chronicles 6:1-15, 50-53). The first list, 1 Chronicles 6:1-15, traces the High Priest from Levi to Jehozadak who was carried away into captivity under Nebuchadnezzar. The second list, 1 Chronicles 6:50-53, traces the line from Aaron to Ahimaaz and is identical, so far, with the first.

During the “captivity,” there could have been no place for the functions of the High Priest. The reason; the functions were to be performed in the Temple in Jerusalem. However, the family line was preserved, and Joshua, the son of Jehozadak, was among those who first returned (Ezra 3:2). From this time on, the High Priest becomes more prominent. The monarchy is gone (i.e., no kings in Israel), and the civil authority is in the hands of the Persians. The Jews are no longer independent and; therefore, the power seems to be centered in the hands of the High Priesthood (see Haggai 1:1, 12, 14; 2:2-4, Zechariah 3:1, 8; 4:14; 6:11-13).

Herod the Great began to set up and dispose of High Priests at his pleasure. The Romans did the same, and changed so frequently that the position, almost, became an annual appointment. The anointing prescribed by Moses was not, generally, carried out in the latter times.


At the time the New Testament Books references the High Priest, he was “the chief civil and ecclesiastical dignitary among the Jews. He was chairman of the Sanhedrin and head of the political relations with the Roman government.” It is not clear how much he participated in the ceremonies of the Temple.

“Bagster’s Help to Bible Study” gives a very good summary of the priesthood. “Bagster”  presents an excellent insight into the degeneration of the Jewish priesthood from the Exile until the time of Christ. During this time, the stage was being set for the confrontation they will have with Jesus Christ− their Messiah.

“Before the Exile the revenues of the priests would appear to have been at once slender and uncertain, and to have been derived exclusively from the small fraction which fell to their share of the offerings made to Jehovah. But with the return from the Captivity these increased to an enormous extent, and this was due to the increase of political power which the new order of things put into the hands of the priesthood. The priestly function from this time became the sovereign one of the state, and more and more of the offerings of the people and the wealth of the community was dedicated to its maintenance, in a dignity and an efficiency proportionate to the importance now assigned to it.”

While Judah was in Babylonian Captivity for seventy years, the Jewish Priests had no function. There was no Temple for them to serve the captives with the Aaronic Priesthood’s offerings and sacrifices. Such things were only acceptable to “Yahweh” in His authorized place—on the Temple Mount and its Altar in Jerusalem. Since the Jews had been displaced and living in and around Babylon, there arose meeting places which gave rise to the Synagogues.

The teaching ministry of the Word of God was usurped by those who became the Pharisees. The Priests were given the job of administering the finances of the “Synagogues.” They learned the secrets of the Babylonian Banking System. The priests became skilled in “money matters” and relinquished their God-given responsibility of teaching the Word. They became the bankers of the “meeting places.”

They refined these banking skills, and when the Priesthood was back in their homeland, they amassed fortunes for the rebuilt Temple and the religious establishment. They became the “money changers” mentioned in the New Testament.

The “Bagster’s Helps” speaks of  how the priests acquired a right to a larger share of, and a choicer selection from, the offerings, as well as a power to levy tithes of the whole people, and to lay claim, for the service of the Lord, to the first-born of men and cattle.  “Bagster’s,” also, points out the following:

“(1.) Of the sacrifices they now received the whole of the sin-offerings, and the trespass-offerings, and nearly all of the meal-offerings, though of the thank-offerings they received only two parts; the breast and the right shoulder-and of the burnt-offerings little more than the skins, which, however, were a source of no small revenue. (2.) But by far the greater portion of their revenue was derived from dues that were paid irrespectively of the sacrifices altogether viewed in the light of taxes for the support of the Temple-service and its ministers. These were levied partly in the form of tithes, partly upon the produce of the soil, and partly upon the offspring of cattle. (3.) In addition to imposts on these, there fell to the priests votive-offerings, or the ransom of them, things specially willed away to their benefit, and certain indemnities, as for property unlawfully appropriated, and that could not be restored to its rightful owner. (4.) There were also imposts for their benefit intended to defray the expenses connected with public worship, the chief of which was the half—shekel tax, which every male Israelite of twenty years old and upwards was required to pay every year in the month Adar. All these and other imposts, added to the freewill offerings of the people, naturally contributed to increase the wealth and enhance the importance of the priestly order to an extent of which it is hardly possible to form any adequate conception.”

“The Priesthood of the Jews” will be continued in the next Issue.
References: Bagster’s Helps to Bible Study. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. .

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