Leviticus 21: Lessons for Staying Pure to be Part of Jesus’ Holy Priesthood

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Introduction: Leviticus Chapter 21 sets forth God’s rules of purity for His priests. A believer today might be tempted to skip this chapter on the assumption that these rules must apply to someone else. But that view would be a mistake. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are automatically part of His holy priesthood: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;” (1 Pet. 2:9). The Bible also teaches that all Scripture is profitable for teaching and raising up a person in God’s righteousness: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;” (2 Tim. 3:16). Thus, you can look to God’s instructions for His priests to learn how you can best serve Him. From Leviticus Chapter 21, God reveals several important lessons for being one of His priests.

First, a priest cannot be contaminated by sin in the surrounding world. Only through faith in Jesus can you remove the contamination of sin in your life. Second, to stay pure, a priest also cannot follow the practices of the world. As one of God’s priests, you must always be holy and set apart for His use. Third, a priest must also constantly seek out fellowship with God. He never wants your walk with Him to become static or backslidden. Fourth, a priest must not be unequally yoked with non-believers. This also applies to marriage or any other association that might pull you off your walk with God. Fifth, a priest must also keep his or her children set apart for God. This requires that you teach your children God’s Law and lead by your own example. Sixth, a priest must be an example at all times to others. You must never be a hypocrite. Finally, through faith in Christ, you must be born again of the Holy Spirit to be in God’s presence. Your transformation then continues as a life-long journey as you deny the things of the flesh and draw closer to God.

1. Only Through Jesus Can You Remove the Curse of Death. Lev. 21:1-4.

  • Don’t defile yourself with the original curse. Death was not part of God’s original plan. It came from the original curse (Gen. 3:19; Ro. 5:14-19). Because a dead body had become overcome with the curse of sin, it was not holy and could not be in God’s presence. Anyone who touched a corpse was “ritually unclean” and could not enter God’s Temple for seven days (Nu. 19:11). Even being within the tent of a dead person would cause “ritual uncleanness” and bar entry into God’s Temple for seven days (Nu. 19:14). To avoid ritual contamination that would prevent the priest from serving in the Temple, a priest could not touch a dead body. The only exceptions were for the priest’s immediate family, which included any unmarried adult sisters. The priest was allowed to become ritually unclean under these circumstances to allow him to grieve his lost family member: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his people, except for his relatives who are nearest to him, his mother and his father and his son and his daughter and his brother, also for his virgin sister, who is near to him because she has had no husband; for her he may defile himself.’” (Lev. 21:1-3). Yet, an in-law was not part of his immediate family: “He shall not defile himself as a relative by marriage among his people, and so profane himself.” (Lev. 21:4). Although not mentioned here, the priest was also allowed to mourn his deceased wife (Ezek. 24:16-18). Yet, the High Priest could not become unclean to mourn his immediate dead family members because his service to the nation was considered too important (Lev. 21:11-12). Most rabbis follow this law by providing a service at the Temple but avoiding being present at the cemetery during the entombment of the body. To a modern reader, these rules might seem archaic. Yet, in Old Testament times, they served an important purpose for that era. God protected the Jews from deadly microorganisms that they could not have known about. Handling a dead body without proper precautions can cause diseases to spread. Because Christians disregarded God’s rules on handling dead bodies, they did nothing to protect themselves during the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages. Millions of believers died because they ignored God’s rules. By contrast, the Jews experienced a far greater survival rate because they avoided dead bodies. The lesson is that you should follow God’s laws even if the logic behind the laws is not clear to you.

  • Jesus has broken the curse of death. Jesus is our High Priest (Heb. 8:1). He came to fulfill the penalties for breaking the Law (Matt 5:18). He also gave each person the means to conquer death. This is symbolized through Jesus touching the dead daughter of Jairus (an act which would have made Him ritually unclean had He not been successful) and bringing the daughter back to life (Mk. 5:22-23; 38-42). He also went into the tomb of Lazarus (Mary’s brother) and brought him from the dead (Jo. 11:32-45). Again, this act would have made Him ritually unclean if He had not brought Lazarus back from the dead. Jesus allows each of us to conquer the contamination of death: “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” (Ro. 5:17).

  • Purify yourself from the unclean. If a priest touched a dead close relative as permitted under God’s rules, he still needed to cleanse himself. He would need to purify himself with “water” on the “third day.” He would then be clean on the seventh day (Nu. 11:12). Jesus is the living water, who rose on the third day, to purify your sins (Jo. 4:10-11; 7:38). Whenever you become unclean by the sins of the world, you must wash in His blood.

  • Give hope to those who mourn. If Jesus has helped you conquer death, it is your job to help others find the cure to do the same. As one of God’s holy priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9), He expects you to help those who mourn find the hope that Jesus provides (1 Thess. 4:13-18).

2. A Priest Should Not Follow the Unclean Practices of the World. Lev. 21:5; 19:27-28.

  • Be set apart from idolatry. A priests could not (1) shave his head or (2) shave off the edges of his beard or cut his body: “They shall not make any baldness on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts in their flesh.” (Lev. 21:5). These things were not to be done in mourning for “the dead.” (Lev. 19:28; Dt. 14:1; Lev. 21:1-4). Shaving was permitted when it was for other kinds of mourning unrelated to death (Nu. 6:5; 2 Sam. 14:26; Amos 8:10; Micah 1:16; Jer. 41:5). God wanted to make sure that the priests did not follow the idolatrous practices of Canaan with their bodies. During Old Testament times, some gentiles tried to honor their gods and the dead by cutting themselves and the “corners” of their beard near the chin, below the ears and on top of their heads. Captured gentile woman also shaved their heads in mourning their dead (Dt. 20:13-14; 21:12-14). The followers of Baal also cut themselves as an act of worship (1 Kgs. 18:28). Today, only three religious groups still practice self-mutilation: These include (1) Shiite Muslims during a festival called “Ashura”, (2) some Hindu women in a now banned Indian funeral custom called “Sati”, where the widow was expected to immolate herself on her husband’s pyre following his death, and (3) a now banned Catholic practice of self-flagellation that is still practiced in parts of the Philippines, Mexico, and one convent in Peru. Even though self-flagellation has little following in the western world outside the mentally ill, these verses are still relevance today. In addition to money, the god that most people worship is themselves. This is no less offensive to God then bowing down to a Canaanite deity (Is. 47:8-10). To glorify themselves, people pierce their bodies, have implants, or other cosmetic surgeries to draw attention to themselves. The lesson is that you are not glorifying God if you are seeking to glorify your body. Is there any vanity in your life that you need to remove?

3. A Priest Should Constantly Seek Out Fellowship With God. Lev. 21:6, 8; 3:11, 16.

  • You cannot find Shalom unless you desire to have fellowship with God. As a symbol of the priest’s commitment to maintain his fellowship with God, he ate a communion meal in God’s presence: “They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they present the offerings by fire to the Lord, the food of their God; so they shall be holy . . . You shall consecrate him, therefore, for he offers the food of your God; he shall be holy to you; for I the Lord, who sanctifies you, am holy.” (Lev. 21:6, 8). Although salvation cannot be lost, fellowship can be lost temporarily through rebellion and sin. To understand how to maintain communion, we turn to the Shalom sacrifice.

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  • The peace offering or Shalom sacrifice with God. Atonement was a necessary step (but not by itself a sufficient final step) for a believer to restore true fellowship with God. The reason why atonement does not automatically bring fellowship is that we were once “enemies” of God before we were reconciled through Christ’s blood (Ro. 5:10; Phil 3:18-19; Col. 1:21). Enemies don’t automatically become friends when they end their hostilities. In the Old Testament, parties solidified covenants with a meal, which showed the parties to be at peace (Gen. 26:26-31; Ex. 18:12). The Shalom or peace offering served this purpose with God (Lev. 3; Nu. 7:88). The Shalom offering symbolized a believer who was in peaceful fellowship with Him. It is not a temporary condition. It instead is a state of being. This offering was the only offering that was voluntary. It was also the only offering where the believer could eat a part of the sacrifice. It symbolized a higher walk with God. The Jews shared this Shalom meal in God’s presence out of devotion, not obligation. God in turn brought them peace.

  • The relevance of the Shalom offering to Christians today, Today, Christians make “spiritual sacrifices,” not physical ones (1 Pet. 2:5). Christ’s death ripped the Temple “veil” and gave us direct access to God through Him (Matt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38). Yet, our “access” to God does not automatically mean that we have “fellowship” with Him (Rev. 3:20). An example of a saved believer who is not in fellowship with God is a believer trapped in addiction, rebellion, stress, or a lack of faith. Thus, atonement is merely the first step to finding fellowship with God. Christ also offered to believers the joy of spiritual intimacy with Him, symbolized by dining together with Him, like the Shalom offering: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” (Rev. 3:20). Christ offered this so that we could find both fellowship and peace through Him (Jo. 16:33). One of the reasons to take communion on a “frequent” basis is to remind believers of the need to constantly seek out fellowship with Christ (Lk. 22:14-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-34). Your future wedding in heaven to Christ will also be celebrated through a great feast (Rev. 19:9). Sadly, many believers have been led to believe that being saved is the end-all be-all of being a Christian. But it is only the first step in a person’s walk with Christ. If you want true peace and fellowship with God, you must accept Jesus’ knock on the door of your heart. “For He Himself is our peace . . .” (Eph. 2:14). Are you seeking out Christ’s fellowship to find His peace in your life?

4. A Priest Should Not Be Unequally Yoked With Non-Believers. Lev. 21:7, 13-15.

  • Don’t be unequally yoked with non-believers. A person who marries becomes one flesh with their spouse (Matt. 19:5-6). To stay pure for God and to keep the priest from being unequally yoked, the priest could not marry someone “defiled” by prostitution or by a divorce: “They shall not take a woman who is profaned by harlotry, nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband; for he is holy to his God.” (Lev. 21:7). God says that he “hates divorce.” (Mal. 2:16). Contrary to what Catholics teach, these verses show that a priest is not barred from marriage. Jesus, however, broadened the prohibitions on marriage with a divorced person. He said that anyone who divorces a woman (except in the case of infidelity) and marries another commits adultery (Matt. 19:8-9). Thus, Jesus extended the prohibition on priests marrying a divorced person to all believers. This is consistent with the fact that every believer is now part of God’s nation of priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). In addition to marriage, this prohibition on being unequally yoked with non-believers also extends to businesses and any other association that might pull you off your walk with God: “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? 16 Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’ 17 ‘Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord.’” (2 Cor. 6:14-17). Are you keeping yourself separate from ungodly associations?

  • The exception for a divorced person or harlot who then becomes a believer. You are also prohibited from marrying a divorced person (Matt. 19:8-9) because you are part of God’s holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9). Jesus, however, can forgive any sin (1 Jo. 1:9). You can also marry a divorced person or even a former prostitute who accepts Christ because that person is a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). That person is under no condemnation for their prior sins (Ro. 8:1). Are you judging others for their old sins that God has forgiven?

  • Christ’s bride. A High Priest had an even tougher standard. He could only marry a virgin of his own people: “13 He shall take a wife in her virginity. 14 A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is profaned by harlotry, these he may not take; but rather he is to marry a virgin of his own people,” (Lev. 21:13-14). If he married anyone other than a virgin from amongst his own people, he “profaned” his offspring: “15 so that he will not profane his offspring among his people; for I am the Lord who sanctifies him.’” (Lev. 21:15). Jesus is our High Priest (Heb. 8:1). As a believer, you are the adopted child of God the Father (Rom. 8:15, 23). As High Priest, Jesus will one day marry the Church to form a bond of spiritual intimacy (Rev. 19:7-8; 21:1-9). To honor Christ, you should remain spiritually pure for this future event in heaven (2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 14:4). This requires that you repent of any sins and stay pure from the sins of this world. Staying pure from the world is also part of the definition of true religion: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Ja. 1:27). Are you keeping yourself pure for Christ?

5. A Priest Should Also Keep His or Her Children Set Apart for God. Lev. 21:9.

  • A priest must keep his children set apart from the world. In addition to keeping himself pure, a priest also had to keep his children pure. A child who becomes a prostitute disgraces the father: “Also the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by harlotry, she profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” (Lev. 21:9). This rule also applies to any believer. As one of God’s adopted children (Rom. 8:15, 23), you disgrace Him when you sleep around or when you commit spiritual adultery. Are you leading by your example?

  • Raise your child up in the ways of the Lord. To keep your children pure, you are obligated to teach God’s Law to your children and your grandchildren: “. . . but make them known to your sons and your grandsons.” (Dt. 4:9). “ . . . and that they may teach their children.” (Dt. 4:10). “You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Dt. 6:7). “You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Dt. 11:19). “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Prov. 22:6; Ps. 78:4-6). In case any Christian feels freed of this requirement, Paul is clear that it still applies: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4). Do you teach your children God’s law? Do you talk about the Bible with your family?

  • Unruly children can also temporarily disqualify a leader from service. A priest is a leader in the community. But his family is his first ministry. If his children are disobedient and without dignity, God may limit his service as an overseer or as a deacon. (1 Tim. 3:4). If your children are unruly, are you putting your family first to prepare them to serve?

6. A Priest Should Be an Example At All Times for Others. Lev. 21:10-12.

  • Draw people to Christ through the Spirit and by your own example. A high priest is anointed by the Holy Spirit. His inward holiness is also reflected in his outward appearance. He wore “priestly garments.” His hair was not unkempt (NIV). His clothes also were not torn. Like other priests, he also could contaminate himself: “10 The priest who is the highest among his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been consecrated to wear the garments, shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes; 11 nor shall he approach any dead person, nor defile himself even for his father or his mother;12 nor shall he go out of the sanctuary nor profane the sanctuary of his God, for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is on him; I am the Lord.” (Lev. 21:10-12). During Jesus’ trial, the High Priest tore his garments in anger against Jesus (Matt. 26:65). Because he was not inwardly righteous, he was not righteous in his outward appearance either. Today, many Christians see no problem dressing in a slovenly manner. What kind of a witness are you for Christ if your outward appearance causes others to stumble in their walk?

7. A Person Must be Born Again of the Spirit to be Before the Lord. Lev. 21:16-24.

  • A person has to be without physical defects to be before the Lord. Another rule of “ritual purity” as opposed to moral purity was God’s requirement that the person had to be without defect to enter the Temple. He could not be blind, lame, disfigured, or deformed. He could not have a crippled hand or foot, be hunchbacked, a dwarf, have sores, have a skin disease, or be sterile as a result of being made into a eunuch: “16 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 ‘Speak to Aaron, saying, no man of your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect shall approach to offer the food of his God. 18 For no one who has a defect shall approach: a blind man, or a lame man, or he who has a disfigured face, or any deformed limb, 19 or a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, 20 or a hunchback or a dwarf, or one who has a defect in his eye or eczema or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No man among the descendants of Aaron the priest who has a defect is to come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a defect, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the food of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy, 23 only he shall not go in to the veil or come near the altar because he has a defect, so that he will not profane My sanctuaries. For I am the Lord who sanctifies them.’ 24 So Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the sons of Israel.” (Lev. 21:16-24). “No one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” (Dt. 23:1). A similar prohibition existed for male animal sacrifices: “Also anything with its testicles bruised or crushed or torn or cut, you shall not offer to the LORD, or sacrifice in your land,” (Lev. 22:24). These prohibited deformities were the consequences of either original sin in the case of birth defects or self-inflicted sins in the case of eunuchs. These verses, however, no longer apply because the Temple does not exist. Even when the Temple did exist, someone who was disqualified from priestly service out of a birth defect was still blessed if their dependence on others caused that person to seek out God (Matt. 5:29-30). If you are suffering from a defect or illness, are you praising God that it has brought you closer to Him?

  • Be born again to be in God’s presence. What hope does a person born with a defect or a person suffering from lameness or blindness have of being in God’s presence? Jesus provides that hope. As our High Priest, He did not have any blemishes (Heb. 9:14). He gave Himself up for the church “to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or any blemish …” (Eph. 5:23-27). Any imperfection will disappear when you are born again in the Spirit (Jo. 3:7). In the book of Acts, Phillip met an Ethiopian eunuch who worked in the court of the queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch read the prophecy in Isaiah regarding the sheep being led to the slaughter and asked Phillip to explain it (Acts 8:27-36). As a eunuch, he was ineligible under the Law from entering into God’s Temple. Yet, after professing his faith in Jesus Christ, he was no longer barred from being in the Temple (Acts 8:37-9). After you accepted Christ, you too went from being a “dry tree” to one capable of bearing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Yet, a believer who walks by the flesh will not bear the fruit of the Spirit. If none of the nine fruits of the Spirit are visible in your life, what might that tell you? (Matt. 7:16). Like Phillip, are you helping the spiritual eunuchs around you?

  • The hope that lies ahead for you in heaven. If you are suffering now, you have much to look forward to. In heaven, everything will be made new (Rev. 21:1-5). You will have a new body with physical deformities or limitations (Is. 35:3-6). Your new body will also be incorruptible (1 Cor. 42-49). Are you sharing that hope with others?