The Priesthood: Conduct in Service

Leviticus 21-22


The priest did not come into his position by choice, spiritual astuteness nor personal qualities which he possessed, but by birth into the Aaronic family. Yet to be accepted for service in the Tabernacle he had to meet the stringent regulations set forth by God.

Since the priest was the “chief man among his people” (21:4), great responsibility was laid upon him to exemplify personal purity in his character and conduct before Israel. If he disobeyed the divine regulations of his office, it meant immediate dismissal from service in the Tabernacle.

Disqualification For Service (21:1-15)

In order for the priest to be an example before his brethren, certain domestic restrictions were placed upon him which were not required of the nation of Israel. Because of his priestly position, a number of privileges were denied him in his family relationships.

Funeral Rites (vv. 1-4, 10-11)

The priest was not permitted to defile himself by taking part in any funeral rites (v. 1), except those legally permitted because of family ties. He was permitted legal defilement by attending the funeral of his mother, father, son, unmarried daughter, and wife (although she is not mentioned) [vv. 2-3]. The high priest was not permitted to interrupt his ministry even to attend the funeral of a father or mother (v. 11). This seems rather harsh and heartless, but remember, the high priest was totally separated unto the things of God by the anointing oil which was poured upon him (v. 10).

You could imagine how much time would have been spent away from his ministry if the priest had to officiate at the funerals of those who died in the wilderness. If the priest came in contact with a dead body, he was unclean for seven days (Num. 19:11-14).

The Lord demanded such commitment from those who would be His followers. A would-be disciple said unto him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” Jesus simply replied, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead” (Mt. 8:21-22). There are times when commitment unto the Lord even transcends our family responsibilities and relationships (Mt. 10:37). Many have experienced this by leaving relatives and friends to serve the Lord in another city or land.

Naturally, it is not wrong to mourn over the death of a loved one, even our Lord did (Jn. 11:33-36). Yet mourning must be done in a manner that glorifies God. The priest was prohibited from mourning in the customs of heathenistic nations dwelling around them by mimicking their superstitious practices or ceremonies. He was prohibited from shaving his head, beard or eyebrows (Lev. 19:27; Dt. 14:1), or making any cutting in his flesh (v. 5). Since the priest served the altar of the Lord, to mourn in a manner which dishonored God would profane His name and the priesthood (v. 6).

It is important that the believer-priest bring dignity and honor to God in the mourning of a loved one. It can be a time of witness to the unbelieving world of our faith in the Lord and His sufficiency to sustain us in the most difficult times of life.

Family Relationships (vv. 7-10, 12-15)

It was mandatory for the priest to make a wise choice in whom he married. He was prohibited from marrying “a prostitute, profane woman (secular and not spiritual in her interest), or a woman put away from her husband (divorcee)” [v. 7]. His wife must have a good testimony among the people, so as not to bring reproach upon his ministry (v. 8).

The high priest had greater restrictions concerning whom he could marry. His wife could not be a prostitute, profane woman, divorcee, or a widow; she must be a virgin (v. 14).

The bride of the high priest typified the bride of Christ, which is the Church. The Church is in union with Christ as a chaste virgin (2 Cor. 11:2). Even though the Church is not without blemish today, it will be presented as such (Eph. 5:27) during the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-8).

The believer-priest is to be holy in his marital relationship, the husband of one wife (Mt. 19:4-6). She is to be an example of holiness in marriage and the home (Ti. 2:3, 5). The marriage is to be lived out in a way which will bring glory to the Lord. This can be accomplished only if the couple fulfills their rightful role in the relationship (Eph. 5:22-23, 25).

The conduct of the priest’s children was of great importance. His daughter could disgrace and discredit her father’s ministry by immorality (v. 9). If she became a prostitute, the law required immediate death by burning (v. 9). Punishment was carried out swiftly as an example to others.

The priest had a responsibility to see that his son married according to the law (v. 15). Failure of the son to marry properly brought disgrace to his family and disqualified him for the priesthood.

What an indictment upon the high priest Eli, who allowed his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, to commit adultery at the Tabernacle (1 Sam. 2:22). It caused the people to lose respect for the priest and the Tabernacle (1 Sam. 2:17). Eli was severely judged for neglecting to discipline his sons (1 Sam. 2:27-36).

In the same spirit Paul instructs the Christian leader to oversee the behavior of his family (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Children in a Christian home are expected to live in obedience to their parents, not disgracing them by rebelling against their leadership (Eph. 6:1-3). Likewise, fathers are to nurture (discipline) and admonish their children in a way which will not provoke (arouse to wrath) them from following their leadership (Eph. 6:4).

Deficient For Service (21:16-24)

The priest must be physically fit, manifesting no deformities or blemishes, to qualify for service in the Tabernacle. He was rejected for service if he had body blemishes, was blind, or

flat-nosed, had limbs which were deformed, a broken foot or hand, a hunchback, was a dwarf, had defective eyes, eczema, scabs, or broken stones (vv. 17-20). Although not able to serve in an official capacity, he was permitted to do tasks which would not bring him near the altar (v. 23), and was allowed to eat the showbread and offerings of the Tabernacle (v. 22). Moses not only instructed Aaron and his sons concerning the priest’s qualifications, but the people as well (v. 24).

The perfection of the priest is a type of our Lord Jesus Christ who had no sin, neither blemish nor spot (1 Pet. 1:19). If our Lord possessed any defect it would have been impossible for Him to provide for our redemption through His shed blood (Heb. 7:26-28).

A lesson can be drawn for the believer-priest from the above qualifications. The one serving in a leadership position within the local church is to be blameless in his domestic and social relationships (1 Tim. 3). Some Christians have moral and ethical blemishes from their past which disqualify them from official service, but not from fellowship within the body of Christ.

Defilement In Service (22:1-16)

The priest was to be careful not to mix material objects dedicated for worship in the sanctuary (holy things of the children of Israel) with those objects used in his secular life (v. 2).

It was necessary for him to be ceremonially clean before coming into the sanctuary to minister. Failure to do so meant that he forfeited his right to minister and must be removed from his priestly office (v. 3).

Moses enumerates the various forms in which the priest could be ceremonially defiled: leprosy, a running issue (gonorrhea), touching the dead, emission of his seed, touching an unclean animal (Lev. 11:29-30) or person (vv. 4-5, 8). If he had defiled himself, it was mandatory that he wash completely, be pronounced cleansed, then wait until after sunset before being permitted to eat the Tabernacle offering (vv. 6-7). Failure to take the proper steps in removing his uncleanness might result in his death (v. 9).

Through daily communication with the world the believer-priest can become contaminated. It is necessary that he continually examine his walk (1 Cor. 11:31-32), remove those sins which would grieve the Holy Spirit, so he can be cleansed for service. If he fails to judge his walk before the Lord, sin will destroy his spiritual life, disqualifying him for ministry (Jas. 1:15). His private walk is to match his public work for the Lord.

The priest was not free to share the Tabernacle food with just anyone. No stranger (layman not of the priesthood), sojourner (traveler lodging with the priest), or hired servant was permitted to eat his food (v. 10). Only those in his immediate family still residing at home, a purchased slave, or a childless daughter (widowed or divorced having returned home) was permitted to eat of the Tabernacle offering (vv. 11-13).

An outsider’s ignorance of the law did not excuse him from penalty, even if he ate the Tabernacle offering unwittingly. The law stipulated that he must restore the portion eaten, plus 20 percent of its value (v. 14). Such stringent regulations were established for priest and people to make them conscious of the importance God placed upon His sanctuary and its holy function. The laws put the priest on constant guard concerning his approach and ministry in the Tabernacle. He must not come without proper preparation; one slip could defile and disqualify him from service.

The death of Nadab and Abihu, who offered strange fire upon the altar is a clear example of God’s swift judgment upon those who do not approach holy things of the sanctuary with reverence and respect (Lev. 10:1-2).

Our Lord instructs the believer, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine . . .” (Mt. 7:6). The metaphor is taken from Leviticus 22:1-16 and is instructing the Christian, who is a steward of the Gospel, not to handle it carelessly or irreverently. He is to use discernment, and not allow vile men who reject God’s grace, to trample on the spiritual treasure of the Gospel making it cheap. Sad to say, many believers are cheapening the Gospel through their attitudes and actions bringing discredit to Christ and His Church. It behooves every believer to be vigilant over his walk so as not to dishonor nor disgrace his Lord.

Discretion In Sacrificing (22:17-33)

God impressed upon the people and priest the importance of the sacrifice they were to bring. It was to be without blemish (vv. 17-25). It could not be offered before it was eight days old (vv. 26-27) for humane and health reasons. It was humane because it gave the animal time to gain strength and be self-sustaining. It was healthy, for the flesh of the animal was not wholesome to eat in the first week of life. Judaism taught that no animal should be offered to God until one sabbath had passed. The priests were not permitted to sacrifice the mother and its offspring on the same day (v. 28). To kill successive generations in one day would seem cruel and inhumane. It would not be in keeping with the spirit of atonement. For the atonement is a portrayal of life being spared because a life has been vicariously sacrificed. The animal was to be freely offered (v. 29) and eaten on the same day of the sacrifice, nothing could remain for the next day (v. 30). Through the centuries Israel miserably failed to follow God’s law by offering defiled sacrifices, thus polluting His altar (Mal. 1:7-14).

The believer-priest is to “offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). This is the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving continually given unto the Lord, along with sharing what we have with others (Heb. 13:15-16). Our spiritual sacrifice is to be carried from the altar of our hearts in service for our Lord; any other type of worship or service is defiled and unacceptable to Him.

The priests were given four reasons why they should keep the commandments set forth by God. First, preeminently He had rightful authority over them – “I am the Lord” (v. 31). Secondly, He planned to manifest His holiness through them as an example for all to see – “I will be hallowed among the children of Israel” (v. 32). Thirdly, He purchased them to manifest His program through Himself – “Who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (v. 33). Fourthly, the privilege of relationship should produce obedience – “To be your God” (v. 33).

The above reasons hold true for the believer-priest. God has rightful authority over him because of redemption, having planned that he should manifest His holiness to a lost world. The believer-priest, being brought into a high privilege of relationship, must continually guard his commitment lest he be disqualified from service because of sin. Peter states it well, “But, as he who hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of life” (1 Pet. 1:15). Notice, he is not to “become” holy, but “be” holy in every relationship of life. This is not impossible in our day! For God, who has “called”, also provides the “spiritual power” for holiness to all who will avail themselves of it through the Holy Spirit.

What is the key to maintaining personal purity in our character and conduct before the Lord? William D. Longstaff succinctly tells us in the hymn “Take Time to Be Holy.”


Take time to be holy, The world rushes on;

Spend much time in secret with Jesus alone.

By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be;

Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.


Do Others See Jesus In You, Or Just You?

Subscription Options

1 Year Digital Subscription

  • Free PDF Book Download - "What on Earth is God Doing?" by Renald Showers

  • Free Full-Issue Flipbook & PDF Download of Current Issue

$9.99 every 1 year

1 Year Digital with Archive Access

  • Free PDF Book Download - "What on Earth is God Doing?" by Renald Showers

  • Free Full-Issue Flipbook & PDF Downloads of Current Issue & select Archives

  • Complete Access to our Growing Archive - eventually dating back through our inaugural 1942 issue

$19.99 every 1 year

2 Year Digital Subscription

  • Free PDF Book Download - "What on Earth is God Doing?" by Renald Showers

  • Free Full-Issue Flipbook & PDF Download of Current Issue

$19.99 every 2 years

2 Year Digital with Archive Access

  • Free PDF Book Download - "What on Earth is God Doing?" by Renald Showers

  • Free Full-Issue Flipbook & PDF Downloads of Current Issue & select Archives

  • Complete Access to our Growing Archive - eventually dating back through our inaugural 1942 issue

$39.99 every 2 years

3 Year Digital Subscription

  • Free PDF Book Download - "What on Earth is God Doing?" by Renald Showers

  • Free Full-Issue Flipbook & PDF Download of Current Issue

$29.99 every 3 years

3 Year Digital with Archive Access

  • Free PDF Book Download - "What on Earth is God Doing?" by Renald Showers

  • Free Full-Issue Flipbook & PDF Downloads of Current Issue & select Archives

  • Complete Access to our Growing Archive - eventually dating back through our inaugural 1942 issue

$59.99 every 3 years