Psalm 66 records the transparent joy of devout Israelite worship, a direct confrontation of those who continually paint Israel as a people of heartless ritual observance. The burnt offerings and sacrifices presented at the tabernacle were the response of those who enjoyed God’s vindication (Ps 66:13-20). To aid Israel in responding to His goodness, God gave them priests who would minister at the tabernacle. Leviticus 8-10 offers a narrative of how Israel’s holy God sought to relate with His people through sinful humans. Three movements can be identified in the drama of these chapters.
First, when Aaron and his sons were ordained for the priesthood, purification had to be made for their sins (Leviticus 8). God had set apart Aaron and his sons for spiritual leadership at the tabernacle—leadership that was to be recognized even through their attire (Lev 8:1-13). Yet, the bulk of the chapter details the fact that Moses was to offer sacrifices that would cleanse these men of sin before they could begin serving as priests. Even their attire had to be cleansed (Lev 8:14-36). Multiple sacrifices were offered at the inauguration of the priesthood: the bull for a sin offering (Lev 8:14), the ram for the burnt offering (Lev 8:18), and the second ram as a ram of ordination (Lev 8:22). A summary of these sacrifices and the priestly anointing is described in Lev 8:30: “Then Moses took some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled them on Aaron and his garments…In this way he consecrated Aaron and his garments, as well as his sons and their garments.”
Second, the office of the priesthood was also inaugurated with sacrifices. Leviticus 9 begins after the week-long ordination service in which many sacrifices were offered. The key element in this chapter occurs in Moses’ interaction with Aaron—namely that Aaron was now to lead in the sacrifices (Lev 9:7-8). After Lev 9:8, the personal pronoun “he” refers to Aaron: he offered the sin offering for himself (Lev 9:8-11); he slaughtered the burnt offering (Lev 9:12-14); he presented the people’s offering (Lev 9:15-17); he slaughtered the ox and the ram as the people’s fellowship sacrifice (Lev 9:18-21); he lifted up his hands and blessed the people (Lev 9:22). The Lord showed His approval of Moses and Aaron’s priestly work by appearing before all the people and consuming the burnt offering with fire on the altar. The result? “When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell facedown on the ground” (Lev 9:24).
Third, despite the glory of the inauguration of the priesthood, Aaron’s sons acted with presumption and profaned their office (Leviticus 10). Just as fire signified God’s glory in the blessing of Aaron’s obedience at the conclusion of Leviticus 9, fire became the means of the condemnation of Nadab and Abihu in Lev 10:1-2. Leviticus 10 records that Aaron’s sons took the initiative in offering a sacrifice that the Lord had not commanded (Lev 10:1). They were presumptuous. The remainder of Leviticus 10 records that Aaron’s two oldest sons would be exemplars of how not to serve the Lord.
Leviticus 8-10 records not only the inauguration of the priesthood, but also details how it would be perpetuated through Aaron’s descendants. The priesthood is a fulcrum for understanding the storyline of Scripture. The author of Hebrews contrasted Jesus’ priesthood with the Levitical priesthood.
(1) In Heb 5:1-3; 7:26-27, he distinguished Jesus’ priestly ministry with that of the Levitical priests because, according to Lev 9:7, Aaron and his sons had to make atonement for their own sins. When Moses inaugurated the priestly ministry, he commanded Aaron and his sons to bring a burnt offering to atone for their own sins and then the sins of the people. The author of Hebrews noted that Jesus had no need to atone for His own sin, but Jesus did atone for the sins of His people. “He did this once for all when He offered Himself” (Heb 7:27).
(2) In Hebrews 5-7, the author referenced Melchizedek to contrast the priesthood of Aaron and his descendants with Jesus’ eternal priesthood. The author of Hebrews saw in Melchizedek two points of contact with the life of Christ. First, Melchizedek’s priesthood was unrelated to Aaron or the Levitical tribe. Melchizedek preceded both by hundreds of years (Gen 14:17-24). The author’s point was that the Levitical priesthood was inextricably related to the Mosaic law and needed to be continued generation after generation. Second, Jesus, like Melchizedek, was an eternal priest outside the line of Aaron. Perfection came though Jesus and not the sacrifices offered according to the law.