What The Bible Says About The Identity And Responsibilities of God's Modern Priests

This article is part of a sub-series: Should We Obey The Entire Law Of Moses? - What The Old And New Testaments Say, which is about Old Testament laws on morality and tithing, customs like animal sacrifice and the celebration of the Passover Festival, and what the New Testament says about them.
This is Part 12 (of 13) in Section 5: "Should We Obey The Entire Law Of Moses? - What The Old And New Testaments Say".

To read an overview of the way Christians should regard the Law of Moses, visit: Bible Quotations on Whether Christians Should Obey the Law of Moses.

Some parts of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation are very unpleasant. If you become offended by anything, please read An Attempt to Explain Gruesome Bible Passages.

The purpose of the Old Testament seems to have been mainly to try to scare lawless societies into behaving decently, giving up the cruel ways the Bible says they were guilty of. Hence much of the gruesomeness, which is at least in part meant to warn people committing cruel and hurtful actions to change.

In the New Testament, the Bible says:

2 Timothy chapter 3 (TEV)

16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, 17 so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed.

These articles on holiness show how the Old Testament Law was full of picture language, external ways of illustrating how God wanted his people to live pure lives. It was symbolism, expressing in external ways what the New Testament expresses as inner truths, meaning guidelines on living.

For instance, the Old Testament ordered that all Jewish males must be circumcised as a sign that they were God's people. The New Testament teaches that the physical act of circumcision is actually worthless as regards turning someone into a person of God, because it's a mere outward thing. The real circumcision is a spiritual thing- a cutting away of old bad behaviours, a change of lifestyle and attitudes so behaviour becomes more pure.

Some of the picture language in the Law of Moses is quite nice. Some, on the other hand, involves commands that seem barbaric. Having strict laws about what was acceptable to do and what was holy and forbidden was apparently a way in which ancient cultures sought to control their communities, at a time when lawlessness was more of a present threat, and when disobedience could have much more drastic effects on people's survival chances. For instance, disobedience to commands related to sexual abstinence before marriage could lead to many babies being born out of wedlock in an age where there was no welfare state to support them, and an inability to support oneself could mean starvation.

There are commands which impose a penalty of death for what would seem trivial offences, like going up to God's altar without washing first. It was harshly symbolic of how important it is to be pure from sin, so far as possible. Disrespect for God's commands on the way to live could have led to anarchy, in an age where means of social control were so much less sophisticated. The harsh punishments in the Law of Moses were to some extent illustrations and warnings for the people of the importance of staying within the law.

Rather than imposing symbolic and sometimes harsh external purity rules, the New Testament, written for people who actually wanted to obey it rather than for a whole society, many of whom would probably have preferred not to, focuses on purity of thought and action, rather than on the picture language of symbolic holiness. This article shows how much of the external ceremony of the Old Testament has its reflection in guidelines about attitudes and behaviour in the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, the Bible says:

Exodus chapter 25 (TEV)

1 The Lord said to Moses,

Exodus chapter 28 (NLT)

1 "Your brother, Aaron, and his sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, will be set apart from the common people. They will be my priests and will minister to me. 2 Make special clothing for Aaron to show his separation to God - beautiful garments that will lend dignity to his work. 3 Instruct all those who have special skills as tailors to make the garments that will set Aaron apart from everyone else, so he may serve me as a priest. 4 They are to make a chestpiece, an ephod, a robe, an embroidered tunic, a turban, and a sash. They will also make special garments for Aaron's sons to wear when they serve as priests before me. 5 These items must be made of fine linen cloth and embroidered with gold thread and blue, purple, and scarlet yarn.

Exodus chapter 28 (GWT)

31 "Make the robe that is worn with the ephod entirely of violet material. 32 Make an opening for the head in the center with a reinforced edge (like a leather collar) all around it to keep it from tearing. 33 All around the hem of the robe make pomegranates of violet, purple, and bright red yarn with gold bells in between-- 34 a gold bell alternating with a pomegranate all around the hem of the robe. 35 Aaron must wear it when he serves as priest. The sound of the bells must be heard when he comes into and goes out of the LORD's presence in the holy place so that he won't die.

Exodus chapter 20 (NLT)

25 If you build altars from stone, use only uncut stones. Do not chip or shape the stones with a tool, for that would make them unfit for holy use. 26 And you may not approach my altar by steps. If you do, someone might look up under the skirts of your clothing and see your nakedness.

Exodus chapter 28 (TEV)

40 "Make shirts, sashes, and caps for Aaron's sons, to provide them with dignity and beauty. 41 Put these clothes on your brother Aaron and his sons. Then ordain them and dedicate them by anointing them with olive oil, so that they may serve me as priests. 42 Make linen shorts for them, reaching from the waist to the thighs, so that they will not expose themselves. 43 Aaron and his sons must always wear them when they go into the Tent of my presence or approach the altar to serve as priests in the Holy Place, so that they will not be killed for exposing themselves. This is a permanent rule for Aaron and his descendants.

The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Christians in Rome in the New Testament:

Romans chapter 13 (NLT)

11 ... Wake up, for the coming of our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So don't live in darkness. Get rid of your evil deeds. Shed them like dirty clothes. Clothe yourselves with the armor of right living, as those who live in the light. 13 We should be decent and true in everything we do, so that everyone can approve of our behavior. Don't participate in wild parties and getting drunk, or in adultery and immoral living, or in fighting and jealousy. 14 But let the Lord Jesus Christ take control of you, and don't think of ways to indulge your evil desires.

Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossian Christians In the New Testament:

Colossians chapter 3 (NLT)

12 Since God chose you to be the holy people whom he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.

5 So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual sin, impurity, lust, and shameful desires. Don't be greedy for the good things of this life, for that is idolatry. 6 God's terrible anger will come upon those who do such things. 7 You used to do them when your life was still part of this world.

8 But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. 9 Don't lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old evil nature and all its wicked deeds. 10 In its place you have clothed yourselves with a brand-new nature that is continually being renewed as you learn more and more about Christ, who created this new nature within you.

11 In this new life, it doesn't matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, ... uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.

In the Old Testament, the Bible says:

Exodus chapter 40 (TEV)

1 The Lord said to Moses,

13 "Dedicate the Levites as a special gift to me, and put Aaron and his sons in charge of them. 15 After you have purified and dedicated the Levites, they will be qualified to work in the Tent. 19 I assign the Levites to Aaron and his sons, as a gift from the Israelites, to work in the Tent for the people of Israel and to protect the Israelites from the disaster that would strike them if they came too near the Holy Place."

Numbers chapter 18 (TEV)

21 The Lord said, "I have given to the Levites every tithe that the people of Israel present to me. This is in payment for their service in taking care of the Tent of my presence. 22 The other Israelites must no longer approach the Tent and in this way bring on themselves the penalty of death. 23 From now on only the Levites will take care of the Tent and bear the full responsibility for it. This is a permanent rule that applies also to your descendants.

Exodus chapter 29 (TEV)

1 "This is what you are to do to Aaron and his sons to dedicate them as priests in my service. Take one young bull and two rams without any defects. 2 Use the best wheat flour, but no yeast, and make some bread with olive oil, some without it, and some in the form of thin cakes brushed with oil. 3 Put them in a basket and offer them to me when you sacrifice the bull and the two rams. 4 "Bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the Tent of my presence, and have them take a ritual bath.

Leviticus chapter 8 (TEV)

14 Then Moses brought the young bull for the sin offering, and Aaron and his sons put their hands on its head. 15 Moses killed it and took some of the blood, and with his finger put it on the projections at the corners of the altar, in order to dedicate it. He then poured out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. In this way he dedicated it and purified it.

30 Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled them on Aaron and his sons and on their clothes. In this way he consecrated them and their clothes to the Lord.

31 Moses said to Aaron and his sons, "Take the meat to the entrance of the Tent of the Lord's presence, boil it, and eat it there with the bread that is in the basket of ordination offerings, just as the Lord commanded. 32 Burn up any meat or bread that is left over. 33 You shall not leave the entrance of the Tent for seven days, until your ordination rites are completed. 34 The Lord commanded us to do what we have done today, in order to take away your sin. 35 You must stay at the entrance of the Tent day and night for seven days, doing what the Lord has commanded. If you don't, you will die. This is what the Lord has commanded me."

36 So Aaron and his sons did everything that the Lord had commanded through Moses.

In the New Testament, the Bible says to Christians:

Hebrews chapter 9 (NLT)

9 ... the gifts and sacrifices that the priests offer are not able to cleanse the consciences of the people who bring them. 10 For that old system deals only with food and drink and ritual washing - external regulations that are in effect only until their limitations can be corrected.

Romans chapter 14 (NLT)

17 For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God. And other people will approve of you, too.

1 Peter chapter 1 (TEV)

2 You were chosen according to the purpose of God the Father and were made a holy people by his Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be purified by his blood.

In the Old Testament, the Bible says:

Exodus chapter 25 (TEV)

1 The Lord said to Moses,

Exodus chapter 30(TEV)

1 "Make an altar out of acacia wood, for burning incense. 2 It is to be square, 18 inches long and 18 inches wide, and it is to be 36 inches high. Its projections at the four corners are to form one piece with it. 3 Cover its top, all four sides, and its projections with pure gold, and put a gold border around it. 4 Make two gold carrying rings for it and attach them below the border on two sides to hold the poles with which it is to be carried. 5 Make these poles of acacia wood and cover them with gold. 6 Put this altar outside the curtain which hangs in front of the Covenant Box. That is the place where I will meet you. 7 Every morning when Aaron comes to take care of the lamps, he is to burn sweet-smelling incense on it. 8 He must do the same when he lights the lamps in the evening. This offering of incense is to continue without interruption for all time to come.

9 Do not offer on this altar any forbidden incense, any animal offering, or any grain offering, and do not pour out any wine offering on it. 10 ... This altar is to be completely holy, dedicated to me, the Lord."

The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Roman Christians which is in the New Testament:

Romans chapter 15 (NLT)

15 I am, by God's grace, 16 a special messenger from Christ Jesus to you Gentiles. I bring you the Good News and offer you up as a fragrant sacrifice to God so that you might be pure and pleasing to him by the Holy Spirit.

He wrote in his second letter to the Corinthian Christians in the New Testament:

2 Corinthians chapter 2 (TEV)

14 ... God uses us to make the knowledge about Christ spread everywhere like a sweet fragrance. 15 For we are like a sweet-smelling incense offered by Christ to God, which spreads among those who are being saved and those who are being lost. 16 For those who are being lost, it is a deadly stench that kills; but for those who are being saved, it is a fragrance that brings life.

In the Old Testament, the Bible says:

Exodus chapter 25 (TEV)

1 The Lord said to Moses,

Exodus chapter 29 (TEV)

36 Each day you must offer a bull as a sacrifice, so that sin may be forgiven. This will purify the altar. Then anoint it with olive oil to make it holy. 37 Do this every day for seven days. Then the altar will be completely holy, and anyone or anything that touches it will be harmed by the power of its holiness.

Leviticus chapter 10 (TEV)

1 Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put live coals in it, added incense, and presented it to the Lord. But this fire was not holy, because the Lord had not commanded them to present it. 2 Suddenly the Lord sent fire, and it burned them to death there in the presence of the Lord.

3 Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord was speaking about when he said, 'All who serve me must respect my holiness; I will reveal my glory to my people.'" But Aaron remained silent.

4 Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel, Aaron's uncle, and said to them, "Come here and carry your cousins' bodies away from the sacred Tent and put them outside the camp." 5 So they came and took hold of the clothing on the corpses and carried them outside the camp, just as Moses had commanded. 6 Then Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, "Do not leave your hair uncombed or tear your clothes to show that you are in mourning. If you do, you will die, and the Lord will be angry with the whole community. But all other Israelites are allowed to mourn this death caused by the fire which the Lord sent. 7 Do not leave the entrance of the Tent or you will die, because you have been consecrated by the anointing oil of the Lord." So they did as Moses said.

8 The Lord said to Aaron, 9 "You and your sons are not to enter the Tent of my presence after drinking wine or beer; if you do, you will die. This is a law to be kept by all your descendants. 10 You must distinguish between what belongs to God and what is for general use, between what is ritually clean and what is unclean. 11 You must teach the people of Israel all the laws which I have given to you through Moses."

In Revelation, the book at the end of the Bible that contains an account of prophecies and visions which it says foretell and symbolise what will happen in the future, the author wrote:

Revelation chapter 4 (TEV)

1 I had another vision and saw an open door in heaven.

And the voice that sounded like a trumpet, which I had heard speaking to me before, said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must happen after this."

2 At once the Spirit took control of me. There in heaven was a throne with someone sitting on it. 3 His face gleamed like such precious stones as jasper and carnelian, and all around the throne there was a rainbow the color of an emerald. 4 In a circle around the throne were twenty-four other thrones, on which were seated twenty-four elders dressed in white and wearing crowns of gold. 5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder.

6 Surrounding the throne on each of its sides, were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and behind. 8 Each one of the four living creatures had six wings, and they were covered with eyes, inside and out. Day and night they never stop singing: "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was, who is, and who is to come."

Revelation chapter 5 (GWT)

6 I saw a lamb standing in the center near the throne with the four living creatures and the leaders. The lamb looked like he had been slaughtered. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent all over the world. 7 He took the scroll from the right hand of the one who sits on the throne.

8 When the lamb had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the 24 leaders bowed in front of him. Each held a harp and a gold bowl full of incense, the prayers of God's holy people.
9 Then they sang a new song, "You deserve to take the scroll and open the seals on it, because you were slaughtered. You bought people with your blood to be God's own. They are from every tribe, language, people, and nation. 10 You made them a kingdom and priests for our God. They will rule as kings on the earth."

11 Then I heard the voices of many angels, the four living creatures, and the leaders surrounding the throne. They numbered ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands times thousands. 12 In a loud voice they were singing, "The lamb who was slain deserves to receive power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and praise."

13 I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, and on the sea. Every creature in those places was singing, "To the one who sits on the throne and to the lamb be praise, honor, glory, and power forever and ever."

14 The four living creatures said, "Amen!" Then the leaders bowed and worshiped.

Revelation chapter 21 (TEV)

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth disappeared, and the sea vanished. 2 And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared and ready, like a bride dressed to meet her husband.

Revelation chapter 22 (TEV)

12 "Listen!" says Jesus. "I am coming soon! I will bring my rewards with me, to give to each one according to what he has done. 13 I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end." 14 Happy are those who wash their robes clean and so have the right to eat the fruit from the tree of life and to go through the gates into the city. 15 But outside the city are the perverts and those who practice magic, the immoral and the murderers, those who worship idols and those who are liars both in words and deeds.

The apostle Peter wrote to Christians in his first letter in the New Testament:

1 Peter chapter 1 (TEV)

14 Be obedient to God, and do not allow your lives to be shaped by those desires you had when you were still ignorant. 15 Instead, be holy in all that you do, just as God who called you is holy. 16 The scripture says, "Be holy because I am holy."

1 Peter chapter 1 (NIV)

17 Since you call on a Father who judges each man's work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.

22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.

In the First Letter of John in the New Testament, the Bible says to Christians:

1 John chapter 2 (TEV)

15 Do not love the world or anything that belongs to the world. If you love the world, you do not love the Father. 16 Everything that belongs to the world-what the sinful self desires, what people see and want, and everything in this world that people are so proud of-none of this comes from the Father; it all comes from the world. 17 The world and everything in it that people desire is passing away; but those who do the will of God live forever.

In the Old Testament, the Bible says:

Leviticus chapter 24 (TEV)

10 There was a man whose father was an Egyptian and whose mother was an Israelite named Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri from the tribe of Dan. There in the camp this man quarreled with an Israelite. During the quarrel he cursed the Lord, so they took him to Moses, 12 put him under guard, and waited for the Lord to tell them what to do with him. 13 The Lord said to Moses, 14 "Take that man out of the camp. Everyone who heard him curse shall put his hands on the man's head to testify that he is guilty, and then the whole community shall stone him to death. 15 Then tell the people of Israel that anyone who curses God must suffer the consequences 16 and be put to death. Any Israelite or any foreigner living in Israel who curses the Lord shall be stoned to death by the whole community. 23 When Moses had said this to the people of Israel, they took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death. In this way the people of Israel did what the Lord had commanded Moses.

In Paul's letter to the Philippian Christians in the New Testament, the Bible says:

Philippians chapter 2 (NLT)

12 Dearest friends, you were always so careful to follow my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away you must be even more careful to put into action God's saving work in your lives, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. 13 For God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him.

14 In everything you do, stay away from complaining and arguing, 15 so that no one can speak a word of blame against you. You are to live clean, innocent lives as children of God in a dark world full of crooked and perverse people. Let your lives shine brightly before them.

In the Old Testament, the Bible says:

Leviticus chapter 19 (GWT)

1 The LORD spoke to Moses, 2 "Tell the whole congregation of Israel: Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.

3 "Respect your mother and father.
Observe my days of worship.
I am the LORD your God.

4 "Don't turn to worthless gods or cast metal idols. Never make any gods for yourselves. I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus chapter 19 (TEV)

17 "Do not bear a grudge against others, but settle your differences with them, so that you will not commit a sin because of them. 18 Do not take revenge on others or continue to hate them, but love your neighbors as you love yourself. I am the Lord.

In Matthew's Gospel in the New Testament, the Bible says:

Matthew chapter 5 (TEV)

1 Jesus saw the crowds and went up a hill, where he sat down. His disciples gathered around him, 2 and he began to teach them:

43 "You have heard that it was said, "Love your friends, hate your enemies.' 44 But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil. 46 Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that! 47 And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the pagans do that! 48 You must be perfect-just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Later in the New Testament, in some of the apostle Paul's letters, the Bible says:

2 Corinthians chapter 1 (NLT)

21 It is God who gives us, along with you, the ability to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, 22 and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment of everything he will give us.

Romans chapter 8 (GWT)

10 If Christ lives in you, your bodies are dead because of sin, but your spirits are alive because you have God's approval. 11 Does the Spirit of the one who brought Jesus back to life live in you? Then the one who brought Christ back to life will also make your mortal bodies alive by his Spirit who lives in you. 12 So, brothers and sisters, we have no obligation to live the way our corrupt nature wants us to live. 13 If you live by your corrupt nature, you are going to die. But if you use your spiritual nature to put to death the evil activities of the body, you will live.

Ephesians chapter 1 (NLT)

9 God's secret plan has now been revealed to us; it is a plan centered on Christ, designed long ago according to his good pleasure. 10 And this is his plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ - everything in heaven and on earth. 11 Furthermore, because of Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us from the beginning, and all things happen just as he decided long ago. 13 And now you also have heard the truth, the Good News that God saves you. And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. 14 The Spirit is God's guarantee that he will give us everything he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people.

Galatians chapter 5 (NLT)

16 So I advise you to live according to your new life in the Holy Spirit. Then you won't be doing what your sinful nature craves. 17 The old sinful nature loves to do evil, which is just opposite from what the Holy Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are opposite from what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, and your choices are never free from this conflict. 18 But when you are directed by the Holy Spirit, you are no longer subject to the law.

Philippians chapter 3 (NLT)

9 I no longer count on my own goodness or my ability to obey God's law, but I trust Christ to save me. For God's way of making us right with himself depends on faith. 10 As a result, I can really know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I can learn what it means to suffer with him, sharing in his death, 11 so that, somehow, I can experience the resurrection from the dead! 12 I don't mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection! But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be. 13 No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven. 15 I hope all of you who are mature Christians will agree on these things. If you disagree on some point, I believe God will make it plain to you. 16 But we must be sure to obey the truth we have learned already.

The harsh punishments decreed in the Old Testament are an indication of the difficulty of disciplining a wayward theocracy. The differences between the approaches of the Old and New Testaments are a reflection of the different audiences they were written for. The Old Testament was written for a society who needed strict discipline and a sense of the awesomeness of God in order that they remain obedient, and thus that society didn't degenerate into corruption, crime and chaos. The New Testament was written to people who actually wanted to obey God. Thus, the emphasis could be on encouragement and on the beauty of following God rather than on judgment. For more on this, see: Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development.

The next file in this section (Part 13), is entitled: "What The Old And New Testaments Say About Holiness And The Real Way To Worship God".

If you have found parts of the Old Testament or the Book of Revelation offensive, please read An Attempt to Explain Gruesome Bible Passages.

The selections of Bible quotations have been put together by Diana Holbourn.

Throughout this series, wherever the initials TEV appear, they stand for Today's English Version (The Good News Bible).

Other initials: