Today’s reading brings more rules, each one followed by a reminder that God is the Lord. These rules are the characteristics of holy living in a covenant community. Many of these rules concern the priests. They are the ones who set the tone for the rest of the Israelites. They are the example, and they are held to a much different standard of behavior than the ”general population.” The priests were the spiritual leaders of the people. They were in charge of the sanctuary of God. They taught the people the Word of God. They offered the sacrifices on God's altar and when called upon they determined the will of God for the people. Apart from the ministry of the priests, Israel had no way to approach God. The priests had to meet the qualifications God gave for the priesthood and they had to serve Him according to His directions. Whether it was their personal conduct, their physical characteristics or their professional concerns, they had to meet God's approval. There is a price to pay if you want to be a spiritual leader, even today.
The privilege of leadership brings with it the responsibility of maintaining a life lived above reproach. This is where setting examples come in. Unfortunately, the priesthood in Israel declined spiritually and the ones God had set apart to lead His people did lead, but they led the people astray. There was only one high priest, but his sons had to live the same set apart lifestyle as their father. While the people could plan weddings and funerals as they wished, those set apart to serve the Lord were told who they could and couldn't marry. And they were instructed how they were to grieve. During these times expressing grief developed into an art form that was practiced by people who were specialists in mourning.
God even provided a list of defects and imperfections that would disallow a priest from serving at the altar. One of those things is being blind. When I was at seminary one of the students a year ahead of me was blind. Her hymn book was four thick volumes, in Braille. After graduation she received a call to serve a church in a small midwestern town. The people fell in love with her, and they had to make sign-up sheets to determine who would drive her for visits and a multitude of other things we take for granted...because everybody wanted to help. She served that church faithfully for 20 years and they were heartbroken when she left. Some of you may have heard of Joni Erickson Tada. She is a Christian author. A diving accident left her paralyzed from the shoulders down. She writes about this passage, saying she remembered the bad old days as she struggled to understand God's view of her disability. Stumbling across this passage she had her suspicions confirmed that God did have a problem with her handicap.
It was many years later when she discovered the meaning behind these verses. A man entering the priesthood of Aaron had to be pure with no physical defects. Because he was a physical symbol of a future spiritual reality...the coming Messiah. God was looking for the physically perfect man as a priest to represent the spiritually perfect man, Jesus Christ. A violation of the Old Testament picture would defile the New Testament fulfill Christ's perfection as our high priest. Now we read in 1 Peter 2:9 that we are part of the royal priesthood. God welcomes all of us into His presence just as we are. We may not be tied to the same strict list of do’s and don'ts but, if God wanted Old Testament people to be pure when they came before Him, surely, He expects the same from us.
Calendars were not a big deal in these ancient times. The people worked from sunrise to sunset. They counted the months by the phases of the moon and watched the seasons come and go. Every day was a sacred gift from God. God gave Israel a calendar that was tied to the rhythm of the seasons and the history of the nation. This calendar was different because it not only summarized what God had done for the Israelites in the past, but it also anticipated what God would do for them in the future. The salvation work of Jesus Christ, the founding of the church and the future of the people of Israel are all illustrated in the seven feasts in chapter 23. Feasts here have nothing to do with eating. On the day of atonement, the people fasted. The weekly sabbath meant God ordered the people's weeks. It was an important day, and the penalty was death if they didn't observe it.
Passover was Israel's feast of deliverance. It was a celebration of the angel of death passing over the houses of the Israelites as the last plague against Egypt. Unleavened bread was eaten for seven days. Leaven in scripture represents sin. So, putting away leaven meant cleansing one's life after they have been saved through faith in the blood. We see in first fruits, a reminder that the first and the best were reserved for the Lord. The festival of weeks was observed 50 days after the first fruits. It was on the first day of the week, the Lord’s day. We celebrate the birth of the church on Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus' resurrection. We read in 1 Corinthians 15:20 that Jesus is the first fruits of them that slept. Jesus compared His death and burial to the planting of a seed.
Trumpets were blown on the first day of the seventh month. This was the beginning of a new year. We call this celebration Rosh Hashanah. The day of atonement was the day the high priest offered sacrifices for the payment of the nation's sins. It also pointed to the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross. The last feast mentioned, the feast of tabernacles or booths reminded Israel of God's blessings in the past. This was a joyous feast. God cared for His people in the wilderness and brought them into the promised land. Once they had lived in tents and booths but in Canaan, they would live in houses.
Just like we remember what God has done for us when we receive communion, these celebrations were intended to help the Israelites remember what God had done for them. From the beginning until now, God has played an active part in the lives of His people.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W