“The Moral Demands on the Ministry”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Turn with me to Leviticus, chapter 21, as we continue to work our way through the Book of Leviticus. This is a passage in which God gives to the children of Israel, through Moses, instruction regarding the priests and the Levites that are going to serve in the tabernacle, and then, the temple. And we see something here of the moral demands (both the ceremonial and moral requirements) that were placed upon the Old Testament ministry and it’s in fact, as we have seen all along in this study of Leviticus, an incredibly rich passage that will raise many questions in your mind. I wish we had time to answer all of them.
But what I want to do tonight is basically focus on two things.
First, what this passage teaches us about the moral demands for Christian ministry in our own time. In that regard, one passage I want you to have in the back of your mind (because we’re going to go to it momentarily in the New Testament) is I Timothy 3. Notice as we read through these ceremonial requirements for ministry the way that the New Testament picks up on certain moral requirements for Christian ministry, and I want us to think about that.
The second thing I want to think about with you is how this passage illumines our understanding of Jesus’ and Paul’s criticism of the Judaism of their own day. As you know, Jesus was often strident in the criticism that He made of the Pharisees – who were the most consecrated, godly lay movement in Israel in Jesus’ time, but He consistently accused them of having a low view of the Law. Now, that’s surprising because nobody would have suspected that that would be the charge brought against the Pharisees. Somebody might, in their day and time, have thought ‘Well, maybe they take this Law stuff a little too seriously.’ But Jesus brings the charge against them that they had an inadequate view of the demands of the moral Law upon themselves, and the passage that we’re going to read...actually, when we go to the Gospel of Luke, chapter ten is going to illumine for you a little bit of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees and the priests and the Levites of His own day.
So let’s hear God’s holy word, beginning in Leviticus 21:1. Before we do, let’s look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Lord God, this is Your word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things from Your Law. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“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. He shall not defile himself as a relative by marriage among his people, and so profane himself. They shall not make any baldness on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts in their flesh. 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 bread of their God; so they shall be holy. 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.
“ ‘You shall consecrate him, therefore, for he offers the bread of your God; he shall be holy to you; for I the Lord, who sanctifies you, am holy. Also the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by harlotry, she profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.
“ ‘And 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; nor shall he approach any dead person, nor defile himself even for his father or his mother; 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. And he shall take a wife in her virginity. 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; that he may not profane his offspring among his people: for I am the Lord who sanctifies him.’
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron, saying, ‘No man of your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect shall approach to offer the bread of his God. 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, or a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or one who has a defect in his eye or eczema or scabs or crushed testicles. 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 bread of his God. He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy, only he shall not go in to the veil or come near the altar because he has a defect, that he may not profane My sanctuaries. For I am the Lord who sanctifies them.’ So Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the sons of Israel.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
You see the logic pretty quickly of the passage; there are high standards expected of the priesthood. They are not to marry, for instance, anyone who has participated in harlotry. Think of it...why? Because the priesthood was determined through the bloodline, and the purity of that bloodline had to be kept intact, and any question about the legitimacy of the offspring of the priests called into question the legitimacy of that priestly succession. And so all of these laws regarding the very careful way about which the priests were to take to themselves a wife are designed to protect the sanctity, the integrity, of the succession of priests according to Levi, the sons of Aaron in their ministry in Israel.
But I want to point in particular to that very interesting part of the first of Leviticus 21, where the priests are told that they are only going to be able to participate in the funerals of near relatives during the time of their consecration; and the high priest, during the time of his consecration and service, we’re told later in the chapter, is not even going to be allowed to participate in the funeral of his mother and father.
Now, I draw your attention to this because it illumines a very important passage in the New Testament that will perhaps give you a perspective on that passage that you’ve never understood before. You understand the logic of this demand. To approach and be defiled by the touching or presence of a dead body was to render the priest unable to fulfill his service on behalf of God’s people, and so ceremonially it was of the utmost importance that he refrain from any situation or circumstance which might defile him and prevent him for serving as the people’s representative to God, and God’s representative to the people. All throughout our study of the Book of Leviticus, we have seen the priest representing the people to God and God to the people. For instance, the priestly action in eating certain offerings brought by the people of God to the Lord as a sacrifice and as an offering was designed to show to the people that God had accepted their offering, their sacrifice, their penitence, the repentance, and that they were to be assured of God’s favor and mercy to them. And anything that would prevent the priests ceremonially from fulfilling that function the priest was to, with the most great care and meticulous concern, avoid. And so when Jesus tells a certain story in Luke 10, it is this that is behind that story.
Turn with me to the Gospel of Luke, and to the tenth chapter. My guess is when you get there, you’re going to remember this story immediately. Luke 10:30:
“Jesus replied and said, ‘A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho; and he fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. And by chance a certain priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.’”
[Makes perfect sense, in light of Leviticus 21, doesn’t it? He’s a priest; he’s on his way to Jerusalem. He had a ceremonial obligation: he was not to define himself. If he was a regular priest, he wasn’t to defile himself except perhaps in participating in the funeral of his wife or of his children or of his parents. If he’s the high priest, he’s not to defile himself even by participating in the funeral of his own parents.]
“ ‘And likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him, and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them, and he put him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, when I return, I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell in to the robbers’ hands?’ And he said, ‘The one who showed mercy toward him.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do the same.’”
Now you see what Jesus is saying there. Jesus is saying that that Samaritan so despised in the eyes of orthodox Jews in His own day for their infidelity to God, that that Samaritan was morally superior to both the priest and to the Levite, because he had obeyed the moral law, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” even though it involved ceremonial defilement; and by implication, Jesus is saying that if that priest and if that Levite really understood what it meant to obey the moral law of God, to love your neighbor as yourself, they, too, should have given aid to that man who had fallen prey to the robbers.
And you remember the context of Luke 10. When is that story told? That story is told after a young lawyer - (Now, that’s not somebody that works for Watkins or Butler Snow! That’s a teacher of the religious law of Israel, OK? That’s someone who teaches the Torah, someone who teaches the five books of Moses and the writings and the prophets to the people of God. He’s an expert in Scripture who explains the Law to the people of God. He’s an R.C. Sproul, who teaches the word to the people.) Well, this young lawyer had come to Jesus to ask Him what he should do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus rattled off parts of the moral Law of God, concluding with the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And He turned to him and He said, “Go and do this.” And then we’re told in verse 29 that the man “...wishing to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’” And then Jesus tells this story of the good Samaritan
What’s the point? The point is in Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders of Israel in His day. His critique of them was not that they cared too much about the Law, but that they pretended to care much about the Law while, in fact, in practice they ignored the most important points of it. And in this case, this priest and this Levite were scrupulous in their obedience of the ceremonial ordinances, but what did they do? When they had a clear moral imperative to take care of someone in need whom God had dropped right down in front of them, they eschewed that obligation and they justified themselves by thinking ‘Well, we’re keeping these moral requirements, these ceremonial requirements.’
And what is Jesus saying there? He’s saying this is the problem with the kind of righteousness which is exalted and respected in Israel. It has an appearance, an outward appearance, of being very, very scrupulous, very, very righteous; but on the inside there is a gaping, a yawning moral void. It looks good on the outside, but on the inside there is moral emptiness. What’s the metaphor that Jesus used about the Pharisees? “You are whitewashed sepulchers.” On the outside you look so good, and on the inside you smell to high heaven. You see, Jesus is pointing to hypocrisy, to superficial or outward righteousness as opposed to interior heart righteousness, to a lack of understanding of the way the ceremonial law relates to the moral Law.
Jesus clearly sets forth in His teaching that there are lesser and greater, weightier and lighter matters of the Law. And surely the command to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself is one of the weighty matters of the Law. Jesus says that on those commands hang the whole Law and Prophets. And so, notice what Jesus is doing. He’s saying to the religious leaders of His day ‘Your problem is not that you care too much about God’s Law; it’s that even though you pretend to care much about it, you really don’t care about it at all, and it shows in the way you live.’ And it is that kind of legalism...it is that kind of legalism that Jesus brings a charge against in His teaching. And here in Leviticus 21 we have a passage that illumines – doesn’t it make that story of the good Samaritan different? Doesn’t it hit you? You see immediately the conundrum: They’re called by the ceremonial code not to defile themselves with these bodies, but there’s a higher demand, isn’t there? There’s a demand to love your neighbor, which is never to be neglected, no matter what the ceremonial cost.
Now there’s another thing I’d like to draw your attention to, as well, and that is this demand for the personal holiness of the priests for the performance of their duties. And we’re told, for instance, that priests who have deformity of any kind are not able to serve the Lord in the temple. Though they may eat of the showbread themselves, and take of the sacrifices that are intended for the Levites and priests, they’re not to be the ones offering the sacrifices. What we see is a demand for a higher kind of obedience, a very important and evident ceremonial righteousness.
A number of years ago there was a pastor of a large evangelical congregation who obtained an unbiblical divorce from his wife. The congregation was divided over this. He admitted himself to immorality in his conduct, and the congregation was divided, because he wanted to stay on as the pastor. Some of the congregation wanted him to go, and they said ‘You’ve been immoral and you’ve been unfaithful, and you don’t fill the qualifications on the New Testament for a minister of the gospel.’ But others in the congregation said ‘Oh, but he’s been through a lot, and he can understand how those of us who have fallen feel.’ He himself, when interviewed on radio and television, said that he greatly resented people who are holding him to a higher standard because, after all, he was a sinner saved by grace, too. Who were they to judge?
Well, isn’t it interesting that both Leviticus 21 and I Timothy 3 are quite happy to hold ministers to a higher standard? Leviticus 21 clearly holds the Old Testament priests and Levites to a higher standard. There were certain things that they had to do that the people of God did not have to do. And, interestingly, if you’ll turn forward with me to I Timothy 3, we again see some of the things that are part of the higher standard that ministers of the gospel are held to. But notice, in this case these things which are required of ministers of the gospel are not ceremonial (like the priests of Leviticus 21) but moral. Listen to some of the things that are said:
“It is a trustworthy statement; if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
Isn’t it interesting? Paul’s not requiring these things for every church member, but he is requiring these things of all those who will be pastors and elders in the local church. In other words, he’s holding them to a higher standard.
Now, where’d he get that idea from? Right out of Leviticus 21. God’s servants have always been held to a higher standard, because they are called upon to serve the people of God, to represent the people of God to the Lord, and the Lord to the people of God. And isn’t it interesting that in the old covenant, even as there were ceremonial standards given for the Levites’ wives, notice that we have the same thing in verse 11 of I Timothy 11:
“The wives must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.”
And so once again moral standards – not ceremonial standards, but moral standards – are set forth there. And to that man who said ‘Why do people always hold us to a higher standard?’.... well, because the Bible tells us to. That’s the answer to that. If you’re not willing to be measured according to Scripture, you need to get out of that particular sphere of service in the Lord’s vineyard. God sets forth a higher standard here in I Timothy 3.
But of course, ultimately that picture of the perfection of the Levite ceremonially was because one who was going to offer an acceptable sacrifice before the Lord had to be ceremonially perfect in order to point to the morally perfect High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.
What does the Book of Hebrews say about Him? He was wholly unblemished, wholly undefiled; He was heard because of His piety and His godliness, and He enters into the veil for us. It was imperative for the Old Testament high priest to be ceremonially perfect, in order to point to the moral perfection of the real High Priest who would offer the real sacrifice on behalf of all of us.
And so for that picture, for that type, for that foreshadowing of Jesus Christ to come, Leviticus 21 reminds us of the standards of ceremonial perfection that were required of the Old Testament priests, and ceremonial requirements no longer required of New Testament ministers because they have been fulfilled completely, fully, and finally, in the one sacrifice given by the Lord Jesus Christ, constituted in the lifting up of Himself on behalf of our sins. And so this ceremonial law points to and is fulfilled in Jesus Christ alone, in His priestly work on our behalf.
May God bless his word. Let’s pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word. We thank You that You have appointed in Your word pictures and types in the Old Testament to set forth the excellencies of our Savior, but that You have also taught us abiding moral principles not only about the ministry, but about how we are to conduct ourselves as Christians. We pray, Lord, that we would attend to the weightier matters of the Law; and yet not trust in our obedience for salvation, but trust only and wholly in Jesus Christ, in His person and work, in His death and resurrection. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing?
Grace to you and peace, from God the Father and Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.