What was the purpose of the priesthood and the sacrificial system?
This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches, especially for catechesis purposes. We’re featuring a chapter each week in hopes of encouraging you to pick up the book and share it with others as well.
God established a priesthood out of the tribe of Levi (one of the twelve tribes of Israel) in order to mediate the Law and forgiveness of God to the people of God. The priests served as a constant reminder of the gravity of sin, the need for redemption, and the power of declared forgiveness. The priests mediated the daily sacrifices and extended the word of forgiveness to the people.
Once a year the people of God would set apart a special day known as the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). This was the holiest day of the year. No one would work on that day and everyone would fast and confess their sins before God. The high priest would enter the holy of holies and offer a special sacrifice for the sins of the people, including the sins of the priests. The blood of a bull would be sprinkled on the altar as a sign of the payment for sins. One of the most notable features of the Day of Atonement was when the priest took two goats and brought them into the presence of God. One of the goats would be sacrificed for the sins of the people. The priest would then lay his hands on the second goat and confess the sins of Israel over the goat and then take the goat out into the wilderness and release it. It was symbolic of their sins being atoned for and carried far away from the people of God.
Sacrifices were an important part of the life of ancient Israel. There were burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings, among others. The purpose of all these sacrifices was to underscore the need for atonement. God’s holiness demands that sin be paid for. God’s mercy and grace provided a way for sin to be atoned. God’s holiness and mercy meet in the sacrificial system mediated by priests. However, it should be noted that the root meaning of the word “atonement” is to “cover up.” In the sacrificial system the priests were authorized to declare people forgiven, but it was in anticipation of a greater sacrifice by a greater High Priest. The Old Testament could only temporarily “cover up” sins. It was like temporarily sweeping them under the rug. The blood of bulls and goats, declares the New Testament, could not really take sins away. It was a temporary arrangement. The priests were themselves sinners so it had to be repeated year after year.
When Jesus Christ came, he offered a final and complete sacrifice of himself. He was the only true pure sacrifice. He was God’s true High Priest, not just a temporary agent, and he was truly without sin. His sacrifice was once for all and final, and did not need to be repeated. He did not enter into a humanly constructed “holy of holies” but into the very presence of God in heaven. So, looking back we see that the entire priesthood and sacrificial system were but a shadow anticipating what was to come in a final and complete way in and through Jesus Christ. The human race was being prepared through priests and sacrifices to understand what would later take place through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Leviticus 1:1–17, 5:14–6:7
Read his blog here.