While it’s true Moses delivered a law which teaches men how deep their sin runs, such forth-telling is really not the central idea of Sinai. Yes, the law makes sinners admit their guilt, but it’s not for the sake of admitting guilt (as if that were an end in itself) but so that the people would seek out the man who could make an atonement for their sin—the priest. That’s why the book of Exodus ends after the Levites receive instructions on how to make an acceptable sacrifice in the tabernacle, not after Moses delivers the Decalogue. It’s why the next book is Leviticus, a fuller expression of the law and a testimony which shows in no uncertain terms that God demands a sacrifice offered in the proper way, at the proper time, in the proper place, from a consecrated man that He’s chosen from among the people before He can forgive sins. For all its rules and revelations, Sinai was designed to elevate priests, not prophets.
What is a priest? In some sense it’s the mirror image of a prophet. Whereas the prophet brings God’s message to the people, the priest brings the people’s message to God. But the two aren’t symmetric. A prophet might hear a command, deliver a message, and be finished with his work in a day, but this isn’t possible for the priest. His job is larger, and consequently his work is grander, more important, more demanding. He must make intercessory prayer for the people, but to do this he must first sit and listen to them in order to understand what they’re struggling with. He must teach. But to do this he has to be in the community and a part of people’s lives in order to help explain and demonstrate what God wants from them. He must exhort, encourage, listen, comfort, and keep weak and frail people from trusting in their own bent hearts for salvation as a shepherd would guide his sheep, for he stands between sinners and a just God. On top of all this, if he is the high priest he must offer a sacrifice to turn away the wrath of God once a year or the nation will be destroyed by the guilt of their iniquity.
It’s hard to understate the importance of this. Conceptually the high priest is even bigger than the Mosaic law itself, for the Levitical priests were the ones who put the law into place and had the duty of passing it on to others.
To appreciate this, it’s helpful to go back to Genesis 34 and consider the story of Levi, the third son of Jacob.
After Shechem raped his sister, Simeon and Levi were so furious with him that they took revenge by murdering him and every man in his city (Gen 34:2, 25). From that point on, and for as long as he lived, their father Israel never forgave them. Considering his two sons carefully at the end of his life he pronounced a curse instead of a blessing: “Simeon and Levi are brethren, instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. O my soul come not thou into their secret, unto their assembly. Mine honor, be not thou united, for in their anger they slew a man and in their self-will they digged down a wall. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel. I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Gen 49:5-7). The final word Levi heard from his father was a rebuke.
Nothing more is said about Levi after this, but there’s good evidence that sometime later he’s seized by the power of a great affection and repentant of his sins. What was the exact cause of this change of heart? Scripture doesn’t say. Perhaps it was the consistent kindness shown by his younger brother Joseph (Gen 50:20) which allowed him to see the things his father had told him about God in a different light. Perhaps it was a sober reflection of the fact that even though he deserved judgment God had shown him grace. Or perhaps he saw “the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering” and heard the voice of God telling him, “it’s the goodness of God that leads thee to repentance” (Rom 2:4). Whatever the reason however, Levi lived the last half of his life very differently from the first. He warned his family that unless they repented they’d face judgment, testified to the truth that God loves sinners, and encouraged them to find peace in Him. And he succeeded. “My covenant was with him” The Lord says. A covenant “of life and peace. And I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared Me, and was afraid before My name. The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips. He walked with Me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity” (Malachi 2:5-7).
For his faith and initiative God gave Levi the duties of the priesthood to his children and their descendants after them. They’d remind men God demands holiness, a blood sacrifice, and faith. They’d intercede to Him for mercy and teach others who He was. Because of this, the curse of Jacob which meant they’d have no inheritance in the land was turned into a magnificent blessing by God. “Levi hath no part nor inheritance with his brethren, for the Lord is his inheritance, according as the Lord thy God promised him.” The Levites had lost the land but gained God.
It’s not surprising then that that the book of Exodus is the story of a Levite who leads the people to Christ. Nor is it surprising that God chose his brother Aaron to be the high priest. After all, God had already appointed the Levites as priest four hundred years earlier with an oath (see Jer 33:20-21 or Neh 13:29), all Sinai was doing was instructing them more carefully on how to perform their duties.
The point is this: the law didn’t establish the priesthood, the priests established the law. The law didn’t put them in place, they put it into place. This may seem counterintuitive considering the supremacy of the law, but consider the evidence for a moment. The priesthood began hundreds of years prior to the law and had preeminence by order of creation, just as Adam had headship over Eve because he was created first (1 Tim 2:12-13). Secondly (and again like Eve) the law was designed to help the priesthood, the priesthood wasn’t designed to help the Mosaic law. It was given to strengthen the priests and reinforce their position of authority, being designed to drive men to them, and thus elevate them. And thirdly, this is the plain testimony of Scripture. In speaking of the Levitical priesthood the writer to the Hebrews says, “under it the people received the law” (Heb 7:11). Thus the law was given to the Levites (Deut 31:9) who had the responsibility for serving God and atoning for sins. And these duties were nothing new, all God had really done in giving the service to the Levites was to take the instructions given previously to Adam and add a rich layer of imagery to it. An acceptable sacrifice now required a consecrated high priest to follow God’s additional instructions on the tenth day of the seventh month.
[A minor aside is necessary here to paint a clearer picture of the priestly duties. The tabernacle was made up of three spaces: an outer courtyard, a holy place, and a most holy place.
The outer court was where the priests washed (Ex 40:30) and made sacrifices (Ex 40:29).
The holy place was a room inside the courtyard with a lamp (Ex 40:24), a table for offering show bread (Ex 40:22), and an alter for burning incense (Ex 40:26).
The most holy place was separated from the holy place by a thick curtain (Ex 26:33), and contained Ark of the Covenant—the box holding the Decalogue (Ex 40:20), Aarons staff (Num 17:10), and a jar of mana (Ex 16:34).]
On the Day of Atonement the high priest would first sacrifice a bull to cover his own guilt (Lev 16:6), then wash and put on the holy garments (v4). Next he took two goats and cast lots to see which one would have its blood used as a sin offering, and which would be set aside for later (v7-8). He’d then carry a censer full of incense so that the pleasing aroma of the cloud would cover his presence in the most holy place and he wouldn’t die (v13) when he passed through the curtain to sprinkle animal blood on the mercy seat (v14,16). The sprinkled blood meant that when God looked down on the people’s rejection of holiness (symbolized by the tablets), the rejection of His goodness (symbolized by the mana), and the rejection of His agents (symbolized by Aarons staff) He saw the shed blood that covered them, rather than the sin which exposed them.
Having finished sprinkling the mercy seat, the high priest would go back to the courtyard and deal with the goat he’d set aside earlier (v20). Rather than kill it and burn it like the other, he laid hands on it, confessed the sins of the people over it, and banished it outside the camp (v21-22). Lastly, the high priest took off his fine linen clothes, bathed, and made a final offering in humble garb (v23-24).
The Day of Atonement aside, the Levites were also responsible for the tabernacle where God was (Ex 38:21). They were to carry it when the camp moved, and set it up when stopped (Num 1:50). They were to bring pure olive oil for the lamp and keep it burning continually before God (Lev 24:2,4). They were to bake the bread of the presence, set it on the table each Sabbath, and eat the old loaves when they took them away (Lev 24:7-9). They were to offer prayers and incense upon the small alter daily (Lev 16:12), and a lamb without blemish morning and evening on the large alter (Ex 29:38-39). They were to help the people bring burnt offerings (Lev 6:6-7), grain offerings (Lev 6:14), sin offering (Lev 7:1), and thanksgiving offerings (Lev 7:11-12). They were to maintain the cities of refuges, places where guilty men could flee to and find mercy (Num 35:6-7). They pounced God’s blessings upon the people (Num 6:22-26). They taught them (Lev 10:11), judged disputes (Deut 17:10), and stood between them and God (Num 1:53).
Notice however that in the midst of an enormous revelation about priests there’s no direct revelation about Christ Himself being a priest. This is exceedingly peculiar, for in every other instance God gave the direct revelation to the shadow. Adam, the disobedient head of humanity, learned Christ would be the obedient head who’d put an end to the devils schemes. Noah, the man who saved his family, learned Christ would be a savior. Abraham, the faithful patriarch, learned Christ would be the blessed ruler. David, the king, learned He’d be King of kings. Moses, the prophet, learned He’d be the ultimate prophet. But what’s directly revealed about Christ’s priesthood to the priests at Sinai? Nothing.
This is even more unusual considering the priestly shadows are still present. Christ is the true tabernacle, the place where God dwells (John 3:13). He’s the true lamp of the temple which gives light to the world (John 8:12), the bread of the presence which if men eat of they will never hunger again (John 6:35); which is why He told His disciples, “Take, eat; this is My body” (Matt 26:26). He’s the sacrifice which takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He’s the true water which gives life (John 7:38), and which men must be washed in if they are to be made clean. He’s the real Sabbath rest (Heb 4:10), the true Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7). He’s the firstborn over all creation (Col 1:15). He’s the manna in the ark, the sweet smelling cloud of incense that causes God not to kill in justice. His blood sprinkled over us covers our sins (1 Peter 1:2). He’s the fruit of the tree of life, which if men eat they will live forever, depicted on the high priests robes (Ex 28:33). His death is the real jubilee celebration of freedom, the true Day of Atonement.
But where’s the objective revelation about Christ Himself? It’s not here. And why not? Because the Old Covenant is the foundation for understanding priests, it’s not about Christ Himself being a priest. Its function is to show men what happens when the even a small piece of redemption is placed in their hands, and in this way to expose the crippling nature of sin. In other words, Sinai made clear a priest could deliver forgiveness of sin, but that the forgiveness was only as good as the priest who requested it.
With the conclusion of Sinai then, the stage was set for a tragic and terrible act two to follow. Just as Adam wasted no time in breaking the command given to him, so too would the children of Israel immediately pull upon themselves misery and ruin of sin in order to violate the good law given to them. In spite of the fact that Christ had given His people a revelation of Himself so glorious that it caused Moses’ face to shine (Ex 34:29), in spite of the sacrifices offered by the priests, and the intercession made for them, Israel continued to transgress. On the tenth time (Ex 14:10-12, 15:22-24, 16:1-4, 19-20, 27-30, 17:1-3, 32:1-35, Num 11:1-3, 4-34, 14:3) God poured His wrath out on everyone over twenty by having them die in the wilderness, Joshua and Caleb excepted (Num 14:21).
Those who made it into the Promise Land were similarly disobedient however, for “They did not destroy the nations concerning whom the LORD commanded them, but were mingled among the heathen, and learned their works. And they served their idols which were a snare unto them. Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils, and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood. Thus were they defiled with their own works, and went a whoring with their own inventions. Therefore was the wrath of the LORD kindled against His people, insomuch that He abhorred His own inheritance.” (Ps 106:34-40).
The problem was (and is) that everyone is born with a disloyal nature that seeks its own glory. The long, sad history of Israel shows that no form of government can roll back this desire, no divine edict or threat or pronouncement can contain it, and no judge, king, or prophet can keep sinners from breaking the boundaries and going astray. There is no salvation found in a human institution or solution.
Was there hope for Israel? Yes, but it wasn’t to be found in the Levites, for they proved to be as disobedient as the people themselves. Putting them in charge resulted in offerings which didn’t merit a pardon, instructions which didn’t get taught, and rebellion which didn’t get staunched. Over the centuries the cumulative effect of this was exactly as terrible as expected. The holy wrath which purged the world of life in Noah’s time was coming upon the nation in the form of a Babylonian invasion.
Yet this failure was all part God’s plan to reveal Himself to the world. For it was into the midst of this sorrow that the hope of Act Three came with these words: “I will raise up for Me a faithful priest” (1 Sam 2:35).