Leviticus 21
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Leviticus 21
cf. Hebrews 7:26-28; 1 Timothy 3:1-12. From the moralities of the common people we have now to pass to the morality of the priestly class. As special officers, they require special qualifications. Not that there are to be two moralities in the Church of God. This idea is most baneful. Rather do the Divine regulations contemplate the rise of the whole people eventually into an ideal, which both classes are only distantly striving after. The priests, by conforming to certain regulations, were really showing to the people what all should eventually be as the people of God. Keeping this in view, we may profitably notice three requisites of the priesthood.

I. PHYSICAL PERFECTION. God ordained that he should be served only by men physically perfect. A physical blemish disqualified a man from office, though not from support. This was surely to show that it is the perfect whom God purposes to gather around him. It is not descent nor connection, but personal perfection, which qualifies for Divine service. Now, in this present life, the ideal was only once realized, viz. in the person of the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. He was physically and he was spiritually perfect. He was "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners." In him, therefore, God secured a perfect servant. And although God's servants do not as yet realize this idea of personal perfection, they are on the way to realize it. This constitutes the kernel of our Christian hope. The will of God is our sanctification; that is, our perfect adaptation in body, soul, and spirit for his service. Through the grace of God we are "going on to perfection," and a time is coming when we shall be presented "without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing" before God. Hence we take this physical perfection required of the priests as a promise of perfection through grace in God's own time, that we may all serve him as priests in the sanctuary on high.

II. DOMESTIC PURITY. The Jewish priesthood were educated in the family for their work in the Church of God. Celibacy and isolation were not deemed conducive to sanctity of service. The priest was to be the head of a household, particular in selecting a pure and suitable wife, and ruling his household well. It may be safely asserted that it is only in such circumstances that a full experience of human nature and society can ordinarily be secured. The family is the Divine unit, the training-school for the larger society, the Church. Unless the priests, therefore, had a proper position at home, and governed properly their own households, they were not likely to rule well in the Church of God. Eli's case is surely one in point. A slack hand at home, he showed similar slackness in his public administration, and the interests of religion suffered. And just as in the former case physical perfection betokened the personal perfection of the future life which the Lord's servants are to secure, so the domestic purity of the priesthood betokens the perfect society into which the Lord's people are to come. We see a similar adumbration of this in the New Testament direction about bishops and deacons being the husbands of proper wives and ruling their households well. The government in families is the preparation for the government in the Church of God. The reason is that the Church is the larger family. And so is the completed Church above to be a perfect family. We are on the way to a family circle and a family life of which the home circle on earth is the shadow. God wilt give his people the opportunity of serving him amid perfect social conditions. It is in following up this thought that the Church collectively is likened to a pure and perfect bride - the Lamb's wife. It is the same thought which likens heaven to an everlasting home. And, indeed, society, as thus constituted and secured, is but the outcome of that Divine nature which, as a Trinity in unity, secured for itself perfect society from everlasting, and creates the same in the glorious purposes of grace.

III. PUBLIC SPIRIT. We mention this as a third characteristic of the priesthood. This was illustrated in perfection by the high priest, who was to allow no private sorrow to interfere with his public service. The other priests were allowed more liberty in this regard, although theirs also had very definite limits; but the one great principle reinforced by these regulations was public spirit. The priest was to feel that, as a public officer, a representative man, it was his duty to sacrifice the personal and private to the common weal. Now, it is instructive to observe that it was this principle which Jesus carried out all through. His life and death were the sacrifice of the private and the personal to the public need. The same spirit is imparted by the grace of God, and is more or less faithfully carried out by the Lord's people. Moreover, we are on the way to its perfect illustration in the felicities of the heavenly world. There none shall be for self or for a party, but all for the common weal. Lord Macaulay represents ancient Rome as the embodiment of public spirit.

"Then none was for a party:
Then all were for the State;
Then the great man helped the poor.
And the poor man loved the great

Then lands were fairly portioned;
Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers
In the brave days of old." However faithfully this reflects the condition of things in the golden age of Rome, one thing is certain, that the public spirit it indicates shall have its perfect embodiment in the society above. Public life, divested of all suspicion of selfishness, will characterize God's redeemed ones. All personal and private interests shall then merge themselves in the common weal, and as his servants serve God, they shall see his face and live out his public spirit. - R.M.E.

In all circumstances and relations of life the priests must be an example of purity. The higher the office, the more conspicuous the example, and therefore the more solemn the duty of preserving both body and soul from defilement.


1. Spiritual leaders a natural requirement and a Divine appointment. We want teachers both in word and act. The priesthood of the old dispensation was abolished, but in the new there are those who, both by their superior knowledge and piety and by their consecration of life to the sanctuary, become the responsible leaders of the Church.

2. An impure priesthood the greatest calamity to the cause of religion. Like priest, like people. The corruptions of the Middle Ages mainly traceable to the defilement of those who should have been first and foremost in faithfulness to truth and duty. The hindrance to the spread of Christianity now is largely the indifference and blindness and worldliness of those who serve the sanctuary. The life of the public representative of religion should be above reproach in all things.


1. That the Church itself may be edified and become a praise unto God. Our religion demands and satisfies our highest efforts. The truth of God's Word is inexhaustible food for the mind and delight to the heart. Endless scope for the development of human powers in the service of God. Worship should be spotlessly pure, a glorifying of humanity in the light of Divine favour.

2. The world is won to God, not by hiding the graces of God's people, but by making the light to shine before men. No limit to the demand upon the talents and energies of the Church. We should urge those naturally gifted and superior to take their proper places. Yet natural defects can be wonderfully supplied by special Divine gilts. Much work has been done by the physically weak, and even by those whose characters were faulty. - R.

In the kingdom of God there is, as a rule, but one law for all subjects. What applies to one applies to another. The same principles of righteousness are obligatory on both sexes, on all classes, conditions, nations, generations of men. This is importantly true; but it is a truth subject to certain not unimportant qualifications. Of this latter we have -


1. Respecting ceremonial defilement certain distinctions were drawn.

(1) The commonalty were bound to avoid all defilement (by touching the dead, etc.), whenever it was practicable to do so; but it was anticipated that they would be compelled, sometimes, to become unclean, and legal purifications were accordingly enjoined.

(2) But the priests were to take peculiar care not to incur this ceremonial defilement (verses 1-4). Allowance was made for natural human feeling (verses 2, 3), but the occasions when they might permit themselves to become unclean were carefully prescribed.

(3) And the high priest was not permitted to incur defilement by "going in to any dead body" under any circumstances whatever, not even "for his father, or for his mother" (verse 11).

2. So, respecting marriage alliances:

(1) the whole people were under certain severe prohibitions (Deuteronomy 7:3, 4); but

(2) the priests were more circumscribed (verse 7); and

(3) the high priest was still more limited in his choice (verses 13, 14). The Hebrew nation was holy unto the Lord, and was required to separate itself from the actions of surrounding peoples; the priests were peculiarly holy, and must, therefore, be especially careful to walk in purity; the high priest was, in position and function, the holiest of all, and on him it was most particularly incumbent to shun every possible defilement, and to do that which was purest and worthiest in the sight of God. We have to consider what are -


1. Respecting the avoidance of evil, we may say that

(1) the members of the Church of Christ are bound to avoid all appearance of wrong. They who bear the Name of the holy Saviour, though humblest members of the smallest Church, are, as professed followers of his, bound to walk as becometh the gospel of Christ, in all purity of heart and blamelessness of life; but

(2) ministers of his Church, and their sons and daughters (verses 9, 15), are especially bound to shun everything which would bring discredit on the holy Name of the Divine Redeemer (see 1 Timothy 3:2-7; Titus 1:6-9).

2. And respecting the contraction of intimate alliances (especially the life-long alliance, marriage), we may contend that

(1) all who are the avowed followers of Christ arc bound to be circumspect in this most important matter (see 1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14). The subject of forming a life-long alliance, by which such serious spiritual consequences must inevitably follow to two human souls, and such great and immeasurable results may follow, affecting numbers of human hearts and lives, and reaching to the most distant time, is not to be dismissed to the region of harmless but helpless humour, nor is it to be left to the direction of careless fancy or of worldly policy; it is a matter for the exercise of the fullest, profoundest, heavenliest wisdom which man and woman can command.

(2) Of those who minister in the Church of Christ, it is yet more urgently demanded that in the intimacies they form and the life-long friendships they contract, they shall have regard not to a transient whim, nor to worldly advantage, but, first and foremost, to the glory of Christ and the well-being of those whom they live to serve. - C.

The priests, when officiating, and eminently so the high priest, were types of Christ. It was, therefore, needful that they should be holy and without blemish. They were also types of Christians, in which capacity also they must be holy, for true Christians are so, though not always without blemish. In any case, then -


1. They must be holy, as types of Christ.

(1) They "offered the bread of their God." So the "offerings made by fire" are called (verse 6). The fire of the altar of Calvary is the Godhead in which the body of Christ became a sacrifice upon which the justice and mercy of God can feast. Christ, as our Priest, thus offers himself unto God.

(2) They are "crowned" with the "anointing oil of their God' (verses 10, 12). The anointing represented the luster of the Holy Spirit's grace. When Jesus was "anointed with the oil of gladness" on the holy mount, he was "crowned with glory and honour," and that too "for the suffering of death" (comp. Hebrews 2:9; 2 Peter 1:17). Thus was he "consecrated to put on the garments" of his resurrection, to enter the holy places for us (verse 10).

2. They must not defile themselves by mourning for the dead.

(1) If not officiating, they might defile themselves for kindred of the first degree. For a mother, father, son, daughter, brother, and for a sister that is a virgin. But not for a sister that is married. She is "one flesh" with her husband, incorporated in another family.

(2) For his wife he shall not mourn (see verse 4, margin; also Ezekiel 24:16-18). The wife of the true Priest is his Church; and she can never die; the gates of Hades cannot prevail against her (Matthew 16:18). Even her members do not suffer through death; it is but the gate of their promotion (John 11:25, 26).

(3) He must not make marks of distraction - baldness, quarters in the beard, cuttings in the flesh (verse 5). What has the type of Christ to do with the abominations of the heathen? In profaning themselves they profaned their God (see verse 6; and comp. John 1:14).

(4) The priest officiating must not mourn; nor shall he leave the sanctuary to defile it. Jehovah dwells in the sanctuary of Christ's Body. The priesthood can never leave that sanctuary (verse 12; Hebrews 7:23-28).

3. They must be holy in their marriage.

(1) No priest must marry a whore, or one deflowered or divorced (verse 7). The Babylonish harlot, then, however impudent and specious her pretensions, cannot be the Bride of Christ. Those who would be joined to Christ must not seek membership with her (Revelation 17:1-5; Revelation 18:4).

(2) The bride of the high priest must be a virgin of his own people (verses 13, 14). The descriptions of the true Church of Christ are widely different from those of the woman of the seven-hilled city (see 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:27; Revelation 12 and 21).

(3) His children must be holy (verse 14). They are the children of the truth; the seed of Abraham's faith. If his daughter play the whore, she defiles him; and to purify himself he must give her up to be burnt with fire (verse 9; Genesis 38:24). Such, accordingly, is to be the fate of the scarlet lady (Revelation 17:16, 17; Revelation 18:9, 10; Revelation 19:2, 3).


1. Those who typified Christ must be so.

(1) We have an enumeration of blemishes, any of which would disqualify for that sacred office (verses 18-20). No doubt Jesus was physically, as well as mentally and spiritually, a perfect human being. Those expressions in Isaiah (Isaiah 52:14; Isaiah 53:2) obviously had reference to his sufferings and humiliations.

(2) He that had a blemish among the sons of Aaron "must not come nigh to offer the bread of his God." Had not Christ been perfectly free from sin, he could not have atoned for us (verse 17; 1 Peter 1:19).

(3) "He shall not go in unto the vail" (verse 23). He shall not represent him that is the Way to heaven, who is qualified to sanctify the people with his own blood (Hebrews 7:26-28; Hebrews 13:10).

2. Blemished priests might represent Christians.

(1) "The bread of their God they may eat" (verse 22). Men that have infirmities may live on Christ; but he that represents that Bread must be without blemish.

(2) Blemished ones might eat of the holy things, but unclean ones must not. Between infirmities and sins there is a wide difference. Infirmities do not exclude men from fellowship with God, but sins do (Isaiah 59:1, 2; Romans 8:35-39). Those who eat the bread of the Eucharist should be holy in life, else they profane the Name they profess to revere.

(3) Too frequently have blemished priests represented gospel ministers. The New Testament gives laws to ministers and their wives; and those who instruct others should do so by example as well as precept (1 Timothy 3:11; 1 Timothy 4:12). They should not be "blind," viz. to the meaning of God's Word. They should not be "lame" in hand or foot, but able to show an example in working and walking. They must have nothing superfluous nor deficient. "They must not be wise above," or wise without, "that which is written." The priest who was "holy to his God" was, therefore, to be holy to his people (verses 6-8); and so must the gospel minister be esteemed for his work's sake (1 Thessalonians 5:13). - J.A.M.

We gain three truths from these verses.

I. THE PRIMARY TRUTH, INTENDED FOR THE HEBREW NATION. The special instruction contained in this passage is that the altar of God was to be honoured in every possible way; therefore to be preserved from everything that would bring it into disregard; and therefore to be unapproached by any priest who had a bodily blemish. It was impossible for the people to dissociate the altar itself from those who ministered thereat; if, therefore, any physical disfigurement had been allowed, and those who were uncomely or misshapen had been permitted to officiate, the sacred ordinances of God would have suffered, in some degree, from the association in thought of the man with the thing. The priest with a blemish might not "come nigh unto the altar,... that he profane not my sanctuaries" (verse 23). We may learn, in passing, that it is almost impossible to overestimate the influence for good or ill which is unconsciously exerted by those who minister, in any function, in the Church of Christ on the popular estimate of their office.

II. THE SECONDARY TRUTH, APPLICABLE TO US ALL. In a typical system it is necessary that the body should frequently represent the soul, the organs of the one picturing the faculties of the other. The requirement of a perfect bodily frame on the part of those who "approached to offer the bread of their God" (verse 17), intimated to them, and now indicates to us, the essential and eternal truth that the beast is to be brought to the service of God: not that with which we can most easily part, but the very best that we can bring.

1. Not the unattractive service ("flat nose," "scabbed," etc.), but that which is as beautiful and inviting in its form as we can make it.

2. Not unacquaintance with our subject ("a blind man"), but the fullest possible acquisition and understanding.

3. Not an example which is defective, a walking which is irregular (a "lame man," "crookbackt), but an upright, honourable demeanour, walking in the commandments of the Lord blameless."

4. Not a feeble and faltering delivery ("brokenhanded"), but a facile, skilful "handling of the Word of God." We may note, before we pass, that the God whom we serve is expectant, but is not inconsiderate. He who refuses to allow a priest with any blemish "to approach to offer the bread of his God," expressly desired that such priest should "eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy, and of the holy" (verse 22); be might not serve, but he should not suffer, on account of a bodily misfortune. God requires of us that, in approaching him, we should bring not our exhaustion but our freshness, not our hurried but our patient preparation, not our remnants but our substance, not our worthless belongings but our worthiest self; at the same time, he makes every allowance for our weakness, our infirmity, our human feebleness and frailty: "he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust."

III. A FURTHER TRUTH, RELATING TO THE FUTURE LIFE. We dare not hope to render to God any absolutely unblemished, service here. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves" (1 John 1:8). Here our holiest services are marred by spiritual imperfection. It should be our aim, our prayer, our endeavour, to make our worship, our work, and our life as little blemished as may be; to make all our service as elevated in spirit and motive as may be; and doing this, we may look confidently and joyously onward to the time when "his servants shall serve him" in the very fullness of their strength and joy, and when their service shall be not only undimmed by any gathering tear, but unstained with any rising thought of sin. - C.

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