The Aaronic Priesthood

“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him’” (Numbers 3:5,6, all scriptures from the Revised Standard Version).

Gleaned from an article by Jeffrey Earl

The Aaronic Priesthood

There are a number of high priests named in the Old Testament, such as Mel­chizedek, Aaron, Zadok, and Joshua. This article focuses on the priesthood of Aaron, the first high priest under the Mosaic system.

The Aaronic priesthood served the nation of Israel in many ways and symbolized the role of Jesus and the Church in both the Gospel and Millennial Ages.

Establishment of the Aaronic Priesthood

The priesthood was not tied to any specific tribe until Moses was given the Law. Prior to that the firstborns of each family acted as priests and offered their own sacrifices. Before the Law, Moses chose “young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to Jehovah” (Exodus 24:5). After Moses received the Ten Commandments and saw the golden calf, he broke the tablets and asked, “Who is on Jehovah’s side? Come to me” (Exodus 32:25-26). The sons of Levi responded and came close to Moses and, by his command, slew 3,000 who had worshipped the calf. As a result of their appropriate response, the tribe of Levi was chosen for the priesthood and ordained “for the service of Jehovah” (Exodus 32:29). Aaron was made high priest and his sons — Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar — became under-priests.

As described in Leviticus 8, Aaron was fitted with the royal garments of the high priest(detailed later) and consecrated with the anointing oil by Moses. Moses then dressed Aaron’s sons in lesser garments. Moses offered a bull as a sin offering, a ram as a burnt offering, and then another ram as a “ram of consecration” with the blood being applied to Aaron and his sons as a symbol of their complete dedication. In every ceremony regarding the ordination of the priesthood, the high priest was ordained first, followed by the under-priests.

Character of Aaron

Although Aaron made the golden calf, he was still selected as the high priest. Was he forced to construct the calf against his will or did he construct it willingly? The Scriptures do not say, though his actions suggest a weakness of character. Deuteronomy 9:20 states, “The Lord was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him.” Moses prayed for his brother to be forgiven. After admitting his error, Aaron was chosen to be the high priest.

His weakness of character was seen again when he and his sister Miriam complained to Moses about his marriage to a Cushite woman(Numbers 12). Aaron was also held accountable when Moses struck the rock at Meribah. For that disobedience, Aaron was not allowed to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 20:24).

Numbers 16 describes a challenge by other Levites (known as Korah’s Rebellion) to the authority of Moses and Aaron. By destroying the men of Korah, the Lord reinforced the selection of Aaron and his descendants for the priesthood. “No one who is not a priest, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before the Lord” (Numbers 16:40). His position was also affirmed in the budding of Aaron’s rod (Numbers 17).

Priestly Qualifications

“They shall be holy unto their God, and not profane the name of their God; for the offerings of Jehovah made by fire, the bread of their God, they do offer: therefore they shall be holy. They shall not take a woman that is a harlot, or profane; neither shall they take a woman put away from her husband: for he is holy unto his God” (Leviticus 21:6,7). A holy lifestyle was required of priests. The high priest was held to an even higher standard (Leviticus 21:10-15).

There were specific disqualifications for the priesthood (Leviticus 21:16-23). These were: (1) blindness, (2) lameness, (3) a flat nose (NASB, “a disfigured face”), (4) anything superfluous (body not proportionate, e.g., one leg longer than the other, NASB has “deformed limb”), (5) broken-footed, (6) broken-handed, (7) crookbacked, (8) being a dwarf, (9) a blemished eye, (10) scurvy, (11) “scabbed,” (12) having broken “stones” (testicles). A priest was to marry a virgin of his own people (Leviticus 21:13-14). The high priest was forbidden to approach a dead person even of his relatives, including his mother and father.

“This teaches that every member of the body of Christ glorified will be complete — lacking nothing.”1 The Aaronic priesthood was typical of the Church in its present sacrificing condition. Whereas these qualities were physical, the qualifications for membership in the antitypical priesthood are spiritual — whose sacrifices are offered as “the bread of his God” (Leviticus 21:17). In the New Testament, this concept particularly holds true for elders. They should have a high moral standard. As stated in 1 Timothy 3:1-6 and Titus 1:7-9, the qualifications include husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher (to give instruction in sound doctrine), no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. An elder should manage his own household well, not be a recent convert, and be well thought of by outsiders. These elements speak of holiness while still in the flesh.

(1) Charles Russell, Tabernacle Shadows of the Better
Sacrifices, page 127.

Priestly Duties and Functions

The principal duties of priests were to perform sacrifices and serve in the Tabernacle. In addition, priests were to instruct people and decide controversies. They would distinguish whether someone had leprosy, judge divorce cases, adultery, uncleanness, and were involved in causes relating to the Law. When moving the Tabernacle, they covered the furniture (Numbers 4). In times of war, they often consulted Jehovah and sounded the holy trumpets. They also publicly blessed the people.

Hebrews 5:1 says every “high priest chosen from among men is appointed … to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” These gifts were free-will offerings from both the priests and the people. Sacrifices for sin were mandatory to maintain a relationship with God. The priests could sympathize with the people because they had a need for forgiveness themselves.

The daily burnt offerings were made by the high priest. During the time of ministration, they were not to drink wine or strong drink (Leviticus 10:9). The many duties of the priesthood were essential to continue the blessings of God.

Priestly Garments

Exodus 28 describes the glorious garments of the high priest. These descriptions begin from the outermost piece and move inward.

(1) Breastplate of Judgment (Exodus 28:15-29, 39:8-21): gold, blue, purple, scarlet, and white threads used to form a square piece suspended by gold chains. fastened over the Ephod. It had four rows of three stones, each with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. Twice as long as it was wide, it was folded to form a pouch and may have held the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30).

(2) Ephod (Exodus 28:6-14, 39:2-7): the most intricately designed piece, woven with gold, blue, purple, scarlet, and white linen. It consisted of two sections, front and back, and was fastened by two gold clasps connected at the shoulder with two onyx stones set in gold. Each stone was engraved with six of the 12 tribes of Israel. Attached to the ephod was a skillfully woven belt, or sash, of gold, blue, purple, scarlet, and white tied around the ephod (Exodus 28:8). This is sometimes called a “curious girdle” to distinguish it from the white girdle worn underneath.

(3) Mitre (Exodus 28:36-38, 39:30-31): a strip of fine white linen worn around the forehead, to which a golden plate (inscribed with the words “Holiness to the Lord”) in front was fastened with blue lace.

(4) Upper Robe (Exodus 28:31-35,39:22-26): Made of blue cloth, its hem held pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet; and bells of gold so the high priest could be heard when going into the Holy.

(5) White Linen Coat (Exodus 39:27,29): embroidered with fine needlework, it was under the ephod and extended to the ground. A white belt embroidered with blue, purple, and scarlet was tied around the waist.

(6) White Linen Breeches (Exodus 28:42): covered from the waist to the thighs so the priest’s nakedness would not be seen when performing his duties.

It is sometimes observed that an individual’s clothing reflects their occupation. This was certainly evident with the priesthood. Wherever the high priest went, his garments proclaimed his role as the intermediary between God and the Israelites. These garments are highly symbolic of both the sacrificial aspect of the anti-typical priesthood as well as their role in blessing the world of mankind. The plate attached to the mitre stated that their purpose is and will be to proclaim, and work for, the holiness of God. Moses was the mediator of the Law Covenant. When his work is blended with that of Aaron, we see a mediator and a priest, similar to having two offices combined in Melchizedek.

In contrast to the high priest, the under-priests wore plainer garments of fine white linen and under girdles with a bonnet on their head (Exodus 28:40-42, Exodus 39:27,28).

Operation of the Urim and Thummim

The Urim and Thummim are introduced (but not described) in Exodus 28:30. They were used to indicate God’s decision on matters brought to Him. This was accomplished through the high priest, who kept them. The word Urim means “lights,” while Thummim means “perfections” (Young’s Concordance).

Two Gems

One suggestion regarding the Urim and Thummim is based on Leviticus 8:8: “In the breastpiece he put the Urim and the Thummim.” This suggests they were two precious stones, perhaps gems, placed inside the square pocket of the breastplate (see also Exodus 28:30). Depending on which one was pulled out of the breastplate pouch, a “yes” or “no” answer was indicated. This would be used when seeking God’s guidance on a question. Another view of the Urim and Thummim is that they are the gemstones in the breastplate which reflected “lights and perfections” to give more complex answers than simply yes or no.

Meaningful Lessons from the Aaronic Priesthood

As described earlier, the tribe of Levi was chosen to serve in this honored position because of their expressed loyalty to God, even while others worshipped the golden calf (see Exodus 32:26). Their selection reveals the importance of heart loyalty to God, despite the choices made by others. The strength of character holds firm when others weaken under peer pressure to follow the world. Those who accept a call to this position should understand the work involved both in this life and what they are being prepared to do in the kingdom. A primary responsibility of the priesthood was to offer the sacrifices required for reconciliation with God. The importance of this work cannot be overstated. At times our experiences may seem insignificant, but when properly exercised we will have the necessary experience and thus the privilege to guide mankind up the highway of holiness.

One major lesson we glean from studying this significant office is the importance of personal sacrifice. We must be fully dedicated to our calling. The humanity of Jesus was represented in the bullock offered on the Day of Atonement, while his new creature was seen in the high priest, who followed the prescribed course in offering the sacrifice. Our Lord’s role is again seen when the high priest, after finishing with the bullock, offered the goat. This shows that our personal sacrifices must be in accord with our Lord’s directions. Many individuals sacrifice for a cause. Our cause must be directed by the principles and providences of God, through our Lord.

The high priest alternately wore sacrificial robes and garments of glory and beauty (Exodus 28:2). This describes the dual role of the antitypical priesthood: a sacrificial role during this Gospel Age, and its ministering role during the kingdom. In the kingdom, the personal sacrifices of the priesthood will be complete, and the work will focus on the large task at hand.

Present Day Privileges

One of the wonderful privileges of the priesthood was the opportunity to enter the Holy. This indicates dwelling in a sanctified condition and enjoying the enlightenment of truth and spiritual nourishment for the new creature. The added privilege of offering praise to God should never be taken for granted. He observes our lives and sees our dedication to Him, it is like sweet incense, pleasing to His heart.

Another privilege enjoyed by the priests of Israel was to represent God to the people. This has both a contemporary and future application. Our current lifestyle should reflect a high moral standard, a loving character, and other fruits of the spirit. These are both a witness and example of our priestly role. It is also a privilege to present the truth to any listening ear. The plan of God expresses the holiness of His character. Its message is comforting and hope-inspiring and should be constantly on our lips.

It provides guidelines for approaching the heavenly Father that can be shared with those seeking Him. These are all privileges that should be deeply appreciated.

As discussed earlier, the Urim and Thummim were used by the high priest to receive specific directions or answers from God. This suggests a communication link between God and the priesthood. Again, there is a dual application. Each consecrated member of the royal priesthood has the privilege of communing with God. We are free to make requests and seek
divine guidance. In the next age, mankind will need the same divine guidance and God will provide it through the priesthood.


God went to great lengths to create the Aaronic priesthood. He extends that effort to the antitypical priesthood. The Gospel Age will be remembered for all time as the age of sacrifice. Beginning with Jesus and following with every consecrated heart down through the age, God values every effort the saints have made. Through the typical priesthood, consecrated individuals can understand the purpose of their calling. It is not to a life of ease and pleasure but has the goal of restoring all creation to harmony with God. To the human mind, this may be overwhelming. But with God all things are possible. “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which He hath purposed in Himself: That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him” (Ephesians 1:9,10 KJV).

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