To Serve Me as Priests
To Serve Me as Priests
Exodus 28:1-43 & 39:1-31
by William Klock
So far Exodus has shown us the tabernacle and the most holy place where the Lord’s presence rested on the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat. It’s shown us some of the furnishings of the tabernacle and the altar that stood outside. And as we’ve made our way through these chapters, the priests, sometimes alluded to as Aaron and his sons, have been mentioned, but so far not in any detail. That’s where the next couple of chapters bring us, first as the special garments of the priests are described and then as the ordination or the setting apart of Aaron and his sons is described. Lord willing, we’ll look at the ordination of the priests next week. Today we’ll look at Chapter 28. Here the instructions are given for the garments the priests were to wear. And as with the previous passages, we read in Chapter 39 that the Israelites followed these instructions to the letter, making the garments just as described by the Lord. So let’s look at Exodus 28. It’s a long passage and, like the other passages so far about the tabernacle, it’s very detailed. We don’t have time to read the whole thing, so bear with me as I summarise some parts of it for you.
Verses 1-5 introduce these instructions and give us an overview of most of the chapter:
“Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. These are the garments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests. They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen.
The first thing to notice is that Aaron’s family is selected by the Lord to serve as his priests. The tribe of Levi serves the tabernacle in general, but it’s this subgroup of the Levites, the family of Aaron who will be the actual priests. But two things need to happen before Aaron and his sons can serve the Lord in the tabernacle: they need to consecrated into their role and they need to have appropriate clothing. The consecration will happen in the next chapter; here we read about the clothing. Specifically, the garments of the high priest are listed here: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash. And we see here in the first part of the description, they’re visually connected with the tabernacle. Just like the tent where the Lord took up his dwelling in Israel, the high priest’s garments are made of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen.
Notice how important these garments are. Verse 3 connects these garments with Aaron’s consecration as the Lord’s priest. No garments, no priesthood. In fact, the Lord is deadly serious about it. Jump to verse 43, the last verse of the chapter and we read:
[T]hey shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.
What the garments represent is important enough that they’re integral to the priesthood itself. And we get a sense here of just how seriously the Lord takes his instruction for worship. Enter the Lord’s presence—even come near—wearing the wrong thing—an act of disobedience—and it means death for the priest. The Lord isn’t fooling around here. It’s no idle threat. Two of Aaron’s sons don’t last very long as priests. In Leviticus 10 we read that Nadab and Abihu filled their censors with strange or unauthorized fire. It’s not clear what exactly they’d done, but whatever it was, it was contrary to the very specific instructions the Lord had given concerning offerings and incense. Both of them were instantly stuck down and consumed by fire.
Brothers and Sisters, the worship of God is serious business. That may be the first takeaway here. Verse 2 stresses that all of these detailed instructions were to bring glory and beauty to the worship of the Lord. It wasn’t just about being finicky. Everything in these details—the details we’ve seen so far and the details yet to come—was to bring glory to the Lord and to make his worship beautiful. The New Covenant is vastly different in many ways. The New Testament gives no commands for what a church should look like, how a minister should dress, what our incense recipe should be, what musical style we should use, or how the Lord’s Table should be constructed. Much of this is different because Jesus has changed everything for us. We approach the Lord in a different way than the Israelites did thanks to Jesus and the cross. But glory and beauty are still—or should be integral to our worship. Does our worship bring glory to the Lord? Does it do so, in part, by its beauty?
A lot of modern worship does neither. It’s cheap and commercialised and focused more on the worshipper than on the Lord. When it comes to Christian worship, there are two elements that will always ground proper worship. The first is God’s word and the second is the Lord’s Supper. Word and sacrament. Hearing God’s word, singing God’s word, preaching God’s word, and responding to God’s word in prayer and song will always fill our worship with the glory of God and will always glorify him. And eating his Supper in which we recall that in Jesus God has given himself to make us his people and to give us life and hope, in that he is again glorified. Keep word and sacrament central to worship and our worship will be filled with glory. And the weight of what we do in that kind of worship naturally encourages us to do it with beauty—to invest ourselves in it for the Lord’s sake. It won’t always look the same. It may be liturgical or non-liturgical, the style may vary from place to place, but worship centred in word and sacrament will always bring glory to God.
Now, let’s look at Aaron’s vestments. I won’t go into every detail. Verses 6-12 describe the ephod. What’s an ephod? Well, it’s what’s described here. From the description it seems it was something like an apron. Like the tabernacle it was made of gold, blue, and purple yarn and fine linen. But the important part of the ephod were its two onyx stones, set in gold, and mounted on the shoulders. Each stone was to be engraved with six of the names of the tribes of Israel. Why? Verse 12 says:
And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance.
It was a reminder that the high priest was the mediator between Israel and the Lord. When he offered sacrifices or went into the Lord’s presence and the Lord looked down on him, there on his shoulders, pointing heavenward, were the names of the twelve tribes that made up his people. They were a written memorial to the Lord. Jesus does the same for us, our mediator with God, entering his presence as our representative and bearing our names into his presence.
Next the Lord gave instructions for the “breastpiece of judgement”—the longest set of instructions here. It was a pouch about 9 inches by 9 inches square, made of the same yarns and linen as the ephod. It was attached to the shoulderpieces of the ephod with gold chains. And it was set with twelve different precious stones engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel. Again, the stones served as a memorial to the Lord when Aaron represented the people. These precious stones representing the tribes of Israel turn up again at the end of the story as the foundations of the New Jerusalem.
The breastpiece also served to hold the Urim and the Thummim. Like so much else about the passage, these are something of a mystery as well. As the text presents the Urim and Thummim, they were something the Israelites already had. We don’t know what exactly they were other than devices for casting lots—probably two stones with something carved on them. In Hebrew Urim begins with the first letter of the alphabet and Thummim with the last, so that may have something to do with it. The idea was that a question with a clear binary, yes or no or this or that answer could be posed to the Lord by the high priest and, maybe by reaching into the pouch and drawing out one of the stones (or whatever they were) the Lord would give the answer. (So, no, the Mormons have it wrong. The Urim and Thummim weren’t magic glasses used to translate Joseph Smith’s golden plates.)
It’s interesting to read of them, because the Lord outlawed the pagan practice of divination in Israel. So this was something different. It’s worth noting that the Urim and Thummim were always and only in the possession of the high priest and were only used by him to consult the Lord on behalf of the leader of the people about something that affected the nation. So it had to be something really significant for the Lord to be consulted through the Urim and Thummim. It wasn’t like the pagans, going to a fortune-teller to ask if you should buy this car or marry this girl or take this job. But even then, the Lord didn’t always respond. We’re told that Saul consulted the Lord this way and received no answer. After the time of David they are no longer mentioned. The Mishnah says that they ceased to function after the death of the first prophets and that while the Urim and Thummim were still in possession of the high priest in the time after the exile, they no longer worked—perhaps because the presence of the Lord had not returned to the temple.
Next, in verses 31-35 we read the instructions for the robe. It was to be made of blue cloth and around the hem it was to have golden bells alternating with pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet yarns. Aaron was to wear this robe when he entered the holy place:
And it shall be on Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before the Lord, and when he comes out, so that he does not die. (Exodus 28:35)
“So that he does not die” probably refers to this whole section, not just the robe. The priests were not to deviate from the Lord’s instructions. The bells, again, are something of a mystery. When the high priest entered the tabernacle, he was supposed to be the only one there, so the bells may have served as a warning to everyone else to leave. They may have been a reminder to the priest himself of what he was doing so that he could focus his attention on the Lord and a reminder to those outside of what the priest was doing on their behalf. In light of the seriousness with which the Lord took all this, the bells may have been a way of assuring the people outside that he hadn’t messed something up and been struck dead as Nadab and Abihu were. We don’t know. These are just some possibilities.
Now look at verses 36-38:
“You shall make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ And you shall fasten it on the turban by a cord of blue. It shall be on the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall bear any guilt from the holy things that the people of Israel consecrate as their holy gifts. It shall regularly be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.
So Aaron was to wear a turban—which was otherwise a symbol of royalty—with this golden plate at its front, inscribed with the words “Holy to the Lord”. It may have served a double purpose. As the names of the tribes of Israel inscribed on the ephod and the breastplate were memorials to the Lord that Israel was his people, this golden headband inscribed “Holy to the Lord” was a memorial to the Lord: this was his priest whom he had set apart. At the same time, the headband was a serious reminder to Aaron of the gravity of the office he’d been given. He represented the people before the Lord. How he bore guilt isn’t clear. The Hebrew word used here can mean either to bear sin or to remove sin. It might have been a reminder to Aaron that he bore the responsibility for the people’s sin before the Lord or (or maybe and/or) that he was the one who made atonement for the sins of the people.
Now, finally, the last few verses describe the basic garments of all the priests:
“For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty. And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him. (Exodus 28:41-43)
The Lord gave instructions even for their underpants that remind us of the clothes the Lord made for Adam and Eve, to cover their nakedness. Aaron and his sons were to be anointed, to be set apart, and to be clothed in these special garments. They brought glory and honour to the worship of the Lord. It also meant that the priests stood with glory and beauty—or we could translate the Hebrew “dignity and honour”, before the Lord. I want to end on that note. These were beautiful garments, mean to inspire awe and reverence in the people. They did not approach the Lord casually or carelessly and the priests reminded them of that. And something I think we might be prone to missing because we no longer rely on human mediators between us and God, is what it meant for the Jews to see these priests standing at the altar or entering the tabernacle, dressed in fine linen, a blue cape, and decked out with gold and gemstones. This was their representative with the Lord. Through him they entered the Lord’s presence and through him the Lord was present to them. To see the high priest in all his finery, in all this glory and beauty, dignity and honour, was what some would call a “religious experience”.
This is what Jesus ben Sira describes towards the end of his book of wisdom. Most of the book is similar to the book of Proverbs, but he ends the book with a hymn in praise of the heroes of Israel: Enoch, Noah, and Abraham; Moses, Aaron, and Phineas; Joshua and Caleb; David and Solomon and he ends his hymn with Simon II, who was the high priest in ben Sira’s own day, about 200 b.c. I want to read ben Sira’s description of Simon, because it’s the only passage I know of that so vividly describes how the Jews saw their high priest—especially an honourable high priest who commanded the respect of the people.
The leader of his brothers and the pride of his people
was the high priest, Simon son of Onias,
who in his life repaired the house,
and in his time fortified the temple.
He laid the foundations for the high double walls,
the high retaining walls for the temple enclosure.
In his days a water cistern was dug,
a reservoir like the sea in circumference.
He considered how to save his people from ruin,
and fortified the city against siege.
How glorious he was, surrounded by the people,
as he came out of the house of the curtain.
Like the morning star among the clouds,
like the full moon at the festal season;
like the sun shining on the temple of the Most High,
like the rainbow gleaming in splendid clouds;
like roses in the days of first fruits,
like lilies by a spring of water,
like a green shoot on Lebanon on a summer day;
like fire and incense in the censer,
like a vessel of hammered gold
studded with all kinds of precious stones;
like an olive tree laden with fruit,
and like a cypress towering in the clouds.
When he put on his glorious robe
and clothed himself in perfect splendor,
when he went up to the holy altar,
he made the court of the sanctuary glorious.
When he received the portions from the hands of the priests,
as he stood by the hearth of the altar
with a garland of brothers around him,
he was like a young cedar on Lebanon
surrounded by the trunks of palm trees.
All the sons of Aaron in their splendor
held the Lord’s offering in their hands
before the whole congregation of Israel.
Finishing the service at the altars,
and arranging the offering to the Most High, the Almighty,
he held out his hand for the cup
and poured a drink offering of the blood of the grape;
he poured it out at the foot of the altar,
a pleasing odor to the Most High, the king of all.
Then the sons of Aaron shouted;
they blew their trumpets of hammered metal;
they sounded a mighty fanfare
as a reminder before the Most High.
Then all the people together quickly
fell to the ground on their faces
to worship their Lord,
the Almighty, God Most High.
Then the singers praised him with their voices
in sweet and full-toned melody.
And the people of the Lord Most High offered
their prayers before the Merciful One,
until the order of worship of the Lord was ended,
and they completed his ritual.
Then Simon came down and raised his hands
over the whole congregation of Israelites,
to pronounce the blessing of the Lord with his lips,
and to glory in his name;
and they bowed down in worship a second time,
to receive the blessing from the Most High. (Sirach 50:1-21 NRSV)
Simon was a good and honourable priest, but more than that what ben Sira gets at is that the priest inspired the people. The priest, standing there as representative of both the Lord and of Israel, reminded them of the covenant, reminded them of the Lord’s words: I will be your God and you will be my people. And in that, the priest inspired faith and hope and love and loyalty to the Lord and to his covenant.
If the priests of the old covenant could inspire the people in faith and hope and love and loyalty to the Lord, Brothers and Sisters, how much more ought Jesus to inspire us to faith and hope and love and covenant loyalty? Consider that as we come to his Table this morning and recall how, as the writer of Hebrew puts it, he went into the holy place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but to offer his own blood, securing an eternal redemption for his people. Jesus is our priest and as ben Sira saw the high priest of his day in all his glory as he stood outside the temple offering sacrifices for the people and gave glory to God, we ought to see something even better, even more beautiful, even more glorious as we recall the death of Jesus on the cross. In him God himself has become our great high priest, giving his own life, that we might live—that might be plunged into the life of his own Spirit and that we might live in hope of the life of the age to come.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we thank you this morning for your word and how even these minute and seemingly finicky details point remind us of your holiness, point us to Jesus, and inspire us to give you glory. As we think of the glory of Aaron and his sons, may we be inspired to see the glory of Jesus, our great high priest of whom Aaron was only a dim shadow. And as we think of the sacrifice that Jesus has offered of himself for us, may we be moved to worship you in glory and beauty. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
 Sotah 9:12 and Yoma 21b