–By Ryan Ogrodowicz
Rome’s enforcement of priestly celibacy stems from a specific interpretation of the levitical priesthood. The Confutation, the Papal document countering the Augsburg Confession, references the Old Testament priest as “foreshadowing” Rome’s sanction against priestly marriage. The logic is, since priests were commanded to cover “shameful flesh” (Exod 28:42), then priests of today, who have received “Christ as legislator” must go above and beyond by attaining holiness in the form of celibacy (Kolb, Robert and James A. Nestingen, eds., Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord, [Fortress Press, 2001], 124). The Lutheran Confessions dismantle this notion and, along with pointing out the barrage of sexual sins caused by celibacy, also emphatically remind us from Scripture that marriage is a “divine right” and the “natural desire of one sex for the other sex is an ordinance of God in nature and for this reason is a right” (Ap XXIII, 12).
Even though the levitical priesthood has been abused, it’s still worthwhile to look at the function of priests in Leviticus.
First, they were selected by God from the tribe of Levi (Exod 28:1). Initially consecrated for service in Exodus, the levitical priests were men chosen to serve the congregation on behalf of God. Contrary to a modern context replete with self-appointed “pastors,” ordination in Leviticus was not determined by a person. It was always God’s merciful selection. Out of his gracious word males of the line of Levi were chosen for priestly service and even then within certain parameters (cf. Lev 21:16–24).
Second, these chosen servants of YHWH were adorned with sanctified garments and received holy food. At the consecration of Aaron and his sons, both man and clothing are consecrated (Lev 8:30) to protect them from death (Exod 28:43). As for food, they were allotted a portion from the people’s grain offerings (6:14–16), peace offerings (7:33–36) and the priestly guilt offering, a “most holy” offering reserved for the priest that could only be consumed in the consecrated Tent of Meeting (7:1–6). While the details of each offering are intricate, from a distance we see God feeding his priests holy food taken from offerings reserved for God. God gives holiness to his priests, also a New Testament theme, where the holy priesthood of Christ receives holy food in the Divine Service; bread and wine consecrated as his body and blood for forgiveness and nourishment.
Lastly, these priests protected the people. Handling offerings and determining when someone was clean in order to enter the holy Tabernacle meant the priests functioned as necessary barriers between God and the sinner. They safeguarded the congregation from a God whose holiness is unfathomable and consuming, glorious and dangerous. Safety, then, did not come with the territory. Handling holy sacrifices and serving as appointed liaisons between congregation and a holy God is anything but “safe.” Danger and divine holiness go hand in hand. So Leviticus emphasizes that approaching God had to be done in the manner dictated by his word. We only need to look to the death of Aaron’s priestly sons in Leviticus 10 to see a God who cares very much about how his priests come before him. Automatic impunity was not granted the priests, as exemplified by Aaron’s sons and their death by divine fire for approaching God in an unauthorized way.
God still cares how his people stand before him and has spoken how sinners will stand before him and live. The Christian is a priest able to come before God on account of the great high priest, Jesus Christ, in whom we are clothed in his righteousness adorning us in Holy Baptism (Gal 3:27). God imputes the gifts of holiness and purity to sinners by faith in Jesus, who gives his body as the all-atoning sacrifice for sin.
Seeing the levitical priest through the lens of the gospel reveals their importance and what they really foreshadow. Leviticus is not a pretext for more legalism. It is the glorious word of God foreshadowing the royal priesthood established by the blood of our God and priest, Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Ryan Ogrodowicz serves as pastor of Victory in Christ Lutheran Church in Newark, Texas.