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The Officiating Priesthood
Among the most interesting glimpses of early life in the church is that afforded by a small piece of rapidly-drawn scenery which presents to our view 'a great company of the priests,' 'obedient to the faith' (Acts 6:7). We seem to be carried back in imagination to the time when Levi remained faithful amidst the general spiritual defection (Exo 32:26), and then through the long vista of devout ministering priests to reach the fulfilment of this saying of Malachi--part admonition, and part prophecy: 'For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts' (Mal 2:7). We can picture to ourselves how they who ministered in holy things would at eventide, when the Temple was deserted of its worshippers, gather to speak of the spiritual meaning of the services, and to consider the wonderful things which had taken place in Jerusalem, as some alleged, in fulfilment of those very types that formed the essence of their office and ministry. 'For this thing was not done in a corner.' The trial of Jesus, His condemnation by the Sanhedrim, and His being delivered up to the Gentiles, must have formed the theme of frequent and anxious discussion in the Temple. Were not their own chief priests implicated in the matter? Did not Judas on that fatal day rush into the Temple, and wildly cast the 'price of blood' into the 'treasury'? On the other hand, was not one of the principal priests and a member of the priestly council, Joseph of Arimathea, an adherent of Christ? Did not the Sanhedrist Nicodemus adopt the same views, and even Gamaliel advise caution? Besides, in the 'porches' of the Temple, especially in that of Solomon, 'a notable miracle' had been done in 'that Name,' and there also its all-prevailing power was daily proclaimed. It specially behoved the priesthood to inquire well into the matter; and the Temple seemed the most appropriate place for its discussion.
The Number of Priests
The number of priests to be found at all times in Jerusalem must have been very great, and Ophel a densely inhabited quarter. According to Jewish tradition, half of each of the twenty-four 'courses,' into which the priesthood were divided, were permanently resident in Jerusalem; the rest scattered over the land. It is added, that about one half of the latter had settled in Jericho, and were in the habit of supplying the needful support to their brethren while officiating in Jerusalem. Of course such statements must not be taken literally, though no doubt they are substantially correct. When a 'course' was on duty, all its members were bound to appear in the Temple. Those who stayed away, with such 'representatives of the people' (or 'stationary men') as, like them, had been prevented from 'going up' to Jerusalem in their turn, had to meet in the synagogues of their district to pray and to fast each day of their week of service, except on the sixth, the seventh, and the first--that is, neither on the Sabbath, nor on the days preceding and succeeding it, as the 'joy' attaching to the Sabbath rendered a fast immediately before or after it inappropriate.
Symbolism of the Priesthood/Mediation
It need scarcely be said, that everything connected with the priesthood was intended to be symbolical and typical--the office itself, its functions, even its dress and outward support. The fundamental design of Israel itself was to be unto Jehovah 'a kingdom of priests and an holy nation' (Exo 19:5,6). This, however, could only be realised in 'the fulness of time.' At the very outset there was the barrier of sin; and in order to gain admittance to the ranks of Israel, when 'the sum of the children of Israel was taken after their number,' every man had to give the half-shekel, which in after times became the regular Temple contribution, as 'a ransom (covering) for his soul unto Jehovah' (Exo 30:12,13). But even so Israel was sinful, and could only approach Jehovah in the way which Himself opened, and in the manner which He appointed. Direct choice and appointment by God were the conditions alike of the priesthood, of sacrifices, feasts, and of every detail of service. The fundamental ideas which underlay all and connected it into a harmonious whole, were reconciliation and mediation: the one expressed by typically atoning sacrifices, the other by a typically intervening priesthood. Even the Hebrew term for priest (Cohen) denotes in its root- meaning 'one who stands up for another, and mediates in his cause.' *
* This root-meaning (through the Arabic) of the Hebrew word for priest, as one intervening, explains its occasional though very rare application to others than priests, as, for example, to the sons of David (2 Sam 8:18), a mode of expression which is thus correctly paraphrased in 1 Chronicles 18:17: 'And the sons of David were at the hand of the king.'
For this purpose God chose the tribe of Levi, and out of it again the family of Aaron, on whom He bestowed the 'priest's office as a gift' (Num 18:7). But the whole characteristics and the functions of the priesthood centered in the person of the high-priest. In accordance with their Divine 'calling' (Heb 5:4) was the special and exceptional provision made for the support of the priesthood. Its principle was thus expressed: 'I am thy part and thine inheritance among the children of Israel'; and its joyousness, when realised in its full meaning and application, found vent in such words as Psalm 16:5, 6: 'Jehovah is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: Thou maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.'
But there was yet another idea to be expressed by the priesthood. The object of reconciliation was holiness. Israel was to be 'a holy nation'--reconciled through the 'sprinkling of blood'; brought near to, and kept in fellowship with God by that means. The priesthood, as the representative offerers of that blood and mediators of the people, were also to show forth the 'holiness' of Israel. Every one knows how this was symbolised by the gold- plate which the high-priest wore on his forehead, and which bore the words: 'Holiness unto Jehovah.' But though the high-priest in this, as in every other respect, was the fullest embodiment of the functions and object of the priesthood, the same truth was also otherwise shown forth. The bodily qualifications required in the priesthood, the kind of defilements which would temporarily or wholly interrupt their functions, their mode of ordination, and even every portion, material, and color of their distinctive dress were all intended to express in a symbolical manner this characteristic of holiness. In all these respects there was a difference between Israel and the tribe of Levi; between the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron; and, finally, between an ordinary priest and the high-priest, who most fully typified our Great High- priest, in whom all these symbols have found their reality.
The Twenty-four Courses
This much it seemed necessary to state for the general understanding of the matter. Full details belong to the exposition of the meaning and object of the Levitical priesthood, as instituted by God, while our present task rather is to trace its further development to what it was at the time when Jesus was in the Temple. The first peculiarity of post-Mosaic times which we here meet, is the arrangement of the priesthood into 'twenty-four courses,' which undoubtedly dates from the times of David. But Jewish tradition would make it even much older. For, according to the Talmud, it should be traced up to Moses, who is variously supposed to have arranged the sons of Aaron into either or else sixteen courses (four, or else eight, of Eleazar; and the other four, or else eight, of Ithamar), to which, on the one supposition, Samuel and David each added other eight 'courses,' or, on the other, Samuel and David, in conjunction, the eight needed to make up the twenty-four mentioned in 1 Chronicles 24. It need scarcely be told that, like many similar statements, this also is simply an attempt to trace up every arrangement to the fountain- head of Jewish history, in order to establish its absolute authority. *
* Curiously enough, here also the analogy between Rabbinism and Roman Catholicism holds good. Each claims for its teaching and practices the so-called principle of catholicity--'semper, ubique, ab omnibus' ('always, everywhere, by all'), and each invents the most curious historical fables in support of it!
The Courses After the Captivity
The institution of David and of Solomon continued till the Babylonish captivity. Thence, however, only four out of the twenty-four 'courses' returned: those of Jedaiah, Immer, Pashur, and Harim (Ezra 2:36-39), the course of 'Jedaiah' being placed first because it was of the high-priest's family, 'of the house of Jeshua,' 'the son of Jozadak' (Ezra 3:2; Hagg 1:1; 1 Chron 6:15). To restore the original number, each of these four families was directed to draw five lots for those which had not returned, so as to form once more twenty-four courses, which were to bear the ancient names. Thus, for example, Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, did not really belong to the family of Abijah (1 Chron 24:10), which had not returned from Babylon, but to the 'course of Abia,' which had been formed out of some other family, and only bore the ancient name (Luke 1:5). Like the priests, the Levites had at the time of King David been arranged into twenty-four 'courses,' which were to act as 'priests' assistance' (1 Chron 23:4,28), as 'singers and musicians' (1 Chron 25:6), as 'gate- keepers and guards' (1 Chron 26:6 and following), and as 'officers and judges.' Of these various classes, that of the 'priests' assistants' was by far the most numerous, * and to them the charge of the Temple had been committed in subordination to the priests.
* Apparently it numbered 24,000, out of a total of 38,000 Levites.
It had been their duty to look after the sacred vestments and vessels; the store-houses and their contents; and the preparation of the shewbread, of the meat-offerings, of the spices, etc. They were also generally to assist the priests in their work, to see to the cleaning of the sanctuary, and to take charge of the treasuries (1 Chron 23:28-32).