THE first testament had its priesthood; Levi and his sons, one of the twelve tribes of the people of Israel, were set apart to that sacred office, that they should minister about the sanctuary of the Lord for all the people of the covenant, who were their brethren. For the people themselves could not approach unto God in the holy sanctuary, only by their consecrated priests, who represented them and presented their offerings unto the Lord. Those offerings were made for their sins; and the officiating priests were ordained and sanctified of God unto that divine ministry, to stand between him and his people, their brethren. This was therefore known as the Levitical priesthood, in which all the twelve tribes of Israel were equally represented and interested, for they were brethren; therefore all the people of that covenant belonged to that priesthood as a family and kingdom of priests, and as such they were united in the divine worship of the Lord God. They could not otherwise approach unto him in worship; but thus coming by their consecrated priests, their sins being atoned for and themselves ceremonially purified, God accepted them in worship.
Moreover, of the family of Levi, Aaron was called of God and made the high priest of all that priestly people, and his sons after him, to enter alone once every year beyond the second veil into the most holy place of the sanctuary, to make an atonement for all the sins of all the people, his brethren, and then to make intercession for them; for the Lord came down between the cherubim upon the mercy-seat, accepted the atoning blood, heard the intercession, and blessed all the supplicating people who worshipped in the court of Israel without. He saw all their names upon the sacred robe of their high priest, engraved in the twelve precious stones; for they were a people dear to him, and he viewed them in the sacred person and offering of their atoning high priest, and heard, accepted and blessed them in and with him. Thus, as the Lord's covenant people, and for the sake of the atonement which he appointed for them, he accepted and blessed them. No other people on earth were so highly favored and blessed of God, as the Scriptures show. For Abraham alone, the Hebrew, with his sons Isaac and Jacob and the children of Jacob or Israel, did the Lord choose and call out from the nations that they should be a peculiar people unto himself, the children of his covenant, a family of priests, to offer sacrifices unto him, his redeemed and sanctified people. With the one wonderful exception of Melehisedec, this family of Abraham, "the friend of God," was the then only great priesthood unto the Most High, to worship him acceptably as he had ordained; for all other peoples were ignorant of the right worship of the true God, but they offered sacrifices to idols, and worshipped the works of their own hands, for he gave them up to their own evil ways.
A rapid review of this kingdom of priests – from the time Abraham was a stranger in the land of promise, with Isaac and Jacob, until Joseph was sent down into Egypt, followed by all his father's house, and Moses led them out to Sinai, where the law was given, the tabernacle set up, Aaron and his sons consecrated, the solemn worship of the Almighty God established, and the Lord came down between the cherubim and his glory filled the tabernacle – will overwhelm the understanding beholder with awe and wonder, and he will feel his spirit bow low in reverence and worship. Moses, after reviewing all the way the Lord had led his redeemed people out of Egypt to the borders of the good land which he gave them, said: "There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in his excellency on the sky. The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them. Israel then shall dwell in safety alone: the fountain of Jacob shall be upon a land of corn and wine; also his heavens shall drop down dew. Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord, the shield of thy help, and who is the sword of thy excellency! and thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee; and thou shalt tread upon their high places." Deut. XXXIII. 26-29.
All this was typical of ''better things to come,'' and pointed the true children of Abraham away to "a better testament," a far more enduring and glorious priesthood, in which the worshippers are verily all righteous, and are called, "The holy people, the redeemed of the Lord." Of all this worship under the first testament, says Paul: "Wherefore the law was our school-master to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a school-master." Gal. III. 24, 25. And Paul therefore says: "For sin shall not have dominion over you, for ye are not under the law, but under grace." Rom. Vi. 14.
For, let it be remembered, those sacrifices which were offered by the law, throughout the Levitical priesthood, could never make the worshippers perfect, nor take away their sins; but they must be repeated daily, and from year to year, in which there was a continual remembrance of their sins. This solemn fact is clearly presented in the epistle to the Hebrews, wherein we have a vivid comparison between the priesthood of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament, and a strong contrast between the old covenant of legal works and the new covenant of gospel grace, showing the infinite superiority and diviner glory of JESUS the Son of God over Moses the servant of God. Yet some of the Hebrew believers were zealous for the commandments of Moses, while they professed to believe also in Jesus; therefore they sought to mix the works of the law with the grace of the gospel. For they were Israelites, the people of the first covenant, the worshippers under the ceremonious priesthood of the showy temple, all of which had a show of great sanctity, and they were attracted and charmed by all this. It is much the same yet among all superficial worshippers under the priesthood of Catholicism, and the ministry of Protestantism, who make a pompous show of much sanctity and zeal.
Indeed, so tenacious and zealous were the priesthood and people of the old covenant for its shadowy forms and typical sacrifices that they desired nothing better, but would have perpetuated it, and never have given it up for the new and better testament. For, failing to look beyond and above it, because of their legal blindness, they depended on and trusted in the works of that covenant, more than in God, who gave them the covenant with all its provisions and blessings; and so "they worshipped and served the creature, more than the Creator." Thus did they pervert those divine ordinances, which God gave them as "shadows of good things to come," and made an idolatrous use of them, by trusting in them, rather than looking through them to the Redeemer that should come and make the one perfect sacrifice for sins forever, and turn away ungodliness from his people. It seems strange that the people of God, all along down the ages, have shown a proneness to thus corrupt his divine ordinances and service, by looking to and depending on the gifts more than the Giver; thus making their salvation from their sins, whether of commission or omission, conditional upon what they do in the way of serving God, instead of attributing all their devotional service, with every salvation and blessing, to his special qualification, mercy and grace. This fact not only shows the prevailing legal tendency of the human mind, which all are reluctant to give up, but also our selfish ingratitude toward the Father of all our mercies and blessings. Surely, we all need "a merciful and faithful High Priest" to atone and intercede for the selfish imperfections of our best efforts to serve our God; and it is well for us that he "is rich in mercy," and is merciful to our unrighteousness, or we should receive no blessing from him.
This legal blindness and selfish pride was so strong and active in the priesthood of the old covenant, that it culminated in their rejecting, seizing and crucifying the Lord of life and glory, the harmless and holy High Priest of the new and everlasting covenant. How fearful! As though this were not woe enough against them, their false zeal hurled them on to madly seek to defeat his priesthood and destroy his kingdom; first, by preventing his rising from the dead, which their own prophets and himself had said he should do; next, by persecuting and killing his ministers. Thus did they fearfully prove in themselves the utter weakness and failure of a conditional covenant of divine service and worship, which depended upon the faithfulness and works of the people themselves, to their own just condemnation and terrible overthrow. And thus did the just God and Savior make it fearfully manifest by them, that there is no perfection by a covenant of works, nor justification by the deeds of the law, as performed by the people who are under it. So the wrath came upon that priesthood and people to the uttermost, and they went out in awful failure and darkness, as a divine warning to all worshipping peoples not to trust in themselves or rely on their works. The same hand-writing of God is written upon the wall of Time all along the succeeding ages, as plainly manifested by every religious establishment among men; and it is the voice of the Almighty, saying: "Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord." Jer. XVII. 5.
This is sadly a dark history and painful religious experience, and it fills the world with woe and the heart with mourning; yet God saw that it was necessary, and so ordained it; for in no other way will the children of men be convinced that there is no help in man, and be taught to "trust in the Lord," in whom alone is righteousness, salvation and life, favor and blessing. "Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is." Jer. XVII. 7. It is sad that all those whose entire trust and hope are in the Lord have ever been misunderstood, reproached and opposed by those who trust in man, and depend upon the outward obedience to the forms and ceremonies of religious service, looking more to the letter than to the spirit of the worship; but this has ever been so, as seen in Abel and Cain, the publican and Pharisee, Mary and Simon, the younger and elder sons.
Men either forget, or do not know, that "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;" that "Blessed are the poor in spirit;" that "God hath respect unto the lowly ;" that "the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life."
But in the infinite wisdom of God, who is holy in all his ways, and who knew what is in man, he purposed all this experience of trial and suffering as needful to bring the true worshippers "to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant," and to make them "the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh." Therefore Paul wrote to the brethren in Christ, "That no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto."
"The law and the prophets were until John," the forerunner of Jesus; then they ceased, God having accomplished his purpose in them. All the Scriptures of holy men of old, from Noah to Malichi, testified of Jesus the Messiah; and every bleeding sacrifice and sin-offering, from Abel's offering by faith until the angel Gabriel was sent from God to Zacharias the priest in the temple, typically testified of and pointed to the Lord Jesus Christ, as so many prophesies and promises that he should come to his temple at the time appointed of the Father, in the end of the law and all its ministrations, which could never take away sins, when all things were ready, as "the Messenger of the covenant," and should "purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness," as testified by the last prophet under the first testament.
"Darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness the people;" the long and dark legal night grew more fearfully dark as it neared its close; men's hearts were failing them for fear; all, all had proved the wretched failure and frightful guilt and ruin of all the sons and daughters of men. This is the humiliating and bitter lesson of the law and its priesthood, and by it our God and Father has taught us the dreadful necessity of "a more excellent way."