The central message of the Bible is God’s victory over death through resurrection. As the ministers of God in the Old Testament, the priests of Israel were required to picture God’s coming victory over death in a number of ways. While some of the particulars have changed in the New Covenant, the principles really have not. What the Old Testament pictured, Christ has accomplished as our High Priest, and He has made us a holy priesthood for God.
“And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron and to his sons, that they separate themselves from the holy things of the children of Israel…” (Lev. 21-22).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
These instructions are given to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and they begin by forbidding touching dead bodies and being defiled and imitating the mourning practices of the pagans (21:1-6, 10-12). Their marriages were to be pictures of purity, and their children were to be faithful (21:7-9, 13-15). Priests who served in the sanctuary were to be physically whole (21:16-24). The priests were to honor the ceremonial cleanliness laws and follow the purification instructions just like the rest of Israel (22:1-9). The privileges of the priesthood belonged to the priest and his household, not visitors or daughters who married out of the priestly tribe (22:10-13). Accidental profaning of holy things required restitution with 20 percent added to it (22:14-16). All offerings were to be males without obvious reminders of the curse of death – no blemish, bruise, spot, or deformity (22:17-25). God required His people to practice a measure of compassion and reverence for new life and motherhood even with animals, permitting newborn animals to be offered only after a week old, and a mother and baby could not be offered on the same day (22:26-28). Sacrifices of thanksgiving were to be offered and eaten on the same day because God is holy and He brought Israel out of Egypt (22:29-33).
DO NOT SORROW LIKE THOSE WITHOUT HOPE
What the priests were required to practice in the Old Testament with regard to death really is wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus and the principles that continue to apply to us are glorious. The central application of these laws to the New Testament Christian priesthood (all Christians) is that we may not sorrow over death like pagans, like those who have no hope: “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him” (1 Thess. 4:13-14). The death and resurrection of Jesus has radically altered the world and death itself.
This language of “sleeping” is also related. After Jesus conquered death, those who die in Him are not said to really die anymore, only sleep (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:6). Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn. 11:26-27, Jn. 6:40-58). When Jesus came to the house of the little girl who had died, He said, why are you making such a commotion with all your weeping, she is not dead but only sleeping (Mk. 5:39). Then putting everyone out of the house except her parents, he took the little girl by the hand and told her to arise (Mk. 5:40-41). Did Jesus, our Great High priest touch a dead body? No, because in the presence of Him who is the Resurrection and the Life, His touch is life. To Him, and to all who are in Him, death is merely sleep. So neither do we defile ourselves when we are in the presence of those who die, and we do not mourn as those without hope. We may certainly weep as Jesus did at the grave of Lazarus, but it is not a grief of hopeless despair. And our memorial services do and should reflect that. Because Jesus had not yet come, the priests were required to keep themselves from dead bodies (Lev. 21:1-5, 10-11), and all that resembled the curse of death – those with diseases and deformities could not serve in the tabernacle (Lev. 21:17-23). But now in Christ, those born with disease or deformities are reckoned whole in Him and therefore most welcome in worship and in the worshiping community.
ONE BAPTISM & ONE SACRIFICE & ONE PRIESTHOOD
In the Old Covenant, there were many baptisms (Heb. 9:10). In fact, that was how you became ceremonially clean, you had to be baptized repeatedly, every time you became unclean before coming to the sanctuary for worship (Lev. 22:6). This is part of the glory of “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). And Hebrews says that it wasn’t just the washing that purified but it was also the offering (Heb. 9:13). This is why the offerings of the Old Covenant had to be without blemish (Lev. 22:19-25), but if God accepted the blood of bulls and goats without blemish as faint shadows for purification, “how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13-14). Jesus is the priest, and Jesus is the sacrifice.
And notice what you need to be cleansed from: dead works. Dead people do dead works. Outside of Christ, people are dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1-5). Outside of Christ people are not sick, not merely confused, not merely on life support. Outside of Christ, people are dry bones scattered on the ground (Ez. 37). But people do not think this is what they are since they can still go to church, sing in the choir, vote conservative, and lead small groups. But what they are offering is their own dead works full of blemishes, spots, bruised, crushed, broken, and cut (Lev. 22:24) because they are dead themselves. And therefore, your works will not be accepted by God. This is why you often need to be forgiven for what you think of as being your virtues. Even your righteousness is like filthy rags, full of death (Is. 64:6). You must be raised from the dead and cleansed from your dead works.
Many people have pointed out that Jesus never did funerals. Jesus attended or showed up in the midst of funerals, but they never stayed that way. Whenever Jesus shows up in the gospels where someone has died, death never has the last word.
In the New Covenant, all Christians are priests, and we all offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2). And what you do all week long is what you are bringing to offer, and that will either be the perfection and purity and resurrection life of Christ or else dead works. What do you have? What is in your hands? What is in your heart? If you call on the Lord, you will be saved.