We usually think of Leviticus as a book about law, not leadership. But some of these laws focus on Israel’s spiritual leaders, the priests, and the laws given to them have much to teach us today about the Lord’s expectations for spiritual leaders. The laws of Leviticus 21–22 show us at least two of these expectations.
1. The Higher Up in Leadership We Go, the More Responsibility We Have for Living a Holy Life
While regular priests had to carefully guard their ritual holiness, the high priest—whose ritual holiness was at an even higher level—had to be even more diligent (21:10–15). The higher along the spectrum of holiness the Lord places an object or person, the greater disrespect is shown to the Lord when that person or object is treated like an ordinary thing. This was especially true of the high priest, whose level of holiness allowed him to do things no one else could, such as enter into the very throne room of the King—the Most Holy Place—to present offerings on Israel’s behalf (16:2–3, 32–33). The high priest had the greatest privilege in the Lord’s holy palace and thus the greatest responsibility to keep from ritually defiling his own holy state.
But a high priest’s role as holy leader extended beyond ritual matters to all of life. Consider Eli, the high priest who faces the Lord’s judgment in the days of Samuel. The Lord did not reject Eli because he was deficient in his doctrine but because he was not faithful to honor God by the way he lived (1 Sam. 2:29). In rejecting Eli, the Lord announces the type of priest he desires for his people, focusing on faithful living: “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind” (2:35a). God desires this of his spiritual leaders in general and of his chief spiritual leaders in particular; their lives are to be a mirror that reflects the values of the Lord’s own heart and mind. This is, in fact, a very practical matter because the higher a person is in leadership of the Lord’s people, the greater and more widespread his influence. The responsibility to model the Lord’s holiness is greater because the potential to cause harm is greater should this person lead God’s people astray.
The Lord,of course, knows that even the high priest would not be without sin. In fact, on the Day of Atonement, the first sacrifice God requires is that which the high priest made to atone for himself and his household (16:6). The Lord is fully aware that spiritual leaders will not be perfect, and he provides a means of cleansing for them. Today, that cleansing comes through Jesus, the only high priest in history who reflected God’s holiness perfectly. The New Testament describes Jesus as a high priest who is “holy, blameless, pure . . . who does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb. 7:26–27). Through Jesus, our perfect high priest, cleansing from sin is available.
But Jesus does more than provide cleansing from sin and failure. He is a high priest who can help us in our own struggle to live holy lives, because he has faced those same struggles—and dealt with them perfectly: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:15–16). This is an invitation to come to the Lord for help and a promise that he will provide it. This invitation and promise should comfort all God’s people and should be especially encouraging to leaders who feel the weight of their responsibility to model Jesus’s holiness for those they lead. The Lord stands ready and willing to help them. And this applies equally when it comes to the second expectation of spiritual leaders found in these chapters.
2. Spiritual Leaders are Responsible if Negligence in Their Duties Leads to Sin among the People
The instructions found in Leviticus 22:10–16 are very humbling for those in spiritual leadership. While the section begins with laws about how lay people must show respect to the Lord’s holy things (22:10–14), it finishes by focusing on the priests’ responsibility in helping them to be faithful and holds the priests responsible should the people fail in these matters (22:15–16). Priests are not responsible for every sin the Israelites commit, but in this context, the people’s sin would be directly related to priestly negligence. To put it another way, teachers cannot be blamed for every mistake their students make, but the students of negligent teachers make mistakes they might have avoided had their teachers been faithful in their duties. The absence of faithful instruction creates a vacuum easily filled with every sort of error. Israelite priests are thus expected to be faithful in teaching and living and are held accountable should their negligence cause people to sin.
Paul’s words to Timothy echo this same thought: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). The sense is not, “Timothy, you will be their savior!” but, “Timothy, in the absence of faithfulness, great harm may come—harm to you for being unfaithful and harm to them because they will follow you in unfaithfulness! So, guard yourself, and lead faithfully, because by faithfulness, you will stay close to the Lord, and you will lead his people to him not away from him!”
Leaders cannot be held responsible for every sin their people commit, nor will they be, if they have been faithful in their duties (cf. Ezek 3:18–21). But faithfulness matters. It is one more reason leaders should find themselves running to God’s throne of grace and mercy to receive the help they so desperately need. Again, this they may do with great confidence, knowing they have a merciful and strong High Priest who is more than willing to help!
Dr. Jay Sklar is vice president of academics and professor of Old Testament at Covenant Seminary. This article is adapted from his new commentary Leviticus, coming soon from Zondervan.