Priests made intercession for the sins of the people. The Old Testament priests brought the sin offerings of Israel into the presence of God and asked the Lord to receive the offering and forgive the people. Priests were mediators, set apart for the bloody, solemn work of interceding through prayer and sacrifice. Their role existed because the people were never without guilt.
God is holy. He is perfect—so glorious that a person cannot enter His presence lest he die. Israel knew this. They knew God was other, separate, beyond. But they knew He was with them as well, present and visible. How, then, could sinful people enter God’s house and commune with Him? Their sin created a chasm between themselves and God.
God provided the answer through His chosen priests. He gave the people a means to worship, to draw near, and to be made whole through the priests’ ministry of intercession. Since the priests came from among the people, they knew the significance of their task; it was not just for the sins of others’ that they interceded, but for their own sins as well. They did not stand above the people in holiness, they were simply set apart by God’s calling.
Each day the priests took steps to publicly and ceremonially go to God on behalf of the people with incense, a sweet aroma before the Lord. People brought their sacrifices—goats, sheep, and doves—to the priests to be offered. Nobody else could do these tasks because they were the specific ministry of priests as given by God. The priests acted in obedience and led the people in remembrance and acknowledgement of both their own sin and God’s holiness. They did precisely as God commanded, no more and no less, all on behalf of the people.
Maybe the most pointed act of intercession was that taken by the high priest, a specifically appointed priest God chose to enter the Holy of Holies—the most sacred part of the temple—once a year to make atonement for the sins of the nation. The priests did not vie for this honor. It was not voted upon. It was not handed down, generation to generation. God chose.
But no priest, high priest or otherwise, could ever enter the Holy of Holies without God’s specific permission, and even then it was only with a proper, pure sacrifice to cleanse his own sin and that of the people. No priest was perfect. No sacrifice would suffice for all time. Year after year, century after century, the service of the priests continued so that God’s people could be cleansed of sin and come before Him in worship.
But it would not last forever. One day the symbolism, the remembrance, the hope, and the anticipation would come to pass. One day the ministry of intercession by the priests would be completed. A perfect High priest would come. A sacrifice—so pure as to wash away all sin—would be made. And the priest and the sacrifice would be one and the same.
Written By Barnabas Piper