Sermon Notes: The Priest’s Particular Work (OT)

In typological fashion, the names of Israel engraved on the breastpiece & ephod show how the priest represents God’s people before YHWH.  In other words, in Exodus 28 we learn that the priestly duty was to represent Israel before God in the holy of holies (cf Heb 5:1).  Specifically, verses 12 and 29 say that Israel was to remember them as they were kept on Aaron’s heart as he entered the holy of holies.  In this way, he made atonement for Israel.  Notice, in the OT, he didn’t make atonement for Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon.  He only represented those who were redeemed from Egypt, who passed through the sea, who were in covenant with God at Sinai.  It tells us that the priestly service was for those who are in covenant with God.  In fact, the Exodus 28 is a very strong typological argument for definite atonement.  Let’s consider.

To start, the priestly garments are made “for glory and for beauty” (28:2), but they are not simply for aesthetics; they are highly symbolic and even instructive for discerning what the priest did behind the veil.[1]  As Carol Meyers puts it, “priestly office and priestly garb are inextricably related.”[2]  G.K. Beale has developed the connection between the priestly garments, the temple and the universe,[3] but there is also good reason to examine the relationship between the priest and the covenant people.

In this regard, the priestly attire ‘visualizes’ the particular nature of the atonement.[4]  It does so in this way: From head to foot, the priest is to wear the holy attire designed and decorated to teach Israel and later generations what the priest is doing as he enters into the holy of holies.[5]  Of greatest interest (and illumination) are the “shoulder pieces” and the “breastpiece of judgment.”   Concerning the former, YHWH instructs,

And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and of fine twined linen, skillfully worked. It shall have two shoulder pieces attached to its two edges, so that it may be joined together… You shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. As a jeweler engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel… And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance (Exod 28:6-12; cf. 39:2-7).

The purpose of the shoulder pieces is far more than ancient Near Eastern fashion or utilitarian function.  The names of the twelve tribes were “deeply and permanently cut into the onyx,”[6] signifying the priest’s intimate connection with the people of Israel. As the priest of the covenant, he mediated for the people of the covenant.  Of this “corporate solidarity” that the priest shared with Israel, it was a necessary function of his office to be in communicative relation with those whom he represents. In other words, the priest does not mediate for an unspecified group or number, the “stones of remembrance” were designated to represent “the sons of Israel”—one stone for each tribe.  So that, when the priest entered the tabernacle, and later the temple he did so with Israel on his heart and mind.[7]

In the same way, the high priest’s breastpiece of judgment functioned as a symbol of the high priest’s covenantal representation.[8]  Moses records,

You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work… It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes… So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD (Exod 28:15-30; cf. 39:8-21).

Like the shoulder pieces, the breastpiece is designed to bring the sons of Israel into “regular remembrance before the Lord” (v. 29).  Again, as a priest chosen from his brothers for his brothers and their families, he does not generally atone, intercede, or minister.  Rather, God has appointed the high priest to make atonement for God’s particular people, people who knew they had a priest.  Rightly, D.K. Stuart says, “the high priest symbolized Israel” and “that whatever he did, he did as the people’s representative, and his actions would have the same essential effect that they would have if all of them, one by one, had done the same thing.”[9]  This, by itself doesn’t prove definite atonement, but it does show the exact representation of his priestly office.  It is not general, but particular.[10]

In fact, this notion of personal relationship between priest and people has been forcefully argued by Hugh Martin as evidence against indefinite atonement. Unpacking Hebrews 5:1, which develops the Levitical priesthood, Martin argues that the law of the office of the priest “rests on personal relation,” and this relation is not abstract.  Rather, the priest represents “individual men, particular persons.”[11]  Moving from textual observation to dogmatic assertion, he concludes,

If the atonement of Christ falls under the category of His Priesthood, it is impossible it can be impersonal, indefinite, unlimited; for the priesthood is not.  In order to its very constitution, it pre-requires personal relation; and the same must be true of the Atonement, unless the Atonement transpires outside the limits and actings and conditions of the priesthood…The pre-requisite of personal relation to particular persons is so indispensable in all real priesthood whatsoever.  It is true of “every” priest that is taken from among men [Heb 5:1].  Any “general reference” contradictory to this, or in addition to this—except simply community nature, secured by his being taken from among men—violates the very first principles of the office.[12]

While the priestly garments do not give conclusive evidence for Christ’s particular work on the cross; they are very suggestive.  Moreover, the fact that Christ, as the antitype of Israel’s high priest, wears the golden plate on his head declaring ‘Holy to the Lord’ and the names of his covenant people on his chest; there is great reason to see in his attire the inseparable union of Christ and his elect from every nation.

What do you think? Would love to hear how you think Christ’s priestly garments typify the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss


[1]They also connote a strong sense of authority.  See Douglas Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 604.

[2]Carol Meyers, Exodus, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 240.

[3]G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 39-45.

[4]For instance, speaking of the priest in his vestments, Alec Motyer writes, “he is the visual display of the Lord’s ‘judgment,’ his opinion regarding his people” (J. A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus, The Bible Speaks Today, ed. J.A. Motyer [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005], 279.

[6]Stuart, Exodus, 609.  Stuart’s offhand comment about the engraving does not in itself signify anything about the definite nature of the atonement, but it does add to the mounting evidence that the priestly work was for a people whom he would not forget (cf. Isa 49:16).

[7]“This feature [the names engraved on the priestly attire] has commemorative symbolic value, bringing all Israel into the tabernacle with Aaron as he carries out the rituals thought to help secure the well-being of the people or adjudicate their conflicts” (Meyers, Exodus, 241).

[8]“The breastpiece was not merely a patch on his ephod but a square frontal vest, a very prominent, central, expansive, symbolic display of the covenant relation of God to his people” (Stuart, Exodus, 610).

[9]Stuart, Exodus, 611.

[10]On this point, it should be noted that the priests served the covenant people only, and they stood against those who were outside the people of God (David Williams, The Office of Christ and Its Expression in the Church, 13-14).

[11]All these quotes are taken from Hugh Martin’s discussion of the nature of Christ’s priestly office in The Atonement, 58.  Martin ties this particular relationship to the definite nature of the atonement.  Speaking of the Levitical priests, he says, “The priests of Levi were chosen for, or in lieu of, the first-born [Num 3]; and they were ordained for [Lev 8-9], or in room and on behalf of men, even for the Israel of God collectively and individually.  They acted for individuals; and besides such action, they had no priestly action whatsoever, no official duty to discharge.  The introduction of a ‘general reference’ into the theory of their office is an absurdity” (The Atonement, 65).

[12]The Atonement, 63-65.

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