Up until this point in the Old Testament, the heads of family clans acted as priests; and they were the ones who offered sacrifices to the Lord on behalf of their families. But now God told Moses to separate his brother Aaron and his four sons from among the rest of the people, so that they could minister as priests on behalf of the whole nation of Israel. As priests, they were to wear holy garments. These not only distinguished them from the people, but they also stood as emblems of that holy conduct which should always be the glory and beauty of the ministers of Christ – without which, their persons and ministries will be held in contempt. Moreover, these holy garments represented the Divine glory and the beauty of perfect holiness with which Jesus – our Great High Priest – was clothed.
Plain linen ephods were worn by the ordinary priests; but there was a special ephod that Aaron alone was privileged to wear, since the Lord chose him to be the high priest. An ephod was a short coat without sleeves, which was fastened close to the body with a girdle or belt. The shoulder-pieces of the high priest’s ephod were buttoned together with two onyx stones set in gold, one on each shoulder; and on these stones were engraved the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Thus the high priest “carried” the names of his people with him when he went into the presence of the Lord. Similarly, Jesus – our Great High Priest – presents His people before the Father.
The chief ornament that the high priest wore was the breastplate of decision – a rich piece of cloth that was exquisitely made, for it even had threads of gold woven into the fabric! It measured about 9” (23 cm) long on each side. The names of the 12 tribes of Israel were engraved in 12 precious stones that were encased in gold settings attached to the fine square of fabric. The names of the tribes on the breastplate – close to the high priest’s heart – show us how precious and honorable God’s people are in His sight! No matter how small and poor any of the tribes might have been, they were still represented by a precious stone that was worn by the high priest; and in the same way, all of Christ’s people are dear to Him, no matter how much or how little they are esteemed by the people of this world. It is worth observing that the high priest had the names of the tribes both on his shoulders and in front of his heart; this reminds us of the power and love with which our Lord Jesus pleads for those that are His. He not only bears them up in His arms with almighty strength, but He also holds them close to His heart, with the tenderest affection. What a comfort this is to us!
The Urim and Thummim, by which the will of God was determined in doubtful situations, were put into the “pocket” that was formed by fabric of the breastplate when it was folded into the square shape (verse 16). Urim and Thummim mean “light” and “integrity.” It is uncertain what these actually were, nor is it known exactly how they revealed the will of God. Perhaps they were something like two stones, maybe one white and one black – the former representing a positive answer from the Lord, and the latter a negative. Nevertheless, Christ is our true “Urim and Thummim.” By Him, in these last days, the Lord has made Himself and His mind known to us (Heb. 1:1, 2; John 1:18). He is the true Light, He is the faithful Witness, and He is the Truth itself! And from Him, we receive the Spirit of Truth to lead us.
The robe of the high priest was worn under the ephod. It was made of blue fabric, symbolizing the Divinity and the kingly grace of Jesus, our Great High Priest. On the hem of this robe, alternating all the way around, there were pomegranates made of yarn (representing fruitfulness), and there were golden bells (representing the glad sound of the good news of the Gospel). Underneath this blue robe, Aaron wore a coat or tunic of fine linen, symbolizing Christ’s holiness and righteousness. And on his head, he wore a turban – upon which, a golden plate was attached, engraved with the words, “Holiness to the Lord.” Aaron was hereby reminded that God is holy, and that His priests must also be holy and devoted to Him. The words were to be engraved so that they would be deep and durable – not like painted words, which might be washed off. They were firm and lasting – just as our holiness to the Lord must be.
The high priest’s garments foreshadowed the righteousness of Christ. He is our Great High Priest; through Him, our sins are forgiven. If we do not appear before God dressed in the righteousness of Christ, we shall bear our own iniquity and die. Blessed be the name of the Lord that we have a spotless High Priest! And it is a happy thing for us that we are clothed with the beauty of His perfect holiness, and permitted to enter into the presence of our holy God. Let us take encouragement from the power, love, and compassion of Jesus! We may freely draw near to the throne of grace, so that we may obtain mercy and grace and help in the time of our need.
Lord Jesus! You are our Great High Priest and our Almighty Aaron. You are clothed in holy garments of everlasting glory and eternal beauty; and You still bear the marks of Your sacrifice that You made to redeem us. We give thanks for the all-powerful, all-prevailing, all-atoning, all-sufficient merits and righteousness of Your offering! And we beseech You to bear us on Your heart and on Your shoulder as You stand and intercede on our behalf before the throne in heaven. Amen.
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