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Priests in God's Plan (Exodus 27:20-28:43)

Priests in God’s Plan

Exodus 27:20-28:43

Bryan Craddock – March 5, 2023

The Lord’s instructions about priestly clothing reveal four priestly requirements that are fulfilled in Christ and apply to believers today. To be a priest requires (1) being clothed in holiness; (2) bearing people; (3) bearing judgment; and (4) accepting risk. This sermon is part 4 of “The Pattern: The Tabernacle and the Presence of God,” Bryan Craddock’s verse-by-verse expository preaching series on Exodus 25-40.


It is an exciting day for a family when a little boy or girl gets their first bicycle. With help from a set of training wheels, they get a taste of freedom riding down the street. They begin to develop balance, strength, and coordination that prepare them for all sorts of other activities. But to move forward, they must overcome a challenge. It may be frightening, but at some point, the training wheels need to come off.

The Old Testament Tabernacle presents a similar challenge. God gave it to his people as a starting point, a pattern designed to grow and change until human beings are fully restored to eternal life in his presence. But the Tabernacle (and the Temple that came later) had several limitations that functioned like training wheels. They served to prepare God’s people and to instill important ideas. But when Jesus died, the curtain of the Temple was miraculously torn from top to bottom (Mt 27:51).

It was time for the training wheels to come off. but some people seem to find that change too frightening. They hold on to ideas from the Tabernacle. They associate the presence of God with church buildings. They might treat certain objects as if they are infused with holiness. But the most common expression of this mindset is to assume that you need a spiritual leader to mediate between you and God. Some churches call their leaders priests. Others think of them that way even though they would never use the title.

When the Lord gave Moses the pattern for the Tabernacle, he established a priesthood. Only Aaron and his sons were allowed to enter the Tabernacle to draw near to God. But the Lord had already revealed that he had a bigger plan in mind. Exodus 19:5-6 tells us that he told Moses,

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

In the New Testament, 1 Peter 2:9 applies these words to all who believe in Christ. Since Jesus came as the ultimate high priest and offered himself as the perfect sacrifice, we can all draw near to God through him. Hebrews 10:19 says that through the blood of Jesus we have confidence to enter the true holy places on which the Tabernacle was based. So, we must recognize that this privilege of access to the Lord comes with responsibilities, priestly responsibilities for every believer.

Understanding the long-term trajectory of this part of the pattern helps us as we consider the Aaronic priesthood. In Exodus 27:20-28:43, as the Lord describes the clothing that must be made for the priests, he reveals four priestly requirements. Here again we can easily get lost in speculating about the significance of all the details. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. This is a large section to cover, but we need to grasp the main ideas so that we can see their fulfillment in Christ and their application to our lives.

Clothed in Holiness

On a few occasions I have eaten in restaurants that had a dress code. I wore the required coat and tie, but the servers still seemed to recognize that I was out of place. Their suspicions were confirmed when I asked for water to drink and ordered the cheapest entree on the menu! Wearing the right clothes does not necessarily mean that you measure up to the standard.

As the Lord reveals to Moses his plan for the Tabernacle, it becomes clear that despite all the barriers someone must go in and draw near to God. He chooses Moses’ brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons, but he has a strict dress code for them. Their clothing must reflect the holiness of the Tabernacle.

The Lord introduces the priesthood by referring to the golden lampstand in the Tabernacle. In Exodus 27:20-21, he tells Moses,

You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.

The Tabernacle is called the tent of meeting because it is where Israel will hear from God. As we saw previously, the ark containing the testimony, the tablets with the Ten Commandments, is set behind a veil in the Most Holy Place. The lampstand is inside the Tabernacle but outside that veil, and it cannot be allowed to burn out. It must be tended all night long.

But to take care of that responsibility the priests must have the proper attire. The Lord begins to reveal his dress code in Exodus 28:1-2. He tells Moses,

Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty.

This is not the first mention of priests in the Bible. Other nations had priests for their idol worship. Genesis 14:18 speaks of a man named Melchizedek who interacted with Abraham. It says that he was a priest of God Most High. But there was nothing like the Tabernacle at that point, so this priesthood is new.

The Lord does not mention any reason for choosing Aaron and his sons. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that they are not qualified for this responsibility. In Exodus 32, we will see that Aaron succumbs to idolatry. Soon after that, Leviticus 10 records that God strikes down Nadab and Abihu for not following his instructions as they enter the Tabernacle.

These men are not worthy to draw near to God. They lack holiness of heart and character. So, the parallel passage in Exodus 39:1 notes that holy garments are needed for them to serve in the Holy Place, that first chamber of the Tabernacle. Here in chapter 28, the Lord says that this clothing will be for glory and for beauty, or the NIV says dignity and honor. How can clothing measure up to such a lofty standard?

The Lord explains in verses 3-5:

You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. These are the garments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests. They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen.

The Lord will go into more detail about these items, but we should note that the same materials are used to construct the inside layer of the Tabernacle itself. This clothing allows them to fit in superficially, but wearing the right clothes does not mean that you measure up to the standard! That is why the only one who is truly qualified to enter God’s presence is Jesus. Hebrews 7:26 describes his priestly qualifications by saying, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.”

When we believe in Christ, we are robed in his righteousness (Isa 61:10). That is the only way that we can meet the Lord’s perfect standard. Then through the work of his Spirit within us, he begins to transform us from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18). So, we must strive to reflect his holiness in our daily lives. In Ephesians 4:24, Paul says that we must seek, “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

The Lord is not concerned about whether your clothes are old or new, expensive or cheap, formal or casual. He does call us to modesty, but what matters is our heart and our conduct. Are you clothed in holiness? Holiness paves the way for the next requirement.

Bearing People

When my children were young, I would often carry them on my shoulders. Sometimes it was just not convenient to use a stroller. If we were walking on a trail, I would use one of those backpack carriers. But after a year or so, kids begin to get pretty heavy. Thankfully, they start walking on their own, but you still feel the weight of carrying them in different ways. As a parent, your kids are always on your shoulders!

As Israel’s high priest, the Lord wants Aaron to feel that kind of responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the entire nation. He is to represent them and carry their concerns before the Lord. This duty is expressed in his first article of clothing, as he bears names on his shoulders in something called an ephod.

The Lord begins to describe Aaron’s ephod in Exodus 28:6-8. He says,

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. And the skillfully woven band on it shall be made like it and be of one piece with it, of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen.

No one knows exactly what an ephod is. It has been called a shoulder cape or a mantle. It is probably like an apron, but none of our English Bible translations use that word. They simply keep the Hebrew term: ephod. The account of it being made adds an interesting detail. Exodus 39:3 speaks of the craftsman Bezalel and tells us, “And they hammered out gold leaf, and he cut it into threads to work into the blue and purple and the scarlet yarns, and into the fine twined linen, in skilled design.”

The workmanship must have been amazing, but as the Lord describes the ephod, he focuses on the shoulders. In Exodus 28:9-11, he says,

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. You shall enclose them in settings of gold filigree.

Genesis 29 and 30 tell us the sad story of how Jacob (later known as Israel) ended up with twelve sons from four different women. The Lord worked through that relational mess to begin to multiply Abraham’s descendants in fulfillment of his promise. By the time of Moses over 400 years later, they had grown into twelve tribes. Scholars are not exactly certain what stones were used, but the engraved names by order of birth would be Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, and Naphtali on one shoulder with Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin on the other.

The Lord explains the reason for these engravings in verses 12-14. He says,

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. You shall make settings of gold filigree, and two chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall attach the corded chains to the settings.

Some English translations call these “stones of memorial”. But we tend to use the word memorial to speak of remembering those who have died. The point here is to remember the living. It reminds Aaron of whom he represents. He presents sacrifices on behalf of the twelve tribes and seeks the Lord’s blessing upon them.

When Jesus comes, he does not wear engraved gems on his shoulders, but he is clearly aware of whom he represents. We hear his sense of burden in his prayer recorded in John 17. He speaks of people whom the Father has given to him both at that time and in subsequent generations. He asks the Father to keep them from the evil one, to sanctify them, and to unify them. Hebrews 7:25 tells us that he continues to intercede for us.

Does this priestly responsibility apply to us? God does not give us a list of names. But in Christ we have the privilege of access to God, and he wants us to feel a sense of responsibility for others. In Galatians 6:1-2, Paul wrote,

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

We must not live self-absorbed lives. We should care and pray for others because that is how Jesus relates to us.

Bearing Judgment

We often associate the word “judgment” with courtrooms where decisions are made about whether someone is guilty. We use the word that way to speak of God’s wrath and condemnation. But it can also refer to how you go about making other decisions. Every day we are confronted with choices. Do you have good judgment?

The next article of clothing for the high priest is called the breastpiece of judgment, and it seems to relate to him providing direction for the nation. Aaron bears the responsibility of judgment on his heart. In Exodus 28:15-16, the Lord begins to describe it by saying,

You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work. In the style of the ephod you shall make it–of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it. It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth.

A span is the width of your hand when your fingers are spread. So, the breastpiece is probably a 9-inch square, doubled over to make a pocket. In verses 17-21, the Lord explains what is to be placed inside.

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.

Here again we find the twelve tribes. The identification of the various stones is somewhat uncertain, and we are not told which tribe is on which stone. So, there is no point in trying to find a symbolic meaning for each one.

The Lord continues by explaining how the breastpiece is to be worn. In verses 22-28, he says,

You shall make for the breastpiece twisted chains like cords, of pure gold. And you shall make for the breastpiece two rings of gold, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece. And you shall put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece. The two ends of the two cords you shall attach to the two settings of filigree, and so attach it in front to the shoulder pieces of the ephod. You shall make two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod. And you shall make two rings of gold, and attach them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder pieces of the ephod, at its seam above the skillfully woven band of the ephod. And they shall bind the breastpiece by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a lace of blue, so that it may lie on the skillfully woven band of the ephod, so that the breastpiece shall not come loose from the ephod.

Exodus 39:8-21 recounts the same details as the breastpiece is made, but its significance is only described here in verses 29 and 30 of chapter 28. The Lord says,

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. And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart, when he goes in before the LORD. Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the LORD regularly.

We associate the heart with feelings, but in the Bible, it refers to the control center of our lives. It is where we make decisions. Somehow the Lord worked through this breastpiece over Aaron’s heart to give him direction for the nation. In 1 Samuel, we find three occasions when Saul and then David seek the Lord’s guidance through the ephod and the Urim and Thummim of the breastpiece (1 Sam 14:41; 23:9-11; 30:7-8).

It is not clear how this process of revelation worked. Some relate it to casting lots or drawing straws. But Urim and Thummim are Hebrew words that mean “lights” and “perfections.” So, others think that these words refer to the various gems in the breastpiece. Perhaps the Lord provided direction by causing various stones to light up. However it worked, the breastpiece enabled the high priest to discern the will of God.

Jesus did not need a breastpiece of judgment. As the Son of God, he spoke with God’s full authority. We have his teaching and that of the apostles along with the Old Testament to guide us. With the help of the Holy Spirit within our hearts, we can understand and obey God’s will, but that privilege comes with a responsibility. Here again, we must be concerned about others.

Paul demonstrates this concern as he prays in Colossians 1:9-10. He says,

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.

We should have that same concern for others to know and do the will of God. It should shape how we live, how we pray, and what we talk about.

Accepting Risk

Some jobs are more dangerous than others. Firefighters and law enforcement officers face a much higher level of risk than those of us in other professions. You might assume that the danger of being a priest would be very low. But within a short time, two of the five priests identified in the book of Exodus were dead. Being a priest required them to accept a high level of risk.

The Lord gives them clear warnings as he talks about their clothing in Exodus 28. In verses 31-34 the Lord describes Aaron’s robe by saying,

You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a garment, so that it may not tear. On its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, around its hem, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, around the hem of the robe.

That description is repeated in Exodus 39:22-26, but here in verse 35 the Lord explains why Aaron needs tinkling bells on his robe. He says,

And it shall be on Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before the LORD, and when he comes out, so that he does not die.

What was dangerous about the Holy Place and how would the sound of bells help? Later it is the Lord who strikes down Nadab and Abihu. He is the danger! Leviticus 10:2 tells us that fire comes out from before the Lord and consumes them because they offer strange fire. So, the bells on Aaron’s coat are not to inform God that he is coming. An all-knowing God cannot be surprised! The bells remind Aaron to stay alert and do exactly as God commands.

The danger extends beyond Aaron’s personal actions. His next article of clothing speaks to his responsibility as a representative of the people before God. In Exodus 28:36-38, the Lord says,

You shall make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, ‘Holy to the LORD.’ And you shall fasten it on the turban by a cord of blue. It shall be on the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall bear any guilt from the holy things that the people of Israel consecrate as their holy gifts. It shall regularly be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD.

Here again verses 36-37 are repeated later in Exodus 39:30-31, but the Lord’s words in verse 38 are only found here. He explains that as people bring sacrificial gifts to atone for their sin, the high priest serves as their representative, their mediator. He bears their iniquity, their guilt. But at the same time, the gold plate on his turban declares him to be holy to the Lord. He embodies the conflict between sinful people and a holy God, so that people can be accepted by the Lord. In doing so, he risks God’s condemnation.

But the only way for anyone to be truly accepted by God is to have a priest who is perfectly holy, unstained by sin. He must be able to bear all our sin and to experience the condemnation that our sins deserve. That is what we see in the death of Jesus on the cross. He knew the risk and he accepted it as he prayed in Gethsemane. So, in 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Going back to Exodus, we find that the other priests bear the same risk as Aaron though to a lesser degree. Their clothing is similar to his but simpler. The Lord finishes his instructions about clothing in Exodus 28:39-43.

You shall weave the coat in checker work of fine linen, and you shall make a turban of fine linen, and you shall make a sash embroidered with needlework. For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty. And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.

Since they enter the Holy Place, they must also be clothed in holy garments. They are consecrated, set apart for God’s service. As such, they must accept the risk of guilt and death.

Do believers in Christ face this risk? Thankfully, we can draw near to the Lord without fear because Christ has died on our behalf and has clothed us in his righteousness. As Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

But there is still a risk that believers must accept. We must represent the Lord before the unbelieving world. We must reflect his holiness and love in how we live. We must proclaim the good news of salvation in Christ, calling people to repent and believe. But many people do not want to hear. The message is too convicting. So, they may attempt to silence believers. In 2 Timothy 3:12-13, Paul says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

We are tempted to avoid this danger. Some remain silent and hide their faith. Others seek power and influence to fight back against the world. But Jesus calls us to take our cross and follow him (Mt 10:38). That is what it means to be his disciple. Do you accept that risk? It is required of all who follow him.


Exodus 28 shows us that to be a priest meant being clothed in holiness; bearing people; bearing judgment; and accepting the risk of death. As the true high priest, Jesus fulfills these requirements better than anyone else ever could. He is perfectly holy. He represents those whom the Father has given to him. He revealed God’s will and accepted death on the cross for our sins.

Are you trusting Jesus to save you? If not, I encourage you to start today. Place your faith in him as the perfect High Priest, the only mediator you need between you and God. You do not need a saint or a human priest. You can draw near in Christ. To learn more about his priesthood, I would encourage you to read Hebrews 9.

All who follow Jesus have similar priestly requirements. We must receive his holiness and begin to live it out in our lives. We must bear one another’s burdens and pray for one another. We must encourage people to understand and obey God’s will, accepting that some might turn against us. Are you honoring Christ’s priestly work? Are you speaking the truth and interceding for people?

May we grow in faithfulness as ambassadors of Christ!


How has this study shaped your understanding of the work of Christ?

How has this study shaped your understanding of the priesthood of believers?

How could you grow in fulfilling your priestly calling as a believer?