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Ezekiel 44 gives us a snapshot of the priesthood in the Kingdom of God. He shows us that there are actually two kinds of priests: idolatrous and righteous. The prophet starts by forbidding foreigners from ministering as priests. We read in Ezek. 44:6-9 says,
6 You shall say to the rebellious ones, to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Enough of all your abominations, O house of Israel, 7 when you brought in foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in My sanctuary to profane it, even My house, when you offered My food, the fat and the blood; for they made My covenant void—this in addition to all your abominations, 8 and you have not kept charge of My holy things yourselves, but you have set foreigners to keep charge of My sanctuary’. 9 Thus says the Lord God, ‘No foreigner uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the sons of Israel, shall enter My sanctuary’.”
Under the Order of Levi, one had to be a genealogical Levite to minister in the outer court of the temple, and one had to be a genealogical descendent of Aaron himself to minister within the sanctuary.
It appears that the high priest in Ezekiel’s day had hired foreigners to do the work of ministry. We do not know the reason for this, but this practice was an abomination to God, according to the prophet. It is the equivalent today of ordaining fleshly-minded priests, homosexuals, and even pedophiles to minister in the house of God.
The divine standard for ministry, even under the Order of Levi, was more than just genealogical. The prophet shows how the priests were supposed to be circumcised not only in the flesh but also in their hearts. The disapproval of foreigners ministering in the temple certainly was to apply equally to the Levites and Aaronic priests.
Ezekiel was referring to Moses’ statement in Deut. 30:6,
6 Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.
Fleshly circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant; heart circumcision was the sign of the New Covenant. So Moses was prophesying about the New Covenant that was coming, in which God Himself performed the circumcision by the inner working of the Holy Spirit. Only then can a person truly “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” It brings a change of nature, while the Old Covenant, at best, can only bring about a change of behavior.
So we can say that the high priest who hired foreigners was himself uncircumcised in heart, for he was rebelling against the law of God and breaking the prophetic types. If this had been allowed to stand unchallenged, it would have justified the modern-day abuses in the church today, when carnally-minded men are ordained as priests.
The prophet then turns his attention to the idolatrous priests of Levi. These were men who were qualified in their genealogy but unqualified in their heart. Ezek. 44:10 says,
10 But the Levites who went far from Me when Israel went astray, who went astray from Me after their idols, shall bear the punishment for their iniquity.
The nature of their “punishment” seems rather odd, for we read in verse 11,
11 Yet they shall be ministers in My sanctuary, having oversight at the gates of the house and ministering in the house; they shall slaughter the burnt offering and the sacrifice for the people, and they shall stand before them to minister to them.
It is strange that God would not fire them outright. Yet the real punishment is seen in verses 13 and 14,
13 And they shall not come near to Me to serve as a priest to Me, nor come near to any of My holy things, to the things that are most holy; but they will bear their shame and their abominations which they have committed. 14 Yet I will appoint them to keep charge of the house, of all its service and of all that shall be done in it.
In other words, these idolatrous priests will be limited to the outer court, where they may minister to the people, but not to God within the sanctuary. This is indeed a grave punishment when we see its prophetic implications. We will say more about that later.
Ezekiel then speaks of the righteous priests who stand in contrast to the idolatrous priests. Ezek. 44:15, 16 says,
15 “But the Levitical priests, the sons of Zadok, who kept the charge of My sanctuary when the sons of Israel went astray from Me, shall come near to Me to minister to Me; and they shall stand before Me to offer the fat and the blood,” declares the Lord God. 16 “They shall enter My sanctuary; they shall come near to My table to minister to Me and keep My charge.”
It appears that the sons of Zadok did not follow the example of their fellow priests. This prophecy can only be understood by looking at the story of Zadok and Abiathar, the two high priests in the time of David during the Absalom conspiracy.
When Absalom was crowned king in Hebron, he came to fight his father (David) in Jerusalem. David declined to fight his own son, and so he left the city with those loyal to him, including a band of Philistines from the city of Gath (2 Sam. 15:18). David gave these Philistines the opportunity to return to Gath rather than “wander with us,” (vs. 20), but they refused to leave him.
It is ironic, then, that these Philistines were more loyal to David than most of his own countrymen!
2 Sam. 15:24 says,
24 Now behold, Zadok also came, and all the Levites with him carrying the ark of the covenant of God. And they set down the ark of God, and Abiathar came up until all the people had finished passing from the city.
Later, in 2 Sam. 15:35, David tells his friend, Hushai the Archite, to remain in Jerusalem as his spy, saying, “Are not Zadok and Abiathar the priests with you there?”
As there is no mention of a high priest, it appears that both Zadok and Abiathar were functioning as high priests, Zadok at the tabernacle in Gibeon (1 Chron. 16:39), and Abiathar at the tabernacle of David in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 16:1).
Abiathar was the descendant of Eli, the high priest who, according to prophecy given to him, was to lose his position because he had refused to correct his corrupt sons. He fell backward and was killed after the ark of God was captured by the Philistines. He also lost his two corrupt sons in the battle. However, he had another son named Ahitub who was given the high priesthood (1 Sam. 14:3).
1 Sam. 22:20 tells us that Ahitub was succeeded by his son Ahimelech, and when Doeg the Edomite killed Ahimelech at the command of King Saul, the high priesthood went to his son, Abiathar.
20 But one son of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David.
Abiathar remained as David’s high priest until the reign of Solomon. Then Abiathar made the mistake of backing Adonijah for the throne (1 Kings 1:7). This is where the break occurred between Abiathar and Zadok, for Zadok backed Solomon according to the will of David. 1 Kings 1:7 and 8 says,
7 He [Adonijah] had conferred with Joab the son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest; and following Adonijah they helped him. 8 But Zadok the priest, Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, Nathan the prophet, Shimei, Rei, and the mighty men who belonged to David, were not with Adonijah.
Thus, Abiathar, the last of the house of Eli to minister to God in the sanctuary, was deposed by Solomon on account of his disloyalty to David. 1 Kings 2:27 says,
27 So Solomon dismissed Abiathar from being priest to the Lord, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord, which He had spoken concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh.
1 Kings 2:35 says, “the king appointed Zadok the priest in the place of Abiathar.”
This, then, is the story on which Ezekiel’s prophecy is based. The idolatrous priests, though unnamed, were from the house of Eli, the last of whom was Abiathar, who betrayed David in the end. The righteous priests were the sons of Zadok, whose name means “righteous,” and who remained loyal to David to the end by backing Solomon in his claim to the throne.
The word from God had established Solomon as David’s successor (1 Kings 1:30). Zadok was true to this word; Abiathar disregarded that revelation.
A few centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel set forth his revelation about the two types of priests.
So now we return to the prophecy describing the ministry of the sons of Zadok in Ezekiel 44:17-19,
17 It shall be that when they enter at the gates of the inner court, they shall be clothed with linen garments; and wool shall not be on them while they are ministering in the gates of the inner court and in the house. 18 …They shall not gird themselves with anything which makes them sweat. 19 When they go out into the outer court, into the outer court of the people, they shall put off their garments in which they have been ministering and lay them in the holy chambers; then they shall put on other garments so that they will not transmit holiness to the people with their garments.
The law said that any Levite could minister in the outer court, but only the descendants of Aaron could minister in the “inner court” (i.e., the Holy Place) in the sanctuary. The ministry of the Levites, then, was limited to the outer court, and they could be dressed in their normal work clothes (wool). But the Aaronic priests had to be dressed in linen to minister to God in the sanctuary.
This law is found in Exodus 28:42, 43,
42 You shall make for them linen breeches to cover their bare flesh; they shall reach from the loins even to the thighs. 43 They shall be upon Aaron and on his sons when they enter the tent of meeting, or whenever they approach the altar to minister in the holy place, so that they do not incur guilt and die. It shall be a statute forever [olam, “indefinitely”] to him and to his descendants after him.
When Solomon built the temple, he constructed a 3-story “side chamber” to store the priestly garments. We read of this in 1 Kings 6:5, 6,
5 Against the wall of the house he built stories encompassing the walls of the house around both the nave and the inner sanctuary; thus, he made side chambers all around. 6 The lowest story was five cubits wide, and the middle was six cubits wide, and the third was seven cubits wide…
The priests ascended to the top floors “by winding stairs” (vs. 8).
The appointment of Zadok to the priesthood was a change of priestly dynasty. Zadok himself was still of the line of Aaron, because overall the time of Solomon was still prior to the great change of priesthood that occurred when Jesus came as the High Priest of the Melchizedek Order.
Zadok’s appointment prophesied of this greater event, for his name suggests the Melchi-Zadok Order that was yet to come. Of this, the nameless “man of God” told Eli in 1 Sam. 2:35,
35 But I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who will do according to what is in My heart and in My soul; and I will build him an enduring house, and he will walk before My anointed [Messiah] always.
The immediate fulfillment of this in the days of Solomon saw Zadok ministering faithfully to King Solomon, “My anointed.” Solomon had been anointed as the king of Israel, and as we have seen, Zadok remained faithful to him.
However, in the larger picture, Jesus Christ is both the “faithful Priest” and the King (Prince of Peace). In applying the prophecy to the end times, we can also say that when the Prince of Peace comes (as “Shiloh”), God will raise up an entire Melchizedek priesthood from those who have been faithful to Him and to the word of God.
The story of Zadok and Abiathar show us the main theme of such faithfulness. The faithful ones remain loyal to Christ in His claim to the throne, while others (who follow the example of Abiathar) wish to crown another.
This theme is expanded in the New Testament story, where Christ’s claim to the throne was disputed by Caiaphas and the priests of Jerusalem under him. The conflict was a repeat from the story of David and Absalom, who usurped the throne of David for an unknown amount of time.
Even as Absalom received help from Ahithophel, David’s counselor and friend (Psalm 55:14), so also did Caiaphas receive help from Judas, whom Jesus called “friend” (Matt. 26:49, 50). Even as Ahithophel later hanged himself (2 Sam. 17:23), so also did Judas hang himself (Matt. 27:5).
The point is that Judas, the friend of Jesus, betrayed him in the end, following the example of Ahithophel. This is similar to what Abiathar did later, for he followed David until the end when he betrayed him by supporting Adonijah.
An enemy may kill you, but only a friend can betray you. Ahithophel was the grandfather of Bathsheba. David wrote about him often in the Psalms, often lamenting the loss of his fellowship. We ought to see Judas in the same light, for he was one of the twelve disciples until the end.
When Peter talked about replacing Judas, he quoted two psalms that had originally applied to Ahithophel. In Acts 1:20, he said,
20 For it is written in the book of Psalms, “Let his homestead be made desolate, and let no one dwell in it” [Psalm 69:25] and, “Let another man take his office” [Psalm 109:8].
This affirms that David’s statements about Ahithophel also applied to Judas. This means also that Christ played the role of David, and Caiaphas played the role of Absalom. Unless we understand that the New Testament conflict was a replay of the story of David and Absalom, we will really not have a full comprehension of the prophetic significance of either story.
The bottom line is that Jesus’ faithful disciples remained loyal to Jesus and did not give aid to Caiaphas. Likewise, in the time of the second coming, we are seeing another replay of the same conflict. There are some modern disciples of Jesus who are assisting the Jews once again, giving them aid and comfort in their search for an alternate messiah.
We must be careful that we do not betray Christ in His second coming and thereby reject the word of God. Let us not betray Christ again as a Judas or as an Abiathar. Those who do so are classed by Ezekiel as idolatrous priests.
Rev. 20:6 says that the overcomers who are raised in the first resurrection “will be priests of God and of Christ.” As priests and as the bride of Christ, they are clothed in fine linen (Rev. 19:8).
The garments worn by the Levitical priests prophesied of those who do “righteous acts.” The theme really goes back to the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve lost the spiritual garments and were given “skins” in their place. This idea was developed later in the contrast between woolen and linen garments.
As we have seen, one must be clothed in linen (spiritual garments) in order to minister to God in His sanctuary. The woolen garments are the equivalent of the “skins” given to Adam and Eve after they sinned and became mortal.
The linen garments were mere types and shadows of the immortal and incorruptible bodies that will be given to us at the appointed time. These garments were taken away from us when Adam’s sin incurred a debt to the law. His spiritual garments were taken in pledge on his debt, according to the law of pledges (“collateral”).
When Jesus died on the cross, He paid the debt that Adam had incurred, and this meant that the pledge had to be returned to Adam and to all of us. Strictly speaking, we should have received back the pledge of spiritual garments at Christ’s resurrection. However, this did not happen.
Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:1-3,
1 For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, 3 inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked.
This pledged garment is still being withheld from us in the heavens, even though God is supposed to return it. That means God owes us a spiritual garment! The debt has been reversed, and God is now our Debtor. For this reason, “He gave to us the Spirit as a pledge” (vs. 5).
The bottom line is that our glorified bodies are ours, but God is “borrowing” them until the feast of Tabernacles is fulfilled. But what is the nature of these garments?
When Jesus was raised from the dead, He was given a spiritual garment, which allowed Him to ascend to minister to His Father in heaven. This gave Him authority in both heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18). To put it in Old Testament terms, He could minister to God in the sanctuary in His linens or minister to the people in the outer court, as long as He put on “other garments” (i.e., wool).
The gospels tell how He was able to appear suddenly to His disciples in a room that was locked (Luke 24:36). The disciples thought he was a ghost, or spirit, so He proved to them that He was “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). This was necessary in order to make it clear that He was not violating the law of garments. Ezek. 44:19 says, “When they go out into the outer court… they shall put off their garments in which they have been ministering.”
So when Christ came to the “outer court” where the disciples were gathered, He had to change into His woolens to minister to them. The same will be true of us after we have received our spiritual garments. Having direct access to both worlds, we will have two sets of clothing.