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MARCH 16, 1999

The first problem to address is: how do we know that there is an office of pastor in the New Testament? [1] Perhaps the way the question is put may permit me to take the office for granted. But, since I have found in PCA circles that the office is sometimes not taken for granted, it seems good to address the issue briefly.

In 1 Corinthians 9, the Apostle Paul launches a defense of his Apostolic office. There are two important points here: i. While Paul is defending his status as an Apostle, he is speaking of more than simply his peculiar office, but of his vocation as a preacher of the Gospel. He speaks not only of Apostles, but of Barnabas (v. 6), the brothers of Jesus (v. 5) and others (v. 12) who would include Apollos (3.6; 4.1). ii. Paul’s entire argument, that preachers of the Gospel ordinarily make their living from the Gospel (v. 14), is rendered useless if their office is normally also occupied by at least one in every congregation who is not paid for his full-time work. Here we have *prima facie* evidence that there were those who shared with the Apostles the status of full-time preachers and teachers–men ordained to preach the Gospel as their vocation in life.

Thus we are looking in the OT for a class of men who are designated to serve full-time, and to make their living as preachers and teachers. If these people are especially associated with the sacraments, so much the better, since we have very few prooftexts for this in the NT.


One obvious candidate for such an office would be the Levites [2]. Deuteronomy 33.8-10 is Moses’ prophetic blessing of the tribe of Levi in which he says of the whole tribe, that

They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob,

And Your law to Israel.

They shall put incense before You,

And whole burnt offerings on Your altar (v. 10; NASB)

Now this verse is quite interesting for two reasons: i. It associates both an appointed teaching office with the sacraments and other aspects of divine worship in the Mosaic economy. ii. It associates the sacraments with the entire tribe of Levi even though only a small group within the tribe, the Aaronites, actually served at the altar (Num 18.1-7).

Having begun with the Mosaic covenant, it is notable that Malachi’s rebuke of the Levites in the post-exilic covenant contains the same associations (2.1-9).

True law was in His [Levi’s] mouth, and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge and they should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble in the law; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi says the LORD of hosts (vv. 6-8; NASB).

Again, all the Levites are called priests in this passage. Furthermore, the sacramental feasts (and the condemnation they can bring) are mentioned in reference to the entire tribe (v. 3), even though they are restricted to the house of Aaron.

The Levites’ ministry of teaching is most apparent as originating in the central sanctuary. Moses gave the Law to the priests and commanded them to read it to all Israel at the Feast of Booths (Deu 31.9-11; c.f. Lev 10.11). We see an application of this law when Ezra the descendant of Aaron preaches (from a pulpit! v. 4) in Jerusalem at the Feast of Booths (Neh 8). Here we have Ezra reading while other Levites explain the Law to the people (vv. 7).

There are also negative examples showing that the Levites were part of the teaching ministry. Azariah prophesies to King Asa that Judah’s apostasy was because “Israel was without the true God and without a teaching priest and without law” (2 Chr 15.3; NASB; emphasis added). Jehosaphat, the next king reformed Judah by sending out his officials with Levites and Priests to teach the people (2 Chr 17.7-9).

Thus far, we have a tribe appointed by God to have a teaching and sacramental ministry in Israel. The sacramental function is exclusively restricted to the central sanctuary and the direct examples of teaching seem also to come from that special place. However, since we know the Levites were scattered throughout the other tribes (Josh 21), common sense would dictate that they were supposed to educate the people of God as “teaching priests,”as is indicated in Malachi. In addition, after the book of Judges has recorded for us the decline of the Mosaic administration following the death of Joshua, it notably ends with two stories (17-18; 19-21), both of which center on Levites. The author of Judges ends on this note to explain what went wrong in Israel. One Levite serves an idol, and the other offers his wife to rapists. This negative portrayal of the Levites suggests that they ought to have been serving God in the manner He had commanded and protecting the LORD’s bride [3].

But we have even more direct evidence that the teaching ministry of the priests was also a duty of each Levite wherever he lived among the other tribes. We will see this if we consider another function of the Levites: to pass judgment along with the elders and judges.

If any case is too difficult for you to decide, between one kind of homicide or another, between one kind of lawsuit or another, and between one kind of assault or another, being cases of dispute in your courts, then you shall arise and go up to the place wich the LORD your God chooses. So you shall come to the Levitical priest or the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall inquire of them and they will declare to you the verdict in the case. And you shall do according to the terms of the verdict which they declare to you from that place which the LORD chooses, and you shall be careful to observe according to all that they teach you. According to the terms of the law which they teach you, and according to the verdict which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right or to the left. And the man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the LORD your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel (Deu 17.8-13; NASB).

In this case, the sanctuary is not given an exclusive monopoly on judgment (as it is in the case of sacramental worship), but rather it is merely the highest court of appeal. The case does not come before “the Levitical priest or the judge” until it has been tried in lower courts elsewhere in Israel as we have explicitly laid out for elders (Exo 18.13-27; Deu 1.9-18).

Thus, we have every reason to expect that there were lower courts with Levites and judges or elders presiding together. Deuteronomy goes on to give us such an example:

If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days. And the judges shall investigate thoroughly; and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you (19.16-19; NASB).

Notice here that instead of a singular priest and a singular judge, this court case is tried by priests and judges. While one might initially think that “before the LORD” refers to the God’s special presence in the sanctuary, this would require that all conflicts between witnesses be arbitrated at the central sanctuary, resulting in the very situation which Moses addressed by ordaining a system of higher and lower courts. It is immensely more likely, therefore, that “before the LORD” is appositionally related to “before the priests and judges who will be in office in those days” so that it means they “shall stand before the LORD by standing before the priests and judges.”

It is interesting that, though these Levites would not be servants in the sanctuary, they are nevertheless called “priests” in their capacity as ones who preside with judges over the court. Also (unless one wants to insist that, though the accused must appear before both the Levites and the judges, nevertheless only the judges were to investigate thoroughly), we find here that the Levites and judges are together called “judges” as they preside over the trial together.

In addition to pointing to more parallels between the OT Levite judging with elders and the NT pastor as a member of the session with ruling elders, these passages also provide further evidence that all Levites were teachers. The High Priest at the central sanctuary was not the exclusive judge among the Levites, but merely the highest in a series of courts. All the Levites functioned as judges when occasion required. Likewise then, we would expect that the Priests were not simply the exclusive teachers of the Law, but that all Levites taught in their various locations in Israel.

Finally, we must point out that there is evidence that all the Levites were associated with sacramental worship despite the monopoly of the central sanctuary. In the case of a man found murdered with no hope of discovering who did it, the Law of Moses gives us the closest thing to a sacrifice apart from the altar in the Tabernacle.

If a slain person is found lying in the open country in the land which the LORD your God gives you to possess, and it is not known who has struck him, then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance to the cities which are around the slain one. And it shall be that the city which is nearest the slain man, that is, the elders of that city, shall take a heifer of the herd, which has not been worked and which has not pulled in a yoke; and the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which has not been plowed or sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near, for the LORD your God has chosen them to serve Him and to bless in the name of the LORD; and every dispute and every assault shall be settled by them.

And all the elders of that city which is nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley; and they shall answer and say, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it. Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed, O LORD, and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of Your people Israel.” And the blood guiltiness shall be forgiven them. So you shall remove the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the eyes of the LORD (Deu 21.1-9; NASB).

This is as close as one could hope to get to an authorized sacrifice apart from the altar of the Tabernacle. And here we find local Levites involved [4], and once again called “priests.”

Finally, it is worth noting that when the law against worship apart from the central sanctuary was broken, and the people fell into idolatry, in at least one instance it was deemed especially appropriate for a Levite to serve at the forbidden shrine (Jud 17.13).

To recap the argument thus far, we have in Scripture statements that priests both taught, passed judgment with judges/elders, and served in the sacramental worship of Israel. While the central sanctuary was the only place where sacramental worship was permitted, we see in several ways that all the Levites were associated with the sacrament and worship system. We have direct statements that Levites passed judgment apart from the central sanctuary and did so because of they were “chosen” to serve God (Deu 21.5) and were expected to be able to “teach” the “terms of the law” (Deu 17.11). This gives us a people called by God to teach and preach, to administer the sacraments, and even to rule or pass judgment in a court with other rulers–judges or elders who do not hold an identical office to that of the Levites.

Finally, in Leviticus 21.1-3, we find that the Israelites everywhere are to meet in “holy

convocations” on the sabbath.


Since prophet and priest are distinct offices in the Old Testament economy, one might think that identifying the Levites as precursors to pastors should eliminate prophets from further consideration. However, it seems that especially in the Northern Kingdom, “sons of the prophets” (2 Kin 2.3ff; 4.1; 6.1ff) formed to compensate for a corrupt Levitical ministry. Here we have an explicit reference for the association of the prophets with local, weekly worship (2 Kin 4.23). Furthermore, despite the priestly monopoly on sacrifice, God did provide an exception to this rule in the case of Elijah (1 Kin 18.30-39 [5]). And, just as the Levites ruled with Judges, so the prophets ruled (at best!) with the kings (c.f. 1 Kin 22.5-28; 2 Kin 6.20-23; and with the elders: 2 Kin 6.32). This could all be fleshed out in much more detail. However, since these prophets appear in the presence of an irregular worship system, it seems likely that the prophets are precursors to pastors only because they are acting in the stead of the Levites.

They are only secondary as precursors, whereas the Levites are foundational [6].


This deserves to be it’s own paper but a couple of comments will have to suffice: First, Paul explicitly refers to his Apostolic ministry as priestly work (Rom 15.16; c.f. Heb 3.1 [7]). Just as there were “teaching priests” in the OT, so Apostleship is tied to preaching and teaching (2 Tim 1.11). As mentioned above, even though there were only twelve Apostles, Paul saw his office as substantially similar to that of Apollos and Timothy and others who were not technically Apostles. Like Apostles, pastors teach and preach and function as ambassadors.

Secondly, the Levites received the tithes of Israel (Num 18.21-32). Luke introduces Barnabas as a Levite who sold his land and laid the money at “the Apostles’ feet” (Act 4.36-37) right before he tells of Ananias and Sapphira lying about what they lay “at the Apostles’ feet,” and then falling down dead “at the Apostles’ feet” (5.1-11). This seems to indicate that the Apostles have replaced the Levites as the receivers of gifts for God (though admittedly we are not explicitly speaking of tithing here). It also gives us reason to see the Apostles as the locus of the new “sanctuary” where God’s Spirit dwells.


i. Acknowledging that the Levite or “teaching priest” is the precursor for the Pastoral office provides help in explaining why women may not be ordained into the Ministry. If the primary precursors were the prophets or judges then we would have to account for a change from the OT to the NT situation in which roles formerly open to women were now shut off to them. But since there were no priestesses in Israel, we have no such problem.

ii. Obviously, this paper is more congenial to a “three-office,” than a “two-office” approach to the polity of the Church. But it does so without getting into the unending struggle to figure out what exactly is meant by presbyter in all instances where it is used. Tracing the OT offices to their NT counterparts is a much more profitable exercise than trying to come up with definitive titles amid shifting word use. I think holding to a distinctive “office” of pastor can be done without demanding hard and fast decisions as to whether episkopoi must always refer to pastors and not ruling elders (as is done in some versions of the three-office view). In this case, the OT provides decisive clarity on the issues, which should provide common-ground for those who disagree on exactly how to divide up the NT data.

iii. Finally, if we allow that the Levites were the precursors to our pastors, then should we not ask if perhaps Levitical worship provides guidance and principles for pastoral worship? Specifically, how much warrant is there, in the Bible, for abstracting the sacraments from leading in worship in general? Deuteronomy 33.10 associates sacrifices and teaching with offering incense (typically associated with prayer Luke 1.10; Rev 5.8). Under David the Levites were made to form a choir and orchestra (1 Chr 25) who “prophesied” with musical instruments (v. 1). This would give us prima facie reason to ask if Pastors might not be better equipped if they had musical training, and if liturgical history, theology, and practice were made a more important concern in seminary education.

iv. Is there not warrant for further study? I am not aware of much material which intensively studies the Levitical system with the purpose of better understanding the pastoral office. If we can agree that the Levites were precursors to pastors, then perhaps we can agree that more study in this area is needed, so that much more illumination might be shed on the office.


1. The best foundational work on this issue, in my opinion, was done by Harald Riesenfeld in “The Ministry in the New Testament” which appeared in The Root of the Vine: Essays in Biblical Theology, ed. by Anton Fridrichsen (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953), pp.


2. This was the thinking of the Westminster Divines. See their Form of Church Government in the chapter on pastors. Note also that, in our constitution, Heb 5.4 is used to justify the restriction of the sacraments to “a Minister of the Word lawfully ordained” (Westminster Confession of Faith 27.4; c.f. 28.2). Furthermore, Deu 31.9, 11-13 and Neh 8.2-3; 9.3-5 are cited to support the statement that not all are “to be permitted to read the word publicly in the congregation” (Westminster Larger Catechism, queston # 156). Further, the restriction of public preaching in question # 158, to those sufficiently gifted, is based in part on Hos 4.6 and Mal 2.7.

3. My overall perspective on Judges comes from and is defended in detail in James B. Jordan’s commentary, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Divinity School, 1984).

4. One could assume that only Aaronites (as “priests”) were authorized in this passage to participate in the ceremony. However, that simply does not seem plausible. The passage mandates that the local elders participate in the rite, not the central Judge. One would expect the same rule to apply to the Levites. In any case, non-Aaronic priests are no more shocking than the authorized sacrifice of an animal away from the central Sanctuary.

5. Interestingly, the term “prophets of Baal” in this chapter seems to mean the priests of Baal.

6. It would be interesting to inquire of Paul’s two titles for Timothy, “bond-servant” (2 Tim 2.24) and “man of God” (1 Tim 3.11; c.f. 2 Tim 3.17 in context) are connected to the Levites and prophets respectively. The Levites were especially chosen to serve the LORD in the midst of Israel (Num 3.12-13, 45; 8.14-19). A prophet was often designated a “man of God” in the Northern Kingdom (1 Kin 12.22; 13.1; 20.28).

7. In my provisional opinion, this means that denying a NT priesthood on the grounds of Jesus’ priestly office is problematic. Jesus is also an Apostle, which does not eliminate the possibility of other Apostles, but rather undergirds that possibility. Jesus can appoint Apostles because He is the ultimate Apostle (John 20.21; Matt 10.40; Luke 10.16). So why can He not appoint people to do the work of a priest, however that work has changed in the NT economy?

8. Recall Dr. Rayburn’s comment: “nowhere is it said in the New Testament that the ancient pattern of separate offices for rule and for Word and sacrament . . . . did not derive from the intrinsic necessities of the life of the church of God” (“Ministers, Elders, and Deacons,” p. 227 in Order in the Offices: Essays Defining the Roles of Church Officers, Mark Brown, ed. [Duncansville, PA: Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 1993]). Whereas all in the PCA acknowledge a need for order and government, it might be helpful to point out that the Church also needs God’s presence. This presence is mediated to God’s people by His chosen representatives (Matt 10.40; Luke 10.16; John 20.21). The need for God’s special presence, then, is perhaps the primary “intrinsic necessit[y] of life in the church of God” (compare Matt 18.20, with Deu 19.17 above).


  1. Please what are the role of the old testament Kings and how is related to new testament christainity.

    Comment by Patrick N Amenyah — November 5, 2007 @ 10:37 am

  2. Old Testament Kings are a foreshadowing of Christ – i.e. the role of “Anointed One”. While clearly there were “anointings” for other Old Testament roles… this particular type, as it builds up, seems to be heavily weighted toward the “kingly” figure. Hence the repeated references in the New Testament to Jesus’ Messiahship being a fulfilment of the Psalms. The Psalms, taken together, are essentially a meditation on the “anointed one” of Psalm 2… which itself is a response to the promise of 2 Samuel 7 that God will give David an “everlasting house”, in his offspring, who shall be to God “like a Son”. Roughly speaking, Kings either play a type or antitype role to that of Jesus as “Lord”. In a short paragraph there’s huge swathes of oversimplification there, but I hope that answers the previous posters question.

    I have a question about the article also. In 2 Timothy 3v17, Paul refers to Pastor-teachers like Timothy using the loaded Old Testament phrase “the man of God”. This is used, in the LXX, of Moses, of “the angel of the Lord” (Judges 13v6, though this is arguably a little loose), but primarily of the prophets throughout the historical narratives. How does this interact with your case for Levites being the OT precursor to NT pastors, and your aside that the office of Prophet is therefore not a precursor? Is there more category shifting happening than you are allowing for?

    Very good stimulating article. Thank you very much.

    Comment by Pete Myers — December 1, 2007 @ 1:06 pm

  3. In regard to kings and prophets….
    The people chose to be ruled by kings, but God’s choice was to rule by prophets. How does that affect the foreshadowing of Christ?

    Comment by Angela — September 3, 2013 @ 1:51 am

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