June 23, 2022

Why Did God Prevent Israelites with Physical Deformities from Approaching the Altar?

Nathan W. Bingham & Sinclair Ferguson
Why Did God Prevent Israelites with Physical Deformities from Approaching the Altar?

Why were priests with physical deformities prohibited from offering sacrifices in the Old Testament? Today, Sinclair Ferguson explains the marvelous lessons about the gospel that this law surprisingly contains.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: We’re recording live from the 2022 National Conference. I’m joined by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, one of our Teaching Fellows. Dr. Ferguson, why did God prevent Israelites with physical deformities from approaching the altar?

DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Why did God prohibit Israelites with physical deformities from approaching the altar? I think the first thing to say here is that apart from one family in Israel, all Israelites were forbidden from approaching the altar. So, only the family of Aaron, only the male descendants—Aaron and his male descendants—belonged to the priestly order who had this special ministry as priest of approaching the altar to make sacrifice.

And I think probably most of us are familiar with the fact that the one of the Old Testament regulations was, you do not offer a sacrifice that has any deformities to God. And why should this be so? Well, the undergirding principle is that God is holy, and you don’t offer damaged goods. You offer the best you have, the most complete you have. And I think it followed from that, that therefore the person who came into the presence of God to make this offering should in a sense be one with the sacrifice that he was making. And that since you wouldn’t offer an animal that had deformities, it wasn’t appropriate for someone from Aaron’s family who was deformed to offer the sacrifice either.

But what I think is really interesting in that Old Testament regulation is that God made it very clear . . . Well, let me back up and say, one of the privileges of being a priest was that you would have opportunity to offer the sacrifices. And then, you actually shared in the food. So, you were allowed to take the food and eat it. And in the very same section, I think, where this regulation is promulgated, God makes it very clear that those members of the priestly family who had deformities and weren’t able, therefore were banned from offering the sacrifice, He makes it very clear they still get to eat of the food.

And I think, from that point of view, we can see a couple of things. One was, this law governs not all Israel because the majority of Israel are barred from doing this anyway. This is a regulation focused on the priestly ministry. And God makes sure that those who don’t participate in the sacrificial action nevertheless enjoy the sacrificial benefits. And I think when you think of those old covenant regulations as pointing forwards, you can see how this is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, that He ultimately is the One who offers an unblemished sacrifice, and as the offerer of that sacrifice is Himself unblemished, without moral or spiritual deformity. So, this regulation is pointing forwards to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, there’s something more here, I think. When we think about Christ as the fulfillment of this, we see that two things happen. One is, if you think about Ephesians 2, the middle wall of partition between Jew and gentile is broken down. So, part of the old covenant sacrificial system is ended in Jesus Christ. And the other thing is that those who have deformities, whether they belong to the family of Aaron or any family, may have access to the presence of God.

So, when Jesus ministers as High Priest, He heals the sick. He makes the lame able to walk. He gives sight to the blind. He gives hearing to the deaf. In the Ultimate Priest, those with deformities are not barred from the presence of God but brought into the presence of God and restored in that way. If you remember the parable that Jesus tells about the feast, when people don’t turn up at the feast, the command is given, “Go out into the highways and byways and bring in those who have deformities.” And when you think about it, I think in Jesus’ day, this seems to be a very strange question actually. But when you think about that in Jesus’ day, people who had lived with that regulation, that Jesus the ultimate High Priest was doing this, it must have been wonderful beyond words.

I don’t know what lies behind this question, but I can envisage a very sensitive Christian reading this in the Old Testament who themselves had some kind of deformity might wonder, “Does this mean I’m somehow or another I don’t get the privileges other Christians get?” And the answer is no. The bread is for all. Those of Aaron’s family who were disqualified shared the blessing as though they had participated in the ministry.

And I think there are all kinds of ramifications of that because you know, many of us long to be able to serve the Lord the way other people serve the Lord, but we know our, we have our disabilities. We would love to be preachers, but we have an unconquerable stammer. I knew a man whom I greatly admired. I think he would’ve given a king’s ransom for God to call him into the ministry, but he knew that he didn’t have that gift. But he certainly shared in the bread, and he found the ways in which he could be and live completely in Jesus Christ. So, I think ultimately, there are lovely lessons to learn from what at first sight may seem to be a rather strange law.