Many often think of the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood as being the lesser priesthood and the Melchizedek priesthood as being the greater. This simplification hides some very important facets of the two priesthoods and how they work together as orders of one priesthood. The Aaronic Priesthood was not instituted with Aaron, but had existed since the days that Levi, the son of Jacob, swore to be a priest to serve his brethren, and his “sons” who entered into the same order covenanted to do the same. From these days, the Sons of Levi were not only biological children, but any who took upon them the oaths that Levi took.
We need not suppose that because we are accustomed to the terms “Levites” and “Sons of Levi” that women were prohibited from entering into these covenants, because what came to be rendered “sons of Levi” was originally the gender-neutral “Children of Levi,” just as the “Israelites” were the “Children of Israel” and not the “Sons of Israel.”
This order of priesthood continued through the Egyptian enslavement, which is representative of the general degeneration of the faith and the subjection of God’s people to gentile customs and government. During the Restoration through Moses, the Priesthood after the order of Levi was reinstituted with Aaron as the Chief Priest of the Levitical Order, after which priests of this order were referred to as “Children of Aaron,” later “Sons of Aaron.” In this reckoning, “Sons of Aaron,” which should rather be rendered “Children of Aaron,” and “Levite” are the same order of priesthood.
At certain times in history, as apostasy produces various levels of synchronicity with the Divine Order, “Levite” referred to the three offices of the lower priesthood, being deacon, teacher and priest, while Sons of Aaron only referred to the priests. In the modern dispensations, the Levitical Priesthood has been referred to as the Aaronic Priesthood and the Sisterhood of Miriam within the Fellowship, and no distinction has been made.
The Levites did not consider themselves to be a “lesser priesthood,” but rather an order of priesthood undertaken with religious zeal for service. Such priests believed that they made themselves holy through humble service to their brothers and sisters. The Greatest of all shall be your servant. The very word for deacon means “servant,” by which the dedicated undertook a holy path of simple service. From one perspective, the deacon is the lowest of the low and the least presumptuous of the orders of priests. But from another, this is what placed them upon a path of greatness. Deacons performed simple, but laborious tasks. They went house to house delivering messages, performing acts of service, organizing and handling logistics and ushering the meetings of the congregation. They cooked and brought out the food for feasts and sacraments and took away the empty plates. They washed the feet of guests. They were servants in every aspect of the word. And for this they were great in the sight of God and mankind.
The order of Rabbis were the second order of servants of the Levitical priesthood. They undertook to educate and enlighten the whole of the covenant people. They sought to learn and share knowledge about every art and science and every part of the Law of God. They did not do so for personal agenda, but to increase the freedom made available by knowledge. They need not orate to a large crowd, but spend their time laboriously educating groups as small as one, trading their time for as little as a bowl of soup.
The order of Priests were the masters of ceremony for the assembly. They served through baptism and the lower rites of the faith, and led meetings, blessing the food and sacraments and performing blessings. While Rabbis traveled to minister in knowledge, Priests traveled to minister in religious ceremony.
While mankind has one way of distinguishing hierarchy and importance, God has another. We frequently consider a position of which there are fewer to be more important, but this is not necessarily the case. Each task is important in providing for all the needs of the assembly. Human beings may be more impressed by those who appear to lead a worship, but God looks on with different eyes. It is frequently noted that John the Baptist was of the order of the priesthood of Aaron, because he limited him ministry to providing baptism in the wilderness, though Jesus Christ calls him the greatest of those born to women.
In parallel to this priesthood is what is often called the higher or Melchizedek priesthood, which before Melchizedek was called the Priesthood after the order of the Son of God, because all those who take upon them this priesthood were called the sons of God. Among the many reforms that took place in Israel during the changes in governmental administration was the recognition of only the Levitical priesthood.
Throughout the period of apostasy between the known prophets and Jesus Christ, the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which was also held by Moses, was preserved among the order of Nazarites or Nazarenes. They were also known as the Ebionites and the Essenes. They were marginalized into a historical sidenote and all but forgotten, but their priesthood offices were of preeminant significance in the Holy order of the Church. It was this order that was intended to administer the higher ordinances of the Temple and ritual power. Because of their humble nature, the priests of the order of Melchizedek did not seek power and eminence. They were easily pushed to the outskirts where they taught the oracles in secret to the humble. They were the mouthpieces of God, when the masses did not seek his words but the flatteries of the vain.
Jesus was ordained after this order, and to the highest office of it under the hands of Moses and Elijah, though he undertook to perform the work also of the deacon when he washed the feet of his disciples. It was more common at the time for a master’s disciples to wash his, the master’s, feet. Jesus, in transcending all the offices, showed in his person that the conveyor of the oracles was no more important than the work of the Deacon.
So while there are two categories of priesthood because they are named after two saints who officiated them, there is really only one priesthood, and while there appears to be a higher and a lower priesthood because one commands and the other obeys, it is only because the Levite has undertaken to perfect him or herself through service and obedience through pleasure in the same and personal commitment. Neither one is without the other in the Lord.
Note: Editor’s changes in italics.