“And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron died there on the top of the mountain” (Numbers 20:28). What a sad end to a tumultuous journey as the LORD’s anointed priest. Aaron, the man meant to intercede before God for the people, was deemed unworthy to cross over the Jordan to continue his duties as mediator between the people and their God. After the infamous rock-striking incident, both Moses and Aaron were prohibited from leading the people into the promised land. Alas, they too became casualties of the wilderness.
However, the way in which Aaron was “gathered to his people” must have been symbolically depressing and quite actually demoralizing for the man who once passed behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies to intercede before the Almighty God. Here he was about to die, and his whole identity was taken from him and given to another: “And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, ‘Strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron shall be gathered to his people and shall die there'” (Numbers 20:23a,26). Like Marion Jones or Lance Armstrong, he was stripped of his metals: the holy crown, the breastplate, and the holy vestments. This began the revolving door of high priests who would don the breastplate with the twelve stones engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel who year after year needed a new sacrifice for sins. Generation to generation, these garments were passed from father to son as each successive high priest was deemed unable to continue perpetually in his duty.
At the moment of his death, Aaron was removed from being the priest of the people. Each high priest after him would undergo the same ritual–losing his intercessory role to a new generation of priests.The writer of Hebrews acknowledges this abysmal situation: “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office” (Hebrews 7:23).
This continual merry-go-round had to come to an end–each man forfeiting his garments along with his priestly role at death.
Enter Jesus Christ: The Eternal Son of God. Even as he ascended the mount prepared for his death (like Aaron) and was stripped of his garments (as Aaron was), the powers of darkness could not strip away the eternal priesthood from Jesus. Across his chest were permanently emblazoned the names of the sons of God. As he was raised on the cross and his blood was spilled, the once for all sacrifice necessary to forgive sin for eternity was offered up before the mercy seat of God. At his death, Jesus reached the pinnacle of his priesthood, not the end.
Unlike Aaron and his sons who forfeited their duties at death, Jesus conquered death and rose victorious so that “he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:24-25).