1. The beginning of the 24 divisions of the priests
Along with preparation for the construction of the temple, David classified the Levites to take upon the sacred positions and organized the priests into 24 divisions. He selected the 24 divisions of priests by casting lots and 16 patriarchs from the household of Eleazar and 8 patriarchs from the household of Ithamar; the 24 patriarchs altogether became the head of the 24 divisions.
2. The unceasing history of the priestly duties
1) The period of the wilderness
As the leader of the Exodus, Moses took upon the role as the very first priest, and Aaron, his sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar held the duty as priests.
2) The period of Canaan conquest
Even after settling in Canaan, when reading Joshua chapter 21, the distinction between the Levites and priests was clearly enforced.
3) The period of the Judges
Through the disorder of faith during the period of the Judges, the statutes of the priests became more and more broken, and in the latter period of the Judges, the descendants of Ithamar, Aaron’s fourth son, carried out the duty as high priest.
4) The period of King Saul
During the period of King Saul, priests were the pathway in asking God’s will. When David was chased by Saul and was cornered, he went to the land of Nob and received great help from the priest Ahimelech. As a priest from the line of Ithamar, Ahimelech is the great-grandchild of the priest Eli in the order of Eli – Phinehas – Ahitub – Ahimelech.
5) The period of King David
There were two priests during the period of King David: Ithamar’s descendant Abiathar and Eleazar’s descendant Zadok. After sinning by taking part in the treason by David’s son Adonijah, Abiathar was removed from the position as high priest according to King Solomon. Since then, the descendants of Zadok from the line of Eleazar monopolized the duty of high priest.
6) The period of King Solomon
King Solomon completed an immovable temple. The priests carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord to the appointed location and when the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.
7) The period of the Divided Monarchy (Northern Israel, Southern Judah)
King Jeroboam of Northern Israel made golden calves at Bethel and Dan, and he made priests from among all the people who were not the sons of Levi. He even committed the sin of burning incense himself, a duty performed by the priests. In this way, the priestly statutes in Northern Israel were not kept well, while the priestly statutes in Southern Judah were kept relatively well through the process of religious reformation during the time of Hezekiah and Josiah.
8) The time of Babylonian captivity and the observance of the priestly duties of the sons of Zadok
After the Jerusalem Temple burned down on the 7th day of the 5th month in 586 BC and the people of Judah were taken to Babylon, the organization of the 24 priestly divisions collapsed. During this time as a symbol of the promise that God would dwell with them, the prophet Ezekiel proph-esied to the Israelites who were taken captive that a new temple would be constructed and worship would be restored. Ezekiel chapter 44 especially speaks of entrusting the priesthood only to the sons of Zadok. The reason for this is stated in verse 15 as “But the Levitical priests, the sons of Zadok, who kept charge of My sanctuary when the sons of Israel went astray from Me…” Hereafter, the Levites could only serve, and only the priests, the sons of Zadok, could enter the sanctuary of the Lord and go before the table of the Lord.
9) The Restoration of the 24 Priestly Divisions after the Return from Babylon
While reconstructing the temple of Zerubbabel after the 1st return from Babylonian captivity, the divisions of priest and Levites were restored in order to reinstate the system of sacrifice in the temple as it was in the period of David. After the 2nd return, Ezra consecrated the genealogy of priests by publicly displaying the list of priests who married gentile women. Like this, the reorganizing of the priestly divisions after the return from Babylonian captivity underwent numerous modifications and additions over a long period. According to Josephus’ record, even the names of these postexilic divisions were restored with the original names of the 24 divisions during Davidic period.
10) The period of the New Testament
Surprisingly, the system of the 24 priestly divisions remained until the period of the New Testament.
The division of Abijah, in which John the Baptist’s father Zacharias belonged to, pertains to the 8th order in the 24 divisions of the priests in the Old Testament. Luke chapter 1 verse 8 records, “Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God ‘in the appointed order of his division’”. Here, “in the appointed order of his division” means that priestly duties for a given period of time were carried out according to the appointed order. Also, Luke chapter 1 verse 9 states, “according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense”. Here, the word “custom” means ‘previous examples’, or ‘as usual’. In other words, the system of the 24 priestly divisions ? in which the priests perform temple service for one week, twice a year ? lasted until the period of the New Testament, and accordingly, Zacharias of Abijah’s priestly division, carried out the priestly duty.
3. The administration in the history of redemption of the 24 divisions of
The leaders and the people of Israel united themselves to consecrate their lineage and awakened spiritually in order to defeat the historical period of darkness during the intertestamental period.
However, over the years the priests became severely corrupt. They abused their positions and forsook the Word of God and breached the covenant, just as prophesied by the prophet Malachi (Malachi 2:7-8). The truly surprising thing is that despite this kind of fall of the high priests and priests, God has kept the 24 divisions system within His administration in the history of redemption. At the time Jesus was to come to this earth, Zacharias, a priest who belonged to the division of Abijah, was righteous and blameless in the law before God. God allowed him to become the father of John the Baptist, and through him, the way for Jesus Christ was prepared.
4. Knowing the structure of the 24 priestly divisions allows us to know the day Jesus was born.
(1) The origin of Christmas
Present Christmas Day on December 25th is not actually the day Jesus was born. This day was the greatest annual festival for the ancient Romans who worshipped the sun god. Later, in order to tear down the sun worshipping, the Roman church renamed December 25th as Jesus’ day of birth and observed it since then.
(2) John the Baptist who was born 6 months before Jesus
Although Matthew chapter 2 verse 1 records “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king . . . ,” it does not provide an exact date. However, when reading from Luke chapter 1 verse 24 and on, we know John the Baptist was born 6 months before Jesus. John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth became pregnant and hid for five months, and on the sixth month, the angel Gabriel appeared before Mary and told her of the Annunciation. Hence, if you find the date of John the Baptist’s birth, you can also discover the date of Jesus’ birth as He was born 6 months later.
(3) The day John the Baptist was born
We can find the day John the Baptist was born through Luke chapter 1 verses 5 through 9, and verses 21 through 25. According to the order of Abijah, Zacharias entered the temple. When he returned home after completing the one week of priestly service, Elizabeth his wife became pregnant just as the angel told him. As discussed earlier, the duties of the 24 divisions continued until the period of the New Testament. Since Abijah was the 8th in order among the 24 divisions, we can count every 7 days per division starting from the very first day the priestly duty was carried out:
This would yield the time when priestly service was rendered by Abijah division under the reign of Herod king of Judah. Then, counting another 280 days from this time for the period Elizabeth’s pregnancy, we obtain the birth date of John the Baptist. Counting another 6 months from the birth of John the Baptist, we get the day of Jesus’ birth. A precise, biblical explanation will be presented in the forthcoming History of Redemption series. Once again with a praying heart, we may an-ticipate God’s mysterious and profound providence in the history of redemption that is to unfold before us.
This article has been synoptically organized based on the 6th book of the history of Redemption series, The Eternal High Priest of the Covenantal Oath(written by Abraham Park & published by Huisun)