Question: "What is the difference between priests and Levites?"
Answer: The Levites were the tribe of Israelites descended from Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. The priests of Israel were a group of qualified men from within the tribe of the Levites who had responsibility over aspects of tabernacle or temple worship. All priests were to be Levites, according to the Law, but not all Levites were priests.
Priests existed prior to the Levites in a general sense. For example, we first see the role of a priest in Genesis 14:18 during Abraham’s time, long before Levi was born. Melchizedek was the king of the town of Salem, which later became Jerusalem. Melchizedek was also said to be “a priest forever” (Psalm 110:4; cf. Hebrews 6:20; 7:17). Pagan nations also had priests for their religious activities. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, was the priest of Midian (Exodus 3:1;18:1).
When the Jews received the Law of Moses at Sinai, the Lord gave commands regarding a formal priesthood for Israel. The priests would be males from the tribe of Levi and must meet certain physical and age qualifications in order to serve. In addition, they had to remain ceremonially clean to perform their duties before a holy God. The priests served as mediators between the Israelites and God. They were the ones who performed animal sacrifices on behalf of the people. It was only the priests who were permitted to enter the Holy Place in the tabernacle and, later, the temple. A more detailed description of the Levitical priesthood can be found in our article “What was the Levitical priesthood?”
Among these Levitical priests was the high priest. The first high priest was Aaron, the brother of Moses. His sons and their descendants were to serve as the future high priests of the nation of Israel (Exodus 29). Only the high priest was permitted to enter the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle and temple, and that only once per year on the Day of Atonement. A more detailed description of the work of the high priest can be found in our article “What was the biblical role of the high priest?”
Ezra, one of the leaders of the Jews who returned from Babylon, was a Levitical priest (Nehemiah 12:1). Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s parents, were both Levites descended from Aaron (see Luke 1:5). Zechariah was a priest, but his son, John, also a Levite, was a prophet, not a priest.
By the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Jewish priesthood held much spiritual and political power. In fact, the Jewish chief priests were involved in sentencing Jesus to death.
Following the resurrection of Jesus, believers now live under a new covenant in which all Christians are priests: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). We no longer need an earthly mediator between us and God because Jesus has made the final sacrifice on our behalf and acts as our Mediator (Hebrews 10:19–23; 1 Timothy 2:5).
The Jewish role of high priest is now fulfilled by Jesus, who serves as our high priest. Jesus’ sacrifice ended our need for continued sacrifices. The Holy Spirit guides and counsels us.
The Levitical priesthood was part of the old covenant system of sacrifices. It has been fulfilled in Jesus, and we are now under the new covenant. There is no longer a biblical mandate for priests. Every follower of Christ has access to God, regardless of gender, race, or tribe (Hebrews 7:11–28; Ephesians 3:11–12; Colossians 3:11).