Discovering Leviticus

Introduction

Can you guess which Old Testament (OT) book Jewish children studied first in the synagogue? The answer is Leviticus.

Unfortunately this is not the case for believers today. If anything, we study this book last if at all. Why?

  • Perhaps because we know that the details about ritual sacrifices, religious ceremonies, and miscellaneous regulations are obsolete as required regulations.
  • Or perhaps because we find the book hard to understand.

Though we no longer practice the rituals and laws in this book, they still teach enduring lessons about God and our relationship with him. In fact, this book helps us understand why Christ offered himself as the sacrifice for our sin.

In summary, the book of Leviticus reveals how sinful people can worship and live in the presence of a holy God. To do so requires a sacrifice.

Background

Both Genesis and Exodus serve as a backdrop to this book.

Genesis shows how people forfeited a close relationship with God. He made us to enjoy close fellowship with him; but when we disobeyed his clear and gracious warning in the Garden of Eden, we became separated from him instead. Death entered the world and God sent Adam and Eve away from his presence and away from the Garden.

Throughout Genesis, we see how various individuals approached God by offering a sacrifice. In most cases, it seems that people themselves did this on their own. They knew a sinful person could not come into the presence of a holy God without a sacrifice.

In Exodus, we learn how God rescued the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from bondage in Egypt and how he formed them into a special nation. Until that time, people had approached God on an individual basis. Now God desired for the entire nation of Israel to have this kind of relationship with him.

To make this closeness possible, God provided Israel with a permanent place for his presence (the tabernacle). From this special place, they could draw near to him.

At the end of Exodus, we read that Israel had finished building the tabernacle at the center of their camp and that God had placed his presence there (Exo 40:34, 38). We also learn something remarkable – that Moses “was not able to enter the tabernacle” (Exo 40:35).

This surprising dilemma shows the need for Leviticus. To have close fellowship with God, Israel would need to offer sacrifices. They would also need priests to stand between them and God.

Structure

Leviticus served as a guide for the nation of Israel that taught them how to maintain a close, trusting relationship with God. As such, it provides the following information.

Chapters 1-7 – Instructions for Offering Sacrifices

Exodus gave blueprints for building the tabernacle, but Leviticus gave instructions for “using” the tabernacle. As such, it opens with instructions for offering sacrifices.

  • Chapters 1-6 give instructions to the people who would bring the offerings.
  • Chapters 6-7 give instructions to the priests who would oversee the offerings.

One basic word for a sacrifice, offering (qorbān), comes from a verb that means “to bring near.” When people offered sacrifices, they were attempting to draw near to God. They hoped that God would accept their sacrifices, dismiss their sins, and come near to them.

If you have a small view of God or a light view of your sin, you won’t understand why sacrifices were needed. But if you know the severity of your sin and the great holiness of God, you will understand the need for a sacrifice. Without an intervening sacrifice, you would die in God’s presence.

Leviticus gave instructions for five kinds of sacrifices: burnt (1:1-17), grain (2:1-16), peace (3:1-17), sin (4:1-5:13), and guilt offerings (5:14-6:7).

Burnt Offerings (6:8-13)
These consumed the entire animal. This offering expressed total devotion to God.

Grain Offerings (6:14-23)
These consisted of fine flour or bread (without yeast) and mixed with oil. Some of it would be burned with incense and the priests would eat the rest. This offering expressed a desire to fellowship closely with God and usually accompanied other offerings.

Sin Offerings (6:24-30)
These followed a graded approach which consisted of (1) a bull for priests or for an entire community, (2) a male goat for a prominent leader, (3) a female goat or lamb for other Israelites, (4) two doves for those who could not afford otherwise, and (5) grain for those who were even poorer. This offering resolved both deliberate and accidental sins. It was so important that no other sacrifice could be offered without this one being offered first.

Guilt Offerings (7:1-10)
These consisted of flock animals. Some pieces were burned, while the priests ate the rest. It resembled the sin offering but was associated with sins (such as theft or extortion) that also required restitution to another person.

Peace Offerings (7:11-35)
These consisted of animals from the herd or flock. Specific pieces would be burned, while the priests and offerer would eat the rest together. This offering celebrated closeness with God, answers to prayer, and thankfulness for God’s faithful love and blessings in life.

These sacrifices represented the kind of fellowship you share with people when you eat with them in your house or theirs. That’s why they featured food items, like animals or grain, baking oil or (in some cases) fruit juice.

Pagan religions required people to “feed” their gods, but the LORD needed no one to feed him. He only desired close “table” fellowship with his people in his house.

These sacrifices were costly. Unlike many today, OT Israelites didn’t eat meat every day, nor did they have an endless supply of animals. They reserved meat for special occasions, like celebrations and guests.

God’s sacrifice instructions showed that he required their most valuable livestock and groceries. (A bull was most expensive, then a male goat, a male sheep, a female sheep, a lamb, a dove, then grain, etc.) In fact, God’s requirements (usually the best male animal you owned) would weaken your supply by decreasing both your net value and your ability to produce more good animals.

Most sacrifices (especially those offered for sin) required the shedding of blood. As primitive and grotesque as this may seem, it was not due to God being cruel and unloving. Instead, it revealed the need to exchange life for death. Sin is so bad and so deadly that it always deserves death. Therefore, to approach God (which you should do) will either cause you to die or require the death of another. There is no other way (Lev 17:11; cf. Heb 9:22).

Chapters 8-10 – Institution of the Priesthood

Exodus 28-29 gave instructions for appointing Aaron, his sons, and his descendants as Israel’s priests. Exodus 39 tells us that the people made the priestly uniforms that God required. Yet not until Leviticus 8-10 did the priestly service begin.

According to Exodus 19:6, God expected Israel to be a nation of priests. This meant that he intended for every Israelite to help other people outside their nation come into fellowship with him.

However, the people themselves needed priests who would help them have fellowship with God. Even the priests would need one man – the high priest – to lead them into fellowship with God.

For the priests to serve in the tabernacle daily, leading people into fellowship with God, they would need to live especially careful lives, more careful than the rest of the nation.

Sadly, even the priests themselves would fail. In no time at all, two of Aaron’s sons disobeyed God’s instructions and did things in the tabernacle that “he had not commanded them” (10:1). They died as a result (10:2).

Chapters 11-15 – Uncleanness and Its Treatment

Even so, God also expected the entire nation to live careful lives, more careful than the other nations of the world. For this reason, he gave them strict guidelines (chapters 11-15) about what food they could and couldn’t eat, how to handle various physical conditions (such as infection or loss of blood), how to handle contagious skin diseases, and how to handle other contaminating conditions such as mold.

These regulations increased the nation’s sensitivity to the holiness of God and caused them to live in a way that was more cautious, clean, and careful than the nations around them. If a person ate forbidden food, for instance, they would not be able to enter the tabernacle without being cleansed.

In the big picture, eating certain animals, having intimacy in marriage, giving birth to a child, contracting a skin disease, or discovering mold in your house – these things were not inherently sinful. God called these “unclean” for other reasons.

These regulations reminded the people of Israel about the origins and effects of sin on their everyday lives. They caused them to live with greater carefulness and thoughtfulness towards God.

Chapter 16 – The Day of Atonement

In Leviticus 16, we find instructions for the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, which would be the high point of the Jewish calendar. On this day, four important things would happen.

  1. The high priest offered a bull as a sacrifice for the sins of all the priests.
  2. Then he offered a goat as a sacrifice for the sins of the entire nation.
  3. After each of these sacrifices, he entered the holiest place of the tabernacle, where the presence of God was concentrated most strongly.
  4. Then he sent away another goat into the wilderness to die for the people’s sins.

On this day, the people ceased from work, abstained from food, and met at the tabernacle to view the proceedings. More than anything else in their worship system and theology, this ceremony taught them what it meant to believe on the LORD for salvation from sin.

The Day of Atonement served as the “cover all” ceremony that accounted for all the sins of the priests and the people (16:33-34). It recognized that no amount of personal sacrifices could address every sin which the priests and people had committed in a year.

The sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7 provided a way for believing Israelites to maintain regular closeness with God. The Day of Atonement, however, provided a one-time event that taught them to trust in the LORD to forgive all their sins.

The Day of Atonement extended a message of complete salvation and forgiveness from sin, whereas the other sacrifices taught people to pursue ongoing closeness and fellowship with the God who had saved them.

For an Israelite to violate this annual observance would indicate a lack of saving faith in God. This observance also provided the nation with a regular reminder that God alone, in his way alone, was able to atone for all their sins.

Chapters 17-27 – Guidelines for Holy Living

The remainder of Leviticus gives various instructions for how the people and priests were to conduct themselves, both annually (through recurring holidays) and daily (through  behavior and relationship guidelines). As with the laws of uncleanness, these guidelines pertained directly to the nation of Israel. They do not govern our lives today.

These instructions were important reminders that God expected all the people, not just priests, to live holy lives. Since he had chosen to live among them, God expected them to worship him in a holy way and to live in a holy way as well.

Though worshipping God at the tabernacle required additional carefulness, living in the shadow of his presence every day required a level of carefulness, too. This carefulness pertains not only to how the people would conduct themselves towards God, but also how they would conduct themselves towards one another.

In fact, it is from Leviticus that Christ taught the second greatest command, “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39; cf. Lev 19:18). How we treat each other as fellow human beings made in God’s image reveals the closeness of our relationship with God.

You cannot respect God on one hand and disrespect the people in your life on the other. You cannot separate your relationship with God from your relationship with other people.

Conclusion

Since we are not the OT nation of Israel and their OT laws do not govern our lives today, then what does the book of Leviticus teach us?

Live a Holy Life

First, Leviticus encourages us to live holy lives. In a New Testament (NT) letter, Peter quoted from Leviticus 19:2, “As He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15-16).

Though we do not follow OT regulations and offer animal sacrifices to do this, the need to live a holy life remains. To do this, we need to follow a new and serious approach to life. We must (1) “roll up the sleeves” of our minds, (2) take control of our thought lives, and (3) rely completely on the grace of God to do so (1 Pet 1:13).

In doing so, we need to follow a new master. We should obey God just as a child obeys his father and should stop giving in to the kind of sinful desires that governed our lives before, when we lacked a proper knowledge of God and his ways (1 Pet 1:14).

To live this way, we do not follow a set of laws. Instead, we must conduct ourselves in all aspects of life (not just at church) in a way that reflects the nature of a holy God rather than the desires of our sinful human nature (1 Pet 1:15-16).

Paul gives a similar command in Romans 12:1-2. He calls upon every believer to offer himself or herself as a living sacrifice that is “holy and acceptable unto God.” This involves “not being conformed to the world,” which means that we should no longer allow our lives to be pressed into the mold of our former sinful desires. Instead, we should allow our minds to be renewed by the Scripture.

  • Are you a serious student of the Bible who is learning more about God and his ways?
  • Are you overcoming the wrong, worldly, and weak ways of thinking that characterized your life before Christ saved you?
  • What habits and behavior still captivate your mind and pull you into sinful thought patterns and sinful behavior patterns?

It’s time to get serious. Develop new and godly ways of thinking. Depend on the grace of God with faith and determination to think and act in godly, holy ways that reflect his nature and do what it best for others rather than yourself.

Worship and Serve God Voluntarily

Ultimately, no act of worship, service, or obedience to God is genuine or acceptable to him if it is not done in faith. As important as personal discipline, good habits, and doing things for God may be, they must be done from the heart.

Just as God commands us to worship, obey, and serve him, he requires us to do so genuinely and from the heart. Though sacrifices are the tabernacle were necessary, God intended for them to be offered out of free will and not as a forced behavior or a religious ritual. He commanded the Jewish people to “offer of your own free will” (22:19).

Worship and Serve God by Faith

From the beginning, when Abel and Cain offered sacrifices to God (Gen 4:3-5), God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but he rejected Cain’s. Why did he accept one but not the other? Genesis does not answer this question, but Hebrews does. According to Hebrews 11:4, God acknowledged Abel’s sacrifice because he had offered it in faith.

Cain’s sacrifice was not less valuable, less meaningful, or somehow disobedient to God’s instructions. As far as we know, God had not yet required anyone to offer a sacrifice, and a vegetable sacrifice is nowhere forbidden. Though Cain offered a meaningful sacrifice, he did not offer it with faith in God.

This principle applied just the same to whatever the book of Leviticus taught about the extensive sacrificial system of Israel. Offering sacrifices and following the guidelines of Leviticus did not guarantee that anyone would have a close relationship with God. In other words, Leviticus did not teach a works-based salvation. Whatever Leviticus said had to be done from a heart of faith, just as with the first sacrifice ever recorded.

Depend Upon the Sacrifice of Christ Alone

Ultimately, we must come into God’s presence. We were made to have a close relationship with him. What’s more, we can find true happiness and satisfaction no other way. He desires for us to enter his house and enjoy close “dinner” fellowship with him.

However, we cannot come near to him on our own due to our sin. To draw near to God, we need an acceptable sacrifice to atone (or cover over) our sins. The principle of life for death still applies today.

The need for a priest to go between us and God to help us offer this sacrifice also applies today. We need a priest who is both one of us and yet is also acceptable to God. Without such a priest and without such a sacrifice, all our efforts to please God are futile.

Thankfully, we have such a priest and a sacrifice in Jesus Christ himself. In Hebrews 9:11-15 and 10:11-22, we discover that the sacrifice and ministry of Jesus Christ ended the need for the sacrifices of Leviticus. In fact, the book of Hebrews is a long NT letter that shows how Christ is better than the priesthood, the tabernacle, and the sacrifices of Leviticus!

We also discover that those sacrifices never actually removed sins anyway. Instead, they were an elaborate system that taught the need and pointed toward the one and only sacrifice and the one and only priest who could give a close relationship with God – Jesus Christ. As such, Jesus fulfills what Leviticus teaches.

To respond to the teaching of Leviticus, you need to do one of two things. Either you need to trust completely in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to remove your sins from God’s presence and to give you an everlasting, close relationship with him.

Or, if you have already believed on Christ this way, then you need to take serious steps towards living and serving God as a priest who serves a holy God. It is not your responsibility to impress God – Christ has already made you accepted as a dearly beloved child in God’s family.
Instead, you must live as an obedient child who takes seriously the sacrifice that Christ has made for your salvation. You do this by relying on his grace to live in a way that reflects his holy nature and abandons your old sinful ways – for you are his child.

When you fail at this, praise God that you don’t lose your status as his child, nor do you need to go to the tabernacle to offer sacrifices. Instead, you must confess your sins to God privately and honestly from your heart. When you do, he restores you back to close, sweet fellowship with him on the basis of his finished sacrifice on your behalf (1 John 1:9).

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