THE BOOK OF LEVITICUS
Written by Doug Ponder on September 6, 2013
This article is part of a series summarizing the books of the Bible and connecting them to Jesus. After all, he said the Scriptures are all about him (Luke 24:27, 44-45; John 5:39)—and that includes the book of Leviticus.
A “Pause” in the Story
As with Genesis and Exodus before it, the book of Leviticus is part of a five-part book called the Torah (or the Pentateuch). But before God would continue the story of how his people would inherit the land he had given them, he “pauses” the story with the book of Leviticus to instruct the reader about their need for holiness. Holiness is the main focus of the book of Leviticus, and it’s a word that basically means “set apart.” God himself is said to be holy because he is completely set apart from evil. Other people or things were called “holy” if they were set apart for God’s special purposes. For example, God told the people of the Israel to set apart the descendants of Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, to serve as priests in the newly-built tabernacle. (Hence the name, “Leviticus.”)
There were two reasons that God called for holiness among his people: (1) the presence of God among Israel, and (2) the presence of Israel among the nations.
Meeting with a Holy God
First, God had established the tabernacle as a substitute for meeting with his people face-to-face, as the first human beings had done before sin entered the world. Why couldn’t God still meet face-to-face with his people? It wasn’t that God is too holy to bear the sight of sin. (He is not blind to our many sins.) Rather, the problem was that God’s people were so sinful that they couldn’t bear the sight of his holiness. In their corrupted state, they couldn’t handle the sight of God in all of his glorious splendor. It would have been like trying to stare at the sun. That’s why God warned Moses, “No one can see me and live” (Ex. 33:20).
Much of the book of Leviticus, therefore, is dedicated to explaining why certain actions were morally wrong (sinful) and thus prohibited. Whenever God’s people did commit sin, however, he provided a means for them to demonstrate their faith in the promises of his covenant. Thus the first 16 chapters of Leviticus explain the kinds of sacrifices and offerings required for sins (Lev. 1 – 7) as well as the duties of the priests who received these sacrifices and met with God on behalf of the people (Lev. 8 – 16).
Forgiven by a Holy God
The act of meeting with God on behalf of his people is related to the idea of atonement, or being made right with God. Each year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest of Israel would take two spotless animals and bring them to the altar. He would slaughter one to represent the death the people deserved to die for their sins. The blood was sprinkled on the places in the tabernacle and even the people themselves. The high priest would then place his hands upon the second animal while confessing the sins of the people. The animal was then sent away to run free in the wilderness, symbolizing the freedom of the people from the guilt of their sins.
Though the law required these sacrifices to be made for sins, they were not a system for “buying God off.” On the contrary, the Scriptures say, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:16-17). Other biblical authors echo this point, showing that the sacrifices were never the basis of God’s forgiveness. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).
Then why were the sacrifices required? They were given as a “reminder of sins every year” (Heb. 10:3). That is, the sacrifices were God’s way of reminding his people of the offensiveness of sin to God and its ultimate consequence for humanity: death. Obedience in offering sacrifices was thus a demonstration of the people’s faith in God and his promises. It was also a way for God’s wrath toward their sin to be temporarily covered, “passed over” as in Egypt, until a more permanent solution to sin was offered. Of course, this came “through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:4), “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
Living Among Unholy Nations
The second major reason that God called for holiness among his people was for the sake of those living around them (i.e., the Gentile nations). Thus, in addition to keeping his people holy in his presence, the laws and codes God gave to Israel were also designed set Israel apart from other nations. Sometimes people overlook this function of the laws in Leviticus to their own confusion. For example, at times just a few paragraphs separate laws that govern sexual relationships and laws that prohibit the eating of pork and shellfish. People often make the mistake of assuming that both of these laws were given for the same reason. “Either both are sinful,” the objectors say, “Or else neither is sinful.”
Actually, such people misunderstand the purpose of the laws altogether. Laws like those concerning sexuality were given as a reflection of the order and design of God’s world in the very beginning (Gen. 1 – 2), which is exactly why they are repeated by Jesus in the New Testament (Matt. 19). But dietary laws (and others like them) are overturned in the New Testament (Acts 10). It’s not that they were bad laws. It’s just that they had served their purpose in setting Israel apart as a light to the other nations. Now that the Messiah had come, however, God’s family was open to people from every nation, so there was no need for Jewish cultural laws any longer.
The High Priest and the Sacrifice
Though many of its laws are no longer binding on Christians today, the book of Leviticus still shows us the horrific consequences of sin and the inability for sinful humans to stand in the presence of a holy God. Leviticus also shows God’s people their need for someone who could represent them before God—not just one day of the year, but forever. In Jesus, God himself became both the high priest and the sacrifice. Having no need to atone for his own sins, Jesus could atone for the sins of others.
“The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb. 7:23-27).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.