Or, why God knows better than you and keeps Leviticus in the Bible for a good reason.
For many, Leviticus stands as the first major obstacle in your Bible reading plan for the year. You cruise through Genesis, stumble through the second half of Exodus, and find yourself at a cross-roads. Am I really reading the whole Bible? Will God care if I skip one or two books? Or do I attempt the first ten chapters, give up, and lose my place for the rest of the year?
All of these attempts reveal a heart problem. All of Scripture is profitable, says Paul, for reproof, for instruction, for discipline, and for the whole of godly living. David sings the praises of the Law, saying that through it he is blessed and falls in love with the character of God. Paul and David had insight into Leviticus in a way that we don’t: they saw how God was revealing himself, and his gospel, through the laws he directly spoke.
Through prayer and careful reading, we, too, can see the depths of the Gospel as revealed in Leviticus, too. Here are some things we can look for in the book:
- Leviticus shows us how deeply God cares about sin, and how far he will go to take care of it, and sinful man. We all know about sin: we know about the nagging sexual sins that we can’t seem to overcome. We know we overspend. We know there are power structures in the world that oppress people in many kinds of ways. But, too often, we are lax on dealing with our sin. Despite how much we hate to see its lingering effects, we don’t have the energy or desire to kill it. Rather, we are content to roll around in our sin and let it make the whole of who we are, what we do, and where we live filthy.
Thankfully, God has a different view on sin. Instead of sitting idly by as sin consumed his people, God created boundaries and rules that would mitigate sin’s power of death in the camp. The God who created life would not dwell amongst a camp of death and rampant unholiness and uncleanliness. But, the relational God of the Trinity would not leave man to die. No, in his design, man would be made in his image that his name would be known and his glory cover the earth. In order to maintain his presence in the camp, sin and impurity would have to go. Egregious lawbreakers were stoned. Less serious offenses were cast out of the camp. Anything that resembled death, even, was taken outside of the camp. This was not God’s way of being mean, or exclusionary, to us. God the Savior would not leave us to die without his means of salvation. Without the Law, we all would have been excluded from God’s presence. But thanks to God’s design,, the Law was the means by which God could be inclusionary toward sinful people. But he would not be inclusionary at the cost of ignoring sin. Being cast of the camp was only for a time, and that time was still punctuated by meetings with priests. This was a grace, designed that even the most unholy or impure or sinful would eventually be allowed back in the camp in order to bring offerings.
These were not arbitrary states. If God is King, and he is holy, then his throne room, the Holy of Holies, must always be kept holy, and his servants must be holy. Creation, as we are taught in Genesis, is the act of dividing. God has the priests maintain divisions to maintain the health of the new creation. But God, in the sacrifices, gave Israel the means by which they could move from impurity to purity. They were included again in the life of the worshiping community.
All of this prepares us for the coming of the Pascal Lion-Lamb, the one who died outside of the camp for us. His propitionary death was the means by which we were made pure, and God would dwell among his new temple, the Church.
- Leviticus reveals to us a God who wants communion with us, both in coming to us and helping us maintain our relationship with him. After God brought Israel out of Egypt and adopted Israel as his son out of all of the nations, not for her righteousness, but for God’s name sake, he gave them the Law. They were a disobedient and unruly people, and God knew that their love would fade. There are two key points to be seen here: God gave the law to an already redeemed people and God gave the law as a way Israel could learn about God and how to follow him. In fact, most of the times that God tells Israel to obey is predicated upon a reminder of their salvation (Lev 11:44-45; 19:36; 22:32-33). Most Christians, following Luther primarily, see the law as a method by which, through perfect legalism, Israel would have attained salvation. This does not seem to be the case. Instead, the Law was given to Israel in order that they could maintain their relationship with God, through his grace. Secondly, as the law was not yet written on Israel’s stony hearts, it was the only way they knew God’s will for them. They would have to come back to the law to train themselves in how to live in God’s presence.
I want to go back. How do we think of sacrifice as a means of grace rather than legalism? If God wanted a perfect people, he should not have picked Israel. He should have started over with a new Adam. But, God is a compassionate saving God, and he chose Israel. So, he gave them the means of atonement that they might be purified and forgiven. When we think of sacrifices, we usually think of them as gifts which we bring to God to bring us back into right-standing with him. This is incorrect. God himself corrects this view, saying that he gave us the sacrificial system so that we might have atonement for our souls (cf. Leviticus 17:11). The sacrificial system was not something invented by man; instead, it was a gift given by God that we might be able to return to him.
Consider the opening words of the book: “If a man wants to draw near”. Where we who are clearly aware of our sin and our need for a Savior might imagine the next line to be, “too bad! he is far too sinful”, we hear good news. God tells us that if a man wants to draw near, we simply need to bring an applicable sacrifice. The animal who dies in our place brings us up to God in the smoke, a pleasing aroma to God. The holy God who marks out a boundary (the Holy of Holies in the Tent of Meeting) still graciously makes a way for Israel to approach him. The God who dwells in inapproachable light can be visited by those who have a clean heart. We are cleaned in sacrifice, as well. We just know this sacrifice as the atoning death of Christ, who gives us the ability to boldly approach God on his throne and ask for mercy.
- Leviticus trains us in holiness, wisdom, and love. Two of the imperatives found in Leviticus are familiar to most Christians today: be holy, as God is holy, and love your neighbor. Many might be surprised that the second command comes from Leviticus and not one of the prophets!
The New Testament teaches that without holiness, nobody would see God. Holiness, the concept of being set apart for the express purpose of service to God, is one of the key features of Leviticus. The Triune God is the Holy One of Israel, wholly set apart from his creation and wholly devoted to himself in Triune community. He sets the standards for us, and teaches us how to be holy. In Leviticus, holiness was not mixing with the Gentiles, and this separation was evident in the fields, in their clothes, in their diets, and in their ethical lives. Being set apart from the world made them a special people for God’s sake, the people who would make him known. You can’t make God known as entirely unique and valuable if you live like the world not in Christ. Holiness, in this sense, is a missional virtue.
And, as we grow in a holiness for mission, we learn to love our neighbor. Leviticus shows us a wide breath of ways to love our neighbor: fix damage we directly or indirectly caused; how to treat them in court or the market; really, the instructions cover the unique to the mundane. Leviticus teaches us that, whatever the circumstance, our devotion to holiness *must* lead us to love for God and neighbor.
As holiness is an essential component of good Christian living, Leviticus becomes indispensable in thinking about holiness. As Christians conditioned by our culture, we think of holiness as a side project. We are too easily coerced into living the same way as the world, and we too easily give in to sin rather than fighting for holiness. For our shame! When we live without considering holiness, we live as those who do not want to see God. Every time we turn our hearts elsewhere, we are not acting as people set apart for service for God. As raunchy TV shows, sexually illicit books, and porn fight for our attention, we too easily forget the Law of Christ as taught to us by the Spirit. Israel, having to think about everything from clothing to food to when to stand or not, would have been consumed by thoughts of holiness.
- Leviticus gives us an eschatological vision for the world made right. As Adam and Eve failed in their commission by God to serve and protect the garden, moving its borders further into the world, the world started to drown in sin. God called Noah out of the world to be the new progenitor of a new people, hopefully those who followed God. As his family descended into chaos, the pinnacle of which was found in Babel, God called Abram out of this family. Abram was to be the father of a great nation, Israel, through whom God would save the world.Israel would then be a vision of Eden. As in Eden, they would live by God’s law, which included dietary restrictions. They would enjoy God’s presence among them. They would serve and protect the temple. They would extend the boundaries of Israel throughout the entire world. As holy people, they would be missionally minded to serve both God and neighbor.
Now, we know that this did not happen. Israel fell away for a while (Romans 9-11) that the Gentiles might come in. Now, the entire world looks to the church as a vision of Eden. We know that there is a time coming where we will live in God’s presence, partaking of the tree of life again. We would no longer need to protect the Garden because Christ, the conquering King, would purge the world from impurity. But, that time is still coming. For now, Leviticus molds our minds to think eschatologically, to think of the coming Eden.
As we consider these elements of the gospel in Leviticus, may our hearts be enflamed as a sacrifice on the altar. These are surface level descriptions of what we learn from Leviticus. May the illuminating grace of God open our eyes to see deeper into the wealth of God’s love demonstrated in Leviticus.