Oh, No! Not Leviticus!
A sermon by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 4/26/98
What is your favorite book of the Bible? One of the gospels, perhaps Mark or John? Or the tale of the rapid spread of the early church told in Acts? Those who delight in a logical presentation of the Christian message might choose Romans, while others love the complete range of human emotion expressed in the Psalms.
Given the compelling story of the fall of man and God's subsequent steps toward redemption through the lives of the patriarchs, some of you prefer Genesis. The display of God's mighty power in freeing the Israelites from Egypt and speaking to his people at Sinai will attract others to the second book in the Bible, Exodus.
But what about the third book of the Bible? If Leviticus is your favorite book, would you please raise your hand? Is there no one? Well, that's ok; I have never known anyone to say that Leviticus is their favorite book.
Indeed, many people would say quite the contrary. Those of you who have tried to read through the Bible cover to cover find Leviticus to be the first big challenge. Some give up in the middle of this book.
Well, this morning we begin a series of sermons on this relatively unpopular book. So let's begin by facing the accusers: Why is Leviticus so unpopular?
Many readers object that this book focuses on:
The book, in sum, is thought to be out of date, of only historical interest to 20th century man.
Other readers simply feel uncomfortable. Indeed, if Leviticus were made into a movie, it would have to be labeled, "Adult Themes." This book is full of discussion of sex and violence, blood and death, menstrual flows and seminal emissions. It even talks about eating locusts! So some readers feel squeamish, as these issues come up almost every page.
So should I just stop now and pick another book? Would we be better off just ignoring Leviticus? Why should we take the time and effort to study this book?
First, Leviticus is part of Scripture. Many of us like to quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is God-breathed, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be fully equipped for every good work.
Paul tells us here that Leviticus is God-breathed. Leviticus is profitable for us. We may not be able to see this as we read through the book in a cursory manner, but, as with all Scripture, we need to take it on faith that God will use His word to bless us and build us up.
But we can say more. Remember the prophecy about Jesus in Psalm 118?
The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone.
Stone cutters would shape the stones and present them to the chief builder, who would examine them to try to find the perfect stone for the corner of the building. The corner stone had to be perfect; if it were not square, the whole building would be off. Yet the builders rejected the very stone which was needed to create a perfect building. Leviticus, I suggest, is like that stone.
Or think of yourself standing before a locked door, with untold treasure on the other side. You have a huge ring of keys, hundreds of keys. You look at a particular key, examine the lock, and decide, "This old key can't possibly fit; I'll throw it away." But that very key, the very key you reject, is the only one that can unlock the room full of riches.
I tell you this morning: Leviticus is the key to unlock the riches of the New Testament. A serious study of this wonderful book provides the key to understanding four concepts central to living the Christian life. Let's consider these one by one.
The Concept of Sacrifice
We cannot understand the concept of sacrifice without studying the God-ordained sacrificial system presented in Leviticus.
Let me whet your appetite a bit here: Why did Jesus have to die? What did he accomplish in his death? Most of us here this morning will answer, correctly, that Jesus died as a substitute for us, that Jesus' death saves us from our sins. That is right. But Leviticus brings out the often-ignored truth that the sacrificial system was not only concerned with forgiveness of sin. These offerings, as we shall see, were designed by God to meet our needs for love, for joy, and for peace. All that is in Leviticus.
Furthermore, in Romans 12:1, Paul tells us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. How can we possibly understand Paul's injunction unless we understand the system of animal sacrifices presented here?
The Concept of Priesthood
Second, Leviticus describes the priesthood. Why should we be concerned about priests? In part, because Jesus is said to be our High Priest:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God let us hold fast our confession, . . . let us draw near with confidence (Hebrews 4:14,16)
What is a high priest? What did Jesus do that made him act like a priest for us? Leviticus opens our eyes to these truths.
Furthermore, not only is Jesus our high priest, but the New Testament tells us that WE ARE PRIESTS! What does this mean? The New Testament alone gives us clues, but the authors presume their readers know the Law contained in Leviticus. So we need to study this book in order to understand our role as priests.
The Concept of Law
Third, Leviticus contains much of God's Law given to the Israelites. Recall Jesus' saying in the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. (Mat 5:17-18)
So we need to study this book in order to understand the Law. And we need to ask ourselves how Jesus fulfilled the Law, and in what sense these laws are still relevant for us.
The Concept of Holiness
In addition to sacrifice, priesthood, and law, Leviticus helps us to understand holiness. Now, we have a hard time with the term, 'holy'. When you think of someone who is holy, what image comes to mind? Perhaps someone with his nose up in the air, someone who thinks he is better than everyone else. Or perhaps a mild-mannered person who is always spaced-out, so spaced-out that he'll walk right into a ditch. Or perhaps your idea of a holy person is someone with a constantly sour face, someone who enjoys telling everyone else what not to do.
But that is not the biblical concept of holiness at all.
One might call holiness the central theme of Leviticus. Four times in this book God says something like, "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7, 20:26). Leviticus explains this grossly-misunderstood concept, and emphasizes the importance of holiness. We come to understand the holiness of God, and what holiness means for us by reading this book.
Let me give you a hint of what is coming here. Note that the root of the English word "holy" is the same as the root of the word "whole." To be holy is to be a whole person, to be what you are intended to be, to have your act together. Leviticus tells us how to be whole persons.
So we can reject the arguments of those who say this book is irrelevant to us. The concepts of sacrifice, priesthood, law, and holiness are all central to our Christian walk; these are the themes of the book of Leviticus.
Permit me now to give you an example of a New Testament passage that will come alive to you after gaining a deeper understanding of these concepts. The entire book of Hebrews is one example, but here this morning let's consider one of my favorite passages, 1 Peter 2:4-10
4 ¶ And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For this is contained in Scripture: "BEHOLD I LAY IN ZION A CHOICE STONE, A PRECIOUS CORNER stone, AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM SHALL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED." 7 This precious value, then, is for you who believe. But for those who disbelieve, "THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE VERY CORNER stone," 8 and, "A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE"; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. 9 But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God's OWN POSSESSION, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY. (NASB, italic emphasis added)
Holiness. Priesthood. Sacrifices. They are all here. All of 1 Peter, and particularly this passage, comes alive with startling clarity when we gain a deeper understanding of these central concepts.
So we have determined WHY we should study Leviticus. The next question, then, is How to study this book.
How to Study Leviticus
Interpreting Leviticus is somewhat more challenging that interpreting, say, Ephesians. Although Ephesians was written almost 2000 years ago, Paul wrote it to people much like us. These people were for the most part Gentiles, they came to God through Jesus, they lived in a society which, as a whole, rejected their faith. Paul's commands to the Ephesians to a very large extent are directly applicable to us today.
But Leviticus is very different. Jesus came to this world and died long after the writing of this book, fulfilling the pictures contained therein. The sacrificial system is not to be instituted today. We do not need to ordain priests in the manner described in Leviticus today. Instead, the sacrificial system and the priesthood offer us pictures of the true spiritual reality we know today. So our task in approaching this book is to establish a consistent hermeneutic we can use for interpretation.
Now "hermeneutic" is a big word. Let me assure you that Herman Yutick is not the short, bald-headed owner of the New York Deli at the corner of 39th and Broadway. "Hermeneutic" simply means a system of interpretation.
I would like to suggest that interpreting Leviticus is rather similar to interpreting Jesus' parables. Think of the parable of the farmer sowing the seeds. If we're not farmers, the lesson that we should plant seeds in good soil instead of in rocky places or beside the road is not relevant. But if we think of the meaning of the seed, and the meaning of the different types of ground, the story is very relevant to our spiritual lives.
In a similar way, we must examine the pictures found in Leviticus, and determine what the pictures represent, in order to see the riches God has for us.
So this is our hermeneutic. First, we will take it on faith that the entire book is profitable. Our task is to figure out how it is profitable. To accomplish this, we will begin by asking,
(1) Is this passage or verse a picture of New Testament spiritual truth? If it is, is that its only importance? If this answer is yes, once we have determined the meaning of the picture, our interpretation is finished.
As an example, consider the burnt offering. Next week we will discuss what each of the elements of the burnt offering represents. Since we know that Christ's sacrifice is completely sufficient, we know that we are not to offer such literal sacrifices today. Once we understand the pictures, we are done.
(2) For some passages, however, we may not be confident that God is only giving us a picture of spiritual truth. In these cases, we need to ask ourselves, Why did God give this verse/passage to the Israelites? Is the command reflective of God's moral nature, and therefore one we need to follow? Did he want them to be different from the people around them? If so, is the specific command relevant for us today, so that we might be different? Did God give the command to them for health reasons? If so, is it relevant today? If we conclude that the specific command is not relevant for us, we must ask, What is the principle behind the commands of God? How does the principle apply to us?
As an example, Leviticus 19:19 says the Israelite are not to wear clothes made from two types of material mixed together. We need to ask ourselves, What picture of spiritual truth is contained in this command? What is the principle behind the command? And then we can ask, is the command still relevant? In this particular case, God wants to Israelites to set themselves apart from the people of the land, the Canaanites. So, for us, the specific command is no longer relevant, but the central theme -- being holy, being devoted to God, being in the world but not of the world -- still holds.
This will be our approach to the book. Having now answered why and how we should study this book, let us consider WHAT we will study in Leviticus.
What is in Leviticus?
Let's remind ourselves of the background to Leviticus. Remember what God says to the Israelites at Sinai?
if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' (Exodus 19:5-6)
And the people reply, both here in chapter 19 and in chapter 24, after they have heard God speak the 10 commandments,
All that the LORD has spoken we will do!
God is telling the Israelites, "If you do all that I say, if you keep these commandments perfectly, you shall be holy, you all shall be priests." And they say, "Sure, we can do that. We will be obedient."
Could they do it? How long did it take for them to disobey? Remember, only days later they were worshiping a golden calf, explicitly violating one of the very commandments they promised to obey.
God knew they could not live up to law, and he never intended to save them through their keeping the law. What, then, was the purpose of the law, if not to give Israel a standard of perfection they could achieve? Paul puts it this way in Galatians:
the law was our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. (Gal 3:24 AV)
The purpose of the law was never to save, but to be our schoolmaster, our tutor, our pedagogue, to teach us about Christ, and to turn us over to him. God always knew that man would not obey the law, that man by himself was so stained by Adam's sin that he cannot live a perfect life. Knowing this, God in his mercy set up his plan of salvation to deal with man's needs, to deal with man's imperfections.
From the very beginning God's plan of salvation included the sacrifice of his son. Remember, back in Genesis 3 God promises that Eve's seed would crush Satan's head. But God sets up the sacrificial system to serve as a series of illustrations, a series of pictures of what Jesus would accomplish on the cross.
So Leviticus is a picture of the New Covenant in the midst of the description of the Old Covenant; Leviticus is New Testament truth in the midst of the Old Testament.
Consider now the outline of the book itself. We can divided Leviticus roughly into two sections. The first sixteen chapters contain God's provision for meeting man's needs. The last eleven chapters refer to God's standard for man to live by. We can think of the first section as describing God's grace, and the second section as describing mans' appropriate response to that grace.
Chapters 1-7 describe the five different types of offerings. These offerings are God's plan for dealing with our needs: Our need for love, our need for joy, our need for peace, our need for forgiveness, and our need for restoration of relationships. In each case, the picture helps us to see how Jesus Christ fills those needs.
Chapters 8-10 describe the priesthood. We need helpers in the midst of life's difficulties, and the priests play that role. This section tells us the necessary qualifications of those helpers, giving us a picture both of Jesus as our High Priest, and each of us as a priest serving others.
Chapters 11-15 describe different aspects of holiness, while chapter 16 lays out regulations for celebrating Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day, the people respond to God's provision, acknowledging their inadequacies and God's gracious provision for meeting every need.
Chapters 17 to 27 then constitute the second major section of the book, detailing God's standard for our performance. Note the order here: God's provision always precedes God's commands! God never gives us as Christians a command without providing us with the resources necessary to carry out the command. God is not saying, "This is the law: Do it or die!" Rather, God is saying, "You are weak, apart from me you can do nothing. Remember what happened at Sinai. I know your weakness and your failures, but I have made full provision for them. You now have the ability to live lives worthy of your calling. So be holy!"
Note just a few highlights of this section.
First, the early chapters emphasize the importance of blood. New life requires death of the old life, of the old ways. God's plan of salvation is not to reform us, but for us to die to what we once were, and to live in newness of life. Thus the importance of blood.
Second, these chapters stress our need to depend on God if we are to be pure and whole.
Third, purity and holiness are essential if we are to be effective agents for him.
And, finally, the book closes with our response to God, our vows to him.
In conclusion, let us return to the central theme of Leviticus:
Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine. (20:24, NASB)
Remember also the phrase we read earlier from 1 Peter: "A people for God's own possession."
God is saying, "You are special to me. You are dearly beloved by me. You are MINE, I chose you, knowing all your needs, knowing all your problems, knowing what it will take to perfect you -- and I have determined to perfect you! Here is the way to be whole, here is the way to become what you are intended to be, here is the power right now to get your act together. All your needs are met in ME, and I give you NOW all you could ever desire. TRUST ME. KNOW ME. FOLLOW ME. BE HOLY, BE LIKE ME, BE CHRISTLIKE."
This is God's plan, God's offer to us. Won't you accept it? Here is all you ever wanted or will want -- true love, true joy, true peace -- Won't you reach out and accept it?
Let us pray:
Our dear Lord and Father, we are truly YOURS. Anyone who receives Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is your child, and you guarantee that you will bring that person to perfection in yourself. Thank you for this great plan of salvation, instituted by you from the beginning. Thank you for the wonderful pictures of that plan included here in this book of Leviticus. May we dedicate ourselves to studying it, and may you open our eyes to its incredible riches.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 4/26/98. I decided to preach a series of sermons on Leviticus after reading Ray Stedman's series, which is available at thePBC web site. I am heavily indebted to him both for his insights into Leviticus, and for all I learned about expository preaching from him.
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